U.S. underseas cable industry needs UNCLOS protection
Currently the vital U.S. underseas cable industry has to rely on the outdated 1884 telegraph treaty for its legal basis when defending its rights to lay, maintain, and repair underseas cables. U.S. ratification of UNCLOS would better protect U.S. companies’ existing cable systems and foster additional investments by giving telecommunications the legal certainty to their claims that they need.
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Once the U.S. is a party to the Convention, Verizon and other U.S. telecommunications companies can work with the appropriate U.S. agencies to enforce, when necessary, the freedoms to lay and repair cables on the continental shelf and the EEZ – saving millions of dollars over the life of a cable system, improving the reliability of our critical infrastructure, and putting U.S. companies on a level playing field for operating international cable systems.
If the Congress fails to act to ratify the Convention, U.S. companies will continue to operate at a disadvantage vis-a-vis our global counterparts, indeed having to work through our international providers and their respective governments to seek protection of their submarine cable infrastructure under the Convention.
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That security gap should be of international concern for a number of reasons. The first successful hostile ac- tions by pirates and terrorists against active international cables already have occurred. In March 2007 Vietnamese pirates in multiple vessels carried out high-seas depredations on two active submarine cable systems, including the theft of optical amplifiers that rendered the systems inoperative for 79 days until re- placements could be manufactured.4 At the time, cable owners urgently pleaded with at least four nations for help in preventing ad- ditional attacks, only to learn that none of those governments had contingency plans for such action. Similar damage was inflicted on a newly laid cable in Indonesian archipelagic waters in 2010.
Submarine cables are legitimate targets of belligerents in war.5 The United States cut cables linking Spain to its colonies during the Spanish-American War.6 The first offensive action of Britain’s Royal Navy in World War I was cutting Germany’s international links to the rest of the world by severing its cables.7
But attacks on cables by terrorists are new. On 11 June 2010, terrorists in the Philippines successfully struck an international cable.8 It is naïve to assume that submarine- cable landing stations, cables, the cable ships, and the marine depots that maintain the systems will escape asym- metric terrorist acts.
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Third, the Convention will also help the United States government and international companies respond when countries attempt to unlawfully require licenses or permits before submarine cables can be laid or repaired. As an example, Verizon is one of the co-owners of the Europe India Gateway submarine cable system, which passes over the continental shelf claimed by Malta but never enters Malta’s territorial seas. Even though the Convention allows for such transit without interference by coastal nations, Malta’s Resources Authority has threatened legal action if the submarine cable operators do not obtain a license and pay a fee. Not only do these fees add unforeseeable costs on existing undersea cable systems, they raise the specter of coastal nations imposing similar requirements for the sole purpose of raising revenue at the expense of the cable owners. By signing on to the Convention, the U.S. will have the discretion to add its diplomatic efforts in the ongoing dispute with Malta and enforce the treaty’s expressly stated freedom to lay and maintain submarine cables in international waters without tolls, taxation or fees levied by coastal States.
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Undersea cable expert Douglas R. Burnett argues that "it is naYve to assume that submarine-cable landing stations, cables, the cable ships, and the marine depots that maintain the systems will escape asymmetric terrorist acts,"" and recent cases have proven that Burnett's concern is not unfounded. In 2007, "piracy was blamed in the theft of active submarine cables and equipment" off the coast of Vietnam." "In early 2008, over the course of just a few days, multiple cables were cut off the coasts of Egypt and Dubai," causing at least fourteen countries to lose a significant amount of data traffic." The "Maldives was entirely disconnectedfromtherestoftheworld."60 Theshorttimespanandclose proximity of these cuts raised suspicions of a deliberate attack.61 Most recently, in June 2010, terrorists in the Philippines struck an international cable.62 The public location of the cables and their lack of sophisticated armor or protection make them incredibly vulnerable to intentional attacks.
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Second, ratification of the Convention will also help U.S. companies better contend with disruptions to undersea cable service. For example, in March 2007, large sections of two active international cable systems in Southeast Asia were heavily damaged by commercial vessels from Vietnam and taken out of service for about three months. More than 106 miles of cable were removed from the seabed and repaired, at a cost of more than $7 million. It would have been very helpful if the United States, Verizon and other affected U.S. companies had been able to use the Convention to compensate cable owners, arbitrate disputes over service disruptions, and deter future violations.
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Most of the solutions that have been put forward by scholars focus on the structural security issues alone and what governments must do to secure this vital infrastructure. Douglas Burnett argues that governments should follow the lead of Australia and Singapore and coordinate a single point of contact for undersea cable issues.106 He suggests that the U.S. Navy should reach out to naval allies such as Canada and France as well as to cable industry representatives and together develop cable-protection strategies that enable the navy to respond quickly to pirate and terrorist attacks.107 Commander Michael Matis of the U.S. Navy recommends creating a new international cable construction regulatory regime that would promote greater international cooperation and information sharing.108 As part of that effort, he urges the United States to immediately ratify UNCLOS and encourages UNCLOS members to collectively update their legislation to protect cables and make it an international crime to tamper with them.109 These scholars understand that any action to increase the safety of undersea cables must be international. Models have shown that a cable break off the coasts of Marseille could have detrimental effects on data flow in and out of India.110 In other words, merely increasing security in one's own waters will not be sufficient. Any security strategy must be global in scope.
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Given their importance to global networks and the world economy, there must be an appropriate legal framework based upon global cooperation and the rule of law to protect submarine cables. The Convention provides this necessary framework in 10 provisions applicable to submarine cables, going beyond existing international law to provide a comprehensive international legal regime for submarine cables wherever they are – whether in territorial seas, in Exclusive Economic Zones (or “EEZ”), on continental shelves, or on the high seas. Once the Convention is ratified, the United States government will be able to insist on compliance by other nations with these protections. Several recent events underscore the urgent need for a clear and unambiguous framework for protecting this vital communications infrastructure.
First, some nations have attempted to encroach on the ability of U.S. operators to participate effectively in the deployment, maintenance and repair of undersea cables. To oppose these types of foreign encroachments or restrictions effectively, the U.S. must have a seat at the table where it can enforce the Convention’s freedoms to lay, maintain, and repair undersea cables.
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Perhaps even more troubling than the above-mentioned structural vulnerability of undersea cables is the lack of security efforts and criminal sanctions by governments to protect undersea cables and deter future attacks. U.S. National Intelligence director James Clapper recently testified that cyber attacks, (by which he meant purely digital attacks like computer worms or viruses that can shut down the electrical grid or financial markets),69 are the nation's number one security priority.70 Clapper highlighted how much governments, utilities, and financial services rely on the Internet and therefore are vulnerable to cyber attack.71 Yet at the same time, protection of undersea cables (a critical infrastructure that supports the Internet) from physical attacks is sorely lacking. For example, in the United States, the willful destruction of an international submarine cable is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison and a mere $5,000 fine.72 This fine is hardly a deterrent, and is far out of proportion to the damage that such an act would cause. Furthermore, the United States has not joined the 162 countries that have signed onto the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).73 As a result, there are no UNCLOS security protections for U.S. undersea cables outside of U.S. waters.74 Only Australia and Singapore have created a single point of contact within their governments to address issues of undersea cable security and to coordinate with cable owners to combat hostile actions.75 On a worldwide level, no organization is responsible for undersea cables and there have been no international tests of cable defense systems.76 The maintenance and security of the cables is left to private trade organizations.77 Given the extent to which governments themselves rely on these cables,78 the current lack of a coherent undersea cable security strategy by governments must be remedied. The infrastructure itself is vulnerable, and governments like the United States are not yet taking adequate actions to protect it. It is not enough for governments like the United States to focus on digital attacks on Internet systems. They must also take action to protect the physical structure of the Internet.79
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What you may not realize is that 70% of all of the country's international telecom traffic, which includes data transfer and video, is carried on these cables. If you eliminate Canada, 90% of the country's international traffic is carried on these cables. The disproportionate importance of these cables to the nation's communication infrastructure can be seen by the fact that if all of the cables were suddenly cut, using every single communications satellite in the sky, only 7% of the United States traffic could be restored. This underscores the incredible capacity of modern fiber optic submarine cables. By any standard, they constitute critical infrastructure to the United States, and indeed the world.
This critical infrastructure, by its very nature, depends upon international cooperation and law. The promise of continued advances in international communications hinges on an international standard providing a compass whereby nations and private companies may steer a course which efficiently allows international communications networks to be seamlessly planned, built, and operated.
UNCLOS provides this modern legal compass. Simply stated, without UNCLOS, US telecom companies are hurt in the planning, development, maintenance, and protection of the world's undersea cable networks. UNCLOS is the key to the world's international telecommunication system; it unlocks the door for the fullest participation and leadership possible by US telecom companies.
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Submarine infrastructure is already vulnerable to attack and will become even more so in the coming years, especially as undersea vehicles grow more advanced and accessible. Unprotected cables and energy infrastructure could provide adversaries with all kinds of opportunities to gain the upper hand. Hostile forces could, for instance, plant explosive charges in sensitive locations and threaten to pull the trigger. Or they could set off explosions without warning, throwing markets into chaos and disrupting military command-and-control systems. State and nonstate actors could conduct anonymous attacks or act under a false flag. Attributing responsibility for a covert attack would prove challenging, making deterrence extremely difficult. Such moves wouldn’t be unprecedented, of course: before undersea fiber optics dominated global communications, cable cutting was a regular part of warfare. In 1914, the United Kingdom severed all five of Germany’s undersea cables in the English Channel the day after declaring war, and belligerents regularly snipped enemy cables during World War II. But today, it would be more difficult to sever fiber-optic lines without affecting a much larger and more interdependent system—making a potential attack all the more damaging.