Could the British Government switch off our internet?

It’s not only political dissent that the rulers of Egypt and Libya have been keen to shut down in recent weeks. Both North African states have also attempted to switch off the internet in a ham-fisted attempt to prevent protests propagating via social networks.

Could the British Government switch off our internet?

At 5:20pm EST on 27 January, the whole of Egypt was disconnected from the internet, with the notable exception of some Government organisations, according to net monitoring firm Arbor Networks. Libya followed the same ‘total disconnection’ strategy, with the plug being pulled for six hours on 18 February at the height of the initial protests.

But what about western democracies? Surely they couldn’t just switch off the internet, could they?

The internet by definition is a mesh of networks, so, like a leaky sieve, the bigger the mesh the harder it is to isolate all the connections

The United States is already readying itself for just such an event with the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, which will give President Obama the ability to declare a state of cyber-security emergency during which he would have full control over internet networks.

In theory, that control could go as far as disconnecting US networks from the rest of the world in order to isolate the country and its critical national infrastructure from attack for a period of 120 days, which could be extended upon application to Congress.

Cameron’s kill-switch

Of course, no such law is being proposed in the UK, or we would have heard about it, wouldn’t we?

Dr Peter Gradwell, a trustee of the Nominet Trust which funds projects to make the internet safer and more accessible, suggests there might already be something applicable within the 2003 Communications Act.

The law provides the “power to require suspension or restriction of a provider’s entitlement if there are reasonable grounds to believe that it is necessary to do so (a) to protect the public from any threat to public safety or public health, or (b) in the interests of national security”.

It’s not quite as all-encompassing as the US provisions, requires specific identification of the networks concerned and compulsory compensation for loss or damage to the businesses impacted. And all the Government can do under that law is serve a network operator with a suspension notice; if the ISP ignores that demand, the maximum punishment is merely a fine.

As Dr Gradwell points out, the notion of a UK kill-switch is very different to the circumstances in Egypt where the telecoms business is operated by only a handful of nationalised providers. “The UK has over 3,000 independent internet service providers, four or five national mobile operators and at least ten undersea high-speed fibre cables linking us to all other parts of the world,” said Gradwell. “The internet by definition is a mesh of networks, so, like a leaky sieve, the bigger the mesh the harder it is to isolate all the connections”.

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