Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does the Internet Have an "Off" Switch?

The Internet used to be a quaint thing that only academics and geeks used to know about. Now, it is, for all intents and purposes, a utility, much like electricity and gas. Everyone uses it, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, children just assume it's always been there. Adults have come to accept it as part of their lives. Businesses now rely on it as a way business is conducted.

Many years ago, computer systems were centralized in large data centers and if a data center went offline, that was bad. In fact, it could put our national security at risk.

The Internet was designed to be resilient to attacks by making servers be able to work in multiple places simultaneously and the data communications path to a specific computer be flexible in case the circuit was cut or otherwise unavailable. As a result, the Internet is up essentially all the time.

But is there an Internet "off" switch?

We've seen recently in Egypt that the government was able to shut down the Internet when there were uprisings. Part of the public's ability to mobilize themselves was that they had the communication abilities of the Internet. News reports reached the world because everyone with a cell phone was able to make video and still photo reports and send them — unfiltered — to the world.

Yet the Egyptian government controlled the telecommunications for the country and so was able to turn off the Internet.

China's government similarly controls all Internet traffic, especially what it allows its residents to see outside of China.

I don't know whether there is similar control of the Internet here in the United States, but I do know that the services that we've come to rely on would be severely hampered if the Internet were to be turned off.

Here are some examples of things we now rely on: Telephone service, television service, news and information, weather reports, online business transactions, travel information, medical information. The list goes on.

In another vein, the GPS navigation satellite system that we all rely on is owned and operated by the United States government. It's used globally by motorists, airlines, delivery companies, emergency responders and many other businesses. And, yes, the United States government has said in a time of emergency it would disable the GPS satellites.

This is one of the reasons why the European Union has put together its Galileo project, which is an alternative to the American GPS satellites.

Both the Internet and GPS are now essential parts of the global lives. Let's hope we never have to know if there's really an "off" switch.

Update: Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal about a bill in the United States senate titled "Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011" to provide an official "kill switch" to the Internet:

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 23 February 2011.
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