Submarine cables governance & sustainable development goals

12 Nov 2018 10:45h - 12:15h

Event report

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Submarine cables are building blocks of the Internet and are essential in providing access to information worldwide. But transparency with regard to their outage and maintenance remains very limited, despite their significant consequences for local connectivity. The legal international framework for the protection of submarine cables requires updating, due to their ever-growing importance.

This roundtable, chaired by Mr Félix Blanc, Director, Internet Without Borders, and moderated by Ms Florence Poznanski, Brazil Director, Internet Without Borders, featured discussions on how submarine cables could help to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) through a more transparent and inclusive governance. Blanc  introduced the discussion by recalling the great strategic importance of communication cables both in times of peace and war. Improving access to the backbone of the Internet is also vital for addressing the digital divide worldwide, as new players, like Facebook and Google, are now investing in new submarine cables, with great implications for the Global South.

Mr Robert Pepper, Head of Global Connectivity and Technology Policy, Facebook, presented Facebook’s investment policy in submarine cables and commitments. Facebook has invested in submarine cables to increase transcontinental and regional bandwidths. Although submarine cables are necessary for an open Internet, they are not sufficient, and need to be complemented with open Internet exchange points and the development of landing stations and national backbones. Facebook builds cables in partnership with other actors, usually telecom operators, as in the case of the recently announced new cable system between Brazil and Argentina.

Ms Camille Morel, Researcher, Centre lyonnais d’études de sécurité internationale et de defense, France, identified the main geopolitical implications of undersea networks for states. As a vector of information, these cables can play a crucial role for financial markets and public authorities. The physical distribution of cables is also crucial. For instance, until recent years, the traffic between South America and Europe had to be systematically channeled via the United-States, due to a lack of an alternative channel. In the context of the Snowden revelations and recent attempts by Russian submarines to approach submarine cables it is clear that the protection of submarine cables granted by international law is insufficient. Both a harmonisation of national legislations and an extension of the scope of current international norms are needed.

Mr Dwayne Winseck, Professor, Carleton University, Canada, presented his recent work on the governance of submarine cables. For Winseck, platforms such as Facebook and Google are not taking over the Internet by building new submarine cables, as is often argued. Although they dominate their respective markets at the application level, the nature of cables consortia show the complexity and the heterogenity of these systems. For Winseck, the infrastructure level of the Internet is actually increasingly post-American and has opened to European and Asian actors.

Mr Barbara Simao, Researcher, IDEC, Brazil, talked about the situation in Brazil and the extent to which submarine cables could affect local connectivity. In Brazil, 61 percent of the population is connected to the Internet, but only 30 percent of lower income categories. High price is the main challenge to the universalisation of the Internet. Investment in submarine cables can reduce the costs for final consumers and increase the speed of the networks. Recent cables built between Brazil and Europe, and between Brazil and Angola, are promising developments, but challenges remain in terms of accountability and transparency of these networks.

Mr Doug Madory, Senior Analyst, Internet Intelligence, US, presented his tools and methodology for mapping and monitoring Internet shutdowns and the functioning of undersea cables. Certain tools available online allow for the measurement of submarine cable cuts or their activation. Madory argued that more needs to be done for sharing information when maintenance is conducted on undersea cables, since these operations can have great consequences for the networks of certain countries (as shown during the recent elections in Somalia).

Mr Peter Micek, General Counsel, Access Now, focused on the need for a better understanding of these issues, particularly since submarine systems heavily rely on trust and information. Given the human rights implications of these cables and the issues they raise in terms of surveillance and access to information, Micek suggested that human rights assessments should be conducted for new infrastructures.


By Clement Perarnaud