It might seem an exaggeration to say that Big Tech, like a James Bond fictional villain, aims for total world domination through control of the Internet. But the fantasy and reality are coming true.
Not only are the tech giants the gatekeepers of today’s public square, but they are increasingly gaining control of the massive network of physical connections that connect nearly every data center and warehouse server in the world. This backbone allows all those computerized 1s and 0s to be transformed into the economic, social and cultural experiences of the 21st century.
The internet might seem ethereal. The movement towards the metaverse reinforces the illusion that a virtual, rather than physical, space will primarily dominate the decades to come. But all of our internet experiences occur because pulses of light miraculously travel within more than 400 fiber-optic cables that stretch over 1.3 million kilometers (800,000 miles) buried underwater: one cable enough to go around the earth 32 times. Without this physical infrastructure, the metaverse, in fact everything we depend on now in modern society, would not exist.
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Most people are unaware that in less than a decade Microsoft, Google’s parent company Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Amazon have become by far the dominant users of undersea cables in the world. Before 2012, their share was less than 10%. Today, that figure is around 66%.
And this is only the beginning. As he points out The Wall Street Journal, over the next three years are well on their way to becoming the leading financiers and owners of the network of cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. By 2024 they will have a stake in more than 30 long-distance submarine cables. In 2010, these companies had a stake in only one: the Unity cable, partly owned by Google, which connected Japan and the United States.
The involvement of these companies in the cable laying industry is not to be understood in any conspiratorial sense. They are mainly driven by the economy. The insatiable appetite for more terabytes of bandwidth meant they had to meet this demand and reduce the cost of transmitting data across oceans. And they did: according to the annual report of TeleGeography on submarine cable infrastructure, their actions increased capacity by 41% in 2020 alone.
This is impressive and unprecedented. But it also reveals something new about the power of Big Tech. In the past, the laying of transoceanic cables required the resources of governments and their national telecommunications companies. But these costs are a small change for today’s titans: In 2020 alone, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta and Amazon invested over $ 90 billion in capital expenditures.
By building their own cables, the tech giants are saving money over time instead of paying other operators. However, because they don’t sell bandwidth but use it for their services, which also allows them to escape the regulation of telecom companies, tech companies don’t need to run their cables profitably for the investment to have a financial sense. They transformed the critical infrastructure business model of the 21st century.
This is both good and bad news. The good news is that most of the Big Tech cables are rival collaborations. The Tide cable , for example, which stretches approximately 6,598 km (4,100 miles) between Virginia Beach in the United States and Bilbao, Spain, was completed in 2017 and is partly owned by Microsoft, Meta and Telxius, a subsidiary of Telefónica , the Spanish telecommunications company. While this will allow Amazon, for example, to stream millions of HD movies simultaneously, it also helps ensure that more redundancy is built into the backbone. This helps keep the internet buzzing when a cable is cut or damaged, which apparently happens 200 times a year, and thus provides security for all internet users.
The bad news is that this selfish behavior, despite its positive impact on the global economy, helps focus Big Tech’s control over this critical infrastructure. By owning its own lanes on the freeway, Big Tech has even more power to limit competition and, more importantly, determine who will be allowed to travel there too.
This is analogous to Amazon owning the streets where packages are delivered. Just remember the aftermath of January 6 at the U.S. Capitol in 2021: Not only was an elected president removed from Twitter and Facebook by the unelected tech barons of Silicon Valley, but Parler, a rival social media service, actually went. offline when Apple removed it from the App Store, Amazon suspended its web hosting service, and Google removed the platform from its Play Store.
The privatization of the Internet backbone should be a wake-up call. The power of these super-rich, unelected and irresponsible societies is historically unprecedented. They can prevent competitors from traveling on the motorway (as they are not telecommunications companies, they have no common carrier obligations). But, as they have already shown, they can also control what can be said or who can participate in the modern square. A cheaper and more resilient internet is not a price worth paying for the threat it poses to the future of free speech, democracy and innovation.