Why Elon Musk Won’t Save Us From Internet Shutdowns

With regimes increasingly controlling online access, is satellite internet capable of rescuing the world from digital dictatorship?
May 10, 2021, 7:57am
Why Elon Musk Won’t Save Us From Internet Shutdowns
SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk arrives on the red carpet for the Axel Springer Awards ceremony, in Berlin, on December 1, 2020. Photo: HANNIBAL HANSCHKE / POOL / AFP

The author of this op-ed is the Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19, a London-based organization supporting freedom of expression.

Since it first shut down the internet when it seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, the Myanmar military has sought totalitarian control online. From mid-February onward, near-total nightly shutdowns and restricted mobile data have plunged the country into terrorizing digital darkness. In desperation, pleas for Elon Musk to save Myanmar with satellite internet, through his Starlink company, have gone viral. Musk may have even responded to an email about it, which leaked online but could not be independently confirmed.

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It sounds like a great idea, and something authoritarian leaders can’t do much about. 

What’s certain is that internet shutdowns are a real problem. They don’t only prevent online communication between loved ones or the planning of peaceful protest, they deal a severe blow to documenting and disseminating evidence of serious human rights abuses. Sadly, over the last few years many governments have resorted to shutdowns to control dissent, with varying results

According to the #KeepItOn Coalition, in 2020, 29 countries around the world resorted to shutdowns, with 33 in 2019, and 25 in 2018. The overall trend, covered regularly by monitor Netblocks, is concerning. In recent years, shutdowns have occurred in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, and in Russia, Iran, and Senegal. Even before the coup in Myanmar, the government restricted the internet in parts of Rakhine and Chin states from June 2019 until the power grab in February. 

Short of a full shutdown, internet censorship, either blocking sensitive websites, ordering internet service providers to comply with government directives, or banning encrypted mobile communication platforms, can be just as debilitating. Look no further than the Great Firewall of China, plans to establish a National Internet Gateway in Cambodia, or other censorship regimes from Vietnam to North Korea.

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Another variable is physical infrastructure. Even as most of us increasingly connect to the internet on mobile or wireless networks, we depend on a vast system of largely underwater cables, as we used to for international telegraph service beginning in the 1850s. As of 2021, there are some 426 submarine cables responsible for nearly all internet connectivity around the globe. These are vulnerable to natural disaster, espionage, or abusive state actions.

What’s tempting about the satellite internet option is that it seems like it could bypass all this. But that’s where it gets tricky.

How Does It Work?

Musk’s plan for Starlink is an interconnected constellation of satellites capable of delivering high-speed internet anywhere on Earth. Interconnected constellation, by the way, means about 12,000 satellites. Starlink currently has around 1,300 in orbit, with beta testing in North America, but the opportunities and challenges of satellite internet are about more than just positioning.   

One key innovation in next generation satellite internet like Starlink or Amazon’s Project Kuiper is the use of constellations of thousands of smaller satellites in low earth orbit (LEO), from 100 to 1,200 miles above Earth, compared with current larger solitary satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), at 22,000 miles. Constellations establish a distributed network, beaming data between satellites at the speed of light and allowing for continuous, global coverage once the constellation has sufficient nodes in orbit. They are closer to earth so they have lower latency—the lag time between when information is beamed from the satellite and when it is received on the ground. While they might be easier targets for short-range missiles, their signal range makes them potentially less vulnerable to hacking.

At the 2020 Black Hat security conference, Oxford researcher James Pavur and his team presented findings of alarming security flaws in GEO satellite internet. They found that with only a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment they were able to intercept transmissions as they were beamed back to users.

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Another security difference with LEO constellations is that their lower latency allows for better performance of virtual private network, or VPN, services, which are often used to protect data privacy and evade censorship. There are efforts to make VPNs even better for space, Pavur told me in an email exchange. He also noted that none of the satellites he tested employed encryption. While Starlink claims to encrypt traffic, it is vague on the details. End-to-end encryption should be a must for any technologies proposed for use in authoritarian spaces.

What Would Users Need on the Ground?

While next generation satellite internet may be appealing for journalists, activists or opposition figures struggling with oppressive internet controls, there’s the challenge of getting the signal into the country. It needs hardware on the ground, not an easy feat in any tightly controlled civic space.

A Starlink user, for example, needs a router and antenna. Although much smaller than traditional GEO satellite antennas, a Starlink shipping container weighs around 30 pounds, not an easily concealed package. As the technology improves, surely antennas might shrink. Until then, if satellite internet providers made their receiver blueprints open-source, it could create possibilities for 3D printing, bypassing import barriers in closed societies.

Even if civil society in digital dictatorships manage to smuggle in or fabricate their own next generation satellite internet antennas, authorities can still go around confiscating or smashing dishes as indeed they began doing with satellite television receivers in Myanmar in early April. Criminalizing their possession in May, Myanmar authorities announced penalties of up to a year in prison or a fine of $320 for anyone caught using satellite television dishes. 

Regulations and Business Conflicts

There are more pesky challenges to overcome, starting with spectrum allocation. The International Telecommunications Union is responsible for regulating telecommunication services, including satellite internet, and the allocation of spectrum, radio frequencies used for wireless communication. Just having the technology isn’t enough to start providing wide-scale internet connection where it has not been approved and is actively opposed by the government. Radioelectric spectrum is regulated as a natural resource and countries have sovereignty claims over spectrum allocation related to broadcast in their territory. If a satellite internet provider attempted to broadcast into a given country without spectrum approval, the pirate satellite would no doubt face interference and jamming.

With Starlink or Amazon’s satellite internet programs, for example, should they attempt to disregard spectrum allocation and broadcast into closed jurisdictions, in addition to signal jamming, we should expect corporate sanctioning. This includes both the satellite companies themselves, and their more profitable parent companies.

If Elon Musk was persuaded to force Starlink internet into China’s backyard, Beijing would likely retaliate with production or import bans on Tesla, and recent developments show how sensitive the company is to losing market access there. Likewise, Musk’s SpaceX company behind Starlink, recently valued at $74 billion, may face related financial retaliation. Should Amazon’s Project Kuiper, once off the ground, attempt to skirt broadcast regulations, the company’s $13.5 billion yearly market in cloud computing services may find pushback and fewer government contracts around the world.

Reality Check

Satellite internet may seem like an appealing answer to internet shutdowns and rampant censorship. Next generation technologies and satellite constellations do address some speed and security challenges of their predecessors. However, although satellite technology already provides limited opportunities for civil society in closed spaces, even next generation satellite internet isn’t a ready mainstream tool for circumventing digital dictatorship. Until there are many more satellites in orbit, geographic range is limited, and there are challenges to getting antenna receivers into closed civic spaces. Even then, international spectrum regulation concerns may position political sovereignty at odds with the right to freedom of expression and access to information online. 

On the other hand, what happens when just a few private companies are responsible for global internet access? Certainly, universal connectivity is an ideal for evading shutdowns and government censorship, but we should also be vigilant against satellite internet monopolies threatening net neutrality.

So Elon Musk will not save the world from internet shutdowns, but advances in satellite technology and advocacy toward regulatory changes might make it harder for digital dictators to assault internet freedom in the future.

Michael Caster is the Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19, a London-based organization supporting freedom of expression. Follow him on Twitter here.