Elon Musk’s other company, SpaceX, is building Starlink, a global communications constellation that could approach a staggering 42,000 satellites. And it could be all that stands between us and a fragmented world living in virtually — and actually — different realities.
World War II can tell us the answer.
In the early 1940s a tyrannical power using fake news, hate speech, military might and hegemonic power controlled most of Europe: the Nazis. They controlled public life, news and local economies. Resistance groups dotted the European mainland, with one lifeline for non-official communication from free countries: radio.
As such, radios were contraband and confiscated. One of the activities the allies undertook to support resistance fighters was shipping in radios for communication and outside news.
Today, radios aren’t at risk of being confiscated.
But the internet is.
And as a cloud-delivered service, hijacking the internet happens largely out of public sight, in servers and routers that enable services like Netflix and the BBC and Facebook and Google.
It’s called splinternet, and it’s the ongoing division of a worldwide interconnected internet into separate and isolatable fiefdoms, each of which can be controlled and managed so that governing powers can control what their populations see.
The Great Firewall of China is the most well-known example, but Iran, Syria and Vietnam also control significant portions of the internet for their populations. Russia just completed technology to wall off its internal networks, servers and internet users from the wider internet. And India, in its attempt to control unrest following its anti-Muslim citizenship law, has employed a particularly heavy-handed approach: simply blocking the internet entirely.
(One unintended result: contractors in India can’t reach their employers in the U.S.)
Another country, United Arab Emirates, took a different approach: outlawing all messengers except one that it built a digital backdoor into: Totok.
However it happens, it allows governments to control what people see, read and hear from outside sources — and censor what their own people say.
Starlink can change all of that.
Elon Musk recently revealed details about how people will access StarLink. It will be incredibly simple, and it will enable access to the relatively free global internet from anywhere on the planet.
Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky. Instructions are simply: plug in socket, point at sky.
These instructions work in either order. No training required.
What that means is that anyone can access the internet from anywhere. Chinese citizens will be able to access Google and information about Tiananmen Square. Russian citizens will be able to see external analysis of Putin’s financial dealings if even Russia blocks outside sources. Indian protesters can’t be cut off from the internet.
Of course, governments will make the Starlink Terminal illegal.
But that in itself will be a victory.
Censorship works best when it is invisible: when people don’t even know that there is alternate information, other understandings of reality.
When a device to connect to the outside world become contraband, the glass walls become opaque. People realize that walls have been erected to prevent them from seeing other opinions.
And that is at least one step to maintaining a free, open and accessible internet globally, which should help combat fake news, propaganda and information deprivation aimed at controlling populations.
And be a step towards making the splinternet harder to achieve.
1,000 satellites will be enough to enable basic service, Musk has said. SpaceX just launched a third batch of 60 satellites, and is expected to continue launching that many every two to three months.
(For context, only about 9,000 satellites have been launched in all of space history, about 5,000 of which are still in orbit. And only 2,000 are actually still operational. So even at a quarter or a fifth of total capacity, Starlink is a ridiculously large satellite constellation and unprecedented in human history — and astronomers have legitimate concerns about light pollution.)
While Musk has applied for launch permission for up to 42,000 satellites, he’s unlikely to launch them all.
But at that schedule, a global and unblockable internet service should be available in not much more than a year.