Reviews |  Can Elon Musk's satellites beat Iranian internet blackouts?  It depends.

Reviews | Can Elon Musk’s satellites beat Iranian internet blackouts? It depends.

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

Internet access has been essential for Iranians who took to the streets after a young woman accused of breaking the country’s compulsory hijab law died in police custody last month. News of 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 street and men tearing and being beaten by the forces security, have spread around the world in the same way. . Yet 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 provoked even harsher repression. Sometimes, and in some places, only individual apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp are blocked; other times and elsewhere, almost everything, including mobile networks, is down.

Iran is not the only country to impose so-called internet blackouts. Governments in Cuba, India, Russia and elsewhere have engaged in some form of censorship in recent years, from throttling particular platforms to cutting off connectivity altogether. These repressive efforts vary in nature as well as in sophistication. Sometimes using a virtual private network, or VPN, is enough to bypass restrictions. But that doesn’t work if access to the web itself is blocked rather than certain sites, and governments can also block certain VPNs. Private servers that anyone, anywhere in the world can set up can sometimes fill the void. But these cannot work in a blackout either. And mesh networks, relying on Bluetooth or WiFi signals to facilitate communication between nearby devices, can serve as a method of last resort. But this does not solve the problem of communication with those not nearby, let alone outside a country’s borders.

The Iranian government’s blocking capabilities are almost as sophisticated as it gets. Authorities do not rely on any single method to impede connectivity. They can filter out specific services and flip a versatile “off” switch, so there’s also no one-size-fits-all solution to evade plan restrictions. A mix of VPNs, private servers, and other evasion strategies can push news, 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 is supposed to solve this problem by allowing citizens direct access to the global and open internet instead of the national and censored internet. Starlink’s more than 1,000 satellites orbit the Earth at a lower altitude than their traditional telecommunications counterparts, allowing them to rapidly transmit signals to and from the territory over which they fly. When flying over Iran, all the Iranians need to reach them is a receiver.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “everything”. The routers weigh over 30 pounds, making it difficult to smuggle them to civilians in need. They also rely on antennae placed in open areas, making concealment nearly impossible. The biggest hurdle could be international bureaucracy: the International Telecommunications Union must grant spectrum approval to any satellite internet company trying to broadcast in a country, and that’s unlikely to happen without permission from the country. All of this explains why, despite all that hampers the system in Iran, Starlink is succeeding in Ukraine — where the sovereign government Is want the technology to operate in their territory. Satellites helped when bombings destroyed Kyiv’s internet infrastructure, and they remain invaluable in contested regions and across fluid battle lines. Recently, however, “catastrophic” failures have been reported.

The takeaway is to keep trying. The total blackout is a rudimentary and expensive tool; researchers estimate that government Internet shutdowns result in billions in lost revenue each year. Countries more integrated into the global economy are less likely than Iran to take such drastic action. Instead, they will opt for whatever form of selective filtering they have the tools for. This 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 blockages before their governments try to impose them. . President Biden’s administration wisely granted US companies a blanket license to help Iranians access the internet without worrying about violating sanctions. The White House should proactively pursue similar efforts in other countries rather than acting solely in response to a crisis.

The same thinking should apply to advanced technologies. Starlink may not be viable everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it’s not viable everywhere – and it’s likely to get easier to use as receivers proliferate and technology advances. . The United States and other democracies should continue to invest in the development and dissemination of censorship circumvention systems, so that the next time people take to the streets to protest against a repressive regime, the world will know about it. instantly.

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Editorials represent the opinions of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined by debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the editorial board and areas of intervention: Karen Tumulty, Associate Editorial Page Editor; Ruth Marcus, Associate Editorial Page Editor; Jo-Ann Armao, Associate Editorial Page Editor (Education, DC Affairs); Jonathan Capehart (National Policy); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economy); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, environment, health).

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