The Internet in Your Hands

A lot of people are talking about “the Internet” right now. You know, the series of tubes? That one. Last week, noisy and widespread website blackouts had supporters of SOPA and PIPA, two toxic anti-piracy bills that had been cruising through...

Jan 25 2012, 3:30pm

A lot of people are talking about "the Internet" right now. You know, the series of tubes? That one.

Last week, noisy and widespread website blackouts had supporters of SOPA and PIPA, two toxic anti-piracy bills that had been cruising through Congress, backing out so quick that sponsors of both pieces of legislation slammed the brakes, effectively stalling the bills in their current forms. This coordinated, mass online action just may go down as a seminal We Told You / Do Not Fuck With Us win for both those who legitimately care about a free ‘net, and let’s face it, probably a great many casual Wikipedians and chumps who just want to lift new and terrible films and records, free of charge. For one night, at least, the Internet partied together.

Then, just as all your Great Blackout hangovers were about nearly worn off, the FBI goes and raids popular filesharing site Megaupload. This lit off a seemingly reinvigorated Anonymous, who immediately set to launching high profile, ethically murky attacks that briefly bring down the sites of the FBI, the Department of Justice, Motion Picture Association of America, Universal Music Group, and others. These are not just the sort of dogged, tit-for-tat strikes that are coming to characterize the modern Piracy Wars. Together with global populist upheaval and a domestic Occupy movement hunkered and prepping for a spring resurgence, they’re foreshocks to the imminent battle over who owns the Internet. And the stakes couldn't be higher.

What I’m saying is it’s hard not to be talking about “the Internet” right now. By this I mean that the idea of a free and open network – and the right to unfettered access to this place – for sharing information through some out-of-sight magic, some handoff up in the cloud, has so permeated popular consciousness that, much like wealth distribution, the Internet problem (including digital piracy) is past a point where it’ll ever again be even partially off the agenda.

So I think it’s now, more than ever, that it could be worth reminding ourselves that in addition to this ephemeral “Internet,” the ideal of which is so worth fighting for that we’re seeing legions continually taking to both virtual and street actions in its name, there is the physical, dirty thing, “the Internet.” The stark reality is that a lot of what it comes down to is an expanding mesh of bundled, submarine fiber-optic cable networks snaking across hundreds of thousands of kilometers of ocean floor.

A cable-laying ship drops a line (via)

Just try and imagine the sheer physicality of these transit networks, which handle essentially all your international cyber activity in the form of tiny pulses of light. When we talk about controlling – or taking back – the Internet, in a lot of ways we’re talking about what we should do with a massive, massive series of corporate-owned pipes that collectively bear the load of about 99 percent of all international telephone and Internet traffic.

Take the Eastern Seaboard alone, where fiber-optic bundles of over 20 Transatlantic circuits make landfall in nondescript, secured buildings. These touchpoints cluster around the Tri-State area and Miami, linking the U.S. to Europe, Africa, and Central and South America with over 185,000 kilometers of cable. Once incoming data wash ashore, these nodes forward information onto regional nerve centers like 60 Hudson Street in New York City or Chicago’s sprawling, unseen data complex, and beyond.

Courtesy Greg’s Cable Map

Kept largely out of sight, these submarine circuits go by such predictably ominous names as TAT-14, GlobeNet, ARCOS-1, VSNL Transatlantic, and on and on. They’re owned by corporations and consortiums that you’ve probably never heard of: Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited, Brasil Telecom of America, Tata Teleservices.

And they’ve been cropping up at a decent clip. If it’s any indicator of just how much some of us have come to love stealing stuff online, among other things, more than half the loops touching down on the East Coast have gone live since 2001. As you read this, cable-laying ships are dropping at least two more giant submarine fiber-optic networks, WASACE and the Emerald Express, which are slated to go live over the next two years.

It’s anyone’s guess who’ll be Commander in Chief by then, but no matter – “the Internet” the thing will still be remarkably terrestrial. For now, though, it seems this tangible, undersea reality is so often lost in deafening chatter centered on Life After SOPA Proper. Even if the Great Blackout of 2012 was a “Congressional wake-up call” that has anti-piracy latchkeys scrambling, there is still that pesky Protecting Children From Online Pornography bill, which would open up your digital dossier to unprecendented snooping, stewing away virtually unnoticed. A long fight has just begun.

It’ll behoove the Internet crowd to remember that the Web exists, quite literally, in real life.

Reach this writer at @TheBAnderson
Top image: Submarine fiber-optic cable makes landfall in Cuba ( via)