Trumping the Internet: Investigating the Possibility of an Internet Shutdown

Internet ShutdownWhether or not you support Donald Trump, it’s a fairly universal truth that just about anything that comes out of his mouth is going to be provocative.  True to form, during the last debate Trump stated that he thought the United States could combat ISIS by shutting down parts of the Internet, which begs the question of whether a complete Internet shutdown or one of targeted parts is actually possible.

For the Internet to work, there are two main components: the hardware and the protocols. The hardware creates connections, and the protocols are the languages the hardware uses to communicate. Some cables, which provide the connections essential to the network, go over land. However, the vast majority are submarine. These underwater cables are responsible for 99%  of communication across oceans. As demonstrated in Egypt in 2013 when three divers cut one cable and Internet service dropped 60%, these cables are not to be trifled with. Theoretically, cutting all of them would largely eliminate the Internet traffic to and from a certain country. However, severing the cables has a high electrocution risk, making these events rare. It’s more likely for a shark to use them as dental floss.

Another way to shut off Internet that applies within a region might be to contact individual Internet service providers. Asking them nicely to shut down their routers is easier said than done, but sometimes works when the asker has enough guns.

If physical means fail, the Border Gateway Protocol routes (BGP), which basically allows routers to communicate so that one knows to send data to another, can be configured so that significant traffic is redirected to places it wasn’t intended to go. For example, in 2008 Pakistan Telecom attempted to block YouTube in Pakistan. Something akin to a typo in the implemented BGP caused most YouTube traffic to be redirected to the Website-That-Was-Not-YouTube regardless of location, and this sort of thing has been done with malicious intent since then.

Evidently, it is not impossible to impair the Internet, nor is it impossible to restrict the shutdown to one area, but Egypt was down for a day and YouTube was down for two hours. It might be possible temporarily, but we can all rest easy in the knowledge that it will be next to impossible for any entity to kill the Internet. Unless you live in North Korea, but that’s a special case.

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