If you are a moron, you could interpret Donald Trump’s statements in the GOP debate tonight to mean he wants to start shutting down specific websites or services on the internet. He clarified later that he was talking about geography: limiting access to, say, Syria or wherever Islamic State is operating from.
Trump is right not only that limiting or knocking out the internet is the best way of hampering Islamic State, but also because there is at least one solution that is eminently feasible. It’s just that sneering commentators aren’t educated enough to know about it.
It’s technical, so don’t expect to follow this all the way through if you don’t know what a URL or an IP address is, or if you work for Buzzfeed. But I’ll lay it out as simply as I can without penning a research paper.
The ownership of IP addresses, which are labels attached to any device connected to a network, are determined by announcements using a protocol called the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). Anyone with sufficient access can make a BGP announcement.
Now, all the internet service providers that together comprise the core of the internet are American. That’s what Trump means when he says the internet is “ours.” Announcements from American ISPs are thus the most respected and listened-to announcements.
In theory, all President Trump would have to do is have the FCC exercise its regulatory authority over telecommunications infrastructure and arrange to make announcements for the IP addresses owned by Islamic State.
Any traffic intended for Islamic State, on about 95 per cent of the internet, could be redirected to the United States and then “nullrouted” — essentially, dumped into a black hole, perhaps after being analyzed by the NSA or the military. Problem solved.
Would this completely remove ISIS from the Internet? For the most part, yes. All but the most tech savvy jihadis would be gone, and while there would be plenty of ways to get around this fix they would be time consuming, expensive, technical and easy to locate.
For instance, there would be satellite links and Inmarsat phones left. But such devices are easily traceable for airstrikes. With the regulatory authority to do so, a Trump administration could knock out most of Islamic State’s internet capability in a matter of days.
That, at least, is the solution many self-described hackers have been discussing on Twitter over the past few days. Their disagreements seem to be limited to ethical boundaries, rather than the efficacy of the technical solution proposed.
The video below demonstrates BGP hijacking in action. The hackers featured, Pilosov and Kapela, go further than the above strategy would require.
Because BGP is a system for routing entire networks, called autonomous systems, and not for shutting off individual websites and services, and because there’s not enough room in routing tables for a lot of data entry, BGP is no good for explicit censorship. It can’t really be used as a tool to close down specific information or close discrete websites.
So you see, “shutting down” parts of the internet isn’t as bonkers as it first sounds. Although it requires more technical literacy than most commentators possess to understand what kind of software solutions are available and would be effective in the fight against Islamic State, that doesn’t mean Donald Trump is wrong.
But, as a nuclear option to knock out the internet connectivity of, say, a rogue terrorist state, it works just fine. Whether or not Trump wins the election, the next President of the United States should use it.