Future

How Underwater Cables Power The Internet Across The Atlantic

Nearly all of the data sent between continents goes through fiber optic cables that reside at the bottom of the ocean. It's a delicate and costly, but essential, network for our daily lives and work.

Diver checking a submarine cable
Diver checking a submarine cable
Björn Finke

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION IN BRITAIN Russell Poole shows us eight delicate-looking cables inside a locked, fusebox-like contraption. "These are four pairs of fiber optic cables," the British engineer says.

This is part of the network of cables that lie along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, stretching from Britain to New Jersey, responsible for connecting the internet between continents.

There are about 350 cables that lie on the ocean floor of our planet. Without them, the internet would not function as a global network. Satellites, which transport the remainder of data, are the only alternative to these cables but they are costly and are less efficient. The box that Poole shows us, called the TGN Atlantic, is located in an inconspicuous gray industrial building in an equally inconspicuous industrial area near Britain's western coast. This building is a "landing station" that Poole runs. Due to security reasons, we are not allowed to reveal the exact location as it is a gateway to the internet network that serves Britain and Europe.

A sign outside the building says it's owned by Tata Communications, a subsidiary of the Indian conglomerate Tata, which owns a global network of fiber optic cables that TGN Atlantic is a substantial part of. Tata earns money by connecting the different locations of an international company, among other IT services. Having your own network of fiber optic cables is, of course, an advantage and telecommunication and internet companies pay to use the Tata network.

Apart from the cable leading to New Jersey, another cable connects the British landing station to Spain and Portugal and a further cable connects it to Africa via Portugal. Before data can be sent, it has to be processed and the cable's signals have to be enhanced. The TGN Atlantic boasts 149 signal enhancers that are located alongside the cable on the sea bed. These enhancers ensure that tiny blips of light within the fiber optic cables actually reach the other side of the Atlantic.

Shelves of batteries at a Tata building — Photo: Tata Communications

The technology that processes the data before it is sent is located inside a long row of cabinets that are kept cool by incessant air conditioning at the landing station. There is another room that contains nothing but large batteries located on two large shelves. "These generate energy for up to four hours in case of a power cut," says Poole. If that is not enough time to fix the problem, there are two more diesel generators in an adjacent room that have enough fuel to bridge a 16-day power outage.

But it's not blackouts that cause sleepless nights for Poole, but rather an unlikely peril lurking along the coastline. "Fishermen with trawling nets are the biggest danger to the cables," says Poole, who runs the landing station with the support of six employees. Although the cable locations are clearly marked on nautical charts, cables have been damaged in the past.

The actual cable itself is no thicker than a stick of glue. Within the reach of the coast, the cable is encased in steel tubing to protect it from anchors and trawling nets. If a cable has been damaged, special ships are sent out to sea to lift the cable from the seabed and repair the damage. This is a very expensive and elaborate task, just like the cable's initial installation.

It's still a lucrative business going by the rapidly increasing volume of data. More and more people go online to watch TV or chatting on video, while companies now can access software online rather than installing it on every PC within the office. Connected PCs, laptops and tablets are constantly sending data to one another.

Despite increased use, TGN Atlantic has not still reached full capacity because developments in transmission technology have led to companies being able to send more data than ever through cables that were installed in the "dotcom boom" of the 1990s. Tata Europe construction manager Sassoulas says that they are not planning on installing any more deep-sea cables in the near future as there is already "plenty of capacity."

Still, others are investing in new cables. Just this past summer a new cable was inaugurated between the U.S. and Japan, after an installation period of two years. Google was one of the companies that initiated the project, which cost about $300 million. In a joint venture, tech giants Facebook and Microsoft are installing a cable between Spain and the U.S. that would be ready for use in about a year's time.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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