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It’s ICANN versus the blockchain in Kuala Lumpur

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2022, 18:06:27 (UTC), Domain Policy

Internet fragmentation and the rise of blockchain-based naming systems were firmly on the agenda at ICANN 75 in Kuala Lumpur today, with two sessions exploring the topic and ICANN’s CTO at one point delivering a brutal gotcha to a lead blockchain developer.

Luc van Kampen, head of developer relations at Ethereum Name Service, joined a panel entitled Emerging Identifier Technologies, to talk up the benefits of ENS.

He did a pretty good job, I thought, delivering one of the clearest and most concise explanations of ENS I’ve heard to date.

He used as an example ICANN’s various handles across various social media platforms — which are generally different depending on the platform, because ICANN was late to the party registering its name — to demonstrate the value of having a single ENS name, associated with a cryptographic key, that can be used to securely identify a user across the internet.

Passive aggressive? Maybe. But it got his point across.

“We at ENS envisage a world where everyone can use their domain as a universal identifier,” he said. Currently, 600,000 users have registered 2.4 million .eth domains, and over 1,000 web sites support it, he said.

He described how ENS allows decentralized web sites, is managed by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) and funded by the $5 annual fee for each .eth name that is sold.

Van Kampen had ready responses to questions about how it would be feasible for ENS to apply to ICANN to run .eth in the consensus root in the next new gTLD application round, suggesting that it’s something ENS is thinking about in detail.

While not confirming that ENS will apply, he described how a gateway or bridge between the Ethereum blockchain and the ICANN root would be required to allow ENS to meet contractual requirements such as zone file escrow.

What did not come up is the fact the the string “eth” is likely to be reserved as the three-character code for Ethiopia. If the next round has the same terms as the 2012 round, .eth will not even enter full evaluation.

But the real gotcha came when ICANN CTO John Crain, after acknowledging the technology is “really cool”, came to ask a question.

“What kind of safeguards and norms are you putting in place regarding misbehavior and harm with these names?” Crain asked.

Van Kampen replied: “Under the current implementation of the Ethereum Name Service and the extensions that implement us and the integrations we have, domains are unable to be revoked under any circumstances.”

“So if I understand correctly, under the current solution, if I’m a criminal and I register a name in your space, I’m pretty secure today,” Crain asked. “I’m not going to lose my name?”

Van Kampen replied: “Under the current system, everything under the Ethereum Name Service and everything registered via us with the .eth TLD are completely censorship resistant.”

Herein lies one of the biggest barriers to mainstream adoption of blockchain-based alt-roots. Who’s going to want to be associated with a system that permits malware, phishing, dangerous fake pharma and child sexual abuse material? Who wants to be known as the maker of the “kiddy porn browser”?

If I were Crain I’d be feeling pretty smug after that exchange.

That’s not to say that ICANN put in a wholly reassuring performance today.

Technologist Alain Durand preceded van Kampen with a presentation pointing out the substantial problems with name collisions that could be caused by blockchain-based alt-roots, not only between the alt-root and the ICANN root, but also between different alt-roots.

It’s a position he outlined in a paper earlier this year, but this time it was supplemented with slides outlining a hypothetical conversation between two internet users slowly coming to the realization that different namespaces are not compatible, and that the ex-boyfriend of “Sally” has registered a name that collides with current boyfriend “John”.

It’s meant to be cute, but some of the terminology used made me cringe, particularly when one of the slides was tweeted out of context by ICANN’s official Twitter account.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it strikes me as poor optics for ICANN, an organization lest we forget specifically created to introduce competition to the domain name market, to say stuff like “Market, you are a monster!”.

I’m also wondering whether “icannTLD” is terminology that plays into the alt-root narrative that ICANN is the Evil Overlord of internet naming. It does not, after all, actually run any TLDs (except .int).

The language used to discuss alt-roots came under focus earlier in the day in a session titled Internet Fragmentation, the DNS, and ICANN, which touched on blockchain alt-roots while not being wholly focused on it.

Ram Mohan, chief strategy officer of Identity Digital and member of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee, while warning against ICANN taking a reflexively us-versus-them stance on new naming systems, wondered whether phrases such as “domain name” and “TLD” are “terms of art” that should be only used to refer to names that use the consensus ICANN-overseen DNS.

We ought to have a conversation about “What is a TLD”? Is a TLD something that is in the IANA root? Is a domain name an identifier that is a part of that root system? i think we ought to have that conversation because the place where I worry about is you have other technologies in other areas that come and appropriate the syntax, the nomenclature, the context that all of us have worked very hard to build credibility in… What happens if that terminology gets taken over, diluted, and there are failures in that system? … The end user doesn’t really care whether [a domain] is part of the DNS or not part of the DNS, they just say “My domain name stopped working”, when it may not actually be a quote-unquote “domain name”.

Food for thought.

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Comments (2)

  1. Adam says:

    I wasn’t clear on the first example made either. Is there a link to the presentation? Because ICANN was late to register on social media, that creates a use case for .eth ? , what if I’m late to registering ICANN.eth. (which I’m sure they are) ?

    and btw did I read that suggestion correctly ? someone wants ICANN to control nomenclature too ?

    My .eth identifies as a domain name and you can’t tell me otherwise.

  2. Rubens Kuhl says:

    For me eth can only mean an Ethernet interface, like eth0, eth1…

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