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

Illustration of a wifi signal going down by a parachute

Illustration: Natalie Peebles / Axios

Pressure is mounting on the United States to rapidly develop a plan to build online lifelines for people living in conflict areas or under repressive regimes.

why does it matter: The lack of strategy has led to a reliance on the goodwill of private companies, such as Elon Musk’s donation of the Starlink satellite service in Ukraine.

playing condition: Republicans are sounding the alarm about the need to ensure Internet connectivity as a priority in US foreign policy.

  • Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios that the United States needs the ability to rapidly deploy Internet networks and increase the production of tools to circumvent online censorship in authoritarian countries.
  • “Providing broadband is much less intrusive than providing bombs,” Carr told Axios. “I think it’s an important tool in the arsenal.”
  • Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (Republic of Florida) introduced a bill last year that would create a strategic plan to deploy technology capable of delivering wireless Internet quickly anywhere on the planet in times of crisis abroad or in the United States.

Quick catch up: SpaceX founder Elon Musk has agreed to provide Starlink Internet stations to Ukraine to help maintain Internet communications 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 that the company could not offer the service indefinitely and sought funding from the Pentagon, before backing out and said the service would continue.
  • “We should not be in this position where we rely solely on the voluntary goodwill of a private company to provide communication services that many here in America consider vital to the national security interests of the United States,” Carr told Axios.
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Reality check: Talking about 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 so that people can receive communications – which can be logistically difficult to connect or too risky for a user to be seen with someone in an authoritarian country.
  • There have been calls during the protests in Cuba to deliver internet via high-altitude balloons, but those signals can be disrupted. Google’s Loon, the most well-known provider of such a service, closed in January 2021 because it was not commercially viable.
  • “Internet access requires a range of technologies, especially to provide access on a large scale and over large distances, which is why it usually requires support from local governments,” a senior National Security Council official told Axios.
  • “In the absence of local government, providing Internet service can carry significant risks.”
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The Big Picture: Other than the internet infrastructure itself, campaigns on internet freedom around the world have demonstrated the need for tools to combat censorship and censorship.

  • Demand for VPNs avoiding internet restrictions surges in Iran as the government shuts down the internet due to protests.
  • The US government has eased sanctions in Iran to allow technology companies more freedom to provide services to citizens looking to evade government surveillance.
  • Last year, authorities in Cuba blocked access to social media and other websites in response to the anti-government protest.

Between the lines: US foreign policy work on Internet freedom focuses largely on thwarting Internet censorship, not building infrastructure.

  • A spokesperson said the US Agency for International Development (USAID) worked with a consortium of telecom companies in Ukraine to help facilitate the repair of fiber-optic systems during the invasion.
  • The Open Technology Fund, which received a grant from the US Agency for Global Information, develops tools to combat censorship.

what are they saying: “The administration has been able to continue to devote significant resources to supporting technology that allows users to access and use the Internet, despite efforts by repressive governments to block, filter, choke, or censor it,” the NSC official told Axios.

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The plot: There has been bipartisan interest among lawmakers in increasing funding for US efforts to develop new online tools to support democracy globally.

  • A bipartisan bill led by Senator Bob Menendez (DN.J.), chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations, would allow about $125 million in funding for Internet freedom programs and tools. An aide confirmed that it is expected to be included in this year’s annual defense funding bill.
  • Representatives Tom Malinowski (DN.J.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) have called on congressional funders to provide $35 million to the Open Technology Fund.

Bottom line: “It will not stop government surveillance by crowdfunding billionaires to crowdfund an access program for Iranians, Russians, Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and others fighting an information war,” Malinowski said in a statement to Axios.

  • “If America is to lead the free world, we will have to be prepared to double and triple our investment in the tools that Iranian and Russian dissidents jump on to avoid government intrusion.”

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