Governments around the world will use these ground stations to regulate the internet access they provide. “Countries want to see data landed directly into gateways established locally,” Pearce says. “That’s about control, and policing, and making sure they can protect the interests of their citizens and the privacy of their citizens.”

As with any government policy, these requirements cut both ways. Demanding that global telecom companies maintain data storage locally can be a tool for enforcing measures akin to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which seek to offer citizens more control over their personal information.

Industry insiders also say these requirements can become a tool for authoritarian governments. Western satellite companies don’t typically seek to do business in China or Russia. But they do seek business in authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian countries like the Gulf States or Saudi Arabia, which restrict content that internet users can access and maintain intrusive state security services. These governments typically demand that foreign telecoms give them full access to everything anyone does on the network.

That means Western satellite companies operating in these countries make compromises that don’t necessarily match up with their domestic standards on civil liberties. They aren’t likely to troll governments that they hope to make lucrative deals with in the future—for example, don’t expect Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has no plans to operate Starlink in China, to do so as long as the Teslas are rolling out of a Shanghai factory.

At some point, however, the cost of excessive data storage and snooping requirements, or bespoke tools to allow governments to shut off their internet, may make doing business prohibitive and limit the number of providers. If satellite companies emerge as national champions, like OneWeb in the UK, other nations may be even more reluctant to grant them market access. Satellite operators are eager to portray themselves as integral to the 5G transition, and the fraught politics we’ve seen with Huawei could play out in orbit. Lawmakers may also begin to hold their own companies to higher standards abroad, with telecom laws equivalent to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the US law prohibiting bribery and corrupt practices by US firms operating abroad.

What else might loosen governments’ grip over space internet? If Elon Musk manages to incorporate laser communications links into all his satellites, as he dreams, it would dramatically reduce the need for ground stations and their restrictions. That would make the Voice of America, dissident-internet scenario more plausible.

The most likely benefits of space internet are more mundane: the promise of more competition among internet service providers and better access for people in remote places. The way things are shaping up, however, it’s likely that things will get worse before they get better. The rush to launch thousands of new satellites is placing stress on antiquated systems for managing traffic in orbit, and fears of spacecraft collisions are growing. If massive internet satellite networks truly are the wave of the future, governments are going to have to come up with mutual standards of behavior in space—or soon see space junk make the whole environment untenable for everybody.

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