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Why the Red Sea has become so central to the global Internet

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Why the Red Sea has become so central to the global Internet

The world is wrapped in a web of cables that bring the internet everywhere. Their importance was reaffirmed by the attack of which the Houthis of Yemen are accused, capable of interrupting 25% of Internet traffic between Asia and Europe. The number of undersea cables carrying the Internet is constantly evolving. At the beginning of 2024, the Telegeography think tank mapped 574 active ones around the world. The report immediately specifies that their number may have already changed. In a few weeks.

It is often believed that the internet is in the cloud. In the cloud. It is not so. The Internet is in the seas, it moves there, it connects people and nations there. The Internet believes itself to be as ethereal and clean as the digital world has deluded us into thinking. Instead, to use a metaphor from the French documentary filmmaker Guillaume Pitron, The Internet has a green color, a smell of rancid butter and even a taste: salty like sea water.

The Crash of 2022: The Internet Discovers Its Fragility in the Red Sea

On February 11, 2022, a cable connecting the Internet to Hong Kong from Marseille was cut by an anchor in the Red Sea, near Egypt. An incident that cut the internet in twelve countries, including India and China. The hardest hit was Ethiopia, which lost 90% of its connectivity, and Somalia, which also lost 85%. No Google, no Amazon, no social media.

The fault lasted six hours, but the accident (later attributed to the passage of a ship) highlighted the fragility of the world‘s nearly 600 undersea internet cables. But above all, the key role of the Ross Sea in the Internet infrastructure. Where the global backbone of the network passes. Capable of transporting data all over the world, connecting the continent, powering networks, wifi connections, corporate intranets.

90% of traffic moves by sea. Connections with China from the Red Sea

Cables the size of garden hoses. Capable of moving 90% of internet traffic. The filaments carry light signals and are extremely thin. The diameter of a human hair. Very fragile. Covered in layers of insulation and protection. Threatened by anchors, sometimes by the keels of large ships. At the beginning of 2024, 1.4 million kilometers of submarine cables were calculated. Some quite short, like the 131 kilometer CeltixConnect cable between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Others long. Like the Asia America Gateway cable, 20,000 kilometers long. Often owned by consortia of telecommunications operators or large technology companies such as Meta, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, main investors in new cables.

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Of these, according to Telegeography, 20 from the South China Sea pass through the Indian Ocean until they enter the 1,500 miles of the Red Sea. They come onto land in Egypt and then reach the Mediterranean, connecting Europe to Asia. Over the last two decades – analysts explain – this route has become one of the major Internet bottlenecks in the world. A place where the network shows all its fragilities. A passage point for goods and global trade, today threatened by the Houthis, accused of having hit the underwater telecommunications cables.

EU attention: 17% of global Internet traffic passes through the Red Sea

In 2022, the Red Sea area was also the subject of attention from the European Parliament. In one report it flagged it as a risk of widespread internet disruption. “The most vital bottleneck for the EU concerns the passage between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, because the main connectivity to Asia passes through this route,” reads the report, which highlights how extremism and maritime terrorism are a risk in the area.

An investigation by Wired UK highlighted that if you look at Egypt on a map of the world‘s undersea internet cables, it immediately becomes clear why internet experts have been worried about this area for years. “The cables in the area are concentrated across the Red Sea and touch land in Egypt, where they make a 100-mile journey across the country to reach the Mediterranean Sea,” it said. It has been estimated by TeleGgeography that approximately 17% of the world‘s Internet traffic travels along these cables and passes through Egypt.

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