Starlink- A Question of Authority in Times of War By Liliana Kotval
Starlink is the world’s largest satellite constellation in Earth’s low orbit and provides internet services to about 1.5 million subscribers worldwide. The U.S. company is a subsidiary of Elon Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, that first launched its satellites into orbit in 2018 and now contains about 4,600 satellites, with the goal of reaching 42,000 in order to offer internet connections across all seven continents.
In the scientific community, Starlink has sparked many controversies; concerns have been raised about satellites in low-Earth orbit due to their capability to interfere with night sky visibility and therefore the effectiveness of astronomical observations, the possibility of collisions with Earth, and the triggering of changes in Earth’s atmosphere.
Expanding upon collision hazards with Earth, on October 5, 2023, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration of the United States) released a report that suggests Starlink’s satellite constellation could pose grave danger to people on Earth if debris from the satellites are able to survive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, leading to the injuring or killing of an estimated one person every two years1. SpaceX’s principal engineer, David Goldstein, has contested the report and reiterated that all Starlink satellites are designed to fully disintegrate during atmospheric reentry2. There have already been 325 Starlink satellites that deorbited in 2020 with no debris being found since, yet over time, there is still the possibility of a buildup of debris that could pose significant risk.
Besides the several physical concerns of Starlink’s satellites, there are political and economic repercussions with such a large and impactful company that is headed by an individual with control of millions of people’s internet access. It became especially apparent in September of last year, when Musk acknowledged denying satellite service to Ukraine to prevent a Ukrainian drone attack on a Russian fleet, citing concerns of a nuclear attack in response.
Starlink was first activated in Ukraine in February of 2022 free of charge and has been instrumental to the Ukrainian soldiers, whose digital infrastructure had been severely damaged. However, when Ukraine attempted an attack on the Russian fleet based in Sevastopol with 6 small drone submarines filled with explosives, Musk made the decision to disable the service near the coast of Crimea. As described by American journalist Walter Isaacson, the submarines required remote guidance via a satellite link, and they failed to reach their target due to the severed connection to Starlink. Musk justified his actions by stating, “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has said that Musk’s interference allowed Russia’s naval fleet to continue to fire missiles at Ukrainian cities, resulting in more casualties among civilians.
The question arises: Does Musk have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the Ukrainians and in time of war? Musk had withdrawn Starlink communications at other times throughout the war, however, this scenario was the first time his services were halted in the middle of a specific operation. Many U.S. officials, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, question why it was Musk himself and not the U.S. government that had the last say to whether or not Starlink would be accessible for the drone attack of September 2022 and on other military interferences. Warren stated that Congress needs to ensure foreign policy is conducted by the government and not by a single billionaire. Currently, an investigation is being undertaken by the U.S. Congress on the question of Musk’s authority on U.S. national security. Although Starlink’s legal documents comment that the satellites are not to be used as a weapon, the company has clearly militarized its operations and even China has prepared for possible Starlink interference and aid in Taiwan.
According to bullet 2 of Article 52 of the API (Additional Protocol I) of international law,
“Military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”3
In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Starlink meets these criteria. Starlink is an official contractor of the U.S. military and has been previously used during the U.S. evacuation operations in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the company received funding from the U.S. and Polish governments to provide its internet service in Ukraine in response to a threat from Musk to terminate its access4. Therefore, given the gravity of the decision made in September of last year in Crimea, the decision of cutting the internet connection should have been subject to input by the United States and its partners, including Ukraine. Regardless of whether Musk should have acted in the U.S.’s interests, should the U.S. government have control over the involvement of private companies in times of war? To what extent should private companies even be involved in times of war, and should their CEOs have the power to make geopolitically heavy decisions without first consulting with the governments?
Musk’s ability to retract or grant internet service to not just Ukraine, but to any other subscribed regions, is a potential hazard to the people’s interests. Only a few global countries are either refused service, or their governments have already banned the service: Russia, Belarus, China, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. However, sometimes there are exceptions, and even if there is an embargo or political circumstance standing in the way, Starlink has been known to be turned on. This occurred in Iran last December when about 100 active Starlinks were placed in the country, backed by a U.S. effort to enhance internet flow and freedom of information. It can never be certain which countries will be allowed to use Starlink’s services.
The behavior of any company is never fully predictable. Companies that have gained influence in governmental and international affairs not only have huge economic potential, but also political influence. In times of urgency, instability and violence, who should have the power to make decisions on how technology should be used- the governments or the big tech companies themselves?
For further insights on this subject, see “The Twilight of the Neutrality of Digital Technology” policy brief, prepared by the Kosciuszko Institute, available here:
1 “Report to Congress: Risk Associated with Reentry Disposal of Satellites from Proposed Large Constellations in Low Orbit Earth”, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, 05 October 2023, https://www.faa.gov/about/plansreports/congress/risk-associated-reentry-disposal-satellites-proposed-large
2 Jason Rainbow, “SpaceX Slams FAA Report on Falling Space Debris Danger”, Space News, 09 October 2023, https://spacenews.com/spacex-slams-faa-report-on-falling-space-debris-danger/
3 “Article 52- General Protection of Civilian Objects”, International Humanitarian Law Databases, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/en/ihl-treaties/api-1977/article-52#:~:text=1.,as%20defined%20in%20paragraph%202
4 “Musk Threatens to Stop Funding Starlink Internet Ukraine Relies on in War„, The Washington Post, 14 October 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/10/14/ukraine-elon-musk-starlink-ambassador-andrij-melnyk/