Whenever you type a website’s address into your browser’s address bar your computer asks a Domain Name System (DNS) server to translate that request to a numerical value (i.e. 123.456.789.00), which, after decoding, appears on your screen as the website you want to access. Unfortunately, these DNS servers are under complete government control, allowing them to determine whether your DNS requests should be accepted or result in a blank screen. Although this method, called centralized DNS can show the reliability (and legality) of a determined website, it also allows a great level of government censorship, which is shamelessly exploited by repressive countries.
To make things even more concerning, not only dictatorships are applying these methods; in fact, any government, including the ones from more liberal nations, can choose to take down any website, whether it breaks the law or not. In other words, any government can pull the plug of a ‘hostile’ site, thus further limiting the already degrading freedom of the press.
However, the only thing that is certain aside from death is that internet users will always find solutions to bypass the restrictions of their governments. Over the last years a few humble initiatives were introduced addressing this issue, but one of the more successful solutions proved to be the deep web which can only be accessed safely by TOR (The Onion Router). Another worthy solution is the so-called decentralized DNS which, unlike TOR that works with .onion domains, delivers Dot-Bit (.bit) websites.
At first these domains might seem to be part of the well-known and ungodly annoying spammer networks, but both (and many other) domain name extensions are flying under the radar of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that regulates the centralized DNS system. In short, websites ending in .onion or .bit cannot be taken down, no matter how hard governments and ISPs want them to be annihilated.
So the question is: could this be the future of free internet use?
ICANN and the Coin Deal
To understand the situation a bit better, it’s time for a little backstory. First of all, ICANN is not under the control of an evil puppeteer; it is a non-profit organization created in 1998 for regulating the entire DNS system and, upon order by a government, for blocking many of the world’s ‘most wanted’ sites, like PirateBay. But as more and more people wanted to access these banned websites, it didn’t take very long for alternative solutions to pop up their heads and aid users in pursuing the forbidden fruit.
The first and currently more common option is going deeper. Since people are more worried about the safety of their privacy than ever, the deep web, the domains of which are produced outside the traditional DNS or, in other words, obscured from the rest of the web, gained significant popularity. However, in order to access these hidden websites, a specific web browser or plugin, such as TOR and many other solutions, is required.
The other option is decentralized DNS. To tell a long story short, the first decentralization attempt occurred a couple years ago with the introduction of Namecoin, a noble open-source technology based on Bitcoin, the anonymous cryptocurrency and peer-to-peer payment system. While the latter decentralizes and frees money, NameCoin uses the same technology to decentralize and free websites. However, Namecoin is already one step ahead of Bitcoin, since it is able to store data within its own blockchain transaction database. In other words, Namecoin improves security, censorship resistance and privacy, as it cannot be taken down due to the fact that it’s not ruled by any government or entity.
Sadly, this promising story didn’t end well: although Namecoin exists to this day, it faced a lot of development flaws throughout its life, and thus never reached its full potential. However, its infrastructure holds the so-called cryptocurrency, which is crucial to access .bit domains.
Even though Namecoin made a huge impact, there were plenty of other solutions following in its footsteps, such as FreeSpeechMe, one of the first plugins for Mozilla’s Firefox developed by Michael Dean, a tech writer, radio host etc. back in 2004. FreeSpeechMe was quite innovative, as it downloaded the Namecoin blockchain and made it running in the background, thus granting access to an automated resolution of .bit addresses. Further inspired by Namecoin, and in hopes of overcoming its flaws to successfully deliver the much desired decentralized DNS, Dean finally developed his masterpiece, BipCoin, a cryptocurrency based on CryptoNote.
In an interview with Cointelegraph he stated that the main objective of Dot-Bit (the decentralized DNS service by BipCoin) was to provide websites secure backups or, in other words, alternatives to the usual .com addresses. Just to comprehend the importance of alternatives, imagine that you were a journalist for an independent .com website which was taken down by the government. However, as you have an alternative .bit website with everything you had on the .com domain, you could continue carrying on with your work without the possibility of being seized. Dean added that even if Dot-Bit is destined to become just a secondary tool, at least it provides the means to access the uncensored internet.
Are We Condemned to a Centralized DNS World?
Unfortunately every dream must end at some point and this was the said faith of Dot-Bit too, which probably won’t be more than an idea on whitepaper PDF. Unlike Namecoin, though, Dot-Bit was developed and tested, but the project failed to collect enough money to be continued. Long story short, Michael Dean started a $175k fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, but as donations were simply not enough, he was forced to refund the raised amount to their respective donators.
So what are the conclusions? Nothing good. The failure of Namecoin and Dot-Bit, probably the best chances we ever had in getting rid of the centralized DNS, means we’re still stuck with the centralized DNS. In addition to that, the deep web is pretty much broken thanks to various atrocities, which is even sadder if we take into consideration that TOR and similar alternatives were created for the exact opposite purposes.
So until another worthy solution for decentralizing DNS is born, all we can do is turn to VPNs to protect us from the centralized DNS system and other eavesdropping. Granted, they provide a decent method with which users can access geographically restricted content, while journalists or employees of sensitive areas can hide their real locations and operate their sites anonymously and securely. However, despite its strong encryptions and safe connections, a VPN is just not the same as a decentralized DNS solution, since it cannot prevent governments from having the last word about the fate of any ‘open’ website. In other words, the dream of an uncensored, secure and decentralized internet is yet to be realized.
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