This is how censorship is practiced on the internet
By Charles Miller
The political editorial that ran in this spot two weeks ago brought me several email responses from readers of Atención. For those who might have missed reading the earlier column, I opined that having the United Nations and its agency the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) take over control of the internet was not a good idea. I am happy to report that all the responses I received agreed that “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!”
Some of the questions I received from readers wanted to know more about the technical side of how the internet works in order to be able to better understand the political and policy issues. I am glad to return the subject of this column away from politics and back to technical matters just as I believe in 1998 the Clinton administration was glad to divest the governance of the internet from the US Commerce Department.
The Clinton administration made a wise and far-sighted decision when it created The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as an independent non-government agency responsible for the day-to-day governance of the internet. For the last fifteen years ICANN has done a fair and impartial job of controlling access to the internet, giving equal access to religious organizations and pornographers, law enforcement and terrorists. Until recently ICANN left censorship to the individual nations to control within their own individual borders. The last few years though have seen actions brought by the Obama administration for political reasons to compel ICANN to impose a level of extraterritorial jurisdiction and censorship on internet domains heretofore outside the reach of United States Law.
Continuing with the hypothetical situation posited in the earlier column, let us suppose the Supreme Leader of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prompted by Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei went to the Revolutionary Court of Iran to get a valid court order to shut down web sites accused of being guilty of blasphemy and other violations of Islamic law. Now suppose they take that valid court order to ICANN headquarters in Los Angeles, California and say “You are hereby ordered by the Revolutionary Court to shut down facebook.com, google.com, jerusalempost.com, match.com, twitter.com…”
ICANN says, “Well, we can’t be hypocritical. We blocked the pro-Cuba sites the Obama administration wanted shut down for political reasons, so I guess we should do the same for all the sites the Ayatollahs want shut down for religious reasons.” So ICANN removes the name facebook.com from the root DNS servers.
Within hours thousands of DNS servers around the world synchronize with the root servers and remove facebook.com from their databases too. That does not mean facebook.com goes out of business, it only means that anyone who tries to go to www.facebook.com gets a message saying the site cannot be found. People who know that the numeric address for facebook.com is 126.96.36.199 still would be able to find it.
Some internet providers would add facebook.com back into their DNS databases, and the word would get around to many people that they could type in http://188.8.131.52 rather than the letters and still get to facebook.com. But for a lot of internet users, facebook.com would simply appear to have gone away.
In this abbreviated explanation, this is how censorship is practiced on the internet. The Facebook company would still be there, but their website would be hard for most people to find, that would be most injurious to their business and could have the effect of actually putting them out of business. This is what the Obama administration has forced ICANN to do to some businesses accused of violating the trade embargo with Cuba, and is what ICANN should not continue to condone.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.