SAN FRANCISCO - About a half-hour past midnight Friday morning in Egypt, the Internet went dead.
Almost simultaneously, the handful of companies that pipe the Internet into and out of Egypt went dark as protesters were gearing up for a fresh round of demonstrations calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule, experts said.
Egypt has apparently done what many technologists thought was unthinkable for any country with a major Internet economy: It unplugged itself entirely from the Internet to try and silence dissent.
Experts say it's unlikely that what's happened in Egypt could happen in the United States because the U.S. has numerous Internet providers and ways of connecting to the Internet. Coordinating a simultaneous shutdown would be a massive undertaking.
"It can't happen here," said Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer and a co-founder of Renesys, a network security firm in Manchester, New Hampshire, that studies Internet disruptions. "How many people would you have to call to shut down the U.S. Internet? Hundreds, thousands maybe? We have enough Internet here that we can have our own Internet. If you cut it off, that leads to a philosophical question: Who got cut off from the Internet, us or the rest of the world?"
In fact, there are few countries anywhere with all their central Internet connections in one place or so few places that they can be severed at the same time. But the idea of a single "kill switch" to turn the Internet on and off has seduced some American lawmakers, who have pushed for the power to shutter the Internet in a national emergency.
The Federal Reserve has opened Pandora's Jar.
Printing massive amounts of currency has trickled its way into commodities including foodstuffs and fertilizers. For those who live in countries with high incomes that spend relatively small portions (perhaps 10 to 20%) of their wages on food, such as the US, Canada, Australia, and many Western European countries, this impact has hurt but not severely.
For many in developing countries, higher grain prices in particular combined with residual high unemployment left over from the great recession have left an explosive political situation. When citizens are spending 40 to 50% of their disposable income on food they become vulnerable to misguided monetary policies by the nation who has the world reserve currency.
Let's review some political instability indexes (ratings between a low of 0 and high of 10) that the Economist Intelligence Unit collected in 2010.
United States 5.3
What is troubling about these political stability numbers is that many of the countries that are now experiencing turmoil, were rated as only being moderately at risk as recently as 1 year ago. Furthermore, the Gini coeffients for many of these nations are relatively low - that is, the income distribution is fairly even, with wealth not concentrated in the hands of few individuals.
In the United States, with its high Gini coeffient, there is great concentration of wealth, particulary in the Northeastern states. This means that large numbers of people are quite poor on a relative basis increasing the potential for conflict if economic conditions were to deteriorate further.
My question given these developments, is how long will the United States be able to avoid the riotous contagion that is spreading across the Middle East?
The political stability index at 5.3 in only slightly lower than that of Egypt, large numbers of people losing their homes, and with nearly 20% unemployment (using the U6 measure), will 2011 become the summer of our discontent?
If that discontent pours out onto the streets this year, will the authorities resist use of military force against fellow Americans, bank holidays, and attempts to shut down internet communication?