Russian telecommunication experts paid close attention to the February 22 announcement of the launch into orbit of two experimental micro-satellites by the private space exploration company SpaceX (Vedomosti, February 22). The main goal of the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket was advertised as the deployment of the Spanish “PAZ” satellite to be used for ship tracking and weather data collection (Spacex.com, February 2018; Hisdesat.es, February 22). Russian telecommunication experts realized the positioning of this satellite into low-Earth orbit is the first step in SpaceX’s “Starlink” project to deploy thousands of small satellites capable of enveloping the whole world in a high-speed broadband telecommunication network, making Internet access available to every point in the world—including on the territory of Russia. Starlink’s upload and download links to thousands of satellites challenges the Russian government’s idea of national sovereignty.
The goal of the Starlink project—to make affordable, reliable, and fast Internet connection available to everyone on the globe—is a cosmopolitan vision in the broadest sense of that term. But Russian authorities have regarded the rapid evolution of cyberspace as a serious threat to the Russian state and Moscow’s interpretation of national sovereignty (see EDM, December 16, 2016; December 13, 2017). The government has acted in recent years to impose territorial conceptions of national sovereignty in the form of policies designed to establish “digital sovereignty” in cyberspace. The authorities also want to ensure that Russia’s self-identified “sphere of influence” will coincide with a cyber-sphere of influence beyond its national borders so as to include traditional Russian imperial and Soviet-era borderlands (the “near abroad”).
Sovereignty represents the exclusive and independent power of a state in relation to a population located in a specified physical territory as determined by geographical borders. Maritime law references the state’s geographical borders by giving states horizontally extended sovereign rights over specified (generally coastal) maritime zones. Also, there is clearly a vertical aspect to national sovereignty, but it is still ambiguously defined, with air law and space law using different approaches and different reference points. In accordance with the Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944, states hold absolute and exclusive jurisdiction over their respective airspace for the purposes of air traffic (Icao.int, accessed March 7). In contrast, in accordance with the 1967 United Nations Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, states recognize and affirm that outer space cannot be subject to national claims of any kind (Unoosa.org, accessed March 7). The border between airspace and outer space, consequently, represents the vertical limit on national sovereignty. But where is that border? Are low-Earth-orbit satellites inside it or outside it?
Russian authorities have in the past several years adapted to the evolution of cyberspace by taking a number of policy steps to ensure their policies give them complete jurisdiction in cyber activities taking place within their geographical boundaries. First, national legislation, such as the information law of July 2017, has sought to ensure state control over the transmission and storage of electronic data (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, July 30, 2017). Second, Russian authorities have sought to establish laws, policies, and processes to exert control over individuals, enterprises, and social media platforms to enable the state agencies to monitor, surveil or interdict transmission and have access to storage of “data at rest.” Russian authorities have compelled enterprises to provide “backdoors” to computer programs and devices, which allow them oversight and the capacity to intervene (Scrf.gov.ru, October 25, 2017). Third, Russian authorities have adopted laws and measures to impede or block anonymizing programs and platforms. Goskomnadzor’s Main Radio Frequency Center established a department designed specifically to block virtual private network (VPN) access and other anonymizing programs (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, Oct 6, 2017). Fourth, Russian authorities have taken measures to gain control of cryptographic distributed leger “blockchain” technologies through establishing standards in legislation (Duma.gov.ru, February 20), as well as public and commercial banking operations such as the “masterchain” of the Central Bank of Russia (Cbr.ru, accessed March 7).
Elon Musk’s Starlink is not the first effort to create satellite-based broadband transmission. The system may be a brilliant concept but is still a high-risk venture. For one thing, Starlink faces competitors like OneWeb and other similar satellite projects, such as those sponsored by Samsung, Panasonic Avionics and others. Other than the competition, there is a significant challenge to the success of the Starlink development strategy from the Russian government’s position. The Russian Ministry of Defense has for some time circulated rumors that it has the capacity to jam low-Earth-orbit transmission systems (Izvestia, August 30, 2016). But jamming large areas of electromagnetic space is expensive, isolating, and would conflict with Russia’s own development objectives. In his annual address, Vladimir Putin did assure that Russia would roll out its own satellite-based system of Internet access for the Far North, Siberia and the Far East by 2024 (Kremlin.ru March 1).
Perhaps more concrete challenges to the global Internet come from the position of the Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications regarding control over the Internet on Russian territory. The primary institution for international regulation is the International Telecommunications Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations. The ITU has, in the past, acted not so much as an international regulator than as a coordinator of national policies on telecommunications. To date, no consensus on regulation of satellites transmission has been reached by the ITU. Russia’s delegation to this international body, playing a key role as the leader in the Regional Commonwealth Communications segment within the ITU, has been a staunch proponent of the national approach as opposed to a multi-stakeholder approach (Rcc.org.ru, accessed March 7). The Russian delegation within the ITU can be expected to continue this lobbying effort, not only for the Russian Federation but for the other countries of the former Soviet space as well. The division between those favoring a multi-stakeholder approach versus those favoring a national approach has thus far primarily focused on the extent to which the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) should maintain its leading role in coordinating routing assignments of names and numbers on the Internet. The debate can soon be expected to involve the definition of vertical limits of sovereignty as well.