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The Daily Need

Could our government shut down the Internet?

Photo illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

After five days with no access to the Internet, Egyptians are finally online again and back to tweeting and blogging live updates from the streets of Cairo.

But you may still be wondering how the government was able to shut down Egyptians’ access to the Internet.

The answer has more to do with politics than technology. There’s no on/off switch for the Internet, no circuit to short or plug to pull. It appears as though someone from the government simply called each of the country’s handful of Internet service providers, or ISPs, and ordered them to shut down.

Computers communicate using something called BGP or “border gateway protocol.” In simple terms, BGP is like a route on a map leading from one computer to another. To shut down all Egyptian access, the ISPs made a few simple changes to their router configurations and suddenly, all roads leading to computers in Egypt were wiped from the map.

The world has never experienced an Internet blackout on this scale before. Yes, access to the Internet was shut down during Burma’s Saffron Revolution and Nepal’s Royal coup, but those countries had barely a fraction of Egypt’s level of connectivity. Nearly 30 percent of Egypt’s 8o million citizens are online.

But what about a country where nearly everyone is online? A country like … America?

It would certainly be much more difficult. Egypt has only five major Internet service providers; the U.S. has hundreds. And under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, the government has greater control over the telecommunications industry than the U.S. government does.

But Congress is considering equipping America with what some have called an “Internet kill switch” of its own. Last Friday, the same day the Egyptian government shut down Internet access,  Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she plans to reintroduce legislation first floated this summer by co-sponsor Joe Lieberman, the independent senator from Connecticut. The bill would give the president power over privately owned computer systems in the case of a national cyber-emergency.

After a maelstrom of criticism online, Senators Collins, Lieberman and their co-sponsor, Tom Carper, issued a statement saying that they’d make sure the legislation “contains explicit language prohibiting the president from doing what president Mubarak did.”



  • ForestWander Nature Pictures

    I do believe this could be possible. It depends on how bad the situation was. For instance if there was a problem which cause significant financial problems with the banking infrastructure then yes, I do believe the government could and would do this. But I do not believe the US government would do this out of tyranny such as the leaders in Egypt.

  • Buckleyfc

    I call bullshit! Any politician in the U.S. that even suggest such a measure should immediately be removed from office, sensured and tried for attempting to violate my constitutional rights, to free speech, the right to assemble, free press… and a sleugh of other reasons! Come on America, wake-up!

  • Lynnemcbride1

    Oh my God!!! There is never any justification for this sort of censorship and control. Wake up America is right! And Joe Lieberman, you are a sneaky,horrible, treasonous, treacherous piece of crap.


  • Susie5416

    your one of those liberials that has put our goverment in the shape it is in

  • Gary Brooklyn

    We should do the opposite of what happened in Egypt: we should put ISPs on (war)ships and then send them to the Mediterranean, or wherever they might be needed, to provide internet service wherever totalitarian governments shut downs of the internet.

  • RMG

    My first gut reaction was….Are they crazy? They won’t even ADDRESS net neutrality – because they don’t feel they should have the power to regulate telecom companies from gouging consumers or manipulating transmission speed. But they want the power to shut it down completely?

    I think that we DO need some way to contain a cyber attack. I get that. However, it should be done in the context of a comprehensive plan regarding the internet – both wired and unwired that includes proper regulation so consumers aren’t gouged as well as a plan to deal with a cyber attack.

  • Carleesmiles

    Please refute your opinions with specific valid examples that would annihilate the freedom of individual opinion Thank you!

  • Carleesmiles

    Please refute your opinions with specific examples that would annihilate the freedom of individual opinion!

  • Jimgeddes

    In the event we have unrest here in America it seems reasonable that the solution should be to allow the “American Government” the ability to interupt all phone and cell service, kill the internet, censore all news publications and declare marshall law. Also the second amendment needs to be overturned.

  • Zoegoodman17

    Freedom of speech should always be maintained and never stopped for any reason.

  • Connie Snyder

    Aw, c’mon. Corporations own the government and the corporations own their own “kill switches.” The Egyptian state-run communications company Egypt telecom is a good customer of Narus (makes a little gizmo that has the ability to target and reconstruct all types of IP traffic including emails, web mail, IM) and Narus is based in Sunnyvale, California….and it is owned by…..Boeing. Yep, owned by the American multinational company Boeing…the one with all the defense contracts. So who shut down Egypt?

  • Tony Igwe

    How would such a scenario develop? How much do you know about the operation of the internet and how much impact it could have on the banking infrastructure? If you think such a risk exists, why not isolate the banks’ infrastructure in such a way that it could have its own kill switch that the president can shut off?

    By the way, banks do not supply breathing air. To shut the country down because the banks have an issue (however serious) is really, inconceivably moronic.

  • Tony

    The go’mint should also have the switch to turn off oxygen in the air so that we can stop all life in the event of a terrorist attack. Brilliant, heh?

  • Wikileaks

    Wikileaks wikileaks!

  • serina

    that would be so scary to be with out internet. like imagine it, everybody at least goes online everyday

  • WAHSrocks

    thats so true. it would be so fraky to live without internet

  • Internet SecuritT Group

    Wow! why so much anger, frustration and hate? I do not think this comment states that they condone the Government to shut down the internet Nor does it state that the banks control the internet. It is merely stating that something which impacts the financial infrastructure of America such as the internet if not properly regulated and controlled could cause serious problems for everyday life.

    Imagine if you could no longer use your credit or debit card ANYWHERE because of a foreign attack on the internet or some sort of mass denial of service on the internet. In order for a problem like this to be resolved it may be necessary for the Government to shut the internet down to get it under control. I have worked with corporate networks and internet security for 20 years and hold many certifications, and I know that this could be a fact of reality.

    When something is harmless to the people and provides only blessings and benefit to the public our Government usually leaves it alone. But when it becomes a threat to our everyday freedoms and our way of life they will and do step in to keep things under control. I for one AM THANKFUL for the American Government and that they protect our country from the tyranny that other countries experience. I am thankful they protect us from things that many people do not understand. I Know internet security and I Know the threats that are facing our infrastructure and I am Glad that the Obama presidency is leading the charge against cyber terrorism.

  • Internet SecuritT Group

    See the above comment. No one said that the banks supply breathing air. But if 85% of our country lost all access to their funds in the bank many would be seriously inconvenienced. I am certain I know a lot more about the internet infrastructure than you do.

  • Internet SecuritT Group

    Yes! exactly!

    They do need some way to contain a cyber attack.

    Many people do not realize how frail the internet infrastructure really is to cyber attack.

    The reality is that most people cannot even keep their home PC’s safe and secure without getting a virus because of not using common sense.

  • Anon

    PBS is becoming such a government tool. All this hypothetical language, as if there aren’t examples of ISPs/Telecoms being bullied by government already. Spare me the effort: go read Glenn Greenwald’s coverage of WikiLeaks/Assange over at Salon.

    Corporations are butter to a Senator or any other powerful political figure in the US who wants something. All they need do is pick up a telephone and exert little pressure. They have PROVEN this, so spare us the propagandistic hypothetical language.

    AMAZON, which rents servers, VISA, PAYPAL: All folded at the request of Lierberman.

    It is a joke to say that there being so many ISPs in the US is protection. Customers would be scrambling to the few brave companies that balked at the order and wouldn’t have the capacity to serve them.

    In the case of Lieberman’s pressure on Amazon, VISA, and Paypal. it was not even a government order, it was just plan intimidation by a senator to dump WikiLeaks.

    In Iceland and elsewhere, where they still have common sense, and a government still trying to be of and for the people, they are asking who Visa thinks it is telling us what causes we can give money to?

    Here, Americans roll over, and the press, despicably, plays midwife to the process.

  • Anon

    Lieberman is a creep who does not have the support of his party in his home state and couldn’t get reelected if his life depended on it. He hates freedom, and loves control and power. He is an idiot who knows not the slightest thing about liberty and justice. He is a political operator who serves an elite with interests in near fascism. He hates meritocracy in a way only a sniveling, privileged, undeserving, utterly corrupted Connecticut politician can, a brand of it that is nowhere more duplicitous.

    Even cynical, snobbish Connecticut voters could no longer stomach Dodd or him. Both are lame ducks and reviled in their home states.

  • Jimgeddes

    I’d still like to see marshall law and the shut down of the net, phone’s, censorship and a few other things. Exactly what I’d want to see is if we as americans have any balls left or not and would be willing to endure some hard ship in order to maintain our freedoms. Right now our freedoms are being tossed and no one seems to care or does not want too sacrifice.
    For instance is there anyone out there that has cut up all credit cards and only uses cash? Or do most think that having what and when they buy tracked and recorded is ok? All I am saying is the Egyptians have a lot oof gut’s to come together the way they have, I’m not so sure Americans would be able or willing to put forth such and effort any longer.

  • ACME Sales Rep.

    No, that doesn’t seem at all reasonable. And the Second Amendment is fine as it’s written; it’s only the gross distortion of it put forward by the NRA and its friends that needs to be fixed.

  • ACME Sales Rep.

    You do realize that your government’s in better shape now than it was four years ago, right? And that the country’s recovering from the mess left by the so-called “conservatives” who ran the show before the moderates got back into power?

  • Connie

    It would certainly be much more difficult. Egypt has only five major Internet service providers; the U.S. has hundreds. And under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, the government has greater control over the telecommunications industry than the U.S. government does.

  • Comanhere

    Credit cards are Evil. Wealth maintenance basics…One’s out-go should not exceed one’s income.

  • German1

    Government control of the internet must be kept at a minimum. It’s obvious that many here don’t remember or have any idea of what the intent was of developing the ARPNET. It originally was developed by the U.S. government as a means to circumvent regions of the world that were decimated in a war, so that there was a way to stay in communications with troops stationed anywhere in the world. Once new technology was developed to replace this archaic medium, they (the government) gave the internet to the people. After all, it was the tax payers money that developed it. Google ARPNET and you will discover many articles of interest.

    At most, the government should only have the authority to shut down connections that exit our country’s borders. Not those within the continental borders. And this should be in cooperation with Canada. Mexico is unreliable in this regard, so they must be blocked.

  • Jimgeddes

    Do you realy think “our government” would really stop at just shutting down the internet at our borders? Not even a small chance.

  • Jimgeddes

    How about that, a bit of common sence out there. I am amazed.

  • pastol

    @Connie Snyder, you must have bought the Glenn Beck starter kit with the chalkboard and sneakers. Let’s break down what you posted there: “Egypt telecom” (correctly: Telecom Egypt) is a good customer of Narus, Naurs is based in Sunnyvale California and owned by Boeing. What exactly does that prove? Let’s look at the truth for a change.

    First, Telecom Egypt is 80% owned by the Egyptian Government and 20% free float.

    Also, this was not an instantaneous event on the front end; each service provider approached the task of shutting down its part of the Egyptian Internet separately.

    * Telecom Egypt (AS8452), the national incumbent, starts the process at 22:12:43.
    * Raya joins in a minute later, at 22:13:26.
    * Link Egypt (AS24863) begins taking themselves down 4 minutes later, at 22:17:10.
    * Etisalat Misr (AS32992) goes two minutes later, at 22:19:02
    * Internet Egypt (AS5536) goes six minutes later, at 22:25:10.

    This sequencing looks more like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air. Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced. There is one other provider everyone seem to have forgotten about. Noor Group (AS20928), which retained 83 out of 83 live routes to its Egyptian customers throughout the outage with inbound transit from Telecom Italia as usual. Why was Noor Group apparently unaffected by the countrywide take-down order? It is uncertain at this point, but the Egyptian Stock Exchange ( remained live at a Noor address.

    It isn’t nearly as simple as as you might think. Nor as devious on the part of any American company.

  • German1

    I hear that Jim. Of course they would.

    They are only “elected” officials afterall. Didn’t we do a good job of uncovering the truth behind the assassinations of JFK and his brother? And how about MLK (a day I remember, because I was just down the street when I heard that fatal shot). You see, nothing gets by us. We all know that our government wouldn’t attempt to hide the truth from the people it represents. That’s just not possible. Besides, don’t we have a media that would keep us informed?

  • German1

    Where do you live my friend? LOL.

  • German1

    That would be a hellava wireless system, if they could connect to it from so far off-shore. LOL

  • German1

    I guess the real question is, would you be willing to “peacefully demonstrate” with a couple a million others to get BIG BUSINESS out of your life and government!

  • German1

    Their already working on the “air” issue, or haven’t you kept up with the Air Forces spraying missions.

    The Defense Department has already released news on their high altitude weather modification spraying news. Even the Canadians are complaining, because the U.S. is crossing over the border into their airspace with these missions.

  • German1

    Lord forbid should Internet life come to a screeching halt! Where would we go for the conspiracy news, porn, Fox News, etc. The real problem isn’t being without the internet, it’s with all the commercial c@@P being thrown at us everyday 24/7. It originally wasn’t supposed to be used for commercial activity. What happened? What became of the PEOPLES network?

  • Susie5416

    I meant “conservatives”, but thanks for the votes anyway.

  • pastol

    It is still there German1. You just need to know how to look beyond the commercial sites.

  • German1

    Pastol…I remember the internet when it first came up. It was an adventure to discover the few sites that had begun to connect to it. All text no graphics. No-one shoving pop-ups in your face. Virus protection was not neccessary. Boy, those were the days.

  • Orangeparkkitty

    I’m surprised at how many people think that our country is run by our President ! Egypt, Germany, England, USA…. have one thing in common. There are only a handfull multi-billionaires that run the world. They control each and every country. It all goes back to oil.

  • Rockne

    Yeah if you told all those big money types that they were going to Gitmo, they would stand their ground, by the way I have a money making opportunity for you I got this bridge in Brooklyn that I’m selling real cheap!

  • Rockne

    One of the problems shutting down the Net in Egypt was the loss of money for the rich that fear can be used to keep the net up! i.e. dot com is good another example is shopping online for used thing good for the Ecology. “The Spice must flo”:)

  • Rockne

    “Those who would trade their liberty for security will have neither”
    Ben Franklin

  • Rockne

    If any shuts down the net that is what would happen 85% of our country would lose all access to their funds! So you dont know as much as you think

  • Rockne

    If anyone shuts down the net that is what would happen 85% of our country would lose all access to their funds! So you dont know as much as you think!

  • Rockne

    I wish Obama would FDR up!

  • Rockne

    Where is FDR when his country need him!

  • Chuck Smith

    As I understand it when England and France were at war they realized that communications was critical. Both countries felt the same and passed laws that if anyone interrupted the postal mail that it was punishable by death. From this the Postal Minister’s became one of the most powerful positions. I believe that this is reflected in the constitution. A democracy has a government to support them as servants (civil servants). Only a traitor would go against a democratic society. Traitors commit treason and are punishable by death.

  • Chuck Smith

    I cut my credit cards and returned them to the bank. They phoned and asked why. At first I was speechless, then……I talked to the lady for half an hour and encouraged her to become educated.

  • Earl Dinkler

    The problem with your argument is that the founding fathers never intended the U.S. to be a democracy. A representative federal republic, not a democracy where “The Majority Rules”. The simple fact is this: in a pure democracy the majority will ALWAYS oppress/suppress the minority. It has never failed to happen throughout history. The Aryan Racial Laws of the Nazis passed with overwhelming public support. That didn’t make it right. As far as treason was concerned, people like Sam Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Button Gwinnett were proud to hold that badge of honor in the face of THE Overwhelming Super-power of the day: Imperial Britain.

  • Harleneg1

    yea, like when the nasdaq got hit with hackers, I think it’s like the attack from 9/11. they are now trying to bring down our finanacial system. You destroy all the major things that run the city, state, and you can destroy them, attack the way we travel, our finances, then the internet, or commuication, then you have total control.

  • (98(898)89)

    Hola amigo.
    There may be another revolution if “our government” were to shut down the internet in our “free” home. But then again if the governemt were to do that it would frustrate the people. So,… they would not take the action unless they are in a real desperate situation. This desperate situation will only arise whenever we, as a people, are willing to revolutionize our culture drastically. Just a thought.
    - Your friend

  • Anonymous

    The Internet is only one of the first minute steps in the Information Revolution.  People talk as if the Information Revolution is something that already happened, and now the only things that can be improved are the speed, aesthetics, and convenience of the preexisting technologies.  Such viewpoints make me laugh.  The difference between the Internet and what is to come is about as vast as the difference between the telegraph and iPhones.  

    I am a developer, you could say, and I’m working on a technology that will create a new international network similar to the Internet, but is completely wireless, eliminates the need for ISPs, and decentralizes the entire process.  I can’t give the details because if I explained how it worked, either someone would steal my idea and misuse it, or the powers that be would take me seriously and find a way to shut my project down before it got off the ground, but I can assure you that it is possible.  It doesn’t take any big leaps in science to make this advancement.  The reason nobody has tried is that the regular Internet is so free and convenient that there seems to be no need, however, we shouldn’t get too comfortable.  Even if the fears seem remote, I believe that an alternative network MUST be developed before large Western governments build their kill switches.  Otherwise, they will stop the Information Revolution in its tracks, because we need the networks of today to build the networks of tomorrow.
    The government may be able to shut down this new invention in the early stages by overloading the system with static noise on the frequency it uses, but eventually, the network will expand to encompass so many frequencies that the feds couldn’t kill it without killing their own communications.

  • Kassy B

    The governments corrupt.

  • Fearful

    But if the capability is there, the sitting President or controlling party can spin a reason to use it…just like in Egypt. The shutdown was to control the subversive (sp) groups access to it. The evil call the good subversive & vice versa. The problem is “which group is in control of the switch”.

  • Dan

    You are a very smart woman!!!!!!!

  • yoyo

    Thats not totally correct, everyone makes mistakes. But yes we need strong christian leaders not people who just want their own way.