What matters more: Controlling the Internet's wiring, or its data? Both

When technology companies invest in new internet cables everyone should take note

The internet connects the world.

The internet connects the world, wiring or data?

Credit: Jeff Monahan, Proper Villain

In an interesting move, Facebook and Microsoft have forged an alliance to lay a new fiber optic cable under the Atlantic Ocean. Putting aside the environmental concerns this raises for many (including those of us inhabiting islands), it also raises questions about how control of the Internet -- and the data belonging to its users -- is basically a prize in a multi-strand tug of war involving technology companies and broadband service providers from here to Spain and back.

So, why does it matter who controls the building of Internet infrastructure? How does that relate to who controls user data? And what's the implication for businesses that rely on Internet technology to deliver their products and services?

Google -- part of Alphabet, Inc. -- organizes the world's data and, it could be argued, knows more about the average person than the average person knows about their closest friends and relatives. The company also accounts for more than 10 percent of all advertising spend globally. In holding the most information on, in, and about the Internet, Google could be the most powerful company on the planet.

Google also is involved, through one of the Alphabet companies, in the delivery of Internet services. The company has been experimenting with and investing in satellite and balloon technology (Project Loon) that could deliver Internet access to even the remotest regions of Earth -- just as its existing Google Earth satellite project delivers images of those same regions, as well as eerily accurate photography of addresses such as your own.

Google Fiber, another Alphabet imprint, is further evidence that the marriage of data and access is a powerful model for the future of Internet dominance.

Even Facebook's latest move with Microsoft signals the continuation of a winner-take-all-the-information strategy -- with the contentious Internet.org project, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg indicated the company's hunger to not only gather massive amounts of information about users, but also control the means by which those users get access to the social network.

What has emerged reminds me of the Polar explorers of the 1800s -- groups of men racing to impale their flag on the virgin ice of the North and South Poles, risking life and limb (and the occasional nose or ear lost to frostbite) in the quest to dominate new lands for their patrons and their countries.

Because staking a claim on territory isn't just about notoriety. It's about control. In the Information Age, controlling data is lucrative -- so it follows that controlling access to the Internet (which is essentially a network of data) will be even more so.

Does this mean that Facebook and Google and their leaders are nothing but gold thirsty robber-barons, reimagined for the 21st century? It's not the role of this column to judge -- but it does mean that companies who use the Internet for deploying services and selling products need to seriously consider their own relationships to data and to Internet access.

It's not just about knowing who your customers are and how to reach them (Facebook has an app for that). It's about knowing how the companies that control the world's data are architecting their systems to manage that data -- so that you can design your own services and products with that infrastructure in mind.

Companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have not just provided new technologies to the world. They have fundamentally reshaped how we interact with the world -- as individuals and as businesses. It's therefore our responsibility in the tech community to pay close attention to how these companies work with local, national, and international governments to shape the physical and virtual landscape that can help us deliver products and services at home and abroad.

Not every technology executive needs to be involved in politics -- but every technology company will be impacted by policy. By understanding how we access, store, manage, and share data, we become better corporate citizens -- and better stewards for the trust our customers, employees, and stakeholders place in us.

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