The Independence Delusion

Last week I visited a telecoms tech conference. This time it was for the companies that supply telecom operators with hardware: fiber, routers, switches, those sorts of things. Always interesting to visit other industries’ shows because it says a lot about their self-image. This time was no exception, the fiber crew spelled it out to me: “Our job is to provide as much capacity as possible, regardless of what travels through the pipes. We are infrastructure. We are independent.” Sound familiar? I had heard it before too, but this time it got me thinking: can you really ever be independent like that? It sounds convenient, but is it true?

First of all – is any infrastructure ever independent? Does it ever exist in a power-vacuum? Take small communities in the country-side: the topic of conversation is almost exclusively infrastructure. What is the quality of the road? Why doesn’t it get repaired more? Who should pay for making it wider? Or what about heating, power, public transport – all of them hot topics if you live away from cities. Or take any infrastructure construction project: airports, bridges, motorways – always controversial, always with petitions and protests. I challenge you to find an infrastructure construction project that was not focus of controversy of some kind. Or take energy, the Nordstream gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea was debated for years by the neighbouring countries. Ukraine is the transit country for Russian gas pipelines to Europe, which some analysts have pointed to as an added complication to the current situation. Or the oil pipelines in Afghanistan. No, infrastructure is never neutral. It is more like a constant power struggle.

Second – is telecom infrastructure different? Well, many will tell you that the Internet almost on its own can overthrow dictators, or at least be the catalyst of revolution. If that is the case, it is nowhere near neutral. Even if you don’t believe that (I don’t), the telecoms infrastructure has owners with very different agendas. Governments are big owners of telecom cables – also in countries with de-regulated telecom markets – and government is often pointed to as a threat to individual liberty in discussions relating to digital communications. Not an independent owner by any measure. Other that own pipes are the carriers. They build both mobile and landline networks and are the biggest clients for the fibre suppliers. And they are in no way independent, in fact they are so far from independent that governments all over the world put very specific legislation in place to maintain some degree of network independence (with varying degree of success), such as must-carry and net neutrality regulations. Still telcos use traffic-shaping methods to optimise the network load and maximise their profits: quite the opposite of independence.

Third – network technology is not created by nature or some divine force – it is designed, made and sold by people. People with different agendas, priorities, inspirations, bad hair days. Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes it does not work as planned. New features are added, think about how Ericsson technology was used by the Syrian-regime to identify protesters mobile phones (and seek them out). This feature was designed. It could be used for different purposes, but that is not the same as neutral. Some infrastructure technologies are used for identifying content. Others to block certain types of code (like viruses). These are not neutral purposes. They are the result of conscious decisions. Nothing independent about them.

Independence is nice and comfortable. Too bad it’s a delusion. Now would be a good time for the tech infrastructure companies to accept that they don’t exist in a vacuum and that their actions have consequences. Just like everybody else’s.