What Would Happen if the Internet Just Stopped?
By Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor InMilitary & InCyberDefense.
TL;DR: No internet = bad times for everyone.
While many of us fantasize about being able to disconnect, our country’s [and the world’s] reliance on the internet cannot be overstated: Beyond its use for leisure [Netflix, Facebook and the like] Western society is so dependent on the internet that contemplating its disappearance is an exercise in horror.
It’s worth mentioning that the very nature of the internet, a complicated network made up of many networks, would be unlikely to fully collapse. After all, a well-placed nuclear strike could theoretically disrupt a part of the internet, but by and large, the connections across the web are extremely flexible.
Still, countries like Russia are experimenting with disconnecting their internet from the rest of the world for reasons that haven’t been made completely clear.
So what would happen without the internet? [Besides Ted over in IT losing his freaking mind]
Goodbye Economy, We Hardly Knew Ye
First, our economy would grind to a complete stop. Payment systems would be down and traders on Wall Street would be immediately frozen out of their funds. The tech giants like Facebook and Google would lose big. How big? With well over $17 billion in ad revenue last quarter, we know that Google is making at least $120 million per day from ads [likely much more].
Hundreds of thousands of people would lose their jobs. Mail and package carriers like FedEx and UPS could go bankrupt depending on the size of their cash reserves and the length of the internet blackout.
Even offline companies rely on the internet to do business. It’s unlikely that many traditional brick and mortar businesses could withstand an extended internet blackout without severe downsizing.
In fact, focusing on a worldwide collapsing economy would be the priority for many first and second-world governments.
Message and data rates may apply
Next, telecommunications systems would abruptly stop, making something as simple as a text message next to impossible. The telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon rely on the internet as part of their core infrastructure meaning you may need to [gasp] write a physical letter and mail it… With stamps.
Transferring files between computers may also prove difficult. Might be time to dust off that stack of floppy disks you can’t bring yourself to throw away because of nostalgia. Physical media like CDs and DVDs would make a comeback.
Any information stored in “the cloud” would be inaccessible until service was restored.
That guy we all know who still insists on printing out every single document might have the last laugh, although I suspect there won’t be much laughter in general.
Welcome to the Thunderdome ™
Quickly thereafter interstate commerce and the flow of gas and food would also stop. Grocers and gas stations rarely keep paper records anymore and likely wouldn’t even know the addresses of their suppliers.
Perhaps more troubling is that there is a push in America right now to develop the electrical grids around the nation into a SmartGrid. The idea is power companies could more quickly respond to power outages and customers’ needs when grids are connected to each other through the internet. In the event of an internet outage, prepare for rolling blackouts as the utility companies struggle to communicate and balance their system with the needs of its clients.
Cable television would go offline for those who have yet to cut the cord and go streaming only. Radio and broadcast television would still work, for a while, assuming you have an antenna.
[Note to Millennials: An antenna is a metallic receiver of sorts that plucks radio waves right out of the air. See, your great grandparents weren’t complete dummies]
Public transit would stop and unless you have cash in your wallet, all local transactions would cease as well.
Hospitals and churches would still function. A surprising amount of doctors still write prescriptions by hand, despite the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that all healthcare in the U.S. move to electronic record keeping. Pharmacies would have to quickly adapt to a pen and paper record system to ensure that there is no interruption in a patient’s medication dispensing.
Pricing on essentials like eggs and milk would skyrocket. There would certainly be heavy looting and at some point and the President would declare martial law but may have some difficulty communicating his actions with communications down.
It’s hard to imagine how the loss of the internet, something that only really took over commerce in the last two decades, could lead to a Mad Max style apocalypse, but without food, gas, and electricity that’s precisely what we’ll be looking at.
America’s Adversaries Could be a Step Ahead
China has a self-contained internet infrastructure. The communist nation initially adopted this platform to avoid undue Western influence on its people and has developed clones of all the popular social networks for its population to enjoy. Known as the Great Firewall of China, it is nearly impossible for anyone within mainland China to access the outside web, short of the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN.)
Perhaps more interesting is Russia’s recent initiatives to disconnect its internet from the rest of the world; Putin wants Russia’s internet completely independent from Western society.
The question is why?
Does Putin, like China, simply want to be able to limit and monitor the flow of information? Or is Russia preparing for a potential doomsday scenario where a devastating cyber attack brings down the internet, leaving his country untouched?
After all, remaining online while the rest of the world struggles would grant Russia several distinct advantages: the military would still function, the electrical grid will still work and communications would remain uninterrupted.
Russia’s “test disconnect” will take place on April 1st and even critics within Russia worry about what the test will do to Russian international business. But with Russian submarines testing their ability to cut or tap undersea communications cables, [there are some 430 undersea internet cables worldwide] it seems clear that Russia’s test is a preparation for war.
Are We Prepared?
The United States Department of Defense agrees. In late 2018, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the US Air Force’s Institute for National Security Studies and the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction banded together in December to call for research papers analyzing the full scope of the threat.
The internet itself is now being viewed by the U.S. government as a potential weapon of mass destruction akin to nuclear weapons.
There is no doubt that U.S. intelligence is aware of the threat, and in fact, Russia’s April 1st test may provide further valuable intelligence to those U.S. agencies tasked with keeping an eye on Putin.
Regardless, the threat is very real and the consequences of losing the internet as we know it are decidedly catastrophic. Perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to consider an internet redundancy to negate any potential attack from an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin.
Such a redundancy could ensure that vital systems remain online in the event of a vulnerable severed “choke point” cable which could, in theory, bring down a portion of the internet.
After all, in the event of cyberwar or an internet outage, Americans may learn to live without Netflix but once the food stops coming, it will start to feel like a real war has come to America.