How SpaceX Starlink could resolve rising government-controlled internet shutdowns

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A recent Jigsaw report raised concerns over the growing number of government-engineered internet outages across the world. With over 850 government-engineered internet outages in the past decade, citizens of affected nations are desperate for a solution. SpaceX Starlink and similar satellite internet services could potentially help overcome these outages in ways that legacy connectivity cannot.

Government internet shutdowns

The report mentioned goes in depth on the problem. In 2011, Egypt had an internet outage affecting 93% of networks for five days. It wasn’t the result of a hurricane or natural disaster; the internet outage was to combat a series of protests against the government.

But even as international condemnation has mounted in the years since 2011, the number of shutdowns – intentional disruptions of internet-based communications by state actors – has grown exponentially, exploding from just a handful in 2012 to at least 213 across 33 countries in 2019.

Jigsaw | The Current | Shutdown

These outages are a major concern in countries across the world. Complete shutdowns are just one way that governments control the internet to restrict their citizens. Beyond complete shutdowns, governments can censor the internet by throttling speeds, blocking specific IP addresses, and cutting off mobile data. There is also surveillance like packet sniffing where all the data sent from each device is read before being sent. This allows specific information to be blocked or otherwise logged. These are just a few of the possible ways that governments can already control the internet and in turn their citizens.

With the Taliban taking control over Afghanistan in recent days, there is increasing international concern over how they could control internet access. The Taliban previously banned television and radio, but now wants to signal that they have changed in their ways — at least in terms of censorship. Many Taliban officials make use of social media already, but that doesn’t translate to the same access for the nation’s people. Even if leadership does plan on keeping the flow of information open, many have questioned whether they are capable of actually keeping the internet grid online.

Could a VPN help?

VPN’s, or virtual private networks, could help to avoid some censorship, but are not a fix-all solution. VPN’s are slower than using the internet directly, and can be restricted—both electronically and legally.

SpaceX Starlink

Starlink is SpaceX’s satellite-based internet service. Starlink makes use of a constellation of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit to provide internet connectivity on the ground. Being at a lower orbit, each individual satellite covers a smaller area, but they can reach higher speeds with lower latency. Starlink connects between a pizza-sized user terminal on the ground and a Starlink ground station in order to connect the user to the internet.

How Starlink could help overcome internet outages

Starlink as it operates right now can’t actually help, but in just a few months that could change. Right now, because Starlink is reliant on a ground station, they couldn’t carry the signal far from outside of the country (if a neighboring country would even allow SpaceX hardware to be installed).

Wherever the ground station is based is where a Starlink user would necessarily use service. An end-user would be subject to the internet restrictions of the country where the ground station is based rather than the country they are in. This limits the Starlink service area today, but opens up future possibilities.

New Starlink satellites feature laser-based interconnects. These allow satellites to communicate with each other rather than just with users and ground stations. The interconnects allow these satellites to provide service far away from any ground station, be it the middle of the ocean, polar regions, or the middle of an internet restricted country.

Starlink Satellites with black laser interconnects in the middle. Credit: SpaceX

These laser connections allow satellites to communicate with each other across long distances until they are over a country without internet restrictions. This will use up more of the Starlink network’s overall bandwidth, but allow connectivity in places without any other options.

With laser interconnects, SpaceX only has to ship a user their pizza box-sized terminal in order to provide a user with an internet connection.

This raised important questions of liability. Michael Sheetz of CNBC asked how the regulatory side of operating in countries without ground stations would work.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk replied by saying that “they can shake their fist at the sky.” Elon’s standoffish nature toward regulation has attracted his fair share of fans already.

Protecting SpaceX from liability

It is easy to look at situations like Afghanistan, where Starlink could provide necessary communication with Afghan partners, and say that this is an innate good. Much like Apple’s latest child protection features, there may be critics to this concept if the technology is used maliciously. It is possible, however, that once these laser interconnects are active in four to six months, countries could consider Starlink internet censorship circumvention that could result in penalties for the individuals using them.

Two years ago in China, someone was fined for using a VPN to access “overseas websites”. It is possible that Starlink users in countries with strict regulations could become subject to similar fines or worse.

Without ground stations based in any individual country, however, that country has little control over whether SpaceX can actually provide service in that location. The most any country could practically do is attempt to block SpaceX’s shipment of user terminals or block payments to the company (if necessary).

Blocking the shipment of user terminals would perhaps be the most effective way to prevent Starlink internet access. Countries could block payments, but this could be easily overcome, especially with the rise of cryptocurrency use (which Musk seems eager to adopt).

If a nation is unhappy with SpaceX providing service to their country, they could attempt to seek diplomatic resolution with countries that have jurisdiction over SpaceX’s operations. As part of the outer space treaty, states are responsible for national space activities even from non-government agencies. This means the U.S. would technically be responsible for SpaceX providing internet to countries where governments restrict access.

Whether or not you agree with this possibility with SpaceX, it comes down to one simple question: is internet a human right?

Free and open internet as a human right

In 2011, the United Nations (of which the U.S. is a part) declared internet access to be a human right. The report came in response to controlled outages in Egypt. It goes in depth about specific types of content that could be appropriately blocked, but says that “any restriction to the right to freedom of expression must meet the strict criteria under international human rights laws.” It further says that “facilitating access to the internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States.”

Space Explored’s Take

I am glad to see Elon Musk’s stance of disregarding nations who are in favor of overbearing censorship here. I believe individuals should have the right to a free and open internet. If a country is not able or willing to provide internet access, I hope that SpaceX and others will be able to do so in the near future.

There are certainly a lot of logistics that need to be figured out of course. Once Starlink interconnects are active, there could be foreign citizens connecting to one country’s internet connection without ever stepping foot in that country or having an obligation to follow that country’s law.

It will be eye-opening to see which countries object to Starlink user terminals being deployed and what methods they use in an attempt to stop them. I see the widespread deployment of Starlink as a great way to ensure the democratic free flow of information across borders and for all people.

First SpaceX Starlink satellite launch in 2019

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