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Why there's no such thing as an 'Internet kill switch'

Egypt showed that you can't stop the Internet. Why? Because it's made out of people.

February 5, 2011 08:00 AM ET

Computerworld - My iPhone rang yesterday evening. It was my 22-year-old son calling from his iPhone to ask me how to do something on iTunes. It was a pretty unremarkable call, and the kind of conversation we used to have when he lived at home, except that he was on the other side of the world in Mumbai, India.

Because we both use the Skype app, the call was free and was initiated with the push of an on-screen button. Call quality was perfect.

The strange new reality is that calling from India to the U.S. on an iPhone is more convenient than raising your voice to shout into the next room - and the same price.

He was on a phone. I was on a phone. But we were communicating over the Internet. And the cell phone data networks. And who knows what else.

It got me thinking: Where does the Internet end? Does the Internet include the cell phone networks? The landline networks? What is the Internet or, rather, what isn't the Internet?

Has the Internet assimilated the human race itself? Events in Egypt have revealed that the shocking answer is: yes!

Resistance is futile

The Internet was created as a communications network that could not be stopped. The radically distributed, flexible architecture was designed to survive a nuclear attack, with information packets "routing around" the damage. The Internet Protocol Suite, which is also known as TCP/IP, is the stuff the Internet is made of.

A protocol is nothing more than a set of rules. The Internet works because servers and software obey these rules.

The Internet protocols make sure that the instructions for any click of a link, sending of an e-mail or tweeting of a tweet are broken down into tiny, individually addressed packets of data and sent on their way along whatever path offers least resistance.

The rules provide flexibility, and the flexibility provides reliability.

But what happens when you shut down the servers that obey these rules, and do it on a national level? As we learned in Egypt, you can shut down Internet access to an entire nation, and the data still routes around the damage.

Why the Egyptian Internet shutdown failed

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak achieved at least one thing nobody else ever has: He shut down the Internet connection to an entire country for five days.

Or did he?

The Egyptian uprising began on Jan. 25, organized online via American social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Two days later, the government ordered the nation's Internet service providers (ISPs) to cut off Internet access. The following day, the government shut down the nation's cell phone carriers. The government apparently hoped that taking away the main way people organized and communicated might stop the protest movement.

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