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A Brief History and Recent Developments in the Co-Existence of Web2 and Web3 Domains

The Domain Name System (DNS, aka Web 2) and Web3 platforms are two different naming systems available to internet users. While the DNS (Web2) has been a reliable and trusted internet standard for decades, Web3 platforms (such as ENS, Handshake and Unstoppable) are a relatively new technology deployment that presents unique and different features. In this article, we will explore the history of DNS names interacting with Web3 names generally (and with ENS names in particular), and the current status of such integrations. We will describe how some of these integrations can meet the criteria for responsible DNS-Web3 integration, namely: a standardised methodology, synchronised Web2 and Web3 domain ownership, economical pricing, and providing new types of utility for domain holders.

What is DNS?

As nearly all CircleID readers know, the Domain Name System (DNS) is a naming system that is used to identify and locate resources on the internet. The DNS is responsible for mapping human-readable domain names to numerical IP addresses on the internet. For example, when you type www.google.com in your browser, DNS resolves it to IP address 142.250.74.196, which is where the Google website is hosted.

The DNS is a distributed, hierarchical naming system, relying on a series of servers that store information about domain names and their associated IP addresses. When a user types a domain name into their browser, the browser first checks its cache for the corresponding IP address. If the address is not in the cache, the browser sends a request to the DNS resolver, which in turn queries the DNS server for the IP address.

What is ENS?

ENS (Ethereum Name Service) is a decentralized protocol that maps human-readable names to various types of resources on the Ethereum blockchain such as smart contracts, wallets, NFTs, and more. ENS allows users to register “second-level names” with the .eth extension. These names are stored on the Ethereum blockchain and can be used to interact with decentralized applications (dapps) on the Ethereum network. For example:

  • Typing vitalik.eth into a software wallet resolves to an Ethereum address 0xd8dA6BF26964aF9D7eEd9e03E53415D37aA96045, while
  • Typing the same name into an ENS-enabled browser (of which there are currently just a few), the ENS-enabled browser resolves it to an IPFS hash, where the content is stored (in this example, ipfs://bafybeieexfyfk3blzpi7g7j3aaogyvlg7qhopr7ru5x5v3nxrlx5zihnaa, which is where Vitalik Buterin’s decentralized website is located).

While one benefit to ENS names is that the domain holder can locate her or his wallet by using the easy-to-remember name, rather than the long wallet address, another is the privacy / anonymity that Web3 names provide.

History of DNS and ENS Integration

The integration of the DNS and ENS began in 2017 with the launch of the ENS Root on the Ethereum blockchain. The ENS Root is a smart contract that stores all the domain names for the ENS system. These domain names are architected in a hierarchical fashion similar to that of top-level domain names in the DNS system. The ENS Root contract is therefore compatible with the DNS system, enabling users to map DNS domain names to ENS domain names. This means that users can register an ENS domain name and map it to an existing DNS domain name that they own, after validating their ownership in the DNS name. In existing implementations, the domain ownership validation is performed by inserting DNSSEC records into the domain zone—more on this below.

The DNS, having been around for much longer than Web3, has a wider adoption, reliance, and recognition among internet users. The ENS and other blockchain platforms offering domains are still relatively new and continues to evolve, with differing implementation and rules vis-à-vis DNS names, and are currently accessible only through the use of special browsers or extensions. Moreover, the DNS and Web3 platforms (ENS among them) use different naming conventions and standards, which can cause confusion and inconsistency for users who want to use both systems. For example, user confusion can arise in cases where Web3 platforms allow users to mint TLDs that are not (yet) delegated in the DNS, or allow minting of TLDs to individuals even if delegated in the DNS to a different party.

To bridge the gap between DNS and ENS in a responsible way, and to leverage the benefits of both protocols, some initiatives have been developed to allow DNS domain names to be matched and used as ENS domains. When ENS enabled and deployed DNSSEC validations as a tool for DNS-ENS integration in 2018, it enabled users to import their existing DNS domain names into ENS and use them as pointers to cryptocurrency wallets. Some of the first DNS top-level domain names that were imported into ENS were .XYZ, .LUXE, .CRED, and .ART. This would allow a DNS domain name owner in these TLDs to also use their same domain as their Ethereum wallet address. This enables users to send Ether and other tokens to an easily remembered domain name instead of typing the long wallet address.

As mentioned above, users have been using the DNSSEC protocol to map a DNS domain name to an ENS domain name. DNSSEC is a set of extensions to the DNS system that provides additional security features, including data origin authentication and data integrity. Users can create a DNSSEC-signed record that contains their ENS domain name, allowing the ENS system to verify ownership of the DNS domain name. The process is somewhat lengthy, requiring those seeking an ENS name to: (1) ensure the TLD and DNS provider support DNSSEC, (2) create 2 pairs of keys, (3) sign the ZSK public part of keypair, (4) place the ZSK public key and its signature in the domain zone file and the KSK public key in TLD zone file through the registrar, (5) sign TXT-record with the ZSK private key, and (6) put this signature to your zone file.

This method is also a bar to synchronisation, i.e., maintaining the linking of the DNS and ENS names through a transfer of domain ownership.

Current Status of Web2 and Web3 Integration

There is an air of inevitability to the adoption of Web3 names. Millions have been registered despite the fact that the names have been put to relatively scant use and the usage and utility models are still evolving. Nonetheless, it is certain that utilitarian models will be developed and the co-existence of DNS and ENS will have to be sorted in a way that preserves the rights and interests of domain holders universally.

Today, DNS and ENS integration is becoming more well-established, with many dapps using ENS domain names as a way to access their decentralized applications. Ethereum Name Service’s support for non-.eth domains (e.g., .ART and .XYZ), are resulting in more efficient and streamlined ways to verify DNS name ownership, serve the interests of DNS-ENS co-existence, and preserve the integrity of the DNS name.

Responsible Integration into Blockchain Namespaces

In a November 2022 presentation at the ICANN DNS Symposium, Verisign identified four “pillars” to responsible Web2-Web3 integration: a standardised methodology across platforms, synchronisation between the DNS and blockchain namespaces, cost effective solutions for domain name holders, and clear utility of the combined namespaces. (See, Diversifying Beyond the Traditional DNS Ecosystem, https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/presentation-traditional-dns-ecosystem-integration-blockchain-namespaces-16nov22-en.pdf.)

In response to calls for creating a Web2-Web3 presence that preserves the integrity of both name spaces, and to improve upon the cost-effectiveness of the DNSSEC method name ownership verification, https://protocol.art offers a simplified verifications process by enabling users to validate their ownership of a DNS .ART domain via insertion of a simple TXT record (the owner’s wallet identifier) in the DNS zone, which, after being checked on the ENS side, then allows the user to mint a matching ENS .ART name. This ensures that only the owner of the .ART DNS name can have the matching ENS name. If the DNS name expires, so does the name holder’s control of the ENS name, satisfying the synchronisation objective. The subsequent DNS name holder can point the ENS name at their wallet or Web3 destination. In addition, the ENS names that are linked to DNS names are made available for a one-time fee; there is no renewal fee. The name is under the control of the ENS “registrant” for as long as s/he owns the DNS name. The protocol.art system is designed to make it easier and less expensive for users to transition to Web3 while still being able to use their existing DNS domain names.

Additionally, to protect rights holders, .ART is exploring whether UDPR can be applied to DNS names in the case where the owner of the companion ENS names infringes on the IP rights of third parties.

As stated here and elsewhere, there are many Web3 naming systems, highlighting the need for standardization to limit the opportunities for confusion and collision between identical names across different and incompatible networks. E.g.,

  • The Handshake blockchain has introduced a new naming system that allows users to register domain names that are secured by the Handshake blockchain.
  • Unstoppable Domains allows users to register domain names that are stored on a blockchain and can be used to access decentralized applications.

For Web2 and Web3 names to successfully co-exist, it is important that integrations be standardized and serve the needs of the end-user. This means cost-effective methods that expand the utility of the domain name for registrants, allowing them to reasonably access the functionality and benefits of both Web2 and Web3. Lastly, the ownership of matching Web2 and Web3 names should always be in sync with a single owner to ensure consistency of brand or identity and avoid the prospect of name collisions. The integration of DNS and ENS has come a long way since they came into co-existence in 2018. By replacing DNSSEC with the more streamlined TXT record validation, as well as a process to ensure an ongoing matching DNS name and ENS name ownership, the protocol.art system using .ART domains seeks to set a standard for a seamless, user-friendly integration of DNS and ENS domains in a way that preserves the integrity of the DNS. As the Web3 ecosystem continues to evolve, we can expect to see more innovations in naming systems that make it easier for users to access decentralized applications, as well as the well-established DNS.

By Kurt Pritz, Strategic Planning Board, UKCI - operator of the .ART registry

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