Recent high-profile international incidents are shedding light on the political, legal and technical limitations associated with the use of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations for broadband Internet services. In a noteworthy development, the leading provider of this technology, SpaceX’s Starlink, has reached a mutual understanding with Israel to refrain from extending its services to Israel and the occupied territories, including Gaza, without explicit authorisation from Israeli authorities. This agreement – concluded after consultations between Elon Musk and Israeli officials – underscores the pivotal role of Internet connectivity in conflict zones. It raises complex legal questions concerning territoriality and the application of international law in present-day conflicts. This article explores the broader implications of private ownership and control over LEO technology in conflict scenarios, emphasising its potential for providing resilient and accessible Internet access. The current arrangement prompts considerations on governance, military applications and data access, underscoring the requirement for ethical scrutiny and geopolitical evaluation. In the realm of space-based broadband infrastructures, diplomatic urgency is stressed, advocating a proactive approach to shaping policies that reconcile geopolitics and business interests with global connectivity objectives and individual end-user rights. Notably, the recent and current developments in the field are shaping the perception of these infrastructures, emphasising the necessity for the European Union (EU) to establish policies to ensure predictable, sustainable and well-informed policies governing the use of its own planned LEO system, IRIS², and other satellite-based broadband services in a way that aligns with the EU’s global image and strategic needs.
Gaza conflict and Internet connectivity
The ongoing Israel-Hamas war is the latest manifestation of a complex and contentious issue embedded in historical and geopolitical dynamics. The region has witnessed recurring bouts of violence, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its core. Recent escalations have intensified the conflict, which is now marked by civilian hostages, airstrikes, rocket attacks and ground incursions, resulting in a devastating number of civilian casualties and strained international relations. With the conflict rooted in longstanding territorial disputes and political complexities, efforts towards a peaceful resolution face significant challenges.
In conflict situations, Internet access plays a vital role in shaping the dynamics of information flow, connectivity and humanitarian efforts. It serves as a critical channel for communication among affected populations, enabling the dissemination of real-time updates and facilitating coordination of essential services. The digital realm becomes a key platform for global awareness and support, connecting communities and allowing for a broader international context. However, both internal and cross-border conflicts often lead to Internet restrictions or shutdowns, curtailing accessibility. The importance of Internet access to civilians and humanitarian aid organisations in conflict zones must be emphasised: it is a fundamental element in maintaining communication, resilience, and a sense of connectedness amid adversity.
Internet access in Gaza relies primarily upon Israeli service providers. The government of Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza, begun in 2007, includes restrictions on air and maritime activities which impede the free flow of goods, services and people and also affect telecommunications infrastructure. Digital development has been consistently obstructed by the dependence created by the blockade and the extensive restrictions on information communication technology (ICT) services and products. In the current conflict, the Israeli military is using enduring Internet blackouts as a part of their campaign strategy; they regularly precede or accompany military strikes. In addition, much of Gaza’s Internet infrastructure has been destroyed, and recognised international organisations’ efforts to provide humanitarian aid have been disrupted. In search of an independent option, humanitarian aid personnel from these organisations turned to SpaceX for assistance. SpaceX has been involved in two recent high-profile efforts to provide Internet access: in Ukraine, the company quickly restored connectivity interrupted by the progress of Russian forces, and in Iran, the company aided protesters by providing independent Internet access after the Iranian government imposed restrictions.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, initially expressed his intent to take similar actions to restore connectivity for international organisations in Gaza, but subsequently modified his stance after facing backlash from Israeli officials, stating that he would only proceed with approval from Israeli authorities. This firm response confirmed that Israel is keen to preserve full control over Gaza’s access to global communication networks, whether it be terrestrial or space-based. The most recent updates indicate that Musk has reached an agreement with the Israeli government and acknowledged their control over telecom services in the region. The agreement, established during Musk’s meeting with Israeli leaders, allows for the use of Starlink in Gaza contingent on approval by the Israeli Ministry of Communications. While the approval process remains unspecified, the agreement highlights an unrealised potential for satellite broadband technology, such as Starlink, to play a role in humanitarian efforts and provision of communication services in conflict zones.
This latest case of the highly politicised use of and restrictions on using private communication services in conflict situations has sparked compelling political, legal and scholarly questions. It demands an analysis of the current situation – in which sovereign states govern access to space-based Internet infrastructures, controlling landing rights and user terminal imports – and the three-way interplay between private interests, geopolitical dynamics and the international legal framework. Our previous pieces clarified the legal perspective, comparing the situations in Ukraine and Iran. The most recent development regarding Internet connectivity in Gaza complements these legal considerations, raising complex questions regarding the nature of territoriality, occupation and the application of international law in contemporary conflict scenarios.
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) technology in conflict zones – lessons learnt and path forward
As traditional warfare and cyber warfare increasingly overlap, the resilience of Internet networks for communication, coordination and intelligence gathering becomes increasingly vital. LEO satellite constellations, positioned closer to Earth than traditional communication satellites deployed in higher orbits, offer reduced latency and increased data transfer speeds. This technology presents a resilient alternative by bypassing most terrestrial infrastructure vulnerabilities, ensuring consistent access in conflict-affected regions. By creating a global network, this technology minimises the impact of localised disruptions, maintaining vital communication channels. Its adaptability and capacity to bridge the global digital divide also position it as a transformative force in conflict zones.
The recurring demonstration of its strategic significance has further encouraged space-faring countries to launch their own sovereign satellite constellation systems. This motivation persists even amid severe concerns about the sustainability of space, which are heightened by the sharp rise in the number of satellites in LEO. The number of filings for constellation projects received by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is increasing exponentially: the number of proposed satellites had topped 1 million at the time of publication. This is a precipitous increase from the 9,000 satellites currently operational. The EU is investing in its own satellite network, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite (IRIS²), an ambitious endeavour to reinforce its digital sovereignty objectives and complement its Secure Connectivity program. IRIS² is in earlier stages than Canada’s Telesat and China’s Guo Wang. Meanwhile, the incumbent French satellite company Eutelsat has merged with OneWeb, Starlink’s most significant existing competitor. OneWeb’s other major shareholders are the UK government, which holds a golden share in the company, the Indian company Bharti and the Japanese company SoftBank. The EU has approached this investment with caution because the United Kingdom, where OneWeb is headquartered, is no longer part of the EU. Consequently, Eutelsat has made assurances that OneWeb will be adequately ‘ring-fenced’. How this relationship unfolds will be significant for the relationship between the EU and the UK. Yet, the suggestion by Eutelsat that OneWeb could participate in the IRIS² constellation was deemed incompatible by Thierry Breton, particularly because of the UK government’s special status among shareholders.
The EU has rationalised its investment of €6 billion in the IRIS² satellite constellation by outlining multiple objectives. These include ensuring guaranteed access, fostering commercial applications, supporting strategic functions, enhancing security and resilience, promoting global competitiveness and reinforcing Europe’s autonomy and digital sovereignty. The IRIS² system is scheduled to commence initial services in 2024 and is expected to be fully operational by 2027. Nonetheless, lessons learned from Starlink and its experiences with the US government show that decisions regarding the utilisation of these systems can have far-reaching international consequences. The EU is yet to articulate its stance on the appropriate application of satellite constellation technology amid challenging geopolitical conditions.
Challenges of applying international law to LEOs
The decision to utilize Starlink in Ukraine revealed multifaceted challenged, such as the appropriate Starlink’s use. In a noteworthy incident, Musk claimed to have unilaterally obstructed a drone attack on Russian fleets by turning off Starlink’s services over Crimea to mitigate conflict escalation. Subsequent clarifications revealed that these decisions were made in consultation with the US government, legal advisors and the Russian authorities. Elon Musk subsequently stated that providing Starlink access in Crimea would have violated US sanctions against Russia, and that allowing its use for that particular incident may have been interpreted as taking part in a significant act of war. Intense scrutiny of the use of SpaceX’s services for military purposes and issues of cybersecurity and data access have prompted Starlink officials to declare that the use of Starlink services by the Ukrainian military for offensive capabilities was outside the scope of their contract. The military was only supposed to use the system for communications, officials clarified, and ‘the contract was intended for humanitarian purposes such as providing broadband Internet to hospitals, banks and families affected by Russia’s invasion’. The Ukrainian case makes it clear that SpaceX will consider the implications of its actions for both itself and the US, and that preserving the civilian status of its infrastructure means attempting to keep away from occupied territories.
Sanctions and territorial boundaries were less of a concern for the company and the US government in deliberating whether its services should be available in Iran. Upon demands from the protestors, the US government lifted sanctions to permit Starlink to provide services there. Then, Internet services were made available in contravention of international regulations that required satellite service providers to obtain landing rights in every jurisdiction in which they operate. The lack of official diplomatic relations between Iran and the US since April 7, 1980, has been marked by persistent tensions. Hence, the disregard for formal procedures did not come as a surprise. Activists and others concerned about the heavy-handed response of the Iranian government offered their support to the protestors, arguing that connectivity is a crucial element of human rights. In response, the government of Iran not only complained to the ITU, the UN (UNOOSA) and the Security Council about Starlink’s unauthorised activities, but also instituted a ban on terrestrial equipment, including end-user terminals, intending to confiscate them and impose fines on their users. This did not preclude individuals from accessing satellite connectivity, but use remained limited. On the other hand, a technical organisation at its core, the ITU resolved that the provision of transmissions from within any territories where they had not been authorised was in direct contravention of the Radio Regulations, which have the force of an international treaty.
Global human rights organisations have also called for the restoration of connectivity in Gaza. Grappling with the multifaceted challenges of war, citizens and international aid organisations could significantly benefit from the restoration of their connection to the global community through LEO Internet infrastructures. Nevertheless, Starlink curbed its intention to make its services available in this occupied territory. This decision aligns with US foreign policy. Israel is the United States’ closest strategic ally in the Middle East, and its unequivocal support is demonstrated by the consistent use of its veto power to block UN resolutions critical of Israel. In the most recent instance, the US vetoed a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, after the UN Secretary-General invoked Article 99. The resolution emphasised the need to protect civilians on both sides, included concerns about dire conditions in Gaza, demanded prompt and unconditional release of hostages by Hamas and called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian access.
In view of these developments and the fact that similar circumstances will arise once IRIS² becomes operational, questions arise as to how the EU should determine its appropriate utilisation. IRIS² will also be subject to expectations regarding restoration of connectivity in underserved and conflict zones. In a scenario similar to the one in Ukraine, will the EU allow its space communications infrastructure to be used for offensive purposes? Would it financially sponsor these services, and for how long? EU and the EU Member States maintain diplomatic relations with Iran. Despite persistent tensions, would the EU consent to IRIS² or another private EU company providing unauthorised services within Iran, even for a limited time, to support dissidents? Finally, would EU Member States’ representatives support IRIS² in providing communication services to international organisations in Gaza as part of its efforts to provide humanitarian support? How would it interpret the scope of its rights and obligations under humanitarian and international law? Will it set up a separate entity under the IRIS² roof for governmental use, akin to the Starshield set up by SpaceX as a result of its ongoing work with the US Department of Defense? Conflicts and other catastrophes – some involving different actors, some the same – will sadly recur around the globe once IRIS² becomes operational. These considerations are of great importance and require the EU to predetermine the course of action for proper use of IRIS² when faced with a choice.
Exploring the link: Challenges and priorities in satellite broadband policy
The challenges inherent in the contemporary policy landscape surrounding satellite broadband are twofold. First and foremost, it’s crucial to thoroughly grasp the complex technical architecture and cybersecurity implications of LEO satellite networks. This knowledge is critical for informing policy decisions and developing regulatory guidelines. It’s also vital for identifying conflict areas in international diplomacy and policy creation. Currently, though, there’s a gap in the ability of policymakers at the national level and everyday users to quickly and fully understand the wide-ranging real-world impacts compounded by increased commercialisation of the space sector. The analysis of recent incidents reveals a scenario in which private companies are compelled to act according to their host country’s foreign policy due to factors including contractual commitments, financial ties and domestic regulatory requirements, among others. The emergence of new companies with multinational ownership structures and the dynamic nature of the new commercial space sector make it challenging to predict and regulate all aspects of this emerging reality effectively. A similar challenge may arise in the EU due to varying member state interests.
Second, the current regulatory framework for satellite broadband intersects at the crossroads of international law, national regulation and Internet governance. Understanding this intricate normative matrix and ensuring this technology serves the sustainable development and other peaceful interests and rights of communities and their members poses challenges. It is only possible if the stakeholders have the capacities and resources to engage effectively in diverse forums. Satellite broadband networks are not merely platforms for military and civilian communication; they are strategic assets with the potential for tremendous global benefits as well as significant cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Military use of satellite broadband poses particularly complex ethical and geopolitical considerations. Shaping an effective policy framework for satellite broadband necessitates a nuanced approach to ensure secure, accessible and reliable satellite broadband services. It demands navigating the intersection of international relations, cybersecurity and international law. The situations in Ukraine, Iran and now Gaza underscore the paramount importance of developing an informed and comprehensive policy, and its meticulous execution. This imperative extends to involvement of EU Member States’ national cybersecurity policies, including authorisation and licensing of non-EU satellite broadband services.
The EU’s strategic initiative, IRIS², is a testament to its pledge towards technological autonomy and, as such, is both timely and commendable. The inclusion of space infrastructures in the NIS2 Directive as an essential entity means that this domain will be required to comply with rigorous cybersecurity requirements to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen the resilience of critical and digital infrastructure against various threats, including cyberattacks. It also indicates the EU’s increasing awareness of space-based infrastructures’ crucial role in reinforcing the EU’s communications systems and cyber resilience. However, a holistic approach necessitates supplementation through synergistic national policies that expressly incorporate space-based infrastructures as an integral feature of comprehensive cybersecurity strategies in light of the lessons learned from Starlink’s experiences. The EU must bolster its initiatives to establish itself as a democratic player in the current Space Race, aiming to secure democratic outcomes for the governance of space activities ahead.
This document is a product of a project funded by the Internet Society Foundation.
About the Author
Joanna Kulesza, PhD, is a tenured professor of law and teaches international law, internet governance and media law at the University of Lodz, Poland. Currently serving as a scientific committee member for the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union and vice-chair for the At-Large Advisory Committee of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, she successfully combines academia with policy work. Since 2020 she has co-chaired the Advisory Board of the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise, working on cybersecurity capacity building. Kulesza, aside from her primary academic involvement with the University of Lodz, has been serving as an expert on human rights online for the Council of Europe and European Commission and is working on various research projects focused on privacy and cybersecurity. Kulesza serves on the Advisory Board of the EU Cyber Direct project.