As I discussed when examining the crisis in Egypt , part of what made the West pay attention to the revolution on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities was the shutdown of the internet all over the country. The folks at Io9 have examined how the same thing could happen here in the United States, and the picture is not a pretty one .
How could the US Government take the United States off the internet in the way it was done in Egypt? Right now, it would be difficult to do it the way the Egyptian government did—by telling Egypt’s internet service providers to corrupt the routers so that everything on the Egyptian web became impossible to find. Given the more decentralized nature of the internet in the United States, that would take a few days, though it could be done. Right now the U.S. Government lacks a “kill switch” on the internet, but there are laws currently working their way through Congress that would give the President the power (in case of a cyber emergency, and without the need for judges to rule on the legitimacy of the emergency) to shut the United States from the internet. The people at Io9 are considerably concerned about giving any president that kind of authority, and I wholeheartedly agree. I do not trust any leader with that kind of power to screw up the communications of the United States. Such power would be too much for all but the most virtuous to resist using, and virtue is not a quality in high amounts among our leaders of institutions in this society right now.
Additionally, since there are only a few physical wires going out of the country, it would be possible, if someone were so inclined, to physically sever the links between the United States and the outside world via computers. It would be an inelegant solution, but if someone wanted to cut the United States off from the web it could be done physically, especially as the links between the United States and the outside world are centralized in a few cities, namely New York City, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and Miami.
What keeps the United States from suffering the same fate that Egypt did last week is that the United States is still governed by the rule of law and still has leadership that at least pays lip service to legal authorities and niceties. We ought to be grateful and thankful for that, though how much longer we can take constitutional government for granted is an open question with a dubious answer. If we ever get to the point where our leaders stop caring about the rule of law and only care about the preservation of themselves in power, then we will cease to be a free nation and will become a dictatorship like Egypt or any other number of corrupt states around the world.
In short, the United States is very much at risk from such a self-inflicted wound, especially if we give the government the kind of power that would allow them to wreck such havoc with any kind of fig leaf to cover themselves from charges. Emergencies can always be arranged if someone has the inclination to do so and the desire to curtail the freedoms of others to make one’s own position in power more secure. And there are always plenty of people who are willing to support repression because of appeals to peace and security. This is a situation that clearly must be watched carefully, lest we see things fall apart in our own nation as we see happening so destructively in Egypt.