All too often we think of the internet as this amorphous entity that simply exists everywhere around us, like God or Justin Bieber. But as the drastic actions of the Hosni Mubarak showed us during the Egyptian revolution, the internet can indeed be censored and disrupted with so called “kill switches,” even in the United States, where networks from around the world converge on a single building in Miami.
How vulnerable is the internet? According to The Guardian, an elderly Georgian woman cut off all internet service for neighboring Armenia yesterday while scavenging for copper with a spade. The 75-year-old analog hacker sliced through an underground fiber-optic cable carrying the country’s four main internet providers, unwittingly disrupting service to 90 percent of Armenia, about 3.2 million people, for 5 hours. Luckily, the damage was immediately noticed by a European security team who fixed the problem.
While certainly an amusing story, it does point out just how fragile our global internet infrastructure is. Earlier, we posited that the internet is now central to modern democracy, a vital way for citizens to bypass censorship and mobilize against tyranny. If modern democracy’s greatest tool can be felled by an old lady’s spade, perhaps we haven’t put enough research and money into guaranteeing people’s access to the internet.
One solution? Free global Wi-Fi. Non-profits like Kosta Grammatis’ ahumanright.org are looking to buy satellites in order to beam the internet to developing countries. Vast, global networks of satellite-provided Wi-Fi are definitely one way around the problem of internet choke points, although there might be cheaper way of decentralizing the internet. Law professor Eben Moglen has been pushing the Freedom Box, small, plug-in servers that are about the size of a cell-phone charger. Plug in two of them and, if the government ever cut off the internet, two households could still communicate directly with each other. If, say, millions of people had them, you would essentially have a secondary internet safe from government interference. The feasibility of getting everyone to buy the box might be low now, but it’s easy to see a world where, if priced affordably enough, enough households buy them to shield a majority of internet users from the tyranny of dictators and old ladies.
In the short term, Georgia might want to try another tactic–burying the damn cable deeper underground. This exact scenario apparently also happened in 2009, when another scavenger cut the cable while digging for copper.
Photo: go_nils, Flickr, CC