Should We Tackle Illicit Content Through the DNS?

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Workshop 331

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Recently described as one of the key parts of the ‘public core of the Internet’, the domain name system (DNS) space is now increasingly subjected to requests by authorities to suspend or block content. While resorting to the DNS seems to be a rapid alternative to blocking access to abusive content or activities online, several speakers argued it does not provide an effective and sustainable way to remove content from the Internet. Interventions at the level of DNS operation can endanger the availability, the correct operation, and the usability of the Internet. However, several participants, including government representatives, called for having a broader discussion on the role, and the conditions under which, DNS operators could play a role in tackling illegal content online.

Speakers appeared divided as to whether blocking access to illegal online content in the level of DNS infrastructure is as effective as removing illegal content by taking action against hosting providers.

For several participants, actions at the DNS level do not provide an effective and sustainable way to remove content from the Internet. Ms Polina Malaja (Policy Advisor, CENTR) insisted registries have no control over content, since they do not host or pass any content through their infrastructure. Registries can only suspend domain names from their own zone-files. Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are deeply rooted and constrained by local jurisdictions, and thus need to follow local policies developed in consultation with the local Internet community, as detailed in a recent Council of European National Top-Level Domain Registries (CENTR) paper on Domain name registries and online content. Mr Thomas Rickert (Lawyer, Rickert) also argued that manipulating DNS is very problematic, as it would open new ways for actors to inappropriately control content online. Technical responses need to be more nuanced, depending on the issues at hand such as child’s abuse, copyright infringements, free speech, and others. In certain cases, shutting down DNS could even be detrimental to the work of law enforcement for instance. Ms Jennifer Chung (Director of Corporate Knowledge, DotAsia) also argued that such a tool is not proportionate and effective to address most illegal content online, as it can endanger the availability and usability of the Internet.

However, Ms Manal Ismail (Director of the International Technical Coordination Department, National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Egypt) insisted that there are legitimate reasons for governments to act at the DNS level, as shown in the ChristChurch Call; but there needs to be a discussion about the possible adverse effects of blocking access and mitigation measures. The main issue is to know if there are appropriate conditions for DNS operators to play a role in general efforts aimed at tackling illegal content on the Internet. Mr Bertrand de La Chapelle (Executive Director and Co-founder, Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network) argued that the DNS space is often wrongly considered as a control panel by some actors, even though suspending a domain name does not mean suspending access. Suspending a domain name impacts many services at the same time worldwide. So when does it become a proportionate action? This issue is currently addressed at ICANN, without any clear agreement so far, though there is a growing consensus that certain types of abuses need to be addressed. Nonetheless, the issue of the threshold for abuses and the responsibility of actors are still subject to debates. La Chapelle pointed to the work of the Domain and Jurisdiction Contact group in engaging all stakeholders in this area. Ms Jennifer Chung (Director of Corporate Knowledge, DotAsia) mentioned also that registries and registrars are now discussing about the steps to be taken to help fight against DNS abuses (notably in sharing best practices), though insisting that they need to be considered as intermediaries.

By Clément Perarnaud

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