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International Reactions to U.S. Cybersecurity Policy: The BRICS undersea cable

BRICS Cable Map

January 8, 2016

Internationally, Snowden’s revelation about the extent of U.S government surveillance was met with great anger. Governments began asking questions about what could be done to avoid U.S. surveillance. The BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—had already begun thinking about the idea of a global Internet without the U.S. at its center, but Snowden’s release provided the impetus to propel the issue. One element of this was the development of a BRICS undersea cable systemUndersea cables are one of the physical elements of the Internet, carrying the Internet around the globe.

The BRICS cable was slated for completion in mid-2015. However, the cable has not been completed and there no longer appears to be an active discussion about its creation. The fate of the BRICS cable is a lesson in how U.S. domestic cybersecurity policy can impact international debates about the future of the global Internet. It is also a lesson in how difficult coordination can be among countries with similar concerns about U.S. policy, but very different orientations to information and Internet governance.

BRICS Cable Background

The initial announcement of the BRICS Cable was in either 2012 or early 2013, although it did not gain significant political traction or media attention until after the Edward Snowden leaks of September 2013. For instance, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was furious about the revelation of American espionage upon her government.

The BRICS Cable was meant to circumvent the U.S. and NSA spying through ports in Russia, China, Singapore, India, Mauritius, South Africa, and Brazil. The two-fibre cable was slated to cost $1.5 billion, span 34,000 kilometers in length, and feature a 12.8 Tbit/s capacity system. The cable would hook up with the SEACOM, EASSY, and WACS cables, linking the Internet infrastructure of BRIC nations to the rest of Africa.

Project leadership primarily came from Brazil and South Africa. While Brazil provided the political impetus for the project, South African Andrew Mthembu, executive chairman of the investment group Imphandze, became the de-facto spokesperson for the project. Mthembu has advocated for the BRICS cable and worked to develop consortium-level funding worldwide.

In spite of Mthembu’s efforts, the BRICS Cable project appears stalled in 2015. The domain is no longer in use and finding information about the project’s status is exceedingly difficult. The cable does not have a definitive ready-for-service date nor are there any indicators on the progress of its physical completion.

BRICS Politics

The exact reasons for the stalling of the BRICS Cable are unclear but can probably be traced to outstanding financial and political issues plaguing the BRICS consortium.

The 2014 Submarine Telecoms Industry Report, written by Terabit Consulting, reports that the BRICS Cable was unable to receive financing in its original form. This is perhaps unsurprising given the considerable financial and logistical feat of coordinating dozens of different operators in different countries and on different continents.

In addition to funding problems, the BRICS group is hindered by political division within the BRICS bloc itself. These disagreements often occur along differing lines of governance and political values. India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) are united in their democratic governments and share a vision for a world with better respect for human rights shaped by multi-stakeholder input. Russia and China are on the other end of the spectrum, placing little emphasis upon multi-stakeholder governance, instead championing strong state focused control. In addition, Russia and China are bound to one another not only through the BRICS process, but also through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is perhaps a more effective vehicle for the advancement of their joint political and economic ventures.

The political divisions exist in spite of deepening BRICS integration in recent years. The idea of a BRIC grouping was first coined by Goldman Sachs in 2001 and regular meetings between Brazil, India, and China began in 2006. South Africa joined in 2010. Since then, the BRICS have expressed interest in a new global reserve currency, the creation of a New Development Bank, and Russia has proposed a BRICS information technology alliance.

Additionally, the BRICS nations have made significant progress in the institutionalization of their discussions surrounding Internet governance. However, no tangible agreements have emerged from these meetings. The BRICS nations agree that an Internet code of conduct must be developed, but they cannot agree upon what this code should include. In fact, these meetings have recently produced more intra-bloc disconnect than political harmonization. At the 2015 BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, India announced its “Indian Vision for the Internet.” India announced its desire to move from state-led Internet governance to a more multi-stakeholder perspective. India’s stance angered Russia, who traditionally views India as a political ally both within the BRICS bloc and outside it.

Therefore, although the BRICS are united in their desire for alternatives to a United States-led global order, they are fundamentally divided upon how to complete this task. The absence of bloc cohesion may be the factor underlying the stalling of the BRICS cable.