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Don’t panic! They can’t turn the Internet off

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee has reassured the world that there is no ‘off switch’ for the Internet. 

While some parents might be cursing the news and online satirists have had fun imagining what the thing might look like it’s an important announcement for those interested in web freedom. 

The idea of the so-called off switch is rooted in the Arab Spring of 2010. This series of uprisings, the effects of which are still being felt, swept away regimes including those of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. 

Social media was credited with helping to spread the message of freedom. In response, governments moved to control Internet access. As Wikipedia puts it: ‘on the night of January 27, 2011 the Egyptian government under President Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet’.

This shutdown was achieved as Internet service providers withdrew their interfaces with the outside world. Other countries also blacked out Internet traffic, some by the rather less tech-savvy method of taking axes to data cables. 

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, speaking at the launch of the Web Index league table in London, said the way the Internet worked meant it couldn’t currently be crippled. 

He said: "The way the Internet is designed is very much as a decentralised system. At the moment, because countries connect to each other in lots of different ways, there is no one off-switch, there is no central place where you can turn it off.” 

But he warned that governments could act together to centralise the web and urged users to protest should they start to. 

The Web Index aims to rank countries by the extent and effect of the web on their citizens. Sweden was top with a score of 100, with the UK in third with 93.83 just behind the United States of America. Yemen comes bottom of the 61 country list with a score of 0. North Korea, which has never allowed its citizens access to the internet, doesn’t feature. 

Over a century ago, E. M. Forster’s prescient sci-fi story The Machine Stops imagined a future of wired up but essentially isolated humans linked by a machine. When the machine stops, civilisation goes with it.

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