Internet Kill Switch

Posted By on January 29, 2011 at 5:34 pm

With the current turmoil in Egypt, including the shutdown of external internet links by the regime, there’s been some discussion of the possibility of an “Internet Kill Switch” for the US — something that could, as proponents would have it, be used to protect the infrastructure. Says PC Mag:

The legislation was first introduced last summer by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), and the former has promised to bring it to the floor again in 2011. It isn’t called anything as obvious as the Internet Kill Switch, of course. It is called the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act.”

Sounds good, right?

Who could be against that? Anyone who’s watching the news on TV today, that’s who.

[Link via Legal Insurrection.]


It may not be obvious to the average person, but “turning off the internet” here in the US is a task that would be at least an order of magnitude more difficult than in a place like Egypt.

Let’s say you want to cut off internet communication from the US to the rest of the world. [And let’s ignore for the moment any alternative means of communication with the outside world — old fashioned dialup, for starters — we’ll limit the discussion to broadband internet.]

One difficulty is that the infrastructure here in the US is privately owned — the government doesn’t own either the network or the communications companies. Seizing control of their assets and shutting them down, even temporarily, is a huge step, and Constitutionally problematic. (Try to imagine the government moving in and shutting down TV stations.) But let’s say you don’t have to worry about the legality of such a move.

Another difficulty which would arise is the sheer scale of the effort required to take down the internet. An old (in technology terms) saying has it that the internet treats censorship as damage, and routes around it. There is much truth in that. Cutting off internet communication to the outside world would be difficult — there are lots of paths in and out of the US, and every one of them would have to be shut down.

You kind of have to design the network with the possibility of a shutdown in mind from the outset. Sort of like the tyrants in China have done (with the help, I regret to add, of a certain company for which I used to work.)

How about a third difficulty? The public, domestic and international, would be just a tad irate, to put it mildly. Particularly those people outside the US who rely on US-based web services.

But if you want to really make Americans screamingly angry, try shutting down domestic internetworking. It might be rather hard to do — see the axiom I mentioned above — but not impossible. I can think of several approaches a government might take to try it (mucking about with routing and/or DNS, for instance, rather than just unplugging cables here and there) but if it were done, there had better be someone smarter than outgoing press secretary Robert Gibbs on every TV channel and radio station explaining what is happening. Even then, the public may not buy the explanations.

A US administration might survive turning off the internet, cutting people off from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, news websites, shopping, banking and, for a not inconsiderable number of people, telecommuter jobs.

I sincerely doubt, however, that it could survive what would happen after turning the internet back on again.


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