U.S. Govt. Report: The Flu May Cause E-Commerce Site Outages

We've heard of viruses threatening computer networks, but the actual flu? As if retailers needed another reason to worry about this year's holiday season, a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is predicting that the flu could cause major slowdowns and possibly outages with E-Commerce sites due to—we couldn't make this up—increased bandwidth demand caused by a lot of people staying at home in bed. Specifically, the report is worried about flu-victim telecommuting workers and sneezing children playing online video games sharply increasing bandwidth demands.

"Concerns exist that a more severe pandemic outbreak than 2009’s could cause large numbers of people staying home to increase their Internet use and overwhelm Internet providers’ network capacities. Increased demand during a severe pandemic could exceed the capacities of Internet providers’ access networks for residential users and interfere with teleworkers in the securities market and other sectors," the report said. "Private Internet providers have limited ability to prioritize traffic or take other actions that could assist critical teleworkers. Some actions, such as reducing customers’ transmission speeds or blocking popular Web sites, could negatively impact E-Commerce and require government authorization. However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not developed a strategy to address potential Internet congestion or worked with federal partners to ensure that sufficient authorities to act exist."

Somehow, this report just doesn’t add up. The premise comes down to the fact that a sharply increased bandwidth load will disrupt sites. That makes sense, but the argument that homebound workers and students will cause that sharp increase in bandwidth is where this argument falls apart. Isn't it likely that the homebound workers would simply be downloading and sending the same files they would have at the office, making the overall bandwidth impact a wash? To get nitpicky, we can assume that a flu-infected worker might be downloading less than at the office because the worker would have to spend some of that time dealing with flu-related activities (that seems to be the least graphic way of describing it).

The children downloading files and playing interactive games is a better argument because those millions of students would be creating a demand far greater than they would have had they been at school. But suggesting that it could bring down the Internet seems far-fetched.

Indeed, one of the points in the 77-page GAO report undermines its overall conclusions, namely that flu-fueled congestion would likely be gradual and geographically (and therefore ISP) diverse, as opposed to the concentrated site-specific impact of a denial-of-service attack. It's a lot easier for sites and ISPs to ramp up to deal with a gradual bandwidth problem than a sudden one.

"An influenza pandemic can occur when an existing virus mutates into a novel strain that is highly transmissible among humans, leading to outbreaks worldwide. Such strains can be highly pathogenic because there is little or no pre-existing immunity in the population. Some of the issues associated with the preparation for and responses to an influenza pandemic are similar to those for any other type of disaster or hazard," the report said. "However, a pandemic poses some unique challenges. Unlike incidents that are discretely bounded in space or time (e.g., most natural or man-made disasters), an influenza pandemic is an event likely to come in waves, each lasting weeks, months or years, and pass through communities of all sizes across the nation and the world. Although a pandemic will not directly damage physical infrastructure such as power lines or computer systems, it could threaten critical systems by potentially removing the essential personnel needed to operate them from the workplace for weeks or months."To be fair, the GAO report is envisioning a dramatic worst-case scenario, where things get so extreme that many infrastructure problems could happen. "U.S. health authorities have estimated that a pandemic similar to the one that occurred in 1918 could sicken millions of people in the United States and potentially cause many deaths. The impact of such an event on various sectors of the U.S. economy could also be significant. In a severe pandemic, governments may close schools, shut down public transportation systems and ban public gatherings such as concerts or sporting events," the report said. "In such scenarios, many more people than usual may be at home during the day, and Internet use in residential neighborhoods could increase significantly as a result of people seeking news, entertainment or social contact from home computers. Concerns have been raised that this additional traffic could lead to congestion on the Internet that would significantly affect businesses in local neighborhoods, such as small doctors’ offices or business employees attempting to telework by connecting to their employers’ enterprise networks."

That said, the government doesn't have any way to deal with such a situation. The report questions whether the government has sufficient legal authority to force bandwidth changes or to shut down sites or other efforts, even in an emergency. Instead, the report speaks of a voluntary effort, which prompts the "Yeah, that's likely to work well" response.

"Although its own study identified voluntary public reduction of Internet use as an effective means of reducing pandemic congestion, DHS has not begun steps to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of obtaining such public cooperation. According to the DHS study and to providers and others we spoke with, voluntary actions taken by the general public could have significant potential to reduce the surges in traffic loads that residential users may experience during a pandemic. For example, the general public could be asked to limit video streaming, gaming and peer-to-peer and other bandwidth-intensive applications during daytime work hours. They could also be encouraged to use broadcast news sources in place of online news," the report said. "A similar campaign developed by another agency—Health and Human Services—to publicize pandemic awareness strategies showed that such public education efforts can require months to prepare and cost millions of dollars to test and implement. For example, as part of creating various radio and television messages to provide information to the public about how to prepare for a pandemic, HHS conducted market research using various techniques, including focus groups, to gauge the public’s opinion about a pandemic."

This concern seems to be more academic than practical. At this point, E-Commerce execs have more to worry about this season with an ultra-popular toy than with a sneezing student.