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BRICS de-Americanizing the Internet?

This chapter argues that, while the Internet continues to be dominated by the West, in particular the US, in terms of its infrastructure, economics and governance, this domination is increasingly being challenged by the BRICS countries, notably China, Russia and India. China already has the world’s largest Internet population, followed by India, primarily driven by mobile communications. As in the rest of the world, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, too, have witnessed a major expansion of online communication. With the world becoming increasingly mobile, networked and digitized, the question arises whether BRICS communication flows will help to pluralize and democratize information and communication agendas and create a new global communication order, leading to a de-Americanization of the Internet. The BRICS nations are playing a crucial role in this process, given their growing presence and assertiveness related to global cyber-issues, despite some strong divergences within the group. The chapter discusses the process of de-Americanization within five domains: infrastructure, commerce, regulation, weaponization and surveillance of cyber space, and the developmental dimensions of the Internet. In all five domains, the contributions of the BRICS nations are delineated, especially in relation to the dominant agenda setters for the Internet, namely the US and the digital corporations based there.

The infrastructure of the BRICS Internet

The BRICS nations in recent years have strengthened their digital infrastructure for the Internet, a key element contributing to the global digital supremacy of the US, the originator of the Internet (Aouragh and Chakravartty, 2016). From outer space to undersea cables, US-based companies continue to dominate Internet hardware.The growing privatization of global digital infrastructure by mainly US-based

‘space barons’ (Davenport, 2018) has contributed, for example, to the growth of the satellite industry: of the nearly 2,000 active satellites orbiting the Earth in 2019, the US accounted for 849, compared with China at 284, Russia with 152 and India at 57. Similarly, the exponential increase in fibre-optic submarine cables, through which 99 per cent of international data is transmitted, also has a strong US imprint on it, a fact which is resented by countries such as Russia and China (Starosielski, 2015). Major digital corporations - notably Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon - are investing in undersea cables: in 2018 they owned or leased more than 50 per cent of the undersea bandwidth (Satariano, 2019). As the volume and value of global data surges, the storage and processing of digital data becomes a crucial component of infrastructure. Out of 4,422 co-location data centres, 80 per cent were located in developed countries, with the US alone accounting for about 40 per cent of the total (UNCTAD, 2019). Russia, for example, has pointed out that of the 13 root servers essential to the functioning of the global Internet, 10 are located in the US and the other three are ‘on the territory of US allies’ (Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden) (Nocetti, 2015: 121).

US infrastructure projects have strong governmental backing, including the US Global Positioning System (GPS), a vital element of the satellite communications infrastructure and a key part of the US government’s National Strategy for Space. However, some BRICS nations have supplemented if not replaced US domination of the hardware of digital communication. Russia, India and China have developed their own satellite navigation systems (GLONASS, NAVIC and BeiDou, respectively). China has ambitions to create a global system to rival the GPS, especially as the digital dimension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is concerned with constructing ‘a China-centred digital Silk Road that ties neighbouring countries more closely to China through submarine, terrestrial, and satellite links’ (Shen, 2018: 2692).The country’s Hongyun satellite project,started in 2016,aims to build a space-based communications network to provide broadband Internet connectivity to users around the world, especially in developing countries. India has also established itself as a key player in the budget satellite business: in 2014, it launched Chandrayaan, a probe into orbit around Mars, on a cost of merely $76 million (see essays in Pillai and Prasad, 2017).

The BRICS nations have had limited success, however, in intra-BRICS infrastructure exchanges and cooperation (with the exception of the long-established Indo-Russian collaboration in space technology').The 2012 plan to create a 34,000 km ‘BRICS undersea cable’ network, which would have linked Fortaleza in Brazil, Cape Town in South Africa, Chennai in southern India, Shantou in China and Vladivostok in Russia, did not get beyond the planning stages (Zhao, 2015). If it had been built, it would have been a symbolic act of de-Americanizing the infrastructure of the Internet. The project demonstrated intra-BRICS tensions, which have increased especially in relation to BRI, despite its official discourse of achieving a ‘common destiny’ for humankind. A report by a leading defence-related think tank in India noted: ‘BRI’s overall expanse in general, and its growing control over the digital and space domain in particular, allows Beijing to bend this common destiny towards satisfying its own geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic ambitions’ (Lele and Roy, 2019: 56).

China is ahead of almost every other nation in terms of infrastructure for 5G technology, giving it mastery of its own industrial future and that of countries using its mobile services for the new Internet ofThings (loT) (DeNardis, 2020). With the world’s largest smartphone market and Internet population, 5G mobile network investments in China are projected to reach S405 billion by 2030. Privately-owned Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms equipment supplier, with an estimated 40 per cent global market share, is pushing for global 5G projects in 170 countries. China is also ahead of most countries in the field of Artificial Intelligence (Al): A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan released in 2017, envisages China becoming ‘world-leading’ in certain Al fields by 2025 and evolving into the ‘primary’ centre for Al innovation by 2030.

To achieve this ambition, the Chinese government is working with its leading private corporations, the so-called BAT - Baidu (China’s biggest search engine), Alibaba (Chinese equivalent of Amazon) and Tencent (the country’s biggest social media platform) - to create its Al ‘national team’ (Jing and Dai, 2017). Digital entrepreneurs such as Kai-Fu Lee already speak of China as an ‘Al Superpower’ (Lee, 2018). Unlike China, India’s approach to Al is not so commercial, viewing it not only as a means for economic growth but also for social inclusion. In 2018, the country’s premier government think tank, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) published a discussion paper outlining India’s national Al strategy - #AIforAll - which speaks of developing India to serve as ‘a garage or tinkering lab to develop new Al technologies for other developing countries’. It urges Al initiatives to evolve ‘scalable solutions for emerging economies ...’ #AIforAll means ‘technology leadership in Al for achieving the greater good’ (NITI Aayog, 2018: 5).

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