Egypt's five-day Internet blackout has come to an end, but the discussion of the incident has only just begun.
Tech pundit Robert Scoble said, "If Egypt taught the world one thing, it is that turning off the Internet isn't a good way to squash protests."
Indeed, the Egyptian government pulling the plug on the Internet brought significantly more global attention to the protests in Egypt, and the world rallied to give Egyptians some options for getting back on the grid and for allowing their voices to be heard despite the communications disruption.
Still, this kind of outage is not something that we want to see on a larger scale, and since much of the Internet's core infrastructure is located in the United States, there is even greater responsibility in the US to learn some lessons from the Egyptian blackout.
I see two big takeaways here:
- US citizens should mobilize to defeat the current government proposal for an Internet "kill switch"
- We need to reverse some of the momentum toward a centralized Internet, or at least devise a peer-to-peer connectivity alternative
Let me explain.
Kill the Internet "kill switch"
The so-called Internet "kill switch" bill was introduced in June 2010 by US senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins. The bill wasn't passed into law in 2010, but the legislation — known in Washington as the "Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act" — is now making a comeback in 2011.
The idea of the bill is that during a "national cyber emergency" (e.g. Internet-based attacks on the power grid or hacking into US weapons systems) the President of the United States and the Department of Homeland Security would have the authority to shut down private systems across the country, essentially bringing down the Internet to stop the attacks until everything could be secured. (Because the Internet is a distributed network and the US is a huge country, it's unlikely that the government could take down the whole thing but it could knock out a big chunk.)
One of the most distasteful parts of the legislation is the provision that it "shall not be subject to judicial review." In other words, the courts could not take a case regarding the act and then declare the legislation unconstitutional, effectively striking it down. The senators would have only added that provision if they were concerned about the courts eventually killing the whole thing.
Lieberman and Collins have attempted to defend the legislation as "a precise, targeted, and focused way for the president to defend our most sensitive infrastructure," but this entire thing is indefensible — especially in light of what happened in Egypt this week.
This legislation is enormously over-reaching. It's like sending an aircraft carrier to pick up a fishing boat with a dozen congressmen who got lost at sea.
A much better idea would be for the Department of Homeland Security to develop a serious public/private partnership with the right facilities, service providers, and potential targets. Start running drills and setting up groups of government and private workers who are ready to spring into action in the event of a serious attack. If they have to temporarily shut down part of an Internet pipe to stop an attack, so be it. But, shutting down a large swath of the US Internet in order to block all potential attack vectors would spread fear and panic, cut off people who can potentially help, and, arguably, violate the First Amendment rights of Americans.
What's your take on the Internet kill switch? We're running the same poll as our sister site CNET in order to see where TechRepublic members stand on this issue.
Whatever you think about the kill switch, if you are a US citizen you should contact your representative in Congress to express your views so that your voice can be heard in this debate.
Decentralize the Internet
The other, less obvious takeaway from the situation in Egypt is that the Internet has become centralized into the hands of too few providers and too few data centers. While it is still a decentralized network, the fact that Egypt could so quickly and successfully execute the decision to cut off virtually all Internet traffic within its borders is a sign that the Internet is not nearly as decentralized as it once was. Otherwise, it would be much more difficult, time-consuming, and resource-intensive to knock it offline.
Much of the lore about the Internet's origins as a distributed network designed to withstand a nuclear attack or any other kind of natural or man-made disaster is mythical. However, the early Internet was much more of a peer-to-peer experience — as much because of limited resources as anything else. Still, as the network grew and took on a larger global character, the benefits of its decentralized origins became apparent, as it became nearly impossible to shut down, even if a bunch of nodes went offline.
This was never more important than in 1991 when Soviet hardliners attempted a coup d'état in Russia and were able to control much of the country and shut off all communications. But, they couldn't find a way to completely shut off the Internet. Through the Internet, people from around the world were able to get messages of support to the Russian protesters who stood up against the hardliners in huge numbers and ultimately caused the coup to fail. It remains the Internet's most heroic moment.
Now, I'm not about to get all sappy and say we need to return to the 1991 Internet. That would be impossible. Today's Internet is infinitely larger, much more robust, and far better funded. That's why it's run by all of these massive, high-powered data centers that are more efficient and more centralized. Our Internet is also much more of a commercial entity because all of this gear is exorbitantly expensive, and there's a lot of money to be made off of selling Internet access. There's no way to put the genie back in the bottle.
But, why can't we create an alternate Internet/networking protocol that would enable us to run a global, ad-hoc, peer-to-peer network using the wireless networking chips in our individual computers and/or our Wi-Fi routers? We wouldn't need to use it all the time — it would certainly be slower and less reliable than the big Internet (and it would demand certain hosts to essentially share their connections to the larger Internet) — but in a state of emergency or government crackdown or a coup, it would make it virtually impossible for a government to shut off its citizens from each other and the rest of the world. And, small teams could use it in a pinch when they were gathered together for meetings outside of the office. One member of the team connected to a high speed connection could share it with the rest of the group (this would irk some of the ISPs and wireless providers, but they'll have plenty of money to make off of Internet access in the years ahead).
I realize this is a bit of a crazy idea and there are some technical limitations and caveats, but if peer-to-peer can work for Skype and Bit Torrent, then we should be able to make it work for a global machine-to-machine network — especially since so many of today's personal computers have so much unused processing power. This would essentially become the Ham Radio of computer networks. All we need is the right set of resourceful, dedicated engineers to take this idea and make it happen. Then, any "kill switch" legislation or attempts at Internet blackouts like the one in Egypt this week would become a lot less potent.
- Congress Considers Internet "Kill Switch" (CBS News)
- Senators propose granting president emergency Internet power (CNET)
- Internet 'kill switch' bill will return (CNET)
- Computer Networks and the Soviet Coup of 1991 (Michigan State University)
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.