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Privacy or Piracy on the Subsea Data Superhighway?

Facebook, Google Dive Into Undersea Cable Market

By Charles McDermid

First of two parts.

Google and Facebook are investing heavily in fiber-optic undersea cables to carry data across the world. This report examines the political obstacles to such activity, including the challenge to China.

Facebook and Google have plunged into the undersea fiber-optic cable market, emerging as the biggest operators in the geopolitically complex, technically challenging industry that carries more than 95% of the world’s transcontinental internet traffic and an estimated $10 trillion in transactions each day.

Although private companies have played a pioneering role in building and maintaining subsea telecommunications cables, the recent Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack has underscored the risks of privately owned infrastructure — and few are more essential than the unseen networks that carry data between continents.

The internet behemoths have brought new concerns about data privacy to an invaluable industry already beset by challenges, and which is underpinned by engineering marvels that run along the ocean floor for more than 745,000 miles — more than three times the distance to the moon.

‘Shifting Terrain’

“On one hand, Facebook and Google’s entrance into the industry has meant that there were more cables and there’s more money for internet infrastructure — and, as a result, an expansion of the network’s backbone as a whole,” said Nicole Starosielski, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University who wrote “The Undersea Network” in 2015.

“This does extend Google’s and Facebook’s vertical reach. It does consolidate infrastructural control.”

Nicole Starosielski, New York University.

“On the other hand, they have drawn a lot of the talent out of the existing companies in the industry, their projects get prioritized over others — and they do wield a kind of power that is shifting the terrain of the subsea network.

“Beyond the undersea cable network, this does extend Google’s and Facebook’s vertical reach,” Starosielski told Digital Privacy News. “It does consolidate infrastructural control.”

Silicon Valley’s undersea investment spree shows no signs of abating. 

In March, Facebook announced two new cables, Bifrost and Echo, to connect Singapore and Indonesia to California.

Google, a part-owner of Echo, described the cable to the city of Eureka as the “first-ever cable to directly connect the U.S. to Singapore with direct fiber pairs over an express route.”

The company now has invested in 16 undersea cables, five of which it owns outright, while Facebook is part-owner of 13 cables, according to a recent report by TeleGeography Inc., an industry research group.

Amazon and Microsoft each have an ownership stake in at least six cables, according to the report, which attributed the “main driver in the latest undersea build-out cycle” to be the storage and distribution of content.

Google did not respond to emailed questions from Digital Privacy News about its undersea cables.

As Critical as Oil Pipelines

The demand for data, and its protection, has added another layer of complexity to an industry that already has felt the strain of the techno-political rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

For instance, the European Council on Foreign Relations said this month that undersea internet cables now were as important as gas and oil pipelines and played a “critical role” in data-protection, economic development and diplomatic relations.

“Some form of regulation to prevent companies from dominating the internet is appropriate. … I’d much rather have an open U.S.-style internet rather than a censored and controlled one.”

Tom Uren, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Tom Uren, a senior analyst at the Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told Digital Privacy News that at least some of the cables would provide significant new bandwidth to underserved regions of the world — rural Indonesia, for instance — and that the internet giants simply were building lucrative new markets for themselves.

He and other experts stressed the importance of global regulations to safeguard the undersea information superhighway.

“The biggest geopolitical issue is the contest between the U.S. and China over the development of long-term infrastructure,” Uren said.

“The U.S. is concerned that China uses infrastructure investments for coercion and covert intelligence that shape the world to its benefit — and is using various legal and regulatory options to push back.

“I suppose different people could see different risks in (the role of Facebook and Google),” Uren observed to Digital Privacy News.

“If you believe giant internet companies are a scourge, then allowing them to shape the internet for a large portion of humanity is probably a bad thing.

“Or, perhaps you believe this is the kind of public-good infrastructure that governments should be funding,” he continued. “I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking, but certainly, some form of regulation to prevent companies dominating the internet is appropriate.

“It can also be seen in the context of an ideological competition between the U.S. and China,” Uren said, “and I’d much rather have an open U.S.-style internet rather than a censored and controlled one.”

Storing Data in the U.S.

Despite their clout and deep pockets, the digital giants may find getting approval for their submarine cables a political challenge.

“There isn’t enough information reported about potential controls over personal data that would come from this project.”

Natalie Pang, National University of Singapore.

In March, Facebook scrapped a U.S.-Hong Kong cable over concerns of China’s ever-tighter grip on the city. Last year, Facebook and Google skipped Hong Kong entirely in a separate trans-Pacific cable.

As it stands, the cable projects must be endorsed by Team Telecom, a multi-departmental U.S. national security unit that guards the country’s telecom systems.

In the past, Team Telecom typically has required international network operations to be based in the U.S., according to The Wall Street Journal.

In the case of Google and Facebook, the potential undersea cables would allow them to avoid putting cache data servers in local countries and, as one expert put it, “service content by storing it in the U.S. and distributing it directly from the U.S.”

Keeping the data in Asia, for example, would increase the susceptibility to surveillance by local governments.

“There is quite a bit of discussion in Malaysia about this, but more on economic policy and why Malaysia has been ‘skipped’ in favor of Singapore,” said Natalie Pang, senior lecturer in the communications and new media department at the National University of Singapore.

“This is not to say that Singaporeans are not concerned about the privacy of their data, but most people see these cables as boosting internet connectivity — and there isn’t enough information reported about potential controls over personal data that would come from this project.”

Data-Localization Concerns

Pang said the policies of Southeast Asian countries might hinder the development of these cables, with each government weighing the cost of faster internet versus the possibility of angering Beijing by allowing the U.S. cables to land on their shores.

“Regardless of who builds the infrastructure … there should be robust privacy frameworks governing companies’ transfer and use of that data.”

Emily Sharpe, World Wide Web Foundation.

“In countries like Malaysia, there are policies that prohibit foreign ships from servicing or repairing undersea cables, most likely in the interest of protecting local businesses from external competition,” Pang told Digital Privacy News.

“But beyond data-localization interests, there may also be concerns that arise from the political economies in the region.

“For instance,” she continued, “China invests heavily in infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia through its Belt and Road initiative — and the development of these cables may be shaped by the increased economic reliance on China by many Southeast Asian countries.”

Emily Sharpe, policy director at the World Wide Web Foundation in Geneva, said the potential benefits of the undersea cables must be protected by data-protection regulations.

“We welcome investment in subsea cables as critical infrastructure that can increase internet capacity, close gaps in access and drive down the cost of services for end-users,” she said.

“And, regardless of who builds the infrastructure used to transport or store data, there should be robust privacy frameworks governing companies’ transfer and use of that data.”

Thursday: Facebook says encryption ensures data security.

Charles McDermid is a writer in Asia.