Protecting Domain Name Servers

“As a believer in the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive capitalist system, I can’t blame a businessman who goes to Washington and tries to get special privileges for his company. He has been hired by the stockholders to make as much money for them as he can within the rules of the game. And if the rules of the game are that you go to Washington to get a special privilege, I can’t blame him for doing that. Blame the rest of us for being so foolish as to let him get away with it’’ — Nobel Prize Winning Economist Milton Friedman.

As Friedman observed the goal of business people is to make money. There are a couple of ways they can do this. One is to create products and services that meet the needs of consumers at least as well or better than others. The second is to use government to limit consumer choices to maintain a business model after it is no longer competitive.

A clear case of this is recent actions by the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy who sponsored the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). Groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America, Walt Disney, and Time Warner have pushing for greater enforcement of anti-copyright infringement laws. It is no coincidence that such groups are the top political contributors to Leahy (an other co-sponsors of the bill).

Now the enforcement of copyrights is noble work, but in this case this noble purpose is subordinating the free and open structure of the Internet and an indirectly threatening free speech. The are legal remedies for dealing with web sites that illegally publish copyrighted material, However, organizations like the RIAA want swifter and less procedurally encumbered mechanisms to bring down such sites. However, one person’s encumbrance is another person’s due process.

The COICA is sweeping in the power in grants the Department of Justice. Domain Name Services are the phone book of the Internet. They provide the means for converting the name of the web site (i.e., to the associated IP address. Without domain names services, navigating the Internet becomes far more cumbersome. Under the provisions of the COICA, if the the Department of Justice decides that copyright infringement is the central purpose of a site, then the site’s listing in the DNS servers of US-based Internet service providers can be removed or blacklisted. Effectively, without the intervention of a court, the Department of Justice has plenary power to silence any Internet site.

While is probably true that under most administrations such power would not be stretched to silence critics, it is not the sort of power a free society invests in a single authority without application of due process. The purpose of copyright protection ought not be allowed endanger the broad powers of public speech enabled by the Internet.

Fortunately, consideration of the bill will delayed until after the midterm elections. We should be on guard during the lame-duck session that passage might sneak through. There are Democratic and Republican co-sponsors for the bill. Unfortunately, neither party is particularly astute at sensing the real threats posed by the bill. We can thank the
Electronic Freedom Foundation
for vigilance in this regard.

It is in the long term interests of content providers to find the means for efficient compensation of copyright holders via micropayments, subscription services, or some other means, rather than lobbying that the government be given summary power to act of the behalf of the RIAA and others. One suspects that the problem is not so much that content creators are being threatened, but rather than publishers and distributors worry that their current business models will not survive the Internet.

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