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Free Internet from space

Free Internet from space
Ever imagined that, one day, you would have online access to phones and computers, putting an end to opening the purse strings to access the Internet? An Interesting project called Outernet is taking shape that will provide free internet connectivity even to remote areas.

A non-profit US organisation, the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), plans to completely reverse the age of online computing by providing information to the world from outer space – unrestricted, globally accessible, broadcast data and quality content from all over the internet. The thinking behind the project is: If Internet access really is a human right, then blocking it would constitute a human rights violation.

The company plans to beam free wi-fi by launching hundreds of low-cost miniature satellites, known as cubesats, into low Earth orbit. Here, each satellite will receive data from a network of ground stations across the world. The primary objective of the Outernet is to bridge the global information divide.

The Outernet project follows Google’s Project Loon, launched in May 2013, to bring Internet access to the rapidly shrinking landscape of the unwired world. And more recently, Facebook announced plans to bring web access to parts of the developing world which have not built infrastructure on the ground.

Project Loon is a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space. It is designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters. Loon is bound to change the way netizens work and lure millions to computers and phones, Google says.

Facebook intends to deploy solar-powered satellite drones in the sky to provide internet access to remote areas in a bid to connect ‘Every one of us. Everywhere. Connected’, through its internet.org – a consortium of seven founding partners.

The race for the airborne Internet is on. The three projects, which may become a reality in the next few years, are bound to excite many; especially the youth and those living in remote corners, where Internet has not penetrated – two out of three people in the world cannot connect to the Internet.
Almost three decades before internet was invented, Canadian philosopher of communication theory Marshall McLuhan predicted the World Wide Web and coined the expressions ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village.’ He said in 1965: ‘There are no Remote Places. Under instant circuitry, nothing is remote in time or in space. It’s now.’

McLuhan’s prediction of a world connected by electronic circuits came true in 1995 when people around the globe began using the internet. Now, will the three projects prove his description of the ‘global village’? Just before his death in 1980, he wrote, ‘In the 1980s as we transfer our whole being to the data bank, privacy will become a ghost or echo of its former self and what remains of community will disappear.’ Will this prediction turn true? Can these projects ensure privacy? It is immensely doubtful.

The space and sky-driven Internet projects promise to deliver instant information and data to everyone, from farmers in the field to providing education, by converting computers into virtual classrooms in remote places. But, will this objective be met? Though some countries like France and Greece have formally declared internet access to be a basic human right, billions are still going to be left out.

In India, only 9.4 per cent of households have access to computers and 3.1 per cent of households have internet. Of the 900 million people who use mobile phones, barely 120 million use them to access the Internet.

Will simply hooking people online be enough? Nearly 1.5 billion people (including 400 million Indians) in the world live without electricity. Thus, about one-fifth of the world’s population is indeed going to be left behind: they cannot study in the evening without light, and cannot charge a mobile phone or have access to the Internet.

Moreover, hidden dangers are many. Once Wi-Fi services proliferate, hackers will become more active in targeting road warriors by exploiting the free wireless public networks located at airports and other public places.

Since ground stations will receive data from a network of ground stations across the globe, countries like China, North Korea and many more may refuse permission to instal these stations. There may not be authorities to enforce security. For Internet being beamed from the skies, whose responsibility will it be to ensure security to users? Whose jurisdiction does it lie under to catch and punish criminals in an open and unsecured network? The questions are many and answers are uncertain as of now.

Though India has strict regulations and cyber laws, how far various sections of the IT 2000 and IT (Amendment Act) 2008 may apply in case of misuse of the Internet is hard to surmise now. These perplexing questions about jurisdiction could be answered only by cyber lawyers and experts, once they sit down and analyse the consequences.

The author is an independent journalist
K V Venkatasubramanian

K V Venkatasubramanian

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