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What if the internet broke?

Would the world collapse? Would there be rioting in the streets? What would happen to your Facebook friends? Brad Howarth reports.

At 5.30am on November 22, 2012, Greg Walsh got his first inkling that the internet had stopped working. As director of a farm management group based near Warrnambool, he had risen early to check his email and send instructions to his farm managers.

Except on this morning his home internet connection wasn't working. He soon discovered his mobile phone connection was also down, and his home phone.

Information black hole...  we've become so reliant on the internet, that any glitch causes concerns.
Information black hole... we've become so reliant on the internet, that any glitch causes concerns. Photo: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

It took a much older form of communication - radio - to learn that fire had damaged a local Telstra exchange. The mystery was solved, but its ramifications were not yet revealed.

Keen to get on with his day, Walsh got in his car and started the 20-minute drive into town. ''I got halfway and realised I was almost out of petrol,'' Walsh says. ''I pulled in to the nearest service station only to find that the payment service was down, and that I needed cash to buy petrol. And I had about $5 in my pocket.''

When he finally made it into Warrnambool he found the ATMs there weren't working either. So Walsh joined the long queue outside a bank where tellers were handing $100 to people who could prove their identity, and then writing down the transactions on paper.

It took Telstra close to three weeks to get the Warrnambool district fully back online. While mobile and some emergency telephone services were back up within days, internet services took longer to restore.

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For businesses, that meant their websites and email had disappeared, along with the online services they relied on. Many could no longer conduct business, and for the better part of three weeks they disappeared into a digital black hole. To date Telstra has paid out up to $1000 to nearly 2000 businesses, and is assessing a smaller number of larger claims.

That one small fire could have such dramatic consequences shows how deeply the internet is interwoven into Australian society - a remarkable feat given most Australians have been using it for less than 15 years.

The Warrnambool incident was limited in scope, but could the same thing happen on a broader scale? With business and society now dependent on it, there is growing concern about whether the internet can survive attacks or other catastrophes.

''I think we'd have a global crisis of terrible proportions,'' says Professor Rod Tucker, director of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES), a research group based at the University of Melbourne.

''It is conceivable that you'd have a major global crisis with civil unrest within weeks. Business is now adapted to the situation where everything happens via data and you don't need the telephone, and if we had to fall back to the telephone it couldn't cope.''

Hackers frequently take websites offline in attacks that flood sites with massive volumes of web traffic. But these attacks are usually limited in duration and isolated to individual organisations.

A greater threat is posed by full-blown cyber warfare. In 2008 the former Soviet republic of Georgia accused Russia of launching a co-ordinated attack against Georgian websites as part of a Russian offensive against the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The attack took Georgia off the internet.

In Australia, numerous agencies are working to safeguard the internet, including the CSIRO and the Defence Signals Directorate.

According to the director of the CSIRO's Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, Dr Ian Oppermann, one of the greatest survival attributes of the web is embodied in its name: as a web of connections it can survive losing even a large number of individual connections, as data is simply rerouted.

''It would be a pretty catastrophic set of events that would bring the web down,'' Oppermann says. ''It's a bit like asking, 'Can you bring the road system down?' You can certainly clog it up so that it is not very useful.''

One possibility is a concerted attack against the so-called top-level domain servers that send traffic to the right websites.

Natural dangers also exist. Oppermann says solar flares have caused problems for North America's interstate power grid, and satellites are also vulnerable to this form of natural attack.

As Warrnambool showed, the internet does have vulnerabilities. According to Rob Forsyth, Asia-Pacific director of online security company Sophos, problems would quickly arise should anyone damage the five undersea cables that carry much of our international internet traffic.

''Australia does have satellite connections in addition to the undersea cables, but satellites can be slow and expensive to move large amounts of data,'' Forsyth says.

Dr Robert Pepper has dedicated his working life to understanding the impact of the internet on society. As a US-based vice-president for global technology maker Cisco, Pepper works with governments around the world to better understand that impact.

''It is as fundamental as walking into a room and flipping a switch and the lights come on,'' Pepper says. ''We expect it to be there - our lives are built around it. And having experienced it, if you had to go cold turkey, it would be a real shock.''

Some changes would be relatively minor, such as the loss of online shopping. But Pepper says the same network that delivers bargains to shoppers also delivers life-saving information to medical professionals, such as up-to-date information on how different drugs react to each other.

''If you go through all of the things the internet gives us - texting, email, search, or mapping with GPS (the Global Positioning System) - we could not be doing those things.''

In Warrnambool, Walsh's first experience was the loss of email. That meant driving up to 100 kilometres to communicate with his farm managers, although once mobile phone services came back up he could at least talk to them.

The impact was much greater for businesses that traded over the internet. Any locally hosted website went offline, and those businesses whose websites were hosted elsewhere could no longer access their sites.

Local businessman Robert Lane says travellers were turning up to hotels only to find the staff had no records of their online bookings. Online retailers could not take orders. Banks and merchants could not process electronic transactions, and online banking was unavailable.

But Lane says it wasn't all bad - at least initially. ''For the vast majority of people, once they got over the initial panic, the overwhelming feeling was, 'Isn't it great, we'll have to get in the car and visit people.' There was a sense of nostalgia about that for a lot of people.''

That's provided you were old enough to remember life before the web. Lane says for younger generations the loss of Facebook, Twitter and online gaming meant the world effectively ended.

But Lane's own business soon began to suffer. Lane runs the Warrnambool office of the business consulting firm SED Advisory, and needs to stay in constant contact with colleagues scattered around Victoria.

''Once it got into three weeks it was terrible, because our systems broke down,'' Lane says. ''Being able to manage, to get access to information, was quite difficult.''

Indeed, the changes that the internet has wrought on Australian society are staggering - as is our willingness to embrace it.

We have flocked to internet banking, with the National Australia Bank recently announcing that by May transactions using online banking and smartphone applications would overtake those in branches.

In the travel industry internet bookings now account for 40 per cent of overall bookings, according to Phocuswright's Asia-Pacific online travel overview.

And without the internet, there would be a lot more lonely people in the world. According to the online dating service RSVP, 8 per cent of Australians met their current or most recent partner online.

The loss would be more acute for younger people who have never lived without it. More than 10 million Australians are on Facebook today and use it extensively to keep in touch with friends and family, share photos and organise events.

And, of course, without YouTube there would be no reliable source of cat videos.

Not all businesses would suffer, however.

According to Peter Williams, Deloitte's leader for the Australian chapter of its applied research arm, the Centre for the Edge, map makers might do well from people no longer using Google Maps on their smartphones.

''We've got this sensation of the internet in our pocket,'' Williams says.

''We'd have to go back to things like using the radio. You could adapt, but it takes you back to a more simple life. You'd play cards instead of Halo.''

With the internet down, access to pornographic material would also be limited. In 2010, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, authors of the book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, told Forbes magazine that about 42,337 of the world's websites were sex-related - the equivalent to around 4 per cent of all websites at that time - while 13 per cent of web searches were for erotic content. Other sources put that number much higher.

Regardless of the true figure, without the web, adult bookstores might experience a renaissance. Indeed, one of the most intriguing possibilities of the end of the internet would be whether those industries most affected would recover.

The music industry has lost billions of dollars in revenue due to online piracy. While the end of the internet would not entirely end music piracy, it would kill off new revenue streams from music downloads. The end of the internet would not come quickly enough to restore iconic brands such as the Borders chain of bookstores, which collapsed in 2011, thanks to competition from online booksellers and downloadable e-books.

Local retailers might also benefit. Without the internet Australians could no longer buy from international sellers such as Amazon or online fashion seller ASOS.

The National Australia Bank's Online Retail Sales Index estimated online sales at $13 billion in the year to January 2013 - the equivalent of 5.8 per cent of total non-food retailing. However, given almost three quarters of online sales were to Australian retailers, losing the internet would leave many local businesses worse off.

But could the global economy even survive losing the internet? A study by Google and Deloitte Access Economics released in August 2011 found that 3.6 per cent of Australia's gross domestic product of $50 billion was a direct contribution from the internet, while 190,000 people were employed in internet-related occupations.

Entire companies, including Google, Amazon, Facebook and eBay, rely on the internet for their existence, and their values would plummet should it cease to function. Much larger companies such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Apple would also struggle.

Whether the global financial markets could absorb the collapse of so many major companies without taking down the global economy is doubtful. And regardless, without the internet and similar dedicated financial services networks it would be almost impossible to trade company stocks anyway.

Google's vice-president for product and engineering for Europe and emerging markets, Nelson Mattos, says around the world the internet is being used to improve education and reduce poverty.

''[The internet] dramatically improves the competitiveness of a country,'' says Mattos, adding this is especially true for small business.

''Those that are heavily using web technologies tend to grow twice as much as small businesses that are not using web technology today.''

Back in Warrnambool, Telstra is continuing to assess the claims, and may be doing so for years. The outage has left many businesses asking how they could avoid a similar fate in the future.

But for those affected, such as Greg Walsh, the outage has raised questions about what can be done to prevent such problems occurring again on a wider scale.

He hopes the lesson from Warrnambool can be used to stop other regions experiencing the same effects.

''The lessons from this outage are really about national security issues, and we need to take these lessons from Warrnambool and apply them more broadly,'' Walsh says.

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