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Basically, with an empty resolv.conf (and no weird stuff configured like resolvconf, nscd...nothing at all, just a plain squeeze install), I see DNS queries to port 53 when trying to resolve a name. Has that always been that way?

/etc/nsswitch.conf has the typical "hosts: files dns" line.

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I guess it's libc's default/ fallback behaviour.

Tried to reconstruct what you did. This stops, if you change your nsswitch.conf-entry to:

hosts: files

See also this hint:

See 'man 5 resolv.conf':

   If this file doesn't exist the only name server to be queried will be  on  the
   local  machine; the domain name is determined from the hostname and the domain
   search path is constructed from the domain name.
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