The Geopolitical Economy of the Global Internet Infrastructure on JSTOR
Article très intéressant qui repositionne les Etats dans la gestion de l’infrastructure globale de l’internet. En fait, une infrastructure globale pour le déploiement du capital (une autre approche de la géopolitique, issue de David Harvey).
According to many observers, economic globalization and the liberalization of telecoms/internet policy have remade the world in the image of the United States. The dominant roles of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have also led to charges of US internet imperialism. This article, however, argues that while these internet giants dominate some of the most popular internet services, the ownership and control of core elements of the internet infrastructure—submarine cables, internet exchange points, autonomous system numbers, datacenters, and so on—are tilting increasingly toward the EU and BRICS (i.e., Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries and the rest of the world, complicating views of hegemonic US control of the internet and what Susan Strange calls the knowledge structure.
This article takes a different tack. It argues that while US-based internet giants do dominate some of the middle and top layers of the internet—for example, operating systems (iOS, Windows, Android), search engines (Google), social networks (Facebook), online retailing (Amazon), over-the-top TV (Netflix), browsers (Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Microsoft Explorer), and domain names (ICANN)—they do not rule the hardware, or material infrastructure, upon which the internet and daily life, business, governments, society, and war increasingly depend. In fact, as the article shows, ownership and control of many core elements of the global internet infrastructure—for example, fiber optic submarine cables, content delivery networks (CDNs), autonomous system numbers (ASN), and internet exchange points (IXPs)—are tilting toward the rest of the world, especially Europe and the BRICS (i.e., Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). This reflects the fact that the United States’ standing in the world is slipping while an ever more multipolar world is arising.
International internet backbone providers, internet content companies, and CDNs interconnect with local ISPs and at one or more of the nearly 2000 IXPs around the world. The largest IXPs are in New York, London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Seattle, Chicago, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. They are core elements of the internet that switch traffic between all the various networks that comprise the internet system, and help to establish accessible, affordable, fast, and secure internet service.
In developed markets, internet companies such as Google, Baidu, Facebook, Netflix, Youku, and Yandex use IXPs to interconnect with local ISPs such as Deutsche Telecoms in Germany, BT or Virgin Media in Britain, or Comcast in the United States to gain last-mile access to their customers—and vice versa, back up the chain. Indeed, 99 percent of internet traffic handled by peering arrangements among such parties occurs without any money changing hands or a formal contract.50 Where IXPs do not exist or are rare, as in Africa, or run poorly, as in India, the cost of bandwidth is far more expensive. This is a key factor that helps to explain why internet service is so expensive in areas of the world that can least afford it. It is also why the OECD and EU encourage developing countries to make IXPs a cornerstone of economic development and telecoms policy work.
The network of networks that make up the internet constitute a sprawling, general purpose platform upon which financial markets, business, and trade, as well as diplomacy, spying, national security, and war depend. The world’s largest electronic payments system operator, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications’ (SWIFT) secure messaging network carries over 25 million messages a day involving payments that are believed to be worth over $7 trillion USD.59 Likewise, the world’s biggest foreign currency settlement system, the CLS Bank, executes upward of a million trades a day worth between $1.5 and $2.5 trillion over the global cable systems—although that is down by half from its high point in 2008.60 As Stephen Malphrus, former chief of staff to the US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, observed, when “communications networks go down, the financial services sector does not grind to a halt, rather it snaps to a halt.”61
Governments and militaries also account for a significant portion of internet traffic. Indeed, 90 to 95 percent of US government traffic, including sensitive diplomatic and military orders, travels over privately owned cables to reach officials in the field.62 “A major portion of DoD data traveling on undersea cables is unmanned aerial vehicle video,” notes a study done for the Department of Homeland Security by MIT scholar Michael Sechrist.63 Indeed, the Department of Defense’s entire Global Information Grid shares space in these cables with the general public internet.64
The 3.6 billion people as of early 2016 who use the internet to communicate, share music, ideas and knowledge, browse, upload videos, tweet, blog, organize social events and political protests, watch pornography, read sacred texts, and sell stuff are having the greatest influence on the current phase of internet infrastructure development. Video currently makes up an estimated two-thirds of all internet traffic, and is expected to grow to 80 percent in the next five years,69 with US firms leading the way. Netflix single-handedly accounts for a third of all internet traffic. YouTube is the second largest source of internet traffic on fixed and mobile networks alike the world over. Altogether, the big five internet giants account for roughly half of all “prime-time” internet traffic, a phrasing that deliberately reflects the fact that internet usage swells and peaks at the same time as the classic prime-time television period, that is, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Importance des investissements des compagnies de l’internet dans les projets de câbles.
Several things stand out from this analysis. First, in less than a decade, Google has carved out a very large place for itself through its ownership role in four of the six projects (the SJC, Faster, Unity, and Pacific Cable Light initiatives), while Facebook has stakes in two of them (APG and PLCN) and Microsoft in the PLCN project. This is a relatively new trend and one that should be watched in the years ahead.
A preliminary view based on the publicly available information is that the US internet companies are important but subordinate players in consortia dominated by state-owned national carriers and a few relatively new competitors. Keen to wrest control of core elements of the internet infrastructure that they perceive to have been excessively dominated by United States interests in the past, Asian governments and private investors have joined forces to change things in their favor. In terms of the geopolitical economy of the internet, there is both a shift toward the Asia-Pacific region and an increased role for national governments.
Return of the State as Regulator of Concentrated Markets
In addition to the expanded role of the state as market builder, regulator, and information infrastructure policy maker, many regulators have also rediscovered the reality of significant market concentration in the telecom-internet and media industries. Indeed, the US government has rejected several high-profile telecoms mergers in recent years, such as AT&T’s proposal to take over T-Mobile in 2011, T-Mobile’s bid for Sprint in 2014, and Comcast’s attempt to acquire Time Warner Cable last year. Even the approval of Comcast’s blockbuster takeover of NBC Universal in 2011, and Charter Communications acquisition of Time Warner Cable last year, respectively, came with important strings attached and ongoing conduct regulation designed to constrain the companies’ ability to abuse their dominant market power.87 The FCC’s landmark 2016 ruling to reclassify broadband internet access as a common carrier further indicated that US regulators have been alert to the realities of market concentration and telecoms-internet access providers’ capacity to abuse that power, and the need to maintain a vigilant eye to ensure that their practices do not swamp people’s rights to freely express themselves, maintain control over the collection, retention, use, and disclosure of their personal information, and to access a diverse range of services over the internet.88 The 28 members of the European Union, along with Norway, India, and Chile, have adopted similar “common carriage/network neutrality/open network”89 rules to offset the reality that concentration in core elements of these industries is “astonishingly high”90 on the basis of commonly used indicators (e.g., concentration ratios and the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index).
These developments indicate a new phase in internet governance and control. In the first phase, circa the 1990s, technical experts and organizations such as the Internet Engineers Task Force played a large role, while the state sat relatively passively on the sidelines. In the second phase, circa the early to mid-2000s, commercial forces surged to the fore, while internet governance revolved around the ICANN and the multi-stakeholder model. Finally, the revelations of mass internet surveillance by many states and ongoing disputes over the multi-stakeholder, “internet freedom” agenda on the one side, versus the national sovereignty, multilateral model where the ITU and UN system would play a larger role in internet governance all indicate that significant moves are afoot where the relationship between states and markets is now in a heightened state of flux.
Such claims, however, are overdrawn. They rely too heavily on the same old “realist,” “struggle for control” model where conflict between nation-states has loomed large and business interests and communication technologies served mainly as “weapons of politics” and the handmaidens of national interests from the telegraph in the nineteenth century to the internet today. Yet, nation-states and private business interests, then and now, not only compete with one another but also cooperate extensively to cultivate a common global space of economic accumulation. Communication technologies and business interests, moreover, often act independent of the nation-state and via “private structures of cooperation,” that is, cartels and consortia, as the history and contemporary state of the undersea cable networks illustrate. In fact, the internet infrastructure of the twenty-first century, much like that of the industrial information infrastructure of the past 150 years, is still primarily financed, owned, and operated by many multinational consortia, although more than a few submarine communications cables are now owned by a relatively new roster of competitive players, such as Tata, Level 3, Global Cloud Xchange, and so forth. They have arisen mostly in the last 20 years and from new quarters, such as India in the case of Tata, for example.