The organization plans to launch a data-filled satellite later this year. Already, some of its 'citizens' are uploading copyrighted files to the satellite's website.
When the self-proclaimed space nation Asgardia was announced last year, one of its lofty ambitions was "digitising and storing the wealth of human knowledge in space." But because its "citizens" are allowed to upload files to a database due to be launched on Asgardia's first satellite, some of them have been filling it with pirated images, songs, and video for anyone to stream or download.
Earlier this month, Asgardia's founder, Russian entrepreneur and businessman Igor Ashurbeyli, encouraged its 225,000 "citizens" around the world to upload files to a database that will be launched into orbit on a SpaceX rocket. "Your … data will forever stay in the memory of the new space humanity as they will be reinstalled on every following Asgardia satellite, orbital satellite constellation, not only in the near space but also on the Moon and anywhere in the Universe wherever Asgardia will be," Ashurbeyli said at a press conference in Hong Kong.
According to its website, Asgardia's ultimate goal is to become "the first ever space nation" spreading across multiple satellites, the moon and "other celestial bodies", complete with its own citizens and legal system. Its constitution states that the space-based nation will "respects the laws of and international treaties concluded by the Earth's States, and wishes to be recognised as having equal status." Yet it also goes on to state that "Asgardia does not interfere in any affairs of the Earth's States based on reciprocity," and that it "shall recognise the immunity of commercial secrets and bank secrecy," leading some experts to speculate the project could attempt to act as a kind of off-planet tax or data haven.
However Asgardia ends up, it's all set to begin with the launch of its small initial satellite later this year. The satellite, Asgardia-1, is a small CubeSat with a half terabyte solid state drive, due to be launched on a resupply mission from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station in November. According to a recent filing with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), data will be updated and downloaded from Asgardia-1 using the Globalstar constellation of communication satellites.
Anyone agreeing to abide by Asgardia's constitution can become a citizen and upload 100Kb of data for free, or pay $10 for each 100Kb extra. "Maybe the photo of your little cat, or of your neighbour, or your mother, or your child. Whatever comes to your mind," said Ashurbeyli.
However, what comes to mind for some would-be Asgardians are copyrighted music and videos. Browsing through the over 7000 uploads on Asgardia's website reveals multiple files that are protected by international copyright laws. You can listen to Daft Punk's intergalactic Voyager, watch the anime Attack on Titan, stream Freethink's documentary short about living in orbit, and never give up rickrolling your friends in zero-g. You can also download any of the files with a single click.
While Asgardia's draft constitution says "Asgardia does not interfere in the affairs of the states on Earth on the principle of reciprocity," its terms and conditions warn users that: "Asgardia reserves the right to refuse access… to any user… [violating]… any of the copyright or trademark laws of the United States, Austria or Great Britain." Websites—and possibly self-proclaimed nations—hosting infringing material can be liable for infringement of copyrighted material if they do not comply with takedown demands. Asgardia also has a contact page for copyright owners who think uploads may infringe their rights. In this way, it is not so different than YouTube or Imgur or any other site that hosts user-generated content—except that it plans to physically host the data storage mechanism in space.
Michael Dodge, assistant professor in the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota says the fact that it's in orbit won't offer much in the way of protection from earthly copyright laws. "It doesn't really matter that the infringement will also take place in space," he says. "Because the satellite is going to be launched from the US on an American rocket, it would appear on our national space registry." Under the United Nations' Outer Space Treaty, that means the Asgardia-1 will technically be under the legal jurisdiction and control of the USA.
In fact, if Asgardia doesn't tame its illegal file sharers, the database could jeopardize the operation of the satellite, and even its launch in the first place.
"The FCC will have some say over what can and can't be distributed through the [upload] signal," says Dodge. "And SpaceX's launch license from FAA requires it not to violate international laws. They can rescind it if necessary."
Asgardia did not immediately respond to request for comments. The 'space nation' is currently in the process of voting for a flag, ratifying its constitution and selecting a leadership team from among its citizens. It describes itself as a "future member" of the United Nations. "They can say that all they like but it's not going to make them an independent state," says Dodge. "Until they are recognised by other nation states, and perhaps by the UN, it will be difficult for them to claim that other states can't reach in and force them to obey their laws."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .