Can Bitcoin Withstand a Global Internet Shutdown?

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World map of internet cables in 2007

In June this year Iran announced its national information network was 80% complete. Five months later, a total blackout was implemented.

“NetBlocks says it took Iranian authorities about 24 hours to completely block the nation’s inbound and outbound traffic—leaving it hovering at about 5 to 7 percent of typical connectivity levels,” Wired reports.

That 5% was selectively picked. The elite and the like could still read and write, only the 95% of the rest could not.

If this was China it could have caused great problems for bitcoin because some 80% of the mining is concentrated there.

If it was a cutting off from the rest of the world, while internally the internet still runs, then just one connection would have been enough to keep bitcoin going.

If however it was something like in Iran where the internet was temporarily shut down in a total manner, except for the elite, then keeping the bitcoin network running in China would be a most challenging task, if at all possible.

They could connect to satellite internet, but that’s generally very slow and might be inaccessible too.

They could connect through radio frequencies, but that infrastructure isn’t really built.

The most likely outcome thus would be a temporary fragmentation, a network split whereby China sort of doesn’t exist anymore as far as the bitcoin network is concerned, with miners in other parts of the world so running like normal as difficulty adjusts.

Within China if they have some way to connect then bitcoin might keep running, but once they can connect to the global network, they would have to discard their local history of transactions to recognize or join the global history.

We say have to, obviously they don’t have to do anything. That’s just the most rational course of action in the abstract, but if we presume they are loyalists and they argue since they have more hashrate the global history should be discarded, then the decision of exchanges and global nodes would probably be obvious presuming globally there have been far more transactions during lets say a week of internet blackout.

They’d basically just be told to fork off if they want to, bitcoin is not for turning to the diktats of loyalists or whoever else.

So there would be a bit of disruption, but manageable and bitcoin would be running globally as if nothing in the case of Iran, and in the case of China likewise because they’d just be rooted around as that’s how the internet was designed, and bitcoin sort of sits on top of it.

But what if the internet was shut-down everywhere, or in major centers like in America, Europe and China at the same time?

The Unthinkable

A global shutdown of the internet is currently unthinkable, but just before 2019 was welcomed, an attempt by the French to take over national TV stations was unthinkable too as something like that had not been tried in Western Europe for, well centuries.

The institutions are there for global coordination in the G20, or Davos, or IMF or BIS or whatever actual place of coordination they use.

Such global awareness between the elite has been ongoing for at least a decade, but it is only this year really that we are seeing the rise of a global awareness between the people.

One reason may well be because we all saw the French uprising livestreamed as the young and police engaged in battle with tear gas thrown one way and thrown right back and police noises from shooting such tear gas met with firework noises by protesters that had the same effect on the other end.

Its spread however is remarkable. First, to much of Europe. Then, pretty much everywhere, from Hong Kong to Colombia with the young of Lebanon raising the fist of revolucion.

In Europe, they are probably now waiting for Ursula von der Leyen to call a continent wide Citizens’ Summit as she has promised.

That’s what they rose for, and that’s what was promised, so they waiting. If we suppose she doesn’t call it, and if we suppose that leads to a continent wide uprising, then it is still difficult to think they would shut down the internet, but potentially they could.

In that case in America they would rise too probably, so there would be a global revolt, and thus a global response, one part of which might well include a global shutting down of the internet to prevent coordination.

Because before the internet there were no revolutions, but let’s entertain the thought.

Internet high level topography.
Internet high level topography.

According to a summary: “At the top of the routing hierarchy are the tier 1 networks, large telecommunication companies that exchange traffic directly with each other via very high speed fibre optic cables and governed by peering agreements.

Tier 2 and lower level networks buy Internet transit from other providers to reach at least some parties on the global Internet, though they may also engage in peering…

Internet exchange points [IXP] are major traffic exchanges with physical connections to multiple ISPs.”

In Iran apparently they’ve built the infrastructure to tap into these IXPs where you can cut off connection with the outside world. Within the country you then tap into these large telecommunication companies.

Doing so in America wouldn’t be too hard because there’s very few ISPs that are generally owned by the very well politically connected elite.

In Europe there’s a bit more fragmentation, but not that much more if there was political will.

The latter is obviously key, but if they wanted to it probably wouldn’t be that difficult to shut down the internet globally.

In that case there would be far too many other things to worry about than bitcoin, but thankfully since all this is unthinkable, let’s worry about bitcoin.

The Litmus Test

Bitcoin in many ways is a litmus test because it’s decentralized and because it has inbuilt monetary incentives.

So there has been a bitcoin satellite as there have been attempts to sort of connect a node to airwaves.

These could keep the network running slowly, but there’s a fairly big problem. Bitcoin’s difficulty adjusts every two weeks. So if we take Iran’s example, it takes 24 hours to shut down the internet.

As it stands, there are 5 million asics mining bitcoin, most of them concentrated in big farms. If one of them can still keep running, then the network can move but the difficulty would still not change for two weeks.

We say two weeks, but it depends when the internet is shut down. Difficulty changes every two weeks, so it can be the case it is shut down just before it is shortly to change, or indeed shortly after it has changed which is the worst case scenario.

In that worst case scenario the aim would be to get the difficulty to fall, but for that to happen you’d need to find a block. The example of the BCH split here is illustrative.

On August the 1st 2017, after a long and still running debate on increasing bitcoin’s capacity to handle usage, a chain-split occurred without adjusting the difficulty.

As in a global shutdown there can’t realistically be coordination to upgrade nodes to adjust difficulty, the above example is illustrative because it is sort of identical with some minor differences in that obviously 2017 had its very fine comforts as we still have, which most certainly wouldn’t quite exist in a global internet shut-down situation.

In 2017, the mining cost was about $10 million for the first block, but what’s more relevant is that it was just one mining farm, although a pretty big one.

So if one mining farm can still connect, and there are enough nodes that connect to it, then the network can run with the mining farm then in a planned fashion lowering and lowering difficulty to the point it goes to CPU mining.

The problem there would obviously be fragmentation. There might be another mining farm that does same as above, and who knows there might be a third. With all creating their own history which is not recognized by others.

So in a temporary situation of a week or the like, you’d just shut off the mining gear and wait because there isn’t really much point in trying to keep the network running as no one would have internet, so no one would be using it, so why bother.

Efforts would be put to far greater use to get the internet up and running, but the question is can bitcoin withstand such blackout, presuming it is temporary.

The answer is yes, because what would realistically happen is basically bitcoin would freeze. The network would be stuck at say block 1377101 and that’s that.

Everyone would still have their bitcoin. Accounts would still be fully valid and unchangeable. Nothing would be different whatever save that during that period you can’t transact.

Once the internet is back we get block 1377102, and all goes back to normal as if nothing happened. So such blackout wouldn’t matter where the bitcoin network is concerned, but as these blackout threats are now fairly realistic, it is obviously time to think of realistic ways something like bitcoin could keep running in these sort of situations.

It’s maybe time to take the internet back basically. Just as they’re trying to centralize it or choke it, maybe we should be trying to decentralize it so it can’t be choked.

Editorial Copyrights Trustnodes.com

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s.Yasser Ahmadi

“In 2017, the mining cost was about $10 million for the first block”

How?!