Myth #37: The Internet is in the clouds.
Myth: The Internet frees us from the limitations of physical space. Our data is in “the cloud”, where we can access it from anywhere, anytime, often using wireless mobile devices. Our communication thus transcends the old Westphalian order of territorially defined states.
Busted: The Internet depends on a massive physical infrastructure: More than 90% of all global Internet traffic today is routed through undersea cables. The many online services we use every day, including the different “cloud” services, require massive data centres. And our smartphones would turn out to be quite unhelpful without a dense net of mobile network infrastructure that connects them with the global Internet.
For the most part, this infrastructure is owned and operated by private companies. It is not a surprise, thus, that its development is shaped quite substantially by economic considerations. In particular, private companies invest more extensively in areas that promise greater returns: In many states, urban areas are thus often better connected than rural areas, and economically thriving states have more and stronger links to the global web than developing states (#39).
In a very fundamental sense, moreover, the Internet’s physical infrastructure ties it to the Westphalian world order of territorially defined statehood. All cable connections, wireless stations routers, Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), data centers and servers have a physical location and thus are subject to the jurisdiction of the respective states. The only exception to this are those parts of undersea cables that run on the high seas and the satellites that travel in outer space.
Ever more states seek control over the physical infrastructure of the Internet as a means to more effectively govern what they perceive as “their” parts of the Internet. One of the most brute approaches is to force telecommunication companies to limit or completely shut down Internet access in order to suppress the exchange of information between citizens. In a more sophisticated fashion, a number of states attempt to control in a more detailed manner what information enters, or leaves, their territory. They do so, for instance, by limiting the nodes that connect domestic Internet users with the global web, and then using different filtering mechanisms to block unwanted information. “Data localization” laws are another means by which states try to consolidate control over the physical infrastructures; the idea here is to make access to a state’s market conditional on storing the data of customers on the respective state’s territory.
Truth: The Internet depends on a complex global infrastructure. In addition to the logical layer of software standards and protocols, this infrastructure includes physical components, such as undersea cables and data centers. This physical layer inevitably ties the Internet to the world of territorial states – and therefore should receive more attention.
Source: Tara M. Davenport, Submarine Cables, Cybersecurity and International Law: An Intersectional Analysis, Catholic University Journal of Law and Technology 24 (2015), https://scholarship.law.edu/jlt/vol24/iss1/4; Laura DeNardis, Hidden Levers of Internet Control. An Infrastructure-Based Theory of Internet Governance, Information, Communication & Society 15 (2012) 5, 720-738, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369118X.2012.659199.