Switched off!

John C. Tanner
15 Apr 2011

Two of the basic and most lauded characteristics of the internet since its emergence as a global data network have been its borderless nature and its survivability in the case of router failure. Take out a router or even an entire hub, and the IP packets will find a way around it.

Such was the internet's reputation that when a draft bill appeared in the US Senate in 2009 that would reportedly give the President the legal capability to order ISPs to shut down networks in the event of a national emergency such as a cyberattack on the nation's infrastructure, the idea of a "kill switch" was ridiculed by IT and security experts both for its ineffectiveness as a security measure and its general infeasibility as a solution. After all, one does not just shut off the internet. And even if you could, the economic impact would be so substantial - not just on the telecom sector, but businesses nationwide that rely on the internet to do business - that the cure could do far worse damage than the disease.

That was then. Less than two years later, the government of Egypt demonstrated just how feasible an internet shutdown could be. In late January, protesters took to the streets protests demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down after 30 years of power, and relied heavily on SMS and social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to organize. The Mubarak regime decided blocking specific sites wasn't enough, and - to the surprise of many - Egypt effectively dropped off the grid for six and a half days.

Since then, Libya - faced with similar protests against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi - has also resorted to powering down the internet. And both incidents have revived interest, speculation and worry over the proposed US Senate bill that is back in circulation, albeit in a revised form that limits the ability of the President to pull anything like what happened in Egypt.

And so the question has been asked in various countries: could it happen here? And should operators be concerned?

The short answer is: it depends on a number of factors, both technical and non-technical. But more importantly, perhaps, than the possibility of a shutdown in a given market, is that the Egypt and Libya blackouts occurred in the context of growing recognition of governments around the world that the internet is enabling more freedom of communications than they're comfortable with - from social networking sites encouraging revolution, adult content and encrypted (and thus unmonitorable) email services like BlackBerry to whistle blowing sites like WikiLeaks and even file-sharing services (see Sidebar, 'Out Of Control'. Whether it's in the name of policing piracy, silencing dissidents or protecting national security, many governments are seeking to exert more control over their patch of the internet - and the operators that provide access to it.

To be sure, many governments have been asserting some level of control over internet content for years, observes Ovum analyst Angel Dobardziev.

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