What if the internet broke?

By CSIRO

4 April 2013

2 minute read

Information black hole

Could our online data disappear into a big black hole? Image: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

It’s probably something you don’t want to think about. These days, we rely on the wonderful world-wide web for just about everything. You could even say we’ve grown accustomed to its (inter)face.

So how would we go on if the internet stopped working? Where would we get our daily fix of cat videos? How could we stalk (er, I mean casually browse the profiles of) our Facebook friends?

This is a problem that’s all too familiar for the residents of Warrnambool in Victoria. A few months ago a small fire damaged the town’s phone exchange, disconnecting all telecommunications. No internet. No phone calls. No working ATMs. Nothing. The community was stuck in its tracks for nearly three weeks, as their online world disappeared into a digital black hole.

The fact that one little fire had such major consequences shows just how vulnerable the internet can be. So could it survive a larger disaster?

Director of our Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, Dr Ian Oppermann, thinks it would take a pretty catastrophic set of events to bring the entire web down.

“Since the internet is essentially a web of connections, it can survive losing a large number of individual connections. This is because data would simply be rerouted”, says Dr Oppermann.

However, this isn’t to say that we’re completely safe from harm. Ian says it’s very possible that a concentrated attack against the so called ‘top-level domain servers’ that send traffic to the right websites could happen. A natural disaster could also have a big impact on the internet, as we’ve seen in North America where solar flares suspended interstate power grids. And let’s not forget the threat of cyber-terrorism.

Lucky for us, our Smart Secure Infrastructure team are working together with a range of other agencies to safeguard the internet, helping to ensure the security of Australia’s physical and online infrastructure.

In the mean time, this handy website will let you know whether the internet is broken (in real time!)

Media: Dan Chamberlain. P: +61 2 9372 4491. M: 0477 708 849. Email: daniel.chamberlain@csiro.au