Regulatory Review: Space Ethics

By | October 10, 2000 | Via Satellite

By Gerry Oberst

In August, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released on its Web site a thoughtful report on the ethics of space policy. The document has a strong European slant, as virtually no one outside of Western Europe participated, but it offers a useful array of issues for the 21st century.

UNESCO was founded in 1945; but the United States pulled out in 1984, questioning the relevance and political attitude of the body. A few years ago UNESCO decided to promote “ethical multi-disciplinary and pluri-cultural” reflection on the progress of science and technology. Out of that effort, it created a World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). The European Space Agency (ESA) subsequently proposed that COMEST set up a new working group on the ethics of outer space, which was commenced in December 1998 and led to the recent report.

The group sought to identify major ethical questions that might arise from human activities in space. In several meetings and a seminar last year in Paris, the group focused on development and use of science and space technology, and protection of the environment, public freedoms and cultural identities arising from space activities.

Some of these topics are rather “woolly,” and the resulting discussion was unfocused, failing to acknowledge the depth of literature and previous thinking on the issues. To be fair, the working group said that its report is no more than a preliminary phase, designed to identify rather than dig deeply into the issues.

The report lists the benefits and disadvantages of using space as a tool. On the benefit side, it lists earth observation, position finding and navigation by satellite, and new information and communication technologies. This section could have benefited itself from more recognition of the role communications satellites have had in creating economic growth around the world.

The discussion of the disadvantages of the equation focuses on environmental risks from space development (i.e., the 4,500 tons of space debris that remain in orbit) and nuclear energy in space. Also listed are electronic surveillance, encroachment on individual freedom through interception of communications, the grandly worded “encroachment on identity and cultural diversity” and, finally, acceptability of messages transmitted through space resources (i.e., content control).

The focus of the latter group of these issues flows from the overwhelmingly European participation in the working group. Electronic surveillance and data privacy via satellite are European bugaboos at the moment. The report ominously says “there is as yet no legislation to regulate access to, and use of, data processed on board satellites” (my emphasis) and recommends–twice–that laws be put in place to regulate this area. Since very little data is actually processed in space–most satellites are bent pipes–this thinking seems a bit strained.

Participants in the group also said that civilian dependence on the U.S. military development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) “raises anxieties.” Thus, the report notes, Europe has decided to set up a “specifically European civilian system…the Galileo Program, which might supplement and even replace the GPS system.”

The debate over encroaching on identity and cultural diversity referred to iniquitous effects of satellite communications, leading to the “globalization of culture” and possibly the “standardization of means of expression.” One of the seminar participants warned against “perverse forms of cultural alienation”–a scary thought.

Although the group discussed ethical implications of sharing space resources, UNESCO might be better served to avoid setting up yet another forum for debate over equitable distribution of frequencies and orbital positions in the geostationary orbit. This topic has been endlessly debated internationally through the International Telecommunication Union. The short discussion in the UNESCO report does not do justice to the far more detailed debate already well-underway on those issues.

The report dogmatically says that the sale of land on the Moon is in “complete contradiction” with space law, since “space must remain at the service of all mankind.” By contrast, the report shows a studied ambiguity on patent rights for space technologies, questioning whether discoveries that bring universal benefits might be subject to free access. Nevertheless, in recommendations, the report concludes by saying that there should be no “reproving attitude” towards commercial use of space, and that as long as private funds are used, a “commercial logic” is justified.

The report’s recommendations are a curious mix of specific and very vague notions. For example of the latter, there should be a “symbiosis between scientists, lawyers and ethical committees.” Other parts of the report are academic mumbo jumbo. But the group’s final thought was that its work is only the initial step, which COMEST should use as a “first stage to worldwide conclusions.”

To reach worldwide conclusions is probably a pipedream, considering the issues. Nevertheless, a broader geographical scope and more–much more–participation by industry players would be a useful part of COMEST’s program. v

Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. His e-mail address is

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