The silence was alarming…
On Sunday, I tried to use messaging app WhatsApp to contact a few friends in Sri Lanka after the day’s horrific terrorist bombings.
But no one responded.
The country’s government had temporarily blocked access to social media networks.
The Sri Lankan government wanted to prevent rumours about the bombings from spreading. Of course, the government can’t prevent people from talking. But word-of-mouth spreads a lot slower than word spreads over the internet.
In a time of crisis, restricting the flow of potentially faulty or inflammatory information can save lives. But some governments are doing this – and far worse – in a way that will eventually kill the internet as we know it.
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It’s easy to flip the internet switch
Whenever you access the internet – on your phone at Starbucks or on Wi-Fi at home – information passes through an internet service provider (ISP) before it gets to you. All it takes to turn off the internet is for the government to tell ISPs to shut off access to specific websites or services (or the entire internet).
That’s what the Sri Lankan government did. The Zimbabwean government similarly restricted access to messaging apps in January during a crackdown on violent protests.
Other governments have morality in mind when they close off parts of the internet. Access to pornography is restricted in lots of countries. And the United Kingdom has set up a way to prevent malicious – political or otherwise – internet traffic from coming into the country.
This kind of fragmentation of the internet doesn’t change the network, though – that is, the processes and protocols that get internet traffic from one place to another. Cutting off a few side roads or forcing a detour doesn’t change the highway system.
How to kill the internet
In the bigger picture, there are far bigger threats to the internet – and they could end up killing the internet (and some internet companies) completely.
Here are four ways governments could kill the internet…
1. Making their own versions. In China, there’s no Facebook, YouTube, New York Times, Google and many other web sites and apps. Instead, the Chinese government has created its own internet. And it’s closely monitored by the government.
(Savvy users in China can bypass firewalls with virtual private networks (VPNs). But that’s risky – and inconvenient. So most people don’t.)
China’s model is Russia’s aspiration. Russia is creating the infrastructure to allow the country to operate its own, different network that would be isolated from that of the rest of the world.
If enough countries, and people, have access to only a ring-fenced internet, the entire network (internet as we know it) suffers. Imagine going to the beach, but the sand and surf is walled off in a bunch of separate small fiefdoms. That would kill the whole beach experience.
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2. Turning the internet off – for good. As I said, it’s logistically easy to turn off the internet indefinitely. Many governments don’t have the time, money or know-how to use anything but this kind of hammer. The western African country of Cameroon did this. So have some regions of India.
But there are two problems with this approach. First, being cut off from the rest of the world for long will quickly hurt economic growth, as the main method of communicating with anyone is restricted.
Second, people won’t like it. “When Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak cut off the internet to try to stamp out protests that were being organized on social media during the Arab Spring, it only solidified popular opposition to his regime,” explains Gzero Media.
3. Tightening the rules. Here in Singapore, you can access any web site you want… but the moment you say something bad about the government in a Facebook post, you’re in serious trouble. The efforts of many governments to defeat foreign hackers are part of this approach. The European Union is (for now) creating more strict privacy rules and trying to find ways to reduce hate speech online. This probably won’t kill the internet, but it could if it goes too far.
4. Regulating it to death. Politicians in the U.S. and in Europe are trying to figure out how to best regulate (or even break up) Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon. Restricting free speech can easily be taken too far, or interpreted in politically convenient ways. Privacy and “national security” are two great ways to chip away at the internet. I think this is the most likely way governments will kill the internet in the long term.
Don’t worry… yet
Tech giants like Google (with a US$870 billion market cap) haven’t priced in the death of the internet to their shares yet.
That’s because the death of the internet isn’t going to happen soon. And companies are always looking for ways to reinvent themselves and diversify.
But make no mistake – the internet will change. So appreciate today’s internet. And make sure that you diversify into other industries and sectors.
Publisher, Stansberry Pacific Research