Monday, February 25, 2008

The self-correcting Internet

The Washington Post's Brian Krebs expends much digital ink on the to-do over the government of Pakistan's decision to censor YouTube and how this decision cut off world-wide access to the online video service.

According to wire reports, Pakistan ordered all in-country Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to, complaining that the site contained controversial sketches of the Prophet Mohammed which were republished by Danish newspapers earlier this month. The people running the country's ISPs obliged, but evidently someone at Pakistan Telecom - the primary upstream provider for most of the ISPs in Pakistan - forgot to flip the switch that prevented those blocking instructions from propagating out to the rest of the Internet.

The problem is one of misplaced institutional trust he says. The Internet was created in the days when all its administrators pretty much knew each other, and the systems they created remain in place -- potentially allowing malicious governments and companies to have their nefarious way with our Internet surfing.

This kind of implicit trust has caused similar troubles on a number of prior occasions. While it's usually the result of an oversight, this trust can be abused: In 2003, Los Angeles County found that a large swath of its Internet space was suddenly redirecting visitors to porn sites. Investigators later learned a relatively small California ISP had simply declared itself the authoritative destination for a huge chunk of LA's Internet addresses in order to drive traffic to adult sites hosted on his network.

The government could have and should have fixed this situation, says Krebs, but it fell down on the job.

The U.S. government thought it a problem worthy enough of more scrutiny that it spent a few million dollars between 2004 and 2006 funding a research endeavor called the Secure Protocols for Routing Infrastructure project. Due to budget cutbacks at the Department of Homeland Security, however, the program is being discontinued.

But wait! Is this really a problem at all? I mean, YouTube is perfectly accessible today. How did that happen?

In his own post, Krebs quotes Marc Sachs, director of the SANS Internet Storm Center, who says:

"Someone at a large network could probably get away with a stunt like that for up to 30 minutes or an hour before [those in charge of] the rest of the Internet would just start shunning them," Sachs said. "As soon as you have someone in the system acting in a rogue manner - intentionally or not - they tend to lose the trust of the rest of the community pretty quickly."

So... You're saying that the Internet is already pretty effective at countering this sort of maneuver -- and in short order.

And, as ZDNet's Richard Stiennon points out, Pakistan pretty much got bumped completely off the Internet as a result of its ham-handed censorship.

Well, that's a different story, isn't it?

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