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Could the U.S. shut down the internet?

John D. Sutter
Protesters in Egypt post a sign asking the government to restore internet service, which was restored on Wednesday.
Protesters in Egypt post a sign asking the government to restore internet service, which was restored on Wednesday.
  • Egypt's internet shutdown raises questions of access being cut elsewhere
  • Experts say it's technically possible for countries to shut down the internet
  • But it's unlikely in countries such as the U.S. where the rule of law is strong
  • Shutting down the global internet would be very challenging if not impossible, experts say

(CNN) -- It seemed so easy for Egypt. Just order a shutdown of the country's internet connections and -- bam -- it happens.

But is such an authoritarian action transferable? Could the U.S. government shut down American internet connections? And is it possible for the global internet to be toppled?

Technically, yes, internet experts said Wednesday, shortly after Egypt's government restored internet connections there as violent political protests continued. But it's highly unlikely.

"Could you break the internet? Yeah. Can you shut it down? No. Shutting down the entire internet would be pretty much impossible at this point," said Jim Cowie, co-founder of Renesys, an worldwide internet tracker.

Cowie spoke of the internet as if it were a giant, adaptable worm.

"The funny thing about the internet is even if you break it in half, the two halves will function as [separate] internets," he said.

How Egypt shut down the internet

Understanding what happened in Egypt helps frame the discussion about what could happen to the internet in the United States or around the globe.

According to internet traffic monitors and experts, Egypt's government likely called the country's five main internet service providers -- like on the phone -- late last week and ordered them to barricade online traffic.

That's sort of like calling all of the post offices in the country and telling them to throw the mail away instead of delivering it, said Robert Faris, research director at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Google connects Egyptians to Twitter
Egyptians cut off from internet

But instead of shredding paper mail, the Egyptian internet providers altered their Border Gateway Protocols, the software that routes online information.

"There's not an on-off switch," Faris said. "What it is, it's a list of IP addresses that route information between nodes on the internet. And what they did (in Egypt) is they changed all the software and the list in there to something called null routing. So all the traffic going in and out was essentially thrown away."

Faris called these measures extreme. They have been carried out in only two other instances, he said: In Myanmar during 2007 protests; and in Nepal in 2005, when the king seized power.

Iran and China filter the internet instead of blocking it, he said.

Could the United States do the same?

Technically, the United States could do the same thing Egypt did to block internet access, Faris said.

The government would have to call four or five top internet providers and order them to disrupt Border Gateway Protocols in a way that shut down the majority of American internet traffic, he said. Others said the government would have to deal with the country's thousands of internet providers in order to fully clamp down on internet access, which would be logistically difficult.

But that's unlikely to happen here, experts said.

For one thing, the internet in the U.S. is bigger. There are more companies involved, more data at play and more locations where the internet comes in and out of the country.

Moreover, U.S. law would prevent such an authoritarian shutdown.

"The internet is a network of networks," said Andrew Blum, a correspondent for CNN content partner Wired magazine and author of an upcoming book on internet infrastructure, "and they're all commercially operated.

"They're all businesses. Their autonomy is sort of their bread and butter. And they're mostly unregulated. So the idea of having to comply fully with any government order to shut them off is pretty extreme. It's as if there were a government order to close every McDonald's -- all at once."

A country's legal framework, not its technical infrastructure, determines whether it is able to shut down its citizens' access to the internet, said Cowie.

"It really comes down to the fact that somebody has to have the legal authority to go to a company that runs a large part of the internet in the United States and say, 'Turn off your connection to the outside world.' "

However, as CNET reports, three U.S. senators have submitted legislation to give the president emergency powers over the internet in the event of a cyberattack or other disaster scenario.

On Wednesday, the bill's authors tried to distance themselves from what's happened in Egypt, issuing a statement:

"Our bill already contains protections to prevent the president from denying Americans access to the Internet -- even as it provides ample authority to ensure that those most critical services that rely on the Internet are protected."

What about elsewhere?

Shutting down the global internet would be more of a trick, requiring a level of global coordination that would be extremely unlikely if not impossible, the experts said.

"If you really wanted to turn off the global internet, you'd have to seek out people on every continent and every country," said Cowie from Renesys. "The internet is so decentralized that there is no kill switch."

"No you can't do that," said Harvard's Faris. "The internet is designed to be robust. Certain links break and then other links are opened."

In Egypt, for example, people who couldn't access the broadband internet were able to place international phone calls to Europe to log on to dial-up internet service, he said, which, of course, operates on phone lines.

Google even announced a service that would let people in Egypt use landline telephones to post to Twitter using voice messages.

"Communication continues and people revert to other modes," he said. "You can shut the internet down but it's not the end of organization. People are still there in the square, and they're figuring out how to do it."

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