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Is the .co rebid biased toward Afilias? Yeah, kinda

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The Colombian government has come under fire for opening up the .co registry contract for rebid in a way that seems predetermined to pick Afilias as the winner, displacing its fierce rival Neustar.

As I blogged in November, Colombia thinks it might be able to secure a better registry deal, so it plans to shortly open .co up to competitive proposals.

A company called .CO Internet, acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014, has been running the ccTLD for the last decade. There are currently around 2.3 million .co domains under management, according to Colombia.

With the renewal deadline looming, the government’s technology ministry, MinTIC, published an eyebrow-raising request for proposals last month.

What’s surprising about the RFP is that some of the four main technical performance criteria listed are so stringent that probably only two companies in the industry qualify — Verisign and Afilias, and so far Verisign has not been involved in the RFP process.

The companies that have been engaging with the government to date are Afilias, Neustar/.CO, Nominet, CentralNic and Donuts.

First, MinTIC wants a registry that’s had at least two million domains under management across its portfolio continuously for two years. All five registries qualify there.

Second, it wants a registry that’s been involved in the migration of a TLD of at least one million names, either as the gaining or losing back-end.

That immediately narrows the pack to just two of the five aforementioned registries — Neustar and Afilias.

Verisign would also qualify, if it’s in the bidding, but I suspect it’s not. Taking over .co would look like a “buy it to kill it” strategy, which would be horrible optics for the Colombian government.

There have only ever been three migrations over one million names, to my knowledge: the Verisign->Afilias .org transition of 2003, the Neustar->Afilias .au move of 2018, and last year’s Afilias->Neustar .in handover.

CentralNic, Nominet and Donuts have all moved numerous TLDs between back-ends, but with much smaller per-TLD domain volumes.

Third — and here’s the kicker — the successful .co bidder will have to show that it processes on average 25 million registry transactions — defined as “billable EPP (write) transactions, as well as all EPP search (read) transactions” — per day. (All of the RFP quotes in this post have been machine-translated from Spanish by Google and run by a few generous Spanish speakers for verification.)

The RFP is not entirely clear on what exact data points it’s looking at here, but my take is that qualifying transactions include, at an absolute minimum, attempts to create a domain, renew a domain, transfer a domain and check whether a domain is registered.

The vast majority of such transactions are in the check and create functions, and I believe a great deal of that activity relates to drop-catching, where registries are flooded with add requests for just-deleted domains.

Whichever way you split it, 25 million a day is a ludicrously high number. Literally only .com, which sees 2.3 billion checks and 1.5 billion adds per month, sees that kind of action.

According to Neustar, which actually runs .co, it only sees 6.4 million transactions per day on average. The requirement to handle 25 million a day is “exaggerated, unjustified and discriminatory” against Neustar, Neustar told MinTIC.

But the RFP allows for the bidding registries to spread their 25-million-a-day quota across all of the TLDs they manage, and this MAY sneak Afilias over the line.

I say MAY in big letters because I don’t believe the numbers that Afilias (and probably other registries too) reports to ICANN every month are reliable.

If you add up the reported, qualifying EPP transactions for September in Afilias’ top four legacy gTLDs — .org, .info, .mobi and .pro — you get to over 25 million per day.

But those same records show that, for example, .mobi, .pro and .info had exactly the same number of EPP availability checks that month — 215,988,497 each.

This is clearly bad data.

I reported on this issue last May, when ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee informed ICANN that major registries were providing “not reliable” or possibly “fabricated” data about port 43 Whois queries.

Afilias, which was one of the apparent offenders, told me at the time that it was addressing the issue with ICANN, but it does not yet appear to have fully fixed its reporting to enable TLD-by-TLD breakdowns of its registry activity.

It is of course quite possible, even very likely, that Afilias has on average more than 25 million qualifying EPP transactions per day, but how’s it going to prove that to the Colombian government when the numbers it reports under contract to ICANN are clearly unreliable?

It’s a little harder to determine whether Neustar would qualify under the 25-million transaction rule, because some of its largest zones are ccTLDs — .co, .in and .us — that do not publicly report this kind of data. Its comments to the RFP suggest it would not.

Numbers aside, I’ll note that there’s very probably an inherent bias towards legacy gTLD operators like Afilias and against relative newcomers such as CentralNic if you’re counting EPP transactions. As I noted above, a lot of these transactions are coming from drop-catch activity, which is more prevalent on larger, older TLDs where there are more dropping domains that are more likely to have existing backlinks and traffic.

The fourth technical requirement in the Colombian RFP that looks a bit fishy is the requirement that the new registry must have channel relationships with at least 10 of the largest 25 registrars, as listed by a web site called domainstate.com.

I can’t say I’ve looked at domainstate.com very often, if at all, but a quick look at its numbers for September strongly suggests to me that it does not count post-2012 new gTLD registrations in its registrar league table. One registrar with almost four million domains under management doesn’t even show up on the list. This arguably could give an advantage to a registry that plays strongly in legacy gTLDs.

That said, it’s probably an academic point — I don’t think any of the bidders for the .co contract would have difficulty showing that they have 10 of the top 25 registrars on board, whichever way you calculate that league table.

Cumulatively, these four technical hurdles have led some to suggest that Afilias has somehow steered MinTIC towards creating an RFP only it could win.

Apart from what I’ve discussed here, I’ve no evidence that is the case, and Afilias has not yet responded to my request for comment today.

Luckily for the bidding registries, the Columbian RFP has not yet been finalized. Comments submitted by the bidders and others are apparently going to be taken on board, so the barriers to entry for respondents could be lowered before bids are finally accepted.

MinTIC posted an update last night that extends the period that the RFP could run, and the transition period should Neustar lose the contract. A handover, should one happen at all, could now happen as late as February next year.

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Amazon governments vow revenge for “illegal and unjust” ICANN decision on .amazon

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Policy

The eight nations of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization are unhappy that ICANN is giving .amazon to Amazon the retailer and have vowed to spread the word that ICANN has acted “illegally”.

ACTO secretary general Alexandra Moreira has written (pdf) to ICANN CEO Göran Marby to say: “We consider this decision an illegal and unjust expropriation of our culture, tradition, history and image before the world.”

She said that ACTO is now “committed to disseminating news of this situation to all relevant groups”, adding:

the international community should be aware of the very real consequences or ramifications (be it economic, environmental, cultural or related to questions of sovereignty) of granting exclusive access to the domain “.Amazon” to a single company.

The delegation of .amazon to Amazon the company, “jeopardizes the continued well-being of the societies that live there”, she wrote, with no elaboration.

Amazon was last month told it could have the gTLD after a years-long battle with ACTO and the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee, which had advised ICANN by consensus to reject the .amazon application.

That consensus broke last year when the US government basically said enough was enough and refused to continue back the eight South American governments’ plight.

Under the terms of Amazon’s contract, it has to protect hundreds of culturally sensitive second-level domains of ACTO’s choosing, and to give each of its members a single domain that they can use to promote their portion of the Amazonian region.

ACTO had wanted more, basically demanding joint ownership of .amazon, which Amazon refused.

It remains to be seen whether ACTO’s reaction will be limited to harsh language, or whether its members will actively try to disrupt ICANN activities. The next GAC-ICANN face-to-face, set for Cancun in March, could be interesting viewing.

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SaveDotOrg to protest outside ICANN HQ. #lol

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2020, Domain Registries

Good grief.

Just when you thought the outrage over .org manager Public Interest Registry’s imminent sale to Ethos Capital couldn’t get any weirder, the #SaveDotOrg campaign has announced that it is going to physically protest ICANN’s headquarters in Los Angeles next week.

From 0900 until 1100 local time, Friday January 24, they’ll gather to demand that non-profit voices are heard in ICANN’s decision whether to approve the acquisition. From the announcement:

Join us in demanding that ICANN commit to a process that includes the voices and priorities of nonprofits and grassroots organizations. The .ORG domain isn’t up for sale without our participation. We’ll rally outside ICANN’s offices in Los Angeles on Friday, January 24. This is an important moment in the SaveDotOrg campaign, and we want you to join us!

Sloganed T-shirts and signs will be available.

The event is being organized by NTEN, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight For The Future. All very lovely people; I can’t see this turning into some Hong Kong-style riot situation.

Unusual as it is, this kind of direct action against ICANN is not unprecedented.

Back in 2011, a group of pornographers and civil liberties activists gathered outside the Westin St Francis hotel in San Francisco to, where ICANN was holding its public meeting, protest the imminent approval of .xxx, which they thought was a threat to free speech online. About 25 people showed up, by my count, chanting slogans such as “We want porn! No triple-X!”. Buttman was there.

Those protesters, it turns out many years later, really had nothing to worry about; nobody has been forced to buy a .xxx domain, and my friends tell me porn is still very much available on the internet.

I rather suspect the #SaveDotOrg guys are in the same boat. Of all the arguments against the acquisition, the one claiming that free speech is at risk still seems to me the least convincing.

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Ten years ago I predicted Oscar winners wanted a .movie gTLD. Was I right?

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Almost 10 years ago, when DI was barely a month old, I looked at that year’s Oscar nominees and predicted that a .movie gTLD could find some demand in the movie industry. Was I right?

Of course I was. As regular readers know, I’m always right. Apart from those times I’m wrong.

In 2010, there was no .movie gTLD and no publicly announced applications, but I noted at the time that almost half of the 50 nominated movies that year included the word “movie” immediately before the dot.

This year, there were 52 nominated movies across all categories (I’m well aware that this is a pretty small sample size to draw any conclusions from, but this post is just a bit of fun) so one might reasonably expect there to be roughly 25 official sites using .movie domains among them.

There are not. Only nine of the films, including four of the nine Best Picture nominees, use freshly registered .movie domains for their official sites.

These include the likes of 1917.movie, thecave.movie, joker.movie, onceuponatimeinhollywood.movie and littlewomen.movie.

.movie, managed by Donuts, has been around since August 2015. It competes with Motion Picture Domain Registry’s .film, which was not used by any of this year’s Oscars hopefuls.

What about the rest of this year’s nominees? Did they all register fresh .com domains for their movies?

No. In fact, only 10 of the 52 movies appear to have registered new .com domains for their official sites — one more than .movie — including two of the Best Picture nominations.

These fresh .com regs include domains such as parasite-movie.com, richardjewellmovie.com, ilostmybodymovie.com, forsamafilm.com and breakthroughmovie.com.

One movie — Honeyland, a North Macedonian environmentalist documentary about bees — uses a .earth domain.

I discovered today that, rather brilliantly, the Japan-based .earth registry demands registrants “voluntarily pledge to become ambassadors for Earth and do away with actions that harm Earth and its inhabitants” in its Ts&Cs.

So, of the 52 nominated movies, only 20 opted to register a new domain for their official site — down from 24 in 2010 — and that business was split evenly between .com and new gTLDs.

Whether the movies opted for a .movie domain appears to depend in large part on the distributor.

Sony appears to be a bit of a fan of the gTLD, while Fox, Disney and Warner tend to use after-the-slash branding on their existing .com domains for their films’ official sites.

I tallied 17 movies that have their official sites on their distributor’s .com/.org domain.

There are also trends that I could not have predicted a decade ago, such as the rise of streaming services. Back in 2010, Netflix was still largely a DVD-delivery player and was not yet creating original content.

But this year, seven of the Oscar-nominated movies were made and/or distributed by Netflix, and as such the official web site is the same place you go to actually watch the film — netflix.com.

A few of the nominated animated shorts don’t need official sites either — you just head to YouTube to watch them for free.

There are currently only about 3,200 domains in the .movie zone file, about 1,200 fewer than rival .film. It renews at over $300 a year at retail, so it’s not cheaper than the alternatives by a long way.

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ICANN gets a new European chief

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has moved long-time head of North America stakeholder engagement Chris Mondini to head up the organization’s European office.

Mondini will take over the role of vice president of stakeholder engagement for Europe and will also become managing director of the Brussels office.

He replaces Jean-Jacques Sahel, who quit to join Google’s Asia policy team a few months ago.

As attendees at ICANN’s recent Montreal meeting may recall, American Mondini speaks (to my ear) pretty decent French, which will no doubt come in handy after he crosses the pond.

He will continue to lead Global Business Engagement initiatives worldwide and will continue to report to senior VP Sally Costerton.

Mondini has been with ICANN for over eight years, having joined during the Beckstrom years in 2011.

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New CEO to step into the lion’s den at auDA

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Australian ccTLD manager auDA has named its next CEO: Rosemary Sinclair, current CEO of Energy Consumers Australia.

She’ll join the organization in March, about nine months after the last guy, Cameron Boardman, quit after enduring three years of controversy.

Sinclair appears to come from the consumer side of the house. As well as being a “demand-class” member of auDA, she’s also the founding CEO of ECA, which was set up to represent the rights of Australian energy customers.

She’s been involved in auDA before, sitting as a non-executive director from 2009 to 2011, and was also involved heavily in the ICANN community around the same time.

She joins the organization at a time of change, with controversial initiatives such as the release of second-level .au domains on the horizon. She’s unlikely to get an easy ride; auDA members can be a vocal, activist bunch at times.

Sinclair is a Member of the Order of Australia, an honorific handed out by the Queen, meaning she gets to put AM after her name.

She’s NOT the octogenarian former Miss Australia that pops up first when you Google her name, as much as this headline-writer wants her to be.

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Secrets of the .org deal revealed, but much info remains private

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2020, Domain Registries

ICANN has published a ream of new information about the proposed acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital, a deal widely criticized for what it could mean for millions of .org registrants.

The documentation was provided to ICANN by Ethos, PIR and the Internet Society, PIR’s current owner, on the understanding that certain confidential information would remain private or would be redacted.

Almost all of the juicy financial details remain unpublished, but there’s still plenty of interesting revelations among the packet’s 27 pages.

Before we dive into the details, here are the headlines:

  • The deal is being partly funded by an enormous loan.
  • Technically, Ethos isn’t the direct buyer. There are at least three corporate entities involved in the acquisition that we haven’t heard of before.
  • Ethos won’t reveal the names of the directors of PIR’s would-be owner.
  • Another former senior ICANN staffer and long-time Fadi Chehadé collaborator has been revealed as having an interest in the acquisition.

Most of the info relates to the proposed corporate ownership structure of PIR during and following the acquisition, and it’s a little bit more complex than Ethos simply signing a check to ISOC and taking the reins at PIR.

First, PIR is going to undergo what it calls a “statutory conversion” in its home state of Pennsylvania, changing its name from Public Interest Registry to Public Interest Registry LLC — essentially changing from a non-profit to a for-profit.

The company notes that this is not a change of entity — PIR will still be PIR — but is rather a change of its company type and legal name.

At the same time, a newly created non-profit fully owned by ISOC called Connected Giving Foundation will take 100% ownership of PIR LLC, before immediately selling its entire stake to the Ethos group.

But the buyer is not, directly, Ethos Capital. Instead, it’s an acquisition vehicle, created October 24 last year in Delaware, called Purpose Domains Direct, LLC. That company is owned in turn by another vehicle, formed the same day in Delaware, called Purpose Domains Holdings LLC.

Ethos controls both of these companies. It’s not unusual for acquisitions to be carried out via subsidiaries in this way.

That said, Ethos appears reluctant to reveal the names of these companies’ directors.

In its letter to ICANN asking for approval of the acquisition, apparently sent November 14 (one day after the public announcement), the names of the three Purpose Domains Direct directors are redacted. Corporation-friendly Delaware doesn’t make it easy to get at this information either.

However, in December 20 answers to a list of dozens of questions posed by ICANN about the deal, Ethos discloses that it has expanded its proposed board to five directors — the CEO of PIR (currently Jon Nevett), alongside two people selected by Ethos and two selected by “one or more minority equity holders”.

The minority owners are not named, but they could be the three entities revealed by ISOC’s CEO last November, which include funds managed by the Perot and Romney families.

The board will therefore be controlled by Ethos and PIR together, the documents state. No proposed directors other than Nevett are named and it’s not known whether the three redacted names from the November letter are still in line for seats.

The identities of individuals involved in the deal have been of keen interest since it emerged, shortly after the acquisition was announced, that former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé was acting as an adviser to Ethos, closely enough that he actually registered at least one domain name on Ethos’ behalf.

Ethos chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta-Ouri was a senior VP at ICANN until 2016, and CEO Erik Brooks worked for 20 years at Donuts owner Abry Partners, the private equity firm where Chehadé now works as a senior advisor.

Abry is not involved in the acquisition, the new documentation states. Neither are any current ICANN staffers or any other registries or registrars.

But it turns out that yet another former senior ICANN staffer is in fact involved.

The new documentation reveals that Allen Grogan, who worked as head of contracting for the new gTLD program and then chief of contract compliance at ICANN between 2013 and 2017, is also acting as an “advisor” on the deal.

It’s not clear whether Grogan is on the payroll of Ethos, Abry, Chehadé & Company, PIR, ISOC, or none of the above, but the smart money would surely be on him having being brought on board by Chehadé. Like so many senior ICANN officers hired during Chehadé’s tenure, the two men worked together for years at other companies.

The final nugget of new information that leaped out at me in the new docs is how the deal will be funded.

The packet reveals, I believe for the first time, that a good chunk of the $1.135 billion proposed purchase price is actually being paid for with new debt.

Ethos says that Purpose Domains Direct has taken out a total of $360 million in loans from various US banks to make up the shortfall left by its own investors.

The company said that PIR — a mature, high-margin business — will easily have the money to service this debt and, as a for-profit, pay its taxes. Repayments will be less than half of what it currently pays to ISOC every year, the documents state.

The documents were published here (pdf) on Saturday. Let me know if you spot something interesting I missed.

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Registrar terminated after what looks like domain hijacking

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2020, Domain Registrars

ICANN has canned its first registrar of the year.

Los Angeles-based World Biz Domains will be going out of bizness after ICANN terminated its registrar contract earlier this week, following its non-responsiveness to what appears to be case of domain hijacking.

It’s a nothing registrar, with fewer than 100 domains under management, but it once had over 5,000.

The termination comes following the suspension I blogged about in October, which was related to the transfers to World Biz of 15 potentially valuable domains in late 2018.

The names were all either short numerics or the names of famous places in Singapore and Malaysia.

ICANN spent most of last year demanding records showing that the transfers were legit, but was ghosted.

World Biz allegedly also had failed to deliver Whois records in the proper format, and was behind on its ICANN accreditation fees.

The company will lose its accreditation officially on January 22.

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NamesCon publishes full agenda for debut Austin conference

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2020, Domain Services

NamesCon Global is coming up at the end of the month, and yesterday the organizers published the final agenda for the three-or-four day event, including a keynote by GoDaddy’s new CEO.

Aman Bhutani, who took over the top job in September, will speak after lunch on day two of the conference, Thursday January 30, with an as-yet-untitled presentation. I imagine he was an easy booking, given that NamesCon has been owned by GoDaddy for the last few years.

Elsewhere on the agenda, there are plenty of sessions that look sufficiently interesting — covering topics such as data-driven market analysis, DNS abuse, and emerging technologies — that I kinda wish I was attending this year.

I’d be particularly interested in learning more about DNS over HTTPS and blockchain, two emerging “threats” to regular DNS that have sessions devoted to them during the conference.

It’s the first time NamesCon Global has been held outside of Las Vegas since the event debuted in 2003. It’s happening at the Omni Hotel in Austin, Texas, instead.

There’s a fair bit of doubling or tripling up in terms of speakers — some are sitting on multiple panels or keynotes spread over the three days of presentations — but that’s par for the course at NamesCon if memory serves.

Thursday evening sees the now-traditional domain auction, organized by NamesCon and RightOfTheDot. There are some pretty cool names up for sale this year, including add.com, laptop.com, shirts.com and offices.com.

If the auctioneer is anything like the ones hired in Vegas in previous years, you might want to bring along some ear protectors.

Finally, in terms of socializing, male attendees worried that the Friday night networking event is a “Ladies Only” affair can rest assured that Saturday is a day-long literal sausage fest, a seven-hour piss-up at the Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden.

NamesCon runs from January 29 to February 1. Tickets on the door are $999, but booking in advance online knocks the price to $699. Previous attendees are currently being offered an additional 30% discount on pre-booking too. Check your email.

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.gay prices and availability revealed as registry promises to give 20% of revenue to charity

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2020, Domain Registries

The long-fought, once-controversial gTLD .gay is to launch a month from now.

Top Level Design, which won the string at auction against three other applicants last February, this week informed registrars that its sunrise period will begin February 10 this year. General availability will start May 20.

The registry, which beat a mission-focused, restricted “community” applicant for .gay, also said that it will give 20% of its top-line registration revenue to two LGBT charities — GLAAD and CenterLink.

With base registry fee of $25 per domain, that’s at least $5 going to gay charities for every domain sold. Registrars are being encouraged to match that donation at the retail level.

There will also be six tiers of “premium” domains — $100, $250, $650, $2,000, $5,000 and $12,500 — for which the 20% donation will also apply. Premium domains will renew at premium prices.

Top Level Design also says it is to enforce an anti-bullying policy. Any registrant using a .gay domain for “harassment, threats, and hate speech” will stand to lose their name. It’s a complaint-based enforcement policy; the registry will not actively monitor content.

Registrants who have forums on their .gay web sites will also have to police their user-generated content, to keep it in line with registry policy.

Its official policy even includes helpline numbers for bullied gay people who are feeling suicidal.

The registry appears to be making the right noises when it comes to calming concerns that an unrestricted, non-community .gay space could do more harm than good.

The key area where it diverges from the community application, which had been backed by dozens of gay-rights groups, is the lack of a ban on pornography. I’d hazard a guess that a good chunk of registration volume will come from that space.

The launch will comprise two sunrise periods and an early access period, before .gay goes to GA.

The first sunrise is the ICANN-mandated period, open only to those trademark owners with listings in the official Trademark Clearinghouse. That will run from February 10 to March 31. A second sunrise will be open to other trademarks, validated by back-end provider CentralNic. That runs from April 6 to May 6.

Both sunrise periods will include the automatic reservation of 10 potentially confusing Latin internationalized domain name variants, generated by CentralNic algorithm. This will include strings that transpose 0 and O or e and ë, for example.

EAP, the period in which early birds can grab the names they want for premium fees that decrease every day, runs from May 11 to May 17. Prices are not yet available.

GA is May 20.

Top Level Design originally planned to launch .gay last year, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day in the US.

The new GA date appears to land on the anniversary of a landmark gay rights ruling in the US Supreme Court, Romer v Evans, but this may just be a coincidence.

.gay is launching about a month before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, in June, so we might see some marketing around that event.

Registrars signing up to sell .gay domains are also being given some schooling, apparently courtesy of GLAAD, about what language is currently cool and uncool to use in marketing.

Apparently, the terms “homosexual”, “sexual preference” and “transvestite” are considered offensive nowadays and are therefore verboten in registrar marketing. “Queer”, as a partially reclaimed offensive term, should be used with caution.

I suppose Top Level Design had better hope the word “gay” is not added to this list any time soon, otherwise it has a serious problem on its hands.

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