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Published on 23 June 2020
Submitted on 8 August 2020
The domain name system (DNS) is a technology that lets users use a memorable host name, such as "activitypub.dev" instead of memorizing specific IP addresses to access content over the internet. It forms the backbone of the HTTP protocol and browsing habits of users around the world. Being able to type "activitypub.dev" and access the machine serving the website is a lot more user-friendly than having to memorize an IP address like "127.0.0.1" or "::1".
DNS is useful, but comes with serious major drawbacks for the Fediverse. They range from identity management, being a knowledge barrier for self-hosting, being an economic barrier for self-hosting, being a vector for invading internet users' privacy, and is a single point of failure as attacks and censorship by governments has shown.
Current Fediverse software ties the user to a specific DNS host, such as "mastodon.social" or "pleroma.site". While there are ways to migrate accounts, it does not change the fact that Fediverse identity is tied directly to a machine somewhere. Currently, moving accounts from one machine to another does not obsolete the need for DNS, as the user is exposed no matter which instance they reside. This subjects them to further risks involving central points of failure, as ex-users of now-defunct instances can attest to: once their instance is down, the fountain of their digital presence runs dry and they no longer exist. Because identities are tied to DNS, identity management has an upper bound of fault-tolerance and distribution limited by DNS's capability.
Obtaining a DNS name requires technical knowledge of how domain name registries function, which adds a knowledge barrier to self-hosting. There are plenty of domain-name registrars that cater towards reducing this barrier, but this barrier is high for laypeople. It is too easy for the technical community to dismiss this concern as trivial simply because of the sheer prevalence of DNS in the commercial world. It seems like a foregone conclusion that because of the prevalence and popularity of DNS, the technical knowledge barrier must be low. However, this was not true in the early 90's and is no truer today. This has been a consistent knowledge barrier and pain point that the culture has lived with for a long time. As long as the Fediverse is tied to DNS, there is a minimum knowledge-bar that exists that grants certain people the power to self-host and not others.
Obtaining a DNS name also requires money in the form of a regular monthly or annual payment, which adds an economic barrier to self-hosting. In addition to the knowlege-barrier, those above an economic bar can self-host their Fediverse identity.
Note that if a user does not meet either the knowledge or economic bar, they can join an existing instance. However, they have then bound their identity to that instance. See the previous point on DNS and Fediverse identities: their digital identity is, still due in part to DNS, now held hostage.
DNS requests can be a way for ISPs to re-sell a user's browsing information to third parties, depending on local law. In the United States, the Senate repealed in S.J.Res.34 the existing FCC guidance protecting DNS records for Americans, effectively allowing ISPs to treat DNS records as a means to obtain more revenue. This is not to be confused with the same Senate's later repeal of net neutrality. Across the pond in the UK, ISPs are required to maintain DNS records for up to one year for security and pornography-compliance reasons. Other ISPs may even meddle with DNS queries, though this very narrow problem does have existing technical solutions. The ISPs that do collect DNS logs always pose a risk of leaking their country's browsing habits which can be used to profile individuals. And this is just one side of the privacy side of DNS.
The other privacy side is when website operators (including this one) must disclose personal information for each DNS name they obtain. This allows someone to take any website and connect it to specific people or companies. It should be no surprise that this database of sensitive personal information is already undergoing a crisis under Europe's new GDPR law. It also should be no surprise that in 2019 Facebook has been attempting to acquire as much of this information as possible, in such an aggressive manner that as recent as June 2020 domain registrars have publicly complained about this abusive behavior in attempts to gain access to this private information.
Since the Fediverse uses DNS, its users and operators are exposed to both of these concerns.
Governments use DNS to attack groups of individuals or deploy mass censorship. DNS can be used to trick users into going to malicious websites or passively conduct mass-surveillance. Massive DNS Hijacking Campaigns are something we live with and are slow to patch holes in. Governments like Turkey regularly use DNS blocking in order to enforce mass censorship, for example in 2014 by blocking Google's DNS, 2016's Social Media Blackout, and 2018's denial of ProtonMail. Just to name a few. As long as the Fediverse is tied to DNS, Fediverse software is suspect to this same treatment.
Hopefully this captures the existing tradeoff the Fediverse has made to use DNS with problems pertaining to: online identity, higher educational barriers, higher economic barriers, increased exposure to privacy risks, and increased exposure to being attacked or monitored or censored by world powers.