Recognizing the tangible aspects of the intellectual and cultural internet freedoms: the buy a satellite project

The text below is extracted from a longer critique on the libertarian version of internet rights, which ignores the material basis on which this freedom to share depends.

Reacting to a lecture by Steven Kinsella, Malcolm Harris formulates the main critique here:

“Kinsella’s idea of scarcity comes down to what can be physically grabbed. So, despite his argument for something like an intellectual commons, there’s nothing here to prevent the privatization of rain water. The result is an ideal world where everyone is equally free to print any book they want, just as long as they each own or can buy access to a printing press. If the means to communicate ideas are always scarce, then the only kind of sharing we’re talking about here is sharecropping.”


“An alternative is to recognize the tangible components of the idea commons. Heres how Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe a possible infrastructure of abundance in their book Commonwealth: “Such an infrastructure must include an open physical layer (including access to wired and wireless communications networks), an open logical layer (for instance, open code and protocols), and an open content layer (such as cultural, intellectual, and scienti?c works). Such a common infrastructure would counter the mechanisms of privatization including patents, copyrights, and other forms of immaterial property, which prevent people from engaging the reserves of existing ideas, images, and codes to use them to produce new ones.” All three levels are essential to the creation, maintenance, and expansion of the idea commons, not just the second and third.”

Malcolm then offers a concrete example of such an approach in a follow-up:

” Ahumanright works to provide internet access to the five billion people without it because they believe the ability to get online is just that: a human right. In their efforts to secure a free internet connection for the world’s dispossessed, the group has come up with an idea that sounds both logical and completely crazy: buy a satellite.

“Buy This Satellite” is Ahumanright’s plan and it goes like this: There’s a satellite called the TerreStar-1, launched in 2009, that can provide internet to an area the size of the U.S. and Canada combined, and the TerreStar’s owner filed for chapter-11 bankruptcy in October. When the satellite hits the auction block, the organization hopes to have raised $150,000 for a (hopefully) successful bid on the bargain TerreStar. Once they have the Satellite in hand, Ahumanright plans to develop a cheap open-source modem and find a orbital position and frequency spectrum in the global south where the access could do the most good. Although the organization believes in free internet for all, as they put it: “there are some realities to face: like paying the rent.” The plan is to offer a slower service for free to everyone, while selling the high-speed bandwidth to telecom companies for re-sale, hoping to create incentives for local providers in areas that lack widespread connectivity.

I see the Buy This Satellite plan as an attempt at commoning internet infrastructure. As it is now, only the privileged (on a global scale) even have access to the web, which restricts the kind of intellectual commons we find online. If the web is supposed to eliminate distances both physical and metaphoric, then it must be available at no cost. For the internet to realize its potential as a idea commons, access must be abundant rather than scarce. The only way to accomplish this is to do what Ahumanright ideally proposes: making internet access as free as air or water by building (or buying, in this case) a common physical infrastructure.”

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