Facebook and Google’s New Plan? Own The Internet

The cloud is not an abstraction. Your photos, uploaded to Google’s cloud, do not float in the ether. Your iCloud backups do not break bread with the gods. The metaverse that Facebook is so keen on building will not exist in the heavens.

The name “cloud” is a linguistic trick – a way of hiding who controls the underlying technology of the internet – and the huge power they wield. Stop thinking about it for a moment and the whole notion is bizarre. The cloud is, in fact, a network of cables and servers that cover the world: once the preserve of obscure telecoms firms, it is now, increasingly, owned and controlled by Big Tech – with Google and Facebook claiming a lion’s share.

Building data center capacity is something of a full-time job for Big Tech. Here, in vast facilities spread across the world, your most private photos and messages sit on a hard drive on an anonymous computer on an anonymous rack, stacked alongside thousands of others in an out-of-town data center, sited somewhere where energy and land are cheap.

The cloud is a hulking physical network. It forms a part of the internet’s backbone, which itself is overwhelmingly made up of a network of cables intersecting the world’s oceans. It is easy to imagine these as larger or grander than they are – in reality they are generally the width of a hosepipe, buried for a short distance from shore for security, but beyond that point allowed to sit freely on the sea bed.

A conversation with Bruce Neilson-Watts, who spent 16 years as a navigator, engineer and then a captain of boats working to lay and repair the cables, sheds a little more light on what they look like and how they work. The actual part of the cable which carries information across the continent is just the tiniest core of the hosepipe-width cable, with even that tiny thickness able to carry up to 100GBps or even 400GBps on newer cables in the smallest fractions of a second.

Much of the rest of the width is made up of petroleum jelly – yes, the same stuff that comes in a Vaseline jar – intended to protect the cables from water damage and corrosion, meaning even the physical structure of the internet is, in fact, lubed up. Make of that what you will.

The ownership of the data centers – and often as a result, our data – that power the internet is a matter of almost constant public debate. It’s the issue that drives conversations about tech monopolies and the overbearing power of internet platforms. But the same can not be said of those transatlantic cables, almost 1.5 million kilometers of which now traverse almost every part of the globe.


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