Cryptocurrency enthusiasts are proposing a new system for buying and registering domains on the web-based on blockchain technology.
Conventionally, setting up and accessing websites over the Internet requires the use of the Domain Name System (DNS), which effectively acts like a phonebook for the Internet.
Businesses called domain name registrars lease domain name registrations to the general public.
Records of global registrations are centralised and kept by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is responsible for managing and coordinating the Domain Name System to ensure that every address is unique and that all users of the Internet can find all valid addresses.
It also oversees and coordinates the distribution of unique IP addresses and domain names, and that each domain name maps to the correct IP address.
By contrast, blockchain-based domains rely on a blockchain made up of complex smart contracts to create and maintain websites, which have their content stored on a decentralised network.
This means there is no single database with records of the domains and their current owners.
One of the most well-known examples of a blockchain based domain system was developed by cryptocurrency platform Ethereum and is called the Ethereum Name Service (ENS).
Much like the domain name system translates IP addresses into simple, easily readable names, blockchain-based domains converts complicated and long cryptocurrency addresses into human-friendly strings.
The primary purpose of the system is to simplify cryptocurrency payments, by allowing users to create a single website which acts as their crypto wallet.
However, more recently Draper Associates and Boost VC launched Unstoppable Domains, which makes bolder claims about the capabilities of blockchain domains.
While the main focus of Unstoppable Domains is also on cryptocurrency payments, it promises another feature – the ability to build unregulated, uncensorable, and unremovable websites.
MyBroadband spoke to South Africa’s Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) and Luno Chief Technology Officer and Co-founder Timothy Stranex to understand the potential and dangers of this technology.
Protection from censorship
Stranex said that it was important that decentralised systems like Unstoppable Domains were available as alternatives to centralised systems like ICANN, due to the possibility of censorship.
“One of the reasons is that centralised systems are always subject to geopolitics,” Stranex said.
He said the US planning to ban TikTok and China banning certain US companies were examples of this and stated that these types of restrictions could be extended to domain names.
“A court can order a registrar to remove or expropriate a DNS domain name whereas it cannot do so for a blockchain domain name,” Stranex explained.
While this would be ideal in a situation where a site is blocked or removed for seemingly unjustifiable reasons, it creates another problem.
If a site were to host illegal content like pirated movies or child pornography, or acts as a platform for illegal activities including black market weapon trading or human trafficking, there would be no way of shutting it down.
However, while blockchain based domains are not subject to regulation from ICANN, they use an alternate root which requires certain modifications to certain network settings to be accessed.
Unstoppable Domains currently offers its own browser and a plug-in for the Chrome browser to facilitate this.
This means that although it may be impossible to shut down a website once created using its blockchain-based systems, access to the site can still be limited by Unstoppable Domains or any third party which provides access to its alternate root.
In the event that a blockchain-based website hosts either illegal content or content that is deemed inappropriate, it can therefore still be censored.
This was one of the reasons ISPA disagreed with the idea that blockchain-based domains can be a general-purpose replacement for DNS.
It said the fact that blockchain domains require the use of alternative DNS roots subverts the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) processes and creates a “new source of truth”.
“They effectively fragment the Internet and create a separate parallel version of it that is only accessible to the subset of consumers that have bought into their alternative root.”
“At best this creates confusion when one consumer doesn’t know why their friend is able to access something they cannot. At worst, it results in namespace collisions,” ISPA said.
For example, the current top-level domains used by Unstoppable Domains are .crypto and .zil.
Since these strings are not reserved in the mainstream DNS, another party can apply to ICANN to establish them as a new gTLD.
Not agile enough
Another problem was that the transaction performance of blockchains is not well-suited to the swift changes happening on the Internet.
“Traditional hierarchical DNS is designed to ensure changes can happen quickly and responses can be cached.”
“Blockchain, on the other hand, is designed to ensure transactions cannot be repudiated, and this comes at the cost of agility,” ISPA explained.
“It is hard to envision a blockchain-based solution being able to handle the traditional CDN world where DNS may change every minute, and different geographies get different answers,” ISPA said.
Stranex submitted that blockchain domain technology may be insufficient at scale.
However, he added that it could be used to cut out middlemen like registrars and TLDs, and avoid reliance on centralised entities.
“It may also be easier to trade (buy and sell) domain names – this is possible with normal domain names but is extremely clunky and requires escrow systems,” Stranex noted.