The Outernet

Good or Bad?

The Outernet is project being funded by the Media Development Investment Fund. The run down of their project is that they plan to put many small satellites into orbit and these would provide a world wide (free) wifi network. When I first read about it I thought it was pretty cool, after all who doesn't want free wifi? Google is already working on similar projects, but this seems to be on the largest scale.

Well then I started to see the flaws of this. The problem is that the term wifi network is very misleading when applied to this project. When I think of a network I think of at least two devices that are communicating with each other. The way the outernet would work is that the ground devices would only be able to receive information. Quite simply we are limited by physics, its not incredibly difficult to beam satellite information down towards earth. It is much more difficult or rather takes specialized equipment to for one to go and send a signal back to the satellite. And the MDIF is upfront about this; the outernet is a one way communication.

They say that the benefit of this is to bypass censorship in countries like North Korea (or dare I say the UK). Now I can completely get behind this, censorship hinders the sharing of information and because of that hinders progress. The problem I have is that a one way communication network is just as ripe for censorship abuse. Nobody who considers themselves well informed gets their news from only one outlet and in fact the best way to stay on current events is to participate in discussions. That is why sites like reddit and forums play such a large role in disseminating information. To have a one way communication is cut off half of the the usability and in essence make it no different than the television. Television has been totally polluted with sensationalism simply because they have a captive audience, it too is a one way communication and because of this does not allow for active discussion.

Sure perhaps it is better to have a one way uncensored internet than censored internet. It certainly isn't worse, but in my opinion it isn't any better. Upon critically examining the outernet project, I am sad to say that I can't stand behind it. The internet is such a strong force because it allows communication between many parties. We already have enough one way communication media this project would be more a step backward than a step forward. With net neutrality already out the window I also think centralizing the internet would do more harm than good. This is being offered as a free service, but the bandwidth can be regulated however they see fit. Are they going to stop people from downloading illegal content? That itself is censorship, where will the line be drawn? Much of the content on youtube is in fact illegal, but most don't think twice before listening to a song on youtube. At the same time these people get pretty uncomfortable about the subject of torrenting.

Just some things to think about. I certainly don't think that such a project is doomed to a sinister future, but the internet as we know it is more fragile than many realize. An alternative solution that comes to mind is decentralized mesh networks. This would make global communication and infrastructure much more difficult, but it would make it near impossible for any one party to seize control of the content being served.