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AlpNames could get PAID for abandoning its customers

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2019, Domain Registrars

So it turns out selling domain names for peanuts to spammers isn’t a viable business model. Who’d have thunk?

As you’ll have no doubt already read elsewhere, ICANN has shut down AlpNames, the deep-discounting registrar with an unenviable reputation for attracting abusive registrants.

But there’s a chance that the company might actually get paid for its customer base, under ICANN rules.

ICANN today terminated AlpNames’ contract, effective immediately, having discovered the “discontinuance of its operations”.

It’s a rare case of ICANN going straight to richly deserved termination, skipping over the breach notice phase.

The former registrar’s web site has been down for the best part of a week, resolving to a Cloudflare error message saying the AlpNames web server is missing its SSL certificate.

But it appears its customers may have been experiencing problems accessing their accounts even earlier.

Judging by ICANN’s termination notice, the organization has had just about as much luck contacting AlpNames management as DI, which is to say: none.

CEO Iain Roache appears to have simply stopped paying attention to the company, for reasons unknown, allowing it to simply fade away.

At least three members of senior staff have left the company over the last several months, with former COO Damon Barnard telling DI he was asked to leave as a cost-cutting measure as Roache attempted to relocate the company from Gibraltar to the UK.

I gather that Roache is also currently tied up in litigation related to the failure of his old registry management business, Famous Four Media, which was removed by gTLD portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners last year.

So what happens now to AlpNames customers?

Fortunately, most of them should suffer only minor inconvenience.

ICANN has initiated its De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure, which will see all of AlpNames’ domains forcibly transferred to another registrar.

This often uses the data that registrars are obliged to periodically escrow, but in this case AlpNames uses LogicBoxes as a registrar back-end, so presumably LogicBoxes still has fresh, live data.

AlpNames had 532,941 domain names across all gTLDs on its IANA tag at the last official count, at the end of November. It’s believed to be closer to 700,000 today.

In November, its top two gTLDs were .top and .gdn, which had 280,000 names between them. It had over 19,000 .com names under management

Almost 700,000 names is a big deal, making AlpNames a top 40 registrar, and would make a nice growth spurt for any number of struggling registrars.

The portfolio could be a bit of a poisoned chalice, however, containing as it likely does a great many low-quality and some possibly abusive registrations.

At least one registrar, Epik, has publicly stated its desire to take over these domains, but due to the volume of AlpNames DUM it could be a competitive bidding process between multiple registrars.

Under the ICANN rules (pdf), a “full application process” is generally favored for defunct registrars with over 1,000 domains, when the de-accredited registrar has not named a successor.

The scoring system used to pick a winner has many criteria, but it generally favors larger registrars. They have to show they have the scale to handle the extra technical and customer support load required by the transition, for example.

It also favors registrars with breadth of gTLD coverage. They have to be accredited in all the gTLDs the dead registrar was. AlpNames supported 352 gTLDs and had active domains in 270 of them, according to November’s registry reports.

Language support may be an issue too, in case for example a substantial chunk of AlpNames business came from, say, China.

All applying registrars that score above a certain threshold are considered tied, and the tie-breaker is how much they’re willing to pay for the portfolio.

Unlike gTLD auctions, ICANN does not receive the proceeds of this auction, however. According to the policy (with my emphasis):

This procedure is not intended to create a new form of revenue for ICANN. To the extent payment is received as part of a bulk transfer, ICANN will apply funds against any debt owed by the registrar to ICANN and forward the remaining funds, if any, to the de-accredited registrar.

That’s right, there’s a chance AlpNames might actually get a small windfall, despite essentially abandoning its customers.

Think about it like the government using eminent domain to buy a house it wishes to demolish to make way for a new road. Except the house’s cellar is full of kidnapped children. And it’s on fire.

Of course, this might not happen. ICANN might decide that there’s not enough time to run a full application process without risk to AlpNames’ customers and instead simply award the dead registrar’s portfolio to one of the registrars in its pre-approved pool of gaining registrars.

That choice would be partly based on ICANN judgement and partly on which registrar is next in the round-robin queue of pre-qualified registrars.

Here’s a handy diagram that shows the procedure.

Deaccred

Rumors swirl as AlpNames suffers “days” of downtime

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2019, Domain Registrars

The web site of controversial registrar AlpNames has been offline for “days”, and rumors have started to circulate that it might not just a technical problem.

At time of writing, alpnames.com resolves to a Cloudflare error page, warning that the AlpNames web server has an invalid SSL certificate. Cloudflare may also show an ugly, bare-bones cached version of the site.

This means that AlpNames customers are unable to log in to manage their domains, according to threads on Namepros and Reddit, and conversations I’ve had with some of those affected.

It’s said that customers are able to manage their domains by logging in directly to LogicBoxes, AlpNames’ registrar-in-a-box provider, but I’ve been unable to personally verify this.

AlpNames is believed to have almost 700,000 names under management, double the size it was last June but well below its peak, at the height of its deep-discounting period in 2017, of over three million.

It’s not known how many individual registrants are affected. The company tends to attract what one might charitably call “bulk-buyers”, so it will be substantially lower than the number of registered domains.

It’s also not entirely clear when the web site went down. It’s not been loading here for at least 12 hours, but the first reference to downtime on Namepros was on Sunday. Multiple other sources have told me today that it’s been unavailable “for a few days”.

A separate AlpNames-owned web site focused on marketing .icu domains to the Chinese market is still online.

But it seems a lot of AlpNames customers have been left hanging in uncertainty, unsure how or when they will be able to manage their domains.

I’ve been unable to reach any of AlpNames’ senior executives for comment on the situation today.

An email sent to CEO Iain Roache this morning, at the address he was using in December, bounced back with a “disabled account” error message. I have received no response to messages I sent to two other email addresses he is known to use.

I understand that fellow AlpNames exec Geir Rasmussen who, with Roache, was enthusiastically pitching grand plans for AlpNames as recently as October, is no longer with the company.

Chief operating officer Damon Barnard also left the company last October and ceased work as a director around the same time.

Records show the salesperson due to represent AlpNames at this week’s ICANN 64 meeting in Japan did not show up and is believed to have also left the company in January.

The company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, which are not usually particularly active anyway, have not yet addressed the downtime problem.

If it is simply a case of an expired or misconfigured SSL cert, why is it taking so long to fix, and why has there been radio silence from AlpNames?

Opponents and competitors are putting the word around that there may be a more serious problem with the company, but I’ve not seen any conclusive evidence that this is the case.

It’s possible there’s some confusion between AlpNames and Famous Four Media, the now-defunct Roache/Rasmussen venture that managed the portfolio of new gTLDs owned by Domain Venture Partners, an investment vehicle set up by Roache prior to ICANN’s 2012 gTLD application round.

DVP is no longer affiliated with AlpNames and its gTLDs are managed by a new DVP-controlled entity, GRS Domains, after an investor revolt.

Ironic eight-figure deal marks more Euro-registrar consolidation

Kevin Murphy, February 11, 2019, Domain Registrars

Slovakian registrar WebSupport, which is run by a local politician, has been acquired in a reported eight-figure deal.

The acquirer is Loopia, a Swedish registrar backed by Danish private equity firm Axcel.

The deal seems to have closed around the same time as Loopia’s acquisition of .SE Direkt from Swedish registry IIS, though news only broke today.

WebSupport reportedly hosts around 173,000 domains, though it’s not clear whether it acts as registrar for all. It’s not ICANN-accredited, but it does resell domains in a wide range of gTLDs.

It reportedly has annual revenue approaching €4 million and sold for “a two-digit figure in millions of euros”.

According to Vladimir Vano, Slovakian comms chief at CentralNic, which acquired .sk registry SK-NIC last year, WebSupport is the largest .sk registrar.

There’s a certain irony with WebSupport being sold into foreign hands.

The co-founder and majority owner of the company is Michel Truban, an entrepreneur-turned-politician who was closely associated with a campaign to have UK-based CentralNic’s acquisition of .sk blocked.

It was alleged (and denied) at the time that the campaign was party-political, though its main concern appeared to be that CentralNic would bastardize .sk into some kind of horrible domain hack.

Today, Truban wrote on his blog “I’m selling WebSupport and I’m going into politics”. In 2017, he co-founded the liberal Progressive Slovakia party.

He said the money from the deal would free him from inappropriate influence by “oligarchs and patrons”.

Google Translate says Truban wrote: “I had an offer that was about a million euros higher, but I declined it. Because it was from people with bad history and at the same time I wanted WS to get an international story.”

Endurance domain revenue dips

Kevin Murphy, February 7, 2019, Domain Registrars

Endurance International put in a poor show when it came to domains name sales in 2018.

Revenue and average revenue per registrant were both down in the fourth quarter and full-year results, which were announced this morning.

Endurance’s registrar business includes BigRock, Domain.com, FastDomain, PublicDomainRegistry.com and others.

Combined, those four brands account for almost 10 million gTLD domains under management, but that number has also been heading south recently.

The company said today that its fourth-quarter domain revenue was $31.3 million, down from $33 million a year earlier. It had 666,000 domain subscribers at the end of the quarter, down from 683,000.

Average revenue per subscriber for the quarter was also down, from $16.63 to $15.63.

For the full year, revenue was down from $133.6 million to $129.9 million and average revenue per subscriber was down from $16.98 to $16.05.

The shrinkage is reflected in the latest transaction reports filed with ICANN, too.

In October, the most recently reported month, all four of Endurance’s biggest registrar brands shrunk in terms of DUM.

PDR was the biggest loser — actually topping the list of shrinking registrars — shedding over 76,000 gTLD domains, over 10,000 of which was from net transfers.

Dark horse NameSilo doubles size in 2018

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2019, Domain Registrars

Domain name registrar NameSilo says it managed to double its size in terms of cash bookings and domains under management in 2018.

The Vancouver-based company said that in 2018 it added 1.27 net new domains, an increase of 106%.

Bookings were $20.1 million, up from the $11.1 million it reported in 2017, according to the company.

NameSilo now says it has 2.49 million domains under management.

That would be a whopping 500,000 increase on the end of September, judging by the latest gTLD registry transaction reports.

The registrar is now the 17th-largest gTLD registrar by DUM, bigger than old hands such as Register.com and Name.com.

And yet I think it’s fair to say the company is a bit of a dark horse. It’s certainly managed to stay under my radar until now.

You’d be hard pressed from its web site to figure out who runs the company or where to find them, despite what ICANN registrar contracts require.

But press releases show it went public, kinda, when it backed into Canadian investment vehicle Brisio Innovations Inc last year, in a deal worth $9.5 million.

It’s now listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange, an alternative investment market, with the rather catchy ticker “URL”.

Given the rapid DUM growth, one might suspect an over-reliance on bargain-bucket new gTLDs, but that does not appear to be the case. About three quarters of its names in September were in .com.

The company credits word of mouth for its recent growth successes, and there may be some truth in that.

NameSilo performed well each month last year in terms of net transfers, often in the five-figure range. It ranked fifth in those terms in September across all gTLDs, beating the likes of Google, NameCheap and AliBaba, with almost 15% of its 90,000 net new DUM coming from transfers.

Given the much larger number of attempted adds and grace period deletes NameSilo experiences every month compared to its similarly sized peers, I rather suspect a lot of its new business is coming in via drop-catching.

The company offers customers API-only access to its platform for drop-catching deleting domains, among other purposes.