Starlink's beta test is requiring participants to recognize Mars as a "free planet."
It's an unusual bit of fine print, and the implications go far beyond securing good internet on Earth.
SpaceX's internet connectivity constellation Starlink, which began forming in May 2019, has started inviting interested fans to the "Better Than Nothing" beta test. While the final version aims to offer gigabit download speeds at low latency to anyone with a view of the sky, the beta is offering more like 50 to 150 megabits per second – hence the humble-brag test name.
But the Starlink terms of service, as spotted by Twitter account "WholeMarsBlog" and confirmed by Reddit moderator "Smoke-away," require users to agree that "no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities."
Under section nine of the terms, SpaceX explains how services provided around the Earth or Moon will follow the law as governed by the state of California in the United States. But for Mars, the story changes a bit:
"For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other colonization spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement."
The comments highlight one of SpaceX's biggest ambitions for the coming decades: to send the first humans to Mars and ultimately establish a city by 2050.
To achieve that goal, the firm is developing the Starship, a fully-reusable rocket measuring around 400 feet tall when paired with the booster. SpaceX wants to send the first cargo ships to the Red Planet in the next few years.
Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO, has commented before about the sort of government he'd like to see emerge on the planet. In a March 2018 interview, he predicted the city would operate on some sort of direct democracy. He compared it to the early United States, where representative democracy was most logical due to the sheer size of the nascent state.
“Everyone votes on every issue and that’s how it goes,” Musk explained. “There’s a few things I’d recommend. Keep laws short. […] Something suspicious is going on if there’s long laws.”
Not everyone follows Musk's logic. Jim Pass, CEO of the Astrosociology Research Institute, told Inverse in April 2019 that he believed the determiner will be who is sponsoring the settlement. A religious organization could lead to a theocracy, whereas military types may lead to a more autocratic structure.
Like other features of the "Better Than Nothing" beta, it's possible that Starlink's terms right now don't make it to the final version. The company is expected to start offering services in the United States and Canada by 2020, before moving to a larger breadth of the populated world by 2021.
The Inverse analysis – As with many of Musk's projects, it seems Starlink includes some tongue-in-cheek references, too.
Another joke was spotted in the new Android app by Reddit user "joehalfrack." In the app, an animated character called Dishy attempts to help. The easter egg, seemingly a reference to Microsoft Office's much-hated "Clippy" assistant, is an example of the sort of references Musk likes to make, whether in his company's products or on his personal Twitter account.
It's difficult to imagine Starlink's terms trumping international laws and treaties, but if the clause was designed to draw attention to the service it worked — how many other satellite broadband providers do you know that have people sharing their terms of service on Twitter?