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Russian rocket Soyuz launches the first OneWeb satellites, tethered to the ground by restrictive legislation

The Soyuz ST-B vehicle carrying six OneWeb satellites on the launchpad // Screencapped by Runet Echo

On February 27, 2019, a Soyuz rocket deployed the first six satellites of what is projected to be a constellation of several hundred low-orbit transmitters able to provide Internet access across the globe, even in remote areas with insufficient infrastructure.

Russia’s RT network posted a video of the launch on YouTube, titled “Internet for ‘everyone’ & ‘everywhere': Soyuz rocket launches 1st OneWeb satellites”:

On the ground in Russia, however, things don’t look as idealistic. Shortly before the launch, Russia’s government signed a resolution requiring all satellite traffic inside the country to pass through government-mandated access stations. Both existing international satellite operators such as Iridium and Thuraya and Russian telecoms will be required to build these stations at their own expense and after a thorough vetting and licensing by Russia’s security agencies: the main domestic intelligence bureau, the FSB (Federal Security Service) and the FSO (Federal Protection Service), providing security to the country’s top officials.

From the start, Russian authorities have been aggressively staking out a claim in the OneWeb venture and ensuring that they will have as much control over the information flows as possible. Despite the joint venture agreement between OneWeb and Roscosmos, Russia’s state space agency, shortly before the inaugural launch OneWeb sold its majority stake to a subsidiary of Roscosmos, thus bringing the project under the Russian government’s firm control. The FSB has actively opposed OneWeb’s arrival, specifically citing suspicions that the network could be used for spying purposes. A Reuters report last October quoted Federal Security Service official Vladimir Sadovnikov who warned that “some of Russia’s regions would become totally dependent on a foreign satellite service.”

Initially, Russian users saw OneWeb and similar competing projects from Facebook and SpaceX as a possible remedy against the ever-tightening grip of censorship on online speech:

Users will be able to connect to the SpaceX network and access the Internet, circumventing any government censorship attempts. OneWeb and Telesat have joined the race. Total number of applications for satellite launches: 18.470. A receiver terminal is expected to cost around 200 bucks.

The mood quickly changed after it became clear that the Russian government not only controlled the majority stake in the launch project, but expected all traffic to go through tightly monitored access points:

Russia’s government vetoed satellite Internet access without government access points

Alexander Plushev, a prominent tech journalist and a host at the independent Echo of Moscow radio network, summarized this disillusionment in a popular Telegram post:

Не раз встречался со странным заблуждением, что от Яровой и автономного интернета нас спасет космический интернет. Всякий OneWeb и прочее. Причем, многие почему-то еще думают, что этот интернет будет бесплатным. Нет-нет, мало того, что он будет по нашим нынешним меркам дорогим, но еще и мимо всех цензурных мер это дело не пройдет. Есть представление, что свободный спутник будет бить сигналом прямо в наш смартфон или даже ноутбук. Не будет. Система разрабатывалась не с целью обхода фильтрации и потому обходить ее не будет. На земле необходимо оборудование, ввоз которого будет жестко контролироваться, ну а теперь еще и сами операторы должны будут получить разрешение в ФСБ.

Не рассчитывайте на чудо, никакая заграница вам не поможет. Ни у каких масков и цукербергов нет благородной цели вырвать вас из плена цензуры, да еще и бесплатно. Идти к счастью придется своими ногами.

Time and again I’ve heard about this peculiar misguided notion that space Internet is our salvation from the “Yarovaya laws” and “sovereign Internet.” I’m talking about OneWeb and some such. Many are even fooled into thinking that this Internet will be free of charge. Nothing could be further from the truth: not only it’ll be quite costly by today’s standards, it will also be subject to every censorship regulation. There’s this erroneous idea of free Internet delivered straight to your smartphone or even laptop. But that’s not the way it works. The system wasn’t designed to circumvent content filtration, so don’t expect them to even attempt to. It also required equipment subject to strict importing regulations, and on top of that operators themselves will be required to obtain a license from the FSB.
Don’t count on any miracles, no foreigner will swoop in to save us. And don’t be fooled: there are no Musks or Zuckerbergs out there on a noble quest to free you from the shackles of censorship, let alone for free. We are to walk our path to happiness on our own legs.

Plushev refers to an ongoing series of restrictive laws and regulations sparked by the 2011-13 wave of popular protests against government corruption and election fraud. In response, Russian authorities passed several laws restricting freedom of assembly and controlling and prosecuting for online speech. “Yarovaya laws” is a series of amendments prescribing mass data retention, ostensibly to fight “extremism.” The “sovereign Internet” is a recent addition to the long list of restrictive bills, acts and laws which proposes a national IT infrastructure to protect Russia against a hypothetical (and highly unrealistic) country-wide internet “blackout.”

Vladimir Putin has recently announced an ambitious plan to improve the country’s IT backbone and provide cheap and reliable internet to all Russians — unless they expect to use it to vent out their frustrations.

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