Proposed DNS filtering threatens the core protocol on which the Internet's universality depends

As the debate over piracy and copyright infringement on the web hots up in the United States, with the Government seeking to clamp down on intellectual property rights violations online, Internet majors Reddit, Wikipedia and others are planning a complete “Internet blackout” of their services for 12 hours on January 18.

This is in protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), introduced in the House of Representatives last year, and a related legislation in the U.S. Senate, the Protect IP Act.

The way the debate is playing out pits the large media corporations — movie houses, record companies and other IP holders — against ‘Internet users', backed by powerful Internet intermediaries such as Google and Yahoo!, who also stand to lose in a clampdown on websites and services that host content that violates U.S. copyright laws.

Global relevance

Significantly, the proposed law, backed by big business interests, equips the U.S. Government to act against any website hosting content that it believes infringes copyright, even if hosted overseas. This makes SOPA relevant, globally.

The proposed action could involve domain name system (DNS) filtering or blocking, directing advertisement providers and web payment services to stop doing business with the host and preventing search engines from linking to the site. Penalties for simply streaming copyrighted content, such as movies, personal recordings of television shows or even a clipping of your favourite pop song, could be up to five years.

On the technology side, experts have argued that the proposal to allow DNS filtering (or blocking) can potentially weaken and destabilise the Internet. DNS servers convert every request made in a human-friendly languageto an IP address that computers and networks understand. Now what SOPA proposes is that at this DNS server level, when a request is made for “rogue sites”, it is redirected.

Technically, experts believe that this will have huge implications of the stability of the internet. A whitepaper titled ‘Technical concerns raised by DNS filtering requirements', authored by technology experts, claims that while this will promote more techniques to circumvent the DNS, it threatens “the ability of DNS to provide universal naming, a primary source of the Internet's values as a single, unified, global communications network.”

The DNS is a protocol that allows for universality, which lies at the core of the internet, enabling it to grow and become the important, borderless medium it is today. Further, such blocking would make it tough to distinguish between a resolution failure and a request from a hacked server, creating security concerns. It would also be counterproductive to existing Internet security protocols.

‘A firewall'

While opponents of the Bill have attacked it as an attempt to create a “firewall” — akin to or even worse than the infamous one that China has for its citizens — they point out that it is at stark odds with the oft-repeated stance of the U.S. on “Internet openness”.

Companies in the business of providing web services are, understandably, against the law as it allows the Government to block access to any intermediaries that facilitate or host any material that infringe on copyrights. This affects every service that hosts user-generated content.

In an advertisement published in The New York Times, nine internet majors including eBay, Google, Yahoo! And LinkedIn, urged the Government to find “targeted ways” to combat “foreign rogue websites” while preserving “the innovation and dynamism” that make the internet a driver of “growth and job creation”. Ironically, the Government too seeks to address protection of jobs and economic interests through this legislation.

Politics of the Internet

In terms of infrastructure, the U.S. controls critical web resources. Contrasting this to the Chinese firewall that blocks content for users within its jurisdiction, the U.S. decision to redirect a link can act as a “global block”, explains Sunil Abraham, director of the Centre for Internet and Society. Physically, seven of 13 root servers (or clusters) that run the DNS system, are located in the U.S., he points out. So, for an Indian citizen who chooses to record the latest episode of Dexter and stream it online, it means that both his site and the intermediary could be blacked out, in a post-SOPA world. Currently, the IP holder would have to take the trouble of reporting or challenging this in an Indian court, Mr. Abraham explains.

In recent years, countries led by Brazil, India and China have been lobbying for a greater role for multilateral bodies in controlling the Internet. In 2010, the U.S. Government “liberated” the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) from its direct control. But, bringing a law that allows it to come down heavily on “rogues” unilaterally, is being viewed as a step backwards.

For now, all eyes in the tech community are on the legislation, and the many debates surrounding it, which promise to be among the most controversial and interesting ones in technology in recent times.