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ICANN takes the lamest swipe at Namecheap et al over blockchain domains

Kevin Murphy, November 24, 2021, Domain Tech

ICANN has come out swinging against blockchain domains and the registrars that sell them. And by “come out” I mean it’s published a blog post. And by “swinging” I mean “offered the weakest criticism imaginable”.

The post starts off well enough, observing that services marketed as “domain names” that are not automatically compatible with the global DNS are probably not a great purchase, because they don’t work like regular domains.

Using these alternatives requires something like a browser plug-in or to reconfigure your device to use a specialist DNS resolver network, the post notes, before concluding with a brief caveat emptor message.

All good stuff. ICANN has been opposed to alt-root domain efforts for at least 20 years, and the policy is even enshrined in so-called ICP-3, which nobody really talks about any more but appears to still be the law of ICANN Land.

So, which domain-alternatives is ICANN referring to here, and which registrars are selling them? The post states:

Name resolution systems outside the DNS have existed for a long time. One could mention the Sun Microsystem Network Information Service (NIS), the Digital Object Architecture (DOA), or even the Ethereum Name Service (ENS)…

With some ICANN-accredited registrars now selling NIS, DOA, or other similar domains alongside standard domain names, the potential for confusion among unsuspecting customers seems high.

You may be asking: what the heck (or, if you’re like me, fuck) are NIS and DOA domains, and which registrars are selling them?

Great questions.

NIS is an authentication protocol (a bit like LDAP) for Unix networks developed in 1985 (the same year the original DNS standard was finalized) by Sun Microsystems, a company that hasn’t existed in over a decade.

To the best of my knowledge they’ve never been marketed as an alternative to regular domain names. Nobody’s ever used them to address a publicly available web site. Nobody sells them.

DOA, also known as the Handle System, is a more recent idea, first implemented in 1994, before some of you were born. Handles are mostly numeric strings used to address digital objects such as documents. Libraries use them.

The main thing to know about Handles for the purposes of this article is that they’re specifically designed to convey no semantic information whatsoever. They’re not designed to look like domain names and they’re not used that way.

So how many registrars are selling NIS/DOA domains? I haven’t checked them all, but I’m going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb and guess the answer is “none”, which is a lot less than the “some” that ICANN asserts.

But ICANN also mentions the Ethereum Name Service, a much newer and sexier way of cybersquatting, based on the Ethereum cryptocurrency blockchain.

ENS allows people to buy .eth domain names (which do not function in the consensus DNS) for the Ethereum equivalent of about $5. As far as I can tell, you can only buy them through ens.domains, and no ICANN-accredited registrar is functionally capable of selling them.

The ICANN post also contains a brief mention of “Handshake”, and this appears to be what ICANN is actually worried about.

Handshake domains, also known as HNS, look like regular domain names and a handful of ICANN-accredited registrars are actually selling them.

Handshake is also based on blockchain technology, but unlike ENS it also allows people to create their own TLDs (which, again, do not function without special adaptations). Registrars including Namecheap, 101domain and EnCirca sell them.

It’s Namecheap’s storefront hover text, warning that HNS domains don’t work in the regular DNS, that ICANN appears to be paraphrasing in its blog post.

The registrar has a lengthy support article explaining some of the ways you can try to make a Handshake domain work, including an interactive comment thread in which a Namecheap employee suggests that DNS resolvers may choose to resolve HNS TLDs instead of conflicting TLDs that ICANN approves in future.

That’s the kind of thing that should worry ICANN, but it’s got a funny way of expressing that concern. Sun Microsystems? Digital Object Architecture? What’s the message here?

Twenty years ago, I interviewed an ICANN bigwig about New.net, one of the companies attempting to sell alt-root domains at the time. He told me bluntly the company was “breaking the internet” and “selling snake oil”, earning ICANN a snotty lawyer’s letter.

Today’s ICANN post was ostensibly authored by principal technologist Alain Durand, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume comms and legal took their knives to it before it was published.

While some things haven’t changed in the last two decades, others have.

My brain explodes trying to understand MMX’s new blockchain deal for .luxe

Kevin Murphy, August 3, 2018, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines has abandoned plans to launch .luxe as a gTLD for luxury goods and instead made a deal to sell it as an address for cryptocurrency wallets.

If you thought it was a silly move marketing .ws as meaning “web site” or .pw as “professional web”, you’re probably not going to like the backronym MMX has in mind for .luxe:

“Lets U Xchange Easily”.

Really.

Tenuous though that marketing angle may be, the concept behind the newly repurposed TLD is actually quite interesting and probably rises to the level of “innovation”.

MMX has inked a deal with Ethereum Name Service, an offshoot of Ethereum, an open-source blockchain project.

Ethereum is largely used as a cryptocurrency, like BitCoin, enabling people to transfer monetary value to each other using “wallet” applications, though it has other uses.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t understand how any of this blockchain stuff works.

I’ve just spent an hour on the phone with MMX CEO Toby Hall and I’m still not 100% clear how it integrates with domains and whether the .luxe value proposition is really, really cool or really, really stupid.

I’ll just tell you what I do understand.

Currently, when two Ethereum users want to transfer currency between each other, the sender needs to know the recipient’s wallet address. This is a 40-character nonsense hash that makes an IPv6 address look memorable.

It obviously would be a lot better if each user had a human-readable, memorable address, a bit like a domain name.

Ethereum developers thought so, so they created the Ethereum Name Service. ENS allowed people to use “.eth” domains, like john.eth, as a shorthand address for their wallets. I don’t know how it works, but I know .eth isn’t an official TLD in the authoritative root.

About 300,000 people acquired .eth domains via some kind of cryptographic auction process that I also don’t understand. Let’s just call it magic.

Under the deal with MMX, some 26 million Ethereum wallet owners will be able use .luxe domains, dumping their .eth names if they have them.

The names will be sold through registrars as usual, at a price Hall said will be a little bit more than .com.

Registrants will then be able to associate their domains with their 40-character wallet addresses, so they can say “Send $50 to john.luxe” and other crypto-nerds will instantly know what to do. Ethereum wallets will apparently support this at launch.

Registrars will need to do a bit of implementation work, however. Hall said there’ll be an API that allows them to associate their customers’ domains with their wallets, and to disassociate the two should the domain be transferred to somebody else.

This is not available yet, but it will be before general availability this November, he said.

What this API does is beyond my comprehension.

What I do understand is that at no point is DNS used. I thought perhaps the 40-char hash was being stored in the TXT field of a DNS record, but no, that’s not it. It’s being stored cryptographically in the blockchain. Or something. Let’s just say it’s magic, again.

The value of having a memorable address for a wallet is very clear to me, but what’s not at all clear to me is why, if DNS is not being queried at any part of the Ethereum transaction, this memorable address has to be a domain name.

You don’t need a domain name to find somebody on Twitter, or Instagram, or Grindr. You just need a user name. Why that model couldn’t apply here is beyond me.

Hall offered that people are familiar with domain names, adding that merchants could use the same .luxe domain for their web site as they use for their Ethereum wallets, which makes sense from a branding perspective.

The drawback, of course, is that you’d have to have your web site on a .luxe domain.

The launch plan for .luxe sees sunrise begin August 9, running for 60 days. Then there’ll be two weeks for .eth name holders to claim their matching .luxe names. Then an early access period. GA starts November 6.

While it should be obvious by now I don’t fully “get” what’s going on here, it strikes me as a hell of a lot more interesting way to use .luxe than its originally intended purpose as a venue for luxury goods and services.

Let’s face it, depending on pricing it would have turned out either as a haven for spammers, a barely-breaking-even also-ran, or a profitable business propped up by a couple thousand trademark owners paying five grand a year on unused defensive regs.