We are living in the Information Age. When I first heard that term, I thought it was cute and did not think much about its implications. The past few years, and the first two and half months of 2022 especially, have revealed what the information age really entails.
The information age started in the mid 1900s and “access to and control of information” is the defining characteristic of this age. Some define it as, “an economy primarily based upon information technology.” It is also called the digital age, computer age or new media age.
Access and control of information has always been important throughout history. What changed in the mid 1900s is that new technologies allowed us to do this at a scale never before seen in human history.
Our reliance on this technology that has truly allowed for the global village only grew as the years went by. We take it for granted but it is ridiculous that we can sit through the same lecture with someone 10,000km away. Or that we can browse through ancient texts from different civilizations from the comfort of our homes.
That involves access to information and we are thankful for it. Today, in most of the world, the main cause of ignorance is just unwillingness to learn. The information is readily available with the click of a button. Hence why the United Nations classified internet access as a basic human right.
Access to information has transformed lives, economies and the world at large. However, there is that second and more important aspect of the information age that we love to ignore – control of information.
The control of information
He who owns the medium through which information is shared controls the information. Unfortunately for the world, most of the advancements in information technology came from only a few countries. The United States being chief among those countries.
From the United States army through DARPA coming up with TCP/IP and the ARPANET. To Xerox and its Ethernet protocol, Xerox network system, PARC universal packet and other advancements. American colleges were also integral in the development of the internet.
While players from other countries contributed to the creation of the internet as we know it today, there is no denying the Americans played a significant role. To make it worse for the rest of the world, the American effort was three-pronged – the government, academia and the private sector all played huge roles.
It is no surprise then to find that, decades later, American companies still have a degree of control over the internet.
The largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) own the largest portions of internet infrastructure including network access points, extensive cabling, routers etc.
Top tier ISPs include; the American CenturyLink, Cogent, GTT, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. And players from other countries like Telia Carrier, NTT, Tata, Singtel, Telecom Italia Sparkle and others.
The other American companies that have control of the internet but are not Tier 1 ISPs are Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. These 4 companies now own about 10% of all submarine cables.
Even when it comes to the work being poured into new age satellite internet, the Americans are at the forefront. We saw Ukraine beg Starlink for satellite internet access after the war disrupted their internet. Facebook (Terragraph) and Google (Taara) are also working on other ways besides cables to provide internet access.
Data centres, server farms, cloud services
Data centres host computing and storage systems to enable the delivery of web services. They are important for the internet as it is today. Like they say, data centers are where cloud computing lives.
American companies Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and IBM are joined by the Chinese Alibaba Cloud to make the top five cloud providers in the world.
Amazon, Microsoft and Google now account for more than 50 percent of the world’s largest data centers across the globe. Talk about dominance.
Of the other largest data centre companies in the world, you will find that most are American.
Internet services themselves
Here is where we actually interact with the internet. There is yet more American dominance here. Everything from Google Search, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp and almost all of the other popular services have an American company behind them.
It extends to the operating systems on our machines; Android, iOS, Linux, Windows and Mac are all American. Even the browsers we use to access the internet services are American, with most of us using Chrome and Safari which have around 88% of mobile browser market share and 82% for the desktop.
As you can see, we are at the mercy of the Americans. As Russia found out the hard way. We cannot even keep track with all the companies cutting Russia off from vital services. See this article on some of the actions most of the American companies have voluntarily taken to protest the Ukraine invasion.
The information war
One particular sub-war we are seeing is that of information. For years we have observed the big tech companies in the US flex their power to control what can or cannot be said on their platforms.
Their politicians pressured them into censoring viewpoints they didn’t like and Big Tech resisted for a while but then caved and proceeded to go beyond where we thought the line would be.
It all started with Donald Trump running for president and freaking out liberals. Many felt he used social media to win the election and fought to make sure that never happened again. That same Trump is now in social media purgatory, cut off from all the major social networks.
That was the first major incident of Big Tech stretching their terms and conditions to control what can be said on their platforms. In the years since, words like misinformation, disinformation, fake news, dangerous etc. have been abused to shut down certain arguments.
As a result, moderators at these American companies hold the power to steer conversation in a certain direction. A simple misinformation label is enough to severely choke a message out. This practice of shutting down one side of the conversation is now in full display in Russia.
No Russian perspective on Russia-Ukraine conflict can be shared
What history teaches us is that we need to know the motivations and rationale of those we disagree with. To this day, we still study who Hitler was and what drove him to the actions he took. We try to understand how he saw the world and then critique his viewpoints.
Let the bad ideas be shared publicly so that all can see how ridiculous they are.
No such thing is allowed today about Russia. On YouTube, even a documentary on Ukraine-Russia relations from years back was flagged. Why, you ask? The documentary shows that this current conflict is not in black and white. There are nuances to the issue that even some in the West were talking about years back. Especially the US and NATO’s role in the tensions.
The Americans fear that if people hear Russia’s side of the story, they might sympathise with them. The story has to be Russia bad, Putin bad, Ukraine good. Note that this could be the case or it could not. In either case, even if people heard Russia’s side of the story, very few would support the invasion of Ukraine and the lives that have been lost.
We’re reminded of “it’s mostly a peaceful protest” whilst a building was ablaze in the background.
Even with that being the case, the American companies that control the flow of information won’t let you hear what Russia has to say. RT, Sputnik and all Russian sources have been crippled. Try to visit RT’s YouTube channel and you will be told it’s no longer available in your country. Never mind that you are Zimbabwean and only want to know what both sides are reporting about what’s going on so you can get a better picture of where the war is.
The Americans are controlling the narrative. We hear that Russia’s army has been embarrassing itself and Putin may be forced to negotiate as they are unlikely to achieve whatever it is they wanted to achieve. See, we don’t even really know what Putin hopes to achieve, the Americans don’t think we should know. All we need to know is that Putin is a bad bad man.
The Russian media has been reporting the opposite of the narrative we are being fed. They are talking about the war effort going well. Of course, such news has been labeled propaganda. Is it though? We all hope that’s the case but we just don’t know. We could be crossing our fingers thinking the war is close to concluding when it’s just getting started. That’s what sucks when one side of the story is suppressed, we are left wondering what the truth really is.
I fear for Zimbabwe
Russia is a powerful country and yet the tech sanctions have damn near brought it down. If Zimbabwe was ever cut off like Russia was, we would have completely collapsed already. In all this we are reminded that when we rely on any outsider for anything we are vulnerable. That’s the disadvantage of the one world village dream.
We are but cogs on the world stage, completely at the mercy of the nations that control even a simple messaging app like WhatsApp. Therefore after this war is over, I hope all countries that are not strong US allies realise that that they need to reduce the risk posed by our reliance on American controlled technologies.
We shall look at Zimbabwe’s chances should American Big Tech cut us off. I don’t fancy our chances.