DNS Politics: Citizen journalism after the Twitter ban

Photograph posted to Twitter by Engin Onder on March 20, 2014, with the caption: "‪#twitter‬ blocked in ‪#turkey‬ tonight. folks are painting ‪#google‬ dns numbers onto the posters of the governing party." The poster shows the AKP candidate for Eskişehir.

Last Friday, DNS-themed graffiti and memes began to appear in Turkish streets and on the web, bringing the normally unnoticed architecture of the internet into public discourse.

The sudden focus on DNS, the system that translates a URL into its corresponding numerical IP address, was prompted by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision on March 20 to ban Twitter. Court orders were issued to Turkish internet service providers, who apparently implemented DNS redirects, meaning that requests for "twitter.com" would be routed to a different IP address and shown a warning page.

This kind of block is not particularly effective; users can easily circumvent it by using a public DNS server. Instead of sending the request for twitter.com to a Turkish ISP, users could simply change their computer's network settings and send the request to Google or OpenDNS, or any number of international, publicly available DNS servers. While this is easy to do, it's perhaps not widely understood, and so fans of internet freedom took to the web and the streets to spread the word about the DNS workaround. 

The 140journos citizen journalist network—organized by Serdar Paktin, Engin Onder and Cem Aydogdu of Institute of Creative MindsBurcu Baykurt, and Igal Nassima—have been engaged in archiving and analyizing social media from Turkish users in an effort to make popular voices more present in the reporting of news and, later, the writing of history about this pivotal period. By way of example, they offered us some of the media from their archive in which users spread the word about DNS: 

Major soccer team logo used as DNS digits.

 President's rival Imam in Pennsylvania depicted with DNS settings in Survivor Turkey.

By Saturday, the ban had been tightened: Twitter's IP address itself was blocked, requiring users to set up a VPN or use a Tor browser to work around the requirements. Yesterday, the plot thickened further; after the leak of an audio tape in which Turkish leaders discuss starting a false flag war with Syria, Erdogan blocked YouTube. Strangely, this was done as a DNS block, once again. 

A number of internet pundits triumphantly hailed the collective action around DNS usage as evidence that "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it," in the words of John Gilmore. Hapless politician attempts to block website, people find another way, or so the story goes. However, Nassima, argues that this is a misrepresentation; the Twitter ban did have an effect on usage. Nassima and have been archiving social media since the Gezi protests. Nassima has seen a drop in the volume of tweets archived. Even on the first full day of the DNS ban, data from social media analysts Semiocast show a drop in usage from the prior week. Zeynep Tufekci convincingly argues that Erdogan's "ineffective" blocking techniques are more strategic than they seem, that he merely wants to create conditions in which only the existing opposition is using the internet.

Whatever his intentions, one of the unintended consequences has been an opportunity for public, international conversation about network protocol, normally considered too arcane for the news cycle. As Alex Galloway argued in his book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, the web's logic is not purely one of decentralization; instead, horizontal and hierarchical systems exist on it at the same time. The DNS system is one of these hierarchical systems; as Galloway wrote, "The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, describes the DNS system as the "one centralized Achilles' heel by which [the Web] can all be brought down or controlled.'" Coming in the wake of the recent announcement that US oversight over the central administration of DNS would end by 2015, Erdogan's ongoing DNS hijinks are a reminder of this structural weakness and an opportunity to encourage a wider understanding of the architecture of the web and its vulnerability to centralized power.

Erdogan's network-level censorship, though, also calls for immediate, tactical responses to ensure that marginalized voices can be heard online. The 140journos network have developed a mobile app, Journos, for citizen journalists in Turkey; they also have an SMS setup in case of internet blackouts. During Sunday's election, users can tune into to the Journos website for live updates and analysis (in both English and Turkish), including election results as well as live user-reported news around Turkey.

"The Net" as we know it doesn't route around censorship like that of Erdogan's bans. In fact, its DNS-dependent structure actually facilitates it. If censorship is bypassed, it is only because of the collaborative labors of those like 140journos and the many DNS-savvy graffiti artists and meme-makers who know not to interpret censorship as technical damage, but as targeted political oppression.

Translation: AKP voters have started changing their DNS settings.

Translation: who's going to explain to Bilal (Prime Minister's son) how to change DNS?

Classic Gezi meme adapted to the DNS workaround.