Brazil is about to welcome a new submarine cable linking Latin America to Europe: ELLALINK. In addition of strengthening digital inclusion on the continent and reducing access costs, this cable may offer an innovative model of governance that will protect Internet global infrastructures as common goods, thanks to the allocation of indefeasible access rights to non-commercial backbone providers. Before the activation of ELLALINK (probably in 2019), it is time for Brazilian and world civil society to take this unique opportunity to promote an alternative model of Internet governance and resist the growing pressure coming from the commercial sector in Brazil.
by Félix Blanc and Florence Poznanski*
Dilma Rousseff launched in 2014 a vast program to restore the digital sovereignty of Brazil in reaction to the Snowden revelations that demonstrates how dependent Latin America is to worldwide Internet infrastructures largely owned by American companies. Almost 99% of transcontinental data flows transit through submarine cables, whose consortia are in the hands of a few companies and now of the GAFAs, which have been very active in a recent boom for these infrastructure. With the development of optical fiber and the commercialization of Internet, the United States had managed to play a central role in global telecommunication networks – replacing old colonial powers, and first of all Great Britain that inherited from a vast complex of telegraphic cables built during the nineteenth century to control the most distant colonies. Thus, the leading position of U.S. companies was already visible in the nineties in Brazil, even if this country was one of the first ones to embrace telecommunication revolutions, notably through the deployment of telegraphic networks.
The Dilma Rousseff program follows up with a policy of digital sovereignty that had been a constant endeavor of Brazilian governments. In fact, the development of Internet in Brazil is historically linked to a non-commercial initiative, the Rede Nacional de Pesquisa (RNP) which was created in 1989 to implement an academic network throughout the country. The network was already widespread when the first commercial operators arrived in the mid-nineties. After a brief attempt of entering the commercial market, the RNP has continued to stretch its activities on the whole territory (currently 1300 points of presence, including in Amazonia). Next to the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI) created in 1995, the RNP is one of the pillars that support the Brazilian multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance, which aims at guaranteeing Net neutrality by limiting the interference of commercial interests on traffic management. The objective of the RNP has evolved for the past twenty five years. The cooperation of research centers and academic institutions from Latin America and Europe requires an outstanding network of interconnection, even more reliable and affordable since the recent launching of the Cerri Paranal observatory (Chile), where will be soon produced 70 % of world astronomical data. This increasing interdependence led the RNP and its European partners to initiate, during the late nineties, a common strategy to obtain better tariff agreements with commercial operators, but also to challenge the American monopoly on international bandwidth – a monopoly that explain why the cost to access the global network transiting through the U.S. is still between ten to twenty times higher for Latin America than for Europe.
Consequently, during the Toledo Summit in 2002, several countries of Latin America and Europe launched an ambitious program of scientific and technologic cooperation aimed at strengthening connectivity between both continents. Funded by the European Commission (ALICE 1&2), this program ended up with the conception of a common infrastructure project – the European Link to Latin America (ELLA) – that has demonstrated since then the feasibility of a submarine cable linking Portugal to Brazil. ELLA’s objective is to guarantee an indefeasible right of using the infrastructure to scientific organizations and non-commercial actors, so that they can use freely the bandwidth of the future submarine cable linking directly Europe to Latina America with a capacity of 72 terabits/second.
If this infrastructure project is not unique – three other transatlantic cables are planned to link Brazil to Africa – it is rather representative of the great challenges of Internet governance. First, this submarine infrastructure might be a good opportunity to lower the prices to access international bandwidth from Brazil, where they are still controlled by a few backbone providers that have maintained them artificially high for the past decades – in despite of the privatization of Embratel in 1998, of the good results obtained by the National Broadband Plan developed by Telebras, and of additional interconnection points (PTTMetro). This new infrastructure could contribute to lower Internet prices on the whole continent, thanks to an additional capacity of 72 terabits/second. Second, this submarine cable will open a new path for global traffic, that will go from the European Union to Brazil, whose data protection policies are among the safest of the world. Last, this infrastructure will offer an innovative way of governance that could become a reference for the whole Internet: the commercial telecomm operators (Telebras and Ellalink) will share the bandwidth non-commerical operators (GÉANT and Red-Clara) that will benefit from an indefeasible rights of use during the whole exploitation of the cable. They will posses a right to use the bandwidth not only for scientific and academic collaboration, but also for all non-commercial activities requiring Internet – at the condition that these non-commercial actors shall make no profit of their allocated bandwidth.
This governance model encapsulates a genuine revolution in the prevailing way of governing submarine cables that have been almost exclusively used for commercial purposes – a tendency visible in the multiplication of cables designed to increase the speed of high frequency trading. From this perspective, allocating indefeasible right to non-commercial actors is a promising way of promoting common goods at the level of global telcos infrastructures. To guarantee universal access to common infrastructure as human right remind us of previous attempt to promote open access to common infrastructures such as European rivers, to which free access was granted at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
Internet highways encounter nowadays challenges such as inequality of access to international bandwidth, mass surveillance of international gateways, traffic interference endangering Net neutrality. These issues are difficult to tackle because of a persistent opacity in the decision-making process prevailing among consortium of Internet backbone providers. A principe of network duality separating commercial and non-commercial uses could guarantee that some basic principles of Internet governance, such as network neutrality, are enforced more consistently – especially after the last and very controversial FCC’s decision.
To conclude, this alternative model is promising for the future of an open Internet preserving non-commercial Internet activities from the negative consequences of some commercial activities. Opening a non-commercial (here academic) to non-for-profit organizations may open the door for future collaborations with a whole Internet ecosystem that aims at connecting the unconnected, through platforms such as community networks and mesh networks. Last, while calling for the preservation of an open network to foster scientific cooperation and empower interstellar observation, this project bring us back to the roots of Internet, when the founding fathers decided to make a clear distinction between non-commercial domain names (.org) and commercial ones (.com.).
Rien n’est encore joué
This promising scenario won’t be an easy ride. Brazilian and world civil society shall take up these challenges to make this scenario happen. In Brazil, the growing control of corporate sector over public infrastructures threatens the legitimacy of the multi-stakeholder model promoted by the CGI for more than twenty years. Brazilian civil society is on alert since the recent launching of a public consultation by the Minister of Telecommunications. Besides that, a draft law is currently discussed to end concession contracts with public entities operating in the sector of telecommunications. In the same vein, the geostationary satellite for defense and communication (launched last summer) benefited from billions of public investment. The allocation of the spectrum for providing access to remote inland areas will be finally sold to the private sector without any guarantee of universal access.
At this stage of the project, the governance model of ELLALINK must still be detailed and discussed with all relevant sectors. How will this specific part of the spectrum be allocated to non-commercial activities? What kind of steering agency will guarantee universal access to additional capacities and ensure network neutrality? Will the academic sector be autonomous to distribute its allocated capacity to non-profit actors such as community and/or mesh networks? Opening a vast public discussion on these issues is a pre-requisite for making sure that such alternative model of governance will have a chance to flourish in Latin Are, Europe…and beyond.
* Félix Blanc, Ph. D. in Political science, is Director of Public Policy at Internet Sans Frontières and currently research fellow at the CTS/FGV (Centro Tecnologia e Sociedade/ Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Rio de Janeiro)
Florence Poznanski, a political scientist and activist, is Head of Brazil desk at Internet Sans Frontières