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

A picture of a wifi signal flying down

Photo: Natalie Peeples/Axios

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

Why it matters: The lack of a plan has led to reliance on the ad hoc goodwill of private companies, such as Elon Musk’s offering of the Starlink satellite internet service in Ukraine.

State of play: Republicans are sounding the alarm about the need to make internet connectivity a foreign policy priority.

  • Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios that the U.S. needs the ability to speed up Internet access and increase the use of Internet censorship-circumvention tools in authoritarian countries.
  • “Delivering broadband is a lot less than delivering bullets,” Carr told Axios. “I think it’s a great tool to have in the arsenal.”
  • Rep. introduced. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) introduced a bill last year that would create a plan to deploy technology that could quickly deploy the internet anywhere in the world during an emergency abroad. or US.

Grab it now: SpaceX founder Elon Musk has agreed to provide Starlink satellite internet centers to Ukraine to help maintain internet connections amid Russian aggression.

  • In April, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it had donated 5,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine.
  • But Musk said the company could not provide the service indefinitely and sought Pentagon funding, before reversing course and saying the service would continue.
  • “We don’t need to be in this situation where we are relying solely on the good will of a private company to provide complementary services that many in the United States believe are critical to America’s national security interests,” he said. and Carr to Axios.
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Fact check: It’s easier said than done on social media in a bad country than it is for technical or diplomatic reasons.

  • Satellite Internet connections require dishes or terminals in the area for people to receive connections – this can be difficult to provide or difficult for the user to be identified with someone in a certain area. authoritarian.
  • There are calls during the protests in Cuba to broadcast the internet through high-altitude balloons, but those signals can be blocked. The top provider of that service, Google’s Loon, shut down in January 2021 because it couldn’t sell.
  • “Access to the Internet requires a combination of technologies, especially to provide access to large and remote areas, which is why it often requires the support of local governments ,” a senior NSC official told Axios.
  • “Outside the local government, the delivery of internet service can bring great challenges.”
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The main picture: Beyond the internet itself, abuses of internet freedom around the world have highlighted the need for anti-censorship and monitoring tools.

  • The demand for virtual private companies has been pushed to protect Internet users in Iran during the shutdown of the government network over protests.
  • The US government has eased sanctions on Iran to allow tech companies more latitude in providing services to citizens seeking to avoid government surveillance.
  • Authorities in Cuba last year blocked access to social media and other social media sites in response to anti-government protests.

Between the lines: America’s foreign policy approach to internet freedom is focused on preventing internet censorship, not business development.

  • USAID worked with a group of telecommunications companies in Ukraine to help repair fiber optic systems during the attack, a spokesman said.
  • The Open Technology Fund, a grantee of the US Agency for Global Media, develops tools against censorship.

What they are saying: “The administration has been able to continue dedicating significant resources to support the technology that allows users to access and use the Internet, despite the efforts of repressive governments to block, filter, throttle and may look at them,” the NSC official told Axios.

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The argument is: There is bipartisan consensus among lawmakers on increasing funding for America’s efforts to develop new Internet tools to support democracy around the world.

  • A bipartisan bill led by Sen. Bob Menendez (DN.J.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, approved about $125 million in funding for Internet-based programs and tools. It is expected to be included in the annual defense bill this year, an aide confirmed.
  • Representatives Tom Malinowski (DN.J.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) called on donors to contribute $35 million to the Open Technology Fund.

The bottom line is: “You’re not going to stop the government from getting billions of dollars to fund an Internet access program for Iranians, Russians, Ukrainians, Hongkongers, and others who are fighting an information war. ,” Malinowski told Axios in a statement.

  • “If America is to lead the free world, we must be prepared to double or triple our investment in the equipment that Iranian and Russian dissidents are deploying to prevent government snooping.”

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