Oops, DNS blocking did not break the Internet

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In 2012, Congress was considering two bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) — that would have enabled law enforcement to request that websites found to be infringing intellectual property be blocked within the domain name system (DNS), the system that routes people to websites. Not only were detractors of these bills opposed to restricting access to websites engaged in online piracy, they were outspoken in their condemnation of the DNS blocking requirements because, they said, it would “break the Internet.” This rallying cry of “don’t break the Internet” became the impetus for an unprecedented campaign by online activists to kill the legislation. The campaign was wildly successful because no legislator wants to be known as having voted for legislation that “broke the Internet.” Almost four years later, it is worth asking: Were they right? Would DNS blocking have broken the Internet? Based on developments in other countries, the answer is a resounding “no.”

{mosads}First, it is worth recalling just how pervasive were the claims that DNS blocking would “break the Internet.” Headlines from countless news outlets such as CNN and The Guardian all repeated the claim that the DNS provisions of this bill would break the Internet. Even the Stanford Law Review printed an article that echoed the “don’t break the Internet” slogan. Of course, most of these articles were merely repeating others. The source of these claims can be traced back to groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which railed against the DNS provisions of the bill, claiming that they would contribute to a “globally fractured Internet” or individuals such as Paul Vixie and Dan Kaminsky, who wrote a scathing op-ed in which they argued that DNS blocking “will do no good and it will do much harm.”

To the surprise of many, they were all absolutely wrong.

In the intervening years, numerous countries have blocked infringing websites either using their domain name or network address. The list of countries includes the United Kingdom, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Singapore and others. In fact, according to IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), the global trade association for the music industry, “[Internet service providers] in 19 countries have been ordered to block access to more than 480 copyright infringing websites.” Not only is the Internet not broken, as evidenced by the fact that there has been no drop in people watching cat videos online, but also those countries that blocked pirating websites have seen a significant reduction in overall digital piracy as the number of visitors to peer-to-peer file-sharing sites declined.

My point is not that Congress should re-open the SOPA/PIPA legislation — given the battle scars from the past debate, I doubt Congress has the fortitude to do so. But rather, opponents of stronger digital copyright enforcement have staked their reputations on predictions that have clearly not come true. Policymakers, therefore, should not accept the falsehood that blocking a website or taking other actions to shut down infringing sites equates to an assault on the security and reliability of the Internet as a whole. Instead, they should recognize that selective targeting of websites dedicated to infringement is an effective strategy to combat piracy, and encourage the recording industry, the film industry and online intermediaries to work in partnership to block, shut down and cut off revenue to these websites wherever possible.

Castro is vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy.

Tags DNS Domain name system Electronic Frontier Foundation PIPA PROTECT IP Act SOPA Stop Online Piracy Act
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