In a conversation recently, one of the contributors here and I got into a discussion about shutting down the Internet. He proposed that the Internet back bone could be interrupted, effectively shutting down the Internet. Can’t be done, buddy, that’s just not how it works.
If you haven’t already heard the term let me introduce you to “The Interweb.” It’s just another nom de plume for what we call the Internet, but it’s a little more descriptive of how this marvelous system of communication works. In truth, the Internet is more rat’s nest of communication channels than elegant spiderweb. There is no “back bone,” just millions and millions of faster and slower channels going every which way. As bane to Mubarak and the Chinese government, the initial design of what we call the Internet included a radically different idea. Instead of operators or automatic switches making connections from the main trunk down to the local offices and then on to your phone, Internet traffic switches itself across a vast array of little paths. These are so numerous they’re called the cloud.
When we type a piece for SWI, as I hope you all are, and then press “publish,” that keystroke is sent up to the server. However, it may not go the same way all those carefully thought out letters and punctuation of your piece did. That’s because each message traveling from one place to another has about a million ways to get from source to destination. We don’t see the difference, nor should we care, what matters is it’s possible for that keypress to go around the world 30 times before it gets there or just make the trip in one or two “hops.”
When the first cro-magnon version of today’s Internet first crawled out of the cave, it already had a piece of remarkable magic. This particular magic is called a routing algorithm. The name of this algorithm says it all, it’s called OSPF, for Open Shortest Path First. OSPF is what makes the billion or so possible paths through the Internet work.
When we first go to a website or make any request, that request travels hundreds or thousands of possible paths simultaneously to get to the website. Each request brings a map of the path it took with it. The first to get there probably had the shortest path, so all further conversation tries to use that path. Tricky, elegant and simple.
The real power of OSPF comes when something goes wrong. If a message does not get where it’s going each side notices, and tries to find another path. It uses OSPF to find the next fastest path, or possibly an even faster path. The communication effectively routes itself around the problem. No matter how many lines are cut, servers turned off or blown up, Internet traffic will still find a way. Cutting the line from New York to Milwaukee will just make the traffic go through Boise first, or Chicago, or Los angeles, or Skunk’s Misery Wyoming. That’s the first magic.
The second magic is even more startling, because there is a lot more to the Internet than just wires and messages. One of the greatest assets of the Internet is it’s users.
When the Egyptian government tried to cut off Internet access to the protestors, they went to the ISPs, the Internet Service Providers, and the cell phone networks telling them to shut down. “That’ll fix ‘em!” they thought (probably in Egyptian). But that’s just when the second magic kicks in.
Just as in the green revolution in Iran, millions, and I do mean millions, of Internet users thought that was dirty pool and decided to do something about it. They set up systems on landlines to convert voices into tweets. Just call and tweet your brains out. They sent in modems so Egyptian computers could use ISPs in different countries. They rigged faxes that went right into Facebook. They used Ham radio and set up radio-based ISPs. Of course any one with a satellite connection hardly noticed at all. There are lots of satellite users in a country like Egypt, FIOS hasn’t gotten there yet.
The satellite Internet system is not very fast, but it’s thousands of satellites are owned by all sorts of different countries and multinational corporations. And like most multinational corporations it takes so long to talk to someone who might be able to help it’s hardly worth calling in the first place. It’s just not a “Press 5 to cut off all transmissions to my country…” type of call. Besides, not only does some mostly Russian consortium not care what Hosni Mubarak wants, being the next victim on a 60 minutes special investigation is just not a good career move.
“Please hold for the next available operator, Please hold for the next available operator, Please hold………”
In the end it was probably the Egyptian government themselves who had to have it all back on. Just like the rest of us they have come to depend on cell phone networks and data communications. They themselves are part of the magic after all. To their credit they actually managed to cripple Internet communications for 5 days, but they never killed it and solutions were being installed after the first 5 minutes. It’s the second magic, get’s em every time.
So if someone ever asks your opinion of an “Internet kill switch,” just say “Dude, it’s the Interweb. Even if they nuked our whole country the roaches that were left would be back tweetin’ in 10 minutes.”
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011