I had drafted much of this entry before it was reported in the mainstream media over here, sadly my failure to complete it has led to being behind The Guardian who published an article about this online on October 12th. Technology is now so tied up with our everyday lives that even technophobes are forced to enjoy/endure items and services on a daily basis. Whether it be a mobile phone or a powerbook computer or your way of accessing the internet by ADSL or Wireless routing. there may be many of you who think you don’t know about technology, but you are here using the net, something which only 10 years ago was relatively new to anyone outside IT or Education. You may well be blogging, again an activity as yet still undiscovered by many. And like as not you’ve had to configure your computer and your web browser not to mention your email client or your anti-virus SW and the more ambitious may have played around setting up DMZs and VPNs and all sorts of holes in the firewall for peer to peer file sharing or online gaming!

You may not know what the terms mean but that doesn’t mean you may not have experience in such configurations, if you ever used Napster in the old days then you’ll have done the peer to peer. It just means direct share and transfer between 2 specific computers rather than with the aid of servers and such like.

Up to now because of the relatively amorphous nature of the internet there has been the perception of something of a laissez-faire attitude to legislation. This perception may well be misleading. Certain core elements of the internet are not as free as you might think. Take the example of DNS.

Now before you switch off DNS is something you all use you just may not know what it does. As a quick explanation let’s say you have come here via redbaron.blog-city.com. Now my BC site does not just exist, the information that pertains to it lives on a machine usually a web server. This machine however is not called redbaron.blog-city.com so how does your browser know how to find my web page? The web server is a machine connected to the internet via an IP address which is like a house number and postcode all in one. These IP addresses are unique. The DNS service links what you type into your browser to what the IP address is. For example I could go to my computer and type 17.112.152.32, I could choose to do it this way and it would in fact work but it’s not exactly catchy, http://www.apple.com is substantially easier, but they are one and the same. A DNS server is what holds the records to tell each computer when it launches a connection that http://www.apple.com is in fact the machine located at 17.112.152.32. Think of it as a phone book. I want to call Tony Blair to tell him he’s a twat but I can’t pick up the phone and say Tony Blair and be connected I have to know the number that corresponds to where he lives the phone book is a record that matches names to numbers and this is like DNS.

Ok that was the techie bit now my actual point, the DNS system is currently controlled by….. oh yes you’re ahead of me, the US government. Recently there was an agreement that they would hand autonomous control to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) based primarily in California however they have reneged on the deal and ICANN remains under Department of Commerce control, that decision has been taken at commander in chief level ie the chimp. Check this one out for some details. Now whilst it may be pointed out that thus far the D.O.C. has not directly interfered with ICANN, this does not prove any tacit pressure that may apply from no more complex a fact than you don’t bite the hand that feeds you so to speak.

The actual implications of this in fact mean that the US govt. retains the power to block top level domains from countries it does not approve of as well as blocking any future top level domains such as for the use of porn sites etc. This is profoundly a bad thing whatever you may think of these countries/web sites and porn in general because at the moment there is no line drawn as to where such control should stop and thus any control at all excercised by the US would be the thin end of a very large wedge indeed. It means that a very important backbone of the internet that is supposedly that free flow of information is in fact under direct control and not just benignly left to get on with it but actively involved hence the chimp’s walking away from the original agreement.

What you have to remember is that the servers that contain the DNS information must be updated regularly to reflect changes and new domains etc. There are 13 of these servers in total and Root Server A is the primary one. It is regulated by Verisign a company in the US and one subject to the controls of the US Department of Commerce. Root Server A is the server whereby changes are made, it then hands down the details to the other 12 main servers. As an example of what could conceivably happen read this article which details how Libya was removed from the internet for 3 days because of a dispute between 2 people. Furthermore a more well-known example is that of 2003 during the initial phases of the Iraq war when visitors to Al-Jazeera’s websites found themselves rerouted to a pro-war website. This was allegedly carried out by hackers who were able to modify the records on Root Server A. Doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence as to the security of perhaps the most important single server on the internet

Now within this whole affair you have to bear in mind that the top spammers in the world are based where exactly? Well, the top 2 are in Florida for starters and they account for well over 70% of all the spam sent. Have the US government sought to control this traffic at all, not a bit of it, can any other country exact any control over it, no because of course the US does not permit international legal institutions to encroach on its own national sovereignty (kind of ironic when you think how much the US like to encroach on everyone else’s national sovereignty).

The importance of the DNS situation is underlined now by the EU’s attempt to mediate some deal to prevent countries such as China, Russia, Brazil and some of the Arab states from operating their own DNS setups which would fragment the uniformity of the DNS system. Whilst I have heard this referred to as the possible ‘death of the internet’ I believe this is rather typical media hyperbole, however their is little doubt that it would undermine the general efficiency of the internet as a user experience. Think of it as if you had the Yellow Pages which contains most of the numbers you may need but not all of them, you might have to have another 2 or 3 books for total coverage. It is an annoyance and wastes unecessary time. Of course those that run the Yellow Pages will still tell you they are the ones with the vast majority of numbers so you should use their reference, just as in this case the US will tell you that their Department of Commerce has not interfered with ICANN and has no intention to do so and still remains the most established and technical form of DNS. When all is said and done it is the same arrogance that the US has applied to so many other facets of their policies, remember you are ‘either with them or against them’ and doubtless they will see this attempt to mediate a solution as another attack on their sovereignty.

At this point since we’re on the technical topics, I should mention the ‘clipper chip’ which you can find out about it in detail here. I remember the furore about the Clipper Chip as I had just started University in 1993 and was using Unix terminals to access email and the like. There were a number of us watching the developments in the US with interest knowing that the slightly more open process going on over there was doubtless mirroring a more covert one over here no doubt stamped with the Official Secrets Act from its very inception.

The premise of the Clipper Chip was simple it is basically a backdoor to electronic information such as email and web content. What the US government wished to do was to create a legal requirement to provide this backdoor to all user accounts and electronic information. This is in addition to ‘listening posts’ like Menwith Hill where the US filters all cellular phone conversations and emails etc. The timing of the clipper chip was in the days when outside governments only those of us in academic campuses and such like had widespread access to email. There were companies in the IT sector and the occasional others but in 1993 for example it was definitely not the norm in this country to have a home computer with internet access. In fact I think I rigged up net access at home first in 1998.

Looking at these restrictions on actual freedom you’d be forgiven for thinking that the internet far from being the haven of liberty some would like to make out that it is, the infrastructure has the ability to lock-down far more if it is deemed necessary by the powers that be. We should not be surprised by this when you consider who brought us the internet in the first place.

Song Of The Day ~ The Departure – Dirty Words

Original Comments:


Jay made this comment,
true, true, Red Baron. The US govt. also is able to track all online activity, and is cautioned when someone does something stupid online, like buying porn. Just kidding, only if you buy nukes online.
comment added :: 21st October 2005, 10:24 GMT+01 :: http://spongeblog.blog-city.com

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