What would happen if we switched off the internet?

As Wikipedia looks set to join a web blackout in protest against anti-piracy laws in the US, we ask the question: What if the internet was switched off?  

“My fellow Americans. Following the Chinese cyber attacks last week on over 20 of our Fortune 100 corporations, I have no option but to make use of the provisions laid out in the Protection of Cyberspace as a National Asset bill of 2010. As of midnight tonight, all nonessential access to the World Wide Web in the United States and its allied countries, including Britain, will be suspended.”

Imagine waking up one morning to discover you have no new emails, updates or tweets on your smartphone. Then, when you search for today’s news on your laptop, all you get is a pop-up sign, saying: 'You are not connected to the Internet.' After irritatedly turning your modem off and back on again, you’re still getting no connection. Then you realise you can’t get onto the web via your mobile’s 3G either. Finally you give up and revert to old media. Switching on the TV you see a recording of the President of the United States making the above speech the previous evening. That’s when you really choke on your cornflakes…

 

The perfect online storm

What would you do if some catastrophic event, be it a massive cyber-attack, Presidential edict or natural disaster, brought down the web? For many, it’s like asking what they’d do without electricity and gas or their car.

A recent Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report warned of the dangers of a cyber-attack “perfect storm” where an attack or natural disaster in the real world was made infinitely worse by a simultaneous assault on a country’s online infrastructure. However, it also stated that cyber-attacks in themselves were unlikely to cause the system to collapse – just individual websites.

It is only governments, then, who have the power to interfere with – or even completely turn off – the web in their own countries.

In Egypt, we’ve seen the beleaguered Mubarak administration deny web access to its citizens. This was not done by any clever, viral methods, but by telling the country’s internet service providers to stop providing internet services. Simples.

As Bill Gates told American reporter Katie Couric at the time: “It’s not that hard to shut the internet down if you have military power where you can tell people that’s what’s going to happen.

“Whenever you do something extraordinary like that you’re sort of showing people you’re afraid of the truth getting out, so it’s a very difficult tactic, but it can certainly be shut off.”

In a democracy, such an action would be far harder. This would not be for technological reasons, but because the government would be wide open to massive lawsuits from those whose businesses suffer or perish as a result of a deliberate web shutdown. Panicked overseas investors would also surely run for the door.

Such a scenario is unlikely then, but not impossible. The US remains the number one target for cyber terrorism. It naturally wants to keep its electronic frontiers secure. Wikileaks – just about the most primitive form of cyber attack one could imagine – has caused outrage over there. If the alternative is having its security compromised, could the US be willing to relax its commitment to free speech and free trade and “switch off” the web?

Last year, rogue Democrat Joe Lieberman proposed a bill that would give the President power to shut down or take control of certain aspects of the internet in times of national emergency. The 197-page Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset bill would give Barack Obama access to a so-called internet killswitch if the nation came under a serious cyber-attack.

Joshua Gruenspecht of the lobby group the Campaign for Democracy in Technology says the US Government’s recent subpoena of Twitter for access to Wikileaks’ account is a sign that the powers that be wish to exert more control over cyberspace.

“We’re going to see on-going touchy issues like this Wikileaks and Twitter story that demonstrate that the protections that we have right now are not as strong as they ought to be,” he says.

“The FBI has put forward a suggestion that companies should be required to design their websites so as to make it easier for US law enforcement to access. They want to effectively be able to digitally wiretap things like Gmail, Skype and Facebook.”

However, Gruenspecht concedes that the US’s constitution and laws mean this would not be a pushover.

“There will be some tension between government security needs on one side and economic needs on the other. I think we’re going to continue to see a pushing and pulling dynamic.”

 

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