Jeff Hancock likes to give his Stanford University students weekend assignments that let them experience concepts discussed in class for themselves. Before 2008, he would sometimes challenge his students to stay off the internet for 48 hours and then discuss how it affected them. But when Hancock returned to work in 2009, after a year-long sabbatical, things had changed.
“When I tried to introduce the task, there was a class revolt,” says Hancock, who studies the psychological and social processes involved in online communication. “The students emphatically said the assignment was impossible and unfair.”
They argued that going offline even for a weekend would prevent them from completing work in other classes, ruin their social lives, and make their friends and family worry that something terrible had happened to them. Hancock had to concede and cancelled the activity – and he’s never attempted it again. “That was 2009, and now with mobile as present as it is, I don’t even know what students would do if I asked them to do that,” he says. “They’d probably report me to the university president.”
But with our always-connected lifestyles, the question is now more relevant than ever: what would happen if the internet stopped for a day? It turns out the impact might not be quite what you’d expect.
In 1995, fewer than 1% of the world’s population was online. The internet was a curiosity, used mostly by people in the West. Fast-forward 20 years and today more than 3.5bn people have an internet connection – nearly half of all humans on the planet – and the number is growing at a rate of around 10 people a second.
According to the Pew Research Centre, a fifth of all Americans say they use the internet “almost constantly” and 73% say they use it at least daily. Figures in the UK are similar: a 2016 survey found that nearly 90% of adults said they had used the internet in the previous three months. For many, it is now virtually impossible to imagine life without the internet.
“One of the biggest problems with the internet today is that people take it for granted – yet they don’t understand the degree to which we’ve allowed it to infiltrate almost every aspect of our lives,” says William Dutton at Michigan State University, who is the author of the book Society and the Internet. “They don’t even think about not having access to it.”
I don’t know what students today would do if I asked them to stay off the internet – they’d probably report me to the university president – Jeff Hancock
But the internet is not inviolable. In theory, it could be taken away, on a global or national scale, for a stretch of time. Cyberattacks are one possibility. Malicious hackers could bring the internet to a standstill by releasing software that aggressively targeted vulnerabilities in routers – the devices that forward internet traffic. Shutting down domain name servers – the internet’s address books – would also cause massive disruption, preventing websites from loading, for example.
Cutting the deep-sea cables that carry vast volumes of internet traffic between continents would also cause significant disruptions by disconnecting one part of the world from another. These cables may not be easy targets for attackers, but they are sometimes damaged accidentally. In 2008, people in the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia were plagued by major internet outages on three separate occasions when submarine cables were cut or interfered with.
Some governments also have “kill switches” that can effectively turn off the internet in their country. Egypt did this during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 to make it more difficult for protesters to coordinate their activity. Turkey and Iran have also shut off internet connectivity during protests. China is rumoured to have a kill switch of its own. And American senators have proposed creating one in the US as a means to defend the country from cyberattack.
Building a kill switch is not easy, however. The larger and more developed the country, the harder it is to shut down the internet completely – there are simply too many connections between networks both inside and outside national borders.