Saturday, November 25, 2006

Giant Space Billboards Are Bad For Everybody Not Just Astronomers.

The Bad Astronomer (here) makes a good point about how foolish it was to drive a golf ball from the International Space Station. There's a lot of space debris in orbit already without adding a hurtling golf ball into the mix. Even if it is for only a couple of days.

The possibility of stupid commercial activity in space prompts him to say this in the same post:
"Anyway, I fear this will not be the last of the dumb things done to make money in space. I’m not sure how much to worry about space banners, for example, which will be big lit-up banners in orbit hawking commercial products; this has been proposed realistically and could do serious damage to ground-based astronomy. The list goes on and on. I’m not a big fan of regulating what goes on in space, but if garbage like this golf shot keeps up, I may change my mind."
Actually, giant billboards in space would ruin the night sky for all of us, not just ground-based astronomers. The aesthetics of the night sky would be ruined and people all over the world would be a captive audience whose only option to avoid the advertising would be to look at the ground not the sky. Who wants that?

To some degree we are all exposed to advertising we'd rather avoid. We voluntarily expose ourselves to most of that advertising by reading newspapers and magazines and using TV, radio, and the internet. Billboards differ from media advertising because we are exposed to billboards just by walking or driving around in public.

Space billboards would be so much more intrusive than ordinary billboards. Here on Earth a billboard may be visible for a block or two or maybe for several miles on the highway. Space billboards, on the other hand, would be visible over vast reaches of Earth to millions of people at the same time. That difference in degree is a significant intrusion on people's ordinary lives and justifies legislation against space billboards, even for merely aesthetic reasons.

There may be environmental reasons to ban space billboards as well. Depending on their brightness, the proliferation of space billboards could light up the night in ways that ruin the environment for nocturnal animals. It's true that cities pollute the sky with their light at night but there are weighty considerations of safety and necessity to justify the amount of light created by cities despite the environmental impact. Because orbital billboards would fly over cities and the dark countryside their impact on the environment would be widespread. Moreover, the potential benefits from space advertising likely would not justify the negative impacts on the environment and the night sky.

Space advertisers may have free speech rights on their side, but even free speech can be regulated by reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. The negative so far outweighs the positive that it seems entirely reasonable to ban obtrusive space billboards visible on Earth.

For a more in depth analysis of legal issues surrounding regulation of space billboards read this Note (here) in The Federal Communications Law Journal and this online article (here) by Jimm Erickson at the website of law professor David D. Friedman. According to the Erickson article Congress has already acted to prevent obtrusive space advertising from ruining the night sky. A US launch license can be denied to any spaceflight sending "obtrusive advertising" into space.


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If space bill boards became a reality I would petition the military to shoot it down.

Joking aside, it would make the whole viewing the Universe a whole lot less fun.
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