Dan Swinhoe (Global) - Could Your Government Switch Off The Internet?

With Syria's government recently cutting off the internet in the country, Dan Swinhoe investigates how easy it to shut down the web around the world.

A couple of years ago, an elderly woman stole a fibre optic cable in Georgia. The result? 90% of Armenia were unable to access the web. The same year the Egyptian government cut off all internet access within the country in an effort to curb the uprisings. How? By owning the largest internet provider and making a few phone calls to the rest.

With the same thing happening recently in Syria, the inevitable questions arises; does it really only take an old lady and a few phone calls to disconnect a country from the internet?

What about me?

While Egypt and Syria are fairly unique and high profile cases, it has caused many to worry about a) An internet-wide killswitch and b)the threat that governments present to internet freedoms. While Tim Berners-Lee has reassured the world that there is no ‘off' switch for the web as a whole, on a country by country basis things aren't so clear cut.

According to Renesys in a blog Could It Happen In Your Country?, "The key to the Internet's survival is the Internet's decentralization." Essentially, the more carriers you have, the harder it is for the government to shut down the web. They've provided a handy map to visualise where the danger is, and the results aren't too surprising. While most of Europe, North America and Australia is perfectly safe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia all face a far greater risk from losing the web.

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Dictator's dilemma
While some countries may at more risk than others, the people in charge (assuming it's a governmental decision and not an outside attack) have to ask themselves, do they really want to block the web? Known as the ‘Dictator's dilemma', where the powers-at-be have to decide ‘the balance between authoritarian governments' use of information communication technology for economic development with their need to control the democratizing influences of this technology.' The governments in Egypt and Syria clearly only used it when they felt absolutely necessary, but other countries have found their compromise.

Iran's home grown web, also known as the 'Iranternet' or 'Halal internet', is well on its way to being deployed. Half created as a way to avoid cyber-attacks such as FLAME & Stuxnet and half to remove any content deemed immoral or offensive. This enables the country to benefit from the connectivity of the country, while overcoming the pesky democratizing influences.

Over in North Korea, the internet is restricted to the point of being little more than "an extravagant company intranet" according to the Beeb, and only high ranking officials and acdemics can access the regular world wide web, while Computers are run on a customised operating system, known as Red Star

China, however, is the champion of overcoming the Dictator's dilemma; The Great Firewall. Allowing your users access to the world wide web but block anything you don't approve of has been the preferred oppression of choice for a few years now, but recently things have gone a step further. During the Bo Xilai scandal the country seemingly blocked access to foreign sites while simultaneously preventing outsiders access to Chinese sites such as Sina Weibo and more recently have been tightening efforts to block encrypted communications via VPNs.

While the Western world doesn't have so many worries about the government disconnecting the web, and in fact aids development in stealthy internet that bypasses censors, that doesn't mean they aren't keeping tabs on you. For example in South Africa Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can, when under orders from the authorities, see what a user is connecting to, while defence firm Raytheon have developed the ultimate Big Brother stalker tool in conjunction with the US government.

Though the internet should be free for everyone, it isn't a given. Some are calling for ISPs to cut off any users they suspect of piracy while a killswitch for the US was discussed (and refused) as recently as 2011. Don't take reading IDG Connect, or any other site for granted, you never know when someone might turn you off.