Scitech  Could the internet be shut off?

Control over communication, from James Admin to Egypt

This past February, occupiers in the James administration used Twitter to brand themselves as #6party, and to communicate with their supporters. They advertised a livestream feed, from which they broadcast the first hours of their time in Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson’s office. They dispatched press releases on a blog. On the first day of the occupation, after denying them food from supporters, and before shutting off the water in the washrooms, the administration took away their wireless connection.

It is almost a banal point to say that the internet is an essential tool to social organization today – from organizing protests, to house parties, to vote mobs – it’s become irreplaceable. But the radical new powers that have been granted to the average netizen have proven a speed bump to institutions that are based on a more traditional model.: In the context of authoritarian forces seeking to continue their control, or grandiose activists, such as Anonymous wishing to overturn the status quo, the internet – or control thereof – can serve as an irresistible tool to meet their goals.

The role of social media is often cited as a key factor in the success of a variety of large-scale revolutions. But for all its power and utility, the internet is still vulnerable due to the nature of its infrastructure.

Last year, in response to the millions of people mobilized in Tahrir square, the Egyptian government decided to shut off the internet. Ordinarily, the internet functions by allowing individuals to send and receive data from storage locations known as servers from anywhere in the world. The pathway of individual data bits (controlled by a router) can vary from bit to bit, but each one will pass through routers along the way. What the Egyptian government probably did was shut off critical routers that tell the rest of the internet where the Egyptian IPs could be found, effectively sending every Egyptian netizen into an internet free limbo. In Egypt, only four key routers needed to be shut down to stop the internet – the infrastructure was particularly vulnerable to this power abuse. Canada has hundreds or thousands of these critical routers, in contrast. In the case of McGill campus internet, which is provided through routers and ethernet cables, the infrastructure is controlled entirely by the McGill administration.

Controlling the internet runs deeper than just shutting off routers: Bill C-30, introduced by Vic Toews of “Vikileaks” fame, would give the Canadian government new powers to track individuals’ internet activities in real time. According to Minister Toews, if you disagree, you obviously support child predators. Unfortunately for the proponents of the bill, the current architecture of the internet does not allow for this type of tracking, since the routers that pass data along the way do not actually track the content of the data. In order to enforce the bill, the telecom companies (who own the vast majority of the routers, cables and towers that bring the internet to you) would have to engage in enormous hardware and software retrofits. This would effectively bring the free flow of data – and the speed of your internet activity – to a crawl.

The response from the internet was swift and hilarious, with the twitter hashtag #TellVicEverything, where individuals told the minister’s twitter account the banal details of their lives in typically funny fashion. The online hacktivist community known as Anonymous also took note. Anonymous has made many powerful enemies in the past with their bottom-up disruption to the physical infrastructure made possible by the very same internet technologies.

Anonymous specializes in shutting down the online presence of their ideological opponents using a piece of software known as the “Low Orbit Ion Cannon”. This software takes control of sympathetic individual’s’ computers in a so-called ‘bot-net’ to send many thousands of requests per second towards the relevant servers. The sheer volume of these incoming data packet requests causes the servers to overload and shut down. Victims of this type of attack by Anonymous have included the FBI,  MPAA, Visa and Mastercard, with the latter even resulting in arrests after an international investigation into the Anonymous hacker group.

As our lives and the global economies become inevitably more intertwined due to the seemingly limitless power of the internet, we should also reflect that the traditional power struggles that have defined human history will inevitably follow us into our new global playground. The nature of the internet is robust – but not invulnerable. Those willing to bend it to their own ends will do so. Whether or not they do it for power or “for the lulz” depends on the nature of our society, which is now inextricably a global one.