Last week saw Syria wiped off the face of the internet, as our own Kyt Dotson so eloquently described it, leading many to wonder about the chances of an internet blackout ever occurring here.
So reliant are we on the internet in this day and age, that the consequences of being disconnected – even for a few hours – could be extremely serious from an economic viewpoint, and so people are quite right to be a little worried.
So could it happen to us too, or is the chance of such a thing happening so remote that we should never give it a moment’s thought?
Well, according to the web services firm Renesys, which regularly assesses such risks on behalf of its corporate clients, there is reason to be a little worried, although the chances of the US finding itself in the dark are pretty remote.
What with so much interest in what’s going on in Syria at the moment (which, by the way, is now back online), Renesys decided to carry out a little survey to illustrate the blackout risk of “all the domestic providers in each country who have direct connections (visible in routing) to foreign providers.”
Renesys created the following illustration, which reveals somewhat predictable findings: nations such as Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Turkmenistan and Tunisia for example, all of which are led by autocratic regimes or have experienced severe political instability in recent months, have the highest risk of finding themselves cut off from the world. Meanwhile, stable western nations such as the US, UK and Australia are all quite unlikely to be disconnected.
According to Renesys, the risk factor relates directly to centralization. Countries with a distributed internet architecture containing built-in redundancies and lack kill-switch capabilities to tempt evil-doers are the most robust.
“The key to the Internet’s survival is the Internet’s decentralization,” notes Renesys. “But it’s not uniform across the world.”
A second issue is regulation of the internet. According to Rensys, the problem in countries like Syria is that telecommunications services are heavily regulated, with only a handful of government linked companies allowed to operate. This makes it incredibly easy for such governments – if they so desire – to switch off the internet at a moment’s notice, and leave the country effectively cut off from the world.
Using this definition, Renesys came up with the following criteria to assess each country’s risk:
- If you have only one or two companies at your international frontier, we classify your country as being at severe risk of Internet disconnection.
- If you have fewer than 10 service providers at your international frontier, your country is probably exposed to some significant risk of Internet disconnection.
- If you have more than 10 internationally-connected service providers, but fewer than about 40, your risk of disconnection is fairly low.
- Finally, if you have more than 40 providers at your frontier, your country is likely to be extremely resistant to Internet disconnection.
All in all, it would seem that the US is pretty resistant to any kind of internet black out, and so we don’t have much to worry about, but are we just living in a false sense of security? Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Huffington Post that there is one possible weakness in the US – the undersea cables that connect it with the rest of the world, of which there are only a “limited number”.
Even so, while cutting these cables would cause an awful lot of problems, it wouldn’t cut off the US completely, as the country has multiple connections to Canada and Mexico (and hence, the rest of the world) that would remain intact.
But perhaps there’s another threat that we haven’t considered. It seems inconceivable, but could the government one day ever decide that it has reason to flip the switch and cut off the internet by itself?
Most people would assume that’s quite unlikely, but one has to wonder why else certain officials would attempt to pass laws giving the government the power to do exactly that, not once, not twice, not even three times, but on four occasions?
So far, nothing has come of these moves, but one can’t help wondering whether or not those same people are just waiting for another chance…