Even though I manage to forget all manner of things – birthdays, where I left my keys, the names of friends’ children – some bits of information remain lodged in my brain. One of these is the landline number of my best friend’s parents.
I can reel it off effortlessly, even though I’ve had no reason to dial it for over 20 years. Back in the late cretaceous period when I was growing up, mobile phones were still the preserve of deep-pocketed city types.
If I wanted to get in touch with Mark then I had to pick up the phone and punch in the number, hoping that neither of his parents would answer. Those numbers I dialled all the time got seared onto the inside of my skull and have remained there stubbornly ever since.
The Early Days of Phone Numbers. Image via Shutterstock
Fast forward a couple of decades and such feats of memory are no longer needed. My phone saves all the information for me and all I do to ring Mark is tap his name and wait while he ignores my call.
This has led to the bizarre situation where I can remember a number I haven’t called since the late 90s, but not that of my girlfriend’s mobile. If you put my fingers in a vice and started turning, I honestly still couldn’t tell you what it is.
All Hail DNS
The internet works in a similar way. If I want to see what Mark’s been up to then I could visit the IP address at 220.127.116.11 or I could type the domain name facebook.com into my browser and go from there.
The domain name system (DNS) matches a site’s fiddly numerical IP address with an easily-remembered word or phrase. We can thus leave the boundless joys of IP addresses to the geeks and hackers while the rest of us get on with our lives.
Mapping the Internet with DNS. Image via Shutterstock
In the early days of the internet there was money to be made from the DNS. Those people in possession of a working crystal ball were able to buy up domain names and sell them on, often for huge profits. In 2019, for example, block.one paid $30 million for voice.com.
Whoever first registered that domain can consider themselves to have had a decent day at the office. A shadier version of this practice known as cybersquatting inevitably sprang up too. This involves registering a trademark as a domain and then selling the domain back to the said trademark’s owner for an inflated fee.
This often leads to litigation and has kept plenty of lawyers busy over the years. One particularly entertaining example involved Microsoft going head-to-head with a Canadian high school student, while other disputes have involved big names like Lufthansa and the rock band Jethro Tull.
The DNS is one of those things that makes life easier and has become so embedded in the fabric of the internet that we mostly take it for granted. It does however have its disadvantages.
The first of these involves an organisation that most people have probably never heard of, the catchily-titled Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN.
ICANN, the global internet Organisation. Image via ICANN
This is a non-profit body, based in California, that regulates and administers the entire DNS. It also authorises other organisations to act as domain name registrars that then themselves manage domain names. Domain.com, GoDaddy and Namecheap are three of the best-known examples of such registrars.
The ICANN is one of those entities that generally chugs along in the background unheeded by most of the world, playing a pivotal, if unsung role in day-to-day life. However, the existence of the ICANN throws up one of the dirtiest words in modern internet parlance: centralisation.
Anyone familiar with the concept of blockchain knows that one of its key features is its decentralised structure. There is no single point of entry, no back door left ajar. Blockchains are safer because of the lack of a central hub that can be targeted by those with malign intentions and because no one person or organisation is able to assume complete control.
To the many who hold the concept of net neutrality dear, the ICANN represents a centralised soft underbelly that concentrates power and influence in one obvious place. Anyone looking to disrupt, attack or manipulate the DNS knows exactly where to start.
Some will disagree with me, but I find it rather worrying that an organisation of such importance is situated in the United States, within easy reach of characters like Mark Zuckerberg or that fluorescent goon who apparently runs the place.
Better perhaps than if it was situated in China, but then in the current climate that’s a moot point. The registrars that the ICANN oversees are themselves also prime starting points for anyone trying to manipulate or attack the system.
Centralised Points of Failure. Image via Shutterstock
Running alongside the issue of centralisation is the fact that DNS servers are vulnerable to outside manipulation. Websites hosted by these servers can be attacked and disabled either by hackers or national governments for their own nefarious ends.
The owners of these websites live with the constant worry that they could be the victims of extortion or censorship, made possible by the immanent weaknesses of the DNS model.
Hackers especially are well-versed in manipulating the DNS and are often able to exploit its other vulnerability: the fact that the only information servers can see about a client is their IP address. Any hacker worth their salt is able to bounce their IP signal around the world and render themselves undetectable.
So, although the DNS is a vital component of our online lives, it is vulnerable to disruptive forces. In the past, such weaknesses could be written off as a price worth paying for the convenience and speed that the DNS offers. As TinyDNS.org puts it, without it ‘the internet would not exist.’ However, the emergence of blockchain is calling such assumptions into question.
You don’t need to work in Palo Alto to figure out what a blockchain domain is. It works in the same way as a regular domain, but the site in question is on a blockchain. But, true to the spirit of blockchain, its domains are capable of much more than their Web 2.0 equivalents.
As well as holding a site’s address in a more memorable form, a domain on a blockchain can also process payments in cryptocurrency. If a website owner needs to be paid for goods or services, then they can simply give the customer their blockchain domain (for example payment.crypto) instead of copying and pasting a clunky wallet address.
The domain can take receipt of a crypto payment and the transaction is preserved immutably on the blockchain. At the moment blockchain domains need plugins to work inside most browsers, but platforms like Opera, Metamask and Status have been developed to support them.
Decentralised Domain Names. Image via Hackernoon
Already both the owner of the blockchain-based site and their customer have had their lives made easier. But things get better still thanks to the fact that the site’s owner also enjoys a greater degree of control and autonomy over their domain and the content on it.
By being part of a decentralised network, blockchain domains are impossible to block and resistant to censorship. The benefits of this are clear to anyone who either lives in an authoritarian state or has spent more than ten seconds considering what that might be like. Freedom of speech becomes much harder to curtail.
Control rests in the hands of website owners and content creators because the blockchain domains they use are stored in wallets to which only they have the keys. The old system, whereby domain names are stored and managed by registrars who can be induced to shut them down, is starting to look obsolete.
Finally of course, there is the question of security. Blockchains are not entirely immune to hackers and you can be pretty damn sure they’re working on ways to crack them, but they are a heck of a lot more secure than other networks. A website with a blockchain domain is a daunting prospect for hackers and malware.
ENS & Friends
If you’re wondering which blockchains are leading the way in supporting domains then you won’t be surprised to learn that Ethereum features high on the list. The Ethereum Name Service (ENS) is an open-source, not-for-profit endeavour that, in the words of Director of Operations Brantly Millegan, focusses on ‘decentralisation, censorship-resistance and programmability.’
Unstoppable Domains Services
ENS allows decentralised websites to bypass the approval of DNS registrars and the ICANN to build their services directly on top of the ENS blockchain and register a .eth address. Millegan is also at pains to point out that such sites don’t even need the approval of ENS themselves to get going.
Another big player in the sphere is Unstoppable Domains, which is responsible for both the .zil (a partnership with Zilliqa) and .crypto domain name systems. This San Francisco-based outfit cites the ‘tribalism’ of much of the crypto community as a major barrier to mass adoption.
Censorhip Resistant and Decentralised Domain Service
Their .crypto registry allows users to send and receive any cryptocurrency they like to any wallet of their choosing. CEO Matthew Gould argues that:
sending money to a .crypto domain is a way simpler user experience for the millions of cryptocurrency users that currently have to copy/paste and type in long addresses in order to transact.
It’s worth remembering that the issue of adoption is a key underlying factor in the blockchain domain space. Anything that can simplify the process of using cryptocurrencies on a daily basis is a welcome incentive for more people to wade into the crypto waters.
Similarly, those looking to build out the Web 3.0 that blockchain is making possible need all the help they can get to simplify their processes and maintain their autonomy. ENS and Unstoppable Domains, as well as newer players like UniLogin all understand the potential scope of blockchain domains and their place in this ever-expanding ecosystem.
In the words of Brantley Millegan, ‘our clientele is the entire world.’
Featured Image via Shutterstock