With solution providers like Unstoppable Domains or Handshake, and blockchain-enabled browsers like Brave more than happy to help on the implementation front, decentralized naming system alternatives traditional domain names have received more and more attention in recent times.
Centralized versus decentralized… what will it be?
The stakes are high given the fact that we deal with real estate on the internet rather than a fringe component of our online experience.
Moreover, this debate is not new in the cryptocurrency ecosystem. NameCoin is one of the oldest alt-coins in existence, launched in 2011. NameCoin aimed to provide a decentralized alternative to DNS. Unfortunately, Namecoin has failed to provide a viable DNS alternative at scale for reasons that will be covered in our next article on the dark side of decentralized domain names.
But what is a decentralized domain name system?
The name itself clearly indicates that we are dealing with a domain name system where there is no centralized point of control or failure. Or, at least, that’s the main goal.
In traditional centralized DNS:
- The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) controls the authoritative single root.
- The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is in charge of the management of the IANA
- ICANN then delegates the management of specific TLDs in the root to different registries, for example Verisign for .com.
- Registries allow companies called registrars to sell individual domain names to customers
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the limitations of traditional centralized DNS involves censorship. Suppose Person A runs the controversial WebsiteA.com. To do this, it must purchase the domain name WebsiteA.com through a registrar and point it to the servers of a host that it pays to store the files necessary for the operation of the site. Simply put, she needs a domain name and a website, so she’s good to go.
Person A then continues to post controversial content, with hundreds and hundreds of people complaining about the nature of said content…usually to their web hosting provider.
At this point in the game we kind of have a decentralized framework when it comes to hosting because person A can back up their data and if their current web hosting provider closes their account and deletes all the files they can still upload to servers. of a new company. If that supplier also proverbially pulls the plug, they can choose another company and so on. With a wide range of hosting options available in many jurisdictions, it could be argued that we are indeed not in the business of centralized points of failure. We saw this happen to the fullest extent when the social media site Parler, Beyond Controversy, was banned from its logging and web hosting services due to content inciting violence.
But only regarding accommodation:
With regard to domain names, the situation is different. Complaints sent to Person A’s registrar could result in the registrar deciding to suspend the WebsiteA.com domain name, rendering it unusable and forcing Person A to change domains. This could be catastrophic for a business. This would involve a bit more hassle, financial damage, and usability issues compared to changing web hosting providers. From domain investor experience, we saw firsthand what a wronged party could do to a multi-million dollar portfolio when GoDaddy locked an entire domain portfolio due to a dubious legal complaint regarding an alleged breach of contract having nothing to do with the actual domain portfolio, names or web content. (to seehttps://www.thedomains.com/2021/03/06/brent-oxley-godaddy/)
To switch hosting providers, Person A simply uploads the same files to a new server and changes the DNS records in the domain name servers to point WebsiteA.com to the new host. Other than perhaps some downtime caused by DNS propagation times, visitors to WebsiteA.com would not notice any turbulence. Conversely, if the WebsiteA.com domain were suspended, it would be impossible not to notice. They have to find out the new address of said website via other communication mediums such as social media…a logistical nightmare.
Needless to say, there are valid reasons why decentralized solutions may seem appealing, with benefits such as:
- The aforementioned censorship resistance since there is no one to complain to about a decentralized domain name. This offers good protection for free speech but little recourse against those who post the worst kinds of content. Working at a registrar for nearly seven years, we’ve stopped outrageous illegal content that has come through the abuse queue. I was glad we were able to do that.
- The fact that in some cases it is possible to simply make a one-time payment and retain ownership of a decentralized domain name indefinitely. With Unstoppable Domains, it’s possible to pay as little as $20 and never have to worry about renewal fees. Handshake domains, on the other hand, are subject to renewal fees and have a more complex approach to domain assignment, such as domain auctions where interested parties can bid via the HNS coin that is generated when new blocks are added.
- The potential anonymity involved. However, the main caveat is that in a public registry setting, the term “pseudonym” might be more appropriate. In many cases, it is possible to trace those who initiated a transaction. Yet decentralized domain names offer the potential for improved anonymity over their centralized counterparts, even compared to existing options for traditional domains such as WHOIS privacy.
- The security dimension. For example, valuable domain names have often been lost due to social engineering or basically criminals posing as the rightful owner of a domain and successfully transferring it. Similarly, there may be other options to compromise central points of failure, such as registrars, for example, hacks and weaknesses in their code. By contrast, tampering with anything blockchain-related is not an order of magnitude more difficult, with risks resulting from user errors such as loss of private keys more than from fraudulent activity. .
There are other benefits in addition to the four above, but they illustrate how decentralized domain names are an alternative worth considering. But, they are not without drawbacks, which we discuss in our companion article on the dark side of decentralized domain names.