Thursday, January 19, 2012
An experiment in bypassing censorship of the Internet
by Larry Geller
Yesterday thousands of websites went “dark” in protest of SOPA and PIPA, the two Congressional bills that would set up a mechanism that could be used to shut down websites. I took the opportunity to try a simple experiment to see how easily the proposed censorship could be circumvented. It was mostly successful. I’ll describe the experiment below. Anyone can do this. Geek or nerd credentials are not required.
Ostensibly aimed at protecting intellectual property, the two bills (one in the House, one in the Senate) would put in place a system of censorship similar to that used in some other countries. The bills would allow domains to be easily “seized,” which means removing them from DNS servers used to connect our computers to the websites.
I’m not going to detail the history of these bills or the protests opposing them because readers certainly know about this by now—even Google posted a black box over its logo yesterday. Good information can be found on Democracy Now, for example in today’s segment SOPA: Anti-Piracy or Censorship? Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales vs. Copyright Alliance’s Sandra Aistars (Democracy Now, 1/19/2012).
That segment included part of a TED talk by Clay Shirky (see: Clay Shirky: Why SOPA is a bad idea, TED, 1/2012) which lays out the objection on legal grounds. A snip:
CLAY SHIRKY: Because the biggest producers of content on the internet are not Google and Yahoo!—they’re us—we’re the people getting policed, because in the end, the real threat to the enactment of PIPA and SOPA is our ability to share things with one another. So what PIPA and SOPA risk doing is taking a centuries-old legal content—innocent until proven guilty—and reversing it: guilty until proven innocent. You can’t share until you show us that you’re not sharing something we don’t like. Suddenly, the burden of proof for legal versus illegally falls affirmatively on us and on the services that might be offering us any new capabilities. And if it costs even a dime to police a user, that will crush a service with 100 million users. So this is the internet they have in mind.
DNS blocking is easily overcome, and anyone seriously interested in accessing blocked overseas sites will find out how to do it. The US can block only DNS servers it can control, which means that anyone setting up a DNS server overseas will not be subject to US censorship.
What will happen is that the average web surfer will be denied access to sites until, as Shirky notes, the site operators prove themselves innocent. Considering the expense, websites would most likely simply disappear.
Overseas, a DNS server could continue to link to websites blocked by the US government.
One experimental site I discovered (and this is not an endorsement) is BlockAid. They state, on their home page:
BlockAid or PeerDNS was born following the illegal seizure of various domains by the US government and in the aftermath of the recent ruling against the newest incarnation of Newzbin in the British courts. Our aim is to demonstrate the futility of employing DNS ‘blocking’ methods in the fight against online copyright infringement and thus, as a way of censoring the internet.
Those who use our DNS service will not be prevented from accessing a domain, even after it has been seized. Use of the system is completely free.
The home page links to configuration information—in other words, how to set up your computer to get links from BlockAid instead of from the server provided by your Internet service provider. It’s not as simple as installing a program, but following the instructions step-by-step will work for anyone, I think.
So I did that. I spent most of yesterday hooked up to BlockAid instead of whatever RoadRunner provides. It worked fine, mostly. Towards the end of the day FireFox reported that several websites I had visited earlier were no longer accessible. When I reset my system, they reappeared. BlockAid warns that they are in the beta testing stage, so fair enough.
Also, I had no idea what sites the US was blocking that might appear in BlockAid. Still, they demonstrated that it is possible to provide a DNS service that the US government can’t censor.
Bottom line: even if SOPA/PIPA should become law, the intended problem will not be solved. Even if the US government’s interest in shutting down a site—for example, an illegal gambling site—is legitimate, it’s clear that DNS blocking will not be fully effective.
In America we have a long history of men and women in the military dying for our country to protect the government's right to censor it's people. Wait a minute, that doesn't sound right!