Everybody is talking about the Internet being shut down in Egypt, both in terms of how it was done and what the event really meant — and, quite frankly, I’ve been surprised and disappointed with the level of misinformation out there about this issue. I have nothing political to say, other than perhaps to just generally reiterate my belief that censorship of the Internet is a bad thing. What I want to do today is look at what happened in Egypt and use it as an opportunity to talk a little bit about whether such a thing could happen to the Internet as a whole.
So: How does the Internet work, and can it actually be “shut down”?
The wonder of the Internet is how decentralized it is. There is no primary authority with the power to “govern” the Internet (except perhaps for ICANN — but more on that later). So, if somebody wanted to “turn it off,” there would literally be no place — in the real or virtual world — where they could go to do that. The Internet is, quite literally, everywhere.
Imagine the series of tubes that connect your house to its water supply. Now imagine if your water supply was interconnected in countless smart and fault-redundant ways to all the water supplies in the world, so that water could easily reach even the furthest destinations. That interconnected system is a rough imagining of what the Internet looks like.
As the Internet becomes ever-more entangled in our daily lives, it doesn’t seem farfetched to worry about whether what happened in Egypt could happen here — or everywhere. But it is farfetched. Here’s why:
There are numerous theories about how the Internet was “shut down” in Egypt. While we may never know the truth of the matter, my personal belief is that the government basically found a way to disrupt the very few, very “narrow” connectivity pipes that lead into the country.
Arbor Networks put out a report that showed what they saw when Egypt’s Internet went dark. Great details about that here. If their numbers are accurate, the whole country was pushing just north of 2.5 Gbps at peak, which is a pretty surprisingly low amount of traffic for such a large nation. I can’t tell you whether those numbers are accurate or not, but there are plenty of single sites that push more traffic than that, which means that as a country we’re looking at an overall small Internet footprint. That idea, if accurate, seems to support the theory that there wouldn’t be an abundance of broadband redundancy in Egypt and that this is what was exploited to take down the Internet in Egypt.
But even if that was what happened in Egypt, it quite literally couldn’t happen to the Internet as a whole. There is a tremendous amount of fiber redundancy in America and in many other parts of the industrialized world. If we go back to my “water pipeline” analogy, you can see why it would be so difficult to shut off the Internet as a whole.
Imagine trying to shut off the world’s water supply: there are pipes going everywhere, and they are controlled by all sorts of different groups. Trying to control and close down all of that would be an untenable mess. You would certainly be able to shut down some people and keep them thirsty for awhile, but overall the lack of centralization will serve to keep the system as a whole alive even if parts get shut down.
Now let me address the one central authority that most people fear when they talk about a broad-based Internet shutdown, and why I think that it isn’t something to worry about either. I am, of course, speaking about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. The Department of Commerce has legal authority over ICANN, and if the U.S. Government ever tried to do what Egypt’s government supposedly did, they would try to do it through ICANN. That would have to be how they would go about implementing an Internet “kill switch” – especially if they wanted to try to directly control things both nationally and internationally.
But here’s the thing: it would really only work once, and even then, not for long. Yes, it’s true: the United States government controls the Internet’s Root zone file. But the whole idea of centralized authority requires communal (in this case, global) buy-in, and — given the pervasiveness of the Internet in the daily lives of the world’s citizenry — it is almost a certainty that the global Internet community would immediately pursue alternatives to ICANN if the US government abused its trust by pushing a “kill switch.” There are already Internet Engineering Task Force RFC memoranda out there detailing Root zone alternatives. It wouldn’t take long to get the Internet brought back online with even less centralized authority than it has now.
Bottom line? The idea of an Internet “kill switch” is highly implausible, and the idea of using one would be wildly impractical. It’s crazy talk. While Egypt may be a template of what can happen to a tightly controlled country with relatively fragile Internet infrastructure, it isn’t really a template for how the Internet could be shut down in America, or around the world.
Photo by Marcin Wichary