Does the Internet Have a 'Kill Switch'?

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It’s an enticing premise out of a James Bond film: a device somewhere that, with the flick of a switch or the press of a button (or, somewhat more realistically, a typed code on a computer), can bring the World Wide Web to a sudden halt against an impenetrable wall of 404 Error codes.

No more e-mails. No more websites. No more adorable kitty memes. All of it gone, on the whim of arguably the most powerful person in the world.

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Rumors have circulated that governments in Egypt, Iran, and elsewhere have tried to develop just such a "kill switch" to disable the Internet. Sci-fi speculation aside, a recent statement on Yahoo News UK from the man who invented the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, pours cold water on that theory:

"Berners-Lee, who launched the web on Christmas Day 1990, said the only way the internet could ever be entirely shut down is if governments all over the world coordinated to make it a centralized system….The way the internet is designed is very much as a decentralized system. At the moment, because countries connect to each other in lots of different ways, there is no one off-switch, there is no central place where you can turn it off."

Governments and powerful individuals clearly have a vested interest in keeping some information off the Internet. Witness the concern over Wikileaks releases and even Mitt Romney’s tax records, which may or may not have been recently stolen by a hacker allegedly demanding ransom.

But killing the Internet to prevent dissemination of such secrets would be like killing a fly with a sledgehammer—and likely be ineffective anyway.

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Though it would be virtually impossible to switch the Internet as a whole off, there have of course been various countries that have blocked or restricted web access to their citizens for political purposes. China, for example, is notoriously censorious.

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And it’s not just countries. In March of this year, people claiming to be members of the group Anonymous announced that they planned to gravely harm (albeit temporarily) the web by targeting the world’s domain name servers, thereby making it impossible to perform a domain name look-up, effectively rendering most of the Internet inaccessible (though hardly “dead”). It was supposed to have happened on March 31, though given the nature of the Anonymous organization it’s not clear if the threat was real (and unsuccessful) or a prank.

In response to claims that he was one of the few people who could pull the plug on the Internet, Berners-Lee joked: "I am afraid that now that you know I will have to shoot you."

Credit: Corbis Images

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