Monday, February 11, 2008

The Lesson of the Internet Collapse...

In case you were unaware, the major ongoing drama last week was that the internet collapsed for large parts of the world. Four undersea cables that connect Europe to the Middle East and Asia were ruptured almost simultaneously, cutting those regions off from the rest of the digital world. Although service has since been largely restored, this story highlights the fact that cyberspatial activities are still entirely dependent on real-world infrastructure, and thus on the telecommunications industry and the national governments who maintain it.

To see how the internet collapsed, it's necessary to understand how the Internet is structured. In very simple terms, if you want your computer to talk to another computer, you connect them with a cable. Connect a third computer and you have a network. What gets interesting is when you want to connect one computer in New York with one in San Francisco. The way you do this is essentially the same, except that the "cable" that you'll need to connect the two machines is owned by a telecommunications company like Verizon or AT&T. This is why the telecommunications industry is so central to maintaining the day-to-day operation of the internet, and, it must be mentioned, that since the U.S. and other national governments have been regulating the telecom industry since the 1920s, governments play a pretty big role as well.

Now, to understand what happened last week, imagine if that "cable" connecting the computers in New York and San Francisco, was suddenly cut with a chainsaw. Everyone's computers still work (there's no virus or other software problem in play); it's just that there's no longer a PHYSICAL connection between the machines.

Believe it or not, despite the internet being constantly touted as a "decentralized" system, there are still a few "chokepoints" which exist in the physical world and dictate the types and amounts of internet traffic that can proceed to the rest of the Web - such as the undersea cables that connect Europe to Egypt, and thus the rest of the Middle East all the way to India.

As MIT's Technology Review reports, when four of these undersea cables were cut last week, it resulted in Egypt losing 70% of its connection to the outside internet, and nearly 60% of India's connectivity was "similarly lost on the westbound route critical to the nation's burgeoning outsourcing industry".

The cause of the rupture is still not known. Initially, experts "said that ships' anchors, dragged by stormy weather across the sea floor, were the most likely culprit, but Egyptian authorities have said that no ships were in the region".

Meanwhile, the fact that four cables were cut almost simultaneously has grabbed the eye of omnipresent conspiracy-theorists. If you want to be entertained (or mildly frightened) read the comments of this Digg entry, and see the wheels in motion - blame gets placed on everyone from the U.S. government, Iran, Russia, Scientologists, all the way to "Disgruntled gulf frogmen".

The bottom line is that the cables are already being repaired, so a digital apocalypse seems to have been prevented. However, for students of political power, what has been clearly demonstrated is that the notion of cyberspace being "ungovernable" is nonsense. Because the physical infrastructure dictates the Web's very existence, the lesson to be learned is that whoever controls the "chokepoints" holds the true power.


At 10:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about someone starts a fund for a public satellite, we only need about $400 million dollars. So log in to paypal create a site and do it to it. You would collect a hefty administrative commission!
P.S. Please don't over analyze this.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

WiFi, baby.


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