December 17, 2018

Archives for October 2006

Spamhaus Tests U.S. Control Over Internet

In a move sure to rekindle debate over national control of the Internet, a US court may soon issue an order stripping London-based of its Internet name.

Here’s the backstory. Spamhaus, an anti-spam organization headquartered in London, publishes ROKSO, the “Register of Known Spam Operations”. Many sites block email from ROKSO-listed sites, as an anti-spam tactic. A US company called e360 sued Spamhaus, claiming that Spamhaus had repeatedly and wrongly put e360 on the ROKSO, and asking the court to award monetary damages and issue an injunction ordering e360’s removal from ROKSO.

Spamhaus lost the case, apparently due to bad legal maneuvering. Faced with a U.S. lawsuit, Spamhaus had two choices: it could challenge the court’s jurisdiction over it, or it could accept jurisdiction and defend the case on the merits. It started to defend on the merits, but then switched strategies, declaring the court had no jurisdiction and refusing to participate in the proceedings. The court said that Spamhaus had accepted its jurisdiction, and it proceeded to issue a default judgment against Spamhaus, ordering it to pay $11.7M in damages (which it apparently can’t pay), and issuing an injunction ordering Spamhaus to (a) take e360 off ROKSO and keep it off, and (b) post a notice saying that previous listings of e360 had been erroneous.

Spamhaus has ignored the injunction. As I understand it, courts have broad authority to enforce their injunctions against noncompliant parties. In this case, the court is considering (but hasn’t yet issued) an order that would revoke Spamhaus’s use of the name; the order would require ICANN and the Tucows domain name registry to shut off service for the name, so that anybody trying to go to would get a domain-not-found error. (ICANN says it’s up to Tucows to comply with any such order.)

There are several interesting questions here. (1) Is it appropriate under U.S. law for the judge to do this? (2) If the is revoked, how will spamhaus and its users respond? (3) If U.S. judges can revoke domain name registrations, what are the international implications?

I’ll leave Question 1 for the lawyers to argue.

The other two questions are actually interrelated. Question 3 is about how much extra power (if any) the US has by virtue of history and of having ICANN, the central naming authority, within its borders. The relevance of any US power depends on whether affected parties could work around any assertion of US power, which gets us back to Question 2.

Suppose that gets shut down. Spamhaus could respond by registering Would the .uk registry, which is run or chartered by the UK government, comply with a US court order to remove Spamhaus’s registration? My guess would be no. But even if the .uk registry complied and removed, that decision would not depend on any special US relationship to ICANN.

The really sticky case would be a dispute over a valuable name in .com. Suppose a US court ordered ICANN to yank a prominent .com name belonging to a non-US company. ICANN could fight but being based in the US it would probably have to comply in the end. Such a decision, if seen as unfair outside the US, could trigger a sort of constitutional crisis for the Net. The result wouldn’t be pretty. As I’ve written before, ICANN is far from perfect but the alternatives could be a lot worse.

(via Slashdot)

ThreeBallot and Write-Ins

Yesterday I wrote about Ron Rivest’s ThreeBallot voting system. Today I want to start a discussion of problems with the system. (To reiterate: the purpose of this kind of criticism is not to dump on the designer but to advance our collective understanding of voting system design.) Charlie Strauss and Andrew Appel have more thorough criticisms, which I’ll get to in future posts. Today I want to explain what I think is the simplest problem with ThreeBallot: it has no natural way to handle write-in votes.

(For background on how ThreeBallot works, see the previous post.)

The basic principle of ThreeBallot voting is that each voter fills out three ballots. Every candidate’s name must be marked on either one or two of the three ballots – to vote for a candidate you mark that candidate on exactly two of the three ballots; all other candidates get marked on exactly one of the three ballots. The correctness of ThreeBallot depends on what I’ll call the Constraint: each voter creates at least one mark, and no more than two marks, for each candidate.

But how can we maintain the Constraint for write-in candidates? The no-more-than-two part is easy, but the at-least-one part seems impossible. If some joker writes in Homer Simpson on two of his ballots, does that force me and every other voter to write in Homer on one of my three ballots? And how could I, voting in the morning, know whether somebody will write in Homer later in the day?

We could give up on the Constraint for write-in candidates. But the desirable features of ThreeBallot – the combination of auditability and secrecy – depend on the Constraint.

In particular, it’s the at-least-one part of the Constraint that allows you to take home a copy of one of your ballots as a receipt. Because you have to mark at least one ballot for every candidate, a receipt showing that you marked one ballot for a particular candidate (a) doesn’t force you to help that candidate, and (b) doesn’t prove anything about how you really voted – and that’s why it’s safe to let you take a receipt. If we throw out the at-least-one rule for write-ins, then a receipt showing a write-in is proof that you really voted for that write-in candidate. And that kind of proof opens the door to coercion and vote-buying.

Alternatively, we can declare that people who cast write-in votes don’t get to take receipts. But then the mere existence of your receipt is proof that you didn’t vote for any write-in candidates. I don’t see any way out of this problem. Do you?

There’s an interesting lesson here about election security, and security in general. Systems that work well in the normal case often get in trouble when they try to handle exceptional or unusual cases. The more complicated the system is, the more likely such problems seem to be.

In the next post I’ll talk about some other instructive problems with ThreeBallot.


ThreeBallot is a new voting method from Ron Rivest that is supposed to make elections more secure without compromising voter privacy. It got favorable reviews at first – Michael Shamos even endorsed it at a congressional hearing – but further analysis shows that it has some serious problems. The story of ThreeBallot and its difficulties is a good illustration of why voting security is hard, and also (I hope) an interesting story in its own right.

One reason secure voting is hard is that it must meet seemingly contradictory goals. On the one hand, votes must be counted as cast, meaning the vote totals reported at the end are the correct summation of the ballots actually cast by the voters. The obvious way to guarantee this is to build a careful audit trail connecting each voter to a ballot and each ballot to the final tally. But this is at odds with the secret ballot requirement, which says that there can be no way to connect a particular voter to a particular ballot. Importantly, this last requirement must hold even if the voter wants to reveal his ballot, because letting a voter prove how he voted opens the door to coercion and vote-buying.

If we were willing to abandon the secret ballot, we could help secure elections by giving each voter a receipt to take home, with a unique serial number and the list of votes cast, and publishing all of the ballots (with serial numbers) on the web after the election. A voter could then check his receipt against the online ballot-list, and complain if they didn’t match. But of course the receipt violates the secret-ballot requirement.

Rivest tries to work around this by having the voter fill out three ballots. To vote for a candidate, the voter marks that candidate on exactly two of the three ballots. To vote against a candidate, the voter marks that candidate on exactly one ballot. All three ballots are put in the ballot box, but the voter gets to take home a copy of one of them (he chooses which one). At the end of election day, all ballots are published, and the voter can compare the ballot-copy he kept against the published list. If anybody modifies a ballot after it is cast, there is a one-third chance that the voter will have a copy of that ballot and will therefore be able to detect the modification. (Or so the theory goes.)

Consider a two-candidate race between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Alice wants to cast her vote for Washington, so she marks Washington on two ballots and Arnold on one. The key property is that Alice can choose to take home a copy of a Washington ballot or a copy of an Arnold ballot – so the mark on the ballot she takes doesn’t reveal her vote. Arnold’s crooked minions can offer to pay her, or threaten to harm her, if she doesn’t produce an Arnold ballot afterward, and she can satisfy them while still casting her vote for Washington.

ThreeBallot is a clever idea and a genuine contribution to the debate about voting methods. But we shouldn’t rush out and adopt it. Other researchers, including Charlie Strauss and Andrew Appel, have some pretty devastating criticisms of it. They’ll be the topic of my next post.