There are several caveats to that, however. Any hack attack of that magnitude would very likely extend beyond U.S. shores, for one thing. It would be very difficult and take a high level of technical ability to accomplish. And it wouldn't last very long, either: Given the decentralized nature of the Net, Kim says the disruption would likely be limited to hours, or a day or two maximum.
Even if hackers managed to wreak havoc on the U.S. Internet, all the experts I spoke to expressed extreme doubt that an attack would be able to take out the entire country.
"Let's take the CloudFlare attack," says Gilmore, referring to a DDoS attack in Europe a few months ago that CloudFlare mitigated. "I was quoted in The New York Times as saying it was the largest publicly disclosed attack in the history of the Internet. That was 300 gigabits, or 300 billions. The total traffic on the Internet is measured in many, many terabits--trillions. And the U.S. is a large portion of that. A 500-gigabit attack--which again, would be the largest attack ever--would not be able to disrupt even a large portion of the United States.
"Some networks would go down," he continues. "You might be able to take out an ISP in a city, and have that ISP go offline, but to take 25 or 50 percent of the U.S. offline? It's not impossible to do, but it'd just be so ridiculously difficult."
Individual things--specific ISPs, websites, and so on--would be much easier to attack, says Gilmore. Kim agrees: The Internet's backbone carriers are just too strong to hack with any sort of effectiveness.
"[Hackers] would be much better off going for the softer underbellies of companies than going after core infrastructure," he says.
The Man holding you down
So, widespread tube cutting and hack attacks would not only be incredibly difficult to pull off, but they would also be of questionable effectiveness. Now, let's explore the darkest of these dark options. The Middle Eastern countries mentioned above disappeared from the Net thanks to the heavy hands of iron-fisted dictators. Is there any way the U.S. government could possibly do the same? Does the Man have an Internet kill switch?
"No, there's no legal authority for it," says Dan Auerbach, a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Even if some were invented through creative lawyering, the practical reality is that it would just be too difficult to do in any sort of short time frame."
This circles back to the United States' dense web of tubes, and all three experts I spoke to touched on this point. Small countries like Syria have very few Internet access points, and very few service providers maintaining those access points, making it trivial for the government in such nations to shut down the hardware. That ain't so in this country.
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