The possibility of an Internet shutdown in the U.S.
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Bob Moon: As we reported up top, the political tension in Egypt continues to escalate. Beyond a rush on cash and food staples, most of the country’s Internet access has been cut off, although the government has apparently kept vital links open
to the country’s stock market. There’s word that most people there are turning instead to good old-fashioned dial-up access.
But it got us wondering: How easy is it to just switch off the net? Andrew Blum is a tech writer for Wired magazine. And he’s currently writing a book on the infrastructure of the web. Welcome.
Andrew Blum: Thank you.
Moon: So how did it happen that a good percentage of the Internet connections in Egypt got shut down?
Blum: Well as near as anybody can tell, and this is mostly from the intelligence of a company called Renesys, right after midnight on Friday morning Egypt time, it looks as if somebody started making phone calls to the five major Internet service providers in Egypt. And one after another, their routes, their sort of signposts, to their users disappeared from the global Internet.
Moon: So could this kind of shutdown happen here in the U.S.?
Blum: It seems almost impossible to conceive. Partly just based on sheer size. We don’t have five ISPs; we have hundreds, if not thousands. And then of course, even the largest like Verizon or Comcast would themselves have sort of dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of different network head-ins. And you’d essentially have to dismantle each of those individually.
Moon: So I heard that the Internet is sort of self-healing. But are there certain choke points that it would be vulnerable?
Blum: The flip side of that is for a smaller, mid-size network, there’s what’s called the network head-in. There’s the place that the rest of the its Internet flows from. And for a small network, it would be quite straightforward to literally pull the plug, pull the yellow fiber optic plug that connects their edge router, as it’s called, a sort of washing machine-sized Cisco router usually, to the rest of the Internet. And if that happens, then all of their customers would then be offline.
Moon: Let’s explore that a little bit more. You visited a data center, a choke point if you will, in southeastern Wisconsin. Describe for us what that looks like and how service providers connect to consumers actually.
Blum: That’s a building in downtown Milwaukee, that’s just a regular office building that’s been colonized by different Internet companies. The one that I visited serves about 15,000 customers in southeastern Wisconsin, and they have one of these routers with notably two fiber optic cables leading it. One goes to Time Warner, in another suite inside the building. Another goes to Cogent, an Internet backbone company, also inside the building. And from there, they serve their 15,000 customers.
Moon: Now I understand that when we’re speaking globally that a lot of our communications to Asia, for example, route through a single building here in Los Angeles? Can that sort of choke point really cause problems?
Blum: That’s LAX. That’s the LAX equivalent of the Internet. You know, if LAX shut down, it’s not as if all air travel would stop, but it would be a huge mess. The same is certainly true for One Wilshire, this very well-known building in downtown Los Angeles. That said, though, we’re looking tomorrow at another storm here in New York, and the airports are going to be shut down again, and life goes on and business goes on.
Moon: So let me pin you down: is the Internet here to stay — are we always going to have the Internet, or is it possible that one day, somebody could decide to shut it down here in the U.S.?
Blum: The basic idea of the Internet is that it’s a network of networks. And each of those networks is independently operated. And because of that, you have a lot of versatility and a lot of security because it’s sort of inherently public. It has to sort of follow certain protocols if it wants to communicate with other networks. It’s easy to imagine the Internet fragmenting in certain ways, but the basic concept of a network of networks disappearing seems hard to fathom.
Moon: Andrew Blum is a tech writer at Wired magazine. Thanks for joining us.
Blum: You’re welcome.
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