Decentralizing DNS: Peers, Infrastructure, and Internet Governance

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1 Decentralizing DNS: Peers, Infrastructure, and Internet Governance Francesca Musiani In late 2010, the WikiLeaks organization made thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables public. It subsequently lost its web hosting company and the wikileaks.org domain. A new wave of interest in creating a competing root-server, able to rival the one administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), was prompted by well-known Internet anarchist Peter Sunde, best known as the co-founder of The Pirate Bay. An alternative Domain Name System (DNS) was envisaged as a decentralized, peerto-peer (P2P) system in which volunteer users would run a portion of the DNS on their own computers. Under this system, any domain made temporarily inaccessible would remain accessible on the alternative registry. Instead of adding a number of DNS options to those already accepted and administrated by ICANN (as OpenNic or NewNet had before), this radical move would supersede one of the main DNS governance institutions, favoring instead a distributed, user infrastructure-based model. Yet, what would it take to reinvent the Internet s phone book? 1 This article outlines the technical, social, and political implications of the decentralized DNS debates. Specifically, it highlights how they propose an alternative model of Internet governance, Francesca Musiani is a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for the Sociology of Innovation, MINES ParisTech. She was the Yahoo! Fellow in Residence at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, Washington, DC (where she has taught in the Master of Science in Foreign Service), and an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. [115]

2 DECENTRALIZING DNS: PEERS, INFRASTRUCTURE, AND INTERNET GOVERNANCE based on greater control by the users: control of technology, and control of political processes. The DNS and governance by infrastructure. The DNS is a hierarchical, distributed naming system for computers, services, or any resource connected to the Internet or a private network. It serves as the phone book for the Internet by translating humanfriendly computer hostnames into IP addresses. That is, it translates domain names meaningful for users into the numerical IP addresses needed for the purpose of locating computer services and devices worldwide. By providing a worldwide keyword-based redirection service, the DNS is essential to the Internet s functioning. The right to use a domain name is delegated to users by domain name registrars; these are, in turn, accredited by ICANN, the organization charged with overseeing the name and number systems of the Internet. An organization of Californian private law and the de facto exclusive manager of one of the most delicate infrastructures of Internet governance today, ICANN is under constant international scrutiny due to its close ties with the United States government and alleged lack of transparency. Dissatisfaction regarding DNS management is hardly new. As a hierarchical system not initially built with security in mind, it is vulnerable to attacks. Control over the system raises further questions and concerns. Many national, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder meetings have discussed issues of control over the root system, which is purportedly de facto managed by the government of the United States via ICANN. 2 As a critical infrastructure of Internet governance, the ways in which DNS is operated have additional policy implications. Its original restriction to ASCII characters, precluding domain names in many language scripts such as Arabic, Chinese or Russian, prompted the introduction of internationalized domain names (IDNs). Furthermore, in 2011, ICANN s board voted to end most restrictions on the generic toplevel domain names (gtld). No longer restricted to 22 domain names, companies and organizations will have the ability to choose essentially arbitrary top-level Internet domains. This change has implications for consumers relationships to brands, as well as the ways in which they find information on the Internet. Additional DNS issues concern the relationship between domain names and freedom of expression, security, and trademark dispute resolution mechanisms, which are all related to broader issues of preservation of democracy and choice of jurisdiction. The United States Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) of 2010 and its successor, the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) of 2011, both draw attention to the potential risks of an Internet controlled via the DNS. Without waiting to bring up COICA for a congressional vote, in November 2010 the U.S. government ordered the cancellation of a number of domain names in defense of the entertainment industry. The previously mentioned WikiLeaks case similarly illustrates the pressures exercised via the DNS, as well as the technical and political risks of concentration and centralization; [116] Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

3 MUSIANI International Engagement on Cyber III As a hierarchical system not initially built with security in mind, [DNS management] is vulnerable to attacks. wikileaks.org was down for days because there was only one DNS hosting that domain. This issue is not specific to the United States. The French government uses the Loi d orientation et de programmation pour la performance de la sécurité intérieure (LOPPSI) [ Law for the orientation and programming of domestic security performance ] the French government could, via the DNS, filter domain names that it perceives as threatening. These recent episodes seem to illustrate what science and technology studies professor and author Laura DeNardis describes as a turn to infrastructure in Internet governance: not governance of the Internet s infrastructure, but rather governance using the Internet s infrastructure. She argues that Internet governance infrastructures are increasingly being co-opted for political purposes completely irrelevant to their primary Internet governance function. 3 It is not self-evident that there is a significant increase in Internet infrastructure co-optation. However, the temporary deletion of the WikiLeaks domain name, along with attempts to enforce DNS-based intellectual property rights, seem to indicate that infrastructure and technical architecture are increasingly important weapons in Internet governance battles. DNS history: search for alternatives and lessons learned. The long-standing controversy regarding the current ICANN-based model and frustrations concerning DNS management have led to the creation of alternative DNS-related projects. Some of these alternative DNS proposals would rely not on different technological approaches, but rather on differences in the structure, organization, delegated tasks, and respective weights of existing Internet governance institutions. 4 Without downplaying the importance of these proposals, this article focuses on projects that seek to build technical alternatives: to implement other root servers to bypass ICANN or existing registrars, or to develop name resolution systems not using the DNS hierarchy. For example, systems based on Distributed Hash Tables (DHTs) provide a lookup service in which the maintenance of mapping information is distributed among the nodes, so that a change in the set of participants causes a minimal amount of disruption. Two noteworthy efforts are the Cornell University DNS safety-net project, CoDoNS, and the decentralized routing system project Netsukuku, based in Italy. 5 New alternative DNS projects should begin by considering why these programs, some of which no longer exist (e.g. CoDoNS or the alternative root Open Root Server Network, ORSN, which was terminated in 2008), have never overcome the status of experimental, niche projects. 6 Without addressing their prede- [117]

4 DECENTRALIZING DNS: PEERS, INFRASTRUCTURE, AND INTERNET GOVERNANCE cessors shortcomings, sooner or later many more such projects are likely to encounter the same fate. One can readily discuss the feasibility and the suitability of a decentralized or P2P DNS from a technical point of view. There are two fundamental operations served by the DNS: name machines. Although alternative mechanisms already currently exist, a number of developers interviewed by the author believe that changing the system of naming and registration seems unrealistic: the present system is already known and adopted by so many users. One of the developers describes these P2P developers recognize that no solution will solve all previously identified problems without creating new ones. registration (the management of the reservation of Internet domain names by different entities) and name resolution (the behind-the-scenes task of converting domain names to their corresponding IP address). Historically, the term Domain Name System refers to both, as though they were necessarily linked. However, this is not the case, despite structural and other similarities in the name registration service and the resolution protocol. 7 The registration mechanism ensures the uniqueness of names, one of the DNS s most important functions, and the resolution mechanism allows a machine to obtain information, such as an IP address, in exchange for a domain name. Thus, it would be possible to replace only one of the two mechanisms, as was the objective of the CoDoNS project. This approach would replace the resolution function with a DHT, while maintaining the registration mechanism in its previous form. The replacement of the resolution mechanism is possible, albeit daunting in that it would require the modification of hundreds of thousands of users as more complicated to update than software, referring to the cumulative, snowballing effect that a critical mass of individuals using an information system has on other individuals. Thus, clarifying the specific goal that a P2P DNS project would address is crucial. Peter Sunde describes the creation of an alternative root, a move that would entail a fundamental evolution in the domain name registration mechanism. 8 Conversely, some developers speak of creating a new toplevel domain name, such as.p2p, while others seek to replace the DNS with a BitTorrent mechanism. Such projects, each with different specifications, currently co-exist under the P2P DNS label. They nevertheless have little in common beyond a technical and political dissatisfaction with the current system, coupled with an interest in P2P technology. What governance for what purpose? This issue is linked to broader questions of which services the DNS presently provides and which interests it serves. The DNS provides unique [118] Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

5 MUSIANI International Engagement on Cyber III names, which can be memorized by a human in a relatively easy way, and can be resolved by a program. Moreover, it has been working for more than twenty years, despite significant changes experienced by the Internet during its evolution from a quiet, symmetrical utopia of passionate intellectuals into a vibrant mass-medium. Several articles on the subject of a decentralized P2P DNS reference the possibility that organizations still running a root alternative, like OpenNic, participate in such projects as alternative instances of governance. 9 If created, such an organization could serve as the registrar of the.p2p domain. 10 However, problems pertaining to concentration, hierarchy, and opaqueness that are present in organizations such as ICANN, VeriSign, or regional domain name managers such as the AFNIC (Association Française pour le Nommage Internet en Coopération, the French Association for Cooperative Internet Naming) would likely shift to OpenNic. 11 Power itself would not dissolve, but would simply shift or transfer from one actor to another. What policy would this new registrar and its registries follow? The proposal made on the OpenNic wiki page hardly allows for optimism. In order to prevent domain name fraud on commonly used domains (for example, Google.), the system would actually favor the large websites that come first in Alexa s ranking. 12 One developer interviewed for this article suggests that an alternative for a new registrar could be a widely distributed group of trustworthy individuals. However, one can also argue that this type of model may be as problematic as a centralized one managed by ICANN, as people may fail to remain honest when entrusted with such authority. 13 Thus, once again, such an approach would not solve the core issues prompting reflection upon a decentralized DNS in the first place, namely concentration and hierarchy. Before moving to another system, all interested stakeholders will ultimately have to consider whether the current system is worth abandoning. P2P developers recognize that no solution will solve all previously identified problems without creating new ones. However, several declarations, especially those following Peter Sunde s project announcement, have sometimes let enthusiasm for a decentralized utopia prevail, even among technical people. 14 To facilitate file search and recovery in a P2P system, one could employ a hierarchical system such as the classical Bit Torrent, whereby the recovery of a.torrent file is achieved through a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), thus, a domain name. 15 Alternatively, the system could work in a completely peer-to-peer, decentralized manner. In this case, no unique names would exist; the same name could refer to two completely different files (which is extremely different from the URLbased system). This is what happens with alternative roots: if there is no single root, the same name can be recorded by two different entities and refer to completely different content. 16 A majority of stakeholders in the DNS system might consider it well worth the potential disadvantages to circumvent or eliminate ICANN. Yet, the important shifts in security and authentication patterns that the P2P DNS would entail are under-represented in online [119]

6 DECENTRALIZING DNS: PEERS, INFRASTRUCTURE, AND INTERNET GOVERNANCE and off-line debates. Only a handful of articles mention these implications explicitly and clearly in a critical manner, noting that the alternative system would not be secure and authenticated like the present system. 17 Unique name registration in a P2P environment, with no need of a central registry, has already been theorized and coded into algorithms. However, its correct functioning is based upon a premise that is very difficult to achieve in real-life P2P contexts, because it requires that all parties must cooperate. Another technical issue that merits consideration is whether the potentially large amount of metadata generated by a P2P approach would subsequently prove unworkable. Issue entailing problems of scalability have greatly been avoided through the hierarchical approach used by the current system. What is gained or lost if the name resolution system is changed? The current DNS is based on over twenty years of experience and interaction with the real world. Any other system would still require years to sufficiently mature and develop. Even then, most systems would likely coexist for a long period of time. Claims of new systems replacing current DNS operators and governance entities in three months are unrealistic. However, the mechanisms based on DHT are technically very interesting, and certainly worth the attention of any ambitious developer. Conclusions: The triple challenge of security, trust and institutions. Alternative, decentralized DNS projects face a number of interesting and important technical, social, and political problems. One such challenge relates to the security of the current name resolution mechanism. The user s confidence in the result of the resolution often arises from the fact that a machine has queried a known server. In a peer-topeer environment, this one-directional validation mechanism disappears, resulting in a scenario whereby any participant node in the system can contribute anything and everything to the DHT, without a server acting as a legitimizing authority on the validity of that information. The CoDoNS project solved this problem by applying Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) to its system, which is a technically correct way to address the problem. The DNS currently functions this way as well. 18 Yet, this solution nevertheless falls short because one has changed only the resolution system. The registration infrastructure and its governance remain the same, with all the accompanying flaws. 19 Moreover, there is increasing evidence that achieving complete security may prove impossible in a pure P2P environment. 20 In the event that any of the decentralized DNS projects mature to the stage of a relevant user appropriation, the crucial issue may become the trust of users in their peers. As one developer points out, with the current setup, we are putting our trust in the DNS servers like OpenDNS, Google DNS etc. to point us to the right direction when we want to access a website. With the scheme that P2P-DNS is proposing, we will have to rely on others in the network to direct us. It is one thing to trust OpenDNS, Google etc. but completely another thing to do the same with a random computer. 21 [120] Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

7 MUSIANI International Engagement on Cyber III This paper has focused largely upon a number of practical and technical challenges to the P2P DNS projects, namely those involving choices of design and innovation. However, it concludes by pointing out a different kind of issue, one which may constitute the real conundrum of these alternatives. The original questions that have caused P2P DNS proposals to proliferate are deeply political; they concern control, freedom, and censorship. Institutional evolution should eventually accompany technical solutions to controversial issues that comprise a political component, lest one reduced the governance of the Internet to a war of surveillance and counter-surveillance technologies, of infrastructure co-optation and counter-co-optation. Governance employing Internet infrastructure, if it does not happen via the DNS, will happen either via the Border Gateway Protocol or via some of the many IP filtering mechanisms that proliferate in today s network of networks. 22 The Internet may indeed find ways, as often claimed, to treat censorship as damage and route around it; technical design choices are as political as any law laid down on paper. However, in the long run, more organic and sustainable solutions to serious problems such as human rights violations via the Internet are likely to be achieved through the capacity of Internet governance institutions to engage in self-reflection and criticism of their means, their aims, and their delicate roles in the management of today s foremost global facility. [121]

8 DECENTRALIZING DNS: PEERS, INFRASTRUCTURE, AND INTERNET GOVERNANCE NOTES 1 The author organized a conference on the topic at Georgetown University on 19 April For more information, please visit the following website: isd.georgetown.edu/files/yahoo_2013_reinventing. pdf. 2 Jonathan Weinberg, ICANN and the Problem of Legitimacy, Duke Law Journal 50, no. 1 (2000): ; Susan P. Crawford, The ICANN Experiment, Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law 12 (2004): Laura DeNardis, The Turn to Infrastructure for Internet Governance, Concurring Opinions Blog, Internet, archives/2012/04/the-turn-to-infrastructure-forinternet-governance.html 4 A few of these more political proposals, despite the fact that they originate in countries not usually associated with openness and freedom on the Internet, seem to resonate with the interests and goals of P2P advocates: for example, the International Code of Conduct for Information Security (http://www.fmprc. gov.cn/eng/wjdt/wshd/t htm) emphasizes the need for multi-lateral, transparent, and democratic features in a DNS governance institution. 5 CoDoNS Project Website, edu/people/egs/beehive/codons.php; Netsukuku Project Website, 6 Arvind Narayanan, Vincent Toubiana, Solon Barocas, Helen Nissenbaum & Dan Boneh, A Critical Look at Decentralized Personal Data Architectures, Internet, 7 The two mechanisms are standardized in two Requests for Comments (RFCs) of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the memoranda describing methods, behaviors, research, or innovations applicable to the working of the Internet and Internet-connected systems. The two RFCs, 1034 and 1035, are available at and at (accessed 29 July 2013). 8 Iljitsch Van Beijnum, Fed Up With ICANN, Pirate Bay Cofounder Floats P2P DNS System, Internet, 9 Visit for more information. 10 Visit dotp2ptld for more information. 11 AFNIC is a non-profit corporation created in 1997 in order to operate a number of French TLD names, including.fr.; VeriSign is a Virginia-based company that operates a diverse array of network infrastructure, including two of the Internet s thirteen root name servers, as well as the authoritative registry for the.com and.net TLDs. 12 Alexa is the Amazon subsidiary that provides traffic data, global rankings, and other information on 30 million websites as of Stéphane Bortzmeyer, Un DNS en pair-àpair? Internet, html 14 Duncan Geere, Peter Sunde starts peer-topeer DNS system, Wired, 2 December 2010, Internet, peter-sunde-p2p-dns 15 A Uniform Resource Locator is the character string that constitutes a reference to an Internet resource. 16 IETF, Request for Comments 2826, Internet Architecture Board s technical comment on Unique DNS Root, Internet, rfc Devin Coldewey, Peter Sunde Seconds the Idea of an Alternative Root DNS, TechCrunch, 29 Nov. 2010, Internet, peter-sunde-seconds-the-idea-of-an-alternativeroot-dns/ 18 The Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) is a suite of IETF specifications for securing certain kinds of information provided by DNS. It is a set of extensions to DNS which provides origin authentication of DNS data, authenticated denial of existence, and data integrity. The DNSSEC basically attempts to add security, while maintaining backwards compatibility, to a system the DNS whose original design as a scalable distributed system did not include security. 19 DNSSEC uses the DNS tree structure for validating signatures. 20 For example, one that does not entrust any of its components, i.e. super-nodes, with any special oversight or management function over the system. 21 Digitizor Blog, The Pirate Bay Co-Founder Starting a P2P-Based DNS to Take On ICANN, Internet, 22 The Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) is the protocol used to make core routing decisions on the Internet; it involves a table of IP networks or prefixes, which designate network reachability among autonomous systems. IP filtering techniques control the incoming and outgoing network traffic by analyzing the data packets and determining whether they should be allowed through or not, based on a predetermined rule set. [122] Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

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