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Space neoliberalization agitates the frontiers of Canadian data privacy

As SpaceX and Blue Origin make headway with low-earth orbit satellites, old concerns about Canadian data privacy re-emerge

Canadian PoliticsCanadian BusinessHuman RightsScience and Technology

From the European Space Agency, an artist’s illustration of the huge numbers of satellites and space debris in Earth’s orbit today. Image by Hopeful in NJ/Flickr.

A space opera

Notions of private and non-commercialized space were forced into a dramatic showdown in 2019 when a SpaceX satellite in low-earth orbit was on a collision-course with a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite. While the caper made international headlines, the collision was avoided when the ESA’s Aeolus satellite was forced to move out of its orbit, with SpaceX later blaming the near-crash on a bug. More than just an orbital traffic jam, this standoff signaled an unfolding collision on a greater scale—between a planet that is finite and partitioned by state boundaries, and the expanses of outer space that are hotly contested by nations and private corporations.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already launched 1,000 satellites through the Starlink project, which received regulatory approval from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) in November 2020. Amazon’s former CEO Jeff Bezos had joined the space race with plans to launch 3,236 satellites and invest more than $10 billion into Blue Origin’s Project Kuiper—which is a few steps behind Starlink in receiving FCC approval just in the US in July 2020. The Blue Origin project itself has already signed a deal with Canada’s own Telesat whereby Amazon’s rockets will propel the Canadian satellite constellation into orbit.

But amid lukewarm domestic reporting, few questions have been asked about data privacy implications and the role of Canada as a launch-pad for Musk and Amazon’s more terrestrial ambitions. As former ISED Minister Navdeep Bains stepped down to be replaced by Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Trudeau issued a mandate letter that mentions low-earth orbit satellites as one step toward universal connectivity—which would in principle assure that all Canadians have access to high-speed internet.

Navigating the dilemmas of extra-terrestrial territories and infrastructure has raised new concerns over data sovereignty and localization, while dredging up unresolved issues of privacy and data protection, such as the weakness of existing Canadian privacy and data legislation and revealing the extent to which the military-industrial complex underlies even the most ordinary of commercial internet service providers (ISPs).

Space, both near and far, is the frontier of arms races, territorial claims, and resource extraction missions. Cosmic prospecting operations appear as spritely headlines in our popular media and just as promptly disappear (Mining on the Moon!, Colonizing Mars!, Space Wars!, Let’s go colonize Titan!). But nary a thought goes to space-junk, bio-contamination, and chemical pollutants that now litter the skies beneath the watchful stars that Plato’s Timaeus once likened to “divine and eternal animals.”

Internet connectivity that relies on crossing uncharted territories inevitably brings with it new forms of colonialism. Seemingly benign infrastructure and philanthropic offers of universal connectivity are in fact strengthening global supply chains that enrich the world’s most powerful billionaires. The commercialization of space is rapidly redrawing the bounds of global capitalism to the tune of waffle-makers, embroidered leather tissue boxes, tutus for dogs, and 12-packs of Amazon branded batteries. The future is cheap, fast, and yesterday, and the jostling of the private sector to claim a stake in satellite internet is just one small part of this absurd opera.

But first, let’s take a step back.

SpaceX Dragon 16 in orbit. Photo from Flickr.

Digital colonialism

First published during the era of the rapid corporatization of news media in the 1980s, Ben Bagdikian’s prescient book The New Media Monopoly drew attention to the grim picture of the Big 5 in the United States and unregulated media privatization. From Time Warner and Disney, to Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann and Viacom, Bagdikian drew a parallel between the US Big 5 and the OPEC cartel: “…the major media maintain their cartel-like relationships with only marginal differences among them, a relationship that leaves them alive and well—but leaves the majority of Americans with artificially narrowed choices in their media.”

Since the 2004 revised version of Bagdikian’s classic text, not much has changed with regard to the warnings it raised around media consolidation and corporate copyright during the emergence of the internet for mass consumer use. Media manipulation and propaganda around 9/11, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq War reverberated across North America, employing the now-quaint artifacts of AOL CD-ROMs and Canada’s own Sympatico internet discs—at one time, available over the counter at local pharmacies.

Today, the same cartel-like characterization could be applied to Canada’s own Big 5—Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and Quebecor—with their reigning monopoly over both connectivity and media in the country. Mandated by the CRTC—a government agency that is supposed to be independent, but is guided by the government’s policy directives—the Canadian Big 5 cross wires between telecommunications, media corporations and ISPs.

With few exceptions, smaller Canadian ISPs rely on Big 5 infrastructure—like heavily government-subsidized fibre-optic cable that is subsequently privatized—paying fees to re-sell this connectivity to their clients. With corporations like Bell’s Northwestel maintaining a monopoly over services across the Yukon, Northwest Territories and, increasingly, Nunavut, smaller ISPs and non-profits find themselves excluded from network access, government subsidies for infrastructure, and accessibility programs in underserved areas that stand to benefit from community-owned initiatives.

Shelley Robinson, Executive Director of National Capital Freenet (NCF)—a non-profit ISP based in Ottawa with around 5,000 members—commented on the current discrepancy between the subsidies provided to multi-billion dollar corporations and smaller ISPs.

Robinson referred to the Connecting Families initiative as an example of how monopolies are reinforced through government subsidies that are otherwise intended to increase access to connectivity for lower-income, underserved and remote communities. Investing $13.2 million over five years starting in 2017-18, the program is currently only offered by the incumbents who own the network, which has spurred activists and civil society initiatives like ACORN Canada to campaign for its expansion.

But the fees that smaller ISPs often need to pay to use the Big 5 infrastructure make it financially challenging for them to participate in such programs.

Widespread COVID quarantines have heightened the urgency of universal connectivity, putting greater pressure on communities which still don’t have reliable and affordable internet access.

Ken Sanderson worked as Executive Director of Broadband Communications North (BCN) from August 2016 to January 1, 2021. Also a non-profit, BCN is Manitoba’s largest Indigenous-owned ISP, serving over 55 communities across the province. But on a national scale, the organization is still a small player. Over his years at BCN, Sanderson saw significant challenges to bringing internet connectivity to remote and First Nations communities, not least of which is the frigid Manitoba climate and its large number of satellite-dependent communities. Speaking with Canadian Dimension this past fall, Sanderson described how many First Nations and remote communities have felt left behind due to a lack of investment in connectivity.

The early years of BCN, he noted, were slanted toward providing internet access to “the most difficult to reach communities that desperately need services,” which weren’t being served by the big telecom companies. While BCN is in a relatively unique position among smaller companies in Canada due to running their own fiber-optic cables, other actors like NCF have to piggyback on existing infrastructure owned by one of the Big 5. Describing how BCN’s business model has allowed the organization to be self-sufficient over the years, Sanderson emphasized the severe competition with the private sector for government grants.

“My biggest problem is that it’s corporate welfare,” he said. “The only reason why they’re doing it is because the government is giving them all of our taxpayer dollars to do it—and then allowing them to take those taxpayer dollars and [use] them to line their pockets.”

While critical of the Big 5 monopoly, Robinson was more lenient with the current ‘reseller’ model: “The nature of historically advantaged companies that own the access because of cable and of telephones isn’t necessarily problematic because it’s a wholesale model,” she said, adding that Sweden has a similar model based on a few core providers of infrastructure, with service-based companies competing on prices, services and packages.

“We’re pretty enmeshed in our current structure… It is unlikely that the government is going to take over this service wholesale,” said Robinson. “They’re not going to nationalize the big carriers, right? Instead, what that looks like is them subsidizing the big carriers to provide service to everyone.”

The predatory practices of the Canadian Big 5 have long drawn criticism. Bell’s subsidiary Northwestel came under fire in 2015 for the privatization of fibre optic cable that was installed with public subsidies in the Yukon. The company now has a virtual monopoly over internet services in the North—where infrastructure is less built out—and has more recently expanded its reach into Nunavut, where the primary competitor is the satellite provider Qiniq. Further, as Jim Bell reported for Nunatsiaq News in March 2020, Qiniq was overrun with traffic during the early pandemic lockdowns, while Northwestel was allowed to double their bandwidth caps—without needing permission from the CRTC.

Without equitable access to funding from the federal government for smaller ISPs, non-profits and co-ops, multi-billion dollar corporations have been able to exploit gaps in service and further solidify their monopolies. These service gaps disproportionately affect Indigenous communities, with only 24 percent of Indigenous households having access to quality, high-speed internet.

Given the colonial context of internet connectivity across Canada, this poses significant questions about Indigenous data rights, privacy and sovereignty that have been omitted from public statements on reconciliation, and are taken for granted in mainstream coverage of digital policy. Trudeau’s mandate letter to Champagne, for example, makes no mention of Indigenous data sovereignty, privacy or decision-making under the principles of reconciliation. As Sanderson pointed out, First Nation voices have been excluded from decision-making in the evolving landscape of Canadian telecoms, as the CRTC does not proactively and consistently include Indigenous governments and representatives in consultations or on boards.

“If we were to be totally honest regarding the court-recognized sovereignty of these communities, we would see them having a say even on spectrum,” Sanderson remarked, referring to the government-regulated range of radio frequencies that wireless communications signals travel over. “Spectrum is a natural resource and, in my opinion, should be part of their Treaty rights in terms of what they have a say over.”

This dynamic is starkly similar to that of any other colonial extractive or commercial industry. Sanderson brought up the assertion of sovereignty by Mi’kmaw fishers in Nova Scotia against the corporate interests of Clearwater Lobster, which was met with settler and police violence in October 2020. What would it mean for the colonial military and police forces, for example, if a First Nations government suddenly asserted Treaty rights over spectrum on their territory? How would this alternative relationship to spectrum as a resource fundamentally change the course of the digital colonialism that we are witnessing and abetting?

“You have a case where communities are trying to participate equally in the wealth of this land, and through racism and greed and selfishness, there’s a large group of people blocking them from that,” said Sanderson. “People, generally speaking, have always profited off of Indigenous people. Unfortunately, Indigenous people haven’t had the opportunity to profit off themselves.”

Enter Starlink and Project Kuiper.

A Northwestel satellite dish in Whitehorse, Yukon. Photo courtesy the Whitehorse Star.

Boomerangs and biases

Musk and Amazon’s race is just the most recent iteration of a push for low-earth orbit satellite connectivity. Motorola, for example, had vied for early satellite dominance by financing the Iridium satellite project in the early 1990s and 2000s.

Media coverage of Starlink hypes the anticipated connectivity as a pseudo-philanthropic initiative that will finally bridge the digital divide for northern, Indigenous, and rural communities. Pikangikum First Nation became the first Indigenous community in northwestern Ontario to connect to Starlink in December 2020, through a partnership with Kenora-based FSET Information Technology. Paul Schoppmann, vice-president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, called Starlink “the wave of the future” and an economic “game-changer.”

Andrew Clement—Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and co-founder of the Identity Privacy and Security Institute—shared this generally optimistic view of Musk and Amazon’s satellite projects. “In some ways, it’s really promising if it can be done in a public interest way,” he said, referring to achieving universal connectivity. “If that can be created, this could be a real boon to internet access, and telecommunications access more generally, for remote areas that are relatively underserved and that are expensive to serve using land-based infrastructure.”

But while the entry of SpaceX or Amazon’s satellite ISPs into the Canadian market may not be threatening to the Canadian Big 5 and otherwise well-developed urban networks, their entry does point to long-standing questions around privacy, and the role of ISPs in democratic societies.

Clement referred to the CRTC’s approach of forbearance—or light-touch regulation—that was established in the 1990s as a way to allow “relatively unfettered expansion of internet access”, compared with more stringent regulations around telephone service. As a result, much of Canada’s internet backbone—as opposed to its telephonic structure—is foreign-owned, with branches and traffic largely routed through the US. And, as evidenced with Bell’s billion dollar sale of 25 data centres to California’s Equinix last June, the proportion of US ownership is only growing.

Clement emphasized “boomerang traffic” as a crucial issue: “All of the discussion about protecting data is about where it’s stored, where it is when it’s at rest, but without paying attention to where data is when it’s on the move.”

With satellite, data travels continuously between earth and space, presenting a challenge to terrestrial state borders, and claims of data sovereignty or localization. And here is the crux of the issue—are we prepared, legally and ethically, to deal with that, as earthly borders and uncharted jurisdictions are being rewritten into outer space?

Signed in November 2018, the Canada-US-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) entered into force on July 1, 2020, with relatively scarce media coverage of how the agreement compromised on key Canadian data protections. Negotiated under former Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, the agreement prevents the member states from restricting the cross-border transfer of personal data “for business purposes.” In other words, there’s no obligation for US companies to store data in Canadian servers. Protectionist policy toward cross-border data flows, however, runs contrary to the global neoliberal order of the World Trade Organization (WTO). As University of Turin professor Alberto Oddenino wrote on issues of digital standardization and cybersecurity in 2018, Canada’s restrictive bidding process on government email consolidation in 2012, as well as Chinese data security law and Vietnam’s draft cybersecurity law from 2017, raised “doubts of compatibility with WTO rules.”

There are some overriding exceptions to cross-border data transfers, like British Columbia’s privacy regulations that require personal data to be stored in Canada. But as Brenna Owen reported for the Canadian Press in April 2020, even this was temporarily lifted to allow for public sector workers’ access to digital tools while working remotely—posing a minefield of questions around security of medical, education, financial and government sector data over Slack, the location of Zoom servers, and recourse in the case of breaches once data leaves Canadian jurisdiction.

Published on the heels of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations to media on the PRISM program in 2013, Michael Geist’s anthology Law, Privacy and Surveillance in Canada in the Post-Snowden Era contains a key chapter on boomerang routing co-authored by Andrew Clement and York University Communications professor Jonathan Obar. As the term implies, such routing boomerangs traffic across significant distances from Canada to locations in the US before arriving at the initial intended location. Clement and Obar’s research demonstrated how nearly all Canadian boomerang routes passed through key cities known to have NSA interception points. Among these were major Canadian banks, universities and Canadian government websites—from Health Canada, to the Privy Council, Citizenship and Immigration, and the Office of the Information Commissioner.

The nature of data in movement, especially through satellite connectivity, creates gray areas of Canadian traffic being subject to US laws like the Patriot Act. Dwayne Winseck, professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, acknowledged the continued weakness of Canadian data protections in the face of overreaching US laws: “I don’t think we have an effective response to them. I think CUSMA further constrains the capacity for an effective response to that problem.”

Since Snowden solidified the evidence of NSA surveillance, litigation to bring the NSA back within the rule of law continues today. Early this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that a lawsuit filed 13 years ago on behalf of AT&T customers against dragnet surveillance by the NSA and government agencies is still ongoing. And lest Canadians get apathetic about ceding jurisdiction over data to our closest ally, we have already seen the US extend its long arm through the prosecution of Julian Assange—an Australian citizen not bound by any patriotic duty to the United States, and whose prosecution is setting a precedent for extradition of foreign nationals on the basis of American national security laws.

While echoing the optimistic view of Starlink and Project Kuiper as potentially beneficial for achieving universal internet access, Winseck also pointed to the bigger picture of institutional and enterprise reliance on satellite connectivity in the face of US foreign policy. “It’s when you go beyond the idea of these companies just as carriers,” he said, questioning whether data localization “would actually be the panacea that many think it is.”

“It doesn’t matter whether or not Microsoft or Amazon, or Google Cloud are required to meet data location requirements in China, Russia, Europe—wherever. They’re American companies and that is the determinative key here. The US is not going to give up just because the assets are held on foreign territory.”

Amazon Web Services (AWS) runs a largely secretive network of servers—a few in Canada, but most in the US—and it already has a stake in handling Canadian government data and IT infrastructure through the Canada Region project, with one cluster of data centres (which AWS calls Regions) located in the Montreal area. Another cluster was announced on March 30, 2020. This is in addition to other private enterprise clients like Canadian universities and companies in the oil and gas sector.

Consider also the ubiquity of connected devices, from Google Home and Amazon Echo to smart fridges and smart cars, and other wirelessly connected devices. Casting such a wide net on consumer data while also grabbing up network infrastructure poses an unchecked challenge to data protections and net neutrality in Canada, but also globally. While hardly raising an eyebrow in Canada, such attempts at sweeping data-grabs and efforts by multinational corporations to lock consumers into branded ecosystems have been met with fierce resistance elsewhere.

Shelley Robinson brought up the example of Facebook’s Free Basics app in India (a mobile extension of its larger project), which offered free internet connectivity to underserved communities using Facebook as a portal. Cloaked in philanthropic messaging around internet access as an essential service, it was nonetheless vehemently protested by Indian tech workers, students and academics who saw past the bangled and henna-adorned hands on Facebook’s billboards, through to the violations of net neutrality, the self-interested data grabs, and digital colonialism of Mark Zuckerberg’s company. As one of the countries with the largest population of internet users in the world, India’s refusal of Facebook’s courting ultimately upset the company’s ambitions to act as a network provider—with Free Basics ending up banned in India in 2016.

“When you have an internet experience that’s mediated by somebody who wants you there for commercial purposes,” said Robinson, “then they have a vested interest in what you do on that internet. Is it even the internet anymore when it’s controlled and hemmed in and prescribed in that way?”

Still of animated map of the internet backbone in Canada and the US only showing backbone circuits (blue lines) and some data centres (light blue dots). Image courtesy Hurricane Electric.

Electronic frontiers

With comparatively low stakes in Canadian rural and Indigenous communities, and a stalwart urban infrastructure dominated by the Canadian Big 5, what is the point of Musk and Amazon’s multi-billion dollar oligopolies entering the Canadian market? Surely the two richest men on the planet—at least, before AWS CEO Andy Jassy replaced Bezos—couldn’t have been after real assets in underserved northern communities.

More than the human clientele, what appears to be enticing is the geopolitical access to the Canadian North.

Securing a low-earth orbit position in the northern latitudes may make it easier to establish key communications gateways for supply chains in remote northern areas, especially with the increasing militarization and extractive development in the Arctic. Responding to Martín Arboleda’s recently published treatise, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism, Thea Riofrancos wrote that landscapes and labour are intimately tied together in a pattern of exploitation that reaches beyond “nationally bounded units”:

…ever since their origin in military logistics, supply chains have always imbricated capital and coercion. In the post 9/11 era, these global networks are governed by a security logic that equates strikes, terrorism and piracy as so many threats to the speedy movement of goods through transnational ‘corridors’ and ‘gateways’ … Complexity is the contemporary supply chain’s strength—but also its source of vulnerability … Each node of the chain is a potential location of technological glitches, labor insurgency, Indigenous protest, and, increasingly, climate-change induced extreme weather.

Banal as it appears, the topography of internet connectivity is an essential part of supply chains that are complex and vulnerable—at once multipolar and yet increasingly monopolized. Industry headlines have avowed that satellite connectivity and the Industrial Internet of Things is bound to transform logistics and “boost revenues across global supply chains.” Control over this type of connectivity is in high demand by private contractors working in communications and location logistics in active warzones, such as the Dubai-based Sicuro Group, which is active in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and has worked with Motorola’s Iridium low-earth orbit satellites, as well as the British satellite telecom Inmarsat and UAE’s Thuraya.

Further, what does this mean for Amazon proctored satellite connectivity, for example, in the context of the company’s labour practices? Do we really want a world where Amazon has even more centralized control over global supply chains and an additional stake in the heart of internet connectivity?

Much like Clement and Obar observed regarding the NSA’s partnership with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter and Apple, both Starlink and Amazon are themselves US military contractors. This has raised little concern from Canadian media in light of the more palatable story of universal connectivity. In November 2020—just as Starlink received CRTC and ISED approval—Musk’s SpaceX was contracted by the US Space Force for a $29.6 million surveillance and integration study that gives the Space Force access to monitor and study data from SpaceX commercial and civilian space missions, as well as “tools, systems, processes and launch site activities developed by the launch service provider for non-national security space missions.”

And how can we ignore Amazon’s history of working with the CIA or its bidding war for the Pentagon’s $10 billion “war cloud” JEDI contract—which has been undergoing litigation since the Pentagon awarded the project to Microsoft in September 2020?

The grip on global supply chains, satellite connectivity, and access to remote communities paints a picture of a familiar hegemony that doesn’t just look like a cozy brand of free and affordable internet for humanity.

So while Musk and Amazon’s projects are an otherwise banal blip on the Canadian ISP radar, we can’t overlook both the nature of these corporations, and the serious implications of unchecked expansionism under Canadian regulations that have fallen behind in response to emerging technologies and changing fields of jurisdiction.

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.


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