Archive for March, 2011

“Blow up the Internet!”

March 14, 2011

The other day, I was waiting for a slice of pizza at my favourite spot, when a regular came in and struck up a conversation with one of the owners. “Lucy,” he said “all the excitement in the middle east is ruining my business. With the rise in the gas prices, the truckers can’t afford to operate, and we’re losing insurance deals.” The man, it seemed, was some kind of insurance broker. This is what I like about downtown: office types brush up against the unemployed and grad students, and you never know what type of conversation to expect while waiting for a piece of hot, Halal Hawaiian.

The man ordered a vegetarian slice and went on talking. “But do you know what the crazy thing is? They say all this chaos happened because of Facebook!” I thought about adding my two cents worth at this point. It’s a small pizza shop–standing room only–and so conversations between strangers do not seem entirely uncalled for. I thought about mentioning the rising costs of food, youth unemployment and tyrannical governments to the list of possible causes for unrest, but kept silent, hoping for further illumination. The man didn’t disappoint. “Facebook… can you believe it?!” he continued, “That’s why the first thing Mubarak did was unplug the internet.”

Happily, Lucy chimed in in support of the popular protests, noting that “they just see how we live and want the same thing for themselves.” I hope, actually, that they do a little better, and that the experience of living under tyranny for so long has engendered a longing for freedom and political engagement that surpasses Western lethargy in the face of oppressive and irresponsible governance. But the insurance broker’s sudden fear of social media and the revolutionary power of the internet struck me as a bad sign, given the recent proposed American legislation for an internet kill switch. While supporters of this legislation point out that the circumstances that would allow the President to utilize the switch differ from Mubarak’s opportunistic deployment–the switch could only be thrown in response to a significant cyber threat to American security–it does not seem like such a threat would be difficult to “generate” should circumstances dictate a strategic advantage to killing web-based communications on the part of the powers that be.

Last November, a successful cyber attack managed to temporarily shut down Iran’s nuclear program. The Stuxnet bug had the effect of speeding up and slowing down centrifuges in such a way as to cause them to breakdown. Because the bug’s effects took the appearance of random fluctuations in the centrifuges’

"Ok, which one of you was traipsing around here without the fuzzy slippers?"

rotor mechanisms, the virus went unnoticed until critical damage actually occurred. Though transmitted via data sticks rather than the internet, the Stuxnet bug seems symptomatic of a new era of cyber-warfare. In this context, what is to stop a Western government from sounding a “cyber emergency” as an excuse to initiate an internet blackout were a political situation like those occurring in the middle east to make such a move desirable? With the politics of national security playing an increasingly significant role in justifying state power, we should think twice about granting these types of powers to elected officials. At the same time, it is only to be expected that the middle Eastern demonstration of the emancipatory functions of social media should cause alarmed reactions from governments in the “free” Western world. What is sad to me is the number of people whom I imagine would gladly follow the call to greater state control of the internet if it would somehow safeguard the profit margins of banks and insurance firms.