A little news item passed by unnoticed back in 2012 when a new undersea cable was announced which would link all the BRICS nations together. It was nothing out of the ordinary as undersea cables are laid on a regular basis. After all, more bandwidth and lower latency is always welcome. Back then, it was incepted so that all communication between the BRICS would go through servers hosted in Europe and the United States (basically, the entire Northern Hemisphere). Reducing the time taken to get data across was the primary reason for investing in such architecture. After all, just two years back a cable was laid so that the folks working at the stock exchange could shave off a few milliseconds and not miss out on “opportunities”. The recent NSA snooping revelations have birthed another reason altogether for the cable – The Second Internet.
A little backstory
BRICS is a group of nations consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. A group of nations that constitute 45% of the human population and 25% of the world’s GDP. All of the member nations feature in the top 10 list of global internet users, and together they account for over 775 million internet users. So it’s not a small group by any means. Earlier this year, a seemingly insignificant employee from the NSA(the one in the US) decided to let the cat out of the bag. Turns out that the US was snooping on not only millions of US citizens but also citizens of other countries. Well this isn’t surprising given that every spy movie out there has governments and security agencies portrayed in the same light. The difference here was that these “citizens”also included the first citizens of these nations. Naturally, summits/meets were cancelled and ambassadors were given a strict dressing down. On the upside, it did get the policy makers thinking, they needed a way to ensure that state secrets remained secrets. In the meanwhile, we had the BRICS cable laying nearing completion and it didn’t take much to put the two together.
A few weeks later, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced the creation of the second internet – one free from any interference by the US or the UK. Soon after the blowout, many countries publicly advised companies to start moving away from services provided by US-based companies in the view of providing greater security. Now, you’d think the onus is on the companies to decide whether they wish to continue their current arrangement with US-based companies but that’s not going to be the case. Brazil is to vote on a law that will require all companies to store data regarding Brazilian citizens on Brazilian soil and nowhere else. That’s just one nation at the moment or 100 million users, which is by no means a small number. Those 100 million users translate to a lot of revenue, and companies will have to cater to their demands or ship out and lose market share.
A new beginning
The internet is a network of many smaller networks. Then there are totally isolated networks as well – those that host military information and interconnect government offices are good examples of this. Even corporate offices spread out over a large campus have their own networks, so the concept isn’t alien at all. The scale of implementation is the focal point here. Even on a global scale there exist layers to the internet; the dark web is one such network. To access it you need to hop onto a different set of routers, which are isolated from the internet that we know. There exist a vast number of websites that unfortunately have had no authority keeping a watchful eye on them. The dark web is where you can access information thats normally censored and taken down by governments but it’s also a host to websites that indulge in narcotics and assassins for hire. We don’t need to worry about the planned second internet turning out the same way, since the member nations will initiate policing as they’ve done before. That last statement seemed like a paradox, didn’t it?
That’s because the folks in power always have an agenda and they aren’t a lovely bunch either. Take Russia for example; it has a website blacklist which not only censors illegal content like pornography but also goes out of its way to censor stuff deemed not worthy of being in the public domain. This includes criticism against the government as well. India isn’t that transparent or ahead of Russia either. In the recently released Web Index 2013 statistics – measuring the internet’s contribution to development and human rights in countries worldwide – India has been ranked 56 out of 81 countries. This highlights poor internet infrastructure penetration and a rather free-handed censorship style. The importance of a free and open internet only lies on paper and isn’t understood by policy makers of the country. The IT Act of 2000 is a clear indication of this, wherein the infamous Section 66A is so broadly defined that its been abused to arrest people for simple emails and Facebook posts.
Apparently Geopolitics is a thing
As mentioned before, this wouldn’t be the first time the oppressed have moved on to create a world of their own. The laying of another cable has a lot more to offer than just increased speed and reduced latency. For one, the BRICS countries will have an option, and arm twisting these nations by withholding resources will be a lot more difficult. Then there are the many backward countries in Africa for whom the improved connectivity will mean globalisation of the region, which in turn will help accelerate development. If you went back in history, you’d remember the time when France and Germany argued for telegraph lines separate from British influence (Britain was the major stakeholder in the telegraph market) and look where they are now. Though internet connectivity isn’t some voodoo magic which improves the economy in a day, it does help boost information exchange and economic activity which subsequently aids in growth of a nation. The scales of power stand to change because of the emergence of choice in all matters. Not having a bargaining chip in the region leads to loss of influence which means a few decades down the line the political scenario may radically change.
Reduced surveillance on the part of the United States will be one of the payoffs. Since the cable does connect to the US at Miami the two networks (Internet and the Second Internet) will be connected but majority of the information will pass between the member nations and only those targeted to foreign servers will actually be under scrutiny from external security agencies. And if the vote in Brazil over localised data storage does pass, then this data exchange will be even lesser. Even Google considered moving its servers out of the US after the Snowden incident. This new means of internet access also enables the architects of the second internet to increase its transparency and security. Making HTTPS the default standard for internet traffic is the simplest way to go. At a recent event Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt expressed his optimism over the elimination of censorship on the internet, saying that it could be accomplished over the next decade. More countries have the option of opting in to the second network, thus providing an opportunity to engage withthe BRICS economy.
Censorship would be a major issue since all the members of the BRICS group aren’t exactly stalwarts of openness and fairness. China has an electronic great wall, Russia has its blacklist and India isn’t that far behind at censoring information. However, a few things could go wrong. The member nations are currently strictly monitoring the traffic passing through the cables, and since they seem to be the major stakeholders here it doesn’t seem that’s likely to change anytime soon. What will surely come into existence is another layer of firewalls blacklisting an even bigger set of websites all to which each of the member nations will contribute to going forward. All aspirations towards an open internet may continue to remain just that – hope. This step of getting a second internet would be a bifurcation of the existing infrastructure but access will still be worldwide. Having a fallout between the member nations would result in further bifurcation and subsequently another layer of firewalls and undesirable monitoring. The end result would be the same as the geography we have – hundreds of mini internets (countries and states) connecting to a mega internet (continents). By the time the connection trickles down from halfway across the earth there’s a possibility that what you’d be seeing would be half of what actually exists, with the remaining half getting “filtered”.
Will it work?
Let’s look at all the facets as we possibly can here. Laying a cable isn’t out of the ordinary; there are already plenty of undersea cables. Also, it’s not as if the cable laying is yet to begin, in fact, it’s nearing completion and would become functional by mid-2015 which is six months away. There has been no lack of funds either, close to $1.5billion has already been invested for the cable laying project. So the majority of the infrastructure can be said to be ready by mid-2015. Creating a second internet isn’t a difficult prospect either given that the BRICS nations have the infrastructure and the spending power to do so. If motive is a concern then the snooping scandal was more than enough to get the ball rolling. So there wouldn’t be a lack of countries willing to sign up for this initiative. This could be compared to what the Rothschild family managed to do over a hundred years ago. They had a wired telegraph infrastructure when the norm was to still use carrier pigeons. Their infrastructure was adopted across the country and it netted them quite some money. The cable is 34,000 kilometers long and is connected to six countries with the option for others to join in.
Each country maintains a section of the cable so each country/authority is held accountable for its own section. At the South African operator, the BRICS cable will be connected to two other cables which will run by the African continent’s coast. So the cable will be accessible by the 21 African countries, which make up for a vast amount of untapped human and natural resources. So investors are more than happy to be getting an entry into a market at a time when a lot more will be joining in, thus putting everyone on an equal footing. At the end of the day, investing in the BRICS cable gains you access to a huge economy. Also, the individual investment needed by each country is reduced. Splicing social networks into half isn’t a new thing. As of now we do have Facebook privacy options wherein your profile is not visible to folks outside your friends’ network. A localised storage of data can be easily accomplished as the underlying scripts and programs are pretty much performing the splicing but on a different level. And servers exist everywhere – the only difference will be that these servers won’t synchronise with the ones stored outside the region. At the end of the day it seems like almost everything is in place, all that needs to be done is for the birthday kiddo to come and blow the candles.
Throughout history no one particular entity has been able to maintain monopoly over any resource. All it takes is time and some new player enters the market and knocks off the one of the top. The current internet administration may consist of a “group of nations” and that’s about to change. The cable was reportedly nearing completion and with tempers flying high this might seem like a hurried move on the part of the BRICS. And it’d be wise to remember that this decision lies in the hands of politicians and as with any political process this could fall flat on its face. However, in the greater scheme of things it seems like a necessary move towards reducing the influence of the US and the UK over the traditional internet. And even though it’s being kicked off on a small scale, it sure seems like more nations would opt in for the Second Internet.
Update: Just as predicted, the death knell has rung for the BRICS cable project as it has been shelved. There had been no updates about the project throughout the entirety of 2015 and we even reached out to some of the stakeholders in the BRICS Cable Consortium but none have responded so far. In a 2014 report on the submarine cable industry, we found this excerpt which describes the situation aptly - “The BRICS cable, which would have connected the US, Brazil, South Africa, India, Singapore, China, and Russia, was unable to achieve financing in its original form, despite widespread political support from governments in emerging markets.”