Censorship Free Companies on Chain. Unstoppable Domains Founder Brad Kam. Episode 8: No Sharding Podcast

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Brad Kam: So I’m Brad, co-founder of Unstoppable Domains. We are a registry business similar to Verisign, which owns .com, except that we build our domain name systems on blockchains. The reason why is because blockchain domains do two things that regular domains don’t. The first is to be your cryptocurrency payment gateway to replace all of your crypto addresses with one single human readable name. You can attach your Bitcoin, your Ethereum, your Litecoin, your Solana addresses, everything, all to one domain. You tell me your domain, I type it into a wallet, and pay you. I don’t need to know what your addresses are. I don’t even need to know which currency that you want to receive.

Brad Kam: The second thing they do is to allow you to build on censorable websites. Because the domain is an asset on the blockchain controlled by you, it sits inside of your wallet, controlled by you with your private key, no one can move it around other than you. And if you store your content on a decentralized storage network, like IPFS, and attach your domain to it, then you have a website that only you can put up and only you can take down. It’s a way for people to use the internet in a censorship freeway.

Anatoly Yakovenko: That’s super exciting. I think especially right now in the United States and the climate we’re in, domain names have been used as a censorship attack vector for free speech. I think it’s interesting that we are actually seeing blockchain tackle that. I don’t know how you feel about that. The problem is, I think the Pandora’s box of free speech is that people use it for things that you don’t want. Just my background, my family’s from the Soviet Union. The time that we lived in there, when I grew up, this was ’80s. People would get arrested by the KGB for owning a book. That actually happened. So that was not a free society. And people aren’t actually thinking about free speech in terms of promoting stuff that we don’t like. It was political speech. But we live in a free society in the US and I think that conversation is different but also has that same impact, the same meaning.

Brad Kam: Yeah. And I think as we think about this technology and why it’s important, we think that specifically political speech is the most important. If you look around the world and you say what are things that people are not allowed to say that they want to say? It’s definitely in that category.

Brad Kam: I think now part of what’s happened is, is that the internet was initially this pretty open place. Especially, I think it was in the 90s it was pretty anarchic in a lot of ways. I think even in the 2000s you could say that that was true in a lot of places around the world, and that over time it’s kind of like companies and governments have gotten a little bit more of a handle on it. And now we’re in this place where it’s much more centralized, where it’s much easier for governments around the world to be able to control what their people are saying, doing, reading. And maybe in some ways it’s actually easier for them now that they have these tech tools than maybe even a couple of decades ago. So it seems to me to be a rising, increasing problem around the world.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Yeah, it’s strange. I think unlike any other time in the world, you have access to more information than any human can consume. So honestly, I’m not sure if strict censorship in terms of I can’t get this idea out is there. But I think what we do have is this massive censorship where I have an idea that cannot go viral because the publishing platforms, including domain names, will block it. It’s not that CloudFlare blocks a website that they can go and post somewhere else. It’s the idea that that point where people go look at that news is no longer available to them and you lose your audience.

Brad Kam: It’s like you can’t build a business, or a web presence around ideas that are politically unpopular in a lot of places in the world. If you were in China, this wouldn’t be possible. If you were in Iran, this wouldn’t be possible. Your website would be taken down, you would be stopped, you would not be able to build a global audience around your thing.

Anatoly Yakovenko: So can you describe a bit how your actual technology works with regards to the internet? Because internet is really complicated, right?

Brad Kam: Yeah. Yeah. So there are multiple vectors for censorship, but the way that our tech works, it’s really solving two problems. One is around the domain name as an asset itself. And in the traditional demanding world there is the traditional DNS system. There is an organization called ICAN, which is a central body that approves and controls how everything works. And in that system there are licensed custodians and those custodians are companies like GoDaddy or Google domains or whomever. And it is impossible for you to store your own domain. They store the domain for you and they can move it around for you and they can take it away from you. And so in the case of a court order, or in the case of some other action, your domain can be removed from your control. So just like what cryptocurrency gives you versus dollars in your bank account, a blockchain domain gives you versus a domain in the traditional world. Only you can move it around, no one else can take it. So that’s one piece.

Brad Kam: And then the other piece is around where content is stored. So we have built a domain name registry that sits on the blockchain. You can purchase domains directly from us and you can configure them. And we’ll be launching a decentralized hosting service, which is essentially a wrapper on top of IPFS, another decentralized storage networks that will allow you with a couple of clicks to be able to post content essentially on multiple different nodes, multiple different servers as well as multiple different decentralized storage networks themselves so that it would be extremely hard for your website to ever be taken down. So we’re making both of those pieces easy. Domain names and where you started content.

Anatoly Yakovenko: So .zil is a top level domain name that is issued by ICAN, right?

Brad Kam: It is not issued by ICAN. So it is a top level domain name in the sense that it functions similarly, but it is not ICAN approved, it’s what’s called an alternate route. So it will function separately.

Anatoly Yakovenko: So how will kind of the leaf nodes actually get access to it? Because you still need to ping some DNS, right? If people don’t understand what that means is like when you type in a browser name and it’s a URL in a browser, that ends in a .com there’s something that resolves to the .com, an IP address, right? For domain names that can resolve .com domain names. And then you can query that in a server for all the .com domains. Right? So how do I find out where the entry point for .zil is?

Brad Kam: So what would be happening is, is that you would be typing a domain name, a .zil domain name into your browser, but you would require a Chrome extension in order to be able to view the websites. And then that Chrome extension, when you type in the domain, it will be reading the blockchain, finding the associated IPFS hash and showing you that content. So you would need Chrome extensions. And so one of the big initiatives for us this year is that we’re integrating with as many cryptocurrency wallet extensions as possible, as well as enabling those extensions to read these IPFS hashes and show you content.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Got it. Cool. Do you guys to still at the end of the day kind of depend on Google allowing these Chrome extensions to function?

Brad Kam: It’s one potential attack vector you could say that Google could go and make some rule around Chrome extensions. If that were to happen, there would be browsers. So we’re going to try to integrate natively with browsers as well. There’s also a big push of crypto enabled browsers. Right now there’s Brave, there’s Opera who’s integrating and then there’s several others that are kind of becoming either crypto aware or crypto native. And so we think it’s going to be an ecosystem of tools. And so long as we have multiple options and access points, then that’s going to be what’s going to help make this thing become a thing.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Honestly, there’s hardware such as SSLStrip attack vectors, but I think the more important ones are the social ones. If enough people care, it doesn’t matter if Google is the only thing that can control it, shut it down or not. But what’s important is actually getting enough people to use it to the point where there have value in having a decentralized domain name service and building that network of people is, I think even more important than solving some of the technical challenges.

Brad Kam: Completely agree. I think the adoption problem is the harder problem. And so we’ve been thinking a lot about how we want to tackle this and ultimately it comes a little bit from a philosophical belief about why we’re doing this in the first place. But we see the biggest problem to solve is political free speech on the internet. And that was one of the promises of the early internet in the first place. And if we were to look back 25, 30 years on the consumer internet, I would say that that promise was not delivered on. And so that seems to be the big need. And again, I would point to places like China where there’s 1.3 billion people and you’re not able to access the internet freely.

Brad Kam: And I think that that’s a growing trend. There’s more countries around the world that are moving in that direction than are moving in the other direction. And so it’s going to be about finding the people that need this the most. I think Hong Kong was also sort of a wake up call. That’s a case where you have a group of people that are tech savvy, have a message they want to get out and they have a message they want to get out very specifically in China where that message is actively being censored. So we see situations like that. We think those are the types of lightning rods that could potentially spur adoption for this sort of thing.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Do you think enough people that are not political care? That’s…

Brad Kam: No.

Anatoly Yakovenko: No? Yeah.

Brad Kam: No, I don’t think they do. And I think what’s really been kind of interesting about talking to people about this product and talking to people about this business over time, is that sometimes when we talk to Americans about this, we get shrugs, like it’s not a problem for me. And in the US, for the most part, you can say what you want. But I talk to people who are from almost anywhere else in the world and the reaction is completely different. It’s, well, yeah, of course, I’ve had domain names seized from me. Or where I’m from you’re not able to say these things. So I think it’s a particularly American perspective to see this as not a big deal. I don’t think that’s the sentiment that you hear around the world.

Anatoly Yakovenko: There is like kind of this I think, at least in the US, this kind of push back against Silicon Valley trying to solve social problems, right? I’m worried that when I talk about blockchain and I’m like, Oh, we’re going to solve financial fraud because it’s programmable, it’s transparent. It’s decentralized. It’s impossible for any party to steal your funds because it’s just code and software that we can analyze. But fraud is like a social human problem. Right? So I’m worried that I may be missing something, you know?

Brad Kam: Yeah. I think that’s a good critique too because I think that the way these technologies are presented to people, it’s as if they are the direct remedy to this other problem and I don’t really think they are in a lot of cases. I think they’re replatforming us, so whenever you replatform us, it’s like the ground upon which we walk changes with the rules change it. Oftentimes they’ll change in a way that enables these new things, enables greater security, enables greater trust and all this stuff over time. But that’s assuming that it also gets adopted in the way that we intended it. It’s like it’s as if we’re pitching our product 15 years in the future and not our product today.

Brad Kam: I’m think that’s very true for something like what we’re doing, where we’ll be solving or helping to solve some very small piece of this problem in the short term. And there will be a negative to that in the short term as well. It’s not as if free speech is a solved problem when the tech goes live. It’s much more like this re-platforming has the potential to change the way that we communicate on the internet. It’s a much more subtle and evolutionary concept probably than the way it’s intended. And I’m thinking of all kinds of different like blockchain for social good conversations that I’ve witnessed or heard over the years. And I’m sure you have too. And the claims are… Yeah, they’re pretty big. And we, who are actually building this stuff are like, well yeah, that sounds totally possible in 20 years, so.

Anatoly Yakovenko: So I was a kid in the 90s, a teenager and I started programming and experiencing, playing around with the internet and I kind of saw the rise of Facebook and at the time nobody could predict Facebook would be this like giant company. And that the newsfeed, the stupid thing would be this three headed monster where they’re feeding you what you’re thinking. I’m trying to predict what is the three headed monster of blockchain, of what we’re building? Do you think that the technology, if we have perfect censorship resistance, do you think there’s side effects that are really bad?

Brad Kam: So I think there’s a lot of negatives because there are bad people that will use tools for bad things. I have a hard time envisioning how that’s substantially different from the current environment that we’re in. I don’t see people who use the internet for bad things struggling to get their word out that much now. So I guess the way I kind of have it in my head is that over time what winds up happening is is that when we have openness at the protocol layer, we have a new security model, so there’s no one person or company or government or whatever, that can be a gatekeeper. So that create one level of security for all parties. But then we create this new problem where anybody can kind of come in and muck it up for everybody else.

Brad Kam: And then I think what you’ll see there is you’ll see a lot of different types of filtering similar to what you have in social networks. Facebook says this is okay, YouTube disagrees and says it’s not okay and pulls it. So you’ll start to see that sort of thing. Where applications will start to kind of choose your internet for you. You will choose your application, your application will choose your internet. And through this method we will negotiate together as a society on what’s okay. And you and I can disagree and we can see a different version of the internet, which you would say is essentially already happening on social media. So I don’t think that’s substantially different than what we’ll see today. It’s just that we have this different security model so that in cases where somebody wants their content to go viral and most people agree that it should, it can. So I think those are probably the cases where it’s the most critical and the most useful.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Yeah, I mean in that sense, I think the platforms that actually hold the customer captive, they own the screen time for the end user will still maintain kind of control over no matter how decentralized and open the internet gets, right? If you’re trying to get to the 1 billion Facebook users, you need to go through Facebook or however many YouTube users are and so forth.

Brad Kam: I still think that the power dynamic does change though in this future version of the internet because what will wind up happening is is that if the user controls their data, then it’s much easier and Facebook doesn’t control your data, then Facebook essentially becomes this like UI layer. It’s closer to kind of like ho our decentralized wallets become really just the UI layer for us, but we store our stuff. And so when that happens, then all of a sudden there could be 30 Facebooks competing at the UI layer for my attention, but I control my social graph and I control my data so I can just feed it into those. And you could potentially, I think see less of these kinds of like walled gardens simply by virtue of the fact that you just flip it, now the user can just give read access or whatever. I think that’s the optimistic version of the social media universe that I see. And whether or not we will get there I think is a different question but I’m hopeful that that’s kind of one of the end States that we would see here and that that would help.

Anatoly Yakovenko: That’s a good point. I think if we can increase, I guess, in finance terms, liquidity of my identity, right? If I can do it from Facebook to another platform with ease, with little cost, then it becomes easier to do that.

Brad Kam: And it blows up their business model too.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Right.

Brad Kam: So all of a sudden Facebook essentially, their business model is we figured out a way to get your data, now we get to sell it. If they don’t do that, then all of a sudden we’re not the product anymore. We’re the customer again and they have to deliver a service in a way that we want and maybe deliver a service that’s so good that we’re willing to pay them a little bit for it or something like that.

Anatoly Yakovenko: I think to me what was really interesting about tokens outside of like the consensus mechanism for it is that it’s a new business model for social networks, for groups, right? Communities that have common interests that are building this body of knowledge through the connections, right? That they can monetize them in a way that doesn’t involve advertisement. So I think that the ugly truth about social network is you build a community, you get users and then you stuff things that people don’t want that you can make money on, right? Which is ads. But if you can use a token to actually monetize the strength of that community, it’s a totally different model and the results could be a better community itself, right? That was I think missing from the internet

Brad Kam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And they didn’t really tell us when it was happening. They didn’t say, “Hey, like over the next few years we’re going to collect all this stuff on you and then we’re going to make a fortune by selling it.” We were sort of ignorant of that as it was happening.

Anatoly Yakovenko: I think everybody knew what was happening, right?

Brad Kam: Right, but we didn’t know the impact cause we didn’t know the scale of it. And I just know as an early Facebook user, I thought it was just this thing for college kids and I thought that people were just going to be posting a few pictures. I didn’t realize that eventually it was going to be a digital store of my entire life and my friends’ entire life. I didn’t anticipate that as I opted in initially and a day after day after day, it did this… we were the lobsters getting slowly cooked in the pot and then eventually we turned back and we’re like, “Oh wow, they’ve got everything.”

Anatoly Yakovenko: Yep. And almost everyone, right? 3 billion users or something like that. That I didn’t anticipate that there could be one platform with all of the humanity basically on it, which is kind of crazy. My usage of Facebook has kind of faded. It seems like the space is aligned with this transition from the old school internet, which is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Although I use Twitter a lot simply because that’s where all the fun crypto stuff happens. But with this new emerging technology, it’s almost seems like a generational path. Right? Is that simply because the people I grew up building the Facebook are now old and can build new things, or is it just really society is actually moving away from these centralized platforms?

Brad Kam: I think that it wasn’t clear what the downside… I mean, centralization has so many benefits from an efficiency perspective. It’s so easy to get going, go fast, all that sort of stuff, build tools. So there were so many benefits to it that it wasn’t until we really saw the downsides until we saw like… and I think that this was really a function of scale. It wasn’t actually a danger to us until it got to this size. Now that it got to this size that even small issues with identity for example, the fact that Facebook wasn’t able to identify all these fake users that allowed for an attack vector on our society and so on and so on and so forth. It wasn’t until it got to its scale that it kind of became a problem.

Brad Kam: And I had heard, my more libertarian minded friends talking even back in 2008 and 2009 about how dangerous this was. To me at least, they sounded kind of like paranoids in their log cabins in the middle of the woods. It didn’t actually seem to me at the time like a real problem and I was dead wrong, they were right. And so I just think that wasn’t at the point in time in which it became obvious. That’s when I think the dynamics started to shift. But I don’t think that it’s shifting in the way that people are changing their behavior. I just think it’s shifting in the way that people don’t want it anymore. They want to change. There’s no solution. Everyone’s still using Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. It’s just now we know we want something different and we don’t know what that is.

Anatoly Yakovenko: I’m curious what will be the big use case for blockchain. If there will be one, because at the time again early internet nobody knew that Facebook was going to be a… this boring human connection of just poking somebody or sharing a photo, would be the most valuable thing you can build. So I don’t know. Right now it seems like payments, right? We can move value around, we can do store value. All these things seem really cool but I don’t know if that will actually be the thing that is the most killer app 10 years from now. I’m hoping it’s a privacy preserving social network that a replacement for Facebook. But yeah.

Brad Kam: Me too. I think it’s really hard to say. It seems like payments will be part of whatever that future use case is, but maybe payments aren’t enough on their own and that it’s going to need to be something more comprehensive. But I don’t know. I think that’s a hard thing to predict.

Anatoly Yakovenko: So you guys are building a product, which is unique for the space because I feel like there’s as many protocol projects as there are users, what do you guys want from a protocol, from your perspective?

Brad Kam: Yeah, that’s a great question. And yeah, people ask us all the time, they’re like, “So wait, what’s your business model again?” “We sell domains.” And they’re like, “Hmm.”

Anatoly Yakovenko: That makes sense. It’s easy.

Brad Kam: Yeah. Wait, you could explain it in five words? And we get this question a lot too. And so from our perspective, we’re building a product for the end user and we want that product to be cryptocurrency agnostic. So when we talk to users, they say to us, if we’re going to use a tool like this, if we’re going to use a domain name for payments, we want to be able to pay in whatever currency we want. Bitcoin be the most common, Tierion probably the second most, and so on and so on. And so our users are essentially saying, “We don’t care what blockchain you use. We don’t care what protocol you’re on, we want you to deliver this set of features.”

Brad Kam: So we see the decision on what protocol to use, what blockchain to build on as essentially being a developer consideration. So essentially we are the customer of the blockchain in that scenario. And so if we are the customer, then we want a robust decentralized blockchain. We want fast transactions, we want cheap transactions, we have a lot of things where people were going to want to do transactions, to do things with their domain names. For example, if you want to add your Bitcoin address to your domain name, that’s a transaction. So you have to pay a transaction fee in order to do that. So we need to have low fees in order for that feature to be fully embraced. So yeah, those are the key things. And of course, the platform that we believe is going to be around for the long term.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Yeah, the cheap/fast is like the easy part, I think, to solve.

Brad Kam: That’s great to hear. From a builder, that is music to my ears.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Yeah. Yeah. I think the harder part is getting enough social stickiness in a currency like a cryptocurrency that it doesn’t go away. I think that’s the amazing part of Bitcoin and stuff. So many people have it now that it’s just probably going to be around forever.

Brad Kam: Yeah, I totally agree.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Yeah, yeah. So part of the challenge with trying to get my parents to use anything crypto related is that they don’t understand public keys, private keys, addresses. If I tell them go send dollars to this string of addresses, it’s meaningless to them. I think the UX around addressability is just so bad right now and it’s actually easily hacked. There was a, from my point of view, a really hilarious virus that would detect that you have copied a Bitcoin address and would replace in the copy buffer in your operating system the destination address, so it was going through the virus owner, right? The attacker. So you as a user, your copy and you paste can’t really do this fast comparison, are these long string of hexadecimal digits the same, right?

Brad Kam: Wow. That is a scary attack. I hadn’t ever heard of that. Oh my gosh. Now I’m like I’m going to be paranoid now whatever I copy paste. Yeah. It’s such a weird thing to explain to anybody who tries to use cryptocurrency for the first time. And if you rewind to the early internet where people were using IP addresses, it was basically before the consumer internet could even catch on. Because how could I tell you about a website.. even before search, how could I tell you about a website and have you go there if it’s just a random string of numbers? So it wasn’t even until we had the DNS system, these labels that we were able to start building these digital presences online that became the consumer web that we all use. So it feels really fundamental as like a starting point.

Brad Kam: And so the way that it works with our tech is, so you’ll have a domain name, it’s controlled by you with your private key. It’s sitting inside of your wallet. You sign a message and writing information to the blockchain saying my BTC address equals this, my ETH address equals that, my Solana address equal something else. And then wallets, when I type it in, wallets can read the blockchain and drop in the address. So it’s a way for me to associate my addresses in sort of like an official registry that I control.

Brad Kam: And the net effect of this is that I kind of get closer to like a Venmo account type thing. I get an ID that’s very easy for people to remember, easy for people to share and it works for all of my cryptocurrency payments. And it could theoretically work across all cryptocurrency wallets. So I just can tell everybody this one domain, everyone can use it to pay me. You no longer need to even see the addresses. The addresses can be completely invisible for new users. And even this conversation in which currency do I want to receive can be removed from the equation too because my domain is pre-configured with the ones that I accept, so we don’t even need to talk about that. It’s two major questions. What are my addresses? What currency do you want to receive? We can abstract both of those questions, and just share name.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Cool. I’m really looking forward to that because I think the UX around human identity is really, really bad right now. Cool.

Anatoly Yakovenko: Yeah, so it’s super nice savvy here and this was a really fun conversation.

Brad Kam: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.