Ok, so you probably think I’ve been banging on about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) too much. After all, you may say, America has always been a bit of a crazy place and us lot in the rest of the world should just let the Americans get on with it. The problem is that what goes on in America has a profound impact on the rest of the world. The obvious one is that the American police state could result in another world war. Perhaps a less obvious one is that most of the internet’s infrastructure and key businesses are under US jurisdiction.
Later this month the muppets on Capitol Hill are likely to pass another set of jolly laws, embodied in the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act. These Acts are purportedly to stop online piracy. All well and good, but there’s a much darker side to it. Here’s what Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has said about these Acts (see here)…
The bills give the U.S. government and copyright holders extraordinary powers including the ability to hijack DNS and censor search results (and this is even without so much as a proper court trial). While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don’t believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.
The DNS that Sergey Brin mentions stands for ‘Domain Name System’. To cut the technical stuff, DNS basically is the address system for web sites (www.google.com or bbc.co.uk for example). DNS is controlled by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) which are both under US jurisdiction. I will use this humble blog to show the implications of this: look up at the address bar of your browser and you’ll see that my domain name is www.spiderbomb.com (.com is controlled by VeriSign, an American company). Supposing the US Government doesn’t like what I say in this blog (ha!), once these Acts are passed they’ll have the power to revoke my domain name. What this means is, when you type ‘www.spiderbomb.com’ into your browser it won’t work anymore; you’ll get a notice from the US Government or a redirect (probably to a government propaganda site, which could even be a mirror of this blog). Bear in mind that I’m a UK citizen who lives in France and I haven’t broken any laws in those two countries.
The revoking of domain names has already started, even before the SOPA and the PROTECT IP Acts have been passed, which means that it has been going on totally illegally. Most of the revoked domains are pirate sites, yet there’s a worrying trend that it’s extending beyond that. For example, in 2008, Steve Marshall, a British guy who runs a travel agency in Spain, had his company domain names revoked by the US Government (see here). Apparently, Marshall had found a way for US tourists to visit Cuba (for many years now the US Government has banned its citizens from travelling to Cuba). Marshall was able to get up and running again by using a .net domain through a European registrar; and this is where it gets complicated, because control of the internet is not only about who handles the DNS numbers, it is also about domain registrars and companies that host web sites. Bottom line, though, is the DNS numbers, which are controlled by American organisations (they could still shut down Marshall again if they wanted to).
In recent years there’s been calls for the DNS system to be handled by the United Nations. America has resisted this. Now, with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act everyone is panicking, including the European Union, who have recently issued a resolution stressing “the need to protect the integrity of the global internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.” (see here) If these Acts are passed we will find ourselves in the situation of having the entire internet controlled by a police state, America. If this does happen the free world will have to create its own internet. I wonder what Tim Berners-Lee makes of it all?