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