Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Wednesday, September 17, 2003

  Paul Vixie vs Verisign

Once upon a time, the internet was run by responsible engineers. People like Jon Postel made decisions for purely technical reasons, by consensus with the users, as part of the internet social contract. The contract started to tear when he died, and while ICANN squabbled, control of the Net shifted from recognisable people to faceless corporations. Mostly.

Verisign, the company that controls the .com and .net domains, and has a stranglehold on the cryptography that ensures 'safe' commerce, introduced a new "service" yesterday that redirects mis-spelt domains to an ad for Verisign's domain sales service. On the face of it, it's a a brilliant marketing idea, but the reality is that this 'feature' breaks the Net in a fundamental way - spam filters, among other things, don't work anymore. No engineer would have approved this change to the basic structure of the Net.

Thankfully, as Lessig wrote, "Code is law" - and coders can still make a difference. People like Paul Vixie, that still believe in the internet's social contract, continue to fight for the original dream. His non-profit company, the internet software consortium, still controls the software that runs domain service, and in one day, ISC is releasing a patch to bind that blocks this insane change to how the Net works. It's not a political decision, but an engineering one - Verisign broke the internet, Vixie's fixing it.

I don't know how quickly this patch will propigate, but I'm willing to bet it will cover the globe in a matter of weeks for a large percentage of sites - but many users, for years, will have to put up with an ad every single time they mistype a domain name. It's one hell of a penalty for typos.

My thanks to Paul Vixie, a recognisable, responsible face on the internet. The guy still answers his postmaster email!

Confessions of someone that wasn't always as responsible

I remember exactly when I got burned out on banner ads. I was sitting in a meeting with a bunch of high muckety mucks and advertising people, all talking about new places to force their messages down people's throats. Finally I lost it, and started babbling about the new IPv13 protocol: Now: There is no IPv13 protocol. I had just lost it, completely. I was making it up, riffing on this single, preposterous idea. I'd cracked. I was the technical expert in the room and I couldn't stand what these people wanted to do to the internet. I shudder to think of what would have happened if the same people had been present at the early stages of the internet design - because... because... of the 10 in the room that day, every last one thought IPv13 was a great idea and started incorporating it in their plans. Even the few that should have known better bought the story hook, line, and sinker.

I knew then, that I had to get out of that biz. I went and worked on banner ad blocking software for a while, and then I found something even more wholesome and positive to do. Someday, I thought, I'd write up an april fools day rfc for IPv13, but I'm afraid too many would take it seriously.
I know, that somewhere, in Verisign, there's an engineer that helped, unwittingly, break the Net, yesterday. Maybe he or she didn't realize what they were doing. Maybe they didn't care. Maybe the money was good. I just hope that maybe - he or she - realizes their error, and finds a way to sleep at night.
You see, it took me ages to figure out what was really bothering me. After I implemented junkbuster on my personal server, I figured, cynically, that banner ads did really serve a purpose - they funded some really great services, and who was I to care if nobody else was as tired of looking at them as I was - if they were, they'd install junkbuster, too.

As the numbers piled up, I stayed on at that job, working towards that day where all the perl code I'd worked on would be replaced by java code I'd never touched. Every day I'd get these glowing reports of: "3 million hits at 10AM - 27 million for the day - Atta Boy - we're doing great - we're gonna go public with a bang!" and it bothered me. I knew that code I'd worked on was annoying some percentage of those internet users - a college student, perhaps, hanging off the edge of the network in Belize, spending their last dime in an internet coffee shop waiting for the ads to finish downloading at 9600 baud, or a doctor trying to do a quick search on yahoo.

The sheer waste of bandwidth that banner ads represented - sometimes 95% of the page download time - there had to be a better way! By the time that code was retired, it had served up over 6 billion banner ads, either I'd bothered everyone on the planet once, or everyone on the internet 60 times!

I carried angst around until I met a guy named "elf" - who'd been at the first meeting at hotwired where they created the darn things, set the format size, and turned them loose. There's guilt for ya. Oddly enough, I felt better after we talked. I realized that the core of dissonance was not just the waste of bandwidth, and of time - but that banner ads marked the decline of Truth found on the internet. Truth is hard to find, as it is... it's why I blog. Anybody but me noticed that Micro$oft has an ad campaign running on every story that mentions Linux these days?

I do understand that banner ads funded the internet expansion, and keep some great services alive. I find that Google's text ads are vastly superior to banner ads, and yet so many services don't use them (cost model? Inertia?). I have hope for micro-transactions, too.

Anyway, as whatever engineers modified DNS for Verisign looks back on their handywork, at the hit counts for mis-typed url after mis-typed url, perhaps they too will come to the same realizations as I did. It takes time to understand an error of this magnitude.

In the meantime, if seeing the ad for mistyped urls bothers you - or your spam load has gone up since monday, like mine has - send an email to verisign with your concerns. Or call them up. Maybe they'll pull the service. Who knows?

Thanks, Paul, for reminding me that there are good men doing something so that Truth, Justice, and the Internet Way may prevail!
 
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