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According to Western media, citing Russian officials, Russia has somewhat transparently threatened to attack SpaceX satellites.

September 19, 2022

A Russian representative named Konstantin Vorontsov issued the warning last week at a United Nations working group meeting on reducing space threats. [...]

“We would like to underline an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has become apparent during the events in Ukraine. Namely, the use by the United States and its allies of the elements of civilian, including commercial, infrastructure in outer space for military purposes,” [...]

Vorontsov then issued his veiled threat by saying: “It seems like our colleagues do not realize that such actions in fact constitute indirect involvement in military conflicts. Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

On the other hand, Elon Musk, who is the SpaceX CEO has refused to block any Russian sites over his network and said he is a "free speech absolutist".

Elon Musk can surely put up twitter polls on his peace initiatives that call for Ukraine's neutrality (and recognizing Russia's claim to Crimea), but I'm not sure that would be enough to mollify the Russians with regard to his satellites' use by Ukraine. According to PC Mag

it’s no secret that the Ukrainian military has also been using Starlink to send encrypted messages and to control drones that can attack Russian forces.

So how could SpaceX prevent military use of their satellites to avert the Russian counter-action threat, while maintaining free speech absolutism?

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    Is there a universally-accepted definition of "free speech absolutism"? Oct 5, 2022 at 6:06
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    if your definition of free speech absolutism is that you can't have any restrictions on speech it's pretty obvious you can't have both. by definition doing what russia wants would be a restriction on speech. moreover, modern wars are incredibly fuzzy and it's not even possible to strictly define what is "military" and what is "civilian". What I think is civilian use and what russia thinks that is ... is not the same
    – eps
    Oct 6, 2022 at 23:08
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    what protects starlink is what is actually required to actually harm the network -- russia has performed ~ 5 ASAT tests, to harm starlink you would need to be taking out 100's of sats. The missiles are not cheap (and they might not even have that many), and the resulting debris field would be an international incident that could potentially make human rocket launches functionally impossible for many months to several years.
    – eps
    Oct 6, 2022 at 23:22
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    Apparently there is Starlink outage which severely disrupts Ukraine's plans. It just shows the danger of relying too much on private owned foreign technologies Oct 7, 2022 at 17:47
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    Elon Musk isn't a "free speech absolutist". From what I understand, he supports free speech when it serves his personal agenda or financial gain, and censors people when it does not. Ten examples are presented in this article: gizmodo.com/… Oct 10, 2023 at 9:21

5 Answers 5

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I guess SpaceX could treat the military exactly the same way as every other customer/ user they have. Essentially there are messages send via star link by Bob, messages by Coca Cola and messages by the Ukrainian Army. All are known users of star link and all messages are encrypted.

What SpaceX would not do is give the military extra secret channels, allow them to hide their traffic any more than other users or give them some special admin rights.

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    How would this avoid them being a military target? Oct 6, 2022 at 6:35
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    @user253751 Whether Russia considers them a military target is up to Russia and has nothing to do with criteria that can be objectively measured.
    – quarague
    Oct 7, 2022 at 7:29
  • "not ... allow them to hide their traffic" - So the military would use open channels with no encryption, for anyone to see any message, un-hidden in any way? I think that is the basis of any good communication network: no user can see the communication of any other user. I mean, I understand your intention with that sentence, but the words really need rework. Also, the fact that the military will not get control of the satellites does not mean that there will be no communication between them and SpaceX. "Absolute free speech" does not inherently invalidate such cooperation.
    – virolino
    Oct 13, 2022 at 7:58
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    @virolino You need to read the entire sentence "not .. allow them to hide their traffic any more than others users". So if all traffic is hidden, so is theirs. Also the sentence just before says "all messages are encrypted" and you somehow read a "no encryption" in there.
    – quarague
    Oct 13, 2022 at 18:28
  • @quarague: sorry for the way I formulated my comment. You did not get the "tone" of it. The idea was: since everything is actually encrypted and "secret" already for everyone individually, then what is the purpose of your sentence? The basic idea remains: SpaceX can give info to the military without giving them access to the satellite.
    – virolino
    Oct 17, 2022 at 6:51
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This seems like at odd with what SpaceX is actually doing since they went out of their way to deliver Starlink terminals to Ukraine. There are 2 ingredients to those comms: the sats, which are hard to wall off. And ground terminals which have to be in the zone of operation.

Not disapproving of said delivery, just remarking that it contradicts your Q's premises.

BTW, neither here, nor there, but we saw a string of them from a beach last week. Gorgeous and eery, but we really didn't know what they were until we talked to someone about it, though we suspected sats. The video link gives only a small sense of what's a sky-wide phenomena during their testing phase (they get launched in big lots of 53/rocket).

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+100

So how could SpaceX prevent military use of their satellites to avert the Russian counter-action threat, while maintaining free speech absolutism?

They can't. Preventing military use means restricting a use, which is incompatible with free speech absolutism.

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  • Fair enough. I suppose my Q was a bit leading. As for what SpaceX did, in the meantime, we found that (1) they put geographic limitations on service and after there were complaints because of that (2) they leased a portion of their bandwidth to the US military (Starshield) so to wash their hand as to whom the latter might sub-lease it to... youtube.com/watch?v=Mhcd5oos_P4 Oct 9, 2023 at 8:37
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    @Fizz It's a good video after 10:11 it shows military use was explicitly prohibited by Starlink Terms of Service so while Must might claim to be an absolutist SpaceX, the owner (or at least operator) of Starlink does not. Their updated TOS, points to US Export Control, refers to military use as "modification", and reserves the right to silence 'free speech'. "At its sole discretion, Starlink may refuse... tech support (and modification=military use) is grounds for termination of this Agreement." Oct 14, 2023 at 22:30
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Threat of Force

OP asks (emphasis mine): "How could SpaceX prevent military use of their satellites to avert the Russian counter-action threat, while maintaining free speech absolutism?"

So since OP has asked "How can I have unrestricted speech but also restrict some speech?" and that questions doesn't make any sense, I am interpreting the question as "How can Starlink operate in such a way as to minimize the threat of Russia shooting down their satellites?"

And the answer is - there isn't any threat of Russia shooting down their satellites.

Historically, attacking neutral shipping has directly lead to declarations of war. Attacking a neutral satellite system is a very similar prospect.

So it stands to reason that Russia will not physically destroy a (neutral) American satellite system, even if it could. Losing a war of attrition to Ukraine is much preferable to Putin to dragging the full weight of NATO into the war, regardless of who "wins" that version of the conflict.

Note that this leaves on the table many kinds of non-physical attacks or exploits - Russia can jam terminals, use radio emissions to locate Ukrainian units, etc. But as long as Russia does not destroy a satellite, they don't risk NATO involvement, and therefore Elon's assets are safe.

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  • How exactly is a private company supposed to use the threat of force to protect their satellites? And allowing military use seems to run counter to the question.
    – Joe W
    Oct 10, 2023 at 15:32
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    @JoeW - It's not necessary for the company to make the threat - the threat exists because it is a company owned and operated in a neutral country. As to the "counter to the question" part, that's why I highlighted OPs own words "to avert the Russian counter-action threat" -- the question is based on the false premise that there is a Russian threat to shoot down Starlink satellites.
    – codeMonkey
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:08
  • OP seems to ask a contradictory question - "How can I allow all speech while restricting some speech?" -- I took the "to avert Russian counter-action" wording as insight into the reasoning. OP wants to understand how the Russian threat of force should impact Starlink operations. My answer is that it shouldn't.
    – codeMonkey
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:10
  • Your claim of it being a contradictory question should be addressed in your answer. And allowing military use goes against the idea of preventing military use
    – Joe W
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:16
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    @JoeW - fair enough. Updated.
    – codeMonkey
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:34
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From a purely technical stand point, it's probably not that difficult to predict the military use cases of the technology and to disable them.

This is made even easier by the fact that the company knows who the end-points belong to.

For example, any endpoint moving faster than mach2 is highly likely to be a military unit. No civilian aircraft other than Concorde moves faster than mach2. And Concorde aircraft are no longer in use.

As another example, any moving endpoint rapidly approaching a perimeter of a stationary endpoint would be highly suspect if the 2 endpoints belong to 2 countries on opposite sides of a war. This would prevent Starlink from being used to (for example) transmit a feed from a drone approaching enemy positions. In order for the black out itself not to be used as a locator, it would have to stop working outside of a wide enough radius (20mi or so).

But these are just some of the technical scenarios I have thought of right now. Obviously a highly sophisticated service, such as Starlink, would take into consideration more nuances and more possible use case scenarios.

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    Any endpoint moving faster than mach2 was probably first put on the drawing board in the 90s, before Starlink existed. Military-origin hardware components (missiles, autonomous drones) aren't going to be designed to use the public internet. Starlink is pretty much never going to have to differentiate based on mach+ speeds, especially as its groundside terminals are fairly bulky. starlink.com/kit Oct 10, 2022 at 18:14
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica the original design may have been in the 90s. But jamming and getting around it are a matter of on-going research. Comms on controls can be changed.
    – wrod
    Oct 10, 2022 at 18:20

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