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Don't Cut Rogue Sites A Break

June 27, 2011

The Senate will likely soon debate legislation dealing with rogue websites that operate overseas and offer stolen U.S. products and content.  As this critical legislation advances -- known as the PROTECT IP Act – the scrutiny of the bill is both understandable and legitimate.  Some of the charges leveled at the legislation, though -- such as the notion of “breaking the Internet” -- are neither.   

Of particular focus is the so-called DNS filtering/blocking provision.  Now just to clarify, DNS stands for “domain name system” and DNS filtering/blocking refers to the process in which an ISP would block or edit access to a particular domain name of an offshore website that has been found to be overwhelmingly illegal by a court of law.   The Attorney General – and only the Attorney General – can go to court to ask that the illegal website be blocked.  That’s right, a federal judge would have to agree that the website, according to the bill’s explicit definition, “has no significant use other than theft or is primarily operated and used for theft.”  That sounds reasonable enough and can hardly be interpreted to in any way affect legitimate sites.  We are among the large chorus who have voiced support for the bill

DNS filtering/blocking is not an unprecedented enforcement tool.  DNS filtering is currently in use in the U.S. to protect against malware and spam. And several other developed countries already implement DNS blocking – including France, Denmark, Italy and the U.K.  It’s safe to assume that the Internet has not “broken” since these measures were implemented.  In fact, most of these countries that use DNS blocking have higher broadband adoption than the United States.

Internet engineer George Ou recently posted a compelling blog entitled “DNS filtering is essential to the Internet” debunking theories that DNS filtering would cause harm to the web’s infrastructure, calling these claims “meritless” and “unfounded:”

The charge that DNS filtering would devalue and fragment the official DNS system of the Internet is    inconsistent with reality.  Two of the main pirate DNS alternatives that have sprung up to combat government seizure of pirate and counterfeit websites opted not to replace the official DNS system because that would have been very costly for the pirates and problematic for their users.  There is no evidence of DNS fragmentation.

The answer here simply can’t be to do nothing.  In fact, some of the bill’s critics have identified one particular piece of the legislation and potential concerns, and then went on to seemingly conclude because of that, the whole effort must fail.   Prominent copyright law expert Chris Castle last week put it best before a recent panel on the bill – just because someone finds fault with one part of an argument doesn’t mean the whole argument should be scrapped.  That can’t be the way forward.  A clear consensus has emerged:  rogue sites are a devastating problem and the status quo is not working.   When the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill, it did so unanimously and only one Senator has publicly expressed opposition to date. 

We also have seen the familiar argument that because an anti-piracy tool might be circumvented – in this case, DNS blocking – it renders the whole exercise meaningless.  That’s silly.  No enforcement program, either in law enforcement or civil litigation, can ever be expected to eradicate a problem.  The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.  We know that there are dedicated hardcore users will find ways around the law regardless of what legal or technological barriers are erected.  But isn’t it worthwhile to make it harder to find and access illicit sites that no one defends? As Ou stated:

Despite being less than 100% effective and despite all the undesirable side effects of IP and DNS filtering, there is no easy way to combat determined criminals on the Internet.  Without these filtering technologies, we have no chance of combating email spam and malicious websites.  With these technologies, we at least make the Internet a more habitable environment with some tradeoffs in limited collateral damage.  Like medical science, the best we can do with Internet filters is to minimize the threats while minimizing collateral damage.

And Information Technology and Innovation Foundation senior analyst Daniel Castro put it this way to Ars Technica last month:


Nobody, including myself, makes the claim that DNS blocking will be 100 percent effective. It might not even be 90 percent effective. But the question is, is it effective enough that it's worth the cost of doing it? I think the consensus from the people that can do it is that yes, it is…Right now, we're not really doing all that much to combat piracy and counterfeiting, and there is a lot more that we can do. As long as the steps are reasonable, we should take them.

We couldn’t agree more. This is not a new issue for those of us in the music industry who have been grappling with digital theft for more than a decade.  And in a world where hackers set their sights on new targets every daymost recently the official United States Senate website, allegedly the CIA’s public website and Arizona’s law enforcement database – do we think a lawless Internet defended to the extreme is a good thing? 

The PROTECT IP Act includes careful precautions not to restrict the flow of legitimate traffic to lawful websites. That’s the goal of the legislation – to increase interest in websites and services that offer legitimate products while curtailing access to illicit ones.  And that’s a reasonable step we will always get behind.


Mitch Glazier, Executive Vice President, Public Policy and Industry Relations, RIAA