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Une interview pour La Vanguardia
À propos de l’hégémonie américaine dans le cyberespace
Article mis en ligne le 18 mars 2020
dernière modification le 20 mars 2020

par Laurent Bloch

Au mois de novembre 2019 Alexis Rodriguez Rata du journal espagnol La Vanguardia m’a interviewé à propos des questions géopolitiques liées aux infrastructures de l’Internet. Vous pouvez lire l’article en espagnol, ou mes réponses en anglais ci-dessous.

 ARR : The USA was the inventor of Internet through the DARPA military project. The main part of the Internet content is in English. The main data centres are located in the USA. The main tech giants are from the USA. Does it mean the USA’s hegemony will remain in our new digital century ?

 LB : English is still the main language on the Internet, but its share is steadily decreasing, while other languages progress : in 1995, 97% of the Internet content was in English, in 2007 it was 68%, today it’s 59%.

The US leadership in Internet, semiconductor and network industries is also decreasing, if not over : the Taiwanese TSMC is the current leader for microprocessors, with a revenue of US$34.20 billion, and the only plant worldwide with a 7 nm geometry production. The last Apple iPhone has been conceived by Apple, with microprocessors conceived by ARM, a British firm recently acquired by the Japanese investment fund SoftBank, and manufactured by TSMC in Taiwan ; the whole smartphone is assembled in Shenzen, China. For the microprocessor industry, TSMC is the leader, followed by the Korean Samsung, and only at the third place is Intel, with an ageing technology.

US leadership is still strong in the field of operating systems (OS), a strategic item : the leader is Google, with Android, followed by Microsoft. But recent embargo measures decided by US government could push ahead alternatives, like Samsung’s Tizen or Huawei’s HarmonyOS (or HongmengOS), both of them are derivatives of the free software Linux (like Android, by the way).

The US are still leaders of the Cloud, with Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

As a matter of fact, the field where US leadership is uncontested is the one of ideas and innovation, even if the researchers and engineers in American universities and industries are often non-Americans.

 ARR :Who could defy the USA’s digital leadership ? France or the EU were left behind inside this ‘battle’ ? Is China’s data centres and new tech firms the real enemy for the USA dominated Internet ? In that sense, is the conflict ineluctable in order to redrawn our world’s hierarchy into the digital revolution’s world ?

 LB : EU position in that domain is pathetic : despite of the fact that EU as a whole has the largest population of researchers, engineers and students and the biggest market, they are desperately lagging. For instance, Germany seems powerful, but it is an illusion, because it still sticks to the old industry, automobile, machine tool, etc., and it will pay the price for not having taken the turn for IT and Internet. Nonetheless, EU has some firms with big potential : Ericsson, Nokia, STMicro, Dassault Systems, SAP, if only European politicians, investors and electors understand that.

China of course is the great rival of the US, but don’t forget Korea, Taiwan, Japan, India and Israel. Despite of some buzz, Russia doesn’t exist in the field ; its best researchers and engineers (and they are very good) populate the labs in the US, Israel and so on.

 ARR : Tech giants like Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple and so on are from the USA, but no the USA’s government so, Who really rules the Internet, Silicon Valley Tech giants ? Or Washington ?

 LB : Despite of their claims, Silicon Valley Tech giants owe a big part of their power to the power of the USA and to the huge public investments, for decades, in the high tech sectors (and in public and private R&D). For instance, the ICANN is a very influential institution of the Internet, in control of the Domain Name System (DNS), and the ICANN is not an independent organisation, it is fully supervised by the US Department of commerce. And also, the extraterritorial enforcement of American law is a big help for American businesses. Silicon Valley Tech giants don’t rule, US government does.

 ARR : Russia activated the ‘emergency’ button possibility to stop the Internet. And so do China. How different would be our digital world if China or Russia would be the main rulers for Internet ?

 LB : China has managed to build a Chinese Internet, almost closed to outside world. Russia tries to do the same, with less success, because they don’t have neither the finances neither the expertise to do so. They can (maybe) stop the Internet inside their boundaries, but not worldwide, at least for more than maybe a few hours. No, in the short term, or even in the next years, neither China, neither all the more so Russia cannot dream of ruling the Internet.

 ARR : In your book you said that “the war of information technology and currency” between Japan and USA plunged into an economic stagnation for Tokyo from 30 years later. Is EU having that same problem ?

 LB : In my opinion, EU is on the way to have the same problem, because they are missing the Third Economic Revolution : the first Economic Revolution occurred at the end of XVIIIe century, with chemistry, metallurgy and steam machine ; the second one occurred at the end of XIXe century with industrial electricity and internal combustion engine ; the third one occurred at the end of XXe century, with microprocessor, the Internet and software.

 ARR : Is there anyone that could put in risk our digital world and our free access to Internet ? Or thanks to the extended internet lines through the world there is no risk for today’s status quo ? Can Internet be really blinded ?

 LB : Internet can be blinded worldwide for a short period of time (cf. the “Pakistan incident”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technolo... for instance), or locally for a longer delay (see Estonia in 2007, or Georgia in2008). Due to the decentralized organization of the Internet, and to the cooperation between operators, it would be very difficult to really break the Internet worldwide.

In order to avoid Internet blackout, a country must have at least a local copy of the root of the DNS (preferably more than one, it is not very expensive) and at least a local, well connected Internet Exchange Point (IXP).

 ARR : Talking about the optical fibers, we can distinguish some that look critical for our digitized and globalised world, like those that goes through Gibraltar, Red Sea or Singapore, the Transatlantic or Transpacific ones and so on. Are those fibers as important as they look, as important as those places I mentioned before are for the international merchant economy ? In your opinion, which are the main important ones ? If so, are the transoceanic optical fibers as weak as it looked with the NSA case ?

 LB : Yes, the transoceanic optical fibers are very critical, yes, a physical attack on such an infrastructure could have dramatic effects, and yes, it could be quite easy to launch such an attack. Because there are a lot of fibers across Atlantic and Pacific, the risk is diminished. The links across Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Indian Ocean are more at risk. Russia has links across Siberia, if you trust Russia.

 ARR : The main data centres are located in the USA, Europe and some countries of the ASEAN, leaving behind the most part of the rest of the world. Is it what divides the First and the Third world today ? What are their consequences for all of us ?

 LB : Yes, this situation is a major divide of the world. Today, nobody knows where are your data, but for sure they are under control of some big American companies (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook are the main suspects). Even if you rent space to an European company, you cannot be sure that they don’t subcontract with Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure, and henceforth your whole activity is bound by American laws, notably Patriot Act and Cloud Act.

To keep the European data on European territories, bound by General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is a requirement for the sovereignty of European countries. We must withdraw from Gmail, Dropbox and others data traps. The biggest issue is : nobody cares.