Could We Ever See An Internet “Kill Switch”?

This past week I was interviewed on the evening news about Egypt’s decision to cut itself off from the Internet, and whether we might ever see something similar in the United States, in light of recent proposed legislation on a “kill switch” for the Internet.  I decided to elaborate on my thoughts from this interview.

Internet censorship is more pervasive than most people realize; it takes place in nearly 60 countries.  Last week, however, we witnessed an unprecedented event, whereby Egypt shut down Internet connectivity entirely.  In Egypt, all Internet traffic passes through only five Internet service providers (ISPs), so a government can shut off Internet traffic by controlling just a few Internet service providers.  An Internet “kill switch” is really a metaphor: these five Egyptian ISPs went offline one-by-one over the course of a few hours, with the large national incumbent ISP, Telecom Egypt, leading the way, and three other ISPs following their lead over about 15 minutes.  Four days later, a fifth ISP, which hosts many of the Egyptian financial institutions, was shut down.  Each of these ISPs has what is known as a “border router”, a device that forwards all traffic between its users inside Egypt and the rest of the world.  In the same way that network operators in this country can install filters to stop traffic from certain unwanted locations (e.g., from spammers), the Egyptian operators likely installed a filter to drop all Internet traffic between Egypt and the rest of the world.

This action raises many questions.  In light of recently proposed “kill switch” legislation (see page 76), many people wonder whether something similar could happen here in the United States. This outcome is unlikely.  First, the United States has more ISPs and connection points to the rest of the world.  Cutting us off would require control over many more Internet service providers and points of entry. Even if the government could order all ISPs to cut ties with the rest of the world, we would not feel the same impact: Because many of the sites and services that citizens want to access (such as Facebook and Twitter) actually host their services within our borders, cutting off the United States from the rest of the world might have a larger impact on the rest of the world than it would on us.

Another question is whether Internet access is a human right as much as water, electricity, and food, and, if we think it is, how we might guarantee that citizens have free and open access to information in the face of repressive or authoritarian governments.  There has been much work on circumventing censorship, but governments eventually block them.  A complementary strategy might be to somehow entangle the traffic of ordinary users with traffic associated with critical infrastructure and activities.  The OECD released an estimate that Egypt lost as much as $90 million as a result of the Internet shutdown.  Egypt only shut down the ISP hosting the Egyptian stock exchange for one day instead of five.    The more everyone’s Internet traffic is intertwined with the traffic that is critical to a country’s revenue and operations, the more difficult it is for a government to cut off Internet access to its citizens without crippling its own operations.

Finally, while having no Internet access whatsoever seems dire, it is worth asking whether there might be worse scenarios.  While a complete shutdown of the Internet is certainly inconvenient and costly, a more competent government or organization might use the Internet to persuade and control its citizens, perhaps by sending propaganda or misinformation through services like Twitter and Facebook.  We did see small-scale instances of this, where Egypt forced a large cellular provider, Vodafone, to spread propaganda through text messages.  A far more disturbing scenario may occur when a government harnesses the Internet to spread misinformation or influence public opinion.  Unlike a complete shutdown, such manipulation is more subtle: since it doesn’t disrupt information exchange, the average user may not even notice it.  In fact, it is likely that this practice may already be occurring, perhaps even here at home.