The Strange Geopolitics of the International Cloud

How cold weather, taxes, and sovereignty dictate the placement of data centers overseas.

Shipping containers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach (Bob Riha Jr / Reuters)

Road trips are always defined by the places there isn't enough time to see. Writing about The Cloud through the lens of a road trip is tricky, because those gaps of things unseen tend to be on other continents. The presumed technical advantage of The Cloud is that it's a global apparatus, and here we were barely able to take in the lower forty-eight, barely able to take in a single city. While our 2007 Toyota Tacoma unfortunately could not traverse the Atlantic Ocean, here’s a quick overview of some aspects of international cloud infrastructure that you might want to know about.

The things that shape data-center geography outside the U.S. aren't all that different from things that shape data-center geography in the U.S. In general, large companies building cloud infrastructure seek access to land, and appealing climates—environmental, financial, and political. Places with high concentrations of Internet exchanges, network infrastructure, U.S.-friendly governments, existing tech sectors, or highly educated populations (Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Singapore) become logical locations for data centers. Proximity to this Internet backbone reduces latency and it's easier to hire people to work there. Scandinavia, a region popular with companies like Google and Facebook, isn't particularly rife with backbone or dense with Internet exchanges, but it makes up for this with cool climates, access to hydroelectric and geothermal power, and vast expanses that instill both existential despair and stoicism.

In the case of Ireland, its data-center economy has been fueled in part by its cool climate, but also by its 12.5 percent corporate tax rate, which has led lots of tech companies to open offices and move assets to the country. In an unusual reversal of the typical narrative, massive infrastructural developments are following the data centers, with new submarine cables landing in Ireland to serve the country's tech sector.

Climate and latency aren't the only reasons for a company to expand its data-center footprint. As The Cloud absorbs more and more global data and the phrase “post-Snowden” sounds less and less pretentious, there's increasing international interest in data sovereignty, the idea that a citizen's personal data stays within their country's borders.

Russia enacted a data sovereignty law just last summer. This rising interest in personal control over and localized access to data was a big factor in Microsoft's decision to build two new data centers in Germany with an established German data partner, Duetsche Telekom. Essentially, Microsoft customers whose data is stored in these new German data-center regions will be managed and maintained by Deutsche Telekom instead of Microsoft by default.

Microsoft probably knows better than any other company the importance of defining who has jurisdiction over user data—they've been in a legal battle over it in the U.S. for almost two years. At the heart of the case is whether the U.S. government has jurisdiction to request data located in a data center in Ireland if that data belongs to an American Microsoft user. The government argues that where Microsoft stores the data is immaterial—they're an American company and since Microsoft can access data stored anywhere while physically in the U.S., it doesn't matter where that data's stored. Microsoft challenged the warrant on the grounds that a search doesn't happen at the point of acessing the data (in this case, in the U.S.) but where the data is stored. As of September 2015, the challenge to the warrant was still in dispute.

Technically, the Microsoft Dublin warrant case is less about data sovereignty and more about the material essence of data. The American-government argument against data sovereignty tends to be more economics than materiality or even national security—at least that's the argument made in the chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that forbids member countries from enacting data-sovereignty laws.

The agreement does take pains to suggest exceptions for “[ensuring] the security and confidentiality of communications,” but also insists that countries not be required to have data centers in member countries in order to do business there (which is a cool move for a government desperate to hold onto the third-party doctrine). Similarly, Microsoft's press statements carefully couch its recent developments in Germany in the language of choice and flexibility, delicately framing privacy more as a consumer preference.

All this to say that most of these examples and geopolitical disputes are still, unfortunately, framed within a U.S.-centric lens. I haven't even gotten into the political negotiations of an endeavor like Amazon Web Services's China region, or that Alibaba already has data centers operating in Silicon Valley. Or how totally broken Australian broadband infrastructure is. Or how most of the criteria that leads to data-center development in specific parts of the world also skews away from places that currently lack connectivity, where initiatives like the Facebook-led try to bridge gaps not with long-term infrastructural investment, but with laser drones and tiered-access schemes. I get dizzy trying to see this whole thing, and it shows.

In a weird sort of prologue to this road trip, I'd picked Sam up at the Long Beach Airport, which meant we drove through the Port of Long Beach on our way up to the University of California, Los Angeles, and the supposed birthplace of the Internet. Driving through the Port of Long Beach, the largest and busiest port in the continental U.S., is kind of like going to a theme park for logistics enthusiasts. Shipping containers stood in stacks the size of small buildings, sometimes organized by color and sometimes in chaos, framed by flocks of construction cranes. All I wanted to do was take them all in, pause at the eerie infrastructural sublime of globalization and the infinite arrays of logically arranged, discrete objects on that horizon. But I was the one driving, and I had to keep driving. I only glimpsed the grandeur of the container port perihpherally, constantly aware of all I was missing.

This is sometimes what it is like to try and talk about The Cloud. In its own eye-rollingly Borgesian way, it maps back out onto the world with a one-to-one seamlessness, and to talk about The Cloud's global shape and politics is to talk about the planet's shape and politics. For now, for the stories I set out to find and tell, I had to keep the global cloud in my peripheral vision. We hadn't even made it to Iowa yet.