The more tech-savvy probably noted with passing interest the news blip this last week by Peter Sunde, co-founder of The Pirate Bay, a notorious website for finding BitTorrent .torrent files for everything from public domain books to copyrighted music, video, and warez of a new peer-to-peer Domain Name System in response to recent US authoritarian action in seizing domain names. The specific instance that is causing so much cyberangst is the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement bowing to the pressures of media giants have shut down RapGodfathers.com. By “shut down”, these enforcement agencies didn’t just confiscate server equipment, they actually seized DNS hostnames assigned by their registrar, through ICANN. Long has the rest of the world complained that IANA and ICANN, bodies that assign all sorts of global numbering and addressing schemes, are puppets of the U.S. Government, and even a number of the American tech crowd that the actions of these bodies over time are counter to the perceived free and open nature of the Internet.
While DNS isn’t that important from a purely technological networking perspective, that is, it is simply a redirection service, almost no denizens of the web could find Google, Facebook, or Bing without it. DNS is a protocol that allows a simple name, such as example.com to be translated into an IP address, serving the role of a phone book of sorts. I’ll have to admit, just as I’d probably lose all my friends if I lost my EVO, since I depend on my address books over memorized phone numbers these days — I only know some of Google’s servers, my work, and my home IP address by heart, but for everything else, I’m dependent on DNS to tell me (and my browser) where to find things. In response to ICE’s attack on the perception that domain names should not be commandeered by governments, Sunde has started a project to offer up an alternative DNS service over peer-to-peer networks, to remove the ability for corporations or governments to seize domains. Unlike failed ‘alternate root’ schemes in the past, this shift in technology would, as the thought goes, allow the domain name resolution service to be operated by consensus. In such a world, ICE couldn’t have seized RapGodfathers.com domain, nor could any corporation with a similar name as a private individual file a copyright claim to take a domain name away from them. Do we have a fundamental right to allow the public to sign off on who gets to hold what URL properties?
The rhetoric on the issue has been amusing at best and eye-rolling at worst, when people like Keir Thomas make outlandish claims that an alternate DNS scheme will be ‘heartily embraced by terrorists and pedophiles’. Sadly, such claims showcase the true lack of technical understanding about how the networking protocols of the Internet actually work. Coming back to my phone book analogy, a P2P DNS scheme would be akin to GOOG-411 providing phone numbers instead of my local phonebook (which sits unused, now 5 years old, mind you): Anyone can one a phone number or IP address, but the way you resolve a name to a number doesn’t really, on a true technical level, change anything about who controls access and availability to resources. If I could configure my computer to point cocacola.com to illegal content, that doesn’t change the fact the content was out there to point to in the first place, nor does it make it any easier to find for those not seeking how to access it.
The real threat is when governments start mandating control over a protocol that hasn’t yet become a household name — BGP. Around in some form since 1982, BGP doesn’t translate human-recognizable names into network numbers, it actually describes where to route those numbers. When the Great (Fire)wall of China censors where its citizens can go, it does so by dictating that the numbers it doesn’t want you to dial call non-existent places, or more realistically in the network world, that the paths to route your request to are wrong or dead-end. Back to the analogy, controlling BGP is the end-game on the Internet– instead of taking over the phone book’s printing presses, you take over the phone company’s switching stations themselves. For those wishing to make the Internet more autonomous and decentralized, the future to securing the existing global communications network from superpowers’ total control lies in alternatives to BGP, not DNS.
However, P2P BGP isn’t going to happen, because as DNS instructs your computers where to go to find information, an attribute you can control yourself, BGP instructs your ISP’s routers where to get their information, and you won’t ever control their hardware. And really, the fundamental issue is there’s no clear way to keep the current networking stack of protocols we collectively call the Internet free and open, as we like to believe it should be. Instead, for those wanting to leverage the crowd to free the Internet from tyrannous regimes or powerful special interests, your best bet for the future is Freenet or Tor, layers that sit on top of the Internet’s infrastructure and provide their own. They route requests and traffic through a “tunnel-atop-the-tunnels” approach that cannot be easily discerned nor controlled. If the history of Internet governance has taught us anything, it’s that if something can be controlled, the wrong entities end up controlling it. The approach that Freenet and similar onion routing networks take is to remove control and technologically favor independent voices. Instead of writing new technologies like P2P DNS to address yesterday’s problems, I heartily recommend those with the interest and aptitude look into key-routing networks like Freenet, which by their very design prevent eavesdropping and circumvent traditional control mechanisms. Just in their awkward teenage years, these will be the technology tools of digital patriots in the future, not P2P DNS on a network protocol stack that is increasingly being pulled out of the grasps of its grandfathers and architects.
I will have to commend Sunde’s efforts though, on the principal that if you do some Google keyword searching, ICE’s seizure of RapGodfathers.com was only a spec on the web’s map until Sunde’s project was announced. Raising awareness of who holds the keys to the words we write, read, and share is paramount in a world where most of the people who write, read, and share their thoughts over the Internet are generally otherwise without a clue to how their ideas are allowed or blocked by the powers above.