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No ICANN tax relief for Chinese registrars

ICANN has declined a request from dozens Chinese registrars for a fee waiver due to the impact of coronavirus.

In February, almost 50 China-based accredited registries and registrars said they were suffering financially as a result of the outbreak and asked ICANN for an “immediate fee waiver” to “greatly help stabilize our business in the difficult time”.

ICANN has denied this request. In a letter (pdf), senior director of gTLD accounts and services Russ Weinstein wrote:

While we sympathize with the potential financial impact this unprecedented event may have on contracted parties, we are not prepared to provide a waiver at this time. We are closely monitoring the situation and its impact on the domain industry. We are interested in hearing more from representatives from the contracted parties to better understand the problems both the contracted parties and the registrants are facing and ideas for potential solutions.

As I said back in February, what was then largely a Chinese problem looked likely to quickly become a global problem, which unfortunately seems to be the course we’re on. Just six weeks later, China isn’t even the worst-affected country any more.

Even without fee waivers, ICANN has noted that it expects a “significant” impact on it is 2020-21 budget due to the pandemic.

Ethos clarifies .org price rises, promises to reveal number of censored domains

Public Interest Registry and would-be owner Ethos Capital have slightly revised the set of promises they hope to keep if ICANN approves the $1.13 billion acquisition.

Notably, in updating their proposed Public Interest Commitments (pdf), they’ve set out in plain dollar terms for the first time the maximum annual price PIR would charge for a .org domain over the coming seven years.

Applicable Maximum FeeTime Period
$9.93June 30, 2019 to June 29, 2020
$10.92June 30, 2020 to June 29, 2021
$12.02June 30, 2021 to June 29, 2022
$13.22June 30, 2022 to June 29, 2023
$14.54June 30, 2023 to June 29, 2024
$15.99June 30, 2024 to June 29, 2025
$17.59June 30, 2025 to June 29, 2026
$19.35June 30, 2026 to June 29, 2027

Previous versions of the PICs just included a formula and invited the reader to do the math(s).

The two companies are proposing to scrap price caps altogether after June 2027.

If ICANN rejects the deal, under its current contract PIR would be free to raise its prices willy-nilly from day one, though some believe it would be less likely to do so under its current ownership by the non-profit Internet Society.

The new PICs also include a nod to those who believe that PIR would become less sensitive to issues like free speech and censorship — perhaps because China may lean on Ethos’ shadowy billionaire backers. The document now states:

Registry Operator will produce and publish annually a report… This report will also include a transparency report setting forth the number of .ORG domain name registrations that have been suspended or terminated by Registry Operator during the preceding year under Registry Operator’s Anti-Abuse Policy or pursuant to court order.

A few other tweaks clarify the launch date and composition of its proposed Stewardship Council, a body made up of expert outsiders that would offer policy guidance and have a veto on issues such as changes to .org censorship and privacy policy.

The PICs now ban family members of people working for PIR from sitting on the council, and clarify that it would have to be up and running six months after the acquisition closes.

Because .org is not a gTLD applied for in 2012, the PICs do not appear to be open for public comment, but post-acquisition changes to the document would be.

ICANN currently plans to approve or deny the acquisition request by April 20, just 11 days from now.

Delay .org deal because of… coronavirus? Gimme a break

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, Domain Policy

Opponents of Public Interest Registry’s proposed acquisition by Ethos Capital are now claiming that ICANN should delay approval of the deal due to coronavirus.

A statement, released yesterday by digital rights group Access Now with the apparent approval of several other like-minded groups, outlines a few reasons why coronavirus means ICANN should reject, or at least delay its consideration of, the deal.

ICANN is currently working towards a March 20 deadline to deliver its verdict.

Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now, said in the statement:

Far from routine, this transfer would further imperil crucial channels of trusted information in a precarious time. From Médecins Sans Frontières to Wikipedia to many of the world’s hospitals, organizations that disseminate accurate health information and connect affected communities with public resources depend on the .ORG domain. Now is not the time to shift the ground beneath their online activities.

Could a $0.97 increase in the cost of wikipedia.org this year see Wikipedia’s hive mind crumble and turn into the digital equivalent of Jenny McCarthy’s brain? Will it prompt MSF volunteers to retreat, screaming, from the front lines? I don’t think so.

The statement goes on to suggest that China would be able to use its substantial financial and political clout to lean on Ethos’ secretive backers to something something something coronavirus. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said:

The Chinese government routinely uses economic pressure to censor critics or inconvenient information, such as about its disastrous early cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak. Investors in the private equity firm that wants to buy the .ORG domain inevitably will have economic interests that Beijing could threaten.

While there may well be a nugget of truth in there, I fail to see how it applies to the current pandemic. Is the argument that China will pressure Ethos’ billionaire money men to close down domains belonging to organizations disseminating accurate Covid-19 information? It seems a stretch.

China already has substantial powers to shut down domains within its own borders, and requires registries operating in the country to comply with Draconian censorship rules. I’m not aware of any cases of these existing powers being exercised against domains globally.

A third argument is that ICANN is using coronavirus as a convenient smokescreen to quietly approve the acquisition while everyone else is busy ram-raiding corner stores for toilet paper.

Daniel Eriksson, head of technology at Transparency International, said in the statement:

If this transfer goes ahead during the current crisis as planned, we’ll look back on it as an example of vested interests taking advantage of the extraordinary situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic to further their own concerns at the expense of the broader good of society. We need to be vigilant against any such actions, and this is precisely the role of many civil society organizations that have a watchdog function. We need maximum transparency and integrity around the sale of .ORG, and that is simply not possible if the sale is rushed through at a moment when peoples’ attention is elsewhere.

Again, this seems like a stretch. The announcement of the acquisition predates the discovery of Covid-19 by weeks, and it has been subject to intense scrutiny, engagement, comment and unprecedented — albeit imperfect — levels of transparency ever since. This is an acquisition being negotiated to a large extent in the public square.

I’ll be generous and suggest a fourth explanation: this is probably just a poor-taste (but, let’s face it, successful) attempt to grab headlines by linking the #SaveDotOrg campaign, however thinly, to the pandemic currently occupying the world’s collective conscious.

There are plenty of good arguments that could be — and are being — made in favor of further delay and scrutiny of the deal, but I don’t think coronavirus is one of them.

Roundup: domain industry starts to respond to coronavirus pandemic

Kevin Murphy, March 16, 2020, Domain Registries

With much of the world already laboring under coronavirus-related movement and assembly restrictions, many domain industry companies have started to publicly outline their business continuity plans.

Some companies have already implemented blanket home-working rules, while others are ready to pull the trigger on such regimes just as soon as local government policy or other circumstances require it.

Here’s a roundup of what some of these companies have said over the last few days.

It’s not an exhaustive list — I’m sure many companies have unannounced contingencies in place — and it should be noted that some of these announcements may well be out of date already, due to the speed at which the virus risk, and government responses to it, are changing.

  • In Italy, the nation hardest-hit by the virus outside of China, local ccTLD registry Registro.it said: “Due to the current health emergency, there may be delays in the processing of legal and administrative procedures in the coming days. Activities related to the registration and maintenance of domains will be carried out as usual”.
  • NIC Chile, the .cl registry, has imposed a ban on outsiders attending its offices, effective today, “in order to safeguard the health of its clients and officials”.
  • Portugal’s Associação DNS.PT, the .pt registry, has gone a step further, saying Friday that it has already adopted remote working. It added that it was not aware of any confirmed cases and that it expected business to continue as normal.
  • An undated notice on DNS Belgium’s web site states: “To guarantee maximum business continuity, we temporarily close our office and all work from home.”
  • Dutch ccTLD registry SIDN said Friday that “most” of its employees are working from home, and it will minimize in-person contacts to “strictly necessary” meetings. It does not expect disruption to services.
  • Austrian Nic.at said that employees “who are not tied to the Vienna or Salzburg office locations due to their work can work from home by telework”, adding “strict hygiene measures apply in the offices”.
  • In Denmark, DK-Hostmaster said that customer support will now be conducted purely via email, with phone support suspended until March 27.
  • It’s the same story in Poland for .pl domains, according to a notice on the NASK web site.
  • Afilias said Thursday that it has contingency plans in place to keep its registry business ticking over even if staff fall ill or office closures are mandated. It’s also stepped up office cleaning and made hand sanitizer available to staff. Employees will be able to home-work should the need arise, the company said.
  • Corporate registrar family Com Laude said that it’s updated its business continuity and disaster recovery plans to account for the pandemic threat, including providing remote-working solutions for its staff.
  • Network Solutions, part of Web.com, told customers Friday that its workforce is geared up to work from home too, and that customer service should be unaffected during the crisis.
  • British registrar Astutium said it won’t book any in-person meetings with clients for the next 90 days, and that if anyone shows up for an already-booked meeting they will be required wash thoroughly before they’re let through the door.

I’ve not heard any reports yet of members of the industry with confirmed infections. So that’s good.

Chinese registrars ask ICANN to waive fees due to Coronavirus

Almost 50 registries and registrars based in China have asked ICANN to temporarily waive its fees due to the economic impact they say Covid-19 — the new Coronavirus — is having on them.

They’ve all put their names to a February 21 letter (pdf) that ICANN published over the weekend, saying they “believe that it’s essential that ICANN provides immediate fee waiver to registries and registrars in China”.

The letter, signed by more than half of the currently accredited registrars in China, notes the cancellation of the Cancun public meeting, adding:

We highly respect and welcome ICANN’s approach to keep our community safe. Meanwhile, the contracted parties in China, including their staff, suppliers, and relevant business counterparts, are being hit and suffered by the 2019-nCoV in a much greater scale than in other countries and regions combined since January 2020. Many of the staff members have been restrained to perform sales and support functions at the level they are required to. There are significant delays in collections, payments and wire transfers. While we expect that the scale of 2019-nCoV could not go greater, the business growth estimate in 2020 has been jeopardized and the time of recovery can be very long.

While domestic aid on tax, rentals, etc. are being discussed and confirmed, we believe that it’s essential that ICANN provides immediate fee waiver to registries and registrars in China. The waiver of 2020 fees, including annual fees and transaction fees, will greatly help stabilize our business in the difficult time.

This is not a small ask. ICANN collects fees based on transaction volume, and many millions of transactions originate in China. That’s particularly true in the new gTLD space, where China dominates.

The Chinese companies say that ICANN could afford to waive the fees due to the money they say ICANN will save by cancelling Cancun and other international travel.

My hunch is that ICANN won’t agree to these demands. While China is currently undoubtedly disproportionately affected by Covid-19, that situation is rapidly changing.

In the coming weeks and months it’s quite possible — worst-case scenario — the rest of the world could be similarly affected. Is ICANN prepared to set a precedent that could see it sacrifice its entire annual budget? I doubt it.

All previous requests for ICANN to waive its fees for various other reasons have been denied.

ICANN might cancel Spring Break over Covid-19 fears

Kevin Murphy, February 18, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN’s next public meeting, which is due to kick off in Cancun, Mexico less than three weeks from now, is in peril of being canceled due to fears about Covid-19, aka Coronavirus.

CEO Göran Marby is to host a call with community leaders in a few hours to discuss the issue. ICANN has assembled a “crisis management team” to monitor the spread of the disease.

The fear isn’t that attendees could pick up the virus from Mexican locals — there’s not a single confirmed case in Mexico yet — but rather that an already-infected person might show up and transmit the disease to others, who might then take it back home with them.

Or — even worse — ICANN is considering the possibility of “a ‘cruise ship’ scenario in which a suspected or confirmed case is identified during the meeting, necessitating the mass-quarantine of all attendees and locals”.

That’s a reference to the cruise ship currently anchored off Japan, where 3,400 people have been quarantined for the last couple of weeks.

Imagine that. Trapped at an ICANN meeting for weeks. The boredom might kill more people than the virus.

Given that the vast majority of Covid-19 cases so far — over 70,000 — have been in China, ICANN is also worried about Chinese attendees getting racially profiled and hassled by others.

ICANN notes that the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has been cancelled, and Cisco has cancelled a conference that had been slated to go ahead in Australia around the same time.

Could ICANN follow suit? It wouldn’t be the first time ICANN has changed is meeting plans due to a virus outbreak. Could ICANN 67 be the first remote-only ICANN meeting? It certainly seems like a possibility.

As Cancun looms, ICANN bans China travel because of Coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has banned its staff from travelling to China because of Coronavirus.

The organization said at the weekend that it has implemented the ban, which includes connecting flights of “an abundance of caution”. The ban includes the mainland as well as Hong Kong and Macau.

The move matches travel bans imposed on staff by other multi-national technology outfits, and comes as countries including the US place precautionary restrictions on flights from China.

ICANN has in the recent past changed the venues of public meetings twice due to worries about the unrelated Zika virus, but it has no meetings lined up in China any time soon.

Next month, the community will meet in Cancun, Mexico. According to the European Centre for Disease Control, there are currently no reported cases of the disease in that country.

There are usually plenty of Chinese nationals at ICANN meetings, of course, which could put ICANN in a tricky ethical/practical position as 67 draws closer, depending on how the global spread of the disease progresses.

ICANN said: “As of now, we fully intend to move forward with ICANN67 in Cancún, Mexico.”

The ECDC says there have been 20,626 confirmed cases of the virus since it was identified in December, almost all in China, and 427 deaths, all Chinese.

Q3 industry growth driven by .tk, .com and .icu

Kevin Murphy, December 20, 2019, Domain Registries

The domain name industry grew by 5.1 million names in the third quarter, according to the latest Domain Name Industry Brief from Verisign.

September ended with 359.8 million names across the board, the DNIB (pdf) shows.

Half of the growth came from Tokelau’s .tk, which is handed out for free by Freenom and is where domains never delete. It grew by 2.6 million names to 25.1 million in the quarter.

Next biggest grower was Verisign’s own .com, which grew by 1.5 million names to end September with an even 144 million. Its red-headed sibling, .net, lost 200,000 names over the same period and ended the quarter on 13.4 million.

Excluding .com and .tk leaves just one million names worth of net growth across the remainder of the industry, which comprises another 1,515 TLDs.

Taiwan’s .tw, which has been going through a bit of a spurt over the last year or so, added 300,000 domains, but .uk, which was a driver in Q2, was flat at 13.3 million.

New gTLDs grew by one million during the quarter, ending at 24 million, according to the DNIB.

That appears to have been driven almost entirely by ShortDot’s cheapo .icu, which has been flying off the shelves in China all year. Zone file records show it added over a million domains in Q3. It currently has 4.2 million names in its zone.

When these domains start to drop, it will likely be on a scale to materially affect the overall industry numbers in future DNIBs.

Three more dot-brands fizzle out. Total now 69, dudes

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2019, Domain Registries

Three more dot-brand registries have opted to kill off their own gTLDs, bringing the total to date to 69.

The three self-terminating gTLDs, which all informed ICANN of their intentions in October and November, are: .工行 (.xn--estv75g), .nadex and .vistaprint.

The .vistaprint termination is perhaps of note, given that online printing company Vistaprint was one of the bidders in the 2016 auction of .web, due to its application for .webs being ruled confusingly similar.

It wound up paying just a dollar for that gTLD, due to the complexity of the .web contention set, but even that appears to have been a defensive move.

Since then, Vistaprint has also terminated its .vista contract, and my records show that it has been “in contracting” with ICANN for .webs since August 2016. Clearly, it’s in no rush to ever actually use the thing.

Also noteworthy, .工行 becomes only the second internationalized domain name gTLD to self-terminate, after Walmart called it quits on its pre-delegation contract for .一号店.

.工行 was owned by the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), which by many measures is the largest bank in the world. It had revenue of over $105 billion last year, so whatever factors drove its decision to dump its dot-brand, cost was not one of them.

Finally, Nadex, an online stock-trading platform, evidently couldn’t find a use for .nadex, so it’s jumped ship too.

Hundreds of dot-brands remain, collectively managing thousands of domains and web sites.

America has Amazon’s back in gTLD fight at ICANN 66

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2019, Domain Policy

The United States looks set to stand in the way of government attempts to further delay Amazon’s application for .amazon.

The US Governmental Advisory Committee representative, Vernita Harris, said today that the US “does not support further GAC advice on the .amazon issue” and that ICANN is well within its rights to move forward with Amazon’s controversial gTLD applications.

She spoke after a lengthy intervention from Brazilian rep Ambassador Achilles Zaluar Neto, who said South American nations view the contested string as their “birthright” and said ICANN is allowing Amazon “to run roughshod over the concerns and the cultural heritage of eight nations and tens of millions of people”.

It was the opening exchange in would could prove to be a fractious war of words at ICANN 66 in Montreal, which formally opens tomorrow.

The .amazon applications have been controversial because the eight countries in the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization believe their unwritten cultural rights to the word outweigh Amazon’s trademark rights.

Forced to the negotiating table by ICANN last year, the two sides each posed their own sets of ideas about how the gTLD could be managed in such a way as to protect culturally sensitive terms at the second-level, and taking ACTO’s views into account.

But an ICANN-imposed deadline for talks to conclude in April was missed, largely as a result of the ongoing Venezuela crisis, which caused friction between the ACTO governments.

But today, Brazil said that ACTO is ready and willing to get back to the negotiating table asked that ICANN reopen these talks with an impartial mediator at the helm.

As things stand, Amazon is poised to get .amazon approved with a bunch of Public Interest Commitments in its registry contract that were written by Amazon without ACTO’s input.

Neto said that he believed a “win-win” deal could be found, which “would provide a positive impetus for internet governance instead of discrediting it”. He threatened to raise the issue at the Internet Governance Forum next month.

ICANN’s failure to reopen talks “would set a bad precedent and reflect badly on the current state of internet governance, including its ability to establish a balance between private interests and public policy concerns”, he said

But the US rallied to Amazon’s defense. Harris said:

The United States does not support further GAC advice on the .amazon issue. Any further questions from the GAC to the Board on this matter we believe is unwarranted… We are unaware of any international consensus that recognizes inherent governmental rights and geographic names. Discussions regarding protections of geographic names is the responsibility of other forums and therefore should be discussed and those relevant and appropriate forums. Contrary to statements made by others, it is the position of the United States that the Board’s various decisions authorizing ICANN to move forward with processing the.application are consistent with all relevant GAC advice. The United States therefore does not support further intervention that effectively works to prevent or delay the delegation of .amazon and we believe we are not supportive and we do not believe that it’s required.

This is a bit of a reversal from the US position in 2013.

Back then, the GAC wanted to issue consensus advice that ICANN should reject .amazon, but the US, protecting one of its largest companies, stood in the way of full consensus until, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, the US decided instead to abstain, apparently to appease an increasingly angry Brazil.

It was that decision that opened the door to the six more years of legal wrangling and delay that .amazon has been subject to.

With the US statement today, it seems that the GAC will be unlikely to be able to issue strong, full-consensus advice that will delay .amazon further, when it drafts its Montreal communique later in the week.

The only other GAC member speaking today to support the US position was Israel, whose rep said “since it is an ongoing issue for seven years, we don’t believe that there is a need for further delay”.

Several government reps — from China, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium and the European Commission — spoke in favor of Brazil’s view that ICANN should allow ACTO and Amazon back to the negotiating table.

The GAC is almost certain to say something about .amazon in its communique, due to drop Wednesday, but the ICANN board of directors does not currently have an Amazon-related item on its Montreal agenda.

UPDATE: The originally published version of this story incorrectly identified the US GAC representative as Ashley Heineman, who is listed on the GAC’s web site as the US representative. In fact, the speaker was Vernita Harris, acting associate administrator at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Had I been watching the meeting, rather that just listening to it, this would have been readily apparent to me. My apologies to Ms Heineman and Ms Harris for the error.