Can Australia's internet be switched off, too?

Although Australia has been a stable democracy for 110 years now, shutting off the country's internet would be surprisingly easy to do and take just minutes, according to telecommunications experts.

Following reports on Egypt's internet shutdown, analyst Paul Budde said the government had the power to force internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down the internet if it chose to.

“With emergency powers… that would be no problem,” Budde told Computerworld Australia. “[The government] just have to flick a switch at a few key operators — Telstra, Optus, Vodafone — this would kill 80 per cent of all traffic.

“There are systems that bypass the public service but they are mainly used by corporate, broadcasters, and government departments. The general public would not have easy access to that.”

iiNet chief technology officer, Greg Bader, said if there was a legal governmental directive for the ISP to remove connectivity to its customers, then the ISP could effectively switch off the internet for users.

Bader said the ISP could disconnect users through a ‘hard’ option of physically shutting down equipment and routing, which would take about 30 minutes to completely isolate all iiNet services.

The company could also carry out a range of ‘soft’ disconnections through restricting access to known, ‘white label’ parts of the internet or via the use of blacklists to block specific sites, such as the proposed Federal Government’s mandatory ISP-level filter.

“If you are going to have an internet kill switch, then you would also need to do all other ‘utility’ forms of communication [such as] TV, print, telephone et cetera, [but] I think that level of action is reserved for North Korea,” iiNet’s chief of regulatory affairs, Steve Dalby, said. “No surprise that we don’t have a ‘kill switch’ as such."

According to Budde, there were lessons to be learned for ISPs and the wider public in the wake of Egypt’s crackdown on online freedom.

“What we see happening is increased people power across the world, not just in democratic countries,” he said. “Governments could have problems with that (financial crises, terrorism, climate disasters, etc) and they could feel the urge to move into an emergency situation.

"That is a very dangerous situation and we as a society need to be vigilant about this. These events will make people think about it and hopefully some alternative technologies will be developed.

"There are already emergency telecoms systems that are used in natural disaster situations they could be a key to alternative infrastructure for people power purposes as well.”

Dalby said he doubted the potential for the Australian government to shut down the internet any time soon, but said it could be a future possibility.

“In my opinion the answer is that oppressive governments do what they like,” he said. “I don't think the political framework in Australia would allow it in 2011, but who knows what 10 or 20 years of internal strife could do to any country.”

Internet Industry Association (IIA) chief executive, Peter Coroneos, said the prospect of the internet being switched off in Australia was highly remote, even in extreme cases.

"I'm not aware of any provisions in the telco act that would apply -- there may be reserve powers under national security arrangements -- indeed in times of war the government would be able to sequester assets into State control but you'd have to be looking at a situation as extreme as that before we'd even contemplate such measures," he said.

"With 400 ISPs it would be non trivial -- even getting backbone or international transit providers would be hard as we have some diversity here, some are foreign owned. Also, it would be possible to dial up to overseas points of presence so people would presumably find work arounds to ensure ongoing access, though it may not be broadband."

Commenting on the possibility of an ‘internet kill switch’, currently being debated in the US, Budde said that under normal circumstances in a democratic system, it would be very difficult to get political agreement on implementing such a measure.

“There is in my opinion no positive [to implementing a kill switch], only a negative,” he said. “Internet safety and security need to be deeply imbedded everywhere in the system having a single point would only be dangerous for all sorts of reasons.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also expressed its doubt on the merits of an internet kill switch in a recent report into cyber security, arguing that in the very simplest sense the internet cannot be switched off because it has no centre.

“In most emergencies you would want to give priority to doctors, but most doctors and their surgeries use the same downstream Internet facilities as the bulk of the population and there would be no easy way to identify them,” the report reads.

“Localised Internet switch-off is likely to have significant unwanted consequences."

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @TLohman

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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