I still vaguely remember the days before we had the internet to torture each other daily (and cat pictures). It seems inescapable these days, but like every other bit of high-tech infrastructure, it’s one bad day away from tumbling down. So aside from having to work from the office again, what would happen if the internet shut down forever?
Table of contents
What is the internet?
To be pedantic about it, the word “internet” refers to the network of connected computer networks around the world – the physical infrastructure. The World Wide Web is closer to what you mean when you say “the internet,” though – it’s the software that makes the internet into the thing we love to hate, and not just a bunch of wires connecting a lot of computers.
For this article, we’ll be using the word “internet” to refer to both things because I’m a rebel who plays by nobody’s rules, and you’ll get the gist of the article anyways.
What would happen if the internet crashed?
First of all, anything with “web,” “cloud,” “smart,” and “live” would become useless and non-functional. A lot of apps on your phone or computer rely on internet access to do what you want them to do. With the entire internet gone, they would be left adrift.
Or, to put it in a list, if the internet crashed, you couldn’t:
- Use social media;
- Do online shopping;
- Look up things online;
- Play multiplayer games;
- Stream anything;
- Get live updates for your software;
- Do online banking;
- Download games;
- Download files other than games;
- Call or text in some cases (hello, Japan).
To simulate the effects of the internet service getting shut down for good, sit down with your smartphone or your laptop, and disconnect it from the internet: Wi-Fi, mobile data, wired connection – the works. Now see what you can do with it.
The internet connection going down permanently affects more than just our ability to tell strangers that they’re wrong online. It also forms the backbone of a lot of business and government activities. All of those would get shut down in quick order.
Files stored on the cloud? Gone.
Access to databases? Down.
Instant communication between business or government entities? Not a thing anymore.
Live tracking of shipment? Almost entirely extinct.
The economy would tank immediately, and as we all know, this leads to bad things happening. Many of the nifty smart government services would be out, too: I couldn’t declare my taxes, book a doctor’s visit (without having to call anyone), and so on.
All things considered, an internet crash would be bad.
How could the internet crash?
As the internet isn’t a centralized system originating from a single point, it’s very hard for one single thing to crash the entire thing.
There are two broad areas that can be targeted to crash the internet: physical infrastructure and the software running the web.
By targeting the infrastructure
This means cutting wires, damaging satellites, destroying internet exchange points, and so on. Naturally, such an attack would be very hard to carry out on a global scale. At the same time, any natural disasters (asteroids, etc.) that could take out a huge part of internet infrastructure would cause other, larger issues than losing connection.
By targeting the software
This would entail using bugs and releasing viruses to stop web protocols from working. It is a lot more technically feasible without a world-ending catastrophe. However, it is still unlikely due to the complexities involved and people working to not let that happen.
All the underwater internet cables in the world:
Can the internet crash in specific regions?
Yes, it’s possible to take down internet in certain regions, and such internet outages have happened before:
- In 2011, an elderly woman was digging for copper and accidentally sliced off a large part of a fiber optic cable. This caused a huge internet blackout that engulfed parts of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Then, a year later, there was a big internet outage due to Hurricane Sandy.
- In 1988, the Morris Worm affected thousands of computers on the nascent internet, slowing them down to uselessness as it replicated endlessly, causing thousands-up-to-millions of dollars worth of damage… on accident.
For more deliberate attempts at shutting down the internet, we only need to look at state actors. Governments have been recently turning to internet blackouts (or shutdowns) to control situations that aren’t going their way.
What types of internet shutdowns are there?
Internet shutdowns or blackouts can fall into two broad categories – total shutdowns and partial shutdowns.
This means the internet is no longer working. All internet services are completely blocked, including broadband carriers and mobile data services. This block is generally region or countrywide, and people are unable to establish internet connectivity on any device.
In a partial shutdown, the government restricts your access to, say, social networking sites, communication apps, or foreign news websites. This is generally done to stop people from sharing information with others.
Internet shutdowns are usually employed by less than democratic governments in times of crisis, when the need to stop freedom of speech or assembly feels the most dangerous to the regime. To quote access now:
“Internet shutdowns are always dangerous, and 2021 highlighted just how vicious they can be. The world witnessed governments implement blackouts throughout protests, civil unrest, wars, and crises, while setting a precarious precedent for 2022. Last year began with authorities in Ethiopia, Myanmar, and India shutting down the internet to quell dissent and assert control over populations. Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip brought down towers supporting essential communications infrastructure as well as newsrooms for Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, while escalating censorship in Russia signaled what was yet to come.”
What would we do if the internet shut down?
Obviously, we’d try to get the internet back up.
On the infrastructure level, it’s a network of networks.
It would take a wizard to miracle all the wires, satellites, and servers away without otherwise blasting the human civilization off the face of the Earth. And if that happened, we’d lay down more wires and connect computers into larger and larger networks that could eventually merge into a worldwide net – the internet.
But if the internet shut down due to a software issue – one that somehow affected all of it at the same time – we’d try to rebuild as well, probably even faster. The code would need to be checked, potential malware would need to be cured, drives would have to be wiped and rewritten, but it’s not that much when compared with replacing physical infrastructure. Internet service providers and other IT companies would jump on that immediately.
It would be expensive – rooting out the Morris Worm reportedly wasn’t cheap – but it beats not having the internet around.
In closing: Use a VPN to fully experience the internet
All in all, the internet just upping and disappearing is extremely unlikely. You have better odds of running into a few hours of an internet shutdown, either a full or partial one. And even before things get that dire, you may face geo-blocking and similar restrictions online. So, why not bypass them with a good VPN that will also keep your connection private?
Can we live without the internet?
Yes, as the biological processes of the human body evolved to function without online connectivity. Source: the entire history of mankind.
How likely are internet shutdowns?
In 2021, Access Now recorded 182 shutdowns in 34 countries vs. 159 in 29 countries in 2020. They aren’t small potatoes, either. Aside from the human rights angle, Brookings estimated that shutdowns in 2015-2016 cost $2.4 billion around the world.
Can the internet be shut down permanently?
If the entire mankind wanted it, the internet could be shut down permanently. Since we decisively don’t want that, you can’t permanently shut down the internet without destroying human civilization as we know it.
What if there was no internet for 24 hours?
Not having the internet for a day would disrupt the activities of many businesses and government services, and make your day very boring if you’re staying at home.
Who invented the internet?
Encyclopedia Britannica says that it was Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn.
Why do you need the internet?
Without the internet, the world wide web doesn’t work, and without the world wide web, you couldn’t be reading this article. Basically, lots of things would become inaccessible. In conclusion, you need the internet for me to continue having a job.