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A crypto project to make internet names censorship-proof is now live

February 7, 2020
Two people shaking hands.
Two people shaking hands.
Two people shaking hands.Chris Liverani on Unsplash

The Handshake Network, an ambitious public blockchain project whose developers want to reinvent how internet domain names are assigned, has  finally launched its main network after the project was revealed more than a year ago.

Meet the DNS: When you enter a website name into your browser, you make a request of a network of computers called the domain name system, or DNS, which keeps track of all the names on the internet. The DNS  converts the text name you entered (e.g., into a string of numbers called an IP address. This number lets your browser locate and connect to the server for the website you are trying to visit.

ICANN haz centralized authority: The DNS is a hierarchical global network, and at the top of the hierarchy is the so-called DNS root. A Los Angeles–based nonprofit called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) oversees the DNS root and is responsible for allocating new “top-level domains,” which include .com, .org, .net, and most two-letter country codes. Internet freedom advocates have argued that relying on a single organization to do this makes the internet more vulnerable to censorship and hacking. Governments have been known to use the DNS to block access to certain sites. The Handshake Network’s backers say control over the root can be decentralized, using a blockchain. 

Bitcoin-esque: Handshake’s network will be similar to the Bitcoin network. Computers will compete to add new transactions to the blockchain and earn cryptocurrency. But the blockchain will also keep track of registered domain names, and the top 100,000 of the internet’s most popular names are already in the chain. If a name isn’t on the blockchain, the software will redirect your request to regular DNS servers, Steven McKie, a developer and investor in the project, told me in June

I’d like to try. How do I do it? It’s possible to change your computer’s DNS settings to point to a publicly available Handshake name resolver and start using it to look up names today. You won’t need cryptocurrency or any special software to do that. You can also participate more directly in the network by installing and running the Handshake software, a “light” version of which can be embedded in your browser. To register a name, you’ll need to participate in an online auction for it using the network’s cryptocurrency, called HNS, which you can buy here.

Now that it’s built, will they come? To work, Handshake will need to build up a large community of “miners” willing to run the software in pursuit of new coins, entice developers to build applications on top of the network, and convince regular users to switch from the traditional DNS. Can the project succeed where a number of other blockchain-based internet naming systems have already failed? Now that it’s finally in the wild, we’re going to find out.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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