Democratic DNS Alternatives: The Story of AlterNIC and OpenNIC
What if the US government decided to shut down Twitter by making
twitter.com redirect your browser to
whitehouse.gov? No way? The year 2020 has made us believe more than 6 impossible things before breakfast. The Internet is more authoritarian than you think and it starts with domain names (DNS).
The current dominant system of domains is headed by HYDRA, whoops I mean the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in the US. It didn't exist until the very late 90s. DNS itself has only existed since the mid 80s. We might assume that this corporation will remain always benevolent but when the authoritarian boot comes down, your only choice will be to lick it. In their defense, they are probably not evil, and through their complete and total control, have arguably made the Internet more reliable and possibly safe.
You telling me the US Dollar is a decentralized currency? An aside...
DNS is as decentralized as the Dollar. Everybody's using it, putting pressure on people to conform even if they might have other legal options. Americans don't even have another option since the only legal tender in the country is the dollar. Governments often enforce a monopoly on minting money, much like they maintain a monopoly on violence. But people across the world recognize and believe in the value of a dollar, including the Islamic State and its citizens.
Turn on, tune in, drop out
What if I told you all the names on the Internet - facebook.com, google.com, wikipedia.com - were but an ephemeral, ethereal construct, a hallucination shared with billions of other humans. And furthermore, that it was possible to construct a different and independent reality, and completely alter the lens through which one experienced the Internet. Would you take this pill?
FBI: enforcing DNS laws?
Back in the late 90s, the FBI (who were still trying to understand the Internet back then) was able to arrest Eugene Kashpureff whilst in Canada. Kashpureff had founded the AlterNIC, an alternative root DNS / NIC registry which competed with InterNIC, the organization which controlled DNS until becoming ICANN.
Kashpureff had exploited a flaw in misconfigured BIND (common DNS server software) servers to get them to cache made up results for the internic.net domain (this "hack" was called DNS cache poisoning). He was protesting InterNIC and perceived injustice and so he caused servers to forward visitors to www.internic.net to his own www.alternic.net to read about what AlterNIC was protesting, lasting for 3 days. In response, InterNIC sicced the FBI on Kashpureff for alleged wire fraud and had him deported from Canada to the US. The charges were specious at best but show how the authorities can arrest you for anything if they want to, even if you're in another country, being that there are so many laws on the books, laws written during simpler times, for which the lawmakers (there must be a better word for them) neither intended nor anticipated how their laws would be interpreted and enforced later. These words become weapons in the arms of well-paid lawyers or 3-letter-agencies who can find any business infracting on some law at any given time. Perhaps the legal system is rigged.
And that was the end of AlterNIC, the first David to challenge the .Goliath.
AlterNIC offered free domain name registrations and domains under their own custom .biz, .alt, and other TLDs. It's Internet has mostly been forgotten and erased from history.
OpenNIC: New Challenger Approaching
But that's not the end of the story.
Years later, in the year 2000, a community on the Internet had the idea, again, that maybe one corporation monopolizing control over this really important resource, the first form of digital scarcity, was possibly a bad thing for many of the Internet's users.
This idea of a democratically governed system, for the people by the people, became OpenNIC. OpenNIC wasn't jumping into the ring to fight ICANN on its own domain (pun intended). It actually works with all existing ICANN domains, for free, although the reverse isn't true (no peering). OpenNIC wasn't even trying to make money. It was to be an optional alternative structure while also being compatible with the existing system. Think of it as an information overlay on top of your normal .coms. And the whole system was to be governed democratically.
Now, is a democratic system the best system in every way? It's certainly not my job here to argue that. But certainly many of us live in countries where it's well accepted that a democratic government is better or more preferable to an authoritarian government. The same arguments ought to apply to the body that governs rights to the limited resources of the Internet.
Before going further, you can start accessing OpenNIC domains and TLDs right now by going into your DNS settings and using this server:
18.104.22.168. For more, and possibly better, public and free servers go here). For example, once you can resolve OpenNIC domain names, search for God on the grep.geek OpenNIC search engine.
OpenNIC, kind of a ragtag bunch of sysadmins and geeks, has survived and is probably not seen as a threat to US DNS hegemony. And OpenNIC already has democracy, they don't need the US bringing it to them for "having oil" or other resources. There's probably little reason for anyone to go after them. OpenNIC serves various niche groups of users as can be discerned from the new set of TLDs which they shepherd.
TLDs specific to type of service
.bbsfor actual Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs, remember those?) on the Internet.
.gopherfor GopherSpace sites served on the
gopher://protocol for which you'll need a gopher client. Gopher was a precursor to the World Wide Web which went nearly extinct but is making a hobbyist resurgence.
.chanfor imageboards (think 4chan and time-wasting shitposting, but also memefied misinformation).
.dynfor dynamic DNS, for keeping a static name that will point to an updating (dynamic) IP address. Like your smartphone's IP as you drive around the city.
TLDs for communities that don't fit the traditional .com / .org / .edu / .mil paradigm
.cybfor cyberpunks (random example)
.indyfor indy media
.librefor the Free Internet (used to be
.freeuntil ICANN created a name collision with its own, unrelated .free TLD)
.neofor emo culture (apparently)
.ossfor (free) open source software
.piratefor people against the normal Internet regime of intellectual property protection and enforcement
- and also
.furfor furries, although OpenNIC gave up the right to administer this one to FurNIC.
TLDs for unrecognized country codes
These TLDs are part of the OpenNIC network by way of peering with the New Nations organization. Thus OpenNIC in no way manages these domains but has a peering agreement (bidirectional information sharing and authority recognition) with another community which means they recognize each others' domain registrations. New Nations itself isn't an official governmental organization. There are many more potential New Nations, maybe even near where you live.
.kufor the Kurdish people / nation
.tefor Tamil Eelam (Tamil minority in Sri Lanka)
.tifor Tibet, the large homeland of the Tibetan people / nation (about 6.5 million population) and Mount Everest, occupied currently by the People's Republic of China who govern the land as the Tibet Autonomous Region.
.uufor the Uyghur people who have been in the news a lot recently as perhaps a million of them have been put into Chinese concentration camps. Homework: Try and find some
.cndomain names talking about the persecution of the Uyghur people in the way sites like The Economist and The Guardian and many others have.
There's a full list of currently supported TLDs for OpenNIC here.
OpenNIC supports the needs of communities on the Internet that might not otherwise be served or be able to have a voice on the ICANN Internet. OpenNIC serves as a measure to prevent them from being censored by over-reaching US organizations (perhaps in the name of "protecting your freedom" or "keeping the Internet safe", good intentions and all).
Want to plant your own flag on the OpenNIC Internet? Register a domain name for free at be.libre once you've enabled an OpenNIC DNS server. Keep in mind that normal people won't be able to access your new domain until they turn on and tune into an Open DNS server.
OpenNIC can replace the mainstream DNS system for some people although it is not attempting to replace registrars of .com and all the new ICANN TLDs (over 1000) that people weren't asking for yet were still created like airdrop tokens. Issuing then brought in plenty of dollars though so some people definitely profited.
OpenNIC also isn't the only alternative. There are several blockchain-based solutions which also don't compete with ICANN's TLDs but instead offer new independent ones. One of these, Namecoin, used to have a peering agreement with OpenNIC meaning that OpenNIC servers would be used to resolve Namecoin (
.bit) names. This is no longer the case due to abuse.
I will dive into the topic of blockchain-based domain names in a future post as there is too much to cover here.