A Decentralized Internet? How Blockchain Domains Could Fight Online Censorship.

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    By Amee Mehta
    Nov 12th, 2021
    As the coronavirus pandemic spread, many mainland Chinese people have restricted access to information about the Coronavirus situation in the country. Online censorship is widespread in China, but the government's filtering technology has evolved to the point that it can now suppress information on one of the world's most important news events, which is taking place in their own country. There are multiple countries other than China that has censored the internet. Cuba, Iran, Syria, among several other nations, routinely restrict web access within their borders. Virtual private networks (VPNs) may be used to access banned websites. However, local governments frequently have the authority to shut down VPNs if they choose, making them an ineffective solution to internet censorship. Another option is to create a website utilizing a blockchain-based decentralized domain. The blockchain is most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ripple, but the technology has much more to offer. There are decentralized chat services, markets, and, most crucially, decentralized domain names that cannot be blocked or shut down. In the last five years, several decentralized domain registrars have emerged to aid in distributing blockchain domains, and blockchain websites and the battle against censorship. Unstoppable Domains, located in San Francisco, is one such business, with founders Brad Kam and Matt Gould pledging to preserve free expression and develop a censorship-resistant internet using decentralized domains.

    What is a decentralized domain?

    The internet's old-school domains are centralized domain names. Most organizations and enterprises utilize extensions like .com, .net, .biz, and hundreds more in their web address. The ICANN manages them, and they may be acquired through a domain registrar like GoDaddy or Bluehost. After that, the content is hosted by a provider like AWS. The goal of decentralised domain name initiatives is to eliminate DNS's reliance on ICANN and registries. Blockchains is the one method to do this. A distributed public ledger, or blockchain, is a database that is copied across multiple computers. Blockchains are made up of consecutive blocks of data, each of which is linked to the one before it and the one after it. Since all these websites are hosted in one area, they are readily taken down if a government authority feels the content breaches a law or regulation, for example. Over the course of a year, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security, Europol, Interpol, and a number of other police agencies confiscated 30,500 domain names in 20 countries that were selling pirated movies and TV shows, counterfeit clothing, and medicines. However, in countries where the government is authoritarian, website takedowns are far more prevalent, and the content that is restricted extends far beyond the sale of illegal goods. Frequently, it is news coverage that the government does not want the general people to see, such as information on the coronavirus or the Chinese protests in Hong Kong. On the other hand, decentralized domains include extensions such as .crypto,.eth,.bit, and others, which are kept in several locations, making them very hard to take down or censor. The value of blockchain domains is that they eliminate the need to rely on a centralized body like ICANN. According to Will Martino, CEO of Kadena, a blockchain company, "it is pretty logical to desire an alternative to rely on the goodwill of a huge organization of significant power," given current global trends in both industry and government. Unstoppable Domains is based on this concept. They develop decentralized domains and it can be used for basic activities like paying someone in crypto without needing their address or phone number. "But the greater use case is to construct a censorship-resistant website," said Kam, who is also the company's head of business development.

    Building a Blockchain Domain Company

    Unstoppable Domains arose from Kam's ambition to create something at the nexus of technology and policy. While working at his first business, Talkable, a SaaS marketing platform, he met co-founder Gould while studying politics. "I always knew I would start working on something related to free speech," he said. Unstoppable Domains was launched as a result of the 2016 presidential election. Kam grew increasingly aware that the present methods were causing an increase in internet censorship, causing people pain. "Data filtering is a result of the development of authoritarianism," Kam said. Unstoppable Domains is based on the Ethereum blockchain, which aspires to be a type of global computer. Rather than using the traditional client-server architecture, which is used by apps like Google Drive, Ethereum relies on "nodes," which are maintained by thousands of volunteers worldwide and store data.

    The Decentralized Web

    Because the internet's communications layer is highly reliant on the industry, true decentralization does not fit with the current infrastructure. It would be impossible to prevent any packet of information from reaching anybody else on a completely decentralized internet. For peer-to-peer connections to traverse seas, a mesh net of billions of wireless devices would be required. "At the software level, this is doable," Martino said. "However, at the hardware level, we would need a massive innovation in wireless communication technology." To put it another way, building a genuinely decentralized internet, one in which no content can ever be wholly banned or restricted, is a long way away – if it is even feasible. According to Martino, decentralized domains do not necessarily imply a decentralized internet, but they "cannot harm" when it comes to reducing censorship.

    A More Encrypted Internet

    The more practical form of a decentralized internet today is encrypted and unaffected by current political events. "Only war will cut off packet filtering between regions. Otherwise, encrypted packets are allowed through," Martino said.   With an encrypted internet, the end-user is in charge of security rather than service providers, who, according to Martino, has historically demonstrated little concern for customer protection. An encrypted internet would be the next step ahead, Martino added, as long as a decentralized internet remains science fiction. "And making it a reality for the globe would be great."