Although there is no single switch that shuts down the Internet as a whole, does the incident in Egypt indicate that the Net can be turned off in small segments?
Think of the Internet infrastructure within any particular country as being an ecosystem. There are a bunch of coordinating organizations—legal, financial, contractual—that work together within this ecosystem. If you look at a complex system such as those in the United States or Canada, you might ask, "How many phone calls would I have to make to shut it down?" It probably wouldn't be possible. Most of the people you would call operate independent of the government and wouldn't even listen to you. In a place like Egypt there's a lot less diversity in that ecosystem. There were just a few key providers, they're all licensed by the government. They have to do what the government says, and they have to operate within the law of the local telecommunications regulatory framework. And so in this case they did what they were asked to.
So the sheer size of the U.S.'s infrastructure works to the Internet's advantage, and a shutdown such as the one in Egypt could not happen here?
I'll speculate. There is no standing legal authority to be exercised and no kill switch. Probably, the government would make a request, and an ISP would say, "That's interesting," and send it to legal. Legal would send it upstairs, there would be consultation, there would be calls back and forth, there would be injunctions levied, there would be lawsuits, and the ISP wouldn't get shut down. This process would take a long time.
If the laws were changed so that there were a clear-cut legal authority and a plan to control the Internet, then anything is possible. But I certainly don't think that the industry in most countries on Earth would stand to have that kind of power dangled over their heads. It would do incredible violence to the companies economically, and it would do even greater economic violence to the country.
The network that handles the stock exchange in Egypt was not affected. What does that mean?
My team is studying exceptions to the Internet blockage; there are a few. We're trying to figure out what they have in common. This was the obvious pattern—the Noor Group did come out basically unscathed. One speculation is that they got the phone call from the government, and they chose not to listen. Another speculation says that they didn't receive the phone call, because there was an agreement to let them stay online because they host the stock exchange, among other things. There's no way to know at this time really.
What else are you and your team keeping an eye on as you monitor the situation?
We're watching very closely to find out what will happen when, in effect, the whole country has to be rebooted, something that has never happened at this scale before. We'll see whether the relationships and networking routes that existed before the problem are resumed afterward or there are structural changes. I suspect they could bring it back up pretty much the way it was when it went down. Existing contractual relations—who pays whom and how much—are all pretty much in place. One significant change could be that companies operating on the Web start looking for ways to diversify how they access the Web. This could mean creating relationships with international carriers and even purchasing additional satellite Internet bandwidth, figuring that they should have one service provider that is not immediately under government control.