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And If The Internet Went Black?

Hacker network Anonymous has vowed to take down the world wide web on March 31 to protest a U.S. anti-piracy bill. Though chances are low they could pull it off, it's worth considering how far-reaching the effect an Internet blackout would be. It

Don't let them pull the plug... (Ian Sane)
Don't let them pull the plug... (Ian Sane)
Ulrich Clauß

BERLIN - On March 31, the Internet is going to be "turned off." Worldwide. That, at least, is what Anonymous, the hacker network, is threatening. What they're calling their Operation Global Blackout aims to protest a controversial U.S. bill – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – to protect copyrighted intellectual property around the world.

The threat may be nothing more than bluff – or not. But what would happen if the Internet were to quite simply not be there? Is that even possible? Digital experts canvassed by Die Welt say such a scenario is highly improbable – but possible in principle.

Although there are studies about what would happen if there were to be an electricity blackout, there are no known stuides, government-backed or otherwise, devoted to the possibility of an Internet blackout. Stefan Ritter, head of Computer Emergency Response at the Bonn-based Federal Office for Internet Security (BSI), can only speculate as to why that is.

"We haven't had the 9/11 of IT – in the sense of an event that changes global awareness – yet. But what I can tell you is that, several times already, we've just managed to escape massive IT crises," he says.

The German Internet Exchange (DE-CIX) in Frankfurt/M is also not prepared to dismiss out of hand the possibility of an Internet disaster. The DE-CIX offers IP interconnection infrastructure to over 450 leading Internet providers in 52 countries.

"Nobody can exclude the possibility that the whole DE-CIX platform could fail," says its technical head, Arnold Nipper. Among its massive security measures is the decision to not keep all its computers in one place; and access to its sites is severely controlled.

However, the mathematician adds: "The probability of a blackout is greater than nil. Until now, the question has been: what effect would an energy blackout have on the Internet? Now the question also poses itself: what consequences would an Internet blackout have on the supply of energy?"

One thing is sure: the impact would be huge, even for those who are not connected to the Internet, because the Web has become the backbone for communication for both the public and the private sector, and for individuals. For many, it would mean not being able to place phone calls anymore, or watch TV, as more and more consumers subscribe to IP TV offers.

Nor would cell phones help, because if too many people use them at the same time the network will collapse. And of course without the Internet, no smart phones will function.

Matthias Hollick, security expert at the Center for Advanced Security Research at Darmstadt's Technical University, puts it this way: "In the 1980s, one company had an avant-garde slogan: ‘The Internet is the computer." That's not ahead of its time anymore. Without Internet infrastructure, computers would have only very limited functionality."

Health and welfare

BSI's Ritter says that an Internet blackout could put human lives at risk. Problems could range from late medical deliveries to paralysis of emergency services. "We're making society ever more vulnerable by continually doing away with redundancy, so that we are less robust in the face of any kind of major problems with communication infrastructure."

And to test that robustness you wouldn't even need anything as dramatic as bizarre hacker fantasies à la Anonymous. There are plenty of others reasons to fear for the stability of the Internet, he says.

IT expert Max Mühlhäuser, head of Darmstadt's telecooperation lab, says just one of many other threats could include discovering "thousands of fake routers, manipulated from the outset, that you would have to take out of circulation because they represent an incalculable security risk."

Mühlhäuser warns that the biggest Internet dangers are attacks by organized crime and state-supported cyberattacks. "Violence of those dimensions would be very difficult to overcome," he says.

Also: the economy is increasingly dependent on the net for everything from e-commerce to company intranets. "Public life depends on it," he says.

Internet technology is increasingly important for production and logistics, traffic management, and more. "The Internet is the backbone of all other critically important infrastructures," Mühlhäuser says, adding that the tendency to outsource IT services increases the potential of sabotage.

All experts agree that the Internet is set to be considered part of society's basic infrastructure, as irreplaceable, as electricity and running water.

BSI's Stefan Ritter says: "We're in a transition phase. If there were to be an Internet blackout now, it wouldn't be as bad as it would be say 10 years from now – when we open the doors to our homes with our iPhones, and our refrigerator places replacement orders for food directly via the web. Then the blackout would have as devastating consequences as a major power outtage has now."

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Photo - Ian Sane

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