'Net shutdown could happen here -- again

A few weeks back, I pointed out that it’s a bad idea to have the feds run the 'Net, using what happened in Burma as an example of why (in case you missed it, the Burmese government shut down Internet access to the entire country because of the bad publicity it was getting because of its violent repression of protesters).

Several folks wrote back to me saying, in effect, “You’re crazy, that could never happen here.”

Yes, it could.

In fact, it already did.

Back in October, the federal government shut down Internet access to the entire California government. At issue was a server that had been hacked to redirect browsers to a porn site. Yes, that’s correct: Because of a single bad server, the federal government pulled the plug on the California government.

Again, just to be crystal-clear: This was not an action taken by the California state government. It was an action taken by the U.S. government against the state of California. And it had the effect of taking the entire state government offline.

As the CIO of the state of California wrote in an internal memo just before the event: “The State's Web domain name, ca.gov, has been suspended by the federal government. . . . As a result of the suspension . . . all ca.gov Web sites will eventually become inaccessible, and all Internet-based e-mail traffic to ca.gov addresses will be blocked.”

That is, in fact, exactly what happened — until the state of California prevailed on the feds to reverse themselves.

Of course, the authorities are downplaying the significance. A state spokesman said to the Los Angeles Times that “no essential state services were compromised.” Unfortunately, he’s wrong. For one thing, one of the services that went dark was voter registration. (Hmm. I guess California officials don’t consider voting to be an “essential service.”)

But forget that, because here’s the real kicker: Another service that went dark was emergency alerts. See, California runs a state-of-the-art emergency notification system called Emergency Digital Information Service (EDIS), which delivers official information about emergencies and disasters to the public via e-mail or wireless cell phone or pager. You’ve probably read that EDIS was partly responsible for minimizing loss of life during the recent wildfires.

You guessed it — when the Feds pulled the plug, the EDIS site went down. As a California state employee who requested anonymity out of fear of political reprisal told me, “Many state agencies were unable to communicate with the outside, including emergency services."

Yes, you heard that correctly: The same month that the state was slammed by the worst wildfires in its history, the online emergency alert system was shut down by the feds.

As the California employee said, “It scares me when someone can just turn you off.”

Me, too.

And it scares me even more that they already did.

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