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The Resilient Internet: Why You Can’t Shut It Down

In last week’s blog, my colleague Chris Brenton wrote a great piece on Why Turkey’s Twitter Ban May Be Futile. He concluded the piece with a critically important sentence: “From the beginning the Internet was designed to resiliently facilitate the free flow of information.”

7 Layer OSI ModelFor all the questions about security, the Internet has been designed with great staying power. The Internet, like an onion, is built in layers. More specifically I am referring to the seven-layer OSI model of computer networking.

The most common layer to the everyday user is the application layer, which allows you to write and read Tweets, post and share photos and the many other activities we enjoy doing online. But you must think of the application layer as the penthouse suite, high atop the building.

Beneath it there are many other layers, all the way down to the wires and cables that power the communication. In between there are layers for addressing (which device is which), routing (how to get information from one point to another) and naming (the DNS or putting human readable names to content).

In theory, just like with a building, if you remove one of these foundational layers everything above it will crumble. That is what leaders in a country like Turkey think. By removing the DNS from this stack, the application layer will not work.

This is true, which is why many users in Turkey could not connect to the Internet. Turkish leaders shut down the DNS that they had the ability to control. But the beautiful thing about the Internet is that it was built to be as interchangeable and resilient as possible. Internet standards organizations don’t want a single entity to be able to shut down the entirety of the Internet. And so users of the Internet can swap in different vendors or different host countries and circumvent this shutdown.

So, for the most part, all users in Turkey had to do was switch the settings on their computer to use a different recursive service, like Google public DNS 8.8.8.8. While the performance of their Internet connection would certainly suffer, they would be able access the Internet.

Circumventing these sorts of restrictions becomes more difficult the further down the layer stack a government controls. China, for example, has influence – if not control – of the actual physical layer – how the bits and bytes move. Getting around this is much more difficult because your only options are to either build your own cables or try to tunnel through, which means you try to disguise or encrypt your traffic. However, if the government saw encrypted traffic, they would just shut it down anyway.

Fortunately, getting that far down the stack is incredibly difficult and not something most Internet users have to worry about because the Internet has been built on such interchangeable and resilient layers.

In fact, trying to shut down the Internet isn’t only a bad idea morally, it is a bad idea in practice – it is nearly impossible to do. Governments that don’t understand that would probably be well served by spending some more time reading tech posts on Twitter.


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