by Dave Clemente
What would happen if we suddenly lost access to the internet? What if the online services we have come to rely upon were unavailable? And is this too far-fetched or a real possibility?
Regimes in countries such as
The revolution was facilitated in part by information and communication technologies -- the internet, mobile phones, social networking sites etc - which the government severed with ease. Though the blackout lasted for five days, it did not stop the protests. In fact by closing off all virtual means of expression, it may have encouraged people out on to the streets to voice their discontent.
People around the world are asking if the same thing could happen in their country. As the internet has spread and become more complex, shutting it down at a global level has been made almost impossible. The underlying infrastructure is sufficiently widespread, interconnected and resilient to nudge such an idea into the realm of science fiction.
Yet it is clearly possible for a government to exert varying degrees of control over the internet connections that cross their country's border. Duplicating the Egyptian blackout in a country such as
First, there are practical barriers to a blackout, as the internet infrastructure in most countries is almost entirely owned and operated by the private sector.
Second, the political costs -- domestic and international -- would be high, particularly in countries with even vaguely democratic governments. Preventing access to the internet would be perceived as highly repressive and a denial of a service that is increasingly considered to be a human right. It would also be likely to inflame anti-government sentiment and galvanise protesters.
Third, the economic damage would be immense. For this reason -- more than any other -- a blackout is highly unlikely, particularly for an extended period. All organisations that rely on the internet would be forced to suspend business. Financial institutions would be unable to trade with the outside world, businesses would be isolated from supply chains, and any remaining lines of communication would be swamped as e-mail ground to a halt.
Even under extreme circumstances the Egyptian government could only sustain the blackout for five days. In many countries the internet is a core component of the critical national infrastructure, and there are fewer and fewer alternatives to the services it provides. Take it away - even through the use of legitimate emergency powers - and trouble will ensue.
For these reasons and others, a complete internet blackout is unlikely in most countries around the world --
democratic or not. A localised "solution" is more probable, as in August, 2011, when the
The lesson here is that governments of all kinds are willing to consider or implement drastic measures to stay in power, albeit in different ways according to varying political norms. Fears of hackers or cyber terrorists disabling or degrading the internet are overhyped. In reality the greater danger comes from misguided, short-sighted or reactive government policies.
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"Is There an Internet Off Switch?"