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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.”