How does a country just turn off the internet?

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In recent events, Belarus was reported to have shut down the country’s Internet. How does that happen? Does the government control all the servers, or so they have a kill switch somewhere for all the service providers? What about mobile internet? Logistically, it doesn’t make sense.

In: Technology

>Does the government control all the servers

In a sense, yes. They send the police (or military) to the server companies and say shut the servers off or face arrest (or worse). They do the same with mobile providers.

The internet is a series of connected computer networks. All you need to do to turn it off is to go the places they connect and pull the plug. So if you are the government you go to the isps that provide service and tell them to turn it off. / disconnect. Threat of arrest / death normally works pretty well here. As for mobile that eventually gets back to a hard line connection and the same thing applies tell the people to turn it off. Near the borders it might be harder to do with mobile but the radio waves only have a limited distance they can travel.

There are different ways to think of the internet depending on how you approach it. It can be a data centric view (ie data connected and interlinked) or network function centric (routing tables, network configuration etc). At the end of the day, though, the internet has a physical manifestation – there must be physical wires, servers, switches, access points etc. Access to the internet service must go through some physical infrastructure – phone wires, networking cables, optical fiber or cell phone towers.

Governments generally have direct or indirect control over all physical infrastructure in their own country. They can either physically take over and turn these things off or, more easily, tell the operators to turn it off under government authority, threat of punishment or jail etc.

Belarus has seen a spike in TOR usage. https://amp.reddit.com/r/europe/comments/i82v45/surge_in_tor_activity_from_belarus/

So they have internet fortunately.

The government controls all the pipes. They can shut down the backbone connections between the country and its neighbors. Sure, maybe you can catch the neighboring country’s mobile signal at the border, and maybe someone has a satellite uplink, but most of the traffic can be shut down.

Remember, the Belarussian dictatorship has been in place since 1994 – predating the spread of the Internet in the country. The networks in the country were built under the dictatorship’s oversight to begin with.

A key part of internet access is DNS – Domain Naming Service. It translates URLs like reddit.com to an IP address like 123.101.072.064.

All of internet effectively runs on these IP addresses. If there’s No IP address, then there is no identifiable destination.

If DNS is unavailable then you can’t go to any URL. DNS services are typically provided by very big players which are generally few in number.

So all that the government has to do is to order these players to shut down DNS services and the whole of internet is unavailable.

Another option is to think of internet addresses as houses which can be reached by a network of roads. However, your town has access to only 4 roads. If these 4 roads are blocked, then your townfolks can’t access any of the millions of roads.

The internet is just a big bunch of computers and networks connected to each other around the world. In theory, the internet has multiple paths to connect the same end points, and uses protocols designed to route around any issues to achieve that connection however possible. In theory, anyone can build their own internet infrastructure and run their own connections.

In practice, much of the important infrastructure requires massive financial resources and technical expertise. There are only so many cables connecting your country to other countries, and this not only requires massive business investment but also agreements between the political entities. There are only so many cables connecting one residence to another, which again requires massive business investment, and most countries have regulations ie. the government controlling what you can and can’t do. Therefore there are only so many ISPs providing those services to customers.

In practice, the government only needs to control either this critical physical infrastructure directly, or the ability to exercise control over the few companies providing the services (whether that be financial, regulatory, legal or otherwise), to have control of that country’s internet.

It’s rarely going to be a single physical “internet kill switch”, but a process of contacting various major companies controlling the infrastructure. And most countries are usually content to just (“just”…) control the flow information via firewalls, block-lists, DNS record tomfoolery, censorship and so on rather than kill the internet outright. Citizens who lose their internet might riot at the obvious government interference, but if you only block certain websites or filter certain keywords you have plausible deniability.