A lesson from Egypt – decentralise the internet

For five days recently, the internet in Egypt was off the air because the government contacted ISPs and told them to shut down. As an attempt to suppress anti-government protests it was a failure, but it serves as a heads up for the rest of the world.

Much of the internet’s core infrastructure is located in the United States, where a bill known as the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act” is proposed. The bill first appeared in 2010, sponsored by Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins. It is making an appearance again in 2011, commonly known as the internet “kill-switch” bill.

The idea is that during a “national cyber emergency” (e.g. internet-based attacks on the power grid or hacking into US weapons systems), the President and the Department of Homeland Security would have the authority to shut down private systems across the country, essentially bringing down the internet to stop the attacks until everything could be secured. (Because the internet is a distributed network and the US is a huge country, it’s unlikely the government could take down the whole thing but it could knock out a big chunk.)

However, a provision of the legislation is that it “shall not be subject to judicial review.” In other words, the courts could not declare the legislation unconstitutional, effectively striking it down. Clearly there is more at stake than simply protection from terrorist cyber attack.

We are now starting to hear comments in Australia about “cyber-security” too. As we have no Constitutional safeguards to include or exclude, we could end up with a more complete  government kill-switch than the US.

There are two possible responses – fight the kill-switch politically, and decentralise the internet.

The lesson from Egypt is that the internet has become centralised into the hands of too few providers and too few data centres. While it is still a decentralised network, the fact that Egypt could so quickly and successfully execute the decision to cut off virtually all internet traffic within its borders is a sign that the internet is not nearly as decentralised as it once was.  The early internet was much more of a peer-to-peer experience — as much because of limited resources as anything else.

The editor of TechRepublic, Jason Hiner, has suggested creating:

“an alternate internet/networking protocol that would enable us to run a global, ad-hoc, peer-to-peer network using the wireless networking chips in our individual computers and/or our Wi-Fi routers. We wouldn’t need to use it all the time — it would certainly be slower and less reliable than the big Internet (and it would demand certain hosts to essentially share their connections to the larger Internet) — but in a state of emergency or government crackdown or a coup, it would make it virtually impossible for a government to shut off its citizens from each other and the rest of the world. And, small teams could use it in a pinch when they were gathered together for meetings outside of the office. One member of the team connected to a high speed connection could share it with the rest of the group (this would irk some of the ISPs and wireless providers, but they’ll have plenty of money to make off of Internet access in the years ahead).

I realize this is a bit of a crazy idea and there are some technical limitations and caveats, but if peer-to-peer can work for Skype and Bit Torrent, then we should be able to make it work for a global machine-to-machine network — especially since so many of today’s personal computers have so much unused processing power. This would essentially become the Ham Radio of computer networks. All we need is the right set of resourceful, dedicated engineers to take this idea and make it happen. Then, any “kill switch” legislation or attempts at Internet blackouts like the one in Egypt this week would become a lot less potent.”

I love both the attitude and the suggestion. What do you think?

8 thoughts on “A lesson from Egypt – decentralise the internet

  1. I’ve followed the idea for a while and whilst I think there are some technical challenges there is nothing in principle to stop such it working. I wonder if we will have the incentive to build it though given the government fibre being shoved down our throats.

  2. I’m not a networking expert, so I may be talking out my proverbial, but isn’t the technical battle to stop the government shutting down the internet already lost? The suggestions above seem to me a bit ad hoc. As good an idea as they are, could they really replace proper ISPs if a blanket order went out to unplug? That is a genuine question, I really don’t know.

    Unless we manage to have ISPs built beyond the government’s control, aren’t we basically limited to fighting it politically?

    We could drastically reduce deaths on the roads if we had a blanket ban on cars, but I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that’s the best solution.

    Would it not be best to fight for the various other more reasonable options for securing our digital infrastructure? Are there more reasonable options?

  3. The government can turn off the Internet because access is centers around telcos who can be bludgened into submission. If you mobiles could pass data peer to peer (ie directly to phones in our area without going via the telco) and if they could pass on requests to form a giant mesh that shares info then it may be possible to build something that nobody can turn off. Even so they might be able to jam the airwaves with noise makers.

  4. And what if laws are proposed to ban such decentralised networks to prevent terrorists from utilising them after the big switch off?

    All I’m saying is that technical solutions are good, but they have to be backed up with legislation. The decentralised net might even be a part of that.

    If it can be shown how easy it is to set up an alternative network, “stick our head in the sand” option looks all that more ridiculous.

  5. “And what if laws are proposed to ban such decentralised networks to prevent terrorists from utilising them after the big switch off?”

    It’s very hard to ban decentralised networks like this. It’s like trying to ban the cash economy.

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