Truly global internet access will be a double-edged sword – New Scientist

Earth from space
Global connectivity planned

Olena T/Getty

Could toppling dictatorships be as easy as flying a balloon or lofting a satellite? Some of the proponents of schemes to provide global wireless internet from the skies seem to think so.

After all, we have seen the effect that a brief wave of uncontrolled internet access had in the Arab Spring. Imagine how much more lasting and eventful the effects of an internet largely outside of the control of governments who seek to censor it could be. These schemes are nearing reality, as indicated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX seeking consent last week to put 4425 base stations into orbit.

As societies in the West have discovered in recent years, however, unfettered internet access doesn’t just mean giving voice to the voiceless and a more diverse array of philosophies in the marketplace of ideas. It also means a cacophony of voices clamouring for attention by being louder or more outrageous than the next, a platform for demagoguery and division, and the ability to rapidly spread false news stories, images and videos that inflame the fury of the electorate.

It turns out that, rather than being a force for unifying people, the internet in democratic societies has often been a tool for solidifying biases and deepening ideological conflicts. Giving voice to the voiceless can mean amplifying fringe conspiracy theories as well as providing community to shunned minorities.

The internet makes it comparatively easy to find an abundance of like-minded allies, so much so that it quickly becomes possible to only encounter opinions that agree with one’s own world view – a process some …

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