Space Satellites, Sanctions, and Social Media: What’s Going on With Elon Musk’s Latest Business Venture?

Written by: Kate Roglieri

When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, he could not have predicted that it would one day have the power to topple dictators. Yet in 2011, dissatisfaction with regimes across Northern Africa led youth protestors to organize and begin a modern political revolution using Facebook as its medium of choice to diffuse their messages and ideas. Not only did social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow the protesters to communicate with one another, but they gave the rest of the world a front-row seat to the issues driving the resistance. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, social media networks used during the Arab Spring acted as a “megaphone more than a rallying cry” through their capacity to spread messages to every corner of the world. 

Eleven years later, the Internet and social media have become powerful political tools and have taken center stage in some of the world’s most pressing conflicts. The Arab Spring demonstrated to the international community that the Internet is an essential tool when it comes to spreading dissent and advocacy against oppressive regimes or during times of violent conflict. The recent war in Ukraine as well as anti-government protests in Iran are perhaps the clearest cases of the importance of social media and digital communication in times of political turmoil, with the expansion of internet access in both countries being an essential measure to combat repressive regimes. 

During wartime, attacking the enemy’s infrastructure is a surefire way to set your opponent back. In past conflicts, this has meant attacking supply lines and destroying food supplies, but in the Russia-Ukraine war, Russia has added a more modern form of infrastructure to its target list: the Internet. In occupied territories, Russian officials have ordered internet service providers to reroute through Russia, giving the Russians complete control over Ukrainian access to the Internet and the outside world. According to Stas Prybytko, the head of Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation, “the first thing that an occupier [Russia] does when they come to Ukrainian territory is cut off the networks. The goal is to restrict people’s access to the internet and block them from communicating with their families in other cities and keep them from receiving truthful information”. To date, approximately 60,000 kilometers of internet cables have been severed or damaged by Russian troops in Ukraine.

In the wake of this communication crisis, an unlikely hero appears to have emerged in the form of eccentric South African-born American billionaire Elon Musk. Musk is known for his massive success in the technology industry, specifically for his electric sports car company Tesla and SpaceX, which seeks to expand space exploration through the private sector. Musk has received ample criticism for his erratic behavior and business dealings, and yet he just might provide the answer to reconnecting Ukrainians to the internet. Musk’s latest endeavor is a satellite internet firm committed to expanding internet access to those who lack it, particularly in rural or remote areas that do not have the infrastructure to set up traditional sources of internet. In Ukraine, Starlink was activated in late February to combat Russian tampering with Ukrainian internet infrastructure. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have used Starlink satellites to facilitate communication in areas that have been subject to internet restrictions as well as to direct drones on the battlefield. There are currently over 10,000 Starlink satellites operating in Ukraine, and the effort appears to have been incredibly helpful in the Ukrainian effort to protect their state’s sovereignty. 

A stumbling block that has emerged, though, is the price and the sources of funding; it is estimated that the project is costing SpaceX $100 million in 2022 alone, and whether or not it will be able to foot the bill has been a source of contention between Musk and several governments. Recent debates over involving the US Pentagon as a source of Starlink funding have fizzled, with Musk claiming that SpaceX will continue to pay for Starlink services out of its own pocket. 

Despite overcoming financial barriers, Starlink’s capacity for success is limited, as it relies on a certain set of political and physical conditions to generate real progress. This is incredibly apparent in examining Starlink’s efforts in Iran, where anti-government protests have prompted the current regime to shut down internet access for its citizens, essentially cutting them off from the outside world. The Iranian government has restricted access to popular social media platforms Instagram and WhatsApp, and the country’s largest mobile phone operator (IMCC) is offline, cutting off over 60 million citizens from the internet. Currently, the only news channels authorized to run on television are state-sponsored, making internet connection an even more crucial source of truthful information for the Iranian people. The internet blackout in Iran has generated concern among protestors that if it persists, the rest of the world will not have real-time access to information about their situation and will inevitably forget about the struggles of the Iranian people. 

The United States government has recognized the severity of the situation in Iran and in an effort to aid the demonstrators, has made restoring the Internet in Iran a top foreign policy priority. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated in a Tweet  “We are going to help make sure the Iranian people are not kept isolated and in the dark”, also proclaiming that the “Iranian government is afraid of its own people” and is working to keep them silenced. In an interesting policy decision to aid with these efforts, the US Treasury Department announced on September 23rd that it would relax tech-sector sanctions in Iran in an effort to allow American tech firms to bring their innovation in internet expansion to the Iranian people. While these exemptions did not apply to Starlink, Musk is actively seeking qualifications to bring Starlink to the people of Iran. 

However, there still exists a great challenge to the successful implementation of Starlink in Iran. In order for Starlink’s services to be up and running, a great deal of physical infrastructure needs to be set up on the ground. In the case of Iran, such an effort would need to circumvent the government and involve some degree of illegal international smuggling of Starlink equipment. Additionally, the government of Iran has already exhibited a commitment to barring internet access, and it would be feasible for the state to locate and destroy transmitters, rendering the services useless. Starlink’s success in Ukraine can be attributed to the Ukrainian government’s support in setting up the necessary infrastructure, and it must be noted that these political and physical conditions simply do not exist in Iran. For these reasons, Skylar Thompson, the senior advocacy coordinator at Human Rights Activists in Iran, has called Starlink “a Band-Aid of false hope” in the fight to restore internet access to the people of Iran. 

The tangled web between Ukraine, Iranian protests and the richest man in the world speaks volumes to the evolving nature of geopolitics in a world dominated by social media and big business. Involving a billionaire in the affairs of foreign nations in a position of authority creates great ethical concerns about the nexus of business and politics, namely whether future conflicts will be seen by the wealthy as lucrative business opportunities. The notion that an individual company can restore infrastructure function in war-torn areas highlights the interconnectedness of power and money in today’s world, which has profound implications for solutions to the next geopolitical crisis. 

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