Closing down the Internet

Egypt’s Internet connections were down for five or six days last week, as part of the government’s response to threats to stability. ReadWriteWeb reports on studies indicating that the shutdown cost Egypt about three to four percent of its Gross Domestic Product. That same week, people were talking about a bill to give the President the ability to do the same thing here. Only he’d be able to do it with one phone call, instead of the six or eight the Egyptians needed. Of course, the proposed legislation isn’t really about killing the whole US Internet, only those parts declared critical infrastructure, like Hoover Dam. And the bill’s sponsors have said they would never, ever, approve legislation that would shut down the entire Internet.

What worries me is that even if this version of the bill is innocuous-but-flawed, it establishes a precedent and a tool, and future legistlators might not be so careful of American freedoms as is Senator Lieberman. Once such legislation is in place, it’s merely a matter of amending an existing law, not doing something new and scary. It looks to me like one of those slippery slopes that we are always being warned about.

It’s hard, of course, to calculate the economic impact of a shutdown of the US part of the Internet. Egypt is a less well connected country, but Internet driven services may well be a significant part of a small economy. I don’t know, and my schedule won’t let me take the time to find out. If, and it’s a big if, the impacts are similar — a one work-week shutdown drops GDP 3% — then it’s interesting to note that the cost of the 2008 recession is thought to be a GDP that was 16% smaller than it would have been. Just think, we’d be giving the politicians the ability to recreate the entirety of the Great Recession in just six weeks. I’m sure we’d be happy to do that, so that the government can protect us from, you know, threats to stability.

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