Opinion | Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites help Iran protesters only so much

Elon Musk has activated his Starlink satellite broadband service in Iran to help protesters connect with the outside world. If only they could really use it.

Internet access was vital for Iranians who took to the streets after a young woman accused of flouting the country’s mandatory hijab law died in police custody last month. News about the tragedy spread among citizens on digital channels such as Instagram, and news about the uprising, including images of women burning their headscarves in the streets and men being tear-gassed and beaten by security forces spreads around the world in the same way. But the Islamic Republic has been creating a closed version of the internet for its people for more than a decade, and censorship has only increased under President Ebrahim Raisi. Now the protests have prompted an even tougher crackdown. Sometimes and in some places only individual apps like Instagram and WhatsApp are blocked; at other times and elsewhere almost everything, including cellular networks, is down.

Iran is not the only country imposing so-called internet blackouts. Governments in Cuba, India, Russia and beyond have engaged in some form of censorship in recent years, whether it’s throttling certain platforms or cutting connectivity entirely. These suppression efforts vary in both type and sophistication. Sometimes using a virtual private network or VPN is enough to bypass restrictions. But that doesn’t work when blocking web access itself rather than specific websites, and governments can block specific VPNs as well. Private servers that anyone anywhere in the world can set up can occasionally fill the gap. But even these cannot be operated in the event of a total blackout. And mesh networks, which rely on Bluetooth or WiFi signals to facilitate communication between devices in close proximity, can serve as a last resort. But that doesn’t solve the problem of communicating with them Not in close proximity, let alone beyond the borders of a nation.

The Iranian government’s blocking capabilities are almost as sophisticated as it gets. Authorities don’t rely on any single method to hamper connectivity. You can filter specific services and hit a universal “off” switch, so there’s no single solution to bypass the regime’s restrictions either. A mix of VPNs, private servers, and other evasion strategies can push messages, viral videos, and more through the cracks, but they can only do so slowly and sparingly.

This is where Starlink comes in. The SpaceX system aims to solve this problem by giving citizens direct access to the global, open internet, rather than the domestic, censored one. Starlink’s more than 1,000 satellites orbit the Earth at a lower altitude than their traditional telecommunications counterparts, allowing them to quickly transmit signals to and from the area they hover over. When flying over Iran, Iranians only need one receiver to reach them.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “everything”. The routers weigh more than 30 pounds, making them difficult to smuggle to civilians in need. They also rely on antennas placed in clear areas, making concealment nearly impossible. The biggest obstacle might be international bureaucracy: the International Telecommunication Union has to give spectrum approval to any satellite internet company trying to broadcast into a country, and this is unlikely to happen without the country’s permission. All of this explains why, despite everything standing in the way of the system in Iran, Starlink is thriving in Ukraine – where the sovereign government is does want the technology to operate on their territory. The satellites helped when bombing raids destroyed Kyiv’s Internet infrastructure, and they remain invaluable in disputed regions and across fluid battle lines. Recently, however, there have been reports of “catastrophic” failures.

The takeaway is to keep trying. Total blackout is a crude and costly tool; Researchers estimate that government internet shutdowns result in billions in lost revenue every year. Countries that are more involved in the global economy are less likely than Iran to take such a drastic step. Instead, they opt for the form of selective filtering they have the tools for. That gives democracies a chance. They can fight for international standards that reject filtering, and they can fund the development and deployment of VPNs and private servers around the world to prepare people for internet blockades before their governments try to impose them. President Biden’s administration was wise to give US companies a general license to help Iranians access the internet without worrying about violating sanctions. The White House should be proactive in making similar efforts in other countries, rather than just moving in response to a crisis.

The same thinking should apply to cutting-edge technologies. Starlink might not be viable everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be viable everywhere — and it’ll likely become easier to use as recipients proliferate and technology advances. The United States and other democracies should continue to invest in the development and dissemination of censorship bypass systems so that the next time people take to the streets to protest against an oppressive regime, the world knows immediately.

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