It has happened to all of us: social networks do not charge, the Wi-Fi connection is slow and we cannot send messages online. And then we think about it: What if the internet collapses? Basically the internet is millions of interconnected computers. Its operating principle is similar to that of a person, sitting in a central row of a stadium, away from the halls, and asking for a drink at the end of the row: the drink passes through all the spectators until they reach the destination, preventing the viewer from making the way back and forth. The difference is that the internet is not only composed of thousands of spectators who pass the “drink”, but also thousands of interconnected stadiums. In this way, it would seem impossible that the entire system will fail. But the truth is that it can happen, although to stop or even reduce the speed of the Internet in a considerable geographical area, you would have to do a lot of damage in many different places.
However, some small events could destroy parts of the Internet temporarily. In fact, they have already done so. The most vulnerable component of the internet is the network of submarine fiber optic cables that connect the continents. These cables, more than 400 worldwide, are usually cut and broken by rock slides, underwater earthquakes and other natural phenomena.
Most of these cables, the thickness of a garden hose, do not have protection and a trawl or an anchor can cut them. If this occurs, traffic is diverted instantly to other cables. Still, accidents happen. In 2011, a 75-year-old woman looking for copper on the coast cut a cable and suspended internet access in Armenia for five hours.
This brings us to the first of the scenarios: sabotage of submarine cables. In early 2017, NATO officials publicly revealed that Russian submarines had dramatically increased activity around submarine data cables connecting Europe and North America. “We are seeing a lot of Russian activity near the submarine cables that I think we have never seen,” the commander of the NATO submarine forces, Andrew Lennon, explained in an interview. “Russia is clearly interested in the underwater infrastructure of the NATO nations and NATO itself.”
If Russia cut all or most of the cables in the Pacific and the Atlantic in a coordinated maneuver, the measure would not collapse the internet, but it would isolate the United States. Still, human activities are not the only potential risk to the Internet. In 2015, a committee within the nonprofit organization ICANN issued a report about a possible weakness that lies deep in the underlying structure of the Internet. Basically the analysis points to a very obvious truth: the internet has grown too much and very quickly and its structure may not be able to deal with such a volume of connections and information. Thus, if “an important part of the internet falls for several days, the route backup system could be confused in a terminal way, mixing new data with outdated information.”
The reality that the Internet does not have an infinite capacity and at some point will fail in a general way. We just need to know when it will happen.