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ICANN slashes staff and domain prices could rise

Kevin Murphy, May 30, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN has laid off 33 people, about 7% of its 485 staff, and has raised the specter of increased domain name prices, as it struggles to balance its budget.

The job losses are effective today and come “across all functional areas and regions”, acting CEO Sally Costerton wrote.

The Org said this evening that it made the decision to lose the employees as part of a broader cost-cutting effort that it hopes will help close a $10 million hole in its budget. At the end of April, it had said it was looking for $8 million in savings.

Costerton said ICANN will also look at reducing travel expenses and doing more work from its cheaper regional offices, as well as finding other efficiencies.

But it is also “evaluating ICANN’s fee structure to ensure it scales realistically with inflation”, Costeron wrote.

This will be of great interest to domain registrants, particularly those on a tight budget or with large portfolios, as any increases in the transaction fees ICANN charges registries and registrars will inevitably be passed on to their customers.

Registrars currently add a $0.18 per-domain-per-year ICANN fee at their checkouts, and registries pay $0.25 for every add-year, renew-year and transfer. The fees have not changed in at least the 15 years I’ve been writing this blog.

For ICANN community members and the domain name industry, the cuts will selfishly beg the questions of which services ICANN provides could suffer as a result, and whether it means delays to already overdue projects such as the new gTLD program.

The budget shortfall has arisen due to inflation and sluggish domain sales from the likes of Verisign, ICANN’s biggest funding source. Verisign’s outlook for the year is pretty bearish, with a low estimate of a 1.75% decline in domains under management.

I believe it’s the first time ICANN has been forced into a mass layoff, having reliably swollen its ranks almost every year until quite recently.

Outrage over ICANN’s new gTLD fees

Kevin Murphy, May 29, 2024, Domain Policy

Is ICANN stifling competition and pricing out the Global South by setting its new gTLD evaluation fees too high? A great many community volunteers seem to think so, judging by recent conversations.

The Org last week revealed that it plans to charge registry service providers that want to participate in the next application round $92,000 for their technical evaluation, on top of the estimated $250,000 fee that it will charge for each applied-for string.

Critics have pointed out that a roughly equivalent evaluation, used when a 2012-round gTLD switches to an unknown back-end, currently costs about $14,300, and they’re baffled as to why ICANN plans to up its fees so much.

The Registry Service Provider Evaluation Program was intended to cut a lot of waste and duplication from the new gTLD program. Instead of doing a technical evaluation on an RSP for each gTLD application, the RSP is evaluated once and each applicant simply selects an RSP from a list of approved companies.

ICANN says the program will cost $4.1 million overall, with $2 million of that already mostly spent on the design and implementation phase. It’s expecting all of the existing 40-ish back-end providers to submit to evaluation, along with an unknown number of newcomers.

Assuming fewer than 50 participating RSPs, ICANN will charge $92,000 per RSP. The program is designed to be run on a cost-recovery basis. ICANN says it will lower the price and issue refunds if there are significantly more participants.

Despite that caveat, ICANN staffers running the new gTLD program have faced a barrage of criticism over the last week from members of the SubPro Implementation Review Team, the community volunteers tasked with making sure staff implementation sticks to community policy.

The high-end of the fee scale is high enough that it will essentially “kill off” the RSP market in the Global South, according to Rubens Kuhl of Brazilian ccTLD registry Nic.br, which currently runs the back-end for a handful of 2012-round strings.

The term “Global South” refers to less-wealthy countries largely in the southern hemisphere, mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where $92,000 goes a lot further than it does in North America or Europe.

“What ICANN is suggesting right now simply kills off all Global South RSPs,” Kuhl said during a call yesterday. “Those RSPs could have the technical capability to run gTLDs, and they run very large ccTLDs… It simply seems like a system designed to keep the Global South out.”

Gustavo Lozano Ibarra, director of technical services projects at ICANN and former NIC Mexico employee, responded first by saying that gTLD applicants in the next round from the Global South do necessarily have to chose an RSP from their own region.

“I completely understand that there could be some RSPs in the Global South with capabilities for which the fee could be an issue,” he said. “I think that we get that, and I think that maybe the lack of an Applicant Support Program for the RSPs is something that we need to take into consideration for the next round.”

“So, this round, no Global South. Okay, thank you,” said Kuhl.

“I don’t think this proposed US$92,000 RSP pre-evaluation fee is going to encourage diverse participation in the next nTLD round, especially from developing regions,” Neil Dundas of South African RSP DNS Africa said on the IRT’s mailing list.

“It’s a new financial barrier to entry that previously was not there and it will almost certainly hamper participation from developing regions,” he said.

Mailing list chatter suggests that this potential barrier to entry is something that ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee may take a dim view of when the community convenes in Rwanda for ICANN 80 next month.

ICANN is also taking flak for how it is calculating the total cost of the RSP program. Consultant and registry operator Jeff Neuman accused the Org of “double-dipping” by charging for staffers’ work on the program, which he said should already be covered by the fees registries, registrars and ultimately registrants pay into ICANN’s budget.

Responding to criticism that ICANN has over-spent, Ibarra pointed out on yesterday’s call that $4.1 million is a fraction of the $22 million he said ICANN spent on technical evaluations in the 2012 application round.

In addition, RSPs that are attached to potentially dozens of gTLD applications will save a lot of money by only paying to be evaluated once, he said.

Barrett gets second term on ICANN board

Kevin Murphy, May 28, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Address Supporting Organization has elected Alan Barrett to fill one of its two seats on the ICANN board of directors for the second time.

Barrett, an ISP pioneer from South Africa, was first elected in 2021 and will re-take his seat at ICANN’s AGM this November, assuming the Empowered Community gives him the nod.

He fought off four other candidates from Africa, Asia-Pacific and North America for the job. Europeans were barred from standing because the ASO’s other sitting director is from that region.

ICANN to kill auction fund bylaws change

Kevin Murphy, May 22, 2024, Domain Policy

A controversial proposed amendment to ICANN’s bylaws is set to be killed off after the community flexed its muscles over the board of directors.

The amendment, which sought to give ICANN a switch to turn off its accountability mechanisms under certain circumstances, is now likely to be replaced by one that limits accountability only when it comes to ICANN’s $220 million Grant Program.

News of the board’s change of heart came during a Monday call between the GNSO Council and the two GNSO appointees on the board.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the bylaw that was put together and circulated is not going to pass the Empowered Community,” board member Becky Burr told the Council “So we need to go back and and revisit that.”

The community had wanted an amendment that makes the Independent Review Process and Request for Reconsideration mechanisms unavailable to organizations applying for grants and those that oppose them, to avoid splurging money on lawyers rather than good causes, but the board had floated text that would have made it easier to turn these mechanisms off in future scenarios too.

ICANN’s amendment was supported by the At-Large Advisory Committee, but every other community group, in a rare example of across-the-aisles agreement, reckoned it was overly broad and risked weakening ICANN’s accountability.

The board’s decision to revert to what the community originally wanted appears to be a reluctant one. Burr said that the IRP needs to be looked at in future because the way the bylaws are written now invites over-use.

“As they are currently written, a disappointed bidder, an engineering firm in response to an RFP, could use those, could bring an IRP,” she said. “At some point we’re going to have to look at this more holistically.”

The were also calls from the Council to take a look at the RfR process, or at least how RfRs are handled by ICANN’s legal team. RfRs are too often seen as an adversarial exercise where ICANN lawyers are simply try to “win” against the requester rather than solve the problem at hand, they said. This has led to a situation where dozens of RfRs have been filed over the year, almost all of which are dismissed.

ICANN restarts work on controversial Whois privacy rules

Kevin Murphy, May 20, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN is to bring in new rules for Whois privacy and proxy services, the best part of a decade after they were first proposed to massive controversy.

It’s looking for volunteers to work with Org staff on implementing policy recommendations that in 2015 led to tens of thousands of people expressing outrage about the dangers, as they saw it, of their privacy being breached.

ICANN is putting together an Implementation Review Team to help implement the recommendations of the Privacy and Proxy Services Accreditation Issues Policy Development Process, known as PPSAI, which sought to bring privacy/proxy services under ICANN’s regulatory umbrella.

The recommendations were hugely controversial in their first draft, which in a minority statement expressed the view that people should be banned from using their domains commercially if they were using privacy services.

But the IRT will be tasked with implementing the final draft, which expunged the calls for such a ban.

The policy still calls for ICANN to run an accreditation system for privacy/proxy services in much the same way as it accredits registrars. It also lays out rules for how such services should gather registrant data and how to treat customer interactions.

But the recommendations are undeniably from a different era, thunk up before the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation made privacy-by-default essentially the industry standard for Whois records.

The PPSAI recommendations now interact with policies and practices that have been adopted in the intervening years, such as the recent Registration Data Policy and the Registration Data Request Service.

People willing to donate 10 to 20 hours a month to the new IRT can check out more details here.

GNSO mulls lawyering up over auction fund dispute

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2024, Domain Policy

The GNSO Council has started discussing bringing in the lawyers over ICANN’s recent handling of issues related to its $200+ million auction fund and Grant Program.

The Council today raised the possibility of deploying the never-before-used Community Independent Review Process, which would involve every major community group ganging up on ICANN’s board in a protracted quasi-judicial bunfight.

Ironically, the beef concerns the way ICANN is trying to stop people invoking its accountability mechanisms, including the IRP, to challenge decisions it makes under its Grant Program, which hopes to distribute $10 million to worthy causes this year.

ICANN policy is that nobody should be able to challenge grant decisions, because that would mean funneling the available funds into the pockets of worthless lawyers, rather than worthy causes. But how it proposes to achieve that goal is in dispute.

The original community recommendation was for a bylaws amendment that specified that the Grant Program was out-of-bounds for IRP and Request for Reconsideration claims, and the board initially agreed, before changing its mind and instead plumping for a clause in the program’s terms that prevents grant applicants appealing adverse decisions.

After community pushback, the board said it would also propose a bylaws amendment, but many believe the amendment it came up with goes way too far and risks making it far too easy for ICANN to wriggle out of its accountability obligations in future.

Leading the fight against the board is the GNSO’s Intellectual Property Constituency, which filed a Request for Reconsideration in November, asking ICANN to reverse its decision to “contract around” its accountability promises and scale back its over-broad bylaws amendment.

But the RfR was thrown out, with the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee ruling that the IPC had failed to say how it had been specifically harmed by the board’s actions, accusing the constituency of merely “speculating” about possible future harms.

GNSO Councillor Susan Payne, today expressed the IPC’s disappointment with BAMC’s decision on the Council’s monthly conference call.

“We think that’s wrong,” she said. “If you purport to change a fundamental bylaw by using a process that cuts out the GNSO and effectively therefore also its constituencies and stakeholder groups then clearly there’s a harm there.”

She also noted the financial expense of challenging the board’s decisions.

“Constituencies or stakeholder groups will have real difficulty in withstanding the ICANN machine,” Payne said. “It’s a really expensive process to to challenge these kind of decisions. We asked if other constituencies and stakeholder groups would be able to join the IPC in bringing that RfR and no one had the finances to do it.”

The IPC has joined ICANN in a Cooperative Engagement Process — a kind of informal discussion that is often a precursor to an IRP filing — but Payne raised the possibility of ICANN’s Empowered Community filing its own IRP.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, the EC has the special ability to bring a Community IRP and ICANN has to pay for it. It’s never been used before, and it doesn’t look to me like the complex conditions required to trigger it are close to having been met.

The IPC had broad support in principle from the other Councillors speaking in today’s meeting, but some urged caution due to ICANN’s past behavior when the lawyers are called in.

“Once you get into the IRP process, ICANN buckles down, hands it off to their outside counsel, and you really get a nasty litigation fight,” said Jeff Neuman, a liaison on the Council. “You’re talking about years of litigation, outside counsel, and no progress”.

Fellow council member Thomas Rickert of the ISPs constituency suggested looking for a law firm that would handle the IRP on a no-win-no-fee basis before committing further.

While it seems a Community IRP may be unrealistic for now, the fact that it’s even being discussed shows how seriously the GNSO is taking this apparent power grab by ICANN’s board and lawyers.

Jury still out on ICANN’s content policing powers

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2024, Domain Policy

Key ICANN community groups have refused to come down on one side or the other in the debate about proposed content policing powers, leaving the question up in the air as ICANN considers a major bylaws amendment.

As I reported last month, ICANN is thinking about changing its governing bylaws to permit it to enforce Registry Voluntary Commitments — contract clauses that could include rules on the content of web sites — on registries in future new gTLD application rounds.

ICANN’s board is convinced that it needs to amend the Org’s bylaws, which explicitly prevent it policing content, in order to do this. It is concerned that “there are political, practical, and reputational risks associated with ICANN negotiating and entering into contract provisions that have the effect of restricting content in gTLDs”.

Such an amendment would require the consent of the five-member Empowered Community, to which ICANN answers, and so far there’s little indication that it would be able to secure the three votes needed.

The EC is made up of the ASO, the ccNSO, the GNSO, the ALAC and the GAC, and so far only the ALAC has said that it supports a bylaws amendment. The GNSO is split, with contracted parties dead against the amendment, and would be unlikely to vote in favor. The GAC seems to be on the fence.

The ASO and ccNSO both declined to express an opinion, saying matters related to gTLDs are outside of their remit, but ICANN chair Tripti Sinha pressed the groups to reconsider in letters this March.

Now, both groups have responded by digging their heels in — nope, it’s none of our business, they say.

“The topics addressed in the consultation are outside the scope of the ASO, so we respectfully decline the invitation to provide input at this time,” the ASO said.

“After careful consideration, we still do not see conditions which warrant our participation in the implementation of the next round of new gTLDs,” the ccNSO said.

The ccNSO added that it could only comment on a proposed bylaws amendment if it could see the draft text of the amendment, and that is not yet available.

If ICANN leadership was hoping for clarity on whether a content policing bylaws change is even feasible, it looks like it doesn’t have it yet.

It now takes TWO WEEKS to get a Whois record with RDRS

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2024, Domain Policy

There’s been a shocking increase in the time it takes to get a Whois record disclosed under ICANN’s Registration Data Request Service, according to the latest monthly data.

It took on average 14.09 days to have a request for private Whois data approved using RDRS in April, more than double the previous high, recorded in February, of 6.92 days, the data shows. The average since the system launched at the end of November is 6.73 days.

The average time to have a request denied was 11.26 days, up from 6.17 days in March, the data also shows.

RDRS is a mechanism that allows people — largely intellectual property interests and law enforcement — to request unredacted domain ownership information. ICANN doesn’t handle the requests, it just forwards them to the responsible registrar.

It’s not obvious from the data why requests in April suddenly took so much longer to approve. Any number of reasons, from technical problems to a shift in the mix towards particularly sluggish registrars, could have thrown the average.

The percentage of requests that were approved was down very slightly compared to March, at 19.16% compared to 20.26%. Denied requests were up to 71.26% compared to 69.5% in March. Requests were largely denied because of data protection law or because the requester didn’t provide enough information.

Since RDRS launched five months ago, there have been 1,215 disclosure requests, 210 of which were approved. That works out to about 1.36 approved requests per day.

Registrar coverage improved a little in April, with three registrars newly listed and one (Sweden’s Ilait AB, which has about 6,000 domains) removed. The number of gTLD domains covered as a percentage remained flat at 57%.

ICANN has spent almost $2 million on RDRS to date. It’s a two-year pilot, and at some point it will have to be decided whether the expense is worth it.

Travel expenses push ICANN into the red again

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN is spending millions of dollars more than expected in its current financial year, which it blames mainly on inflation pushing up the price of flights and hotels.

The latest quarterly financial report, for the nine months to March 31, shows ICANN operations spent $112 million in the period, which was $6 million more than it had budgeted for. Funding was $113 million, $3 million more than expected, leading to a total deficit of $3 million.

ICANN said the costs were “driven by higher than planned costs for ICANN78, ICANN 79, community programs, and support of meetings other than ICANN Public meetings… primarily due to inflationary increases to travel and venue costs”.

ICANN 79, which took place in Puerto Rico in March, cost $600,000 more than budget. This was due to higher flight and hotel prices and more sessions than had been planned. ICANN said in February that October’s meeting in Hamburg had come in $900,000 over budget.

Funding for the nine months came in ahead of budget largely due to better-than-expected registrar fees, most likely related to drop-catching registrar Gname’s decision to buy 150 more registrar accreditations last December.

The report, which covers the third quarter of ICANN’s fiscal 2024, also breaks out how much some of the Org’s important projects have cost.

The Grant Program, which launched at the end of the quarter, has cost almost $1.4 million in development and operating expenses since July 2022, about $18,000 over budget. That’s obviously a big chunk of the $10 million ICANN intends to hand out this year, but nothing compared to the auction proceeds fund that the grants come from — that was up $9 million to $226 million since last July based on investment gains.

The Registration Data Request Service, which launched last November, has cost just shy of $2 million to develop and run since December 2022. Compare this to the $100 million a year ICANN had predicted before the ambitions of the original proposed project were massively scaled back.

Overall, ICANN’s financial position is still incredibly healthy. Its total funds under management was up $11 million to $529 million over the nine months due to investment gains.

Correction: Sinha’s seat is safe

Kevin Murphy, May 3, 2024, Domain Policy

Last Friday, I speculated that, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculations, ICANN chair Tripti Sinha could find herself ineligible to continue on the ICANN board of directors this November, due to geographic diversity quotas.

My calculations were incorrect, it turns out. While she still needs to be reappointed by the Nominating Committee, Sinha is not limited by the geographic diversity limits. I’ve deleted the article and apologize for the error.