Could an Internet blackout -- like the one that began Thursday in Syria -- happen in the United States?
Not likely, says Renesys, which on Friday published an infographic titled "Could It Happen In Your Country?" The global Internet intelligence company took a map of the globe and color-coded countries based on how difficult it would be to achieve an "Internet blackout" in that country. The U.S. falls in the category of least risk, according to that graphic.
Renesys points out that the U.S. is served by a huge number of Internet service providers, more than 40 in all. Like Canada and the Netherlands, it is a "global Internet economy" -- which means that even if the government wanted to black out the Internet, it likely could not.
If you have more than 40 providers at your frontier, your country is likely to be extremely resistant to Internet disconnection. There are just too many paths into and out of the country, too many independent providers who would have to be coerced or damaged, to make a rapid countrywide shutdown plausible to execute. A government might significantly impair Internet connectivity by shutting down large providers, but there would still be a deep pool of persistent paths to the global Internet.
Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says she largely agrees with the Renesys assessment, but in a phone interview with The Huffington Post, she spoke about the weak links in U.S. connectivity.
“We do have a limited number of entry points for undersea cables coming into the U.S., so in some ways that is a weakness," she said.
"If you want some insight into how vital the undersea cables are, you should take a look at the logs of the NANOG [North American Network Operators Group] mailing list, the people that essentially run the Internet’s backbone in North America, from around the time of 9/11," she added. "They were actually in danger of losing an undersea cable that came into Manhattan, and thus losing a very large chunk of Internet, because so much of it was sitting under WTC 2."
But Galperin believes an undersea cable cutting isn’t something the nation's Internet users should worry about any time soon.
“If you get to where the government is cutting cables in order to shut out Internet access to the U.S.," she said, "you’ve abandoned the rule of law. All bets are off.”
Moreover, simply snipping undersea cables in the U.S. would not cut it off from the world completely. Internet traffic from many parts of the country could still reach Canada and Mexico.
And, should this heady combination of legal and infrastructural roadblocks not be enough to keep the U.S. government from considering a blackout, other obstacles still exist. Cutting the country off from the global Internet would be an economic and political catastrophe, both domestically and globally.
“This is an extremely unlikely scenario.” Galperin said. “I’m astonished people still worry about this.”
The fears aren't coming out of nowhere. Members of the U.S. Congress have at times raised the idea of giving the president the legal authority to create an Internet "kill switch" -- the power to order ISPs to disconnect certain websites, stop the flow of information from certain countries or even create an internet service blackout.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other authoritarian leaders have used similar tactics to bring down the Internet during periods of civil unrest. Murbarak, for example, simply ordered Egypt's ISPs to stop providing domestic Internet ahead of large-scale protests during the Arab Spring in January 2011, and the country was largely cut off from the global Internet. It is believed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have ordered a similar crackdown on the free flow of data into and out of Syria as the conflict between pro-Assad forces and anti-government rebels worsens. (Internet returned to two Syrian cities on Saturday, according to reports.)
But in the U.S., plans for an Internet "kill switch" have met with much resistance. After two bills failed to progress in 2009, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) in 2010 sponsored a bill known as the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act. The bill would have given the Department of Homeland Security the power to command ISPs in the case of a "cyberemergency," but the proposed legislation died later that year. It was was resurrected briefly in 2011 but failed again after Mubarak shut down Egypt's Internet. No "kill switch" bill has been proposed in the U.S. since 2011.