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DNSSEC: the internet's International Criminal Court?

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INET The DNSSEC protocol could have some very interesting geo-political implications, including erosion of the scope of state sovereign powers, according to policy and security experts.

“We will have to handle the geo-political element of DNSSEC very carefully,” explained Peter Dengate Thrush, a New Zealand patent attorney and chairman of ICANN, at the INET conference in San Francisco.

“The Internet has the capacity to dilute some aspects of sovereignty,” he said, “and we may find that the power to rewrite Internet traffic may need to be tempered against some other international standard.”

Dengate Thrush then referenced other examples from history where national sovereignty has yielded to a higher international standard, such as the Nuremberg Trials, where Nazi war criminals were tried against a new standard of international law, and the International Criminal Court, which can try people outside of one country’s jurisdiction, as examples of where inter-governmental treaties can produce a higher standard that people are held to.

Other experts agreed that the DNSSEC standard – which allows Internet servers to confirm that data sent over the Internet came from a specific source – could make it more difficult for countries that wish to alter or censor information to do so without being noticed.

Jim Galvin of Afilias, an expert in DNSSEC, warned that a “split DNS” – where a country effectively sets up its own Internet within its borders and controls access to the global Internet - and the DNSSEC protocol “do not match very well”. However, he said that technically it was possible for someone at the interface of the global Internet and a country-wide Internet to strip electronic certificates attached to data and repackage the data with a new one. “But that’s a political issue,” Galvin added.

The discussion came on the back of the news this week that the first tests on applying DNSSEC at the “root” had been completed and were successful. Now it is a matter of slowly rolling out the technology to registries (such as dot-com), then registrars (such as GoDaddy) and finally registrants (the end user).

Galvin explained that to be successful, DNSSEC would have to be implemented at first at the center of the Internet and kept away from the average consumer until it was sufficiently simple. He accepted that this went against the usual pattern of placing Internet security systems as close to the end-user as possible, but identified it as the only way that the “next generation of the Internet” will be achieved.

Alex Deacon, the director of technology strategy at VeriSign, confirmed that the company was working first with ICANN and the US Department of Commerce to apply DNSSEC to the Internet’s root, with an expansion out to dot-edu, then dot-net and finally to the dot-com registry in the first quarter of 2011.

Eventually, as the security standard cascades down toward the end-user, it will become the “cornerstone of what security will be in future” said Galvin, and from there “will change the Internet in ways we can not yet imagine.”

Whether one of those ways will be to make it harder for countries to control or censor the content their citizens see is something we will have to see. ®

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