Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the principal investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, led an alphabet soup of government agencies in seizing the domain names of 82 Web sites (PDF) that ICE said were ”engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit goods and copyrighted works” (see sidebar). The seizures were accomplished by getting the VeriSign registry, owner of the .com and .net top-level domains, to change the authoritative domain-name servers for the seized domains to servers controlled by DHS.
Regardless of the supposed criminal intent of the affected systems, the seizure without notice of these domain names by US authorities sent shock-waves around the Internet world. It got people’s attention in a much stronger way than version 1 of this enforcement operation had — the first iteration late last June seized the names of nine sites selling pirated first-run movies. Many people woke up to the reality of how vulnerable the DNS is to government meddling.
(More recently, the uproar caused by the WikiLeaks publication of US diplomatic cables — and subsequent attempts to censor the site and/or to hound it off the Internet — have resulted in what developer Dave Winer calls “a human DNS” implemented “in a weird sneaker-net sort of way,” via Twitter and ad hoc bulletin-board sites.)
Within days of the ICE/DHS seizures, at least three separate initiatives to work around the DNS had been announced, and several existing alternatives were highlighted in the ensuing discussion. Let’s take a look at some of these proposals — two to route around and one to supplant the DNS — and some of the obstacles they face.
1. 4LW: 4 Little Words
This new alt-DNS project got a quick boost from the developer communities at Hacker News and Reddit. The idea is to map each of the four numbers in an IPv4 address to one of 256 “little words,” in the Mad Libs-inspired pattern adjective noun verb noun. For example, using an online 4LW generator, 18.104.22.168 (the IP address of the seized domain name torrent-finder.com) becomes simple hair climbs cup. Reddit user armooo created an open source DNS server that returns “A” records using the 4LW protocol. For the example above, visiting http://simple.hair.climbs.cup.4lw.org takes you straight to the site formerly pointed to by the seized domain name. This scheme should continue to work unless 4lw.org itself is compromised, in which case others could copy the source code and put up their own servers; meta-servers could emerge to distribute requests among known 4LW servers; and so on.
2. P2P DNS: Peering Around It
This project has gotten the lion’s share of press attention, because it was initially suggested by Peter Sunde, co-founder of The Pirate Bay. The idea is to create a peer-to-peer alternative to the DNS, and beyond that nothing has been announced. Sunde’s blog post has garnered over 100 comments, most pledging help and some offering concrete suggestions or pointing out similar efforts across the Net. There are active brainstorms in various media and a code repository, which is currently empty. Sunde has promised a press release soon.
3. Project IDONS: Internet Distributed Open Name System
This proposal is by Lauren Weinstein, one of the early developers of what became the Internet and the long-time moderator of the PRIVACY forum (which predates even the widespread existence of email). Weinstein’s vision is of “an alternative Internet name to address mapping system — fully distributed, open source, fault-tolerant, secure, flexible, and not subject to centralized constraints, meddling, and censorship.” Other high-level goals include “no central registries, no registrars, no fees nor charges necessary for any name or address operations across IDONS.”
Weinstein adds in his introduction to IDONS: “Ad hoc attempts to bypass the existing system (such as those newly proposed by Pirate Bay) are likely to create fragmentation and confusion, and therefore ironically tend to further entrench the existing system… ad hoc won’t fly for this.”
In an interview, Weinstain told me he has had a “couple of thousand” responses to the IDONS proposal, ranging from substantive technical suggestions to “Yes I’d like to help.” Weinstein said, “The point is not just to replace the DNS with another DNS. It’s to get out from under a completely limiting condition. Technology is full of these kinds of situations in which we have to get out from under bad early decisions. In the case of DNS, the mistake was centralization. That enables not only censorship, but also the whole gigantic mess that has grown up around domain registrations” — what Weinstein has taken to calling the “domain industrial complex.” He continued, “This is not just a technical project, it’s an attempt to change the underlying mechanisms we use for names on the Internet. It involves policy and politics as well as technology.” And it’s likely to be a 10-year effort or longer.
At this point the project does not have a website or a mailing list. Interested parties can contact Weinstein via his blog.