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Will ICANN take a bigger slice of the .com pie, or will .domainers get URS?

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Will ICANN try to get its paws on some of Verisign’s .com windfall? Or might domainers get a second slap in the face by seeing URS imposed in .com?

With Verisign set to receive hundreds of millions of extra dollars due to the imminent lifting of .com price caps, it’s been suggested that ICANN may also financially benefit from the arrangement.

In a couple of blog posts Friday, filthy domain scalper Andrew Allemann said that ICANN will likely demand higher fees from Verisign in the new .com registry agreement.

Will it though? I guess it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty by any means.

Verisign currently pays ICANN $0.25 per transaction, the same as almost all other gTLDs. Technically, there’s no reason this could not be renegotiated.

Putting aside some of the legacy gTLD contracts, I can only think of two significant cases of ICANN imposing higher fees on a registry.

The first was .xxx, which was signed in 2011. That called for ICM Registry, now part of MMX, to pay $2 per transaction, eight times the norm.

The rationale for this was that ICANN thought (or at least said it thought) that .xxx was going to be a legal and compliance minefield. It said it envisaged higher costs for overseeing the then-controversial TLD.

There was a school of thought that ICANN was just interested in opportunistically boosting its own coffers, given that ICM was due to charge over $60 per domain per year — at the time a ludicrously high amount.

But risk largely failed to materialize, and the two parties last year renegotiated the fees down to $0.25.

The second instance was .sucks, another controversial TLD. In that case, ICANN charged registry Vox Populi a $100,000 upfront fee and per-transaction fees of $1 per domain for the first 900,000 transactions, four times more than the norm.

While some saw this as a repeat of the .xxx legal arse-covering tactic, ICANN said it was actually in place to recoup a bunch of money that Vox Pop owner Momentous still owed when it let a bunch of its drop-catch registrars go out of business a couple years earlier.

While the .sucks example clearly doesn’t apply to Verisign, one could make the case that the .xxx example might.

It’s possible, I guess, that ICANN could make the case that Verisign’s newly regained ability to raise prices opens it up to litigation risk — something I reckon is certainly true — and that it needs to increase its fees to cover that risk.

It might be tempting. ICANN has a bit of a budget crunch at the moment, and a bottomless cash pit like Verisign would be an easy source of funds. A transaction fee increase of four cents would have been enough to cover the $5 million budget shortfall it had to deal with earlier this year.

On the other hand, it could be argued that ICANN demanding more money from Verisign would unlevel the playing field, inviting endless litigation from Verisign itself.

ICANN’s track record with legacy gTLDs has been to reduce, rather than increase, their transaction fees.

Pre-2012 gTLDs such as .mobi, .jobs, .cat and .travel have all seen their fees reduced to the $0.25 baseline in recent years, sometimes from as high as $2.

In each of these cases, the registries concerned had to adopt many provisions of the standard 2012 new gTLD registry agreement including, controversially, the Uniform Rapid Suspension service.

Domainers hate the URS, which gives trademark owners greater powers to take away their domains, and the Internet Commerce Association (under the previous stewardship of general counsel Phil Corwin, since hired by Verisign) unsuccessfully fought against URS being added to .mobi et al over the last several years, on the basis that eventually it could worm its way into .com.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that ICANN might reduce Verisign’s fees, but what if URS is the price the registry has to pay for its massive .com windfall?

It’s not as if Verisign has any love for domainers, despite the substantial contribution they make to its top line.

Since the NTIA deal was announced, it’s already calling them “scalpers” and driving them crazy.

ICA lost the .com price freeze fight last week, could it also be about to lose the URS fight?

This is who won the .inc, .llc and .llp gTLD auctions

Kevin Murphy, October 19, 2017, Domain Registries

The winners of the auctions to run the gTLD registries for company identifiers .inc, .llc and .llp have emerged due to ICANN application withdrawals.

All three contested gTLDs had been held up for years by appeals to ICANN by Dot Registry — an applicant with the support of US states attorneys general — but went to private auction in September after the company gave up its protests for reasons its CEO doesn’t so far want to talk about.

The only auction won by Dot Registry was .llp. That stands for Limited Liability Partnership, a legal construct most often used by law firms in the US and probably the least frequently used company identifier of the three.

Google was the applicant with the most cash in all three auctions, but it declined to win any of them.

.inc seems to have been won by a Hong Kong company called GTLD Limited, run by DotAsia CEO Edmon Chong. DotAsia runs .asia, the gTLD granted by ICANN in the 2003 application round.

My understanding is that the winning bid for .inc was over $15 million.

If that’s correct, my guess is that the quickest, easiest way to make that kind of money back would be to build a business model around defensive registrations at high prices, along the lines of .sucks or .feedback.

My feedback would be that that business model would suck, so I hope I’m wrong.

There were 11 original applicants for .inc, but two companies withdrew their applications years ago.

Dot Registry, Uniregisty, Afilias, GMO, MMX, Nu Dot Co, Google and Donuts stuck around for the auction but have all now withdrawn their applications, meaning they all likely shared in the lovely big prize fund.

MMX gained $2.4 million by losing the .inc and .llc auctions, according to a recent disclosure.

.llc, a US company nomenclature with more potential customers of lower net worth, went to Afilias.

Dot Registry, MMX, Donuts, LLC Registry, Top Level Design, myLLC and Google were also in the .llc auction and have since withdrawn their applications.

.feedback threatens to shut off MarkMonitor

Top Level Spectrum, the controversial .feedback gTLD registry, has threatened to de-accredit MarkMonitor unless it apologizes for “breaching” its registrar contract.

The move is evidently retaliation for the MarkMonitor-coordinated complaint about .feedback’s launch policies, which last month led to TLS being found in breach of its own ICANN contract.

De-accreditation would mean MarkMonitor would not be able to sell .feedback domains any more, and its .feedback names would be transferred to another registrar.

In a letter to MarkMonitor (pdf) yesterday, TLS informs the registrar that it breached its Registry-Registrar Agreement by releasing said RRA to “the press” as part of the exhibits to its Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Policy complaint.

The problem we take issue with is that your exhibit should have redacted the “Confidential RRA Agreement” prior to being handed over to ” the press ” and it should have been marked in an appropriate way so ICANN would not publicly disclose it. As we can tell no precautions were taken and as a party to the action we find that you violated the confidentiality of the agreement.

I understand “the press” in this case includes DI and others. We published the document last October. We were not asked to keep anything confidential.

The RRA section of the document is marked as “private and confidential” and contains terms forbidding the disclosure of such information, but the name of the registrar is redacted.

TLS believes the undisclosed registrar is actually Facebook, a MarkMonitor client and one of the several parties to the PICDRP complaint against .feedback.

While Facebook may not have actually signed the RRA, MarkMonitor certainly did and therefore should not have released the document, TLS says.

The letter concludes that the “breach… seems incurable” and says: “Please let us know what actions you will take to cure this breach with us or we will have no other option but to de-accredited your Registrars.”

Despite this, TLS CEO Jay Westerdal tells us that an apology will be enough to cure the alleged breach.

The threat is reminiscent of a move pulled by Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, last year. Vox deaccredited MarkMonitor rival Com Laude in June for allegedly leaking a confidential document to DI (I was never able to locate or identify the allegedly leaked document, and had not published any document marked as confidential).

TLS was found in breach of the Public Interest Commitments in its ICANN contract last month by a PICDRP panel. It was the first registry to suffer such a loss.

The PICDRP panel found that .feedback’s launch had not been conducted in a transparent way, but it stopped short of addressing MarkMonitor’s complaints about “fraudulent” behavior.

.radio set for November launch, weird tiered pricing

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2017, Domain Registries

The European Broadcasting Union plans to operate the forthcoming .radio gTLD in such a way as to discourage domain investors.

It yesterday set out its launch timetable, registration restrictions, and expects registrars to charge companies between €200 and €250 per domain per year ($213 to $266).

Interestingly, it’s also proposing to charge different, lower prices for individuals, though that pricing tier has not been disclosed.

I’m not sure I can think of another company that wants to charge different prices depending on the class of registrant and it seems like would be tough to enforce.

If I’m the domain manager at a radio company, can’t I just register the domain in my own name, rather than my employer’s, in order to secure the lower price?

Other registries, notably .sucks, have come under fire in the past for charging trademark owners higher fees. Isn’t basing pricing tiers on the legal status of the registrant pretty much the same thing?

That perception could be reinforced by the angle the EBU is taking in its marketing.

“We are proposing that the radio community may like to consider securing the integrity of their web presence by requesting appropriate .radio domains for defensive reasons initially,” .radio TLD Manager Alain Artero said in a blog post.

“The TLD will be focused on content and matters specific to radio and we want to prevent speculators and cybersquatting in this TLD,” he added.

The EBU is not planning to take the TLD to general availability until November, which is a long launch runway by any measure.

Before then, for two months starting May 3, there’ll be a qualified launch program in which radio stations (as opposed to “internet” radio stations) will be able to claim priority registration for their brand.

Sunrise will begin in August.

The EBU secured rights to .radio as a “Community” gTLD, meaning it has to enforce registration restrictions, after a 2014 Community Priority Evaluation ruling allowed it to win its contention set without an auction.

The eligibility criteria are somewhat broad, including: “Radio broadcasting stations. Unions of Broadcasters. Internet radios. Radio Amateurs. Radio professionals (journalists, radio hosts, DJs…) [and] Radio-related companies selling radio goods and services”.

.blog gets 600 applications halfway through sunrise

Kevin Murphy, September 19, 2016, Domain Registries

WordPress developer Automattic has received over 600 applications for .blog sunrise registrations halfway through its sunrise period.

The company’s registry subsidiary, Knock Knock Whois There, said Friday that it has passed the 600 mark with about another 30 days remaining on the clock.

While it’s a poor performance by pre-2012 standards, if all the applications to date convert into registrations it’s still enough to put .blog into the top 10 most-popular sunrises of the current round.

According to DI’s data, the top three sunrise performers from the 2012 application round are .porn (2,091), .sucks (2,079) and .adult (2,049).

The most recent successful sunrise, by these standards, was GMO Registry’s .shop, which finished with 1,182 applications.

.blog’s sunrise ends October 17. It seems to be expecting to benefit from a late flood of applications, as is sometimes the case with sunrise periods.

General availability begins November 21.

DI implicated in .sucks “gag order” fight

Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, terminated Com Laude’s accreditation last week due to its belief that the brand protection registrar had leaked a “confidential” document to Domain Incite.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard tonight denied that the company he works for was carrying out a “grudge” against Com Laude, which in January led a charge against a Vox “gag order” on registrars.

As we reported on Friday, Vox terminated Com Laude‘s ability to sell .sucks domains directly, due to a then-unspecified alleged breach of the Registry-Registrar Agreement that binds all .sucks domain registrars.

It now turns out the “breach” was of the part of the .sucks RRA that states that Vox registrars “shall make no disclosures whatsoever” of “confidential informational”, where such confidential information is marked as such.

Berard told DI of the termination: “It was a specific act, violating a specific clause of the contract that had to do with breaching confidentiality, and that’s why the action was taken.”

The specific act was Com Laude allegedly sending DI — me, for avoidance of doubt — a confidential document.

“They have not said they didn’t do it,” Berard said.

He said that, given the amount of scrutiny Vox is under (due to the controversy it has created with its pricing and policies), “it would be crazy of us to ignore a contract breach”.

He declined to identify the document in question.

He said that Vox Pop deployed “forensic research” to discover the identity of the alleged leak.

“It was clear that something that was confidential was distributed, we wanted to know who distributed it,” he said. “We wanted to know who breached confidentiality.”

DI has only published one third-party document related to .sucks this year.

This is it (pdf). It’s a letter drafted by the Registrars Stakeholder Group and sent to ICANN. Here it is (pdf) as published on the ICANN web site.

DI has received other documents related to Vox Pop and .sucks from various parties that I have not published, but I’ve been unable to find any that contained the word “confidential” or that were marked as “confidential”.

According to the .sucks RRA (pdf), “confidential information” is documentation marked or identified “confidential”.

Everything I’ve ever written about .sucks can be found with this search.

.sucks terminates Com Laude as “gag order” row escalates

Vox Populi, the .sucks gTLD registry, has terminated the accreditation of brand protection registrar Com Laude as part of an ongoing dispute between the two companies.

Com Laude won’t be able to sell defensive .sucks registrations to its clients any more, at least not on its own accreditation, in other words.

The London-based registrar is transferring all of its .sucks domains to EnCirca as a result of the termination and says it is considering its options in how to proceed.

The shock move, which I believe to be unprecedented, is being linked to Com Laude’s long-time criticisms of Vox Populi’s pricing and policies.

The registrar today had some rather stern words for Vox Pop. Managing director Nick Wood said in a statement:

We have always been critical of this registry and particularly its sunrise pricing model which we regard as predatory. We have advised clients where possible to consider not registering such names. We hope that all brand owners will think twice before buying or renewing a .sucks domain. After all, it is not possible to block out every variation of a trademark under .sucks. In our view, fair criticism is preferable to dealing with Vox Populi.

Ouch!

The termination is believed to be linked to controversial changes to the .sucks Registry-Registrar Agreement, which Vox Pop managed to sneak past ICANN over Christmas.

One of the changes, some registrars believed, would prevent brand protection registrars from openly criticizing .sucks pricing and policies. They called it a “gag order”.

Com Laude SVP Jeff Neuman was one of the strongest critics. I believe he was a key influence on a Registrar Stakeholder Group letter (pdf) in January which essentially said registrars would boycott the new RRA.

That letter said:

It’s ironic for a Registry whose slogan is “Foster debate, Share opinions” has now essentially proposed implementing a gag order on the registrars that sell the .sucks TLD by preventing them from doing just that

While the RRA dispute was resolved more or less amicably following ICANN mediation, with Vox Pop backpedaling somewhat on its proposed changes, Com Laude now believes the registry has held a grudge.

Its statement does not say what part of the .sucks RRA it is alleged to have breached.

Vox Pop has not yet returned a request for comment. I’ll provide an update should I receive further information.

Com Laude said in a statement today:

Jeff Neuman, our SVP of our North American business, Com Laude USA, led the effort in the Registrar Stakeholder Group to quash proposed changes to Vox Populi’s registry-registrar agreement, in order to protect the interests of brand owners and the registrars who work with them. Since then, Vox Populi has accused Com Laude of breaching the terms of the registry-registrar agreement, a claim we take seriously and refute in its entirety. We are now considering our further options.

Wood added:

We have informed our clients of the action being taken and all have expressed their support for the manner in which we have handled it. We are pleased to have received messages of support from across the ICANN community including other registry operators. Clearly there is strong distaste at the practices of Vox Populi.

Strong stuff.

.shop pricing sunrise renewals at $1,000

If you’ve spent over $40 million on a gTLD, you need to make your money back somehow, right?

It’s emerged that GMO Registry, which paid ICANN a record $41.5 million for .shop back in January, plans to charge $1,000 renewal fees, wholesale, on domains registered during its upcoming sunrise period.

Trademark owners will seemingly have to pay over the odds for domains matching their trademarks, while regular registrants will have a much more manageable annual fee of $24.

The prices were disclosed in a blog post from the registrar OpenProvider last week, in which the company urged GMO to lower its prices.

Sunrise is due to start June 30, running for 60 days, so there’s still a chance prices could change before then.

It’s not the first registry to charge more for sunrise renewals than regular renewals.

Any company that bought a .sucks domain during sunrise was lumbered with a recurring $2,499 registry fee.

.green also had a $50 annual sunrise renewal premium before Afilias took over the gTLD in April.

Others have charged higher non-recurring sunrise fees. With .cars, the sunrise fee was $3,000, which was $1,000 more than the regular GA price.

ICANN proposes pricing changes for new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, June 1, 2016, Domain Services

ICANN is to give gTLD registries greater power to change their pricing under a proposed new deal.

The organization also says it could accept reduced fees from registries under some circumstances.

These are among about 40 substantial changes appearing in a new version of the standard new gTLD Registry Agreement that has been put out for comment.

The proposed new RA was posted last night after ICANN and registries spent months negotiating the details behind closed doors.

The contract would apply to registries that have signed the base new gTLD contract, not legacy gTLDs such as .com (though, in the passage of time, leaks may occur).

Many of the changes seek to bring clarity to registries’ technical obligations, particularly during their launch phases, and their data reporting requirements.

But there are a few notable changes concerning fees.

First, it seems registrars are going to be stripped of their right to challenge registry fee increases through the ICANN process.

Currently, any substantial changes to their Registry-Registrar Agreements has to go through scrutiny by ICANN and the registrars, and the registrars are allowed to object to the changes.

We saw such objections at the start of the year with .sucks, but RRA changes usually happen a few times a month.

Under the proposed new RA, that process would no longer apply when the only change made to an RRA is to change the registry fee.

Registrars would still have to be provided with 30 to 180 days notice, depending on the extent of the fee change, but there would be no ICANN review or registrar challenge process.

ICANN reasons that this is sensible because, unlike legacy gTLDs, its new gTLD contracts don’t regulate prices anyway.

Second, ICANN has introduced a new “Fee Reduction Waiver” concept to the contract. The draft deal states:

In ICANN’s sole discretion, ICANN may reduce the amount of registry fees payable hereunder by Registry Operator for any period of time (“Fee Reduction Waiver”). Any such Fee Reduction Waiver may, as determined by ICANN in its sole discretion, be (a) limited in duration and (b) conditioned upon Registry Operator’s acceptance of the terms and conditions set forth in such waiver. A Fee Reduction Waiver shall not be effective unless executed in writing by ICANN as contemplated by Section 7.6(i). ICANN will provide notice of any Fee Reduction Waiver to Registry Operator in accordance with Section 7.9.

It’s not entirely clear who asked for this or why.

I can imagine scenarios in which struggling registries might seek a handout from cash-rich ICANN, or in which dot-brands whose registrations are not linked to revenue might ask for a waiver.

Dot-brands — that is, registries that have signed Specification 13 of the RA — also get some love in the new RA, including an effective right of veto over changes that could affect their special status.

If in future an RA change is proposed that would effectively amend Spec 13, it will not happen unless Spec 13 registries vote in favor of the change.

The vote would require a two-thirds majority, with registries voting power weighted according to how much they pay ICANN in registry fees.

The whole contract is now open for a 43-day public comment period, which you can find here.

New .sucks logo actually kinda sucks

Vox Populi has revealed a new logo for its .sucks gTLD.

Here it is. What do you think?

In going for a retro, 8-bit vibe, has Vox deliberately gone for a look that actually kinda sucks? Is that the joke? Or do you like it?

The company said on its blog:

The program is designed to portray the tight link between the ubiquity of digital technology and the individual’s long-standing right of free expression. Moving from a softer blue image to a sharper black-and-white logo that evokes a computer’s font better honors the role the internet plays as a modern day soapbox

Previously, the .sucks logo was the brand inside a speech bubble. sucks logo

The logo comes with a relaunched web site at get.sucks and a billboard advertising campaign that has included a stint in New York’s Times Square, as seen in this registry-supplied photo.

Times Square ad

The gTLD has been in general availability since June 2015 and has about 7,500 names in its zone file today, growing at roughly three to four domains per day over the last few months.