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

A diagram of a wifi signal traveling down

Image: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Pressure is mounting for the US to develop a plan to quickly build internet corridors for people living in conflict zones or under repressive regimes.

Why it matters: The absence of a strategy has resulted in reliance on the short-term goodwill of private companies, such as Elon Musk’s donation of the Starlink satellite internet service to Ukraine.

Playing mode: Republicans are raising the alarm about the need to secure Internet connectivity as a priority of US foreign policy.

  • Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios that the US needs both the ability to rapidly exploit Internet networks and improve the production of Internet tools to prevent 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 María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) introduced a bill last year that would create a strategy to use technology that can quickly deliver wireless Internet anywhere in the world in times of crisis abroad or in the US.

Find out quickly: SpaceX founder Elon Musk has agreed to provide Starlink satellite internet terminals to Ukraine to help maintain internet connectivity during a Russian attack.

  • 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 that it could not provide the service indefinitely and sought Pentagon funding, before backtracking and saying the service would continue.
  • “We should not be in this situation where we are relying solely on the voluntary willingness of a private entity to provide communications services that many here in America consider vital to America’s national security interests,” Carr told Axios.
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Actual testing: Setting up an internet infrastructure in a hostile country is easier said than done for technical and diplomatic reasons.

  • Satellite Internet connections require dishes or terminals on the ground for people to get a connection — which can be logistically difficult to deliver or dangerous for a user to be seen by someone in a jurisdiction.
  • There have been calls during the protests in Cuba to deliver the Internet by high-altitude balloons, but those signals may be blocked. The most high-profile provider of such a service, Google’s Loon, was shut down in January 2021 because it was not commercially viable.
  • “Access to the Internet requires a combination of technologies, especially to provide access at scale and over long distances, which is why it often requires the support of local governments,” a senior NSC official told Axios.
  • “In the absence of local government, the provision of Internet service can carry significant risks.”
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Main image: Beyond the internet infrastructure itself, the reduction of online freedom worldwide has shown the need for anti-censorship and surveillance tools.

  • Demand for virtual private networks that circumvent internet restrictions rose in Iran during the government’s shutdown of the internet due to protests.
  • The US government has eased sanctions on Iran to allow tech companies to provide services to citizens who want to avoid government surveillance.
  • Authorities in Cuba last year blocked access to social media and other websites due to anti-government protests.

Between the lines: US foreign policy work on internet freedom has largely focused on curbing online censorship, not building infrastructure.

  • USAID worked with a network of telecommunications companies in Ukraine to help repair fiber optic systems during the attack, a spokeswoman said.
  • The Open Technology Fund, a grantee of the US Agency for Global Media, is developing counter-censorship testing tools.

What they say: “The administration has been able to continue to provide critical resources to support the technology that allows users to access and use the Internet, despite repressive governments’ efforts to block, filter, restrict or monitor,” an NSC official told Axios.

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Trick: There has been mixed interest among lawmakers in increasing funding for US efforts to build new online tools to support democracy around the world.

  • A bipartisan bill led by Sen. Bob Menendez (DN.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, will approve approximately $125 million in funding for Internet freedom programs and tools. It is expected to be included in the annual defense spending bill this year, the aide confirmed.
  • Reps. Tom Malinowski (DN.J.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) asked congressional representatives to provide $35 million to the Open Technology Fund.

Important point: “You’re not going to stop government surveillance by getting billionaires to raise money for an internet access program for Iranians, Russians, Ukrainians, Hongkongers and others fighting an information war,” Malinowski told Axios in a statement.

  • “If America is going to lead the free world, we will have to be willing to double and triple our investment in the tools that Iranian and Russian dissidents are jumping on to avoid government scrutiny.”


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