Oct 25, 2022 - Technology

Lack of global internet lifelines prompts calls for a U.S. plan

Illustration of a wifi signal parachuting downward

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Pressure is growing for the U.S. to develop a plan to quickly build internet lifelines for people living in conflict zones or under repressive regimes.

Why it matters: The absence of a strategy has led to a reliance on the ad hoc goodwill of private companies, such as Elon Musk's donation of Starlink satellite internet service in Ukraine.

State of play: Republicans are sounding the alarm about the need to ensure internet connectivity as a U.S. foreign policy priority.

  • Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios the U.S. needs both the ability to quickly deploy internet networks and surge the production of censorship-circumvention online tools in authoritarian countries.
  • "Providing broadband is a lot less interventionist than providing bombs," Carr told Axios. "I think it's an important tool in in the arsenal."
  • Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) introduced a bill last year that would create a strategic plan to deploy technology capable of rapidly delivering wireless internet anywhere on the planet in times of crisis abroad or in the U.S.

Catch up quick: SpaceX founder Elon Musk agreed to provide Starlink satellite internet terminals to Ukraine to help maintain online connections amid the Russian invasion.

  • In April, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it had delivered 5,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine.
  • But Musk recently warned the company could not provide the service indefinitely and sought Pentagon funding, before reversing and saying the service will continue.
  • "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," Carr told Axios.

Reality check: Standing up internet infrastructure in a hostile country is easier said than done for technological and diplomatic reasons.

  • Satellite internet connections require dishes or terminals on the ground for people to receive the connections — which can be logistically difficult to deliver or risky for the user to be seen with one in an authoritarian country.
  • There were calls during protests in Cuba to deliver internet via high-altitude balloons, but those signals can be jammed. The most high-profile provider of such a service, Google's Loon, shut down in January 2021 because it was not commercially viable.
  • "Internet access requires a combination of technologies, especially to provide access at scale and across large distances, which is why it usually requires support by local governments," a senior NSC official told Axios.
  • "Absent the local government, the provision of internet service can carry significant risks."

The big picture: Beyond the internet infrastructure itself, crackdowns on online freedom around the world have shown the need for anti-censorship and surveillance tools.

  • Demand for virtual private networks that evade online restrictions surged in Iran during a government internet shutdown over protests.
  • The U.S. government relaxed sanctions in Iran to allow tech companies more latitude in providing services to citizens looking to evade government surveillance.
  • Authorities in Cuba last year blocked access to social media and other online sites in response to anti-government protest.

Between the lines: The U.S. foreign policy work on internet freedom is largely focused on thwarting online censorship, not building the infrastructure.

  • USAID has worked with an association of communications companies in Ukraine to help facilitate repairs of fiber optic systems during the invasion, a spokesperson said.
  • The Open Technology Fund, a grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, develops counter-censorship tools.

What they're saying: "The administration has been able to continue to dedicate significant resources to support technology that allows users to access and use the internet, despite efforts by repressive governments to block, filter, throttle or monitor them," the NSC official told Axios.

The intrigue: There's been bipartisan interest among lawmakers in stepping up funding for U.S. efforts to develop new online tools to support democracy globally.

  • A bipartisan bill led by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would authorize roughly $125 million in funding for internet freedom programs and tools. It is expected to be included in annual defense funding bill this year, an aide confirmed.
  • Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) have called for congressional appropriators to provide $35 million to the Open Technology Fund.

The bottom line: "You’re not going to stop government surveillance by getting billionaires to crowd fund an internet access program for Iranians, Russians, Ukrainians, Hongkongers, and others fighting the information war," Malinowski told Axios in a statement.

  • "If America’s going to lead the free world, we’re going to have to be willing to double and triple our investments in the tools that Iranian and Russian dissidents are jumping on to avoid government snooping.”
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