Tesltra blocks porn but opens a can of worms

0

A tiny mistake, but oh so embarrassing. Instead of directing Australian Idol fans to winner Casey Donovan’s website www.caseydonovan.com.au, Telstra’s congratulatory adverts in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Sun Herald pointed to www.caseydonovan.com.

Instead of seeing the dreadlocked sixteen-year-old from Bankstown, kiddies were introduced to the late Mr Casey Donovan, the world’s first ‘gay porn superstar’.

Telstra acted quickly at least for their own BigPond customers. Anyone requesting www.caseydonovan.com saw a ‘temporary splash screen’:

Please wait, you are being redirected to www.caseydonovan.com.au, the home page of Casey Donovan, the new Australian Idol. Please note that there is a US site with a similar address which contains adult content which is not suitable for minors. If you are over 18 and do not want to go to Casey Donovan’s Australian Idol Site, please click here now www.caseydonovan.com.

It’s easy to think Telstra did the right thing. As BigPond’s Corporate Affairs Manager, Craig Middleton, explains it, the splash page was ‘to minimise the prospect of minors inadvertently accessing a site which displays sexually explicit images and offers adult pornographic material for sale.’

But it’s not up to Telstra to decide what’s appropriate. Indeed, as the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) told them, the site is R-rated, not X-rated hosted in the US and outside ABA jurisdiction.

Australia’s Internet industry specifically asked not to be responsible for blocking offshore content. Too much work, they said. The job was handed to the ABA and the providers of ‘approved content filtering software’ like CyberPatrol and Symantec.

The second problem is subtle but more dangerous. Telstra inserted the splash page by fiddling with the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS).

DNS is a global network that’s fundamental to the Internet’s functioning. All computers on the Internet have a numerical Internet Protocal (IP) address. Porn star Donovan’s website lives at IP address 198.104.148.252, for instance.

Humans prefer words, so DNS lets us give computers and websites names. DNS translates those names into the numbers. Your web browser asks DNS to give you the IP address of a website, and then it connects to the computer at that address and says ‘Send me your home page’.

Telstra ‘poisoned the DNS’. For BigPond customers, DNS gave the wrong answer for www.caseydonovan.com: 144.135.19.91, the address of a Telstra computer.

This is dangerous. The Internet relies on DNS to ensure that website requests go to the correct server. Internet banking users rely on DNS to ensure they’re typing their password into their bank’s computer and not some criminal’s.

DNS is as important to the Internet as satellite navigation is to shipping. Perhaps more so, as ships have other ways of figuring out where they are like just looking out a porthole. Internet users only have DNS.

Protecting the integrity of DNS is vital for Internet security and conversely, DNS servers are some of the most heavily attacked computers online. Security experts treat DNS very seriously indeed.

Telstra’s actions indicate a different attitude that this vital system can be altered simply to cover a mistake. ‘We do recognise the importance of the DNS system,’ claimed Middleton in response to my query. ‘That is why we did not automatically redirect all traffic to the Casey Donovan Australian Idol site.’

Perhaps, but BigPond did poison DNS. And they did automatically divert traffic to a Telstra server instead of directly to where it should have gone.

In the case of www.caseydonovan.com, that ‘send me your home page’ request should have gone directly to the web server belonging to New Millennium Video of Woburn, Massachussetts.

Will communications minister Helen Coonan do anything about it? Probably not. ‘Protecting the kiddies’ is easier to sell than ‘the geeks are upset about, um, something’. And politics is all about expediency.

So the precedent has been set: Internet Service Providers may alter what we see simply to avoid embarrassment. From there, it’s a small step to altering what we see to disrupt competitor’s messages perhaps BigPond users who ask for Optus’ website could see a BigPond advertisement first.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

Comments

comments