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SXSW 2017: Is There Such a Thing as an Internet Kill Switch?

At the SXSW Conference in Austin, a group of internet experts discussed whether the mythical internet kill switch actually exists.
Image: Bays of equipment stand at mobile telephone switching office
Bays of equipment stand at mobile telephone switching office on Oct. 25, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.John W. Adkisson / Getty Images, file

The idea of there being one switch — or one quick fix — to shut down the entire internet conjures up some cartoonish ideas.

Is there a switch you can flick to kill the internet? Or would some mad computer scientist or government have to unplug a bunch of cables to make the world wide web go completely dark?

But at the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas on Friday, a panel of internet experts all agreed that a universal kill switch does not exist — yet.

"When people figure out how to push the right buttons …it just makes us better at realizing that taking the steps to get more resilient are necessary," Christian Dawson, co-founder of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition said during Friday's panel.

The idea doesn't seem so far-fetched, following two snafus in recent months that knocked parts of the internet offline. One was a simple typo by Amazon Web Services, the other a botnet attack on internet company, Dyn.

Related: Amazon Web Services Broke Part of the Internet With a Typo

But just how much damage could one person, company or government really do?

A Brookings Institution report released in October found that in the previous year, internet 81 disruptions in 19 countries came at a cost of $2.4 billion total to the economies of those nations.

There have even been reports of internet "curfews" in Gabon or outages during national exams in Iraq, with the purported rationale that it prevents cheating.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Egypt shut off nearly all of its Internet access by withdrawing more than 3,500 Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) routes, according to Renesys, a networking firm that is now a part of Dyn, an internet performance company.

Related: Trump Suggests 'Closing That Internet Up' to Counter ISIS

BGP routes are the path between the Internet Service Provider and the users, so without them, the Internet would not work for people who rely on those paths.

Matt Perault, head of global policy development at Facebook, said these smaller, regional outages add up and "present a really compelling problem."

The internet was designed to be a decentralized entity, so there's no group that holds the keys to knock the entire world offline. However, all of the experts agreed that it's going to take collaboration between internet ecosystems to ensure the mythical kill switch never comes to fruition.

Shane Tews, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said she's taking action now by participating in panels and trying to help influence policymakers.

"I don't want to wake up in 2020 and remember when the internet was cool, and not have done anything about it," she said.