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net.wars: Kill switch

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 October 2009


There's an old sort-of joke that goes, "What's the best way to kill the Internet?" The number seven answer, according to Simson Garfinkel, writing for HotWired in 1997: "Buy ten backhoes." Ba-boom.

Wendy M Grossman

The US Senate, never folks to avoid improving a joke, came up with a new suggestion: install a kill switch. They published this little gem (as S.773) on April 1. It got a flurry of attention and then forgotten until the last week or two. (It's interesting to look back at Garfinkel's list of 50 ways to kill the Net and notice that only two are government actions, and neither is installing a "kill switch").

To be fair, "kill switch" is an emotive phrase for what they have in mind, which is that the president:

may declare a cybersecurity emergency and order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from any compromised Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network.

Now, there's a lot of wiggle room in a vague definition like "critical infrastructure system".

That could be the Federal government's own servers. Or the electrical grid, the telephone network, the banking system, the water supply, or even, arguably, Google. (It has 64+ percent of US search queries, and if you can't find things the Internet might as well be dead.) But what this particular desire of the Senate's sounds most like, is those confused users who think they can catch a biological virus from their computers.

Still, for the media, calling the Senate's idea a "kill switch" is attention-getting political genius. We don't call the president's power to order the planes out of the sky, as happened on 9/11 a "crash switch", but imagine the outcry against it if we did.

Technically, the idea that there's a single off switch waiting to be implemented somewhere, is of course ridiculous.

The idea is also administrative silliness: Obama, we hope, is kind of busy. The key to retaining sanity when you're busy is to get other people to do all the things they can without your input. We would hope that the people running the various systems powering the federal government's critical infrastructure could make their own, informed decisions – faster than Obama can – about when they need to take down a compromised server.

Despite wishful thinking, John Gilmore's famous aphorism, "The Net perceives censorship as damage and routes around", doesn't really apply here.

For one thing, even a senator knows – probably – that you can't literally shut down the entire Internet from a single switch sitting in the President's briefcase (presumably next to the nuclear attack button). Much of the Internet is, after all, outside the US; much of it is in private ownership. (Perhaps the Third Amendment could be invoked here?)

For another, Gilmore's comment really didn't apply to individual Internet-linked computer networks; Google's various bits of outages this year ought to prove that it's entirely possible for those to be down without affecting the network at large.

No, the point was that if you try to censor the Net its people will stop you by putting up mirror servers and passing the censored information around until everyone has a copy. The British Chiropractic Association (quacklash!) and Trafigura are the latest organizations to find out what Gilmore knew in 1993. He also meant, I suppose, that the Internet protocols were designed for resilience and to keep trying by whatever alternate routes are available if data packets don't get through.

Earlier this week another old Net hand, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, gave some rather sage advice to the Web 2.0 conference. One key point: do not build your local laws into the global network. That principle would not, unfortunately, stop the US government from shutting off its own servers (to spite its face?) but it does nix the idea of, say, building the network infrastructure to the specification of any one particular group – the MPAA or the UK government, in defiance of the increasingly annoyed EU.

In the same talk, Berners-Lee also noted (according to CNET): "I'm worried about anything large coming in to take control, whether it's large companies or government."

Threats like these were what he set up W3C to protect against. People talk with reverence of Berners-Lee's role as inventor, but many fewer understand that the really big effort is the 30 years since the aha! moment of creation, during which Berners-Lee has spent his time and energy nurturing the Web and guiding its development. Without that, it could easily have been strangled by competing interests, both corporate and government. As, of course, it still could be, depending on the outcome of the debates over network neutrality rules.

Dozens of decisions like Berners-Lee's were made in creating the Internet. They have not made it impossible to kill – I'm not sure how many backhoes you'd need now, but I bet it's still a surprisingly finite number – but they have made it a resilient and robust network. A largely democratic medium, in fact, unlike TV and radio, at least so far. The Net was born free; the battles continue over whether it should be in chains.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).