Internet safety’s loss would be Google’s gain

In the early wild west days of the Internet, teachers struggled to keep children from accessing porn or violent content in the school library, child predators had the run of chatrooms and Internet security stopped at the router. Over the years, a coalition of public safety groups, security experts, service providers and government officials built a system to at least try to keep the most objectionable content off the Internet.

That system is now threatened by a proposed change to the Internet that would affect how users connect to websites. It’s technical, but the job of connecting users to websites would shift from service providers to browsers. It comes down to this: the responsibility for how we connect to websites would go from hundreds of companies to primarily Google. The proposed changes would enable Google to become the King of the Domain Name System (DNS).

The systems built over the past 20 years to filter objectionable content at libraries and schools, remove online child pornography, and identify websites that expose consumers to malware may be rendered useless. 

We should heed the warnings of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which plays a vital role of identifying, blocking and removing websites that contain images of child sexual abuse. The IWF warns DNS changes “would have a catastrophic impact.” It would make the horrific images we’ve spent all these years blocking suddenly highly accessible. All the years of work for children’s protection could be completely undermined – not just busting the IWF’s block list but swerving filters, bypassing parental controls, and dodging some counter terrorism efforts as well.”

That is because the DNS traffic would be encrypted, so those systems wouldn’t be able to identify the content as objectionable. Hackers have taken notice of that and are already using encrypted DNS to deliver malware to unsuspecting victims.

Some will frame this as a battle of privacy versus security. As users we shouldn’t have to choose between the two. And even if it was, turning our privacy (and data) over to Google, which just got fined $170 million by the Federal Trade Commission for violating children’s privacy, seems an odd decision.

Under this change, Google would be responsible for handling about two out of every three visits to a website. With that, the company would have unprecedented insight to both its competitors and consumers.

Google’s broad new power grab comes just as policymakers, regulators and consumer and safety groups raise concerns about the company’s trustworthiness and power. In fact, Google did the near impossible as it united 50 state attorneys general to join together and launch an investigation of the company’s business practices.

It’s no secret that Google has a poor track record of protecting consumers and harming competitors. Digital Citizens Alliance has documented how unscrupulous actors have used their platforms to promote the sale of opioids, promotion of Jihad and the offer of stolen credit cards.

Since 2017, the company has been fined almost $10 billion for illegally collecting data on children, illegally squeezing out competition in online advertising, illegally leveraging its dominant Android operating system to hurt or destroy competitors, and illegally using search to favor Google products over others. That’s a lot of “illegally” in a short time.

Given these concerns, it seems reasonable to hit the pause button.

The Internet community should agree to delay the DNS change until the same organizations that built the systems that protect against online child pornography, hateful and violent content, and malware-ridden websites can understand the impact. In addition, policymakers deserve time to determine whether Google’s takeover over of the DNS is good for the public and the Internet.

Hopefully, Google will see the value of a delay. After all, the last thing a $128+-billion-a-year company wants to be is the gatekeeper that no one trusts.

Tom Galvin is executive director of the Digital Citizens Alliance. He is focused on raising awareness about issues such as piracy and malware, the illegal online sale of opioids, steroids and other prescription drugs and the blurring of the lines between the Dark Web and mainstream digital platforms.

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