This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.
Small satellites could help bring internet access to more of the world’s citizens. That’s cool.
You know what’s uncool? Rich dudes fighting over whose space toys are better.
Let me tell you about the satellite spat between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the technology they’re working on and the risks of over relying on tech to tackle complex problems.
Here goes: Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, Amazon and other rich companies are working on networks of relatively small satellites that beam internet access to the ground. These networks orbit at lower levels than conventional satellites and are cheaper to make and launch.
Proponents say that these networks can expand internet service, particularly in remote areas, to ships at sea and in other hard-to-reach spots. Similar small satellites are being used for other projects such as monitoring wildfires. There are drawbacks, but we should be excited about the possibilities.
This week’s tiff started because SpaceX wants permission from the U.S. government to move some of its satellites to lower orbits. Amazon said that would interfere with its satellites. Musk got angry. Amazon said that SpaceX was trying to “smother competition in the cradle.” (Side note: America’s dominant online retailer probably shouldn’t accuse others of smothering competition.)
Usually I love to watch rich people squabble. The Kardashians! But this time … ugh.
I understand why SpaceX and Amazon want to persuade a U.S. agency. But I hope that the trash talking doesn’t distract them from important questions: Is this satellite technology the best approach to help get billions of more people online? Or is this another potentially misdirected effort to throw complicated technology at a complex human problem?
Put more simply: Is this a good idea?
We should be excited by ambitious technology but not blinded by it. Compared with even thousands of satellites, the best existing internet pipes can carry far more web traffic. Satellite internet still typically requires specialized equipment on the ground, which isn’t easy to build or pay for. These emerging internet projects might be a very helpful complement rather than a substitute for established internet infrastructure. That’s one reality.
The other reality is that if you want technology to change the lives of billions of people, you also must think about … what’s that word? Ah yes: people.
Even in a rich country like the United States, people don’t lack internet access solely because the technology isn’t up to snuff. There are also misguided government policies, structural inequalities, the need by many to spend money on more immediate essentials and more.
That means bringing more people online in the United States — not to mention the rest of the world — cannot be done by technology alone. We also need to think holistically about the barriers to internet access among individuals and society.
Look, billionaires can snipe at each other, obsess over rocket protocols, and think about government policies and human motivations. But even billionaires must prioritize. If they and the rest of us fixate on winning a “space race,” they risk failing to put people first. (Or they may be motivated by making money rather than bringing the world online. They can do both, I think.)
The satellite back-and-forth made me reflect on this interview with Tracy Chou, who developed software to help filter out harassing online posts. She said that some companies want to believe smarter technology can solve everything. It can’t.
I’m sure Bezos, Musk and everyone else involved in satellite internet projects know that. They just have to act like it.
Robinhood’s wild ride
Everyone from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the right-wing personality Ben Shapiro declared the stock trading app Robinhood a villain on Thursday. Robinhood likes to say that it enables anyone to enter cloistered financial markets. Its critics said the company messed with the free markets to squash the little guy.
But this week’s tale may have been simpler: A bumbling company was bad at money.
What happened: Hordes inspired by a Reddit group have been helping to drive up the stock prices of GameStop and other companies. Robinhood and some other stock brokerages this week then limited customers’ transactions in the gyrating stocks. People got mad and said that Robinhood was trying to protect rich investors from losing to minnow online traders.
But maybe Robinhood didn’t have money? Stockbrokers like Robinhood are legally required to have enough cash to pay customers, cover losses and have a cushion if things go wrong. This week seemed to strain Robinhood’s ability to do that, and my colleagues reported that the trading platform needed to raise $1 billion in emergency cash.
What’s the lesson here? My colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin asked an important question: Is there something wrong with Robinhood that it didn’t have enough cash without emergency funding or cutting off customers? My DealBook colleagues asked: Is Robinhood’s business model broken?
Also, maybe everyone should tweet less and ask financial regulators more questions.
Pay attention to how Robinhood makes money: It’s a good moment to reread my colleague Nathaniel Popper’s article on the people hurt by rapid-fire stock trading and how Robinhood draws young Americans into risky financial transactions.
And these no-fee stock trading apps may be less democratic than you think. Robinhood and its competitors get paid by Wall Street firms who do the actual stock trades, and try to squeeze a few pennies from the transactions over what Robinhood customers pay. This is a longstanding industry practice and not inherently bad. But getting paid by Wall Street giants doesn’t match Robinhood’s image of empowering the masses to beat the rich.
Before we go …
The Twitter mob for a corporate agenda: My colleague Adam Satariano examines how one company harnessed the techniques of social media manipulation typically used by authoritarian governments to promote its policy goals.
The mystery of Google’s deleted paragraph: A human rights group criticized Google for opening computer centers in Saudi Arabia. The company then altered a blog post about its Saudi project. Protocol explained what happened.
Warm weather, a Bitcoin-friendly mayor and (purely coincidentally) lower taxes: Please enjoy my colleague Nellie Bowles writing about the kite-surfing clubs and other cultural changes as titans from technology decamp to Miami. One relocation company is calling it “Mass Techxodus.”
Hugs to this
A beautiful snowy owl was spotted in New York’s Central Park this week for the first time in more than a century. Look at this owl staring down crows! (Alas, the owl seems to have left the park.)
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected]
If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.