The “blackout” in Facebook services left much of the planet desperate, not knowing what was happening and with immense losses for companies, traders and industries. It was a clear demonstration of how the world today depends on technological services to exist, with economic and social impacts on everyone’s lives.
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But have you ever stopped to think what would happen if the world’s internet just went away all of a sudden? What would be the consequences for humanity? Would governments and organizations still resist or would everything collapse along with the web? Canaltech made the exercise of imagining itself in a dystopian world in which the network of interconnected computers simply collapses.
The internet is now present in everything in people’s lives (Image: Reproduction/Pixabay)
In 1995, less than 1% of the world’s population was online, after all access was slow, complicated and expensive for most people. Currently, it is estimated that more than five billion people are on the network, about 64% of all human beings on the planet. The first billion was reached in 2005, the second in 2010, the third in 2014, the fourth in 2017 and the fifth in 2020, which shows how the pace of growth is increasingly accelerated.
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Last year, access to the internet in Brazil reached 83% of the population, with an increase in the presence of classes C, D and E, according to data from Cetic.br (Regional Center for Studies for the Development of the Information Society). Of this amount, about 99% access via cell phones, although they can also use other means.
Now, imagine if this stopped working overnight?
Unlikely but possible hypotheses
It may seem crazy to think of a hypothesis like this, but Facebook’s failure showed that it is possible, indeed, to cause trouble worldwide if a criminal knows where to attack — in the case of the social network, there was no external action . Instead of focusing on individual websites, it would be enough to direct efforts to the DNS servers and routers, responsible for directing web traffic.
If this type of scenario were to occur, it was very likely that the entire internet would collapse without being able to access websites and services. Obviously it’s a very unlikely thing to happen, but it’s not entirely impossible. A simple DNS server shutdown could be enough to render most popular services inoperable.
Something likely to happen would be a threat directly from space. It’s not the extraterrestrials, but the dreaded solar storms, sun eruptions that can strike the Earth with lightning that would destroy satellites, power grids and computer systems. These storms work like huge geomagnetic bombs that would bring as a consequence the interruption of all world communication.
The emission of radiation by the sun can cause interference and even damage satellites (Image: Reproduction/NASA)
The good part is that the chance of everything being re-established quickly is high, as internet providers and technology companies usually have several spare equipment that can be activated in the event of a cataclysmic situation like this or even for possible vulnerabilities exploited by criminals .
Another situation would be the cut in the cables located in deep waters that carry large volumes of data between continents, which would leave an entire part of the planet isolated from the rest. These cables are not an easy target for criminals, because they require all the technological paraphernalia that few people have, but nature is capable of causing accidental damage occasionally.
In 2008, people in the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia were affected by internet connection interruptions on three separate occasions, all generated by undersea cables being cut or interference. This eventually occurs, and while it does not lead to widespread collapse, it does immense damage.
Purposeful or political interruptions
Authoritarian or very closed governments also often use wires and switches to control what the user can access, something that could certainly be replicated on a larger scale. Just remember how the North Korean government controls the flow of information within the nation, without allowing the use of social networks or access to news sites from outside the country.
Egypt has already taken a similar step during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising to make it more difficult for protesters to coordinate their activities. Turkey and Iran also shut down the internet connection during protests recently. In China, the world’s largest national internet market, the network also suffers from state control.
Instead of Google, the Chinese have Baidu, which allows greater control of the information displayed (Image: Playback/Baidu)
A “death switch” like this is not simple to build, especially in countries with high technological development. The better the internet infrastructure, the less likely it is, because there are too many interconnections between networks inside and outside national borders that make full control impossible.
The first hit: the economy
When talking about the end of the web, it is impossible not to immediately associate the economic effects, as most of the world’s large companies depend on it to do business. In fact, it all depends on how long the interruption would be: if it is something for hours or a few days, perhaps the effect will not be as devastating as you think.
A survey conducted by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2008 revealed that 20 companies that most said they were financially impacted by a four-day internet hack had a far smaller reduction than previously thought. There were not so many losses because employees just put off work or looked for alternatives to perform their functions without the network.
Of course, the world of 2021 is quite different from 2008 and the focus here would be a total end of services rather than a mere partial interruption. If the analysis is based on this assumption, then the impacts can be devastating, starting with the richest companies in the world. The Forbes Global 2000 list listed the fifteen largest publicly traded companies in the world in 2021:
Bank of China
Agricultural Bank of China
Ping An Insurance Group
Bank of America
Saudi Arabian Oil Company
China Construction Bank
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China
Within this TOP 15, four five companies (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Ping An) are totally focused on the digital environment and would probably disappear immediately, while another three (Samsung, Apple and JPMorgan Chase) would have their revenue heavily affected by the end from Internet. Banks would obviously feel the impact as a reflex, as the number of customers would drop precipitously and the debt ratio would grow to stratospheric levels.
The economic effects would hit everyone in full, especially micro, small and medium entrepreneurs (Image: tirachardz/Freepik)
But it’s not just the big ones that would suffer the big hit: in fact, the small and medium entrepreneurs would be the most impacted. For most of these people, the internet is a way of attracting new customers or relating to them, whether via WhatsApp or other digital means. These people would probably lose contact with whoever pays their salary and, depending on the type of service, would not even be able to resume their professional lives without the web.
Even the poorest and most rural countries, which depend less on the internet, would eventually succumb, as developed nations would lose a lot of money and start buying less agricultural products. The ripple effect of the economy would not forgive anyone and this would likely generate waves of mass unemployment, poverty and other dire impacts that governments would need to deal with right away.
The second hit: social
The covid-19 pandemic was not only devastating in terms of the virus itself, it also caused or amplified psychological effects such as feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. Although the world society has progressed a lot in this aspect from 2020 to now, the importance of the internet in human relations has become very clear: everyday lives on Instagram, the growth of streaming platforms and the explosion of video conferencing apps are some examples.
If the world wide web were to vanish, you could still continue to visit your close relatives and call whoever has the phone stored — if the phone is not affected, otherwise there would only be letters left — but you would lose contact with more distant people . The biggest problem would be the feeling of loss caused by this: who has never felt an emptiness when he forgot his cell phone at home or at work?
Imagine the pandemic effect potentiated by a permanent situation (Image: Nandhu Kumar/Pexels)
Transferring files between computers would also be difficult, as it would require returning physical media, such as nearly extinct DVDs, or connecting two or more machines with a physical cable. Projects that rely on grid computing to do complex calculations would not work either, and cloud computing services would fail to carry all the information stored there for years.
The service sector would need to be completely rebuilt and current facilities such as ordering a pizza or shopping from the market using a mobile app would need to revert to the delivery model of the early 1990s: everything via phone or with face-to-face pickup.
The third hit: entertainment
If you are over 30, you probably lived in an era when television and radio were the main forms of digital entertainment. With the end of the internet, the online entertainment industry would fall to the ground and take with it the main sources of current content: YouTube, social networks and video and audio streaming platforms.
The cultural segment is currently one of the most moving resources in the world thanks to the ease of propagating content. The global media and entertainment market will move $2.23 trillion in 2021, according to data from PwC’s 18th Global Entertainment and Media Survey 2017-2021 .
(Image: Matheus Bigogno/Canaltech)
The way would be to resort to old and traditional means, such as plays, concerts, live performances and other forms of entertainment. Oh, and don’t even think about cable TV, because in the event of a web failure, possibly closed channels didn’t resist.
An unlikely scenario
The good news is that this chaotic scenario would be very unlikely to occur, since the spreading of the network across the planet is something that guarantees its operation, even if some region suffers a partial interruption. In fact, one-off outages happen all the time and in all locations, whether it’s because a server has failed and needs to be restarted or because the data center was destroyed by a typhoon.
The internet backbone itself is not centralized, so that business of tripping over wires and turning off the internet is just a meme. For the entire global internet to experience a widespread blackout, a successive set of factors would be needed, which is statistically unlikely.
The situation the web could succumb to is massive damage from nature or from space, such as the collision of a comment with part of the Earth. The truth is that if this kind of thing happened, worrying about whatsApp will work or not would be something very small compared to the damage.
Read the article on Canaltech .
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