04 August 2010

The "marketing kill switch"

You just arrived at this page from somewhere else on the Internet, perhaps by link, RSS feed or a tweet. Thanks to a combination of 1s and 0s, a microprocessor, some network switching technology and electricity, everything worked. We take this for granted.

No Internet?

When you can’t get a connection, it’s usually a problem with your server or your Internet service provider. But what about a mass outage where no one can get online? This situation was memorably captured in an episode of South Park, but some recent news items report very real threats.

“We’re from the government, and we’re here to help”

The U.S. Congress is considering the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act (S. 3480), which has been reported as an “Internet kill switch”. The truth is a little more complicated, but undeniably the law would allow for circumstances where the executive branch of the U.S. Government could shut down the Internet. You can read the law for yourself and this letter from civil liberties groups opposing it.

Force majeure

NASA reported earlier this summer that an expected increase in solar activity will threaten our telecommunications infrastructure. “Our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms,” said NASA scientist Richard Fisher. The good news is that they’re watching the Sun carefully. If you’re reading this today it means we suffered no consequence from a “solar tsunami” that hit Earth last night.


By act of Congress or act of God, a major shutdown would be catastrophic and few people would care if we couldn't sell our clients’ products. Fortunately, everyday life is much less dramatic. Technical downtime happens here and there every day, affecting about 0.1% of operating time in most commercial applications. Someone fixes it and we get back to business pretty quickly.

Marketing kill switch

The bigger concern is protecting commercial speech. There has been a lot of press lately about how corporations invade privacy via Internet data collection, and we should take those concerns seriously. At the same time, let's be aware of government abuse. Just as a local government used Google Earth to spy on residents' backyards, there are other efforts to restrict how we advertise and sell products online. These amount to a "marketing kill switch" that would a cause a scene in your office like the one in South Park.

Tell me your thoughts, readers, in the comments section below.

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