By: Wing Chan, writing for The Science in Society Review
The new year was welcomed with fireworks, celebrations and a striking unconventional public protest: a virtual demonstration. A massive demonstration without a physical presence, but instead with crowds of websites, most notably Wikipedia, Wired and Google US, restricting their content as an illustration of what might happen should the US Government’s proposed SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) legislation come into force. The online technology news website Wired took a very visual interpretation of the “blackout” by replacing all of its images and text with blacked out rectangles as if their whole site had been “redacted”, a common form of censorship.
For 24 hours, web users worldwide frantically struggled to find ways to access Wikipedia’s content, as the online encyclopaedia has become the de facto source of information for millions of students and the general public.
The actions of these websites and the thousands of users behind it were a response to SOPA and PIPA that were going through the US congress at the time. However, a major issue raised was not with the efforts of the government to Stop Online Piracy, but instead with proposals in these bills to fundamentally alter the mechanics of the web. It is these mechanics that have enabled sites like Wikipedia to become so successful in such a short time.
One of the mechanisms of the Internet that makes Wikipedia’s user base so large is that of free access. Wikipedia is just one example of how the technology industry has upset many long-held business models of industries such as publishing, music, video and games. Wikipedia provides an ever-updating encyclopaedia, with accuracy comparable to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, yet online, searchable, and free. When Skype became popular, it threatened the traditional telephone model by offering free calls over the internet to anyone also using Skype. BitTorrent and other P2P (peer-to-peer) systems allowed the sharing of any type of file,. These technologies have undermined the profits of the entertainment industry, and as a result, groups such as RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) have fought back through legal action in courts and also in changing legislation. These industries have eventually adapted to the new reality, although often they have had to share their profits with companies like Apple and Amazon for their content distribution service.
Another key mechanism is universal access. With the exception of restrictive countries such as Syria, North Korea and China (with its infamous “Great Firewall”), anyone with a device which has an internet browser can visit Wikipedia, either as a reader, an author, or even both. This has enabled collaborative editing and sharing on an unparalleled scale. However, both SOPA and PIPA propose methods for dealing with online piracy which aim to undermine universal access. It may seem at first glance that these acts may turn America into one of those restrictive countries, which although sad, does not affect users in Western Europe or elsewhere. However, this could not be further from the truth. Canadian company Bodog had their domain name (Bodog. com) taken over by U.S. authorities. This was legally possible because all hostnames ending in .com, .net, .cc, .tv and .name are controlled by VeriSign, which is a U.S. company. While it is possible for companies to take their websites over to other domains, such as .co.uk, or more exotic places like .tk, this also makes it harder for users to ascertain the legitimacy of the websites they visit. It is partly because of the regulation of the .com and .net domains that people trust them more than other domains, but now the regulation provides an expectation of web security also coupled with protection of the profits of the entertainment industry.
Another key internet mechanism is search. Search engines such as Google and Bing, as well as news aggregators like digg.com, have become essential in allowing us to meaningfully access so much data. PIPA threatens the integrity of such tools by forcing them to block websites deemed to be illegal from showing up in their results. This means that even if a website were to move over to a domain outside of U.S. jurisdiction, unless you knew the address, you would not be able to find it.
These bills would also have had an impact on the Domain Name Service (DNS), which is the directory service for the Internet. One of the key challenges of the internet is to connect two systems, which may be on the same computer, in the same room, or even on the other side of the world. To do this, every computer (including laptops, phones, tablets, and so on) is given a unique IP address. It is a testament to the growth of the internet that the current naming system, called IPv4, is quickly running out of addresses. Its successor, IPv6, is slowly being rolled out, but the switchover is not likely to happen for a while.
The designers of DNS decided that they needed it to be a distributed system, built to cope gracefully with failure. As a result, they mandated that there would be many servers that held small portions of the address book all around the world. This address book is very important practically, because humans are generally not good at remembering lists of numbers but are happy remembering www.ebay. com.
In order to interact with the DNS system, internet devices usually ask their ISP to make the request for them. As a result, the websites that are accessible to us are restricted based on what our ISP allows us to see. SOPA has been heavily criticised for its proposed changes to the DNS, which would allow the Attorney General to force ISPs to block or filter DNS requests for certain websites, thus breaking the key element of trust in the DNS system. In this scheme, users would no longer be able to distinguish between websites that were blocked, or websites that no longer existed. Furthermore, these websites still may exist, thereby forcing desperate users to keep and even propagate lists of mappings themselves, which circumvents the purpose of DNS.
That itself will create a dangerous environment for users, since these lists cannot be trusted and may be directed to replicas (with criminal intent). However, the greatest threat of the legislation is to DNSSEC. This is a new extension of DNS that provides greater security. DNSSEC provides cryptographically signed mappings from hostnames to IPs which criminals cannot alter without being detected. Under SOPA, this gives the Attorney General the legal right to sue any entity which attempts to circumvent the blocking order. Part of the DNSSEC requires web browsers to search many DNS servers (even looking overseas) until they find an authoritative DNS server which can return the correct IP address. The browser’s repeated searching can easily be interpreted under the legislation as an attempt to circumvent the blocking order. This will force browsers to not use DNSSEC, despite it being a key next step towards improved security for the internet.
On January 12, 2012, after much protest, the portion of the bill related to DNS redirection was taken out of SOPA in an attempt, some might say, to the keep the bill alive. The battle between proponents of the bill and its opponents continues. However, just as PIPA was a re-write of an earlier bill, the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA), many expect similar bills to emerge in due course.
- BBC Technology Team. Wikipedia joins blackout protest at US anti-piracy moves [Internet]. 2012 [updated 2012 Jan 18; cited 2012 Apr 10]. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16590585
- David Kravets. Uncle Sam: If It Ends in .Com, It’s .Seizable [Internet]. 2012. [updated 2012 Mar 6; cited 2012 Apr 10]. Available from: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/03/feds-seize-foreign-sites/
- Darren Pauli. Pacific atoll a phishing haven [Internet]. 2011. [updated 2011 Apr 27; cited 2012 Apr 10]. Available from: http://m.zdnet.com.au/pacific-atoll-aphishing-haven-339313909.htm
- Maurice de Kunder. The Indexed Web [Internet]. 2012. [updated 2012 Apr 2; cited 2012 Apr 10]. Available from: http://worldwidewebsize.com/
This is an excerpt of an article that was originally published in The Science in Society Review, a sister publication of The Triple Helix Online. Wing Chan is a student at Cambridge University. Contact us to read the original article, and follow us on Facebook.