Satellite Internet Companies Could Help Break Authoritarianism
In 2022, when Iran’s notorious “morality police” killed 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Amini, the act triggered nationwide protests around police brutality and women’s rights. The government tried to quell the unrest by shutting down mobile data communication and hampering the flow of information through social media channels. Iranian officials cut off Internet access entirely to Kurdistan.
With the first anniversary of her death in mid-September, the issue is still urgent. There were multiple protests all around the country. More than 200 people were confirmed arrested. There have been reports of shots fired by police. The Iranian government has increased Internet restrictions to stem protests and remembrances and to reduce interest in the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement Amini’s death sparked.
Internet access can be a matter of life or death under authoritarian leadership. When people lose Internet access, they lose freedom of thought, freedom of movement, freedom of knowledge and much more. In the face of shutdowns and government monitoring, access to satellite Internet can preserve both autonomy and freedoms. To preserve both democratic ideals and basic human rights, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations should incentivize and insist that satellite providers establish simple Internet access for people undergoing communications shutdowns.
During the unrest after Amini’s killing, protesters in Iran and their supporters elsewhere asked for help from Internet providers like Starlink, the low-Earth orbit satellite communications company. Owner Elon Musk had given the company’s services to Ukraine during the early days of the Russian invasion before asking the U.S government to reimburse him. To that end, the Biden administration announced negotiations with Musk about one year ago to provide Internet access for the Iranian people. Those talks do not seem to have yielded results.
That Internet access in Iran become a top priority in the wake of Amini’s death is not surprising. The Islamic Republic embraces new technologies when it can exercise complete control, and shuns them in others. As a journalist who has spent the past two decades covering science and technology in Iran, I have seen this firsthand. When I was a kid, owning a VCR player was a crime. Owning a fax machine required government approval. In 2009, during the Green Movement, I watched the government cut text messaging services for months, ban social media platforms, and monitor and record citizens’ communications to intimidate them.
The issue of Internet access extends well beyond Iran. According to Access Now, an Internet freedom advocacy group, 2021 alone saw 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries. According to Freedom House’s latest report on Internet freedom, out of the 70 countries the report assessed, only 17 are truly free based on criteria related to access, censorship and user rights. Unsurprisingly, these are mostly democracies.
But shockingly, the report also revealed that 44 percent of the global population lives in countries where authorities frequently shut down the Internet or mobile networks for political purposes. And that “global [Internet] freedom declined for the 12th consecutive year.”
Starlink represents just one satellite constellation currently under construction that aims to offer Internet access. To date, Starlink has deployed over 4,000 satellites, with more planned for the future. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, for instance, intends to launch over 3,200 LEO satellites to provide similar Internet coverage. Numerous other companies are also in the process of sending satellite fleets into low and medium orbits. These companies are rapidly advancing their technologies to offer direct Internet access via cell phones. Starlink, for instance, has already announced a partnership with T-Mobile to provide such direct connections in the coming years. Not just a political issue, Internet access can save lives after major disasters.
Amid all these launches are conversations about satellite debris, avoiding collisions and the light pollution these constellations will cause. These are valid concerns, but I feel strongly that providing free, basic Internet to citizens in repressive countries would balance these problems by guaranteeing the technology would benefit society, not just private companies and their customers. Governments in developed nations should provide incentives or otherwise encourage companies to provide these essential services worldwide. The companies would still be free to offer faster, higher-quality Internet for paying customers and could charge accordingly.
As low-Earth orbit satellite Internet advances, providers will need to educate the public about Internet access and stem the flow of misinformation. Last year, activists smuggled a few terminals into Iran with support from the Iranian diaspora, but many people remain uncertain whether the regime can monitor and trace Starlink signals. Elon Musk’s tweets in response to Iran’s Internet shutdown lacked explanations and fueled the waves of misinformation. Numerous applications began circulating on social media claiming to be the Starlink app, a few of which were malicious and posed risks to those who installed them. The companies could provide comprehensive guidelines and fact sheets to mitigate the spread of misinformation.
Protesters know that the government won’t hesitate to shut down all Internet access, even at the cost of to Iran’s economy. In the ensuing darkness, grave consequences can unfold. The time for such negotiations is now, before the next generation of satellite Internet becomes fully operational, and before the next crisis emerges.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.