ICANN has just authorized the biggest shake-up of the domain name industry in a decade, lifting all the major cross-ownership restrictions on registrars and registries.
A surprise resolution passed on Friday at the ICANN board’s retreat could enable registries such as VeriSign to acquire registrars such as Go Daddy, and vice-versa.
The new rules will also allow registrars to apply for and run new top-level domains and, subject to additional conditions, may enable existing registries to eventually start selling direct to end users, potentially bypassing the registrar channel.
The implications of these changes could be enormous, and I expect they could be challenged by affected parties.
The board resolved that ICANN “will not restrict cross-ownership between registries and registrars”, subject to certain yet-to-be written Code of Conduct for preventing abuse.
These looser ownership restrictions will be included in the new TLD Applicant Guidebook. Existing registries will be able to transition to the new rules over time through contract changes.
ICANN will develop mechanisms for enforcing anti-abuse rules through contractual compliance programs, and will have the ability to refer cross-ownership deals to competition authorities.
These provisions may be enhanced by additional enforcement mechanisms such as the use of self-auditing requirements, and the use of graduated sanctions up to and including contractual termination and punitive damages.
The decision appears to have been made partly on the grounds that while almost all existing registry contracts include strict cross-ownership restrictions, it has never been a matter of formal policy.
A vertical integration working group which set out to create a bottom-up consensus policy earlier this year managed to find only deadlock.
ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush said:
In the absence of existing policy or new bottom-up policy recommendations, the Board saw no rationale for placing restrictions on cross-ownership. Any possible abuses can be better addressed by properly targeted mechanisms. Co-ownership rules are not an optimal technique in this area.
Most members of the VI working group broadly favored some level of cross-ownership restriction, such as a 15% cap, while a smaller number favored the “free trade” position that ICANN seems to have gone for.
The companies campaigning hardest against cross-ownership being permitted were arguably Afilias and Go Daddy, though the likes of NeuStar and VeriSign also favored some restrictions.
Opponents of integrating registry and registrar functions argued that giving registrars access to registry data would harm consumers; others countered that this was best addressed through compliance programs rather than ownership caps.
The big winners from this announcement are the start-up new TLD registries, which will not be forced to work exclusively within the existing registrar channel in order to sell their domains.