Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has inspired heated debate over what the deal will mean for free speech and democracy. Will the South African–born mogul welcome Donald Trump back to the platform? Will Musk use Twitter to skew debate—or even elections? Those are important questions, but another problem with the deal has received far less attention. Musk’s control of Twitter amplifies his already troubling attempts to exploit his satellite-based internet service. Musk has shown that he will use his proprietary Starlink satellite broadband system to control the fate of nations, disregarding the security of his adopted United States.
The good news is that the U.S. government has ample legal authority and constitutional precedent to ensure that no one person holds such unchecked power.
Last fall, I published a Washington Monthly article detailing how Starlink was building a massive fleet of low-earth-orbit satellites to provide broadband service to the remotest corners of the globe. At the time, Starlink had roughly 90,000 global users, mostly in rural areas. It seemed like this new communications infrastructure might help close the digital divide. A year later, Musk’s Starlink serves 400,000 individual and corporate customers, including many cruise ship lines and the U.S. Air Force.
Starlink has already emerged as a critical component of modern warfare. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Musk’s service has been invaluable to the besieged nation, and has become vital to its offensive strategy. It’s no wonder that Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened to shoot down Musk’s satellites because of their critical role in the conflict. Meanwhile, Taiwanese officials have taken note of Starlink’s capabilities and are clamoring to receive satellite internet service, possibly from Starlink, before a potential conflict with Beijing. Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, has echoed Putin in warning that his government won’t let Starlink encroach on its territory or interfere with its military operations.
Both Beijing and Moscow fear Starlink’s power on the battlefield and its potential for democratizing internet access within their borders. Musk’s creation is a bona fide national security juggernaut.
To make matters even thornier, Musk repeatedly uses Starlink to meddle with his customers, including Ukraine. On October 3, Musk informed the world of his peace plan for Ukraine, which would require it to officially cede Crimea to Russia. Around that time, Musk blacked out Starlink’s service in large parts of Ukraine, impeding its defenses. A week later, he threatened to cut Ukrainian access to the service entirely unless the Pentagon covered the bill, which Starlink’s parent company, SpaceX (also controlled by the mogul), estimated could cost $400 million per year.
If federal regulators had done their job, we would never have gotten to the point where one fickle titan has so much unfettered power. Since 2018, for example, the Federal Communications Commission has routinely approved Musk’s requests to build a constellation of satellites with little oversight. Starlink has launched more than 2,500 satellites into orbit and has approval for 12,000, more than the total number of satellites that have ever been launched beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The sheer volume of Starlink satellites is already putting tremendous stress on the agencies charged with ensuring the safe and peaceful exploitation of space.
If that oversight weren’t lax enough, Musk has benefited from enormous federal subsidies. Overall, SpaceX has received $5.6 million in federal and state funds, a $2.89 billion contract with NASA, and a $653 million contract with the Air Force. Musk has sought similar benefits for Starlink. In 2020, under Trump, the FCC awarded Musk nearly $1 billion to provide broadband to underserved rural areas in the U.S. without reliable internet.
Starlink fudged its rural services application to the FCC by including sites such as airports and urban parking lots. Last August, after a review, the FCC revoked the subsidies. The incident has not, however, stopped other agencies and departments from cutting deals with Starlink. This summer, the Air Force struck another deal with Musk to make Starlink its exclusive internet service provider for aircraft in several regions.
One way to bring Musk under control is for the feds to stop showering Starlink and other Musk-controlled enterprises with sweetheart deals. But his Twitter purchase also demands that Washington immediately consider regulating Starlink and other Musk properties far more closely.
Since the New York Telegraph Act of 1848, Americans have used the government to regulate electronic communications systems to maintain fair, open, and nondiscriminatory access and prevent conflicts of interest. As far back as the 1912 Radio Act, the federal government, not individuals, controlled the usage of the electromagnetic spectrum and ensured that it was used in the public interest. Moreover, in 1927, the government updated traditional regulations limiting the cross-ownership of a communications network to extend to wireless. The 1927 act, for example, prevented telegraph and telephone companies from acquiring radio stations that would “create monopoly in any line of commerce.”
Today, we should apply the same principles. To begin with, that would mean limiting the amount of satellite band spectrum that Musk, or any one person or corporation, can control.
The Joe Biden administration should also use antitrust law to cajole Musk. Historically, Americans did not allow owners of essential communications infrastructure to own adjacent business lines. The Department of Justice, for example, not only regulated AT&T as a utility until the 1980s but also prevented the behemoth from owning the Western Union telegraph company or manufacturing its own telephones. Once the computer age began, the DOJ insisted that AT&T not engage in electronic publishing.
Enforcing structural separations between communication infrastructure corporations like Starlink and media content managers like Twitter has remained an essential part of the government’s efforts to contain the power of monopolies. In 2018, for instance, the Justice Department opposed the merger of AT&T Wireless and Time Warner on the same principle. Though the DOJ did not prevail because its enforcers botched their argument, this time the facts are overwhelming, as is the legal precedent. Control of technology like Starlink and a fundamental media infrastructure like Twitter by a single person poses a much starker threat to our democracy than the AT&T case. At the very least, it demands an even firmer and competently argued response.
Author: Luke Goldstein