Governments being able to shut down the internet service in their country is nothing new. Regimes such as Cuba facing countless protests in their streets or Venezuela having the election season have found that restricting the digital freedoms of their civilian has provided them with the desired result. The Indian government has also shut off the internet hundreds of times – approximately 109 in 2020 – during times of elections and civil unrest. Along with shutting off the internet, they have also managed to throttle the internet connection resulting in slow speeds, blocking websites and mobile internet.
What about the US?
However, in the United States, there doesn’t exist a law that gives the government authority over ISPs and their actions, unless they have a court order. The US government also needs a court order to shut off any of their services. Therefore, the internet services in the country are only managed by internet service providers themselves, and they alone can turn off the internet switch or throttle with the internet bandwidth. By throttling the internet connection, the internet service providers have to make sure that the internet bandwidth is being distributed equally among all their consumers. For instance, if you have subscribed to one of the deals from Xfinity internet plans, and another internet user has also subscribed to the same deal, Xfinity will make sure that you are not hogging all the bandwidth, and the other internet user is also getting some of the bandwidth he paid for.
Reasons for a government shutdown of the internet
The internet has been declared as a basic human right by the UN in 2016, however, it does not address the government’s responsibility to provide the same to their citizens. Shutting down the internet means depriving citizens of that, and each country’s government has its own laws to act upon. And the reason why they do it is mostly to impose control over their citizens or prevent the spreading of information.
- For instance, governments in Asia and Africa frequently impose shutdowns during election times, where they claim they do so to prevent the spread of misinformation. However, in reality, it is because they want to prevent the opposition candidates from reaching out to voters to build support for themselves, restrict the citizens’ ability to organize, or prevent election observers from being compromised to ensure the integrity of votes.
- Although it is a constant thing for the internet shutdown to happen in Egypt, the Arab Spring was one prime example of how the internet shutdown turned the whole country offline. To protest against the government, Twitter, Facebook, and messaging apps were wifely being used to share information about coordinating protests among citizens and the situation in the country. This resulted in the government order for all internet service providers to disconnect and 80 million people in the country being offline.
How does the internet shutdown work?
To understand how the internet shutdown works, an example from Egypt’s internet blackout will be used. A country such as Egypt does not have a lot of major internet service providers, and the few that they do are managed by governmental agencies. According to the experts, the government of Egypt called these agencies to restrict online traffic. As a result, the Egyptian internet service providers modified their Border Gateway Protocols, which monitors and routes online information. Instead of an on-off switch, there is a list of IP addresses that route and transmit information between different nodes on the internet. The Egyptian ISPs altered the software and the list to null routing, and then all traffic going in and out went to waste, and there is no internet connection for the consumers.
The US government’s involvement so far
Major telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon have published their reports where they mentioned the number of times they have received demands from the government and law enforcement agencies. These demands have been something like subpoenas for subscribers’ information, court orders requesting wiretaps, estimates of National Security Letters, and other emergency requests for information.
Is internet shutdown possible in the US?
The US government could do what Egypt and other countries have been doing in their country regarding the internet shutdown but it would be logistically difficult. The government would have to call the top internet service providers and order them to alter the Border Gateway Protocols that will shut down the internet of the majority of American citizens. There are thousands of internet service providers in the country and the government would have to reach out to all of them in order to fully restrict internet access.
Moreover, the economy of the US is completely dependent on an internet connection. The internet is a network of thousands of other computers all across the world and they are all operated on a commercial level. These a businesses and the country’s bread and butter as well. Most of them are completely unregulated and the idea of them having to comply fully with the US government seems like going too far. The US would experience an economic collapse.
Hence, the laws in the US prevent the government from having complete control over any commercial organizations and services. They would have to procure a court order to even make that possible, and also, it is difficult for the government to reach out to all the internet service providers in the country.