Domain name registries and registrars will soon be able to own each other, but there are plenty of good reasons why many of them, including the largest, may not.
George Kirikos and Mike Berkens are asking very interesting questions today, based on earlier investigative reporting by DomainNameWire, about whether Go Daddy would or should be barred from owning a registry on cybersquatting grounds.
But that’s not the only reason why Go Daddy may have problems applying for a new top-level domain.
I reported back in March, when only my mother was reading this blog, that Go Daddy may have gotten too big to be allowed into the registry market.
If you think Go Daddy wants to apply to ICANN to manage a new TLD registry or two, ask yourself: why did Go Daddy spend most of the year opposing vertical integration?
I have no inside knowledge into this, but I have a theory.
In 2008, CRA International produced an economic study for ICANN that, broadly speaking, recommended the relaxation of the rules separating registries and registrars.
In December that year, less than two years ago, Go Daddy filed its very much pro-VI comments on the study:
Go Daddy has and continues to be an advocate for eliminating the existing limits on registry/registrar cross-ownership.
The arguments that have been presented in favor of maintaining the status quo simply do not hold water. Current and past examples of cross-ownership already serve as test cases that demonstrate cross-ownership can and does work, and it can be successfully monitored.
Over the course of the next 12 months, the company’s official position on VI mellowed, and by this year it had made a 180-degree turn on the issue.
Its comments to the VI working group, filed in April 2010, say:
Go Daddy’s position on the vertical integration (VI) issue has changed over time. When VI discussions first began our position was very much to the left (if left is full, unqualified VI), but it has moved steadily to the right (if right is maintaining the so-called status quo). At this point, we are nearly fully on the right.
The company cited concerns about security, stability and consumer protection as the reasons for its shift. While I’ve no doubt that’s part of the story, I doubt it paints a full picture.
The decision may also have something to do with another economic study, produced for ICANN in February this year, this time by economics experts Steven Salop and Joshua Wright. It was published in March.
This study, crucially I think, suggested that where cross-ownership was to take place and the larger of the two companies had market power, that the deal should be referred to government competition regulators. Salop & Wright said:
We recommend that ICANN choose a market share threshold in the 40-60% range (the market share measured would be that of the acquiring company). The lower end is the market share at which U.S. competition authorities begin to be concerned about market power.
Guess which is the only registrar that falls into this market share window?
In January this year, Go Daddy put out a press release, when it registered its 40 millionth domain, which claimed:
Go Daddy now holds a near 50 percent market share of all active new domains registered in the world and is more than three times the size of its closest competitor.
Correlation does not equal causation, of course, so there’s no reason the second economic study and Go Daddy’s policy U-turn are necessarily linked, but I’d be surprised if the market power issue did not play a role.
The newly published Applicant Guidebook appears to have taken on board a key Salop & Wright recommendation, one that may be relevant:
ICANN-accredited registrars are eligible to apply for a gTLD… ICANN reserves the right to refer any application to the appropriate competition authority relative to any cross-ownership issues.
It seems to me that Go Daddy may be one of the few companies such a provision applies to. The company may find it has a harder time applying to become a registry than its competitors.
In the interests of sanity, I should point of that the AGB has been out for less than 48 hours, and that anything written about its possible consequences at this point is pure speculation.