When ISPs hijack your rights to NXDOMAIN
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Fail and You Virgin Media's UK customers are about to experience a wonderful new service that intercepts unresolvable DNS requests and redirects the user to a page full of ads and search results.
It's becoming a frequent trick that ISPs are pulling on their customers, as non-technical executives who could even put the airline industry to shame, dream up clever answers to the age old question: "How can we make more money off of this?".
In the ISP's case, some fellow in a suit who refers to his computer tower as the "hard drive" likely had the insight that Microsoft was unfairly having all the fun with these browser error pages and that, dammit, there should be a free market in error reporting.
And there's the rub. If the person who thought up this little scheme files a ticket with IT when the shortcut to Outlook on his desktop disappears and he can't figure out how to run the program via the Start menu, then you can be right sure that by and large, customers do not care about having their mistyped URLs appear as a list of ads that will eventually take them to their destination. Come to think of it, nobody cares but you. And to keep you IT types from causing too much of a stir, Virgin - and other ISPs - let you opt-out from this hijacking service.
DNS hijacking is a pretty slick way to skim some money off of the top of the internet. In fact, the San Francisco, California, based company OpenDNS makes a whole business out of it. They display ads next to mistyped search results and collect tidy profit. I suppose it doesn't say a whole lot about the visionaries in charge of OpenDNS when internet service providers are replicating their entire business model as a supplemental, shits-and-giggles revenue stream, but hey, they get points for trying.
The difference of course is that OpenDNS customers sign up for this service knowing full well that the company does this. Net neutrality guerrilla fighters recognize the tyranny when an internet service provider, who is supposed to be a benevolent life-giver, the stream from which all things free and pure flow to the homes of the masses, gives in to evil temptation and plays fast and loose with DNS responses. Oh, the horror.
You see, a free people enjoy certain unalienable rights: life, liberty, and honest NXDOMAIN responses. Anything less is slavery, and if history has taught us anything, the only way to break from these shackles is to blog and Twitter about your dissatisfaction, in hopes that somebody in the government will fix it.
Yeah, net neutrality cracks me up. It's one of the many tumors that is slowly killing real liberty: the belief that if you whine about something enough and call it a right, the government will do something, and when they don't, you whine even louder, at which point the general public stops caring about your cause because Global Warming is starring in its very own movie, and dammit, nobody out-whines Al Gore.
Next: Life, liberty and the pursuit of popping a cap in a Redcoat
Life, liberty and the pursuit of popping a cap in a Redcoat
A right is something that you bust a cap in a Redcoat to defend, but as a side note, it is a little known fact that Thomas Jefferson was a touch pissed when he penned the Declaration of Independence because the Royal Mail printed advertisements on the letters that were returned to him undeliverable, and he thought that was a little shystery.
Techies outside of the Net Neutrality Freedom Fighters who complain about DNS hijacking are upset that it breaks applications that depend on DNS fidelity. It is a valid complaint, but it will in all likelihood affect such a small percentage of users that publishing a workaround, "opt out of the service" isn't a Herculean task.
Still, there's a cost associated with doing that, which is most likely ill will from users who wonder why all the sudden this program doesn't work the way it's supposed to. Any serious business will deal with this risk without complaining, recognizing that even though Virgin or any other ISP is causing them headaches, they share a common understanding that hustlin' is hustlin'. Respect.
What about the users? One of the reasons that Google believes it's so successful is a strict adherence to its corporate philosophy, the first commandment of which is: "Focus on the user and all else will follow". Well, so long as that user isn't an AdWords advertiser, then you'll find they can be much looser with this interpretation.
If you're just some bloke looking for the latest and greatest way to get spyware onto your computer, does it really matter so much that you're served a page of ads and search results? If the results are relevant and take you where you want to go, it's better than a browser error message.
A browser error is of no help, it smacks the user on the nose with a rolled up newspaper and forces him to think about what he's done. If I type in "google.cmo" accidentally, and am presented with a link to Google, then the ISP has just made my day easier. Who cares if they get paid for that click? It makes the internet work better for users.
Web entrepreneurs know that when a user lands on a page, they will click the first thing that looks satisfactory, and asking somebody to examine their input, decide what the mistake is, and type something on the keyboard to correct it is a significant frustration barrier. Technical people who don't understand, this is the reason that normal users have so much contempt for the IT department.
I suppose that this is also why the general public doesn't give a shit about net neutrality and the like. When bloggers complain about some esoteric detail and try to rally public support to influence the government, it's downright condescending.
Users don't recognize the political argument hides under a web page with some advertisements on it, and pointing it out to them only makes you look like a smug prick. Not that it matters any: the internet is only a cause to a small subset of people, to the rest, it's entertainment.
And for entertainment, there's probably no finer ISP than Virgin Media. ®
Ted Dziuba is a co-founder at Milo.com. You can read his regular Reg column, Fail and You, every other Monday.