Tag Archives: internet companies

US v. China: The Slow and Sure Conquest of Internet Infrastructure


A new front has opened in the battle between the U.S. and China over control of global networks that deliver the internet. This one is beneath the ocean. While the U.S. wages a high-profile campaign to exclude China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation mobile networks over fears of espionage, the company is embedding itself into undersea cable networks that ferry nearly all of the world’s internet data.

About 380 active submarine cables—bundles of fiber-optic lines that travel oceans on the seabed—carry about 95% of intercontinental voice and data traffic, making them critical for the economies and national security of most countries. 

The Huawei Marine’s Undersea Cable Network majority owned by Huawei Technologies, has worked on some 90 projects to build or upgrade submarine cables around the world…US o fficials say the company’s knowledge of and access to undersea cables could allow China to attach devices that divert or monitor data traffic—or, in a conflict, to sever links to entire nations.  Such interference could be done remotely, via Huawei network management software and other equipment at coastal landing stations, where submarine cables join land-based networks, these officials say.

Huawei Marine said in an email that no customer, industry player or government has directly raised security concerns about its products and operations.Joe Kelly, a Huawei spokesman, said the company is privately owned and has never been asked by any government to do anything that would jeopardize its customers or business. “If asked to do so,” he said, “we would refuse.”

The U.S. has sought to block Huawei from its own telecom infrastructure, including undersea cables, since at least 2012. American concerns about subsea links have since deepened—and spread to allies—as China moves to erode U.S. dominance of the world’s internet infrastructure…..Undersea cables are owned mainly by telecom operators and, in recent years, by such content providers as Facebook and Google. Smaller players rent bandwidth.Most users can’t control which cable systems carry their data between continents. A handful of switches typically route traffic along the path considered best, based on available capacity and agreements between cable operators.

In June 2017, Nick Warner, then head of Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service, traveled to the Solomon Islands, a strategically located South Pacific archipelago. His mission, according to people familiar with the visit, was to block a 2016 deal with Huawei Marine to build a 2,500-mile cable connecting Sydney to the Solomons.  Mr. Warner told the Solomons’ prime minister the deal would give China a connection to Australia’s internet grid through a Sydney landing point, creating a cyber risk, these people said. Australia later announced it would finance the cable link and steered the contract to an Australian company.  In another recent clash, the U.S., Australia and Japan tried unsuccessfully in September 2018 to quash an undersea-cable deal between Huawei Marine and Papua New Guinea.

U.S. and allied officials point to China’s record of cyber intrusions, growing Communist Party influence inside Chinese firms and a recent Chinese law requiring companies to assist intelligence operations. Landing stations are more exposed in poorer countries where cyber defenses tend to be weakest, U.S. and allied officials said. And network management systems are generally operated using computer servers at risk of cyber intrusion. Undersea cables are vulnerable, officials said, because large segments lie in international waters, where physical tampering can go undetected. At least one U.S. submarine can hack into seabed cables, defense experts said. In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden alleged that Britain and the U.S. monitored submarine cable data. The U.S. and its allies now fear such tactics could be used against them. American and British military commanders warned recently that Russian submarines were operating near undersea cables. In 2018, the U.S. sanctioned a Russian company for supplying Russian spies with diving equipment to help tap seabed cables.


The Ionian Sea Submarine Cable Project (Greece) 

China seeks to build a Digital Silk Road, including undersea cables, terrestrial and satellite links, as part of its Belt and Road plan to finance a new global infrastructure network. Chinese government strategy papers on the Digital Silk Road cite the importance of undersea cables, as well as Huawei’s role in them. A research institute attached to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, in a paper published in September, praised Huawei’s technical prowess in undersea cable transmission and said China was poised to become “one of the world’s most important international submarine cable communication centers within a decade or two.” China’s foreign and technology ministries didn’t respond to requests for comment…

Huawei Marine Networks

Bjarni Thorvardarson, then chief executive of the cable’s Ireland-based operator, said U.S. authorities raised no objections until 2012, when a congressional report declared Huawei Technologies a national security threat. Mr. Thorvardarson wasn’t convinced. “It was camouflaged as a security risk, but it was mostly about a preference for using U.S. technology,” he said. Under pressure, Mr. Thorvardarson dropped Huawei Marine from Project Express in 2013. The older cable network continued to use Huawei equipment.

The company is now the fourth-biggest player in an industry long dominated by U.S.-based SubCom and Finnish-owned Alcatel Submarine Networks. Japan’s NEC Corp is in third place.Huawei Marine is expected to complete 28 cables between 2015 and 2020—nearly a quarter of all those built globally—and it has upgraded many more, according to TeleGeography, a research company.

Excerpts from America’s Undersea Battle With China for Control of the Global Internet Grid , WSJ, Mar. 12, 2019

Facebook Denizens Unite! the right to privacy and big tech

The European Union’s (EU) approach to regulating the big tech companies draws on its members’ cultures tend to protect individual privacy. The other uses the eu’s legal powers to boost competition.  The first leads to the assertion that you have sovereignty over data about you: you should have the right to access them, amend them and determine who can use them. This is the essence of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), whose principles are already being copied by many countries across the world. The next step is to allow interoperability between services, so that users can easily switch between providers, shifting to firms that offer better financial terms or treat customers more ethically. (Imagine if you could move all your friends and posts to Acebook, a firm with higher privacy standards than Facebook and which gave you a cut of its advertising revenues.)

Europe’s second principle is that firms cannot lock out competition. That means equal treatment for rivals who use their platforms. The EU has blocked Google from competing unfairly with shopping sites that appear in its search results or with rival browsers that use its Android operating system. A German proposal says that a dominant firm must share bulk, anonymised data with competitors, so that the economy can function properly instead of being ruled by a few data-hoarding giants. (For example, all transport firms should have access to Uber’s information about traffic patterns.) Germany has changed its laws to stop tech giants buying up scores of startups that might one day pose a threat.

Ms Vestager has explained, popular services like Facebook use their customers as part of the “production machinery”. …The logical step beyond limiting the accrual of data is demanding their disbursement. If tech companies are dominant by virtue of their data troves, competition authorities working with privacy regulators may feel justified in demanding they share those data, either with the people who generate them or with other companies in the market. That could whittle away a big chunk of what makes big tech so valuable, both because Europe is a large market, and because regulators elsewhere may see Europe’s actions as a model to copy. It could also open up new paths to innovation.

In recent decades, American antitrust policy has been dominated by free-marketeers of the so-called Chicago School, deeply sceptical of the government’s role in any but the most egregious cases. Dominant firms are frequently left unmolested in the belief they will soon lose their perch anyway…By contrast, “Europe is philosophically more sceptical of firms that have market power.” ..

Tech lobbyists in Brussels worry that Ms Vestager agrees with those who believe that their data empires make Google and its like natural monopolies, in that no one else can replicate Google’s knowledge of what users have searched for, or Amazon’s of what they have bought. She sent shivers through the business in January when she compared such companies to water and electricity utilities, which because of their irreproducible networks of pipes and power lines are stringently regulated….

The idea is for consumers to be able to move data about their Google searches, Amazon purchasing history or Uber rides to a rival service. So, for example, social-media users could post messages to Facebook from other platforms with approaches to privacy that they prefer…

Excerpts from Why Big Tech Should Fear Europe, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019; The Power of Privacy, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019

How to Stop the Expoitation of Internet Users

Data breaches at Facebook and Google—and along with Amazon, those firms’ online dominance—crest a growing wave of anxiety around the internet’s evolving structure and its impact on humanity…The runaway success of a few startups has created new, proprietized one-stop platforms. Many people are not really using the web at all, but rather flitting among a small handful of totalizing apps like Facebook and Google. And those application-layer providers have dabbled in providing physical-layer internet access. Facebook’s Free Basics program has been one of several experiments that use broadband data cap exceptions to promote some sites and services over others.

What to do? Columbia University law professor Tim Wu has called upon regulators to break up giants like Facebook, but more subtle interventions should be tried first…Firms that do leverage users’ data should be “information fiduciaries,” obliged to use what they learn in ways that reflect a loyalty to users’ interests…The internet was designed to be resilient and flexible, without need for drastic intervention. But its trends toward centralization, and exploitation of its users, call for action

Excerpts from Jonathan Zittrain, Fixing the internet, Science, Nov. 23, 2018

Who Controls Peoples’ Data?

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that cross-border flows of goods, services and data added 10 per cent to global gross domestic product in the decade to 2015, with data providing a third of that increase. That share of the contribution seems likely to rise: conventional trade has slowed sharply, while digital flows have surged. Yet as the whole economy becomes more information-intensive — even heavy industries such as oil and gas are becoming data-driven — the cost of blocking those flows increases…

Yet that is precisely what is happening. Governments have sharply increased “data localisation” measures requiring information to be held in servers inside individual countries. The European Centre for International Political Economy, a think-tank, calculates that in the decade to 2016, the number of significant data localisation measures in the world’s large economies nearly tripled from 31 to 84.

Even in advanced economies, exporting data on individuals is heavily restricted because of privacy concerns, which have been highlighted by the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica scandal. Many EU countries have curbs on moving personal data even to other member states. Studies for the Global Commission on Internet Governance, an independent research project, estimates that current constraints — such as restrictions on moving data on banking, gambling and tax records — reduces EU GDP by half a per cent.

In China, the champion data localiser, restrictions are even more severe. As well as long-established controls over technology transfer and state surveillance of the population, such measures form part of its interventionist “ Made in China 2025 ” industrial strategy, designed to make it a world leader in tech-heavy sectors such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

China’s Great Firewall has long blocked most foreign web applications, and a cyber security law passed in 2016 also imposed rules against exporting personal information, forcing companies including Apple and LinkedIn to hold information on Chinese users on local servers. Beijing has also given itself a variety of powers to block the export of “important data” on grounds of reducing vaguely defined economic, scientific or technological risks to national security or the public interest.   “The likelihood that any company operating in China will find itself in a legal blind spot where it can freely transfer commercial or business data outside the country is less than 1 per cent,” says ECIPE director Hosuk Lee-Makiyama….

Other emerging markets, such as Russia, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, are also leading data localisers. Russia has blocked LinkedIn from operating there after it refused to transfer data on Russian users to local servers.

Business organisations including the US Chamber of Commerce want rules to restrain what they call “digital protectionism”. But data trade experts point to a serious hole in global governance, with a coherent approach prevented by different philosophies between the big trading powers. Susan Aaronson, a trade academic at George Washington University in Washington, DC, says: “There are currently three powers — the EU, the US and China — in the process of creating separate data realms.”

The most obvious way to protect international flows of data is in trade deals — whether multilateral, regional or bilateral. Yet only the World Trade Organization laws governing data flows predate the internet and have not been thoroughly tested through litigation. It recently recruited Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma to front an ecommerce initiative, but officials involved admit it is unlikely to produce anything concrete for a long time. In any case, Prof Aaronson says: “While data has traditionally been addressed in trade deals as an ecommerce issue, it goes far wider than that.”

The internet has always been regarded by pioneers and campaigners as a decentralised, self-regulating community. Activists have tended to regard government intervention with suspicion, except for its role in protecting personal data, and many are wary of legislation to enable data flows.  “While we support the approach of preventing data localisation, we need to balance that against other rights such as data protection, cyber security and consumer rights,” says Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a campaign for internet freedom…

Europe has traditionally had a very different philosophy towards data and privacy than the US. In Germany, for instance, public opinion tends to support strict privacy laws — usually attributed to lingering memories of surveillance by the Stasi secret police in East Germany. The EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on May 25, 2018 imposes a long list of requirements on companies processing personal data on pain of fines that could total as much as 4 per cent of annual turnover….But trade experts warn that the GDPR is very cautiously written, with a blanket exemption for measures claiming to protect privacy. Mr Lee-Makiyama says: “The EU text will essentially provide no meaningful restriction on countries wanting to practice data localisation.”

Against this political backdrop, the prospects for broad and binding international rules on data flow are dim. …In the battle for dominance over setting rules for commerce, the EU and US often adopt contrasting approaches.  While the US often tries to export its product standards in trade diplomacy, the EU tends to write rules for itself and let the gravity of its huge market pull other economies into its regulatory orbit. Businesses faced with multiple regulatory regimes will tend to work to the highest standard, known widely as the “Brussels effect”.  Companies such as Facebook have promised to follow GDPR throughout their global operations as the price of operating in Europe.

Excerpts from   Data protectionism: the growing menace to global business, Financial Times, May 13, 2018

Facebook Grabs Land: India

And then there’s Free Basics, the two-year-old project Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has called an online 911. In about three dozen developing countries so far, Free Basics—also known as Internet.org—includes a stripped-down version of Facebook and a handful of sites that provide news, weather, nearby health-care options, and other info. One or two carriers in a given country offer the package for free at slow speeds, betting that it will help attract new customers who’ll later upgrade to pricier data plans…

Facebook says Free Basics is meant to make the world more open and connected, not to boost the company’s growth….On Dec. 21, 2016,  the Indian government suspended the program, offered in the country by carrier Reliance Communications….“Who could possibly be against this?”

Opponents, including some journalists and businesspeople, say Free Basics is dangerous because it fundamentally changes the online economy. If companies are allowed to buy preferential treatment from carriers, the Internet is no longer a level playing field, says Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Indian mobile-payment company Paytm....“We don’t see Free Basics as philanthropy. We see it as a land grab,” says Pahwa.

[On Feb. 8, 2016, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India ruled against Facebook’s scheme.]

Adi Narayan, Facebook’s Fight to Be Free, Bloomberg Business Week, Jan. 14, 2016

Platform Capitalism: FANG

Hardly a day goes by without some tech company proclaiming that it wants to reinvent itself as a platform. …Some prominent critics even speak of “platform capitalism” – a broader transformation of how goods and services are produced, shared and delivered.   Such is the transformation we are witnessing across many sectors of the economy: taxi companies used to transport passengers, but Uber just connects drivers with passengers. Hotels used to offer hospitality services; Airbnb just connects hosts with guests. And this list goes on: even Amazon connects booksellers with buyers of used books.d innovation, the latter invariably wins….

But Uber’s offer to drivers in Seoul does raise some genuinely interesting questions. What is it that Uber’s platform offers that traditional cabs can’t get elsewhere? It’s mostly three things: payment infrastructure to make transactions smoother; identity infrastructure to screen out any unwanted passengers; and sensor infrastructure, present on our smartphones, which traces the location of the car and the customer in real time. This list has hardly anything to do with transport; they are the kind of peripheral activity that traditional taxi companies have always ignored.

However, with the transition to knowledge-based economy, these peripherals are no longer really peripherals – they are at the very centre of service provision.There’s a good reason why so many platforms are based in Silicon Valley: the main peripherals today are data, algorithms and server power. And this explains why so many renowned publishers would team up with Facebook to have their stories published there in a new feature called Instant Articles. Most of them simply do not have the know-how and the infrastructure to be as nimble, resourceful and impressive as Facebook when it comes to presenting the right articles to the right people at the right time – and doing it faster than any other platform.

Few industries could remain unaffected by the platform fever. The unspoken truth, though, is that most of the current big-name platforms are monopolies, riding on the network effects of operating a service that becomes more valuable as more people join it. This is why they can muster so much power; Amazon is in constant power struggles with publishers – but there is no second Amazon they can turn to.

Venture capitalists such as Peter Thiel want us to believe that this monopoly status is a feature, not a bug: if these companies weren’t monopolies, they would never have so much cash to spend on innovation.  This, however, still doesn’t address the question of just how much power we should surrender to these companies.

Making sure that we can move our reputation – as well as our browsing history and a map of our social connections – between platforms would be a good start. It’s also important to treat other, more technical parts of the emerging platform landscape – from services that can verify our identity to new payment systems to geolocational sensors – as actual infrastructure (and thus ensuring that everybody can access it on the same, nondiscriminatory terms) is also badly needed.

Most platforms are parasitic: feeding off existing social and economic relations. They don’t produce anything on their own – they only rearrange bits and pieces developed by someone else. Given the enormous – and mostly untaxed – profits made by such corporations, the world of “platform capitalism”, for all its heady rhetoric, is not so different from its predecessor. The only thing that’s changed is who pockets the money.

Excerpt from Evgeny Morozov, Where Uber and Amazon rule: welcome to the world of the platform, Guardian, Nov. 15, 2015

Data Hunger: Google

[Some] worry that Google could prove to be the ultimate digital monopoly. They do not think that its reason for being is primarily online search or the advertising business; they see it as being in the business of mining any and all data it can accumulate for new profit streams. The data hunger such a goal demands is the main reason, they argue, why Google is entering markets as diverse as self-driving cars, smart homes, robotics and health care. “Google is trying to leverage the advantage it has in one area into many others,” says Nathan Newman, a lawyer and technology activist. The idea is that Google could use its assets—its data, its unparalleled ability to exploit those data, its brilliant employees and knack for managing them—to take control of other industries.

For such a data-centric conglomerate to get ever more dominant seems against the flow of history and intuitively unlikely. But intuitive views of the direction of internet competition have been wrong before, as the existence of giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook bears witness. And should it show signs of coming to pass, the current antitrust skirmishes will give way to an epic battle on the scale of the one against Standard Oil. “If we will not endure a king as a political power,” said John Sherman, the senator who gave his name to America’s original antitrust law, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessaries of life.” Even one that makes things very, very easy.

Excerpt from Internet monopolies: Everybody wants to rule the world, Economist, Nov. 29, 2014. at 19