As the world watches Russia’s war on Ukraine unfold, the importance of protecting critical infrastructures against attacks becomes ever more significant. Tech dependencies, supply chain risks, and critical infrastructure vulnerabilities create opportunities for unwanted foreign interference. Current geopolitical struggles for power are also increasingly played out in the technological and digital domains, with various states and tech companies elbowing their way to achieve technological superiority and control the global digital order.
Today, the world is witnessing how the Internet ends up divided into techno-spheres between the United States and China, while Europe is also searching for its own technological and digital sovereignty. Given the fact that digitalization and technological innovation have been moved to the top of policy and political agendas, it comes as a surprise that an essential critical infrastructure dimension of global interconnected networks has received little research and strategic attention. This is worrying since the geopolitics of emerging disruptive (digital) technologies, supply chains, and critical infrastructures is more and more linked to evolving Great Power rivalries.
Undersea fibre-optic cables networks carry around 95 percent of international communications and data traffic. They are as crucial for the digital revolution as the expansion of computing power and advancements in Artificial Intelligence. Most of the world’s Internet traffic travels at the speed of light via submarine cables running across ocean floors for thousands of kilometres. Driven by a huge demand for data, cloud-based services, future generation networks, and to accommodate a growing ‘Internet of Things’, recent years have seen a sharp surge in submarine cable deployments around the globe.
These hundreds of cables, operated and owned by an eclectic mix of state and private entities, support everything from data and mobile network traffic to bandwidth-intensive applications such as video sharing, consumer shopping to official government communications. Therefore, as physical topology, submarine cables are the core critical infrastructure of the digital era. They also represent an overlooked element of techno-geopolitics that is literally jeopardizing the security and resilience of data transfers, Internet services, and communications worldwide.
By consequence, submarine cable resilience and security are an essential component of present and futural global security governance. They encompass key questions for geopolitics, ranging from connectivity, security, regulatory, to narrow technical issues. Most of these cables are not government-owned but run by separate consortia of private companies or entities, with virtually no international governance system or international agency governing them. Indeed, cables do not have national flags. Legal ownership is divided among the various co-owners under a baroque architecture of jurisdictions and nationalities, as well as international law of the sea conventions and negotiations. More importantly, two dimensions need to be considered when making submarine cables intelligible.
First, they suffer from governance ‘invisibility’ due to both their taken-for-granted nature, similarly to other infrastructures such as sewers that are out of sight, and because they literally have the diameter of a garden hose ‘hidden’ under the sea surface, a phenomenon also identified as a form of ‘sea blindness’. Second, they are embedded and interlinked with other social and technological infrastructural arrangements sustaining planetary connectivity, from the architecture of cloud computing and data centres, Internet protocols and standards, routing and light technologies, economic and labour models, to geopolitical considerations.
Connectivity cables have been in use for more than 150 years – the first undersea telegraph cable was laid in 1850 between England and France and the first permanently successful transatlantic cable dates back to 1866. Until recently, traditional telecommunication companies have dominated this sector. Their main goals are to keep their customers connected and in communication around the world. Yet, this sector is now undergoing a major shift, with technological giants and so-called hyperscalers like Google’s parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft set to reshape the submarine cable ecosystem.
The main difference between such companies is the business model. While telecom companies are focused on their end customers, hyperscalers and content providers aim to keep connectivity between their data server farms that form their cloud services, while allowing data transfers to function without disruptions. In this respect, ‘clouds’ are not only in the sky, but also and mostly undersea and dependent on the physicals infrastructure of cables. Instead of relying on a supply chain operated by consortia of big carriers, many dependent on regional and national jurisdictions, cloud suppliers want to deploy their own subsea links.
The proliferation of these data centres and bandwidth demands are also one of the biggest challenges for hyperscalers, driving their efforts to build private undersea cable networks. For instance, in the spring of 2021, a new submarine cable linking the United States and Europe called Dunant, deployed and used by Google, has set a new record for data transmission capacity on a subsea cable. Hence, cloud platforms have a big influence in determining where and by whom cables are laid.
While this proliferation and route diversity are welcomed for improved connectivity across the globe, they also shift the balance of power by concentrating a fundamental component of the core global infrastructure into the hands of Big Tech, which already are the most powerful Internet services, content, and marketplace providers. Until 2012, the share of the global submarine fibre-optic capacity used by such companies was less than 10%, but in 2022 it amounts to about 66%. This is an important development with implications for both the global security architecture and the broader geography of the Internet, mostly centralized in highly industrialized nations and monopolized by a handful of private tech companies.
What is more, international treaty negotiations governing submarine cables date back to the 1884 International Convention for the Protection of Submarine Telegraph Cables, this regime being now a part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Yet, as submarine cables become increasingly critical to the global digital infrastructure, the existing regime is not featuring enough on the priority agenda of intergovernmental cooperation, especially regarding the laws governing the protection of cables both during peacetime and wartime. Besides natural phenomena affecting their operation, such as unintentional accidents made by ships, or even shark attacks, submarine cables can be under threat from hybrid warfare, terrorism, piracy, or belligerent actions from states during wartime. Foreign hostile actors might not only tap into cables for intelligence gathering, espionage and surveillance, but also cut them as part of their tactics to engender major disruptions to an enemy’s economy, communications, or society.
Developments surrounding this critical infrastructure have flown beneath the radar of much of geopolitical and global security governance discussions, even though they are a core strategic component of the maritime arena and now, more than ever before, they constitute the backbone of digital economies and societies worldwide. As governments increasingly focus on mitigating (cyber)security threats to the global community and national security, including from autocratic and belligerent states, they must also prioritize the security and resilience of critical physical infrastructures, especially the ones that underpin data flows, digital connectivity, and communications networks across the globe.
Given that data and connectivity are the defining characteristics of the twenty-first century, coupled by the increasing volume and sensitivity of data sent over undersea cables, the protection and security of this core infrastructural layer will only become even more salient. This critical sector needs to be treated as a paradigmatic case for international relations dynamics, as well as be afforded priority and seriousness in (geo)political debates and public-private arrangements. States and international organization will need to work more proactively with private industry to ensure that the global Internet and critical communications run responsibly and safely, even in the face of security disruptions.