As fiber optic technology has improved, satellites have fallen out of favor, because they’re more expensive and eight times slower than cables. However, they’re not obsolete. Global Positioning System (GPS) relies on satellites, which also monitor weather and enable radio and television communications. Satellites are particularly useful for least developed countries that lack fiber optics capacity, and they can also facilitate cable traffic. For example, a videos captured by a military drone is first transmitted to a satellite, which then sends it to a cable that delivers the footage to the operator’s computer.
Private companies own most of this infrastructure.
The internet connects billions of people doing nearly as many things. Because connectivity is basically as essential to modern life as electricity or running water, the internet is sometimes talked about as a public utility. The reality, however, is that its basic infrastructure is almost entirely privatized.
About half the satellites in orbit today serve military or other government functions; the rest operate commercially. The ratio is much starker for submarine cables: nearly all of those are privately owned, typically by groups of international companies.
Because private companies own this infrastructure, they’re in charge of its upkeep. When a ship’s anchor or a natural disaster break a cable (shark bites and intentional sabotage are rarely to blame), these companies get to work funding and performing repairs.
But governments do intervene in a few areas.
Countries grant licenses to companies that install cables, and, depending on the government, take steps to regulate, monitor, and set standards for all kinds of cyber infrastructure. For example, New Zealand passed legislation in 1996 to protect cables and pipelines, in part by regulating fishing and anchoring activity, as well as establishing a cable protection zone. In 2018, the European Union enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which—among many other provisions—limits what companies can do with personal data stored in data centers: the big, energy-guzzling buildings where networks converge and exchange information.
Two main international agreements govern cyber infrastructure.
For satellites, there’s the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Drafted at the height of the Cold War, with the space race at full throttle, the treaty doesn’t specifically lay out guidelines for satellites, but it holds that outer space belongs to all, should be free of weapons of mass destruction, and must be used for peaceful purposes.
For submarine cables, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) applies. Under UNCLOS, any country has the right to lay cables in international waters. Even within a country’s territorial waters, which extend up to twelve nautical miles from shore and constitute sovereign territory, the country can’t forbid the installation of cables but can take steps to regulate them.
There are also a few standards-setting organizations, but their reach is limited and not legally binding.
The most notable is the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN). A nonprofit established in 1998 and originally tied to the U.S. Department of Commerce, ICANN has operated independently since late 2016. ICANN provides internet protocol (IP) addresses and gives domain names to those addresses (e.g., you typed a domain name, world101.cfr.org, to get here, rather than the site’s IP address, which is a series of numbers).