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Unstoppable Domains stops over 116,000 domains as alt-root TLD goes dark

Kevin Murphy, October 20, 2022, Domain Registries

Blockchain alt-root provider Unstoppable Domains has taken a huge credibility hit with its decision to essentially turn off one of its TLDs, rendering over 116,000 domains pretty much useless.

Unstoppable said Tuesday that it has stopped selling .coin domains and would immediately stop supporting their resolution. The names would no longer work with the over 500 cryptocurrency wallets, apps and services that integrate with Unstoppable, the company said.

“As of today, we’ve disabled .coin resolution in our libraries and services. Unstoppable domains are self-custodied NFTs, so you still own your .coin domain, but it won’t work with our resolution services or integrations,” Unstoppable said in a blog post.

According to AltRoots.com, there were almost 117,000 .coin domains at the time they were turned off.

That’s about the same size as Identity Digital’s .email gTLD, and the shutdown is the equivalent of ID telling its registrants that they can keep their domains, but it’s deleting the .email zone file.

The decision drew immediate critical reaction on social media, with many users pointing out that the Unstoppable system doesn’t sound particularly “decentralized” or censorship-resistant any more.

“Doesn’t sound too decentralized or empowering. Hopefully this will wake people up,” one Twitter user wrote.

“So many people literally just had to change their identity due to incompetency. Basically like visa saying you can keep the card but it wont work anywhere anymore,” wrote another.

Users also criticized the company’s decision to offer compensation in the form of store credit — three times what they paid for the domains they return — instead of a cash refund.

Unstoppable said the decision was made after it discovered another blockchain project, Emercoin, has been selling .coin domains since 2014, whereas its own .coin was launched in 2021.

“We’re committed to protecting our customers from the risk of functional collision,” Unstoppable said. “The Emercoin team are pioneers in our industry and we regret that we weren’t aware of this naming collision earlier.”

Name collisions are of course a big deal in the regular DNS, but cohesion around a single consensus root allows risk to be managed and mitigated, as we saw in ICANN’s 2012 new gTLD roll-out.

And in the ICANN system, a TLD would not simply be shut off overnight. Rather, it would transition to an emergency back-end operator for three years until it is either taken over by another permanent registry or wound down in an orderly fashion.

As Domain Name Wire notes, Unstoppable is currently trying to get the operator of a competing .wallet blockchain alt-root TLD shut down in court on the basis of the name collision, and it would have been hypocritical to continue offering its own colliding TLD.

ICANN puts blockchain on the agenda for good

Kevin Murphy, June 23, 2022, Domain Tech

ICANN’s board of directors is apparently worried about the rise of blockchain-based alt-roots.

Its Board Technical Committee voted in May to make blockchain a permanent agenda item going forward, according to just-published minutes.

“After discussion, the Committee decided to have a standing topic on the agenda to address Blockchain Names,” the minutes read.

The minutes don’t record the content of the discussion, but the alt-root topic has been addressed at every one of the committee’s meetings since last July and resulted in the CTO’s office putting together a briefing paper I blogged about last month.

Blockchain alt-roots include the likes of ENS, Handshake and Unstoppable. They are likely to present legal challenges and interoperability problems when ICANN finally opens up the next round of new gTLDs in a couple years.

Unstoppable targets another city gTLD with free domains

Kevin Murphy, June 21, 2022, Domain Tech

Alt-root provider Unstoppable Domains has inked another partnership with a city that already has its own gTLD in the authoritative root.

The blockchain domains company said it has linked up with the City of Miami’s Venture Miami project, which encourages tech investment in Miami, to offer $50 in Unstoppable’s alternative domains to anyone attending Miami Dade College or showing up at an event there over the weekend.

For nine out of 10 of Unstoppable’s extensions, that’s enough to buy at least one domain. The company does not charge renewal fees.

It’s the second city recently that Unstoppable has partnered with, following its offer of free domains to all female residents of Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago.

In both of these cases, the cities in question already have their own gTLD in the authoritative, functioning, ICANN root. Unstoppable’s extensions, which are largely themed around crytopcurrency, mostly do not function without browser plug-ins.

While .abudhabi has only about a thousand registered domains, .miami, which was acquired from MMX by GoDaddy last year and has the city as a partner, has been more popular, with close to 16,000 names in its zone file currently.

Whether this can be dismissed as more “web3” hype or alt-root snake oil or not, Unstoppable seems to have secured a couple of pretty interesting marketing coups, and it will be interesting to see which city gets targeted next.

Crypto domains: a feminist issue?

Kevin Murphy, June 6, 2022, Domain Tech

Unstoppable Domains has found a novel way to market its alt-root domains service — give away hundreds of thousands of free domains to female entrepreneurs and women in general.

In two separate announcements over the last few days, partners committed to give away well over a million domains, part of Unstoppable’s push to persuade women that alt-roots and “Web3” are good ideas.

First, Access Abu Dhabi, a project of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, said it will give a domain for free to “all women residing in the UAE capital”, which is believed to be about one million people.

Abu Dhabi is an overwhelmingly immigrant and overwhelmingly male city. Men are believed to outnumber women 2:1 in the UAE, a nation where until this year women could be jailed or flogged for the crime of extramarital sex.

It’s also one of a handful of cities in the world to have its own gTLDs in the authoritative root — .abudhabi and the Arabic-script equivalent — but while fees are not too high (about $40) registration restrictions are pretty strict, requiring among other things a passport scan.

The announcement by Access Abu Dhabi was made in conjunction with Unstoppable Women of Web3, an Unstoppable spin-off project set up a few months ago to pitch alt-root crypto domains to women.

Unstoppable Women is also behind a separate announcement from The Female Quotient, an equality services company, which is promising to give away up to 600,000 domains to women at its “Equality Lounge” events at various tech conferences over the coming months.

Unstoppable’s alt-root TLDs include .x, .crypto, .bitcoin, .coin and .wallet. Prices usually range from $20 to $100, but there are no renewal fees.

Female entrepreneurs obtaining these domains will quickly realize that they don’t work for the vast majority of internet users and are probably not a sound foundation for building a business.

Blockchain domains pose “significant risks” to internet, says ICANN

Kevin Murphy, May 10, 2022, Domain Tech

The internet could be fragmented and made less secure by the proliferation of blockchain-based naming systems, according to a recent position statement from ICANN’s chief technology officer.

The report, “Challenges with Alternative Name Systems” (pdf) worries aloud about systems such as Namecoin, Ethereum Naming Service, Unstoppable Domains, and Handshake.

It says: “the creation of new namespaces without any coordination (either among themselves nor with the DNS) will necessarily lead to name collisions, unexpected behaviors, and user frustration.”

“The end result might very well be completely separate ecosystems, one for each naming system, further fragmenting the Internet,” it concludes.

It’s a pretty brisk, high-level, 15-page summary of the various alt-root naming systems grouped around the “Web3” meme that have been gaining various levels of popularity over the last few years.

It doesn’t drill too far down into any of them and doesn’t really say much that we haven’t heard from ICANN before about blockchain naming, but it does broadly cover what’s out there, how these systems are used, and why they pose risks.

Opposition to alt-roots is an almost foundational principle of ICANN, documented in ICP-3, a 21-year-old document that dates from a time when alt-roots used standard DNS but with different root servers.

ICANN has in the last year pushed back against the newer blockchain-based alts, most prominently by delaying the sale of some gTLD contracts and forcing registry’s to renounce their ownership rights to gTLD strings.

One new addition to the debate that caught my eye was OCTO noting that a lack of coordination between the various alt-roots in operation today presents similar kinds of interoperability risks as does the lack of coordination between the alts and the authoritative root.

It notes that “at least four blockchain-based naming systems are competing today” and as a result “when developing an application, one must decide which blockchain-based naming system to use.”

“As there is no namespace coordination mechanism between those alternative naming systems, name collisions must be expected,” it says.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 2232 UTC to change the headline from “Blockchain poses ‘significant risks’ to internet, says ICANN” to “Blockchain domains pose ‘significant risks’ to internet, says ICANN”

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.