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DNS resolver web-blocking case back in court in Germany

By | Published on Friday 10 February 2023


The dispute in Germany over whether or not a DNS resolver should get involved in web-blocking piracy sites was back in court this week. The targeted DNS resolver, the not-for-profit Quad9, has been sued by Sony Music, and has accused the music major of appearing to “push the idea that they are above and beyond the principles of freedom, decentralisation and proportionality”.

Web-blocking, of course, has been an anti-piracy tactic of choice of the music and movie industries for some time now in those countries where it is an option. At a basic level, copyright owners get an injunction from a court ordering internet service providers to block their customers from accessing copyright infringing websites.

However, there are various ways people can circumvent those blockades once they are in place. That includes using either an alternative DNS resolver or a Virtual Private Network. This basically means using a different provider for some elements of accessing the internet, including the element where the ISP has actually instigated the web-block.

In the case of a DNS resolver, that’s the element where the system identifies the unique IP address where a website the user has selected is actually located.

Aware of these various workarounds, copyright owners have sought to extend web-blocking to internet services that can be used to circumvent web-blocks put in place by the ISPs. And, most recently, that has included seeking web-blocking orders against DNS resolvers like Quad9.

However, Quad9 has been prolific in pushing back at Sony’s moves in court to force it to block access to a specific piracy site.

The argument goes that – while Quad9 doesn’t endorse copyright infringement – it’s an overreach to suggest a DNS resolver should be getting involved in the web-blocking process. So far those arguments haven’t won the day in court, but the DNS resolver continues to fight, hence this week’s court hearing.

Quad9, which has been documenting this legal battle on its website, set out its current arguments in a blog post earlier this month ahead of this week’s hearing.

“Although this blocking applies only to Quad9’s services located in Germany”, it stated, “by bringing this court case to fruition, Sony Music – and those who may eventually follow – appear to be pushing the idea that they are above and beyond the principles of freedom, decentralisation and proportionality”.

“DNS resolution is a conduit of metadata, not content delivery”, it went on. “Imposing content blocking far away from the source of the content puts costs and punishment in the wrong location, and reduces incentives for investment and local implementation which in turn reduces privacy and security”.

Plus “the ability of corporate entities to impose their will on unrelated third parties such as DNS resolution services creates a chilling effect which will reduce free information exchange, and introduces a significant risk of overreach and abuse against which there is little recourse”.

Sony may well argue that ISPs initially pushed back against the idea of web-blocking as well, often using similar arguments to those now presented by Quad9, with critics of the anti-piracy approach often talking about the potential impact on information exchange online.

Said critics would often ask questions like: “What about entirely legitimate websites that might inadvertently infringe copyright, will they end up being blocked too?”

However, the music company could point out, in those countries where getting web-blocking order against ISPs is now pretty routine, those web-blocks have generally been restricted to what are overtly piracy operations, with the oversight of a court or government agency ensuring things don’t get out of control.

With all that in mind, Sony might say, Quad9’s fears about the precedent being set here aren’t really justified. But we shall see whether higher courts in Germany are more persuaded by the DNS resolver’s arguments.