What would an Internet “Kill Switch” Look Like?

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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22 Responses

  1. Pat Cahalan says:

    > It’s just really, really difficult to dream up any scenario in which
    > a takeover would be needed, except to stop the sort of legitimate
    > citizen protest guaranteed under the First Amendment.

    More disturbing, it’s very very easy to dream up a scenario where a takeover would be a bad, bad idea, and yet some rule-happy idiot would flip the switch with the best intentions and make the situation itself orders of magnitude worse.

    It’s also very easy to dream up a (very unlikely, granted) scenario where the capability itself is suborned, which is downright horrifying.

    Finally, it’s basically impossible without completely re-engineering the Internet at a very low level; a massive (and hideously expensive) undertaking with no real positive value.

    The entire concept of the Internet, for those who don’t remember the DARPA days, was to create a computer network that could continue to route data even should a *substantial* portion of the network suddenly disappear from existence (if Texas disappeared in a mushroom cloud, one still wanted data to make its way from Washington to Los Angeles). As a result, the basic protocols are extremely inefficient, but have very robust linkage correction capabilities.Report

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    It’s what Comcast will do to Netflix, if given the chance.Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Mikie, does Netflicks (I love ’em, dude) run on comcasts highway? It’s a question!Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

        Can Comcast both claim the status of being a common carrier (e.g. have no liability for content than’s libelous, fraudulent, or a violation of copyright) and downgrade content for their own commercial advantage? That’s a question too.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          It’s a more difficult question than you propose, because the parallels between the common carriers of old and today’s ISPs are not exact.

          I’m undecided on net neutrality. I consider it beyond my technical ken and not something I’d enjoy commenting about. But if you’re slyly suggesting that a government killswitch is okay — because, hey, Comcast is doing it — then I have to object very strongly. There’s a bright line, or there should be, between business and government.Report

  3. BlaiseP says:

    People ask me what I do for a living. Rather than say “I’m an SOA systems architect with a specialty to realtime AI interfaces and embedded systems” I generally say “I connect things. Square pegs, round holes, that sort of thing.”

    What, exactly would “killing” anything mean? The undertaker has to shave the man’s corpse before the viewing: his beard goes on growing. We don’t die all at once. Very few creatures do.

    To kill the Internet, you kill the Border Gate Protocol. Yes, yes, Bub, it’s a Wikipedia link. I write for Wikipedia, too. Sue me.

    Anyway, for a civilian rendering of the problem, there’s this. The World Wide Web was designed as a footnoting system, folks. It was based on a network of trust which no longer exists.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Ugh, I don’t want to go back to the days of bulletin boards or the walled gardens of CompuServe and Prodigy.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

        You mean back to the days when computer networking was the domain of private, profit-seeking companies instead of a vast quasi-public utility, designed and built by government agencies and government-supported non-profits? Yeah, neither do I.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:


          You look at the internet and you see the government.
          I look at it and I see anarchy.


          • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

            Maybe because I was around when the sausage was being made.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

              That’s a fairly self-congratulatory reason that doesn’t necessarily take into account how anybody else could possibly have reached a different conclusion with similar information in good faith.

              Have you considered Christianity?Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                Then perhaps it’s because I don’t consider everything that government does Evil.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:


                Ah, yeah. Seriously. You may want to check it out.

                In any case, I’m beginning to suspect that if you think that you’re arguing against my positions when you say such things, you’re thinking that you’re scoring points while, since I’m under the impression that the position you’re arguing against is not, in fact, mine (and, I suspect, I’d know) my perspective is that you’re beating the crap out of a position that no one is arguing.

                But, hey. I also imagine that there’s some amount of pleasure involved on your part and, hey, you aren’t hurting anybody.

                Knock yourself out.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                You’re the one that much prefers a system that was designed to be vendor-neutral by folks involved with and funded by the government to the commercial ones. You can draw the obvious conclusion or not.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I see a system designed to maximize liberty at the expense of monied interests to be far superior to one that has experienced regulatory capture at the hands of lobbyists looking out for the best interests of their clients rather than the best interests of Liberty.

                I think that the government ought to treat the country more like it treats the internet.

                As it stands, I suspect that we’re well on the way to treating the internet more like the country… and the argument I’m sure I’ll see given in response to my calls for “not changing” will be something to the effect of “you think that everything the government does is Evil”.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Are we talking about net neutrality, which is a refinement of the design?Report

              • Bo in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Which came out first, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or The Matrix?Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to BlaiseP says:

      BlaiseP, you are one of those rare individuals who can entertain, educate, and threaten all in one comment.Report

  4. Emile says:

    I think part of the problem is that the terminology “internet kill switch” and the effect of the proposed legislation (to allow the federal govt to control particular, designated computer equipment in the event of a “cybersecurity emergency”?) don’t seem to have much to do with each other.

    An “internet kill switch,” in the final analysis, looks like a backhoe. The internet is, by definition, the connections between systems. To kill it is to de-network everyone. See Jacob Appelbaum’s twitter stream for today (@ioerror); it appears that Egypt just pulled the plug on the cable in/out of the country. Suddenly all the questions about what services are filtered, IPs blocked, how many tor relays we’ve got up…not so relevant.

    But yeah, scenario’s where the federal government can make things better by directly taking over computer equipment? Coming up dry here.Report

  5. Matt Payne-Funk says:

    The intended effect of this legislation is a long term one. Obviously there is no practical “Internet Kill Switch” in Washington DC that can turn everything off all at once. This legislation is a manifestation of a bunch of security-minded policy wonks and professionals who’s persistent aim is to gain as much control as possible over the flow of traffic. Before 9-11-2001 the feds were having a very hard time gaining Congressional support for the Carnivore application. After 9-11-2001 the executive branch used the tool and let the New York Times report it to the legislative branch through their reporting on civil rights violations.

    With legislation like this, it will give our security officials more impetus and gravitas when demanding cooperation from our ISPs. It will make building an “Internet Kill Switch” through BGP or other means a lot easier to implement.Report

  6. “It’s just really, really difficult to dream up any scenario in which a takeover would be needed, except to stop the sort of legitimate citizen protest guaranteed under the First Amendment.

    Really, really difficult? I guess this is why you’re a think-tank wonk and not a science fiction TV show writer!Report