Could the internet die?

23 February 2016

Question

How long will it be before the internet dies? I know that sounds unanswerable, but we have probabilistic formulas to look at (say) the chance of extraterrestrial life, so it ought to be possible to make a similar model for something like this, which will have a series of "known unknowns". This was prompted by a conversation with a museum archivist who seemed to just assume crowdsourced data in the cloud would be there forever.

Answer

Kat asked Peter Cowley if the internet could actually die in the first place...

Peter - Yes, I think we'd probably live without the internet in time but let's just unpack the question. Presumably the questioner means, will the internet die completely but the internet does actually die in short burst anyway. The BBC had what they call a "distributor denial of service attack" at the end of last year. So the BBC site was down - only for a day. It was hardly dying but it was obviously very ill that date. Country's censor: China censors quite a lot of sites. In the Arab Spring, social media was switched off in a number of countries in the Middle East, so those are ones that are short term. Ones that are sort of not death but when it's ill is things like broken cables. Broken submarine cables - that happens remarkably often - trawlers and things.

Kat - So there's a difference between the sort of the technical hardware breaking down and then the servers where the internet pages live not being allowed to get through to us?

Peter - Get through. exactly, yes that's right exactly. So there are times in these situations where it would slow down but what the question is actually asking would it, could it ever die? Now I think there's only about three different reasons that could happen. One is some sort of global war; with a threat like that where the whole of the population of the Earth would be badly affected by that, purely because of what was going on in the war. It could be somebody ruling the planet would switch it off. Or it could be some really massive cosmic or gamma shower. Kat - So something like a solar storm. That's something we hear worries about that that could knock out communication systems.

Peter - But more than that - it would knock out probably most electronics. So you know a lot of aircraft would fall out of the sky, telecommunications and everything.

Kat - And no-one could tweet about it because the internet would be broken.

Peter - Exactly. So everything would shut down: banking, transport, utilities, power, water, all kinds of thing. But, of course, once you remember that it's only been about 15 years that the internet's been in mass use even though it's been around probably about 50 years. So we could recover from that reasonably quickly, I suspect.

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