Domain Registrars And ISPs: The Soft Underbelly Of Coercive Control
from the know-your-domain-right dept
When I first got into this business I frequently wondered why the domain-policy mailing lists I was getting involved in attracted a lot of activist types.
Over the years it became apparent to me very quickly, that in an emerging era of global communications and transparency (what Anthony Wile calls "The Internet Reformation") - that "the name" (the domain name) along with the ability to "locate it" (DNS) was a central, all-important "secret sauce" to the entire internet.
But it was only gradually that I became aware that it would take centre stage politically and and become the battleground between forces for liberty, free speech and emerging civil & business models on one hand and entrenched reactionary, authoritarian, cronyist kleptocrats on the other.
Hence those passionate activist types (some of whom I used to tirelessly argue with) were getting so worked up over the high-intensity Orwellianism that they could sense coming somewhere over the event-horizon.
While the co-opting of this marvellous internet into an all pervasive surveillance apparatus is a paramount issue, it is outside the scope of this article. Consider it one side of a dual-pronged approach of modern-era repression and totalitarianism.
The other side of that vice is the DNS and naming system of the internet which is the "choke point", where control can be exerted, censorship implemented and protection rackets flourish.
In a world where news travels over the internet before the traditional media is even aware of it, where non-sanctioned, unofficial sources can audaciously disseminate the truth without central planners massaging, spinning or heavily redacting it; the domain name, or the DNS that powers them is basically the dial tone of the entire global communications medium. Take out a domain or its DNS, you shut down it's voice, it's message or it's economic activity. You make it go away.
Without getting too detailed with the technical specifics (although I'll happily talk the ear off of anybody who asks me about it), the "inverted tree" structure of the DNS naming system distributes power in the following pattern:
- The Root < -- ICANN
- The Top Level Domains (com, net, org < ---- Verisign, Afilias, Public Interest Registry, Neulevel and soon all the new ones, Donuts, etc)
- Second level domains (registrars, DNS providers, web hosting providers, ISPs)
ICANN is conspicuously absent from curating the interests of global stakeholders within the overall naming scheme. Because of this, US law applies across most of the internet, and in the absence of a concerted effort to address global interests (no, not globalist interests, I mean "also considering interests from outside the USA") there will eventually be a root level net split and won't be pretty (yes, I'm fully aware how crazy that sounds now, I always sound crazy about 5-years in advance.)
At Level 2, the registry operators are themselves, pretty big and pretty bureaucratic - if a vested interest wants to compel them to do something they know they have to get a legal basis to do it, like a court order.
So the soft underbelly of coercive control starts at Level 3, which is rife with myriad third parties falling over each other to "serve" registrars, DNS providers, web hosts and ISPs with various facades of "legalese" designed to baffle unwitting abuse desks into submissive compliance with purely "made up" takedown rationalizations.
If you remember the Simpsons episode where Monty Burns is being committed to a mental institution against his will for becoming inordinately enthralled with the difference between "Ketchup" and "Catsup", he is informed by Chief Wiggum as he is being dragged up the steps to the asylum: "Relax…you've gone off your nut and you're being committed to a mental institution…. those grocery store clerks signed the commitment papers".
That's about the best description there is of today's "takedown request" racket that is overrunning the internet.
Quite literally "some guy", in England or "someplace" (often times in England tho), will email a registrar or a DNS host in some other country entirely and will tell them "Hi! I'm an 'internet investigator' here in some place in some official capacity, and the following domain names are operating in contravention to some laws here. So, uh, take the domains down. Ok?"
And more often than not, the recipient will simply AGREE and just do it.
If they do not comply right away the "official guy somewhere" will tell the recipient that if they do not comply then they are themselves in some sort of legal trouble (or in violation of some contractual obligation which some official guy somewhere is not even a party to) and there will be trouble.
Recipient usually agrees and shuts down the domain. Which, absent some obvious network abuse issue, I find mind-boggling. Some of the letters we get from private, non-governmental, self-appointed "regulatory" bodies with no legal or enforcement powers anywhere on earth contain claims and make leaps of logic which are on par with fantastic narratives spun in Nigerian 419 scams.
That some of the largest ISPs and registrars in the world actually take them seriously and shut down entire businesses on this basis is nothing short of criminally negligent.
But shut down they will. Somebody with a badge out of a box of Cracker Jacks can probably email your registrar right now and tell them to unplug your domain name from the internet and there's a good chance they'll do it.
People may tell me to calm down, because right now the most common targets seem to be "dodgy" websites (like "rogue" pharmacies), but as we've noted elsewhere, the script we laid out in First They Came For The File Sharing Domains is playing out nearly verbatim in the three years hence. And there was an extra-judicial attempt to take out Wikileaks for the crime of egregious truth telling.
All of this begs the fundamental question of due process, something these ersatz enforcement agencies are happy to throw overboard and replace with their own Calvin-ball interpretations of reality.
So if or when it happens to you, you should know this:
Unless there is a court order in the jurisdiction of the Registrar who shuts you down - they CANNOT stop you from transferring your domain out to another Registrar.
That is your basic domain right (notice it's in the singular). It was just upheld by an NAF panel under an ICANN TDRP proceeding. We're in the process of doing this again right now for another client who had their fully compliant Canadian business, doing business from and in Canada was shut down entirely when literally "some guy in England" emailed their US-based registrar and told them to shut down their domain - which they promptly did, no questions asked (watch our blog as this unfolds).
Hopefully before long Registrars are going to wake up and realize that Chief Wiggum can't compel them to take down, hijack and lock your domain name unless he has a court order from some place other than Springfield.
Mark Jeftovic is CEO of easyDNS