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July 2015The monthly newsletter by Felgall Pty Ltd

My Word

Internet Blocking Laws

A number of countries have passed laws requiring ISPs to block access to certain types of web sites when an a request to do so from an appropriate body is made. They have done this rather than making it illegal to access those web sites because they realise that they can make the ISP's implement a block whereas the chances of them being able to successfully prosecute someone for accessing an illegal site is relatively small. The interesting aspect of this is that the chances of a successful prosecution are far greater than the possibility of an ISP implemented block in preventing someone from accessing those sites.

There are basically three ways that an ISP could implement such a block.

The most effective way would be to examine every packet of information passing through their network to determine whether it contains the type of information that is to be blocked or perhaps which site the information came from. There are two problems with this approach. First the examination would take time and so would significantly slow the internet. Effectively every legitimate internet user would have their internet connection speed significantly reduced in the hope of blocking a small number of people who try to access certain sites. Second the information may be encrypted and pass through a VPN or proxy so that there is no way to tell where the particular packet came from and no idea of what it contains. This means that ISPs would not use this approach.

The next alternative would be to block the IP address of the site. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) tried this to attempt to prevent access to a single rogue site. They successfully prevented most Australians from accessing that site and 250000 other innocent sites that just happened to share that IP address. They didn't succeed in preventing access by those using a VPN.

The third option is to block access to the domain name. Now accessing a site by its domain name requires looking up a Domain Name Server (DNS) to convert the domain name to an IP address and then going to the server with that address and accessing the site there that has the appropriate domain name, This is the easiest way that an ISP can implement the requested block because all that they need to do is to update their DNS so that the domain no longer points to the server where the domain is found but instead points to an address that can display a simple web page indicating that the site is not accessible.

When someone signs up with an ISP they are provided with login details and also two or more DNS addresses. When the person requests a site from the internet it is these DNS that are used to do the initial domain name lookup to get an IP address either of where the domain is located or of another DNS that is more likely to know where the domain is. If people use the DNS that their ISP supplied to them then if the ISP changes their DNS then they will no longer be able to access that site.

Actually the DNS specified for the internet connection is actually the second place that the computer looks in trying to find a web site. The first place it looks is the hosts file on the computer itself. If it finds an entry for the domain name in the hosts file then it can go straight to the IP address where the site is expected to be found without needing to do a DNS lookup at all.

Another consideration is that you don't have to use the DNS supplied by the ISP. There are a number of so-called open DNS scattered around the world that anyone can use. The most well known of these is the Google open DNS which have IP addresses of 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4. Simply by changing the DNS you first access for your domain name lookups to one of these open DNS you completely bypass any blocks that your ISP may have implemented in their own DNS.

So as you can see, the law in this case can be obeyed to the letter without having any impact whatsoever. The ISPs can comply with the law by updating their DNS to block any site they are required to block while everyone else can simply change to using an open DNS that doesn't have the block implemented and so continue to access whatever sites they wish.

The original design of the internet was to provide a communication system where a large number of servers connected to the internet can be knocked out without affecting people's ability to access information on the internet. Basically it was designed from the start to make any form of blocking impossible.

So in fact if there is no law making access to these sites illegal and no way that any implemented block can be effective the Governments that have implemented laws requiring ISP's to block sites are basically not doing anything to prevent people continuing to access sites while making it look to those insisting on sites being blocked as if they have in fact done something.

Now of course there are many sites on the internet that ought not to be there in the first place - such as those promoting terrorism. It isn't the Governments or the ISPs though that have the power to do something about this, it is the hosting providers who can choose to take down sites like this (presumably with appropriate Government laws to back them up so that they have a legitimate defense if the site owner takes them to court). Unfortunately these types of site can generally find somewhere in the world where their site is legal and so will not be taken down.

Other sites that are subject to these blocks where the site has perfectly legitimate uses even though a lot of people use it in other ways. In these cases it is perhaps more appropriate to look at why people are using them like this. An obvious example is the high amount of downloading of movies and tv shows via bitTorrent by people in Australia. The main reason for this is that the movie and show owners are not making their product available to Australians at a reasonable price at the time they want to watch it. The internet has made the entire world one zone as far as the release of any form of communication now. As there will be discussion on the internet of what people thought of a given movie just as soon as the first group of people have seen it, everyone needs to be able to see it at the same time or they will not need to see it because someone else has already told them everything of significance that happens in it. If the producer does not allow everyone to see it at the same time at a reasonable price then effectively they are forcing people to choose between taking a copy to watch when everyone else does or not bothering with it at all because there will be thousands of web pages that will tell you everything you could possibly want to know about it. Movie makers are not losing money because people take a free copy of the movie to watch at the same time as everyone else watches it, they are losing money because they haven't provided these people a way to watch the movie during the short window where it is worth watching before there is no longer a reason to watch. The producer will make just as much from someone finding out everything about their movie by reading a few thousand reviews the day after its initial release as they will from someone who takes a copy without paying. Now of course there are some places where this doesn't apply but where the producer tries to break up the world into separate zones and release the movie at different times in different zones they are effectively minimizing their income from all the zones where they are releasing it later than the first release. That is their own fault and their attempting to prevent people accessing sites that allow them to see the movie on day one are as pointless as the ISP blocks that some countries require to be implemented in these cases.

Note that I do not believe it is right that people view movies and tv shows without paying for them but the producers need to provide a way to pay a reasonable price to see their product on day one so that people can pay and in many cases they are not providing this option and then complain because people don't pay. The solution to much of the piracy problem lies in allowing people to buy when they want at a reasonable price but many movie studios are decades behind the times and think that they can still break the world up into zones and treat each zone differently (which zone is the internet in?)
 

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I have added some extra examples to my JavaScript by Example site but have hardly started on the long list of new examples I need to add to cover even those new JavaScript commands that already work. I also seem to be getting quite a few requests to review software lately so you may see a few software reviews added over coming weeks.
 

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