Ahead of the Curve: Soft Power and Satellites

Here’s how the recent sequence of events unfolded in Iran:

On December 27, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency published an item in which the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, warned against the grave dangers of the “soft war” being waged against Iran by the “hegemonic powers” (i.e., us). Soft war includes all varieties of hints that a society allowing freedom of expression and belief is somehow better than a theocracy that routinely imprisons holders of un-Islamic ideas. He called soft war “more dangerous than a military war.” This has been a recurring theme of the Ayatollah’s. Back in 2016, he warned:

Our officials and all parts of the establishment should be vigilant about the West’s continued soft war against Iran … the enemies want to weaken the system from inside … The only way to materialize the (1979 Islamic) revolution’s goals is national unity and not to obey the enemy.

The following day, the soft war achieved a rather stunning victory when police in Teheran announced that they would stop arresting women for the crime of wearing un-Islamic clothing. “Those who do not observe the Islamic dress code will no longer be taken to detention centers, nor will judicial cases be filed against them,” they proclaimed. (If you’ve never seen the Oscar-nominated animated film Persepolis about the tribulations of an Iranian girl just trying to live a normal, happy life, you should do yourself a favor and rent it one evening.)

Two days later protests began breaking out all over the country. They were sparked in part by economic concerns, and in part by widespread opposition to life under religious dictatorship. Thousands of arrests and numerous deaths later, the authorities have declared the streets under control and God still in power. But the dissatisfaction hasn’t vanished, nor will it. It’s fueled by information, disseminated on the internet. In fact, one of the first things the government did when the demonstrations erupted was to cut off citizens’ access to social media websites. Our State Department complained about this, but the mullahs have no interest in our complaints.

What if we did more than complain? What if we—or someone, anyway—did some concrete technical things to help ordinary Iranians, Arabians, Chinese, and others to defeat internet censorship? At least once in the recent past we said we were going to do exactly that. In 2009, in a rare bipartisan moment, Congress passed the VOICE Act, a loose acronym for the “Victims of Iranian Censorship.” Among other things, this law authorized $20 million to support the development of “technologies to aid the ability of the Iranian people to gain access to and share information and to counter efforts to block, censor, or monitor the internet in Iran.” In other words, $20 million for hackers! How cool is that?

You can’t watch many French resistance movies without seeing the shortwave radio hidden in the attic that provides real news about the war from the BBC. Good access to the internet can do even more than that: it can stimulate the will to resist by letting people know that there’s a big world out there, with lots of different ideas to choose from. That’s exactly why governments are so intent on forbidding this kind of free access.

I don’t know how the $20 million was spent, or whether it actually did any good to enhance information flow in Iran. Perhaps it aided the development of a satellite TV anti-censorship tool there called Toosheh. It’s just as well I don’t know—whatever techniques might be used ought not be splashed around publicly. What I do know is that the explosion of communications technology creates ripe opportunities to push the envelope even further, which somebody somewhere ought to exploit.

The technology that first comes to mind is satellite internet. Most internet now is delivered through either a telephone or a cable TV wire, easily controlled by repressive governments. But it is also technically possible to beam internet down directly from a network of satellites in space. Big names like Elon Musk and Richard Branson are involved in doing so, and so is Mark Zuckerberg. The expense involved is great, because the internet satellites need to be in low-Earth orbit rather than thousands of miles up in order to achieve acceptable response times. Low orbit rather than high orbit means you need an awful lot of satellites to cover the same amount of territory, which means more expense. So much expense, in fact, that Zuckerberg has backed down from his original grandiose schemes.

Still, the costs of both satellites and launch vehicles are rapidly shrinking. Low-Earth orbit is easier to achieve than a higher orbit, and there are some indications that low-Earth orbit launches can be accomplished for as little as $5 million. That’s more than I have in my pocket at the moment, but it’s less than a tenth of what SpaceX charges. Moreover, the satellites themselves are getting very, very small. “Femtosatellites” and “CubeSats,” some the size of a Rubik’s cube and some with a four-figure price tag, are growing more and more capable. They don’t need to do much, other than relay internet signals.

Even if a few thousand of these guys could be thrown up over the censored regions of Asia, that still doesn’t completely solve the technical problem. Unlike television, which is a one-way transmission, internet requires two-way communication as the user selects from among millions of websites to view. With most conventional satellite internet systems, the signal from the user to the satellite still runs through a physical wire a government can easily control. The only way to bypass that is with something like a small satellite dish. This isn’t completely out of the question, though. Even though possession of such dishes is illegal in China, thousands of people use them anyway, so they can watch forbidden Korean soap operas. Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote that her first exposure to the wonders of the world outside Islam came from reading forbidden Harlequin romances. If people want to use the internet to watch soap operas, or porn, or whatever they want, that’s fine. The point is empowerment of the individual as opposed to the dictator. A study just released last week confirms what most of us already suspected: “Increases in internet use linked to a loss of religious affiliation.”

If you’re looking for the sure-fire communications tech solution for the best way to spread the free-wheeling internet to places where it’s banned, you won’t find it here. I’m not an engineer. No matter what is tried, the mind-control crowd will try to thwart it in a continuing game of cat and mouse. But that’s fine—there are far more mice than cats in the world.

Candidate Trump claimed last year that we’ve spent $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East. That figure is a little high, but it’s not far off when future expenses like veterans’ health care are considered. Spending a tiny fraction of that amount to empower ordinary citizens to deal with tyrants themselves, either directly or (better yet) by facilitating the work of non-governmental organizations, would seem like a sound investment.