The ongoing war in Ukraine has demonstrated to American officials that the ability to provide internet infrastructure anywhere in the world at any time has immense value. Elon Musk’s Starlink has helped Ukrainian military, government and society retain a robust internet communications network and contest Russia in the information domain. A similar system could also help shield protestors in countries like Iran, Belarus, Cuba and China from government internet control and mitigate the effects of governments shutting down national internet infrastructure. When internet service remains available in these countries, it would help protestors and dissidents circumnavigate government monitoring.
However, Elon Musk’s recent threats to shut down the system and what amounted to blackmail of the Department of Defense was (shockingly) not well-received by American officials. Elon Musk quickly backtracked on his statements but the damage was done. Now, nationalized alternatives are being considered. Elsewhere other nations are also appreciating the utility of satellite based Internet with India already deploying a Starlink competitor called OneWeb.
Speaking to Axios, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr explained:
“Providing broadband is a lot less interventionist than providing bombs. I think it’s an important tool in in the arsenal. […] We should not be in this situation where we’re relying purely on the voluntary goodwill of a private corporation to provide connectivity services that many here in America view as vital to U.S. national security interests.”
However, getting the technology needed to achieve this goal may be quite a challenge as even the Starlink network requires the provision of ground-based dishes and terminals. Most US focus has instead been on developing internet tools to go around censorship but real steps are being taken to support free internet infrastructure abroad. USAID has been helping maintain fiber optics in Ukraine and the US Agency for Global Media has provided grants for the Open Technology Fund to develop anti-censorship tools.
Congress is also moving to act. The bipartisan Internet Freedom and Operations (INFO) Act of 2022 would provide $125 million to providing free internet infrastructure abroad; according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it:
- “Reaffirms U.S. policy to preserve and expand the Internet as an open, global space for freedom of expression and association.”
- “Authorizes $75 million for various Internet Freedom programs through the Department of State and USAID.”
- “Authorizes $50 million for Internet Freedom and circumvention technologies through the U.S. Agency for Global Media and its affiliates.”
- “Authorizes expedited funds to be used in case of a crises situation like the protests in Cuba last summer or in Russia right now.”
- “Calls for two reports about the work State and USAID and USAGM are doing on internet freedom.”
Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski and Republican Representative Mike Gallagher have called for an additional $35 million for the Open Technology Fund. According to Malinowski, America will have to double or even triple its investments in the tools Iranians and Russians use to avoid censorship and monitoring if America wants to lead the free world.