Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
Search I,Cringely:

The Pulpit
The Pulpit

<< [ Appeerances Can Be Deceiving ]   |  Just Say No  |   [ Just the Facts Ma'am ] >>

Weekly Column

Just Say No: David Harrison wants to replace your Internet.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (166)
By Robert X. Cringely

We have trouble. After 40 years of development and almost 20 years of commercial use, the Internet is getting clogged up. We have more spam than legitimate e-mail, more advertising than content, and a few not very well-behaved protocols making trouble for all of us (more on this part next week), with the result that real utility is beginning to drop for many Internet users, who have to buy more and more bandwidth in order to effectively keep the same service level. Yes, we have trouble, and it is compounded by the current popularity of Internet video, which has knocked Moore's Law on its ear through the willingness of whole cascades of companies to lose money to show us dogs dancing and children falling off bikes.

But what's to be done? With tens of billions invested in Internet infrastructure and services, we can hardly shut the darned thing down and start over, can we?

Yes we can. Or at least David Harrison thinks so.

You don't know David Harrison, but I do, sort of. David, who has a Ph.D. from the University of London, lives in the UK with his retired Mum, dabbles in rare old books, and spends a LOT of time thinking about computers and the Internet. I can attest to this because David is a longtime correspondent of mine who likes to run by me his new ideas. And we're not talking about just a few ideas -- an idea here or there -- we're talking about a LOT of ideas. David has sent me at least an idea per week for the last decade, which works out to about 500 well thought-out and sometimes even feasible concoctions, most of them inventions.

That's a lot of reading and a LOT of writing, but this week's column may be the payoff, since this is the first of those ideas I have yet written about, at least to my knowledge. Maybe in my day job all I really do is channel David Harrison, but I don't think so.

Back to the Internet, David says to shut it down! Or maybe it would be more correct to say he wants to shut it OUT. And I have to tell you that his argument is growing on me. David wants to essentially hijack the current Domain Name System and replace it with something better. The Internet backbone and your ISP wouldn't have to change, so that expensive infrastructure would remain in place. Only the way we use it would be different. David's replacement for the Internet is called the Independent Network, or Inet. With David every new invention gets a clever name.

David, who is not American, sees the U.S.-controlled Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as an imperialist tool, which is also pretty much the way the Bush Administration sees it, too, though the Bushies are proud rather than upset. So David wants the Inet to first unseat ICANN from power. If users want to participate in the Inet, they have to accept the Inet's Terms and Conditions, which say that ICANN has no authority here, thanks.

Inet would operate its own DNS system parallel to the one run by ICANN. That's not really such a big deal, you know. Certainly a different DNS with different rules would not be hard to build from a technical or even a financial standpoint, and it could exist on the current network right alongside the current DNS system. The big question is why people would use it. They wouldn't at first, because without traffic and participating servers such a DNS would be useless, and that's why David proposes an Inet DNS filter as a crossover between the old/evil system the new/good one.

A free browser patch would install a virtual switch. Click on the switch, and you route your calls through the Inet DNS Filter, and if appropriate, Inet's own DNS system.

The Inet DNS Filter would operate for a transition period. During this time, any reputable domain name holder owning an Internet domain could ask for free registration of those same domains on the Inet system. Their site would be checked to see that it complies with Inet's Terms and Conditions, and if so, they get it. After an initial year, they must re-register for a 5-year period. This costs a nominal fee for private individuals, and a slightly larger fee for commercial entities. When you register a trademark as a domain on Inet, you automatically get all of the global alternatives in one go. So when Wal-Mart registers, they'd get all the similar domains automatically. But no one can block critique sites that include a trademark name within them, so if Wal-Mart had upset a customer, and that customer set up, Wal-Mart could not block it under the rules. Domain squatting would not be permitted, either.

Domain dispute resolution would be rapid: one week for evidence presentation, 24 hours to decide, and 24 hours for appeals. At which point the Inet DNS system would block the loser. Domain transfers would be fast and low cost. All domain activity would operate through Inet, not be farmed out to resellers, since the system is too important, and has proved to be difficult to police on the Internet. Inet domain holders would be expected to maintain control over the content of their users on sites with Inet domain registrations. Repeated failures to rapidly do so would result in the temporary or permanent loss of their Inet domain.

Inet DNS registrants would have a real name, address, and contact details (not a PO Box), and any communication from the Inet DNS system to the named registrar must be answered within 24 hours or the registration would be terminated. Inet DNS calls would route the user's browser requests to websites operating on the Internet. Duplicate sites would not need to be produced. The Inet registration procedure would permit an Inet domain to match an Internet domain, or to be automatically translated to a deep-linked Internet URL.

Inet DNS calls to servers would be flagged by a bit in the call courtesy of the browser patch. This could be read by website servers using server-side code, and consequently a call via the Inet could result in a different response to a browser call than if it came via a straight check on ICANN's DNS. This means a site can be visible under, or generated for an Inet call, but invisible or not generated for a straight ICANN call, or vice versa. Using the basic, extant Internet infrastructure, both surfer and web server could use either system easily. From one site, content could be configured differently for users of either system, as the website maintainer wishes.

Pornography sites could only register using the .xxx top-level domain scuttled not long ago by ICANN. Inet’s Terms and Conditions would prohibit child pornography, phishing, fraudulent commercial services, spam, denial of service attacks, and zombie networks.

The Inet's e-mail service would incorporate centralized anti-phishing and anti-spam techniques, and would block known spambots. All known spammers or phishers would, where identified, be banned from the system for five years or life. Anyone operating on behalf of a known spammer or phisher would receive the same punishment. Spam is not a free speech issue, it is a digital pollution and fraud issue and would be dealt with as such. Any fraudulent commercial service offered through Inet would similarly be dealt with (this relates to non-existent lotteries, selling properties that do not exist, multilevel marketing scams, etc.).

I like it.

Bob Kahn, the co-inventor of TCP/IP, said in NerdTV episode 012 that one of his great regrets is that DNS turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, where it could have been a simple automated service run for less than $1 million per year. Maybe Bob Kahn would prefer the Inet, too.

What David Harrison is proposing isn't all that different from what happens when a nation replaces its currency, eliminating overnight through the substitution of new paper the counterfeiting, theft, and improper distribution of wealth that had come to characterize the previous currency. If you do it once you'll have to do it again, of course, but even if the changes happen only every decade, wouldn't it be worth it?

In other news, I've been moonlighting lately at the Technology Evangelist web site (they are my new partners in NerdTV) and posted there last week a two-part blog entry concerning possible criminal destruction of evidence on the part of Microsoft with some potential involvement by Hewlett-Packard. I had expected this information to become public as part of the Comes v. Microsoft class action lawsuit in Iowa, but that suit settled recently with this tidbit still hidden.

Whether this lack of apparent disclosure was simple coincidence or part of what compelled Microsoft to settle, we'll probably never know, but I'm pretty determined to get the facts into public discourse. That happened to a certain extent thanks to Technology Evangelist and Slashdot, but then the traditional news media didn't pick up the scent. So you'll find the two posts among this week's links, where I am hoping a different audience will have a different response.

Hey, isn't that one definition of insanity?

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (166)

Good article Bob. Everything sounds good except the mandetory .xxx domains for porn sites. Imidietly, this strikes me as censorship. And secondarily, I can imagine some practical problems. For example, what about an art website with a .org domain which happens to display images that could be construed as "pornography"?

There's no doubt that the current DNS system is screwed up. This looks like a good start.

gabe | Mar 05, 2007 | 6:11PM

In addition to all the other reasons given why this wouldn't work, I would note that spammers would be able to continue to send spam by connecting directly to machines' IP addresses. Even today this occurs -- I've seen multiple reports, and have experienced it myself, that spammers continue to connect to SMTP servers via IP address even long after all DNS records pointing to that server have been removed (and cache times have expired). They'd still need to harvest the addresses, but they could continue to use the same illicit techniques they use for this today, and very few of them would be significantly impacted by the enhanced ability to turn off people's DNS service.

And in cases where the spammers are advertising websites as opposed to phone numbers, mailing addresses, or pump & dump stock names, they could continue to advertise sites on the normal Internet, and only those few people who had turned off all lookup of addresses on the regular Internet would be unable to get to the sites. Even if we got to a point where the majority of users had done a hard switchover, URLs of such sites could be given in the form of IP addresses. Users running special software to block access to IP-only URLs would be cutting themselves off from legitimate sites including Google Cache, some home routers, etc.

Dan Harkless | Mar 06, 2007 | 7:08PM

"Inet DNS registrants would have a real name, address, and contact details (not a PO Box), and any communication from the Inet DNS system to the named registrar must be answered within 24 hours or the registration would be terminated."

Yeah. You had me until this part. I personally only get mail at my PO Box. Large parts of this part of the state only get email at a PO Box, including a tiny town named Page, AZ. Thousands of residents on the reservations only get mail at their PO Box. The post office doesn't deliver to 1/4 mile past the big outcropping near Bitter Springs. It's the Bitter Springs contract Post Office in the back of the convenience store or nothing. The "Patriot Act" has not only not found Ossama, it's made things worse for residents whose physical address really is something like third house from mile marker 326, Highway 89.

Then 24 hours to respond? This might work in densely populated areas where you don't ever go far from home. But again looking at my area, I travel constantly. I have a domain, but I don't carry a crackberry or anything like that - and truthfully I like getting a break from the 'net. This would mean I have to constantly monitor email or something regardless of what's going on with my life. I'm not big enough to have a staff - really for me it's part time. This would make a full time job of being "available".

Patrick | Mar 06, 2007 | 9:59PM