Why There's No Such Thing as an Internet Kill Switch

My iPhone rang yesterday evening. It was my 22-year-old son calling from his iPhone to ask me how to do something on iTunes. It was a pretty unremarkable call, and the kind of conversation we used to have when he lived at home, except that he was on the other side of the world in Mumbai, India.

Because we both use the Skype app, the call was free and was initiated with the push of an on-screen button. Call quality was perfect.

The strange new reality is that calling from India to the U.S. on an iPhone is more convenient than raising your voice to shout into the next room -- and the same price.

He was on a phone. I was on a phone. But we were communicating over the Internet. And the cell phone data networks. And who knows what else.

It got me thinking: Where does the Internet end? Does the Internet include the cell phone networks? The landline networks? What is the Internet or, rather, what isn't the Internet?

Has the Internet assimilated the human race itself? Events in Egypt have revealed that the shocking answer is: yes!

Resistance is Futile

The Internet was created as a communications network that could not be stopped. The radically distributed, flexible architecture was designed to survive a nuclear attack, with information packets "routing around" the damage. The Internet Protocol Suite, which is also known as TCP/IP, is the stuff the Internet is made of.

A protocol is nothing more than a set of rules. The Internet works because servers and software obey these rules.

The Internet protocols make sure that the instructions for any click of a link, sending of an e-mail or tweeting of a tweet are broken down into tiny, individually addressed packets of data and sent on their way along whatever path offers least resistance.

The rules provide flexibility, and the flexibility provides reliability.

But what happens when you shut down the servers that obey these rules, and do it on a national level? As we learned in Egypt, you can shut down Internet access to an entire nation, and the data still routes around the damage.

Why the Egyptian Internet Shutdown Failed

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak achieved at least one thing nobody else ever has: He shut down the Internet connection to an entire country for five days.

Or did he?

The Egyptian uprising began on Jan. 25, organized online via American social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Two days later, the government ordered the nation's Internet service providers (ISPs) to cut off Internet access. The following day, the government shut down the nation's cell phone carriers. The government apparently hoped that taking away the main way people organized and communicated might stop the protest movement.

Like the Grinch, who thought taking away Whoville's presents would keep Christmas from coming, the Egyptian government learned that people can use the Internet even without Internet access. Those packets of data found a way around the damage.

A Ph.D student at UCLA named John Scott-Railton, who speaks Arabic, has friends in Egypt and sympathizes with the anti-government protesters, set up a Twitter feed named @jan25voices to broadcast messages over the microblogging service directly from Egyptians.

At first, he called friends on their cell phones when those were still working. But as cell phone service became spotty, he began collecting landline phone numbers of friends, and the friends of friends, inside Egypt. So throughout the digital shutoff, Scott-Railton continued to call Egyptians to transmit their messages directly to the world via Twitter.

Google used a company it owns called SayNow, together with Twitter, to enable Egyptians to send Tweets via landline telephone call. By simply calling one of the phone numbers they published, anyone in the country could send out a tweet.

The media began relying heavily on landlines to get information throughout the country. And the fax machine, which uses a modem to transmit images as sound over landline phone networks, suddenly came back into use during the uprising.

Columnist John C. Dvorak wrote an interesting piece this week speculating that if he was in Egypt and had to connect to the Internet over a landline phone (a practice commonplace just 10 years ago), he's not sure he could do it. At the time he wrote the column, he may have been right.

Then a French company called the French Data Network and an organization called We Rebuild provided means by which Egyptians with old-school modems could connect to the Internet via landline telephones.

Why You Can't Stop the Internet

Events in Egypt have demonstrated that the human race has evolved some Internet protocols of our own.

The Internet protocols route around damage. Without the Internet, that routing spills over onto landline phones and other communications media. As soon as the shutdown began, people from all over the world instinctively conjured up alternative ways for people to get their messages posted online.

All these alternative routes to the Internet popped up in less than five days. The longer the shutdown dragged on, the more new ways to connect went online. It's now clear that any sustained Internet shutdown could be circumvented no matter what.

It's also likely that freedom-of-information advocates worldwide will learn from the Egyptian shutdown and construct a series of services designed to circumvent such future attempts.

Meanwhile, the government of Egypt learned that shutting down the Internet comes with some harsh consequences. Foreign governments, including the U.S., began leaning on the Egyptians to restore Internet and phone service. The shutdown reduced support for the government in part by squeezing businesses that rely on the Internet. And the shutdown itself became a motivation to continue the protests and oppose the regime. From the global Internet's point of view, these actions served as something of a self-healing mechanism for the damage of a politically motivated shutdown.

Egypt showed that the Internet is made out of people. We now spontaneously behave according to the Internet protocols, assuring the delivery of messages no matter what.

There is no "Internet kill switch." Even if you shut down every server in a country, the human Internet just routes around the damage.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture.

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