What Would Happen If the Whole Internet Just Shut Down All of a Sudden?

Illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)
Alternate InternetAlternate InternetThis week, we look at the ways the internet could have been—and could be—different.

A world in which the internet suddenly stops: surely the TV show’s already in development. Sprawling cast, gorgeous visuals, tediously on-the-nose themes. Some handsome B-lister tearing around the country in pursuit of his wayward kids, or the shadowy sect that pulled the plug in the first place. A patch of prairie in Kansas with a weak but functional signal, people lining for miles to check texts, riots breaking out. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for this show to be shot and streamed to get a decent idea of what the internet apocalypse might look like: for this week’s Giz Asks, we asked a number of experts to do the imagining for us.


Francesca Musiani

Researcher at the Institute for Communication Sciences, French National Centre for Scientific Research (ISCC-CNRS), Associate Researcher at the Centre for the Sociology of Innovation, and Global Fellow at American University’s Internet Governance Lab

In the event of a global internet shutdown…

…autonomous vehicles freeze in place almost instantly. On highways, automatic tolls no longer allow any vehicle to go through them, creating massive traffic jams.

…on the streets, myriad passersby look at their empty-shell communicative devices, while bearing witness to several crashes of postal or other delivery drones.

…fully-automated sellers and cashiers, now disconnected, lead to the expeditious shutdown of supermarkets and hypermarkets which exclusively rely on them. In any case, a cashless, electronic currency-based society wouldn’t now know how to pay for things.

…vast regions are deprived of electricity, as providers are no longer able to receive correctly information from their sensors on the power grid and at individuals’ homes, and are no longer able to properly manage the supply of many areas.

…almost all the worldwide industrial production stalls. Financial centers have immediately suspended all their operations, canceling, in passing, all orders currently being processed.

And so on…

In which world does all of this happen? For the sake of the ‘thought experiment’, I have answered the question thinking about a 2030-ish temporal horizon—in what is likely to be an era of pervasive Internet of Things. In such a scenario, when a global internet shutdown takes place, interrupting suddenly the overwhelming majority of digital communications, what we today consider ‘communications’ (writing, chatting and talking by means of digital tools) is only a small part of the problem.

This scenario may not be exactly playing out like this in 2030, of course—it is indeed likely that the Internet will be a lot more pervasive than today, extending to many of the objects of our daily life and the basic infrastructures organizing our societies, but a lot of the technology I mention may very well not be the one we envisage and manipulate in the present day. However, one tendency seems clear: the extent of the reach of internet infrastructure, and the actors managing it, is expanding.

Larry Page once said that ‘Google would be building airports and cities’. It has long been believed that the influence of digital actors will remain confined to software, dematerialized content and information. It starts to be clear that they are using their mastery in these areas to take positions in non-digital markets, be it transport, infrastructure management or banking. Google may not be building cities yet but, directly or through its investments, it is already playing a role as a mobility organizer, while IBM participates in the management of water supply infrastructure in several cities.

With the ever-increasing connection of infrastructures and objects, the organization of physical flows requires the control of information flows. A global Internet shutdown is likely to have extremely important consequences for a world that will still be physical, but deeply driven and structured by information and data.

That being said, moving from the thought experiment to the actual functioning of the Internet today, it has to be mentioned that it is extremely unlikely that a global Internet shutdown actually happens. While it is relatively easy to shut down specific parts of the internet for some period of time—as it is well documented here—a global one is, at least so far, almost impossible, due to the distributed and interconnected nature of the Internet, as Kevin Curran explains well in his contribution to this page.

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William H. Dutton

Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern California, and Fellow at the Oxford Martin Institute and Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

For a day, the impact would be mixed. For managers and professionals, such as journalists and academics, it would be like a snow-day, providing time to relax, maybe read a book. For workers, such as plumbers and carpenters, it would have a negative impact on their livelihoods, such as missing new jobs. So there would be differential effects across social and economic classes within societies.

If down for a long period of time, the impact would be detrimental to all parts of society, worldwide. More than half of the world is online and in the high-income nations, the internet is increasingly embedded in the habits of how people do what they do. Shopping, banking, getting information, finding entertainment—all online. So this would be a shock to the social and economic fabric of society.

Time and again, politicians want to have a convenient ‘kill switch’ to shut down the internet. They quickly realize that this would have dramatically negative impacts, far beyond the harms they might be seeking to address.

Matthew Zook

Professor, Geography, University of Kentucky, whose research focuses on geoweb and new spatial media, big data, blockchain technologies and more

I’m going to take a moment and be that annoying person at a dinner party and insist for more details about why and how it shut down. I know it runs contrary to the spirit of the question but it really matters in terms of what unfolds. A mass failure of the domain name service (e.g., all the zone files for all TLDs disappear or are corrupted) would be very different that some kind of mass DDOS attack or some kind of physical failure (a small dedicated group with chain saws and backhoes start cutting fiber in some key locations is my personal favorite, etc.). But you said entire internet shutdown so I’m going to assume that the TCP protocol suddenly stopped working because... well, it is in its mid 40s now, maybe it and the IP protocol are going through a rough patch, contemplating divorce and both are taking a few weeks off to find themselves (which probably means hanging out in the darkweb and chasing much too young electrons).

Ok, now that I’m done anthropomorphizing the basic internet protocols, what would this actually mean? Everything, most likely but since I come from an urban planning background I’ll focus on some likely key points.

Work: with the internet down presumably any kind of knowledge work — teaching, lawyers, insurance, design—will not be possible. A lot of this would be tied to cloud computing—you wouldn’t be able to get your files and unless you had local copies or paper copies—you wouldn’t be able to work. Plus scheduling and meeting systems would be down.

Communications: I’m not sure if anything would work. I’m not certain how some technologies use TCP/IP but VOIP would be out, and I suspect SMS, WhatsApp and Telegraph probably rely on TCP/IP at some point. Ham radio operators would be kings!

Banking and finance: Boom. Absolutely nothing. The gold bugs would be feeling very smug and at Bitcoin folks might finally stop talking about how superior a decentralized, but TCP/IP-dependent, blockchain is. Not sure what would happen to ATMs... that would be key.

Transportation infrastructure: Cars should work (or at least my cars would work because I have old ones) but traffic lights, Fast Pass, etc. would probably fail in some interesting ways. Airlines would stop running. Trucking could still likely function, not sure about railways or ports. The entire logistics industry would be in shambles. We would still have all the basic infrastructure in place but when the internet fails the complex logistical systems that enable global supply chains are essentially bricked.

Other infrastructure: Electrical grids, water, sewer. I think sewer systems would still work (thank god!) as they are mostly gravity although there are probably some monitoring stations that would fail. I would be more worried about control systems in electric and water systems. Things might run for a bit but when adjustments need to be made, I’m not sure what would happen.

So. Bottom line. Good news. For most people there isn’t a whole lot of point in going into work or school because traffic will be horrible and once you make it there will be nothing to do. Bad news. You won’t be able communicate except face-to-face (or maybe snail mail and ham radio), the entire global banking system doesn’t work, and I’d really worry about logistics. Factories and food-processing wouldn’t get inputs so jobs would stop as would food deliveries to grocery stores. Probably a good time to visit the local farmers market (assuming farmers can travel). And electricity and water could be iffy. Best fill the bathtub and buy some batteries. And oil... ouch, that would be tough.

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Alessandro Acquisti

Professor, Information Technology and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

Short-term? Bewilderment, followed as the effects percolate by disruption, chaos, the four horsemen of the apocalypse spotted in the horizon.

Medium-term: life goes on, we make do; we rediscover free time.

Long-term: reversion to normal; no more chaos—or much free time; hopefully, we are a little nicer to each other.

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Mark Graham

Professor, Internet Geography, Oxford Internet Institute

If the entire internet was shut down, we would witness an almost immediate global economic collapse. The internet is the nervous system of contemporary globalization. Explicitly digital interactions would be the activities that would be most obviously immediately effected: most jobs that require computers or connectivity, core banking and payment networks, and so on. But then, even parts of the economy that initially seem relatively disconnected would begin to grind to a halt because of the fact that all contemporary societies rely on long-distance supply chains, and long-distance supply chains rely on the internet. A tomato farmer, fisherman, or factory worker won’t have much to do if the organizations they work for and trade with are unable to communicate with, and receive payments from upstream nodes in their value chains. And if there are two things that are guaranteed to cause chaos in the contemporary economy, it is an inability for food to be distributed and an inability for people to access money and the banking network. The social disorder generated by those two factors alone would spread into most corners of the world that aren’t characterized by relatively autarkic systems of production. Because only the most isolated parts of the global economy would be relatively unaffected, the only national economy to emerged relatively unscathed might be North Korea (although even there, there would be issues).

However, in the end, I’m sure that our societies are more resilient than we think, and backup communication systems making use of radio or other non-internet communication systems would quickly emerge to serve as the communicative glue keeping societies and economies together. But any abrupt loss of the internet would undoubtedly be extremely painful in the short-term.

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Leonard Kleinrock

Professor, Computer Science, UCLA, who developed the theory of packet networks, the technology underpinning the internet

My assumption is that we are heading toward a world in which the internet will be omnipresent and will become invisible, in that it will disappear into the infrastructure resulting in a pervasive global nervous system. This is being driven by IoT among other things.

In the case of a total shutdown of the internet, the consumer reaction will result in an immediate run on batteries, food, gasoline, water, bicycles, etc. We will experience disorder, panic, riots, crime and violence in the early stages. There will be colossal failures and collapse of power grids, airline systems, commerce, banking and financial systems, on-line shopping, on-line communities, on-line entertainment, information exchange in major systems (e.g., health, legal, financial, government, education). Autonomous vehicles will run amuck and some transportation systems (e.g., traffic controls) will fail. Internet based physical security systems will disappear. We would lose rapid access to enormous stores of knowledge, and serious archiving of information will slow down considerably.

If electricity remains in certain regions, then WiFi would continue to work locally. We would see deployment of ad-hoc wireless networks.Television, non-voip telephony and radio would prosper.

But let’s look at the other side of this shutdown. If we look at the positive side, there would be some beneficial effects on the social structure of the planet. Here is a list of some of the possibilities:

  • Kids would likely find it liberating (or devastating, or both).
  • People would actually read newspapers, magazines, books, etc. instead of playing mindless video games on their smartphones—just take a walk down the center aisle of most airline flights!
  • People would start thinking again.Libraries would thrive.
  • Internet-based interactions (e.g. email, texts, social media, twitter, etc) would disappear and be replaced with more traditional meaningful and expressive forms with thought and care–writing, talking, singing, hanging out, etc.
  • Social life would change in meaningful ways.People would actually talk instead of staring at screens. They would interact with each other while actually looking at each other.
  • Security, privacy invasion, fraud, ransomware, phishing, hacking, would all be dramatically reduced.
  • People would engage in real hobbies, group board games, social interaction for real, with human contact.
  • Real life would arise again instead of virtual life.
  • Kids would play outside and get fresh air and experience something called nature.You would actually go out on the street, properly dressed and engage with your neighbors and neighborhood.
  • People would be required to know things by actually putting the information in their brain–and that would provide the benefit of being able to think with that information and generate new ideas when showering, driving, etc.
  • Loyalty would return to local vendors as on-line giant internet companies lose their monopolistic hold on consumers.
  • The huge influence of the internet megaphone would disappear ( and reduce fake news, hate speech, etc.)
  • Driving would revert to knowing how to navigate with your brain.Selfies would finally disappear or diminish.

In summary, balance in life would return. Now how bad would that be? But we would surely return to the world of the internet as soon as we were able, right? How about a balanced middle ground?

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John D. Villasenor

Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, UCLA

The impact would quickly become devastating. When many of us think of the internet, we tend to think of it in terms of consumer-facing services such as search, social media, email, and reading online news. But the internet also powers much of today’s critical infrastructure, including the financial system, transportation systems, the supply chains for the distribution of food and other essentials, emergency response systems, and so on. Without those systems, society as we know it simply could not function. Thankfully, the odds of a truly world-wide full shutdown of the internet are very, very low. The internet ecosystem is very widely distributed, so even a highly capable malicious actor would be very unlikely to be able to cause a sustained shutdown at that scale.

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