A (Working!) Web Broadcast from Space: Interview with Outernet
Thane Richard of Outernet is chatting with me while in a coffee shop (on the anonymous peer-to-peer chat platform Talky). His car is being repaired at the mechanic next door—ah, the woes of the terrestrial world!
Thane, what is Outernet?
I think we should start by saying that there’s a pretty big problem—gap, disparity, whatever you want to call it—in the world right now, that not a lot of people are aware of. That’s that only about a third of humanity right now has access to the Internet. Four billion people cannot access the Internet, which is essentially an enormous library. The largest library ever built. And that library enables you to access so much valuable information that everyday, people like you and me take for granted. Whether it’s news, entertainment (entertainment is an end in itself, I think), health information, weather data for farmers, courseware. What Outernet does is we broadcast the best of the content of this library, from space, for free.
And so anyone within our broadcast footprint, which right now is limited to North America, Europe, Middle East, and North Africa—anybody can build a receiver, which we publish plans to—openly—no one ever has to buy anything from Outernet. In fact, we encourage people to build their own receivers, and we hope that, sort of like FM radio, we can focus on the signal and allow others to manufacture the actual radios that tune in to the signal.
And everything that it is in the library, or in the broadcast, is selected and open for vote. So people can request. We just actually released this last week. It’s called WhiteBoard. You can go and paste a link—we ask that you tell us what the license for the content is—and then people can vote on it. It sort of moves up and down the queue based on demand. So, that is Outernet.
Excellent. With the system of voting, is that because you have only so many megabytes to broadcast per day, so the content must be prioritized?
Right. Right now we’re broadcasting 200 megabytes per day to those locations I mentioned. It’s like BitTorrent from space.
How could Outernet help in, say, a zombie apocalypse, in which a lack of electricity limits connection to the Internet?
[Laughs.] I’m a huge Walking Dead fan, too. Or I used to be at the beginning. I feel like the show’s kind of fallen off.
In the event of a zombie apocalypse—what you always see in the classic zombie movies—is all these little groups working in isolation. Everybody just sort of forms these camps, nobody has any idea what’s going on, the plots are always centered around getting to the “safe zone” but no one knows if it’s been built. It’s almost like we go from the two-thirds of humanity who don’t have access to this library, to everyone. In that situation, Outernet would be the oasis in the desert. We would continue to broadcast, because whatever is happening on earth, whether it’s a zombie apocalypse or tsunami or military conflict, has no effect on our ability to broadcast from space. We’d probably prioritize news, emergency information, how to best prepare and defend yourself from the zombie apocalypse—maybe that book by, who’s the guy who wrote World War Z? His first book about the zombie preparedness guide. Anyway, maybe we’d broadcast that book and a few classic zombie movies so that people can see what works and doesn’t work.
I should clarify—Outernet is not the Internet. It’s not two-way communication. With Outernet, it’s a one-way broadcast. You receive what we broadcast, and you can filter it.
What would it take for Outernet to become a two-way communication system?
More funding. [Laughs.] If we had an unlimited, deep purse, we’d be able to switch on to two-way communication, but there are actually a few reasons why that’s not ideal, and why there should be a one-way broadcast, sort of as a baseline that is always available, and having a two-way broadcast as more of a premium service.
The first is that, when you have a two-way broadcast, you have transmitters, because now you’re not just having an antenna or a dish or a receiver that is purely a receive-only device, which is what you have with, like, an FM radio. Your FM radio can’t talk back to the radio station, so it’s not as heavily regulated. Whenever you start broadcasting information from a device, you’re going to run into enormous hurdles in terms of telecommunication regulation, pretty much in every country. So we’re able to mostly avoid that.
The second is that, because it’s a one-way data stream, it guarantees the end user anonymity of consumption. When you turn on your radio in your car, nobody knows you turned it on and nobody knows what you’re listening to. So same thing with Outernet. Nobody is able to know—we’re not even able to know—how many people have built a receiver, whether it’s on, what they have on it and what they’re reading. So for those who are very concerned with privacy, especially with all the revelations with what the U.S. government has been doing with the NSA, tracking Internet users’ online behavior, that’s not something we’d be able to give access to even if we wanted to. That sort of shield of anonymity is very important.
Do you yet take donations in Bitcoin?
We do! We have been accepting bitcoins for a little while.
How else can people get involved?
There are actually several ways. The first, as you mentioned, is to donate and support our work financially, which we always appreciate. Short of donating, the biggest help would be signing our list. Adding your name and email to our list is casting your vote in support of a world without censorship and with free information access for everyone, regardless of income or geography. It helps us build credibility, raise
funds, and deliver on our mission. The last way is really pretty basic—just support what we’re doing by adding to the discussion. Go in our forums, talk about what you think about Outernet, why you think it’s important, whether you disagree with it. Some people disagree with it, and think we’re a total conspiracy. They think we’re like SkyNet [laughs].
We just released a video that we think is pretty powerful, about this idea of a world without censorship—what would this world look like if everybody had access to this information? So that is a huge help when people share that video. The more people around the world who know that Outernet exists, the better.
Outernet’s Bitcoin donation address is 12BvyAn2wYHzgCKcJvKfapKgo9G7anEcSX. They are currently holding a crowdfundraiser to make the Outernet broadcast completely global.