The Day the Internet Dies


The Day the Internet Dies

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

Alittle after midnight on January 25, 2011, a large country disappeared off the cyber map. Egypt had cut itself off from the rest of the world. It had shut down the internet.

Providers, businesses, banks, schools, embassies, and offices that relied on the big four Egyptian Internet Service Providers (ISPs), suddenly found themselves with no memes to LOL over, or government to take down.

The shutdown was ordered by former president Hosni Mubarak, who was attempting to stifle a massive revolution over his 30-year rule. Protesters had been calling him all kinds of names on the internet and he simply wasn’t having any of that.

Perhaps a slightly more moderate response would have been to just block hotbeds of dissent – such as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube – but Mubarak was a smart man. He knew savvy protesters would circumvent government censorship using proxy computers. So, he simply shut down the whole shebang.

Which is all very well, but how exactly does one go about shutting down the internet?

Well, it comes down to the ISPs running in your country. It becomes really simple when there are only one or two companies who hold official licenses to carry internet traffic to and from the outside world. In Egypt, the whole thing was fairly regulated so the kill switch was a lot easier to throw.

At this point I bet you’re wondering, what about India? Because this story of a pissed-off leader with no sense of humour is hitting rather close to home.

At last count, approximately 350 million people in this age group suffer from legitimate internet addiction (yes, it’s a thing), which means that if the internet was to suddenly shut down, they’re all going to need internet rehab.

Intelligence firm Renesys has the answer in the form of a global map that shows us exactly how difficult it would be to achieve a blackout in your country. India has way too many ISPs which makes it really hard to shut us down if a certain someone – let’s just call him M – doesn’t like our jokes. If he asks BSNL to kill services, Airtel and Vodafone would take over; then Idea, Matrix, etc. The line is satisfyingly long.

But — and there is a big but — if this imaginary M is adamant about shutting down the internet, he could. All he has to do is prep for it by arming himself with a “kill-switch” button. Imagine M in Mogambo get-up, waving one of those cheap Hindi movie remote controls threateningly in your faces.

It’s funny until you realise that it’s not just a Hindi movie trope – this could actually happen. India is one of the very few countries in the world that’s given the government the right to block the internet “if necessary”. These two vague and wholly manipulation-worthy words “if necessary” hold ransom our digital existence.

Insert pause here.

Now let’s continue. Let’s say M throws the switch in a fit of temper – and suddenly newspapers make a comeback and “cats doing cute things” sell out at Wembley.

While Gen X and Gen Y may still survive, the millennials and founders may not. Imagine a 20-year-old politically charged youth looking for a post office to send out an open-letter rant to the government. Or a frustrated 15-year-old scribbling about his day on the wall in his bedroom, while his sister trains passenger pigeons to send selfies to her friends? Imagine thousands of kids left with no Google to finish their homework, swarming libraries, marvelling at how many characters it took for previous generations to make a point.

At last count, approximately 350 million people in this age group suffer from legitimate internet addiction (yes, it’s a thing), which means that if the internet was to suddenly shut down, they’re all going to need internet rehab.

Recently, Reddit (a congregation for these addicts) asked users what they thought would happen if the internet shut down.

The top comment, by user BinarySoup, was serious. He says it will affect food supply. “If the internet is down for a week it would be pretty devastating… there is no (other) way to monitor all the supplies, etc that are constantly on the move.” (Dude, no other way? What do you think we ate before internet happened?)

But even if we don’t take BinarySoup seriously, there’s no shying away from the fact that businesses would indeed shut down. Stock markets would crash. Government and bank databases would be inaccessible.

Which is all quite chaotic and avoidable. And exactly what happened in Egypt.

Egyptians were not too pleased with the no-internet development, naturally. So they fought back with all their might. The internet was a good thing, they yelled. For all the memes, selfies, and other good stuff – not at all to organise a coup, they yelled.

And so the internet came back and went on to play the protagonist of one of biggest uprisings in modern history – the Arab Spring.

Which beats playing the dinosaur game on Chrome.