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Q&A: Paul Mockapetris, Inventor of the Domain Name System, Wants to Filter the Web

Q&A: Paul Mockapetris, Inventor of the Domain Name System, Wants to Filter the Web
Photograph by Malcolm Piers

Before the Internet, there was the ARPANet, a closed computer network that pretty much shut down on weekends and over holidays. In 1983, Paul Mockapetris, then a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, proposed opening up the network beyond academia to anyone with a computer and modem. Over the next three years, he went on to develop the Domain Name System architecture, which in turn established the principle of a distributed and dynamic network that could hook up to any computer. It was a radical idea for a government-funded project.

Today, by Mockapetris’s calculation, there are more than 10 billion domain names in use. SMS messages, tweets, e-mail, streamed video, and music also travel through the DNS layer of the Internet. There’s a dark side, too. Cybercrime gangs increasingly operate in the DNS layer to launch denial-of-service attacks, send a barrage of spam, or set malware booby traps. DNS enables them to hide their tracks and make it seem like the attack is coming from legitimate sites or from everyday Internet users. Mockapetris, chief scientist and chairman of the board at network security firm Nominum, wants to use what he calls DNS forensics—analyzing Web traffic down to the domain look-up level to sniff out nefarious online activity—to turn the tables on the bad guys. Bloomberg Businessweek caught up with him recently to talk about the last 30 years, and the next 30.