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.CLUB revenue not all that

Kevin Murphy, August 21, 2018, Domain Registries

.CLUB Domains may be one of the 5000 fastest-growing companies in the US, according to Inc magazine, but it’s returning the majority of its revenue back to its registrars.

CEO Colin Campbell revealed this week that the company returns almost 70% of its gross revenue in the form of rebates.

The revelation came in an interview with Domain Name Wire on its latest podcast.

Campbell told Andrew Allemann that in 2017 .CLUB had $9.3 million in what he called “cash flow” or “gross revenue”.

But “net cash” or “net revenue”, after rebates was just $2.8 million, meaning $6.5 million was returned to registrars via promotions.

The interview came a few days after Inc named the company 1164th in its 2018 list of fastest-growing US companies.

Inc had .CLUB’s revenue at $7.2 million, but that appears to have been calculated using the usual accounting standards of deferring revenue into future periods over the lifetime of the domain subscription.

.club has something like 1.4 million names under management.

Campbell said that the company is “adding about a million dollars of net revenue per year” and he predicted 2018 gross cash to come in at $10.5 million and net to come in at $3.7 million.

That’s a net revenue figure, remember, not a profit or net income line. Campbell said he’s more interested in growing the business rather than paying taxes on profits.

The aggressive rebating seems to have a focus in China, where it has regular deals with the likes of Alibaba (which was .club’s biggest registrar with 20% of the market at the last count) and West.cn.

While .CLUB is private, Campbell has been frank about its performance in the past.

The DNW interview follows DI’s interview with Campbell on more or less the same topic last September, and DNW’s in 2016.

It’s a good podcast, you should have a listen.

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Microsoft seizes “Russian election hacking” domains

Kevin Murphy, August 21, 2018, Domain Policy

Microsoft has taken control of six domains associated with a hacker group believed to be a part of Russian military intelligence, according to the company.

Company president Brad Smith blogged yesterday that Microsoft obtained a court order allowing it to seize the names, which it believes were to be used to attack institutions including the US Senate.

The domains in question look like they could be used in spear-phishing attacks. The are: my-iri.org, hudsonorg-my-sharepoint.com, senate.group, adfs-senate.services, adfs-senate.email and office365-onedrive.com.

Historical Whois records archived by DomainTools show they were registered last year behind WhoisGuard, the Panama-based privacy service. Now, of course, the Whois records are all redacted due to GDPR.

Smith said that Microsoft believes intended targets besides the Senate also include the International Republican Institute and the Hudson Institute, two conservative think-tanks.

The company believes, though it did not show evidence, that the domains were created by the group it calls “Strontium”.

Strontium is also known as “Fancy Bear”, among other names. It’s believed to be backed by the GRU, Russia’s intelligence agency.

It’s the same group alleged members of which Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently indicted as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

“We have now used this approach 12 times in two years to shut down 84 fake websites associated with this group,” Smith said in his blog post.

He added that Microsoft does not know whether the domains have been used in an attack yet.

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New gTLDs rebound in Q2

Kevin Murphy, August 21, 2018, Domain Registries

New gTLD registration volumes reversed a long trend of decline in the second quarter, according to Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief.

The DNIB (pdf), published late last week, shows new gTLD domains up by 1.6 million sequentially to 21.8 million at the end of June, a 7.8% increase.

That’s the first time Verisign’s numbers have shown quarterly growth for new gTLDs since December 2016, five quarters of shrinkage ago.

Domains (millions)
Q3 201623.4
Q4 201625.6
Q1 201725.4
Q2 201724.3
Q3 201721.1
Q4 201720.6
Q1 201820.1
Q2 201821.8

The best-performing new gTLD across Q2 was .top according to my zone file records, adding about 600,000 names.

.top plays almost exclusively into the sub-$1 Chinese market and is regularly singled out as a spam-friendly zone. SpamHaus currently ranks it as almost 45% “bad”.

Overall, the domain universe saw growth of six million names, or 1.8%, finishing the quarter at 339.8 million names, according to Verisign.

Verisign’s own .com ended Q2 with 135.6 million domains, up from 133.9 million at the end of March.

That’s a sequential increase of 1.7 millions, only 100,000 more than the total net increase from the new gTLD industry.

.net is still suffering, however, flat in the period with 14.1 million names.

ccTLDs saw an increase of 3.5 million names, up 2.4%, to end June at 149.7 million, the DNIB states.

But that’s mainly as a result of free TLD .tk, which never deletes names. Stripping its growth out (Verisign and partner ZookNic evidently have access to .tk data now) total ccTLD growth would only have been 1.9 million names.

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.CLUB revenue reportedly $7.2 million

Kevin Murphy, August 16, 2018, Domain Registries

.CLUB Domains had $7.2 million of revenue in 2017.

That’s according to Inc magazine, which ranked the company at 1164th in its 2018 Inc 5000 list of the fastest-growing US-based companies.

Growth over three years for .CLUB, which is listed as having 17 employees, was 419%, according to the profile.

.club is one of the best-performing new gTLDs in terms of volume, with over 1.3 million domains under management, according to the company.

While it has generally steered away from deep discounting, it has in recent weeks benefited from a huge increase in sales — adding over 100,000 names to its zone file in just a few days earlier this month — as a result of a sale at the Chinese registrar Alibaba, which sold .club names for the RNB equivalent of $0.44.

That had the effect of diverting .club from a decline that looked like it would shortly have seen it dip below one million zone names for the first time in over a year.

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How a single Whois complaint got this registrar shitcanned

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2018, Domain Registrars

A British registrar has had its ICANN contract terminated after a lengthy, unprecedented fight instigated by a single complaint about the accuracy of a single domain’s Whois.

Astutium, based in London and with about 5,000 gTLD domains under management, finally lost its right to sell gTLD domains last week, after an angry battle with ICANN Compliance, the Ombudsman, and the board of directors.

While the company is small, it does not appear to be of the shady, fly-by-night type sometimes terminated by ICANN. Director Rob Golding has been an active face at ICANN for many years and Astutium has, with ICANN approval, taken over portfolios from other de-accredited registrars in the past.

Nevertheless, its Registrar Accreditation Agreement has been torn up, as a result of a complaint about the Whois for the domain name tomzink.com last December.

Golding told DI today that he considers the process that led to his de-accreditation broken and that he’s considering legal action.

The owner of tomzink.com and associated web site appears to be a Los Angeles-based music producer called Tom Zink. The web site seems legit and there’s no suggestion anywhere that Zink has done anything wrong, other than possibly filling out an incomplete Whois record.

The person who complained about the Whois accuracy, whose identity has been redacted from the public record and whose motives are still unclear, had claimed that the domain’s Whois record lacked a phone and fax number and that the registrant and admin contacts contained “made-up” names.

Historical Whois records archived by DomainTools show that in October last year the registrant name was “NA NA”.

The registrant organization was “Astutium Limited” and the registrant email was an @astutium.com address. The registrant mailing address was in Long Beach, California (the same as Zink). There were no phone/fax numbers in the record.

Golding told DI that some of these details were present when the domain was transferred in from another registrar. Others seem to have been added because the registrar was looking after the name on behalf of its client.

The admin and technical records both contained Astutium’s full contact information.

Following the December complaint, the record was cleaned up to remove all references to Astutium and replace them with Zink’s contact data. Judging by DomainTools’ records, this seems to have happened the same day as ICANN forwarded the complaint to Astutium, December 20.

So far, so normal. This kind of Whois cleanup happens many times across the industry every day.

But this is where relations between Astutium and ICANN began to break down, badly.

Even though the Whois record had been cleaned up already, Golding responded to Compliance, via the ICANN complaints ticketing system:

Please dont forward bigus/meaningless whois complaints which are clearly themselves totally inaccurate… No action is necessary or will be taken on bogus/incomplete/rubbish reports. [sic]

Golding agreed with me today that his tone was fairly belligerent from the outset, but noted that it was far from the first time he’d received a compliance complaint he considered bogus.

In the tomzink.com case, he took issue with the fact that the complainant had said that the admin/tech records contained no fax number. Not only was this not true (it was Astutium’s own fax number), but fax numbers are optional under ICANN’s Whois policy.

He today acknowledges that some parts of the complaint were not bogus, but notes that the Whois record had been quickly updated with the correct information.

But simply changing the Whois record is not sufficient for ICANN. It wants you to show evidence of how you resolved the problem in the form of copies of or evidence of communications with the registered name holder.

The Whois Accuracy Program Specification, which is part of the RAA, requires registrars to verify and validate changes to the registered name holder either automated by phone or email, or manually.

Golding told DI that in this case he had called the client to advise him to update his contact information, which he did, so the paper trail only comprises records of the client logging in and changing his contact information.

What he told ICANN in January was:

If ICANN compliance are unable to do the simple job they have been tasked with (to correctly vet and format the queries before sending them on, as they have repeatedly agreed they will do *on record* at meetings) then Registrars have zero obligations to even look at them. Any ‘lack of compliance’ is firmly at your end and not ours in this respect.

However in this specific case we chose to look, contacted the registrant, and had them update/correct/check the records, as can easily be checked by doing a whois

ICANN then explained that “NA NA” and the lack of a phone number were legitimate reasons that the complaint was not wholly bogus, and again asked Golding to provide evidence of Astutium’s correspondence with Zink.

After ignoring a further round or two of communication via the ticketing system, Golding responded: “No, we don’t provide details of private communications to 3rd parties”.

He reiterated this point a couple more times throughout February, eventually saying that nothing in WAPS requires Astutium to “demonstrate compliance” by providing such communications to ICANN, and threatening to escalate the grievance to the Ombudsman.

(That may be strictly true, but the RAA elsewhere does require registrars to keep records and allow ICANN to inspect them on demand.)

It was around the same time that Compliance started trying to get in touch with Golding via phone. While it was able to get through to the Astutium office landline, Compliance evidently had the wrong mobile phone number for Golding himself.

Golding told DI the number ICANN was trying to use (according to ICANN it’s the one listed in RADAR, the official little black book for registrars) had two digits transposed compared to his actual number, but he did not know why that was. Several other members of ICANN staff have his correct number and call him regularly, he said.

By February 27, Compliance had had enough, and issued Astutium with its first public breach notice (pdf)

Allowing a compliance proceeding to get to this stage is always bad news for a registrar — when ICANN hits the public breach notice phase, staff go out and actively search for other areas of potential non-compliance.

Golding reckons Compliance staff are financially incentivized, or “get paid by the bullet point”, at this stage, but I have no evidence that is the case.

Whatever the reason, Compliance in February added on claims:

  • that Astutium was failing to output Whois records in the tightly specified format called for by the RAA (Golding blames typos and missed memos for this and says the errors have been corrected),
  • that Astutium’s registration agreement failed to include renewal and post-renewal fees (Golding said every single page of the Astution web site, including the registration agreement page, carries a link to its price list. While he admitted the text of the agreement does not include these prices, he claimed the same could be said of some of the biggest registrars),
  • that the registration agreement does not specify how expiration notices are delivered (according to Golding, the web site explains that it’s delivered via email)
  • that the address published on the Astutium web site does not match the one provided via the Registrar Information Specification, another way ICANN internally tracks contact info for its registrars (Golding said that his company’s address is published on every single page of its site)

A final bullet point asked the company to implement corrective measures to ensure it “will respond to ICANN compliance matters timely, completely and in line with ICANN’s Expected Standards of Behavior”.

The reference to the Expected Standards of Behavior — ICANN’s code of politeness for the community — is a curious one, not typically seen in breach notices. Unless I’m reading too much into it, it suggests that somebody at ICANN wasn’t happy with Golding’s confrontational, sometimes arguably condescending, attitude.

Golding claims that some of ICANN’s allegations in this breach notice are “provably false”.

He told us he still hasn’t ruled out legal action for defamation against ICANN or its staff as a result of the publication of the notice.

“I’ll be in California, serving the paperwork myself,” he said.

Astutium did not respond to the breach notice, according to ICANN documents, and it was escalated to full-blown termination March 21.

On March 30, the registrar filed a Request for Reconsideration (pdf) with ICANN. That’s one of the “unprecedented” things I referred to at the top of this article — I don’t believe a registrar termination has been challenged through the RfR process before.

The second unprecedented thing was that the RfR was referred to Ombudsman Herb Waye, under ICANN’s relatively new, post-transition, October 2016 bylaws.

Waye’s evaluation of the RfR (pdf), concluded that Astutium was treated fairly. He noted multiple times that the company had apparently made no effort to come into compliance between the breach notice and the termination notice.

Golding was not impressed with the Ombudsman’s report.

“The Ombudsman is totally useless,” he said.

“The entire system of the Ombudsman is designed to make sure nobody has to look into anything,” he said. “He’s not allowed to talk to experts, he’s not actually allowed to talk to the person who made the complaint [Astutium], his only job is to ask ICANN if they did the right thing… That’s their accountability process.”

The Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which handles reconsideration requests, in June found against Astutium, based partly on the Ombudsman’s evaluation.

BAMC then gave Golding a chance to respond to its decision, before it was sent to the ICANN board, something I believe may be another first.

He did, with a distinctly more conciliatory tone, writing in an email (pdf):

Ultimately my aim has always been to have the ‘final decision’ questioned as completely disproportionate to the issue raised… and the process that led to the decisions looked into so that improvements can be made, and should there still be unresolved issues, opportunity to work in a collaborative method to solve them, without the need to involve courts, lawyers, further complaints/challenge processes and so on.

And then the ICANN board voted to terminate the company, in line with BAMC’s recommendation.

That vote happened almost a month ago, but Astutium did not lose its IANA number until a week ago.

According to Golding, the company is still managing almost all of its gTLD domains as usual.

One registry, CentralNic, turned it off almost immediately, so Astutium customers are not currently able to manage domains in TLDs such as .host, he said. The other registries still recognize it, he said. (CentralNic says only new registrations and transfers are affected, existing registrants can manage their domains.)

After a registrar termination, ICANN usually transfers the affected domains to another accredited registrar, but this has not happened yet in Astutium’s case.

Golding said that he has a deal with fellow UK registrar Netistrar to have the domains moved to its care, on the understanding that they can be transferred back should Astutium become re-accredited.

He added that he’s looking into acquiring three other registrar accreditations, which he may merge.

So, what is to be learned from all this?

It seems to me that we may be looking at a case of a nose being cut off to spite a face, somebody talking themselves into a termination. This is a compliance issue that probably could have been resolved fairly quickly and quietly many months ago.

Another takeaway might be that, if the simple act of making a phone call to a registrar presents difficulties, ICANN’s Compliance procedures may need a bit of work.

A third takeaway might be that ICANN Compliance is very capable of disrupting registrars’ businesses if they fail to meet the letter of the law, so doing what you’re told is probably the safest way to go.

Or, as Golding put it today: “The lesson to be learned is: if you don’t want them fucking with your business, bend over, grab your ankles, and get ready.”

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