Rogers -- a Canadian telco -- has been attracting a lot of negative attention lately between deliberately disabling notifications for cellular roaming charges, setting ridiculous iPhone pricing plans and injecting its own content into Google's home page. As if that wasn't enough, Rogers has started hijacking failed DNS lookups. This means that when a user types in a web address that doesn't exist, instead of getting a "page not found" error, the user is redirected to a search page filled with banner ads and sponsored links. Michael Geist notes that there's an "opt-out" feature, but it doesn't take long to see that it's pretty pathetic. The "opt-out" sends a cookie which just redirects the user to a different Rogers page instead -- a fake "Internet Explorer" error page hosted on the same server. It does essentially the exact same thing, only pretending (poorly, for non-IE users) to revert back to expected behavior. And the option is reset whenever the browser's cookies are cleared. The comments on Geist's post are evidence that many Rogers customers are not pleased (myself included).
This isn't just annoying, it's also a security threat. It breaks how the internet was designed to work; a lot of software is written with the expectation that a DNS lookup for a non-existent domain name will return an error. For example, Kevin Dean notes in the comments on Geist's post how this has caused problems for him accessing his VPN. At first, he thought his computer had been compromised, since Rogers' new "feature" ends up resembling a hostile attempt to redirect traffic to an unknown server.
Some American ISPs already do this, such as Earthlink (which was used to demonstrate the security risk), though it seems to have a slightly better opt-out process, instructing users to configure alternate DNS servers instead of setting a browser cookie. VeriSign had originally tried to do something similar with SiteFinder back in 2003 (though not at the ISP level), but it didn't exactly go over too well. VeriSign reluctantly backed off, though it just recently obtained a patent on the concept. Rogers is the first Canadian ISP to implement the practice and it seems to think it won't meet much resistance. In another comment on Geist's post, Ian relates a telling quote from the FAQs page for Paxfire (the American company handling this for Rogers): "What feedback you do receive typically will come from a small group of highly technical users. Even that feedback tends to fall away after just a few weeks -- as they get used to the new behavior."
Rogers thinks it can just brush off complaints from its users, especially since there really isn't a lot of choice in the Canadian ISP market. However, Rogers should be careful in treading so brazenly into what some consider "net neutrality" territory. Bell Canada (one of Rogers' few competitors) has landed itself in front of a national regulatory body over its throttling practices. Rogers wants to have complete control over its network, but by continually pushing the line they only spur on the debate about net neutrality and government regulation. We haven't heard the last of this.