Saturday, January 14, 2012

The DNS is not a right. Oh yes It is. Oh no it isn't. Oh yes it is...

There has been a debate in the public recently about this. On the one
hand, the Interweb evangelist for the Houyhnhnms Corporation
has claimed that the DNS is not a right. On the other hand
Lord Waterloo of Sandwich has claimed that it is. On the other hand (if
you're a monkey like me) I claim this is just a bit more subtle than
either of these thinly disguised gentlemen admit.

Cory Doctorow of Boing-Boing fame has made a passionate plea
to comprehend the nature of arbitrary restrictions that various
agencies are trying to impose on General Computing, and, by extension,
on the end-to-end services of the Internet, in the name of Security or

See this link for the video of his talk
at the Chaos Computer Convention at the end of 2011.

The core of his argument is that computers embody Turing machines,
which of course are, as Alan Turing pointed out, capable of arbitrary
computations. Placing extreme (e.g. remove any arbitrary recursion or iteration, or simply remove ability to re-programme) restrictions on these (reducing them to a mere
appliance capable of a single task) throws away their fundamental
value (adaptability/shared use). Anything less in restriction will
always be surmountable.

By analogy, the Internet is the most general form of communications
network one can envisage. The famous hour-glass model partly illustrates this. Previous attempts by vested interests (i.e. telcos) to control the vertical stack led to stovepipe monopolies with a tip of a pyramid. By contrast, the narrow waist of the hourglass allows arbitrary channels below, and an arbitrary inverted pyramid (a very wide divergence) of heterogeneous applications above.

Recently, various aberrations caused both by bad luck (lack of IPv4 address space) and bad design (lack of decent end system security) have appeared in the deployed internet. Because the core must still maintain some end-to-end services, workarounds for these aberrations (NATs, Firewalls, other broken-middle-boxes) always manage to appear. As (I believe) J. Noel Chiappa once said,
the Internet will route around damage.

So the only way that the Internet can be restricted as a right is to
make it a narrow pyramid structure rather than an hour glass - i.e.
remove the "Turing Complete" nature of the service.

Now, there are arguments for the agencies policing laws and carrying out intelligence services doing various things on the net to make sure that other human rights are not abused. However, these do not require the stunning of the Internet technology so that it can't provide an arbitrary range of technical communication activities. Such laws (and ethics) require those agencies to look at what people say (write) and do, in the same way they always have. And the require all of us as users to behave responsibly too.

So why have I titled this piece "The DNS is not a right". Well because
this is a reductio ad absurdum. It is well known that one of the most
extreme ways to route around damage is to run IP over DNS queries and
build a DNS server that de-capsulates the (Unicoded) IP packet from
the DNS Lookup and forwards it on native. To remove this capablity
would require an agency to own all the DNS servers in the world. Or to
remove the DNS itself.

To illustrate another aspect of the problem, lets think about
TCP-friendliness. TCP-friendliness is not a right. That is true -
you can send traffic in an uncontrolled way. However, pretty soon,
your ISP might disconnect you. or charge you a lot of money. Its not
that you can't send TCP-unfriendly traffic. Its just irresponsible.

And that's no joke.

You'll notice that I have not gone on to discuss different
notions of what a "right" is. There are some pretty important, but
subtle differences between what is considered a right in the
Bill of Rights that the US employs, versus other notions of Universal Human Rights such as those in the
UN declaration on same topic. US rights are operationally encoded
in the constitution, and crucially controlled by a set of checks and
balances. These are sufficient to understand that the same approach
can be taken to providing a TCP-friendly, Human Readably Named
Internet, that can embody the abstract notion of the Right to
communicate freely with whomsoever we wish on any subject they care to
hear about, in a concrete technology that is the communications
equivalent of a Turing Complete Difference Engine.


1 comment:

geocliks said...

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misery me, there is a floccipaucinihilipilification (*) of chronsynclastic infundibuli in these parts and I must therefore refer you to frank zappa instead, and go home