“Mommy, Mommy, Johnny is Breaking the Internet!”: The Poker Prof and his Full House React to the Protect IP Act–Part 2

[This post is Part 2 of a three part post: Part 1 is A Royal Flush: The Poker Prof and His Full House React to the Protect IP Act–Part 1]

I was both surprised and not to see the phrase “Breaking the Internet’s Infrastructure”  show up in the Professor Letter as the title of their second major argument.  I’d lay even money that Lessig, a/k/a the Poker Prof , came up with that turn of phrase, and here’s why.

I was quite startled by the above video of Lessig circulated by the UK Pirate Party in which the Poker Prof appears to be stamping mad, at least to me.  This video is also the first time I heard the expression “break the Internet.”   I find that phrase to be a rather odd way to express the idea of filtering the Internet specifically and regulating it in general.  “Broken” means to me to render something unusable, as in the dictionary definition “violently separated into parts”.  Clearly no one drafting the Protect IP Act intends to “break” the Internet, and I would venture to say that the Internet is not really susceptible of being “broken”, unlike a toy.  It’s definitely not a toy.

Whatever Lessig meant in the Pirate Party video, “break” seems to me an odd way to refer to something as complex and textured as the Internet.  Using the word “break” to apply to the most fundamental regulation of the Internet to separate good guys from bad guys has a certain child like quality, a kind of Peter Pan element of the boy who never grows old wanting to protect his toys from the threats lurking outside of Neverland, Michael Jackson notwithstanding.

As Lessig tells his audience in the Pirate Party video, “we” (and you can guess who “we” is) should not “break the Internet” to protect “this tiny industry” (i.e., “Hollywood”) and so “Hollywood” should just “get over it.”  Nowhere in his writings is the true contempt that Lessig holds for professional creators more obvious than when he is speaking to his own followers in a semi-private setting.  (The same is true of his tempestuous iCommons speech during which he savaged Brett Cottle and CISAC.)  I never have fully understood how anyone could think of the IP industries as “tiny” or dismiss them as unimportant in quite the way Lessig does with this “ethical nudge.”  I guess compared to Lessig’s benefactors in 3XL Big Tech who routinely stake his action, all industries are “tiny”.

I’ve also heard the expression “break the Internet” come from employees of groups that are also members of the anti-copyright campaigners around the world, but really nowhere else.  To me it invokes the same sort of infantilism that does Google’s many toy motifs–remember, these were the Google lobbyists handing out yoyos to Congressional staff busy trying to save the world economy and manage three wars.

So in a way it made perfect sense for that somewhat silly turn of phrase to show up in the Professor Letter.  But whatever the origin and style of speech, the use is intended to up the ante and make the argument into a big bet game with no limits.  Intentionally trying to destroy the Internet is a serious charge, even for a “tiny industry” like ours.

Here’s the argument the professors make against the “tiny industry” of “Hollywood”:

“If the government uses the power to demand that individual Internet service providers make individual, country-specific decisions [meaning within the jurisdiction of a country’s courts] about who can find what [illegal content] on the Internet, the interconnection principle at the very heart of the Internet is at risk. The Internet’s Domain Name System (“DNS”) is a foundational building block upon which the Internet has been built and on which its continued functioning critically depends. The [Protect IP] Act will have potentially catastrophic consequences for the stability and security of the DNS. By authorizing courts to order the removal or replacement of database entries from domain name servers and domain name registries, the Act undermines the principle of domain name universality – that all domain name servers, wherever they may be located on the network, will return the same answer when queried with respect to the Internet address of any specific domain name – on which countless numbers of Internet applications, at present, are based.”

Now this is an interesting point about DNS filtering.  What’s a little strange about this is that DNS filtering goes on all the time as does blocking of unwanted content.  Paul Vixie, the developer responsible for RBL and DNS RPZ among other innovations, and a well-respected technologist, says the following about the domain name system:

“Most new domain names are malicious.  I am stunned by the simplicity and truth of that observation. Every day lots of new names are added to the global DNS, and most of them belong to scammers, spammers, e-criminals, and speculators. The DNS industry has a lot of highly capable and competitive registrars and registries who have made it possible to reserve or create a new name in just seconds, and to create millions of them per day. Domains are cheap, domains are plentiful, and as a result most of them are dreck or worse.

Society’s bottom feeders have always found ways to use public infrastructure to their own advantage, and the Internet has done what it always does which is to accelerate such misuse and enable it to scale in ways no one could have imagined just a few years ago. Just as organized crime has always required access to the world’s money supply and banking system, so it is that organized e-crime now requires access to the Internet’s resource allocation systems. They are using our own tools against us, while we’re all competing to see which one of us can make our tools most useful….Here, in 2010, I’ve finally concluded that we have to do the same in DNS. I am just not comfortable having my own resources used against me simply because I have no way to differentiate my service levels based on my estimate of the reputation of a domain or a domain registrant. So, we at ISC have devised a technology called Response Policy Zones (DNS RPZ) that allows cooperating good guys to provide and consume reputation information about domain names. The subscribing agent in this case is a recursive DNS server, whereas in the original RBL it was an e-mail (SMTP) server. But, the basic idea is otherwise the same. If your recursive DNS server has a policy rule which forbids certain domain names from being resolvable, then they will not resolve. And, it’s possible to either create and maintain these rules locally, or, import them from a reputation provider.” (Emphasis mine.)

This, of course, should come as no shock to anyone who deals with the day to day reality of stopping digital theft by “society’s bottom feeders”.  As technologist George Ou observes, “The crux of the DNS RPZ proposal is that if IP filtering is effective in blocking spam from a malicious domain, then the same concept can be applied to the malicious websites.  If an IP address has a track record for hosting malicious webpages and domains, there is a high probability that new domains popping up at the same IP address is also malicious.”

So what’s the problem with trying to save “this tiny industry” by IP filtering?  In addressing the DNS filtering requirement of the predecessor legislation to Protect IP, Paul Vixie had this to say:

“I’ve been asked by several people whether ISC’s Response Policy Zone technology…can be used to implement government mandated DNS blocking, for example to protect Hollywood [sic] against intellectual property theft or to protect children against abuse by the distribution and viewing of Child Abuse Materials or to protect a society against content deemed dangerous by its government. Sadly my answer to this is a qualified “yes.”  I say “qualified” because while I can agree that it’s worth perturbing the whole Internet ecosystem to wipe out a domain that’s being used for the distribution of Child Abuse Materials I simply cannot agree that this level of perturbation is warranted for the protection of intellectual property.” (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, “Hollywood” needs to “get over it” as Lessig says.  It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s just that it’s a “perturbation.”  As the professors say, “Moreover, the practical effect of the Act would be to kill innovation by new technology companies in the media space. Anyone who starts such a company is at risk of having their source of customers and revenue – indeed, their website itself –disappear at a moment’s notice.”  No, actually, that’s the Google search algorithm that disappears websites.

But they go on: “The Act’s draconian obligations foisted on Internet service providers, financial services firms, advertisers, and search engines, which will have to consult an ever-growing list of prohibited sites they are not allowed to connect to or do business with, will further hamper the Internet’s operations and effectiveness.”

So they are not going to “break the Internet” to save “this tiny industry” because the “perturbations” would be too great.  Not because they can’t, but because they don’t wanna.

As George Ou concludes, “In response to the [court ordered] domain name seizures in 2010 [by ICE in Operation in Our Sites], content pirates proposed a workaround that would create a new .P2P name space that complements rather than replaces the official IANA system.  The system would be free to operate because it uses peer-to-peer (P2P) distribution and the system would still have its users use IANA for official top level domains like .COM.  It’s also noteworthy that there are hundreds of thousands of private “Intranet” business DNS domains that complement the IANA DNS system.  A pirate DNS system will not endanger the IANA DNS system anymore than the hundreds of thousands of Intranet DNS systems operated by businesses.

Another solution implemented by pirates is the web browser plug-in called MAFIAAFire Redirector for Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.  The plug-in maintains a database of government seized Internet domains so that users can still access those seized domains.  Like the .P2P workaround, MAFIAAFire does not bypass the official IANA DNS system.  Both real world pirate DNS alternatives avoid [the] nightmare scenario of the official IANA DNS system being supplanted.  The theory of DNS fragmentation is simply unfounded.” (Emphasis mine.)

Interestingly, Creative Commons benefactor Google decided to fold on suspicious domains according to Threatpost: “In a rare and sweeping move, Google has removed all of the sites hosted on .co.cc domains from its search results, saying that because such a large percentage of the sites on that freehosting provider are low-quality or spammy, they decided to de-index all of them.  The .co.cc domain is well-known in security and anti-spam circles for being a favorite spot for phishing and spam domains, but there also are legitimate domains hosted there. The .cc country-code TLD belongs to an Australian territory called the Cocos Islands, but the .co.cc subdomain is also used as a freehost that allows anyone to register a domain. There’s a South Korean company that sells subdomains on there, as well.”

The Cocos Islands is where TVshack fled to after being shut down by ICE.  The Australian government told me that they had taken action against that one as well.

Google also made this statement about the de-listing: “…[I]f we see a very large fraction of sites on a specific freehost be spammy or low-quality, we do reserve the right to take action on the freehost as a whole. I think most savvy search/SEO folks would understand this completely….”

Oh, I think anyone with common sense would understand it quite well.  But why isn’t that de-listing also “breaking the Internet”?  Why doesn’t the professoriate hound Google about this as well?  Creative Commons could give you 1.5 million reasons.

And for those who remember the moo.com situation, Google is also able to delist subdomains precisely (when they want to): “To help protect users we recently modified [Google’s malware scanning] systems to identify bulk subdomain services which are being abused. In some severe cases our systems may now flag the whole bulk domain.”

Don’t forget that Google also accidentally delisted the Pirate Bay from search results last year–apparently that didn’t break the Internet, either.

So how exactly is it that DNS filtering, delisting or subdomain delisting is “breaking the Internet”?  Or did Lessig mean the more psychological definition of “broken” to mean “subdued completely” as in giving in to an overwhelming outside influence or external force.  Like giving in to a perceived slight from those “Hollywood” people?  Maybe “breaking” is just about ego.

Professors?  Egos?


Next: Part 3: The End of Truth, Justice and the American Way