One tends to still think of the internet as a sort of dimensionless new frontier, a conceptual un-space hovering somewhere between anarchy and ad-hocracy, beyond the reach of the archons of meatspace… and to a great extent it is. But not entirely, as Homeland Security’s seizure of more than eighty infringing web domains over the past weekend demonstrates*. The protocols of the internet itself are inherently anarchic, but the domain name sytem that sits on top of it (effectively governing how we see the web, and more importantly who we see there) is a classic hierarchy… and ICANN has demonstrated that it knows exactly which side of its monopolistic bread is buttered, so to speak.
So cue the beleaguered co-founder of the Pirate Bay, Peter Sunde, calling for a peer-to-peer replacement for the DNS system. Ars Technica points out that it’s not going to be easy, cheap, or bulletproof:
There are a number of obstacles standing in the way of P2P DNS. First of all, today Google has a huge array of enormous DNS servers to serve up all the *.google.* domains, while I have an aging Pentium 4 box running DNS and mail for just me. In a new system, people looking for Google may hit my server—as well as the other way around, of course. So I’ll have to invest in a bigger server. With a peer-to-peer system, people also have to depend on the kindness of strangers: random people around the Net have to send people in your direction. This is hard to make secure, and it’s much slower than the existing DNS.
But the biggest problem of all is the ownership of domain names. In a DHT, information is found through hashes of the desired object. With file sharing, this is a hash over the file to be shared. If two people want to share the same file, you actually want to find them both, and download pieces from both of them—that way, the download goes faster. But with the DNS, things work much better if a domain name only maps to a single destination.
Today, ICANN and the TLDs decide who gets which domain. The Pirate Bay proposes to replace them with an algorithm, one that would reside in the P2P DNS software. The stakes are high: even a small fraction of the traffic of a popular site, or even just an interesting search term, can be worth a lot of money. It’s hard to imagine that with such high stakes there wouldn’t be any abuse of such an open system, or at the very least, widely diverging points of view of what’s best.
All systems will be abused; gaming the set-up is human nature. Everything can and will be hacked. The question here is who we’d rather was able to play the game: should it be anyone with the energy and wherewithal to learn the ropes, or just the unelected appointees of powerful nation-states?
[ * Good on ya, HS; nothing’s gonna spike the wheels of The Terrorists like preventing people from downloading hip-hop albums for free! ]