Short answer, no. The longer answer will require getting to the bottom of this. What needs to be understood first is how the internet travels around. The internet basically refers to the interconnection between routers and cables. One’s home router is linked to the internet service provider’s home office (Xfinity, AT&T, Spectrum, etc.), and the internet service providers, in turn, forward your data or packets on to the next internet service providers and so on. If required, the data transmission crosses countries and continents until it reaches its target and the internet service providers from that country. The same internet service provider forwards it to the relevant person, and the whole process is reversed and started all over again. Most of the data transmission being communicated around the world is done through submarine communication cables that are run under the sea. These cables are hundreds of miles under the ocean. Hence, it is impossible to imagine where the internet starts and ends, which will make it unlikely to shut it down from just one place only.
What about the ISPs?
However, if you look at the smaller scale, the internet service providers do have the power to limit or shut down the internet connection for their subscribers. Since they handle the traffic routes to each of their subscribers, they can also alter the settings or stop it completely. That is the case with ISPs everywhere, even Comcast’s Xfinity. If you have subscribed to any of the Xfinity internet plans, you are kind of borrowing their connection to use the internet for your own use. ISPs utilize the traffic flow they have for their own benefits, with promises of providing a reliable internet connection for reasonable charges. Since they control the traffic flow to your home, they can also restrict this flow if they need to.
Can the government do it?
The government mostly resort to shutting down the internet in times of crisis, claiming that they do it for public safety and curbing the spread of misinformation. Though these extreme measures seem like a punishment for the most part, rather than a tactical response. In 2011, in response to the crisis of the Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian government called the four national internet service providers to turn off the domain name system (DNS) and alter the border gateway protocol (BGP) of their internet servers. As a result, the whole country was deprived of an internet connection. The Iranian government has also been able to successfully turn off the internet connection for their citizens in the 2019-2020 Iranian protests to prevent people from further organizing more protests. The UK government also has the power to do the same in their country, but they have never needed to do it; by ordering the internet service providers to shut down the operations or closing down the internet exchange points.
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The process of shutting down the internet
Two critical systems could, if restricted or altered, bring down the internet connection.
- BGP or Border Gateway Protocol. This gateway protocol allows for the internet to exchange routing information between autonomous systems. If altered, the normal traffic flow is disrupted and doesn’t find a way in.
- DNS or Domain Name System. The domain name system is like a phonebook of the internet that has all the addresses of websites. It helps web browsers to connect to the websites they require. If turned off, it is not possible to have access to other websites on the internet.
Repercussions of not having an internet access
We have seen what happens when people don’t have an internet connection. It feels like their life is on halt. When the internet is shut off or restricted, people are unable to express themselves, the economy is affected badly, students are cut off from their lessons, taxes aren’t paid on time, those needing healthcare cannot get access to it, and finally the journalists struggle to upload documented media about the government abuse. These are just a few examples of how regions deprived of internet connection are affected.
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To summarize, it is not possible to shut down the internet worldwide, since there is not just one worldwide organization that is monitoring the flow of the internet. Each country has its policy and regulation to control the flow of the internet. Only the internet service providers in each country have control over the internet traffic in their region. The country’s government can order all the ISPs to shut down the internet, according to the law. If it is a small country like Egypt where there are very few internet service providers, then it is easy for the government to reach out to them and order for the complete shutdown of the internet connection. The governments can shut the internet down by altering the Border Gate Protocol or turning off the Domain Name System
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