2012-01-30

We ignore the politics of the DNS at our peril

Most people who use the Internet will be aware of the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA), if you hadn't heard of it before January 18th you are likely to have become aware of it through the co-ordinated blackout of the internet on that day.

Like other recent additions made by the legislature the proposed act seems to have a purpose which aligns poorly with the current system of law.  To a certain extent, a system of written legislation (in contrast to a system of common law) is like a vast computer program.  Sometimes a new law is required to model something new in society.  The invention of the printing press really did trigger a debate about the ownership of intellectual outputs, giving way to copyright law.

Sometimes all that is required is a modification to an existing law to help clarify the way the law deals with a new test case, essentially making that part of the model a little less abstract than it was before.  But when a new law, with a clear purpose, requires widespread modifications it seems to me to be a sign that the purpose of the new law is not well aligned with the architecture of the social model our legal system represents.

Much has been written and spoken about SOPA and even more on copyright in general.  I found Cory Doctorow's talk on The Coming War on General Purpose Computing an amusing but thought provoking take on this.  In particular, his talk persuaded me that we probably should try and think about information and communications technology (computers and networks) as something genuinely new.  New in the sense that the printing press was new.  New in the sense that they have changed our social norms.  New in the sense that we need a new part of our legal model to help us resolve disputes, deal with new types of harm and criminalise new types of behaviour.

But in this blog post, I don't want to concentrate so much on the copyright aspects of the proposed bill but on the international dimension, in particular the Domain Name System (DNS).  The DNS is an internationally agreed way to look up the network location of an internet server from its friendly name (like swl0.blogspot.com).  Of course, internationally agreed begs the question, by which parties?

Although a little disingenuous, it could be said that the DNS works by agreement between the US government and a US-registered corporation that has been granted a monopoly over the technical operation of the DNS by the US government.  The corporation is called ICANN (see also their entry in Wikipedia).  I actually think that ICANN is probably pretty well meaning, the choice of California as the territory in which it is incorporated represents a continuity with its predecessor IANA which was essentially created by network engineers to deal with the practical tasks of registration rather than the politics.

ICANN works by charging members an annual fee and, in exchange, it delegates the operation of one of the top-level domains to that member.  A top-level domain is the bit after the last 'dot' in the name, so the name www.walkers.co.uk (a popular brand of potato crisp in the UK) is in the top-level domain "uk".  ICANN reserves two-letter top-level domains for members that represent the countries that use that two-letter code.  In fact, the UK is an odd exception because our two-letter code is GB but UK was already widely in use as a country-specific top-level domain in pre-internet networking.  I once heard a story that the choice of UK was nothing to do with the abbreviation of United Kingdom but actually because of the importance of the University of Kent in the early networking infrastructure.  It may be a myth but a page from the BBC on the History of its Internet Service suggests there may also be some truth in it.

In the US, where the internet was invented and from where it is still controlled, top-level domains were used directly such as by government (.gov) and military (.mil) registrants.  The history of .edu is a little more confusing but from 2001 onwards its use has been restricted to US institutions (just after I applied, unsuccessfully, to get a UK institution registered in .edu).  The situation is different for .com, .org, .net and all the other fancy new top-level domains.  Registration is open internationally.

But the advantage of using the country-codes in the DNS is that it makes it easy to see who you are dealing with, including helping you understand the likely legal system that you'll use to resolve disputes with them.  I know that if I'm interacting with a website that has a name ending in "co.uk" then there is a UK-registered company subject to UK law involved.

Internet users in the US are not so fortunate.  In fact there is a top-level .us domain reserved for US organizations but it was originally sub-divided by state.  That would actually make sense given the way the American legal system is largely state based, with commercial agreements and even taxation being subject to state law.  But although .us registrations are now open to any US-based institution it is rarely used (a quick search indicates that Apple have registered apple.us but Microsoft have not bothered with microsoft.us).  This tendency to ignore the country domains means that most people (in the US but increasingly elsewhere) have no idea what legal basis their internet dealings have.  Indeed, many country domains are now misused purely for their lexical appearance (witness Libya's .ly domain and the little known Pacific island of Tuvalu which owns the .tv domain).

So what does all this have to do with SOPA?  Well for some time now the DNS has got dragged in to legal disputes between companies with the result that websites have been disappearing from the internet all over the world based solely on the verdict of a US court.  SOPA would have made (or should I say, will make?) it much easier for this sort of thing to happen.

One of the reasons that law makers, and in particular the copyright publishers, want to put sites off the air is because internet users can't tell the difference between content legally distributed by legitimate American businesses and content that is essentially illegally imported into the US each time you click a link or download a file.  Turning off access to foreign sites containing offending material seems to make more sense than pursuing the humble user - a move which has been very unpopular when tried by the RIAA.

Although probably a lost opportunity, it would have been great if the public could have been given a clearer distinction between sites hosted outside their legal jurisdiction and those within it.  Imagine if your browser warned you like this: "You are downloading this file from a site registered in <Country>.  By downloading this file you take full responsibility for complying with US laws regarding trade with <Country>.  Do you want to continue?".  It isn't just information coming in to the US that is the problem either, for years some computer programs could not be exported from the US due to their use of strong cryptography.

The likely effect of continued SOPA-style DNS seizures in the US is the break up of the DNS itself with countries like China doing something similar to block US sites that host information that is considered illegal by the Chinese government.  This type of information ban does not have a good history of being effective, even before the internet made it ridiculously easy to share information.  In 1985 the UK government tried to ban publication of the book Spycatcher.  The book continued to be published in America (and even in Scotland) and so the UK government found itself unable to prevent the information in the book becoming widely known.  More recently the internet has been used to mercilessly break UK court injunctions, most notably concerning the behaviour of a top footballer (soccer player) with a previously clean-living image.  In that case, the campaign to tweet the news in violation of the injunction seemed to gain momentum as an expression of wilful resistance to information censorship.
 
Anyway, SOPA only makes the break up of the DNS more likely.  If, or when -- arguably this break up is already happening with Google now providing an alternative DNS -- it does break up it will be interesting to see which patterns emerge to replace it.

One model is that each country would continue to have its own registry and choose which sources of foreign information its service providers are allowed to provide access to, mandating use of the centrally approved database.  This model of central control will be attractive to some governments but looks impractical in countries where the genie is already out of the bottle.

Alternatively service providers may just take control themselves to compete with Google.  They already field requests for non-existant sites and attempt to provide (sponsored) links to the sites you might have been looking for.  Your ISP could run the system much more like the telephone book/directory enquiries services of the pre-internet age.  Looked at from the point of view of a business, if you want to sell products to an ISPs customers you'll have to pay each and every one of them - this isn't far off what Google is already doing with search terms.  It also provides a way for cable TV operators (who are often also ISPs) to get back in on the act without resorting to 'packet-shaping' to penalise people that won't partner with them.  Developments along these lines make the current system of DNS look very cheap.

But perhaps names don't matter anymore?  The confusion between address and trademark has dogged the DNS anyway and QR codes are rapidly taking the place of the domain name on adverts.  One of the design criteria for URLs was that they could be written on the back of an envelope.  But with printing being so cheap and QR codes being small enough to print on the back of an envelope it doesn't matter what the URL looks like anymore.

Yet another alternative is the 'app' model.  Access to information is increasingly through mobile apps that link directly to information sources on the internet.  The URL is replaced in these models with an icon on the screen of your device.  Businesses will have to pay the store for their listing of course.

Unfortunately, these alternatives may address parts of the problem (such as trademark infringement) but sites still end up being resolved to a network location one way or another.  We know from experience that attempts to control information are not very effective.  If we ignore the cross-border politics behind the DNS we may just destroy the DNS and shift the fight to the network routing layer instead.  That would cause even more trouble.