With the recent Internet blackout in Syria, the prospect of a similar event happening in the U.S. became a subject of discussion in the tech community. While the Internet is typically viewed as being highly resilient to war, natural disasters and everything else, a country suddenly disconnecting, as Syria did, presented a captivating scenario to consider for world leaders meeting at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai to update international telecommunications agreements.

A recent story by the Huffington Post illustrated how such a blackout occurring in the U.S. is highly unlikely, despite several efforts over the past few years by Sen. Joseph Lieberman to create an Internet “kill-switch” that would give the federal government power to shut down or take control of American Internet access during a national emergency. The bill never passed, and with more than 40 Internet providers in the U.S., it would be extremely difficult for any one event to completely shut off American Internet access -- although the potential for a partial Internet blackout in the U.S. is possible.

Risk of Internet Disconnection

This map (click to view larger version) shows the risk level of each country in the world. According to global intelligence firm Renesys, "the key to the Internet's survival is the Internet's decentralization — and it's not uniform across the world."

Global intelligence firm Renesys recently published an infographic titled “Risk of Internet Disconnection,” depicting the risk level each country has in facing an Internet blackout. The United States accompanies Russia, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, most of Europe, and several countries in Africa and Southeast Asia as being resistant to an Internet blackout. And the reason the U.S. is resistant to losing Internet service is because a relatively weakly regulated telecommunications industry allows many different service providers to operate on many paths in and out of the country.

The U.S. relies on undersea cables to maintain a global Internet connection, and though it is possible to cut those cables, Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Huffington Post that there's not much chance the government would start cutting cables to shut off the Internet. Besides, there would still be cables connecting the U.S. to Canada and Mexico on land to at least prevent a full blackout. “We do have a limited number of entry points for undersea cables coming into the U.S., so in some ways that is a weakness," she told HuffPost. But “if you get to where the government is cutting cables in order to shut out Internet access to the U.S., you’ve abandoned the rule of law. All bets are off.”

The lack of a centralized telecommunications system in the U.S. is probably the biggest factor that makes an American Internet blackout unlikely, but war-time scenarios that place the Internet at risk are still serious concerns for many leaders. Internet blackouts in Egypt were enacted with ease as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak simply ordered the country's main ISP to stop service. Even then, Egyptian Internet access was not completely shut off, and the number of loose ends and various modes of connection available to American citizens would make a blackout in the U.S. far more difficult.

In a war-time scenario or a despotic ruler scenario, it's conceivable that large swathes of Internet access could be knocked out, but the odds of anyone completely blacking out the Internet in the U.S. are very low, said Robert Rodriguez, chairman of the Security Innovation Network and senior adviser to the Chertoff Group. “We need to get a Hollywood script writer in here,” he said, adding that even though such an event is unlikely, the consequences of a complete blackout in the U.S. “would be catastrophic; people would die.”

Energy, IT and telecommunications are the three critical infrastructures, Rodriguez said, and the longer the country went without any of those systems, the worse things would become.

“Even if it was just the Eastern corridor, it would be catastrophic,” he said. “Look what happened in Hurricane Sandy.”

And an Internet blackout would be far more devastating, he said. The system could go dark only for a limited time before things began to fall apart -- and things would get progressively worse as the systems government relies on to keep order and provide services were no longer available, he said, not to mention the negative impact on the nation's transportation systems and economy. Nearly every facet of life would be affected -- from traffic and transportation systems to hospitals and electric grids.

Efforts to keep the Internet safe and operational over the past few years have passed through Congress and framed the tone of international discourse. Efforts by legislators to create an Internet kill switch undermine the democratic nature of the Internet, Rodriguez said. An Internet kill-switch would remove the separation of powers that currently govern telecommunications law, he said. Though U.S. adversaries are constantly stockpiling information that could be used to destroy the national infrastructure and security risks are real, he said, increased regulation would be unfortunate.

The events now unfolding in Syria, though significant in their own right, are but one thread in the tapestry where telecommunications is concerned. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is currently hosting officials from 193 nation states from around the world as part of the World Conference on International Telecommunications. Representatives worldwide met on Dec. 3, the first day of the conference, in support of the ITU's stated goal of ensuring that the Internet remains open, accessible and free. The event will continue through Dec. 14.

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com