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Paul Vixie on the harm caused by mandated content blocking

Paul Vixie, chairman and chief scientist of Internet Systems Consortium, provides a good discussion of the harm that will be done by mandated content blocking. While the main subject of the article is COICA (Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act), the legislative bill in US, he also touches upon the blocking of TLDs, as is the case with ‘.xxx’.

Countries who want to block certain new IANA TLD’s (and here I’m thinking of .XXX) could do this in-country and force alignment by mandating the use of that country’s DNS system by all in-country ISP’s and enterprises and end users. But even as much chaos as this would create, it’s still not the worst outcome from COICA.

My greatest worry is what people will do to bypass all this junk or to prevent other people from bypassing it. My fellow humans are a proud and occasionally adversarial bunch and they don’t like being told what they can’t do or what they have to do. The things we’ll all be doing to bypass the local DNS restrictions imposed by our coffee shops or our governments or our ISPs will break everything. Where this ends is with questions like “which DNS system are you using?” and “which DNS systems is your TLD in?” which in other words means that where this ends is a world without universal naming. We adopted DNS to get universal naming, and today we have universal naming except inside Network Address Translation (NAT) borders. Universal naming is one of the reasons for the Internet’s success and dominance. If we’re going to start doing stuff like COICA then we should have stuck with a “hosts file” on every Internet connected computer and let every connected device decide for itself what names it recognized.

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Egypt disappears

Given the unrest that has flooded Egypt, it was just a matter of time before something like this happened – most of Egypt’s internet connectivity to the online world has been severed. According to BGPMon,

Looking at BGP data we can confirm that according to our analysis 88% of the ‘Egyptian Internet’ has fallen of the Internet.


Yesterday there were 2903 Egyptian networks, originated from 52  ISP’s. Transit was provided via 45 unique isp’s. Today at 2am UTC, the numbers look quite different, there were only 327 Egyptian networks left on the Internet. These were originated 26 by ISP’s.

This behavior is something that we have been seeing more and more frequently. The latest was the crackdown on the use of Internet during the Tunisian and Iranian unrest. As the penetration and ubiquitous nature of the Internet deepens, we will see it playing a critical role of being the major dissemination and organization medium. Countries in which Internet filtering is currently implemented at a nation-wide level will find it a very “attractive” option to severe the connectivity as a measure of denying the organisers of the “unrest” their medium of choice. This has happened (passively) for years in China, recently in Iran, Tunisian and Egypt and could happen in a majority of Middle Eastern nations where such infrastructure exists.

The OpenNet Initiative map on Internet filtering is very interesting in this aspect. A study done by the same organisation in 2008-2009 found no presence of systemic Internet filtering in place in India, unlike in China, Burma and Vietnam (in Asia). A healthy and unfiltered Internet is turning out to be a key driver for a robust democratic set up. Indian lawmakers should be very cautious when dealing with any proposed plans to place filtering systems on Indian part of the cyberspace.

On a side-note, it is interesting to observe that according to the research conducted by the same OpenNet Initiative, countries like Tunisia uses software developed by American companies for the filtering mechanism. While the export of cryptography is controlled in the US, there does not seem to be any plans to have similar regulation regarding export of software that endangers freedom of expression.

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