There’s a blurry line between a safe internet and an open internet when it comes to making it safe for everybody. Companies like Google and Firefox are making moves to make things safer, but ISPs and some experts have concerns about whether those moves will cause problems for the internet’s openness. Google’s latest move is the plan to add DNS encryption over TLS to Chrome (and Firefox – though it’s Chrome that antitrust investigators are eyeballing in particular). The investigators on the House Judiciary Committee asked Google in a letter for information about its “decision regarding whether to adopt or promote the adoption of the protocol,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
A quick DNS primer
Here’s a quick refresher on what DNS (Domain Name Service) is: When you visit a website, your computer is passing a DNS request along to a DNS server that tells your router and finally your computer how to get to that website. The common metaphor is that it’s a phonebook for the internet, and that’s not a bad metaphor. But it’s also a phonebook that’s maintained through open cooperation across ISPs and is being updated millions of times per day.
When you make that DNS request, your ISP can see that request regardless of whose DNS servers you’re using because DNS requests are generally unencrypted. This provides these companies with valuable data that they can then use for any number of noble or nefarious activities from optimizing slow servers to selling your data to advertisers.
But now Google and Mozilla are looking to encrypt DNS requests via TLS (Transport Layer Security), which would make those requests invisible to your provider. On the one hand, this could protect users against things like unauthorized snooping of our web traffic. And with a company like Mozilla, which focuses almost exclusively on browser tech, it’s easier to imagine that they have the best interests of the greater internet in mind. (It’s no wonder many of us are using VPNs are the router level these days.)
Google isn’t just a browser company, though
But Google isn’t just a browser company and DNS provider. They’re also an advertising company, a big-data company, a retail company, and a telecom. There’s a real fear that Google is introducing DNS encryption not to protect the internet but to keep data to itself; data that ISPs and other companies can access right now. Chrome’s auto-update feature means a world where Google flips a switch and sends all DNS queries from Chrome to Google servers isn’t impossible, even if it’s highly unlikely.
Google says it has “no plans to centralize or change peoples’ DNS providers to Google by default.” The company adds that “any claim that we are trying to become the centralized encrypted DNS provider is inaccurate.” Of course, people don’t usually announce questionable actions before they take them; the investigation is still warranted.
There are a bunch of eyeballs on big tech these days. Facebook is under all kinds of investigations for privacy, and almost every state has an ongoing investigation into all the tech giants. Maybe our lawmakers have moved past the “series of tubes” era of internet comprehension. Maybe.