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US Government may need to limit Internet use during flu pandemic, GAO says

The US GAO believes the government may need to block high-bandwidth sites to limit Internet congestion during a pandemic. Is it the right strategy?

Every year, the city of Louisville, Kentucky in the US hosts a massive fireworks display to celebrate the beginning of the Kentucky Derby Festival, a series of events leading up to the Kentucky Derby horse race. During the display, called Thunder Over Louisville, over 500,000 people cram into a several block area creating a traffic nightmare.

Luckily, local police and emergency management officials are pretty good at managing the huge increase in traffic. They block certain streets, convert two-way roads into one-way roads, and do their best to manage the flow of traffic. Indeed, we've come to expect this type of government action during periods of heavy automobile traffic. It might be an inconvenience, but most of us understand it's necessary for the safety of everyone involved. But does the same hold true for the Internet?

Government as Internet traffic cop

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report (GAO-10-8) that suggests a serious influenza pandemic could result in a massive spike in Internet traffic as large numbers of people stay home. The report reads:

"Increased use of the Internet by students, teleworkers, and others during a severe pandemic is expected to create congestion in Internet access networks that serve metropolitan and other residential neighborhoods."

US GAO report on flu pandemic and Internet congestionThe report focuses mainly on the potential impact pandemic-induced Internet congestion would have the US securities markets. But, it also suggests that the government may need to step in and act as an Internet traffic cop; limiting people's bandwidth or blocking bandwidth-intensive sites altogether. Yet, this is easier said than done and may not solve a congestion problem. Here's how the report characterizes ISPs' concerns about blocking specific sites:

"However, most providers' staff told us that blocking users from accessing such sites, while technically possible, would be very difficult and, in their view, would not address the congestion problem and would require a directive from the government...According to one provider, two added complications are the potential liability resulting from lawsuits filed by businesses that lose revenue when their sites are shutdown or restricted and potential claims of anticompetitive practices, denial of free speech, or both."

Even if the government did decided blocking high-bandwidth sites would help cut back on Internet congestion in times of crisis, the report acknowledges that many of these sites are critical outlets for breaking news and important public safety information. The report reads:

"Another provider told us that some of these large bandwidth sites stream critical news information. Furthermore, some state, local, and federal government offices and agencies, including DHS, currently use or have plans to increase their use of social media Web sites and to use video streaming as a means to communicate with the public."

Also, the government may not have the clear authority to order such measures. According to the report, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is "responsible for facilitating a public-private response to the recovery from major Internet disruption." Yet, DHS personnel aren't sure they could enforce Internet restrictions--as the following passage indicates:

"Further, although an effective congestion response strategy could require directing the private sector entities that operate the Internet's infrastructure today to take actions that could negatively affect users, DHS has not determined whether it or other agencies have the necessary authorities to require providers to take such actions."

Lots of questions; little time

The GAO report raises more questions than it answers. It's unclear if blocking high-bandwidth sites would be possible, legal, effective, or even desirable in an emergency situation. Unfortunately, as a variety of natural and man-made hazards could lead to massive Internet congestion, we (meaning government, IT, and even ordinary users) must come to a consensus on how to address the problem, and soon. What actions will be effective and tolerated? As I mention at the beginning of this piece, the traffic cop may be an inconvenience but most people will trade a limited delay for complete gridlock. Does the same hold true for the Internet?

Update 10/29/2009: Added poll

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

83 comments
escull1
escull1

I don't particularly care for the Government's way of operating on anything outside of their way of handling things (ex:health care). I'm afraid they would "fix" things to a point where there would be no way of recovery!

AEcht
AEcht

The idea is unfortunately already "out there", as that's part controlling thinking patterns, apart from only band width....

Ocie3
Ocie3

Shortly after the National Anthem ended at the start of the fourth game of the 1989 World Series (between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants) at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. The majority of people in the USA saw the earthquake as it happened, since they had tuned-in to watch the baseball game on TV. Others listening on radio heard about the event from broadcasters on the scene. Because of damage to the stadium, the game was canceled. A section of the East Bay Bridge, which crosses the bay between Oakland and San Francisco, collapsed, killing 4 people. The Cypress Superstructure, a double-deck portion of the Interstate 880 bay shore freeway that runs North/South through Oakland, also collapsed, killing about 45 people. The immediate, spontaneous result was an enormous "tidal wave" of telephone calls from all over the USA into California. The "long distance" circuits and switches of the telephone system were literally paralyzed. No calls could "get through". It remained that way for a while. Most people soon stopped attempting to call and tried again later. As a result, the traffic eventually declined enough that, although the network as a whole was largely operating "at capacity" for several hours, people could call in to others in California. Perhaps more significantly, California residents could call people who were in other states to let them know that they had survived (or with news that some one they knew had not survived). "The government" did nothing. By the time that anyone who had the authority, if any, to effect a plan was ready to act, it was not necessary. A few people criticized "the government" (federal, presumably) because it did nothing beyond asking the private companies that owned and operated the "telephone system" for information. If memory serves, the FCC conducted an investigation afterward and concluded that government action had been unnecessary. The Internet originated with the idea of connecting all of the local computer networks among the national "military-industrial complex" and government entitities such as the "national laboratories" with one another. As a "packet-switching network" it was designed to be resilient enough to survive a "limited nuclear exchange", i.e., a nuclear war. Surely it should survive an "influenza pandemic". Of course, it would be helpful if all of the bandwidth that is devoted to transmitting spam e-mail were to become available for other uses, along with a cessation of packets sent, for no apparent cause, to closed ports at the specified destination. Succinctly, it seems to me that the Internet is [i]normally[/i] full of crap -- this message excepted. :-) It is curious that the GAO report seems to be most concerned about the effects of too much traffic on the Internet upon the "securities markets". They really don't care whether you might need to send e-mail messages to a few dozen relatives to let them know that one of the clan has bit the dust. Whether a multibillionaire "trader" can continue to satisfy his gambling jones on a futures exchange is, however, priority number one.

tr
tr

First, how about actually paying attention to the cause of congestion in the first place -- spam/phishing/malware. Get rid of, or even put a dent into, that and there's no problem with people doing real work. Second, this smells like a "get our foot in the door" tactic and then use it as a precedent later on.

jasonemmg
jasonemmg

It's a Flu virus...not a matter of national security, natural disaster,etc... Just another way for Gov't to control one more thing!!

jasonemmg
jasonemmg

Yet another freedom the GOV'T wants to take away !!! Maybe they should stop giving BILLIONS $$$$ to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,etc... and spend it on upgrading OUR INFRASTRUCTURE (internet, roads, bridges,etc...)

moondookie
moondookie

fu*k the government, they need to stay away from the internet and ruin the country in other ways. they will never control the net, just like they will never control file sharing

nbpt1
nbpt1

Did the US Government notice any huge usage spikes on 9/11? If there ever was a time it should have been then. Sounds a little like the water shortage during SuperBowl half time thinking.nbpt1

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

like Uncle Sam is planning to test the American public to see just how dim we are. etu

trud
trud

The government has been identified as a serious threat to free speech and communication. Our polls indicate an immediate and serious need to limit government influence and control of a media birthed, fostered and maintained by free people. The internet is self regulated unless you are Chinese and (sarcasm on )willingly submit your life to full governmental control.

buck695
buck695

What next ....tatoo serial numbers under our lips

lodestone
lodestone

The government is stretching what very little credibility they have left mighty slim. But does anyone notice or care?? --Allen

SmokeNMirrors
SmokeNMirrors

It'd be a good time to crack down on all the spammers. There is already authority to close them down and they generate a ton of worthless traffic.

jgerlach
jgerlach

How can people who use the internet at work displace any more bandwidth than those same people at home. What a crock for the government to put their gargantuan and useless hands into something else and completely ruin a system that is designed to divert from one location to another as demand changes.

FortBragg_Surfgoddess
FortBragg_Surfgoddess

Are we getting stupider and stupider as a whole? First off, No the Government should not limit network traffic, manly because they have other things that they need to be doing. Gwad, that is fifteen minutes of my life I will never get back! Plato was right, soon the people make up so much crap that we as a race do nothing but discuss the process even when there is no process.

dawi2
dawi2

Government trying to set a precedent under the pretence of a national emergency. This is the next step in news/information censorship.

lcplwilson
lcplwilson

Banana Republic here we come!! May as well welcome Chavez of Venezuela here as a facilitator for taking over our country. Soon the gov't will have its dirty fingers into every aspect of our lives - if it isn't already.

highlander718
highlander718

I don't believe we should even discuss this option, but ... what if there really is a congestion problem ? The government cannot possibly control or pretend a congestion is happening, not in the US where there are multiple providers so it would be a REAL issue. Anyway, as opposed to the conspiracy theoreticians around here :-), I do not at all believe that the government would do this with a hidden agenda in mind.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... that's why the swine flu scare was produced in the first place.

myersrl
myersrl

You wouldn't need to work with all the ISP's. You'd work only with the main pipeline carriers - everything goes through them. And rather than regulate, I agree with the prior comment, it would make more sense to provide additional alternate pipes to carry the traffic and provide alternate paths and capacity to handle that traffic - reduce the points of failure. Doing so allows more to work from home, reducing fuel consumption, pollution, etc etc.

barffalong
barffalong

Just another way for the government to get their foot in the door and force socialism down our throats.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

The truely sick people won't be up to doing much accessing anyway. The rest of the traffic will be about what peak weekend use is with all the MMORPG players, and streaming video watchers on-line. Workers picking up their e-mail remotely and remotely accessing their applications aren't going to be a continuous transmission. Signals will be quiet for +90% of the time. Yes, there will be slow downs; but it's not going to bring the net to its knees.

jevans4949
jevans4949

If people are actually sick, are they going to be on the net, or sleeping? Is it going to be any worse than any other early-evening or weekend?

plumley
plumley

Every ISP from the local Mom-Pop to AT&T is trying to prove how scarce a resource the internet is. So they can charge more or steal from those who are successful. Morally destitute, criminally stupid, and rapaciously greedy, "Please screw our customers for us." They would love to blame the government. Ridiculous arbitrage rates for podunk phone companies in conspiracies with porn or "free' services. Three, four, sometimes five layers of taxes on phone services means the government is complicit in ill treatment of consumers. If the government issued an order to restrict traffic, the first thing blocked would be thier competition. VOIP anyone? To understand american business, accept that 'Greed is Stupid!' and monopolies risen from the ashes are the worst.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

This in no way is comparable to vehicle traffic at public events. This is China telling us how many children we're allowed to have. this is pre-Civil Rights south telling us we're only allowed to use the special water fountains. What is wrong with you people? This is how it started in Nazi Germany for pete's sake!

SAStarling
SAStarling

...hopefully it's not being already considered by one of the czars.

RU7
RU7

More than half of my home email is weekly adds or special offers. I would be happy to have these cut out but they would probably qualify as critical business traffic. But compared to streaming or gaming that traffic is miniscule. The plan appears to be to use the "pandemic" as a reason (read excuse) to get the mechanisms in place to throttle or restrict Internet traffic. Once the mechanisms are in place, because we know they won't be removed when the H1N1 threat fades, controlling their use is the difficulty. Who has the authority to use them? What uses are legitimate? How can legitimacy or authority be broadened or delagated?

JamesRL
JamesRL

is that people at work are using their company network constantly, for emails, file sharing etc., and only occasionally going to the internet for some light surfing. But if they work from home, and VPN into their company network over the internet, they will create a net increase in traffic. James

isapp
isapp

Honestly, do you really think the whole world is out to get you? Banana Republic, indeed! Hugo Chavez, indeed! Get over yourselves, people. Sometimes one needs to think about the common good, rather than individual selfishness.

SAStarling
SAStarling

... if you don't think they would have a "hidden agenda."

jkameleon
jkameleon

Greed for power comes naturally.

highlander718
highlander718

nevertheless, if a pandemic occurs, there will much more "not truly sick" people staying home, as business and schools will close as a preventive measure.

lmswift
lmswift

This is just another step in the direction of the power hungry mob that has taken over in Washington. The "pandemic" is a fraud just like the take over would be!

dawi2
dawi2

Attempts to control information that we get from radio and TV are under way. This is how it could be done on the internet.

SAStarling
SAStarling

...is what progressives care about. And don't forget that's what brought about the Great Society, which turned out to be not-so great. FDR and Woodrow Wilson were abject failures.

highlander718
highlander718

and of course, all politicians have a hidden agenda. Only lets keep the measure and not exagerate, seeing huge conspiracies everywhere.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Others have given up a long time ago.

jkameleon
jkameleon

That's definition of fascist economy. You are therefore a fascist, not communist nation. Bailouts for ordinary folks- that's socialism/communism. Bailouts for banks and big business- that's fascism.

Pat9008
Pat9008

The idea that all good or evil started with the election in 2008 is just ridiculous. Before the current 'power hungry mob' you had the previous 'power hungry mob'. And the one before that. You should study up on the Patriot Act and the amended version to see how many of your rights have been trampled and how many ways they now have to spy on you.

jkameleon
jkameleon

There are plenty of other things to trust. Ted Nelson's maxims, for example.

jkameleon
jkameleon

"Is stupid" is a matter of facts. "Looks stupid" is a matter of perception management aka PR aka propaganda. Have you ever heard something like: "How is it possible that you don't believe what TV said? Are you some kind of crazy conspiracy theorist? Don't worry, tinfoil hat will help, haha" Sometimes I get the impression that conspiracy theories are disseminated exactly for this purpose.

highlander718
highlander718

what's it going to be ? TRUSTING politicians makes you look stupid or NOT TRUSTING them, but trusting conspiracy theories ? I think it is obvious that is's neither, but as I said before, we have to keep a certain measure, I personally think that 99% of the politicians cannot be trusted, but on the other hand I can not believe in stupendous conspiracy theories either. have a nice weekend,

SAStarling
SAStarling

...makes someone look stupid. I think completely TRUSTING politicians is more likely to make someone look more stupid - like sheeple. ;-)

jkameleon
jkameleon

Crazy theories make everybody who doubts the politicians look stupid. All of them, crazy, and not so crazy, shift the burden of proof where it doesn't belong. Ultimately, they protect government and politicians from criticism.

jkameleon
jkameleon

As a rule, credible is exactly the opposite to believable.

highlander718
highlander718

"plenty of less incredible pretexts available, but flu seems to be the most believable" have a nice weekend,

jkameleon
jkameleon

Sure, there's plenty of less incredible pretexts available, but flu seems to be the most believable. It's easy to expain to Joe Sixpacks, because there's no technical stuff involved. As far as conspiring is concerned- It looks like it's no longer necessary. With propaganda as sophisicated as it is, everybody can get away with anything. That CIA drug smuggling Gary Webb uncovered, for example- did anyone suffer any consequences except Gary Webb?

highlander718
highlander718

why use the flu ?? There are much better and credible "motives" to control the Internet. sorry but sounds just like cheap conspiracy theory to me ..

jkameleon
jkameleon

More specifically, about control of information, one of key levers of political power. Flu is just a pretext, like terrorism, and similar crap.

thadb
thadb

I had the same problem with Bush, the same problem with Clinton, the same problem with the previous Bush, etc. The problem is that we need to clean out Washington DC. Term Limits for Congress are now also a must and take your crappy aids with you, since they write most of the garbage bills we get anyway. Clean out Washington every 4 to 8 years and most of this lunacy will go away. As far as people being surprised by what the current bunch in Washington is doing...you seriously didn't see this coming? Did you happen to read anything about the people that this president has surrounded himself with? When I looked at what these people said it was highly disconcerting. The more research I did on them the worse it got. I know that the press did a horrible job of vetting this president so most people had no clue, but it's our responsibility to know who we're voting for and not just accept everything the evening news says (I worked in the industry for a few years and can't stand watching it now after all the crap I saw them pull). The only reason that people are waking up to what's going on is that while previous administrations were taking us into slavery in a rickshaw the current one is taking us there in an F-16. Time to clear all of them out of Washington. Stop voting for people just because they have a D or an R after their name. The parties mean nothing anymore. Vote all of them out and start over! Otherwise we will wake up and find ourselves having to submit every web search to the "Office of Internet Truth"!