When the Internet was first created under the auspices of academic and military institutions in the United States, part of the design goal was decentralization so that it could survive damage to arbitrary sections of the complete network. A big concern at the time was the ability of the nascent Internet to continue functioning as a whole even after key sites had been destroyed by nuclear attack.
Years later, in a 1993 TIME interview, EFF co-founder John Gilmore said “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” This has, to some extent, proven true over the years. When small, regional organizations try to impose censorship controls on segments of the Internet, technology seems to almost magically find ways to bypass those controls.
Gilmore’s quote makes things sound a lot more one-sided than they have appeared to be in recent years, however. China gets a lot of press for its “Great Firewall of China”, by which a lot of Internet traffic available around the world is filtered out of availability for residents of China. Some savvy Internet users find ways to get around the filtering, but many do not — and those who do run the risk of getting in trouble with a government widely recognized to treat peaceful protest as a crime. China has reinforced its international reputation with high profile activities like cracking Google security to gain access to information about dissidents.
China is not the only nation-state that has been imposing Internet censorship controls and getting a little bit of press about it. Australia has been subject to some news attention over the ACMA imposition of national Website blacklist filtering, essentially copying China’s national firewall approach. Meanwhile, the US government has taken a different approach, doing things like outlawing gambling sites and having WikiLeaks shut down.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Internet censorship is the central role played by ICANN, a California-based organization whose job it is to perform Internet administrative tasks on behalf of the governments of the United States and other countries. It is nominally independent, but in practice, easily subject to pressure from governmental entities. As the final arbiter of the Domain Name System, and as the top-level policy setter for IP address assignment, ICANN effectively has the ability to shut down any Website it likes. In general, the danger of ICANN interference in the operation of a Website is limited to domain names, because ICANN’s control over IP address assignment is not nearly as fine-grained as its control over domain name resolution.
In the wake of recent troubles surrounding WikiLeaks, it looks like we may get to see a more substantial case of Internet technologies being leveraged to route around “damage” in the form of censorship. Peter Sunde is one of the founders of The Pirate Bay, and his colleagues Carl Lundstrom and Fredrik Neij are joining him in appealing to the Supreme Court of Sweden to overturn a recent judgment against them on issues related to their involvement with The Pirate Bay. In late November, Sunde posted a message to his Twitter account that expresses his disappointment in ICANN:
Hello all ISPs of the world. We’re going to add a new competing root-server since we’re tired of ICANN. Please contact me to help.
He later posted more on the matter in a new Weblog, P2P Dns, in a “hello world” entry:
We haven’t organized yet, but trying to. The background for this project is that we want the internet to be uncensored! Having a centralized system that controls our information flow is not acceptable.
By using existing technology for de-centralization together with already having a crew with skilled programmers, communicators and network specialists, an alternative system is not far away. We’re not going to re-invent the wheel, we’re going to build on existing technology as much as possible.
There will be a press release shortly with more details.
If you’re interested in talking to us, we’re at the IRC channel #dns-p2p on EfNet.
A number of similarly distributed DNS replacements have been proposed, and in some cases even implemented — as in the case of TOR‘s .onion top-level domain resolution — but for one reason or another each has failed to catch on enough to have any hope of rivaling the widespread usage or even recognizability of ICANN’s TLDs. Timing, and the growing recognizability of the Sunde name, might give it a leg up in the search for success by a competing domain name system.
The question, of course, is whether we need a second Internet. Taking a personal look at it, I favor the proposal: yes, we absolutely do need a second Internet. It seems like about every three or four months lately that the United States Congress debates the passage of yet another bill that would effectively censor the Internet in one way or another — including so-called “net neutrality” legislation that achieves nothing like what most advocates of “net neutrality” want, measures that allow the US Executive branch of government to shut down all Internet name service and peering within national borders, and other disturbing ideas. As my significant other puts it, “I don’t want them to screw up the Internet.”
Of course, the technical details of trying to create a “shadow” domain name system are subject to the restrictions of reality. Time will tell whether a truly distributed system is entirely compatible with the kind of organization it takes to have a name resolution system that works. Given the tendency of centralized management as represented by ICANN to undermine the very principles on which the Internet was founded — principles of distributed management and persistence in the face of attacks on its infrastructure — the very existence of the Internet as we know it, as a universally accessible medium for information exchange, may depend on an alternate domain name system’s success.
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