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Dear Donald Trump: No, You Can’t Shut Down Parts of the Internet

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

Photo: Associated Press

Well, I guess Donald Trump wasn’t kidding about that whole close-off-the-Internet thing.

The veteran loudmouth and Republican presidential candidate brought up the notion of “maybe, in certain areas, closing the Internet up in some way” in a December 8 speech, then returned to his idea of unplugging terrorist groups from the Internet during Tuesday night’s GOP debate when CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked about it.

“I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” Trump said. “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet.”

Don’t get me wrong: Recruitment by terrorist groups via social media is an actual problem. And among those groups, none deserve Internet access — make that, continued physical existence — less than the Daesh death cult that fancies itself an “Islamic State.”

Unfortunately, the Donald’s understanding of Internet architecture is every bit as nuanced and fact-based as his grasp of immigration policy or of the Islamic faith.

You can’t block somebody from getting online

If you want to stop somebody from using the Internet, killing him with a missile or a bomb will unquestionably work. But we’re already trying to do just that in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Our other options aren’t as good.

That is our fault for designing the Internet as a resilient network of networks that routes around damage and dropped connections. It’s also the fault of the entire telecom industry for developing so many different ways to get online. As long as wired and wireless phone service reaches a given area, anybody in it can get online with little trouble.

There’s a reason they call it the World Wide Web. (Image: Tech Republic)

But that’s the entire problem with talking about “our Internet.” The Internet arguably stopped being a U.S. property when the National Science Foundation ended its control over core Internet routing functions in 1998 — well before the two most recent Trump corporate bankruptcies.

Cutting off access to the wrong sites isn’t easy either

Trump would be well advised to ask his friends in Hollywood how well they’ve done at stopping people from sharing copies of copyrighted works online. Spoiler alert: As Trump might say, it’s a loser of an idea.

Just stopping search engines from pointing people to undesirable sites becomes, at best, a whack-a-mole exercise in which search sites can never keep up with new undesirables. At worst, you get a situation like Europe’s “right to be forgotten,” where the very act of trying to suppress searches for a topic makes it more notorious than ever.

And even if you could magically force every search site in the world to blackball particular sites, you’d still have people sharing the “wrong” sites on social media of various sorts.

Block one undesirable website and another will pop up somewhere else. (Photo: Amazon.com)

Stopping people from directly navigating to a site is even harder, as proponents of the loathsome Stop Online Piracy Act found out to their dismay. If you ban Internet providers from connecting people to blacklisted sites, determined users can switch to third-party domain-name services — such as Google Public DNS or OpenDNS — to route their requests properly.

Or they can navigate to sites by directly typing in the appropriate numerical Internet Protocol addresses. And no, banning Internet providers from routing traffic to blacklisted IPs won’t work either. You can use a proxy server to fake out any such blocking.

You can, however, kick somebody off your own site

But if you run a site and you don’t like the conduct of some of the people using it, you can go ahead and boot them anytime you like. That’s because, while the Internet is a public space, individual sites tend to be private property.

They can set their own rules banning abusive behavior — it can be a bigger problem if they don’t — and only nincompoops squawk about censorship when it’s just the proprietor of an establishment exercising her traditional right to refuse a customer’s business.

But Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks are already cracking down on the abuse of their property by the likes of Daesh to recruit new members. Twitter has been sufficiently aggressive at this that Daesh has called for the assassination of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. At Facebook, this effort led to the mistaken shutdown of the account of a user whose parents probably thought they were doing her a favor by naming her “Isis.”

Somebody with as much knowledge of self-promotion as Donald Trump should know all of these things. But when your reputation as a blustering blowhard is at stake, why get hung up on facts or logic?

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.