By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
To Kill an Internet
Bad ideas just don't seem to go away. The idea of an Internet kill switch resurfaced recently in the form of legislation proposed by Senator Susan Collins of Maine. The purpose apparently is to protect the U.S. from significant "Cyber Threats" by providing the U.S. government with the authority to turn off access to "critical infrastructure."
The first question to ask is if an Internet kill switch is even possible. There is no central control of the Internet backbone, but rather a number of interconnections and agreements which keep the Internet operating. There are also often multiple paths to the same information sources. So, where do you throw the switch? There are probably too many access points to control the Internet at that end. If you turn off my Internet access at home, I'll pick up my cellphone or head to the local coffee shop. If you take down the core physical connections over which the Internet information is sent (assuming that's possible), then you'll probably take down the U.S. telephone network as well. The Internet is a collection of many individual networks, and the lack of central control is one of its strengths, allowing it to operate even if part of the infrastructure is damaged or unavailable.
The next question is, from what do we need protecting? There are many threats on the internet, but they tend to target individual computers. The solution is to be sure those individual systems are protected and secured by antivirus software, firewalls, and strong passwords. Internet services, such as web or e-mail servers, are susceptible to denial of service attacks that may slow down or prevent access to some Internet resources. In such cases, an Internet kill switch would simply be an exercise in irony. There are definitely Internet activities from which we could use some protection, but not at the expense of loss of our Internet connectivity.
How can an Internet kill switch be used? In recent news, Internet connectivity in Egypt was shut down, apparently to stifle the organization of street protests that eventually lead to the downfall of that country's sitting president. The Egyptian government did not have an Internet kill switch per se, but they did exert control over the country's Internet service providers and pressured them to shut of their services. As we've seen, the Egyptian government's strategy was ultimately unsuccessful. China has its own version of the Internet kill switch, but it's more like a big filter keeping out what the government deems to be unacceptable information.
The age irony
Since we live in the irony age, it can't escape notice that while the U.S. government contemplates ways to shut down our Internet, they are likely working on ways to enable the Internet in countries (as happened in Egypt) where it has been shut down. And they are still interested in controlling what top-level domains are created via the presumably independent Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN.) You'd think we invented the Internet (then again, I guess we did.)
Somehow, I don't feel much safer with the possibility that the U.S. government can shut down portions of the Internet on our behalf. That's best left to organization like the MPAA. For true Internet security, one must look to the thought leaders of our society. You know -- the intellectuals, artists, and philosophers that can keep us focussed on the true issues surrounding Internet security. I am of course referring to Snoop Dogg. Thanks to sponsorship by Norton Symantec, the virus protection and computer security folks, we have the message from Mr. Dogg that "hack is wack and a rap contest to illustrate the point. Now, does anyone know how to say "hack is wack" in Mandarin?