There is a proposal running through the US Senate at the moment which would give the President powers to shut-down critical internet infrastructure, the so called “kill switch”. Apart from any concerns at a distance we might have about free speech and rights, there is an equally big issue which may be more critical to our own homeland security.

In the dawn of time, the internet was a peer network where each organisation with a network they wanted to open up linked, or inter-netted, with others on an equal basis. Since then major providers have moved into a position of some power and the equality of peering has pretty much gone. Small providers often have to club together or pass through multiple hands to get to a universal audience, so a small number of US-based infrastructure items have become critical to us as well as Americans.

Casting your mind back to the Autumn of 2008, you might remember a few days when odd things happened on the internet, where you could Skype some people and not others or reach some websites but not others, while your friends and colleagues experienced the same but it affected completely different sites and services. This was caused by a spat between Sprint and Cogent in the US, where Sprint decided to shut-down its peering relationship with Cogent (see here for a reminder).

Because peering is no longer egalitarian, a significant amount of the UK internet traffic needed to pass through this peering point in order for UK internet users to reach UK services; that’s why you could skype some people and not others, and why some websites disappeared but not others, and depending which way you passed through the peering point determined which services you could access.

I’m quite sure that proposals passing through the US legislature will have more safeguards than they do in Egypt and I’m sure the US President will act more calmly than Mubarak is but surely our national security should be in our hands?

While our diplomats should be ensuring we have assurances and safeguards as the law passes through Capitol Hill, we should also use this time as a moment of reflection, to make sure we have an internet that we can always use and can’t be impacted by the decisions of others far away and beyond our control.

  1. Lindsey Annison says:

    Allowing any government to control comms is always a bad idea. And it highlights the fact that some “in power” (whether elected or otherwise) fear the lack of control that t’interweb brings with it, for their administrations and legislation, free speech etc etc.

    Tying up this and several of your recent other posts, shouldn’t we have multiple routes to communicate rather than putting all eggs in one basket? Whether this is locally through BT or running one fibre through Egypt, allowing a single point of failure can never be logical or beneficial.

    • adrian says:

      Thanks, Lins – completely agree. The peering model needs to be re-thought for all sorts of commercial and political reasons but at a unique time when we are looking to move off old infrastructures and onto new. This is perhaps the best opportunity we will ever have to remodel things with the reliance on single points of control designed out.

      When you look at the now finalised and published ALA standards for next generation broadband they include support for multiple services into people’s homes – this breaks one of the points of control and shifts the net neutrality debate but it also means local and regional organisations may see opportunities to become new forms of service provider (healthcare, local media, . . . ) without being reliant on the traditional “over the top” model – ALA supports a “round the side model” perfect for reaching the 30% who don’t use the internet but may want local services or rely on public services. However such organisations will struggle with the current peering arrangements, so a more distributed peering model which permits a more flexible way of working will encourage the creation of new services while also introducing local and regional peering to sit alongside todays international peering.

      If we can achieve this, net traffic will only leave this country when it needs to, so another countries “kill switch” will only impact remote services based there – and we will have created an unrivalled platform for innovation which should unleash the creative people the world envies.

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