Everywhere you go in the domain world these days someone is talking about decentralized domain name systems. There are both proponents and sceptics, as this recent NamePros thread shows. In last week’s NamePros Blog I summarized ideas on where domain names will be in 5 years, and decentralized naming systems were definitely on the list. Last week I had an extended online discussion with Steve Webb, mainly around Handshake and decentralized naming systems. Below is part of that discussion. I came in with a naive understanding of decentralized naming systems, and Steve helped me see more clearly what the Handshake protocol was all about. Decentralized Naming Systems And Handshake While Steve Webb was enthusiastic to answer my questions about decentralized naming systems, he did want to stress this disclaimer. ”I am more familiar with Handshake than most, but my partner at Park.io, Mike Carson, and a number of others, could give a much fuller answer than me. There are many in the community that are well beyond me in day-to-day interactions with the Handshake system.” His position at Park.io is partly to free up Mike Carson to work more directly on Handshake initiatives. So alternative naming systems have been around for awhile, what makes the Handshake initiative different? A number of projects have started and failed in the past, but I am not familiar with those historical projects in detail. Obviously I am biased toward Handshake, and feel it is the soundest overall. There are three main current decentralized naming initiatives: Handshake, Unstoppable Domains and ENS. Handshake is more comprehensive, while in my way of thinking the other two are subsets of the functionality. The thing that makes Handshake great is that at its core it is a very distributed and secure root zone system. Anyone who spends time on the Internet knows that nothing is completely secure. The huge advantage of Handshake is that it is duplicated on the blockchain distributed across many servers, so to compromise the system you would have to take down a very large number of servers. The existing conventional TLDs are all incorporated as part of this distributed system, so Handshake is potentially an all-encompassing naming system. One exciting thing is that you can truly own a TLD in Handshake. In Handshake you can be the lifetime owner of the TLD. As long as you keep your private key, you control the name for the life of the Handshake network. In the current centralized domain name system, you don’t truly own a name, you lease it for some period. In certain circumstances it is possible that your name could be taken away. It is important to keep in mind that all of the decentralized projects are still in their infancy, even though each is being actively developed. Do I understand correctly that conventional domain names currently in the ICANN centralized system at time of launch are protected from someone else claiming that same name? They can be claimed by existing owners through a DNSSEC record process? Yes, that’s right. As of one specific date all of the existing domain names were ‘locked’ and could not be controlled by anyone else under Handshake. They are prevented from colliding, and will live in harmony with the new names introduced on Handshake. The Alexa top 100,000 are treated a bit differently, in that there is a multi-year period in which the owners can come and claim them. There is also a trademark sunrise period. However, it is possible that future new centralized TLD releases could in theory collide with Handshake domain names. In those cases, whichever version is more popular will become dominant. We saw a similar thing back in the era when there were relatively few Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards. Channels had hashtags well before Twitter. You could in theory have the same hashtags in use on different servers, but it was not a huge problem. Are there other restrictions on what names can be created. For example, are names which would be considered offensive or discriminatory able to be registered? I don’t know of restrictions along those lines. I read that the Handshake system is set so that a few people cannot monopolize a large number of names, but I don’t understand how that works. There are a few aspects. The primary mechanism is the way the auctions are scheduled over an extended period. Not all the names are released at once, since that would have allowed a few people to scoop them all up. Every single keyword is being dictated by the market. No individual benefits directly from the auction proceeds. The funds are spent in HNS currency. The money you pay goes into a black hole and can never be spent again. You have to put value into the network, but it never goes to another party, so that helps keep the system honest. Handshake is essentially a protocol - it is not owned by anyone. It is analogous to the Bitcoin system not being owned by anyone. There is no single gatekeeper. Anyone can participate. Obviously some people participate more. I think I recall you saying that you see several roles, depending on technical and financial involvement, that domain investors can be involved in the decentralized system. Could you briefly outline that? On one level you can own domain names. Namebase is the easiest way to participate in the auctions. You can get an account on Namebase, and become involved in buying and using decentralized domain names. As of now they are still very reasonable in price, although increasing. This may be an opportunity similar to the early days of the legacy extensions, when only a few people saw the value. All things have risk, but the risk versus reward balance is very much in your favour, in my opinion. If you own a TLD on Handshake, another possibility is to act like a registry. Someone who owns .defi on Handshake is doing very well selling subdomains off .defi for various projects. This is more like the traditional system, with leasing of the subdomains. Mike Carson and I think this is the future, and that Handshake is a robust and promising implementation. No one can say with certainty this is the future, but if you share the optimism, and have the technical skills, there are still opportunities to work in development of Handshake. If Handshake really takes off, will there still be a place for conventional domain name investing? Even in the most optimistic scenario for a decentralized domain name system, it looks 5 or 10 or more years before possible domination. I find it difficult to see a time when conventional TLDs will go away, so there should be a role for conventional domain investing for a long time. Large and complex technological systems tend to evolve slowly. For those with valuable current online brands, it is a no-brainer to secure the match in the decentralized system to protect their digital brand. With Brexit a huge number of United Kingdom registrants of .eu lost their domain names because they were no longer in the European Union. Imagine if you had built your entire online commerce platform on an .eu domain name, and now it was taken away. In Handshake, you truly own your domain as long as Handshake exists. One might view having Handshake as a backup option if you ever lost your domain name. A Few Questions On Park.io Let’s look briefly at your work with Park.io. I sense that the operation has grown strongly in recent years. Is that right? Yes there has been growth. The site has statistics from the past three years. The number of auctions increased by 62% from 2019 to 2020, and they increased by 77% from 2018 to 2020. The statistics page shows a breakdown in expired auctions by TLD, average auction prices, and a variety of other data. Since starting in 2014, Park.io has handled about 20,000 registrations and 7000 auctions. While well known for .io, of course, your platform now handles quite a few country code and a few other TLDs. For example, I notice that the new gTLD .red is on Park.io. How do you choose which extensions to handle? The easiest answer for .red is that they are under the same umbrella as other TLDs we handle, so once you get one, it is little extra effort to support the other. But in general, the TLDs we handle are driven by user demand and being able to deliver results for customers in a competitive manner. One of my responsibilities when I came online was to expand our offerings. I probably should know this answer but I don’t. Can users place names on Park.io for auction, or is it strictly an expired auction stream? The simple public answer right now is that it is an expired stream. While we have been thinking about expanding to user auctions, and hope to do that, right now that is not live for general use. A Bit About Steve I asked a few questions to learn more about Steve Webb, and later checked out his LinkedIn profile. By the way his formal name is Steve - that is not an abbreviation for Stephen. Steve has been at Park.io almost two years. In the years since his PhD in Computer Science was awarded in 2008, he has worked in SEO and marketing, software engineering, lecturing, social media, online security, startups and also took time out for several extended trips. His PhD thesis, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, is entitled Automatic Identification and Removal of Low Quality Online Information. I asked him what advice he had for someone wanting to make new connections and set out on a new venture. He replied that the hardest step is the first - simply having the courage to reach out to someone that you would like to work with on something. Most people are surprisingly open and helpful, but you need to make that first step to contact them. I like to ask people I interview who was their biggest influence. He did not hesitate to say in his case it was his mother. Right now Steve is clearly excited about his role at Park.io and in the decentralized naming Handshake protocol. Somewhere down the road, he would like to get back into teaching, what he was doing when the 2011 earthquake struck Christchurch. As he recounts Steve Webb just joined NamePros, and I hope you will give him a hearty welcome. He has a remarkably rich set of experiences and skills, and is a friendly open person. Decentralized Naming Links Here are some of the resources I used in researching this topic. Handshake Namebase Unstoppable Domains ENS NamePros Thread Discussing Handshake TLDs Handshake FAQ Handshake, ENS and Decentralized Naming Services Explained The Case for Handshake Final Personal Thoughts I found the following statement from the Handshake FAQ clarified for me the big picture. I still feel somewhat divided about initiatives like Handshake. On the one hand, I think it is incredibly cool that an individual domain investor can own and use a TLD in the Handshake space. NamePros member HotKey recounted how he did exactly that, now owning the .bells TLD in Handshake, including the domain name jingle.bells. I can potentially see how a marketing firm will run with this idea, and create new and interesting ways to use domain names. It is exciting. However, one of the strengths of the decentralized system, is perhaps also its greatest weakness. No one can take away your domain. Without centralized control, some names will be used for questionable purposes, and that may shake confidence in the entire naming system. I remain open and guardedly optimistic, although still pondering what it will really mean for domain investors. Sincere thanks to Steve Webb who spent about two hours talking with me. He had clear explanations and a friendly manner. I condensed this interview, changed order in some cases, and also paraphrased certain answers. I hope that I have maintained the intended meaning.