Oxford Technology & Security Nexus — "Cloud empires’ physical footprint: How trade and security politics shape the global expansion of U.S. and Chinese data centre infrastructures"

Please email elisabeth.siegel@politics.ox.ac.uk to be able to attend.

This week, Dr. Vili Lehdonvirta and Boxi Wu will be presenting on their paper (written in conjunction with Zoe Hawkins): “Cloud empires’ physical footprint: How trade and security politics shape the global expansion of U.S. and Chinese data centre infrastructures”

Paper Abstract

U.S.-China technological rivalry presents dilemmas for third countries. Cloud computing infrastructure has become an acute front in this rivalry because of the infrastructural power that it affords over increasingly cloud-based economies, and because it is a control point in AI governance. We ask what factors explain a third country’s “cloud infrastructure alignment”—the degree to which the country’s local cloud computing infrastructure belongs to U.S. versus Chinese providers. Based on literature, we sketch three different answers: international trade, digital imperialism, and third-country strategic choice. In the first quantitative study on the topic, we test propositions derived from these views using original data on global hyperscale cloud infrastructure combined with trade statistics and security variables. We find that cloud infrastructure alignment is positively associated with other imports from the U.S. or China, negatively associated with interstate disputes, and only weakly associated with security cooperation ties. The findings suggest that commercial interests and third-country strategic choice may be more influential in shaping cloud infrastructure than any imperialist expansion or containment by the superpowers. We conclude that researchers should direct more attention to the role of third-country agency in technology geopolitics, and to the role of tech firms as autonomous geopolitical actors.

About the speakers

Prof. Vili Lehdonvirta

Vili Lehdonvirta is Professor of Economic Sociology and Digital Social Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. He leads a research group examining the politics and socio-economic implications of digital technologies. He is one of the world’s most cited authors on gig work and the platform economy. His current research examines the geopolitics of digital infrastructures. His books Cloud Empires: How digital platforms are overtaking the state and how we can regain control and Virtual Economies: Design and analysis are published by MIT Press. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has advised the European Commission, the World Bank, and other public, private, and third-sector organizations on digital policy and governance.

Lehdonvirta’s latest book Cloud Empires was shortlisted for the Association of American Publishers’ 2023 PROSE Award. “It is a highly accessible and refreshingly original book, and a must-read for anyone interested in our digital past, present, or future” (Regulation & Governance). The book questions the current paradigm of platform competition regulation and puts forward a historically grounded argument towards the democratization and constitutionalization of transnational digital institutions. “The hypothesis underlying the book is bold: the organization of virtual space by digital platforms follows a trajectory similar to the social organization of Western societies in the past centuries” (Information, Communication & Society). Cloud Empires has been adopted as a textbook in undergraduate and graduate courses in economic sociology, organization studies, and political theory. An Italian translation is published by Einaudi, with translations to Chinese and Japanese forthcoming. From 2018 to 2021 Lehdonvirta served on the European Commission’s Expert Group on the Online Platform Economy, advising policy makers on platform regulation and governance.

From 2015 to 2021 Lehdonvirta led the iLabour research project, a major investigation funded by the European Research Council on the implications of digital platforms to labour markets, global development, and collective action. One of the project’s outputs was the Online Labour Index, an automated statistics production system adopted by researchers, journalists, and international organizations. At the project’s conclusion the system was transferred to the International Labour Organization to be maintained as a public research resource. The project also produced over a dozen highly cited articles in journals such a Socio-Economic Review, Sociology, and Journal of Management. According to a 2021 bibliometric analysis, Lehdonvirta co-authored the top two most cited studies in gig economy research. From 2018 to 2019 Lehdonvirta served on the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Digital Transformation and EU Labour Markets, advising policy makers on issues such as access to platform data.

Lehdonvirta’s current research focuses on the international political economy and geopolitics of digital infrastructures. His Political Geography of AI Infrastructure research project seeks to map the world’s GPU compute, one of the key bottlenecks in AI system development and operation. Lehdonvirta’s group uses both conventional social science research methods as well as novel data science approaches to map infrastructures and model policy impacts. His research has been supported by major grants from the European Research Council, the UK Economic and Social Research Council, and other science funding agencies.

Lehdonvirta is a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, an associate member of the Department of Sociology, Oxford, and a former Turing Fellow of the Alan Turing Institute, London. He co-organizes the Digital Economy Network of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics and sits on the editorial boards of the journals Information Society and Journal of International Business Policy. From 2013 to 2018 he was editor of the journal Policy & Internet. In 2022-2023 he served on the European Research Council’s Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Grants panel.

Lehdonvirta holds a PhD in Economic Sociology from the University of Turku (2009) and a MSc from the Helsinki University of Technology (2005). He has previously worked at the London School of Economics, the University of Tokyo, and the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology. In 2020 he was a visiting professor at the Institute of Innovation Research, Hitotsubashi University. Before his academic career Lehdonvirta worked as a software developer.

Boxi Wu

Boxi Wu works in Google DeepMind’s Responsible AI team, focusing on the ethical and societal implications of frontier AI models across both LLMs and multimodal models. They advise teams on ethical risks and mitigations, and lead internal ethics & safety governance fora, alongside their part-time studies in the MSc in Social Science at the OII. Their research interests focus on the social and political impacts of AI, focusing on the materiality of AI infrastructure and implications for AI ethics and governance, working with Professor Vili Lehdonvirta to map global AI infrastructure. Other research interests include the politics of AI compute as a geostrategic resource for nation-states.

They are also an organiser and programmer with ESEA Green Lions, where they have worked with local museums and galleries on events that bring the public into conversation with questions on AI, the environment and diaspora. They have previously worked as a policy researcher, lecturer and strategy consultant.