Feb 112011
Internet Switch

Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Flickr

The costs and practicalities of switching off the internet in Egypt and elsewhere

THE timing was dire. On January 25th American senators reintroduced a bill granting the president emergency powers to shut down parts of the nation’s internet as a defence against cyber-attack. Three days later Egypt’s embattled autocrats took their country offline.

The American bill’s backers never expected an easy victory. But outrage at the five-day shutdown of Egypt’s once-flourishing internet (used by 20m people there) and its mobile-phone network (used by 55m) has given opponents of the “kill switch” in America and elsewhere some powerful arguments. The people in charge of the internet in places such as Germany, Austria and Australia were among those who felt obliged to confirm that their governments would not seek similar powers.

Proponents of the American bill countered that they would never want a shutdown on Egyptian lines. Laws that govern radio and television broadcasts already give the American authorities the right to shut bits of the internet, they argue. The new bill merely clarifies and limits such powers. These would be needed, for example, if hackers took control of nuclear facilities, or were about to open the Hoover dam. Critics call this scaremongering and fear that the White House will gain unnecessarily sweeping powers. The people who run the networks are themselves best-placed to keep them safe, they argue.

Either way, in America the size and complexity of the networks, coupled with the fierce protection of laws guaranteeing free speech, make blackout or manipulation on an Egyptian scale almost unthinkable. A remote “kill switch”, even if authorised, would be hugely complex and expensive to build and run, though some worry that the new cybersecurity agencies proposed by lawmakers are just the kind of bodies that would have a go.

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