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DNS is one of those core technologies on which the internet runs. For most end users, DNS is pretty much invisible until they want to register their first domain for their own websites. At that point, the concept of a domain registrar suddenly pops into view.
But at the heart of it all is the body that controls all of the top-level domains, and that is responsible for resolving domain name disputes and many other domain related decisions. That body is ICANN, and to be straight about things, it would be fair to say that ICANN ultimately owns the internet.
Its power over domain ownership is unprecedented and it is this power that has got the usual anarchic corner of the internet up in arms.
Last year, in response to a series of domain seizures performed by the US government, The Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde, began work on a project to provide a decentralized DNS service running over a P2P network.
When Sunde announced his intention, he was met with the instant approval of several thousand internet users. A huge surge of activity took place during the initial phase of the project, and you can still see some of the brainstorming that took place as enthusiasts offered their expertise to redesign the fundamentals of DNS.
Granted, the project was ambitious and suffered many technical obstacles, but within a few months Sunde’s project had almost disappeared. You can find the last heroic attempts at building this system at the GitHub repository for Caleb James DeLisle, an IRC hacker, although he has renamed the project to CJDNS.
So what happened that a project that initially garnered the interest of so many users, could all but completely vanish?
Earlier this year a new contender appeared in the game, Namecoin. Namecoin gets its name from its parent project, BitCoin. In fact, much of the code that is used within the Namecoin project is taken from the original BitCoin source and hacked to achieve the ends that its originators are trying to reach. That’s because ultimately Namecoin works as a currency, that just happens to have its own P2P DNS system built into it.
In fact, purchasing a .bit domain is actually a namecoin transaction. The difference between this and traditional DNS is that once you own your domain, it can’t be taken away from you, because this would require that the entire P2P platform is compromised. That said, domains still expire as normal, and you will still need to renew ownership every year.
It’s a clever idea, but it is fraught with its own problems. The first is that in order to own a .bit name, you need to purchase it. Currently, the only way to purchase these domains is either using the default Namecoin currency, or to use its sister BitCoin.
Getting hold of this currency is not the easiest thing to do, although a recent crash in the value of BitCoins may mean that it is time to muscle in on this market. But then you’ve got to run some variant of the bitcoin software on your system in order to buy and set up a domain, although the first .bit registrar has appeared removing the need of the software for the purpose of buying the domain. Of course, the registrar only accepts BitCoin as its currency of trade, so it looks like .bit domains are currently going to be reserved for BitCoin owners.
In my opinion, a much bigger obstacle to Namecoin adoption is that it has not fully recognized how DNS has grown as a protocol.
Nowadays, DNS doesn’t just perform simple name-to-IP mapping. It is much more complex and constantly growing. For instance, DNS is responsible for providing information about mail exchanges in order for email to work properly. It also provides the option to host SPF records to help protect against spam that makes use of email spoofing. DNS also includes the ability to perform various other tricks such as load-balancing through Round-Robin DNS. Finally, if DNSSec gets off the ground, DNS will suddenly have another set of functions within the wider picture of the internet.
While it is probably unfair to point at Namecoin and say that it doesn’t address other technical challenges, it is also important to understand that while it is likely to gain quite a big following in the future, it has a long way to go before it can get close to ousting traditional DNS. While it works toward this point, it has to reach a point where it gains a critical mass before it will make its way out of being a simple Darknet.
Attempts to create alternative DNS infrastructures that cut ICANN out of the loop, are not new, but they usually end up creating little black-holes on the internet, where only a few adopters share access to the sites that they are interested in.
I’m all for change, but I expect that ICANN will be king of the internet for many years to come.