Expanding access to the internet has quickly become one of the hot issues in fashionable philanthropy.
In 2015, Barack Obama’s White House launched a large public-private initiative, ConnectHome, aimed at expanding broadband access for more than 275,000 low-income families across America; that program worked with internet service providers to make basic internet access cheap or free for target communities. Obama announced the program in a speech to the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma, and, indeed, lack of internet access often accompanies and compounds other sorts of socio-economic exclusion endemic to the American Heartland. (For his part, President Trump has flagged internet access as a key part of a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal aimed at rejuvenating rural America.)
Setting his sights on the world’s unconnected, rather than simply America’s rural poor, Mark Zuckerberg has launched Internet.org, an ambitious global initiative with the goal of “bringing internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the portion of the world that doesn’t have them.” As Jessi Hempel explained for Wired magazine at the time, Internet.org seeks to do this primarily by making “stripped-down web services (including Facebook) available for free” to those countries and municipalities where access is currently limited. As of now, Internet.org boasts of programs in sixty-three countries—many in Africa or the Middle East.
And the issue is a real one. Zuckerberg estimates that some 4.9 billion people around the world remain unconnected to the internet. In poor first-world settings like certain rural parts of Oklahoma, this lack of internet often means children struggle to finish homework, parents can’t easily pay bills, and the elderly remain isolated from friends and family. In developing countries, lack of internet connectivity can prevent access to education, healthcare, and political participation.
From Oklahoma to Africa and now to outer space, then, as news recently broke that Elon Musk’s famous SpaceX corporation plans to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into orbit with the stated goal of improving and expanding internet access on Earth. Musk’s latest voyage into the great beyond lines up well with his carefully cultivated image as an inter-galactic philanthropist, ready to solve the world’s biggest problems. But as space-tech reporter Sarah Scoles (again writing for Wired) points out, “Musk—while he may care about humanity’s future [on] this planet and also other planets—is not running a charity.” The aerospace mogul is ultimately looking to turn a profit, not least of all in order to finance his other more high-profile projects like Martian colonization.
But what exactly is Musk’s angle? Scoles notes the “huge upstart costs” of launching so many satellites, especially when the only immediate payoff seems to be in the form of good press. Scoles’ theory is that SpaceX is establishing its own private network of eyes-in-the-sky, which the company could then leverage for entry into the highly profitable “Earth observation market.” Simply by including cameras on his new fleet of satellites, Musk could make himself indispensable to those corporations, government agencies, and scientific institutes that rely on detailed and up-to-date images of every corner of planet Earth. (For its part SpaceX is declining to say whether or not its new satellites will feature cameras.)
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (we all need pretty pictures for our computers’ desktop images, as Scoles wryly notes). But it’s worth pointing out when a massive tech giant like SpaceX catches a wave of public sentiment with plans of riding it to windfall profits. It reveals the business acumen of Musk, sure, but it also reveals the malleability of philanthropic causes, which can easily be co-opted by private corporations for private ends.
To say nothing of the obvious privacy concerns that 12,000 corporate cameras orbiting earth could raise, this (as yet hypothetical) scenario presents an interesting test-case in the development and redeployment of one of our major charitable trends.