IGF 2020 WS #326 The promises and perils of satellite internet

Monday, 16th November, 2020 (17:20 UTC) - Monday, 16th November, 2020 (18:20 UTC)
Room 3
About this Session
Almost half the world remains offline, and many more suffer expensive data plans and low-bandwidth, mobile-only connectivity. Now, satellite internet providers claim to have the answer, with private equity funding, media attention, and government licenses for speculative, disruptive business plans. Will these low earth orbit (LEO) constellations herald a new solution to connect the world? How will their sector impact human rights, and how might they avoid causing harm? Diverse experts weigh in.

Organizer 1: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 2: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Organizer 3: Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Speaker 1: Owono Julie, Civil Society, African Group
Speaker 2: Felicia Anthonio, Civil Society, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 3: Madory Doug, Technical Community, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)
Speaker 4: Jennifer Stein, Government, Western European and Others Group (WEOG)

Additional Speakers

Larry Press will speak instead of Doug Madory, as Larry is an expert on satellite internet and Doug is unavailable. Larry Press has a bio here: https://www.intgovforum.org/users/lpress27414

Felix Blanco from Internet Sans Frontieres will speak instead of Julie Owono, from the same organization. Felix has a bio here: https://www.intgovforum.org/users/felix2173

Ahmad Ahmadian will also join. He is Business Development Manager at NetFreedom Pioneers, developer of Knapsack, a service for filecasting content through satellite & bridging digital divides.


Round Table - Circle - 60 Min

Policy Question(s)

Trust, Media and Democracy Topics: discrimination, internet shutdowns, equitable access Can we theorize new ways of working amongst stakeholders, including governments and ISPs, that avoid the many pitfalls of the legacy telecom sector here on earth, including monopolistic practices, pervasive surveillance, and network disruption and discrimination? Will the satellite sector openly work with our communities to implement such new models of cooperation? The impact of digital sovereignty and Internet fragmentation on trust topics: private sector control, companies largely from WEOG states controlling internet access globally How will governments be able to regulate firms satellite internet firms that largely operate out of a few select countries? Security, stability and resilience of the Internet infrastructure, systems and devices topics: surveillance, integrity of systems Will satellite internet be adequately secured against intrusion, and robust enough to ensure stable bandwidth across geographies?

The challenges abound. The business plans powering these orbiting satellites remain to be detailed. Rather than directly striking deals with end users, the satellite companies may need to lease space to internet service providers or telecom companies in each of the countries the satellites pass over. ITU-R and other spectrum allocations could come into play, in addition to any domestic telecommunications laws and regulations applicable to satellite frequency bands. The satellite providers could encounter common telecommunications issues, including on the traffic shaping and congestion practices in play, network neutrality, and the costs of peering and leasing arrangements. In addition, user privacy is impacted by the firm’s handling of third party requests for data, and – as evidenced by the rise in internet shutdowns – the provision of internet access to certain communities main run afoul of government policy. Like any ISP or backbone provider, the satellite operator would make decisions impacting human rights, yet it remains unclear whether and how they are preparing to approach such crossroads. There are opportunities and precedents to build on. The satellite sector has organized to improve its response to natural disasters, creating the Crisis Connectivity Charter to streamline its coordination with the humanitarian community. This is a positive development that our initiative will build upon, to enable the sector to better prepare for and respond to human rights crises, as well.


GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
GOAL 10: Reduced Inequalities
GOAL 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
GOAL 17: Partnerships for the Goals


Almost half the world remains offline. Those who do have internet access all too often are forced to choose between expensive data plans offering low-bandwidth mobile connectivity. With marketing plans that trumpet a new solution to bridge these digital divides, satellite internet providers are gaining private equity funding, media attention, and even some government licenses for their speculative, disruptive business plans. I propose a session studying the potential impacts of satellite internet provision in the coming decade, on everything from human rights and digital inclusion to economies, competition, and vertical integration. A host of businesses are developing a new form of satellite communications, largely using relatively lightweight, low earth orbit (LEO) constellations. The industry standard is high orbit, geostationary satellites that beam to and from earth, with high latency. The new LEO constellations, by linking hundreds or thousands of satellites, intend to reduce latency by reducing the distance to earth as well as beaming from one satellite to another. This constant movement of the LEO satellites – a change from the current geostationary model – means they will temporarily pass over countries with less lucrative markets, and worse telecommunications infrastructure. They will move on constant orbits across the sky, enabling providers to reach geographically isolated and underserved areas with consistency. Will this result in better, faster internet service for the billions who remain unconnected? Ambitious firms like SpaceX, Astranis, OneWeb, Viasat, and HughesNet certainly say so. But are they prepared to work with existing providers, platforms, and regulators - not to mention civil societies - in a productive and rights-respecting manner? This session will gather together experts on a diverse array of digital inclusion, telecommunications, and human rights topics to sketch out the bounds of human rights due diligence guidance for the emerging satellite internet sector. We will explore the policies and regulations that could help to prevent and mitigate unintended, adverse impacts of the new technologies and businesses, from spectrum and bidding processes to affordability, privacy, and freedom of expression guarantees. These will be compiled and shared with legal and policy researchers to be polished and then shared for comment with private sector actors and policymakers in the intercessional period before their launch at IGF 2021.

Expected Outcomes

All companies can cause or contribute to human rights infringement, including submarine and backhaul cable operators and, I would expect, satellite providers. This session will further an initiative to produce human rights guidance for the emergent satellite internet sector. Civil society has contributed to guidance and built plans for telecom company compliance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and adapted the 13 Necessary and Proportionate Principles on government surveillance, among other norms and principles, with implementation guidance for the private sector. To date, we have not seen distributed such recommendations on human rights policies, due diligence, and prevention, mitigation, and remedial strategies for satellite internet operators. This session will help to scope our and build excitement for such guidance.

Participants will be given less than 5 minutes for initial remarks, and will be forced to prepare and pose questions to fellow discussants. The moderator will not wait for the end of initial presentations before going to the audience for immediate responses and interventions. The event will be largely 'horizontal' in its approach to the subject matter, not privileging any single stakeholder, speaker, or viewpoint.

Relevance to Internet Governance: The terrestrial internet has not yet reached many of the world's communities. New technologies like satellite could help fill the gaps, and in doing so, help to achieve the vision and goal of the internet's governance bodies of a universally accessible internet. However, the satellite sector remains largely unaccountable and unfamiliar to the many stakeholders engaging in social and development struggles, and likely unaware of the norms and processes ensuring the private sector responsibly and equitably meets its duties to respect human rights. In this session, we will sketch a path towards welcoming this stakeholder group to accept its roles and better understand the shared principles, procedures, and rules at play.

Relevance to Theme: An unknown entity is difficult to trust. Governments must trust that the new arrays of satellites across sovereign skies do not post a threat but rather an opportunity for expanding access to information and development. Civil society must trust that even the least fortunate may gain access to these innovative platforms. This session will let civil society, government, and private sector stakeholders understand how this new set of technologies and actors may impact the resilience of the internet's infrastructure, economics, and accessibility. We hope to clarify the concerns and the risks and opportunities that we see for the emerging satellite internet sector, and then approach the firms with the goal of building trust through concrete governance and policy programs.

Online Participation


Usage of IGF Official Tool. Additional Tools proposed: We will use the social media and campaigning platform of Access Now and Internet Sans Frontieres to draw attention to the session in months before the event. We will solicit input from the community and present their input during the session. We will also engage our global communities to participate via remote participation during the session.


1. Key Policy Questions and related issues
What lessons have we learned from previous efforts to 'connect the world' and rapidly bring more people online? Can we theorize new ways of working amongst stakeholders, including governments and ISPs, that avoid the many pitfalls of the legacy telecom sector here on earth, including monopolistic practices, pervasive surveillance, and network disruption and discrimination? Will the satellite sector openly work with our communities to implement such new models of cooperation? Will the services be amenable to uses like censorship circumvention that may run afoul of government partners and financiers?
The impact of digital sovereignty and Internet fragmentation threaten the satellite internet sector even in its infancy. Private sector control, and companies largely from China, Western Europe, and the USA are forerunners in controlling satellite internet services. How will governments be able to regulate firms satellite internet firms that largely operate out of a few select countries? Won't this recreate many of the problems with social media platforms, which hold outsize influence over the data of people all over the world, but only answer to relatively few regulators and governments?
The security, stability and resilience of the Internet infrastructure, systems and devices are already at risk. Will satellite internet provide yet another platform for location and data surveillance? Will satellite internet be adequately secured against intrusion, and robust enough to ensure stable bandwidth across geographies? How will the average user benefit? What due diligence will the sector do to ensure human rights and security and respected and protected, even in the face of government pressure?
2. Summary of Issues Discussed

Sovereignty and the splintering internet: it was agreed that satellite internet services are not immune from the factors leading to distrust between major internet governance actors and the bifurcation of the internet between the US/Western Europe and China. 

Increasing dependence on internet services: COVID-19 led us to increasingly rely on the Internet for work, education, and many other aspects of our lives. However, there are 3.8 billion people worldwide who are yet to get online. Many others are struggling to stay connected due to expensive data plans, literacy and electrification challenges, as well as intentional disruptions like internet shutdowns. We will not reach Sustainable Development Goal target 9(c) by 2020, and need innovative new ways to bridge digital divides, while also respecting human rights. 

Basic economic barriers remain. Low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations failed in the 1990s and are still "not a slam dunk," even for billionaires like Elon Musk, who has stated his goal is "not to go bankrupt." Fixed costs are high for internet constellations. But we are fairly certain there will be variable prices, meaning different users in different countries may pay different rates to access services from the same constellation of satellites. In essence, the more affluent countries will pay more, which may tend to heal the digital divide.

Global cooperation is key. These satellites are global infrastructure. Now only a few states launch satellites but the number of governments involved will quickly grow. We need global collaboration, laws, standards and regulations.


3. Key Takeaways

Space can be a "freedom launcher." Existing applications of satellite connectivity for spreading access to information, including the "Knapsack" service by NetFreedom Pioneers, show the possibility of circumvention obstacles to connecting. Service providers may not want to irk national "gateway" controllers, but people may be able to directly connect in ways that route around censorship.

Surveillance comes naturally to satellite internet services, which know the location and the bandwidth usage of those transmitting from earth and back. Strong encryption, data minimization, and human rights due diligence are needed to prevent greater centralization and abuse of personal data. Without these safeguards, the largely Western and China-based service providers may end up recreating many of the inequities and risks fo social media platforms.

Regulation and global cooperation are possible and necessary. Practically, collisions could be catastrophic, and satellite constellations must coordinate their routes. There are usable corollaries in the Outer Space treaty as well as the law of the seas. As one participant said, "We pulled it off on the high seas, and should be able to pull it off here as well." Conceiving of space as a commons does not comport with the current for-profit approach. Greater UN and multi-stakeholder cooperation will be needed to navigate the many economic, environmental, political, policy, and human rights impacts and interests in play.


6. Final Speakers


--Peter Micek, Access Now, General Counsel and UN Policy Manager; Columbia Univ. School of International and Public Affairs, Adjunct Professor

Presentations by:

--Felicia Anthonio, Access Now, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead

--Larry Press, Professor Emeritus of Information Systems at California State University, Dominguez Hills

--Jenny Stein, US State Department, Special Advisor for Internet Freedom and Business and Human Rights in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Reply remarks from:

--Felix Blanc, Internet Sans Frontieres, Director of Public Policy and PhD in Political Science

--Ahmad Ahmadian, NetFreedom Pioneers and Knapsack, Business Development Manager


7. Reflection to Gender Issues

In relation to efforts to reach the SDGs, presenters noted the inequitable distribution of internet access, which  disproportionately affects people in already under-served and at-risk communities, such as women and girls. The panel also discussed the particular impacts of internet shutdowns on vulnerable and marginalized communities, including women. Further, two of the panel's three main presenters identify as women.

8. Session Outputs

The Geneva Internet Platform issued an immediate after-session report: https://dig.watch/resources/igf-2020-ws-326-promises-and-perils-satellite-internet

Access Now invited civil society organizations to join its global campaign against internet shutdowns, #KeepItOn. More information is at: https://www.accessnow.org/keepiton/

Panelist Jenny Stein of the US State Department invited feedback on its new guidance document on human rights due diligence in the tech sector. The "Guidance on Implementing the UN Guiding Principles for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities" is available here: https://www.state.gov/release-of-u-s-department-of-state-guidance-on-implementing-the-un-guiding-principles-for-transactions-linked-to-foreign-government-end-users-for-products-or-services-with-surveillance-capabilities/

Larry Press drew attention to this recent publication: https://www.salon.com/2020/11/14/big-tech-is-leading-the-new-space-race-heres-why-thats-a-problem/


9. Group Photo
satellite internet panel at IGF2020 - jenny stein, peter micek, felicia anthonio, larry press, felix blanc, and ahmad ahmadian are pictured
10. Voluntary Commitment

Larry Press offered his volunteer services to all stakeholders. All presenters agreed they look forward to continuing to advance protection for human rights and the environment, in their respective roles and responsibilities, with regard to the emerging satellite internet service sector. Should any regulators or private sector operators wish to consult, these experts offered their counsel.