For citizens of the most advanced economies, it is hard to conceptualize what being entirely cut off from the Internet would look like, let alone how it could actually happen. Is it as simple as flipping a kill switch or pressing an 'Off' button? Though unlikely in countries like the United States that have numerous independently operated providers and redundant Internet infrastructure, total shutdowns are still possible in geographies where this is not the case. In this post, you will learn two ways the Internet gets shut off at a national level, the likelihood that such an event could happen in the United States, and what makes a country's network susceptible to a total disconnection.
Countries with few independent providers and no redundant connections are less globally connected to the Internet, putting them at higher risk of total Internet disconnection. In these geographies, it is all too simple for the government to give an order to throttle or totally shut down the Internet as a means to censor the population. State-owned telecoms are often shut down at the will of government officials. Governments with more finesse will often order telecoms to block connections to specific services or sites by blocking HTTP requests to these sites, redirecting DNS requests, or blocking access to specific IP addresses. It's not impossible for governments to shut off power to state-owned telecoms, entirely blacking out the Internet for the whole country.
Most recently, the government of Gabon shut down their Internet on August 31st, 2016, after the re-election of President Ali Bongo. Gabon's Internet remained offline for four days, and, when restored, was only accessible between 6am and 6pm daily. However, Gabon is hardly the first country to enact such strict Internet censorship measures. On November 18, 2015, after the announcement of a death penalty verdict in a war crimes trial, Bangladesh shut down international Internet connectivity in order to prevent the spread of messages disagreeing with the verdict. Citing security reasons, officials directed telecom companies to ban messaging services like Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp from the networks. Instead, the telecoms opted to shut down all of their BGP routes, cutting off all connections between the domestic network and the global Internet. Governments in countries like Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq have also pulled the plug on the Internet as a means of control during military coups and uprisings. For example, during a reported military coup in July 2016, social media services in Turkey were choked, leaving many with no access to Facebook and Twitter.
In contrast, countries with highly interconnected networks composed of many independent providers are resistant to disconnection. In these countries, a single debilitating attack would be massively difficult to coordinate and carry out in one instant due to the diversity of network configurations, the number of independent providers, and the number of routes out of the country.
Although a theoretical 'kill switch' is a bleak thought, more often than not, Internet access is shut down or cut off unintentionally. Human error is a large threat to the Internet in countries that are dependent upon only one or two terrestrial links as the basis of their networks. In 2011, an elderly Georgian woman went digging for scrap metal and managed to cut off Armenia's access to the Internet for 12 hours. How? Her spade cut open the only terrestrial cable that happened to run through Georgia and into the neighboring country. Stories like this one are not uncommon - in 2012, a ship's anchor dragged through the wrong area outside of Mombasa, Kenya and cut a fiber-optic Internet cable, causing an Internet blackout and costing Kenyan businesses hundreds of millions of dollars. Earlier this June, a Vervet monkey fell on a transformer in Nairobi, Kenya, shutting off the power to the plant and causing a country-wide electrical blackout which disconnected the whole nation from the Internet.
Countries with more interconnected domestic networks are far less likely to be incapacitated or shut down by power outages, cable cuts, or other accidents that wreak havoc in countries with less globally connected networks. Why? A single disaster event, like a cable cut, would take a number of connections offline, but having more independent providers and routes out of the country allows for less of these connections to rely on that single cable. Diversifying the ways to provide Internet connections makes one massive disconnection less likely.
Can this actually happen in the U.S?
In the face of so many Internet outages popping up around the globe, it is reasonable to assume that the United States would also be in danger. Fortunately, the shape of the United States' network makes it extremely resistant to disconnection from the global Internet. In fact, the U.S. network is an interwoven mesh of independent networks, each with connections to many other networks and numerous pathways out of the country, making a one-time instantaneous attack on all of them extremely hard to coordinate, let alone successfully pull off. Accidental shutdowns are also highly unlikely in the U.S. and countries with similarly connected domestic networks. Regional power outages and cable cuts could shut down a few providers at a time; but,again, too many accidents would need to occur in perfect synchronicity over too large of a geography to be effective. An organized, systematic series of attacks could possibly take down a small number of large providers over many days, grinding commerce to a halt but giving ISPs enough time to get back up and running between attacks. Given the mesh-like 'network of networks' that makes up the Internet in the U.S., and the diversity of network configurations, the U.S. is highly resistant to a single, instantly incapacitating disconnection event.