Our internet is a fragile thing

There's a lurking hidden dragon in the internet: our connectivity is more fragile than we are aware of, much of the time. A single person can deny a country internet access, and the minerals to build our phones are running out.

One of the things we all “know” about the internet is that it was designed to route around damage. It should be robust – it should be hard to switch off. It even evolved into John Gilmore’s famous quote:

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.

But it’s not completely true, is it? The internet can be switched off, in the strangest ways. One woman accidentally destroyed the whole of Armenia’s internet access. Regimes under pressure like the Syrian government have shown themselves capable of hitting a kill switch, and depriving their people of internet access. There are always rumours of moves afoot to install other internet kill switches

This is a dragon of the internet that so few of us talk about: its fragility. We’ve already talked about how transitory the content can be – but the whole linking infrastructure can go away so easily.  Our digital life is dependent on both electricity and connectivity – and when you lose one of those, suddenly your life can take a change for the worse. Some countries are in very real danger of becoming short of electricity – and connectivity can now be reduced by a large-scale denial of service attack. As more and more of our life becomes dependent on connectivity, its sudden disappearance can wreak havoc.

At a very personal level, I’ve been experiencing that at home. My broadband went down last Wednesday – but because I was working elsewhere on Wednesday and Thursday, I didn’t really notice until Friday – when I started to discover just many things still need a laptop for, rather than an iPad or a mobile phone, both of which have 3G connectivity. I could draft posts for this blog, for example, but I couldn’t easily illustrate them, or get images into WordPress as featured images (I really need to take time to investigate more mobile blogging workflows). You’ll see the posts I wrote in the coming days. My wife (a non-smartphone user) couldn’t easily top up her mobile phone, because those devices we could use via 3G automatically routed you to their own account page on the mobile provider’s site, without any option to log out and into a different account.

For a web worker, four days without internet connectivity on days when going and finding a cafe with WiFi is hard to do (because the same outage that him me hit them, too) can be crippling.

And that’s not the only threat out there. What if we start to struggle to find the resources to manufacture our devices? Did you know that we’re running short of the rare earth metals needed to build the technology we hold so dear?

Popular Science:

Rare earths are a collection of 17 elements that are valued for their unique properties. They are used in the production of everything from computer hard drives and smartphones to wind turbines, batteries, and precision weapons systems. They are found in computer displays and light bulbs and communications infrastructure. We use them to refine oil and build cars. In other words, we need refined rare earth minerals and China owns 95% of the global market for them–and isn’t always willing to share.

Running short – and in one country’s control? That’s a frightening prospect.

This dragon needs to be slain: we need to fight to ensure that the technology that enriches our lives remains viable.

Photo by Jenny Downing, used under a Creative Commons licence.