OpenDNS and net neutrality

Thu 19 Aug, 2010 01:56 pm
After reading this column in the NYT, I have a question. Would something like OpenDNS be an effective way to circumvent an internet provider's anti-net neutrality traffic management? It seems like it would since as the article mentions, kids are able to get around parental controls using anonymizer sites.

Other than the possible privacy issue of usage tracking, are there any other issues to consider? Do you agree with the recommendation to change the DNS settings on your local network hub rather than on individual PCs?


August 18, 2010
Simplifying the Lives of Web Users

I’m about to make your life better. No need to thank me.

But first, a warning: On the way to understanding how your life will get better, you’ll have to read about some technical, fairly arcane topics. Trust me: it’ll be worth it.

In this case, the topic is your Web browsing, and the magic wand is a free service called OpenDNS.

You know how every Web site has an address, like www.google.com or www.nytimes.com? Turns out that’s just a fakeout. It’s a convenient crutch for you, the human with limited brain capacity.

Behind the scenes, the actual address is a string of numbers (called an I.P. address, for Internet protocol) that looks something like this: (That happens to be Google’s address.)

Nobody can remember those addresses, though they are no longer than a phone number, so the Web’s thoughtful designers came up with a secondary system: plain-English addresses like www.whatever.com. When you type that into your browser, a computer at your Internet provider performs a quick lookup. “Aha,” it says to itself in its little digital way, “you just typed www.google.com. What you really want, of course, is Please hold; I’ll connect you.”

That, in a nutshell, is how D.N.S. works. (It stands for domain name system, in case that helps.)

Unfortunately, from time to time, your Internet provider’s D.N.S. computer goes down. To you, it seems that the Web itself has gone out, because you can’t pull up any sites at all. In December 2008, for example, 1.2 million Los Angeles citizens thought that the entire Web had gone offline, because of a crashed Time Warner D.N.S. computer.

That story was gleefully provided by OpenDNS, the one-of-a-kind company with a killer idea: to provide a free, alternative D.N.S. service that works better than your Internet provider’s. Faster, more reliably and with more features. You don’t pay anything, sign up for anything or install anything. All you have to do is make one change to your network settings, and you get all of these benefits:

NO D.N.S. CRASHES The company claims that in its five-year history, its D.N.S. computers have had zero downtime. In fact, had you been using OpenDNS in 2008, the Time Warner crash would not have affected you at all. You’d have kept right on surfing while your next-door neighbors were gnashing their teeth and playing board games.

A similar feature called SmartCache lets you pull up individual Web sites even when, because of broken addresses, they are unavailable to everyone else.

FASTER PAGES To speed up the conversion of plain-English addresses to numeric ones, every Internet provider caches, or preloads, the addresses of thousands of the most popular Web sites. This trick can save you microseconds or fractions of seconds with every page you open. When you visit a site that’s not on that “most popular” list, though, you may wait a bit.

But OpenDNS caches the entire Web. Every Web site appears slightly faster. If you don’t actually feel the difference, you can measure it using Google’s free Namebench program. It told me that OpenDNS was performing that looking-up business 14.8 percent faster than what I’d been getting before.

TYPO CORRECTIONS As long as OpenDNS is inserting itself between you and the Web, it can do you some favors. One is correcting typos. If you type “nytimes.cmo” or “wikipedia.og,” for example, OpenDNS quietly and instantly corrects the typo and sends you where you wanted to go. Most of the time, you never even realize your fingers misfired.

Unfortunately, this feature auto-fixes only the suffix (.com, .org, .gov and so on). If you type “dinseyworld.com” or “wikipeida.org,” you’re on your own.

PHISHING PROTECTION Phishing is the Internet scheme where you get a fake e-mail note from your bank about a problem with your account. When you click the link to correct the problem, you get a fake Web site, designed to look just like your bank’s — and by logging in, you unwittingly supply your name and password to the bad guys.

OpenDNS intercepts and blocks your efforts to visit the fake sites. It works like a charm.

SHORTCUTS Web address shortcuts are short, memorable abbreviations for your favorite sites. You can set up “nyt” so that, when you type it into your address bar, you go to a much longer Web address like http://www.nytimes.com/pages/todayspaper/index.html.

Shortcuts are great. There’s limited space on your bookmarks toolbar, and the bookmarks menu is clumsy for people who like to keep their hands on the keyboard. And unlike the similar feature in Firefox, OpenDNS’s shortcuts work in any browser on any computer or phone in the house.

PARENTAL CONTROLS The latest OpenDNS feature is site-blocking. Here again, having an account means that you can create a setting that applies to every computer in the house — and block your choice of 57 categories of Web sites, including Pornography, Nudity, Lingerie, Instant Messaging, File Sharing, Game and Humor. (Honestly. What kind of parent would block humor?)

How can OpenDNS possibly track every Web site on earth and put it into the right 57 categories? It doesn’t. Its fans do. Anyone can submit a site to the master database of categorized sites, whereupon other people vote on its placement. This Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing is ingenious, and, as far as my testing was concerned, bulletproof.

(Teenagers often subscribe to mailing lists that publish the addresses of proxies and anonymizers, special sites that they use to get around traditional Web blockers installed by schools or parents. But I was amused to learn that the engineers at OpenDNS subscribe to those lists, too. They block the proxies as fast as they are created.)

All of this OpenDNS goodness is free, automatic and always improving. Surely there’s a catch. How, for example, does OpenDNS make money?

First, although everything described here is free, the company sells additional services to businesses.

Second, if you type the address of a nonexistent site, OpenDNS throws up the equivalent of Google’s “Did you mean?” screen: a list of sites, provided for (and paid for) by Yahoo, that behave as though you’ve done a search for that term. Presto: more income.

About the only worry anyone seems to have about OpenDNS is about privacy. Already, 20 million people use OpenDNS, according to the company — 1 percent of everyone on the Internet. Even if OpenDNS doesn’t know your name or anything about you, couldn’t it be collecting all kinds of Web traffic data, concocting its evil plans?

Of course, whoever is providing your D.N.S. lookups now (not to mention your bank, phone company and grocery store) could be doing exactly the same thing right now. At a certain point, you have to let go.

The biggest realistic challenge may be setting up OpenDNS in the first place. It involves typing two addresses into the D.N.S. settings page of your computer or router: and That new address directs your computers’ Web requests to OpenDNS’s lookup service.

At OpenDNS.com, the step-by-step instructions take all of two minutes to complete. But fooling around with these network underpinnings may strike some people as intimidating.

You can, if you like, turn on OpenDNS on each computer and phone in your building individually. But it’s much smarter and quicker to make the change on the router itself, the little box that distributes your Internet connection throughout your home. At OpenDNS.com, you’ll find illustrated instructions for each router brand.

In any case, OpenDNS is one of the last great freebies of the Web. It manages to pull off the Google trick: offering, at no charge, incredible utility and speed to the masses — while still finding inoffensive ways to make money. Even if you use only one or two of its features, you’ll find that OpenDNS makes your Web life better.

Come to think of it, you can thank me after all.
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Thu 19 Aug, 2010 02:12 pm
Butrflynet wrote:
After reading this column in the NYT, I have a question. Would something like OpenDNS be an effective way to circumvent an internet provider's anti-net neutrality traffic management?

No. Internet providers can control the flow of data across their networks and can block or redirect it based on any algorithm they choose to implement. It's still possible for people to encrypt their data which would prevent the providers from being able to decipher what was contained in the data flowing over their networks but the providers would still know the machines that were sending/receiving that data. If the data crossed several providers networks, then all the providers would have to do is to coordinate their connection information through routing tables to get information on destinations and targets.

The closest thing to what you are looking for would be something like Freenet.org

It's basically a strategy for encrypted data storage across a distributed network of internet servers designed to prevent anyone from knowing what the data flowing across the network contains.
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Mon 22 Nov, 2010 02:43 pm

FCC may forgo ‘Net Neutrality’ for wireless networks

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, November 22nd, 2010 -- 2:54 pm

After the mid-term Republican landslide in the US House, many political observers proclaimed that hopes for true "Net Neutrality" policies passing Congress had gone up in flames along with the Democratic majority.

Now the last chance for those rules, known to supporters as the First Amendment of the Internet, may be slipping away as well.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which would have to act independent of Congress, is formulating a series of proposals based upon principles from legislation first proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), according to a Monday report by Politico.

Waxman, who vowed that he would support the so-called 'Net Neutrality' policy proposals favored by most Democrats and progressives, instead put forward a legislative framework that explicitly prohibits the FCC from regulating broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act. It would have effectively enshrined proposals by telecom and data giants Google and Verizon, which mandate neutrality for wireline networks but allow for tiered services over wireless.

"The world envisioned by the Verizon-Google Gaggle was one built of private Internets that would vastly diminish the centrality of the Internet that you and I know," opined FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps, speaking at a recent town hall meeting [PDF link] in New Mexico.

"They want a tiered Internet. 'Managed services' is what they call this. 'Gated communities for the Affluent' is what I call them."

An FCC spokesman told Politico that no matter what outside sources may be claiming, the commission's upcoming agenda has yet to be announced and any reports about their forthcoming proposals are purely speculative.

The publication noted that its sources close to the FCC commissioners mentioned talk of adding a neutrality component to wireless networks, but few details were carried in the report.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told an audience in San Francisco recently that "Net Neutrality" rules "will happen."

In order for that to become reality, the FCC will have to act on its own and it will have to do so during its December meeting, the agenda for which is expected to be announced on Nov. 24.

The FCC could simply reclassify the Internet as a "communications service" instead of an "information service," effectively giving it the power to enforce fairness. It could alternatively leave broadband as a Title I service and just issue a package of "Net Neutrality" rules

Or, as Politico suggested, it may ultimately return with policies culled from the watered-down Waxman "compromise" that actually kills data equality and allows network traffic management on all levels.

Or it could do nothing.

Republicans in Congress are adamantly opposed to mandating data neutrality, suggesting that business interests should be allowed to manage traffic on their networks and create super-tiers of special traffic that get additional bandwidth. Following the mid-term elections, there was talk of the GOP fighting various federal regulatory agencies by attempting to withhold funding.

Should the FCC fail to act before those Republicans take office in 2011, the rules could be delayed even further.

In an editorial for Scientific American, creator of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee opined that the fracturing of the Internet poses risks to human rights. And it's not just data inequality that threatens the free and open web, he said: it's also "closed silos" of information like Facebook and LinkedIn.

"If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands," Lee wrote. "We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides.

"Why should you care? Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium."
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