Internet Kill-Switch is Last Resort

Posted on 28/01/2011 by

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News of Egypt falling off the face of the internet world is spreading rapidly. Frankly, it should come as no surprise that an oppressive regime faced with uncontrollable exposure on the internet would resort to such a technique. In the mind of a dictator, turning off the internet is no different from stopping a newspaper from printing its paper that day.

This thinking is tragically so antique, it is pathetic. It is also the mindset which exists in almost every government across the world, except perhaps Iceland. Governments are twenty years-plus behind the state of information technology, and they do not understand how their economies will only function within this modern state.

Simply put, a modern economy and the internet are so intertwined, that to extricate one is to mortally wound the other. Think of how it would affect a market if people could not access their online brokerages; additionally, those brokerages are structurally set up to be automated, and do not have the resources to deal with people via older methods, such as telephone or fax.

More critically, the contemporary corporation uses the internet to maintain its own internal operations, as well as deal with its supply/distribution network; this is a network which stretches across the entire world. These networks too do not have the resources necessary to perform their functions using older methods like phones and faxes. What you buy in your local Wal-Mart is critical information which is sent instantaneously to factories in China.

Kill-switching the internet is more than just pulling the rug out from underneath an economy, it is sucking the economy’s blood out. The economy will drop dead on the spot, even if the internet is deactivated for a short period. The mere display of that ability on the part of a government is enough to remove any trust at all which investors have in the safety and dependability of their investment.

When an economy collapses, so does the currency, and so does the government. So, it is not excessive to say that using an internet kill-switch is a government putting a bullet in its own head. The more integrated into the world internet a country is, the kill-switch option becomes all the more disastrous.

Hence why it is a last resort: a government has to feel it is under extreme pressure to pull the lever. However, it does so unknowing of the true consequences. To repeat: governments do not realise how vital the internet has become to economies. Governments are stuck in the 1980s, or earlier, and see the internet as merely a series of electric typewriters which can talk to each other. They do not recognise that the internet is now the skeleton and circulatory system of the world economy.

Leaving aside economic concerns for a moment, kill-switching the internet is also amongst the most sublime gesture of authoritarian egoism possible. This can be placed on the same level of gunning down non-violent, unarmed protestors, because it is attempting to stop people’s ability to learn and think.

So, when a government does kill its internet, that government is not long for this world at all, whether by internal or external factors. What pushes a government to pull that lever can be, I think, broken down into two general questions: how much does that government have to hide, and how great are that government’s resources for protecting that information.

In the case of Egypt, I would say it had quite a bit to hide, but had limited resources to keep that information secret. This is why Egypt reached for the lever so quickly. Tunisia, I would suggest, doesn’t have much to hide, and did not have very great facility to cover up that information. Hence why Tunisia did not deactivate the internet, merely censor it.

With the US, it has the most to hide in the entire world, and the most ability to protect those secrecy. Rather than making the US less likely to pull the kill-switch, I posit it makes the US all the more likely to do so. Indeed, with the situation in Egypt ongoing, I’m willing to bet that the US government has its collective hand on the lever.

A repeat of the internet kill-switching in the US is not far off, and I think that people should be prepared for this to happen. It will not take very much to get an already-panicky US government to fly off into pure madness. As I wrote before, it might be Bankgate, or the Swiss tax evasion documents. It could even be a particularly juicy release from Cablegate.

Whatever the case, kill-switching the internet is a disastrous idea, and that makes it all the more likely for the US government to try it. There is an air of exceptionalism which permeates the US government, the belief that it can succeed where all others have failed. The tragic attempt at colonising Afghanistan is one example, and when Egypt’s economy implodes, the US will be hell-bent on showing that it can do the same thing, but avoid implosion.

Egypt is only the beginning.

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Posted in: Analysis, WikiLeaks