On the 1st of September a traditional, free, over-the-air news radio station announced that a SpaceX commercial space rocket loaded with a Facebook wifi satellite has blown up on the pad, destroying the satellite. For those who want uncensored news and an uncensored Internet this may be good riddance. Facebook is seeking to deploy drones and satellites in the Global South offering “free basics by facebook” Internet service without cost but limited to Facebook and about 60 “approved” sites. The SpaceX booster explosion in Florida just set these plans back.
Recently Facebook was blocked in India from launching “free basics by facebook.” The court decision rejected the proposed service on net neutrality grounds. Governments and courts can approve or disapprove wireless towers but not satellite overflights, which only require approval where the rocket is launched.
Thus, Facebook built a satellite equipped with long-range, high-gain wi-fi antennas that they planned to launch into an orbit that would provide “internet access” to large parts of Africa, and being in space would be beyond the reach of both net neutrality regulation and most air defense weapons. Over time, “Free Basics by Facebook” would gradually choke the life out of all competing Internet access points except high-priced high speed services and greatly reduced the motivation to build free public and municipal Internet access towers or hotspots.
African activists fighting against things like oil extraction in Nigeria will find themselves booted off Facebook. Even in the US facebook is famous for interfering with organizing peaceful protests by deleting or locking accounts at strategicly chosen times. During 2010, two major protests in the DC area suffered from this: Spill into Washinton(over the BP blowout), and a Jan 2010 anti-torture protest at CIA. Many insurgent groups in the Global South do not even bother with Facebook due to the severity of the censorship. That may be fine and well if it is Daesh being silenced but not at the price of cutting off communications by locally based groups resisting the destruction of their land by oil and gas extraction or multinational mining corporations. Groups like MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) could be severely harmed if Facebook gets control of Internet access in Africa.
Even if community activists and resistance groups manage to get to the Internet by other means, only the rich will be able to read their posts. Traditional pre-Internet media will get replaced by Facebook, as well as any low-cost uncensored providers of Internet service that might otherwise have appeared.
Thus all news objected to by Facebook is at risk of being blocked. You could not publish it in a newspaper because people don’t read newspapers when they can just open the Facebook app on their phones. You could not broadcast it on legal or pirate radio because people would be using streaming services provided (and censored) by Facebook instead of the radio. The lack of demand for rival services except by a few would mean only mesh networks could go around facebook’s control, but there would be too few potential users to put the mesh network together. A mesh network is a web of computers and phones hooked together peer to peer without phone companies at all. Mesh networking was used sucessfully in Algeria after the government turned the Internet off entirely in a failed effort to resist the Arab Spring. Probably would not have worked if everyone but the protesters was already connected to a Facebook satellite.
In short, Facebook is trying to do to Internet access in India, Africa, and elsewhere what Google did to music access in rural US towns before the Internet itself replaced buying CD’s with free downloading.
Now, thanks to the chance explosion and utter destruction of the booster rocket and satellite, Facebook has to start over on their dreams of domination communications in Africa. We can thank SpaceX for saving net neutrality for at least how long it takes to build another satellite and schedule another launch attempt.