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Brand-blocking service plotted for porn gTLDs

MMX wants to offer a new service for trademark owners worried about cybersquatting in its four porn-themed gTLDs.

The proposed Adult Block Services would be similar to Donuts’ groundbreaking Domain Protected Marks List and the recent Trademark Sentry offering from .CLUB Domains.

The service would enable big brands to block their marks from registration across all four TLDs for less than the price of individual defensive registrations.

Prices have not been disclosed, but a more-expensive “Plus” version would also allow the blocking of variants such as typos. The registry told ICANN:

The Adult Block Services will be offered as a chance for trademark owners to quickly and easily make labels unavailable for registration in our TLDs. For those trademark owners registering domain names as a defensive measure only, the Adult Block Services offer an easy, definitive, and cost-effective method for achieving their goals by offering at-a-stroke protection for TLDs included in the program. The Adult Block Services are similar to the Donuts’ DPML, Uniregistry’s EP and EP Plus and the .Club UNBS and should be immediately understood and accepted by the trademark community.

The Adult Block will allow trademark owners to block unregistered labels in our TLDs that directly match their trademarks. The Adult Block Plus will allow trademark owners to block unregistered, confusingly similar variations of their trademarks in our TLDs.

It seems more akin to DPML, and Uniregistry’s recently launched clone, than to .CLUB’s forthcoming single-TLD offering.

The Registry Service Evaluation Process request was filed by ICM Registry, which was acquired by MMX last year.

It only covers the four porn gTLDs that ICM originally ran, and not any of the other 22 gTLDs managed by MMX (aka Minds + Machines).

This will certainly make the service appear less attractive to the IP community than something like DPML, which covers Donuts stable of 242 TLDs.

While there’s no public data about how successful blocking services have been, anecdotally I’m told they’re quite popular.

What we do have data on is how popular the ICM gTLDs have been in sunrise periods, where trademark owners showed up in higher-than-usual numbers to defensively register their marks.

.porn, .adult and .sex garnered about 2,000 sunrise regs each, more than 20 times the average for a new gTLD, making them three of the top four most-subscribed sunrise periods.

Almost one in five of the currently registered domains in each of these TLDs is likely to be a sunrise defensive.

Now that sunrise is long gone, there may be an appetite in the trademark community for less-expensive blocks.

But there have been calls for the industry to unify and offer blocking services to cover all gTLDs.

The brand-protection registrar Com Laude recently wrote:

What brands really need is for registry operators to come together and offer a universal, truly global block that applies across all the open registries and at a reasonable price that a trademark owner with multiple brands can afford.

Quite how that would happen across over 1,200 gTLDs is a bit of a mystery, unless ICANN forced such a service upon them.

Defunct Famous Four ordered to hand $1.5 million back to investors

Former domain registry manager Famous Four Media has been ordered to return money to investors that was being used as insurance against its portfolio of gTLDs going out of business.

In an April 18 ruling (pdf) from Gibraltar’s Supreme Court, FFM and its CEO Iain Roache are told that original investors Domain Venture Partners are the true owners what looks to be about $1.5 million being used to back letters of credit in ICANN’s name.

It’s a very complicated ruling, reflecting the complex structure of the FFM/DVP relationship. It wants for clarity in some areas, and is probably best suited to interpretation by a forensic accountant.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.

Basically, back in 2011 businessman Iain Roache recruited a bunch of international investors to join him in funding applications for 60 new gTLDs. The investment vehicle was and is called Domain Venture Partners.

Each application had an associated “bid vehicle”, essentially a Gibraltar-based shell company with names along the lines of Dot Science Ltd or Dot Accountant Ltd.

Those of the vehicles that were successful in their applications continue to be the official registry sponsors for 16 active gTLDs. They’re all owned by DVP.

Famous Four was a separate company, owned 80:20 by Roache and business partner Geir Rasmussen, hired by DVP to manage the business of actually selling domains.

For many years, myself and pretty much everybody else covering the domain name industry referred to FFM as if it was the owner of the TLDs, more or less interchangeably with DVP.

In fact, FFM was just a DVP contractor and behind the scenes DVP was growing increasingly unhappy with how the domains were being managed, DVP investor Robert Maroney told DI last August.

For about a year now, FFM has been in liquidation. DVP kicked it out of the registry management business and replaced it with a new company that it controls called GRS Domains, managed by a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant called Edgar Lavarello.

Thirteen of the DVP bid vehicles sued Famous Four to claim ownership of, among other things, the money backing the so-called “Continuing Operations Instruments” that ICANN demanded from each new gTLD applicant.

The COI, usually a letter of credit from a big bank, were used to give ICANN the confidence that new gTLD domain registrants would not be affected by dodgy registries going out of business and their domains immediately going dark. The money would fund ongoing technical operations for a few years, giving registrants time to find a new home for their web sites.

In this case, Famous Four’s liquidator refused to agree that the money backing the COIs was rightfully DVP’s.

What seems to have happened is that in mid-2016 the DVP letters of credit were hastily switched from Credit Suisse to Barclays, after Credit Suisse closed down its Gibraltar branch.

There was a period in which both sets of LoCs were active, in order to remain compliant with ICANN’s rule that there must be an active COI at all times.

The original Credit Suisse LoCs had been funded by DVP, but the Barclays LoCs were funded by FFM, or quite possibly Roache himself, to the tune of about $1.5 million.

FFM was then repaid by the return of the money backing the Credit Suisse LoCs, when those LoCs were closed, according to Chief Justice Anthony Dudley’s ruling.

After the switch of banks, the LoCs were no longer in the names of the DVP bid vehicles; they belonged to FFM. The money DVP put up to originally secure the COIs was now in FFM’s control.

Dudley now seems to have ruled that FFM now owes DVP this money back, and that the liquidator, Grant Jones of Simmons Gainsford, was wrong to withhold it.

In fact, the judge has some quite stern words for Jones, saying that he was “wholly inappropriate” when he temporarily turned over his responsibilities as liquidator to Roache and his law firm. Dudley wrote:

It may be that it arises as a consequence of the Liquidator having limited funds with which to engage in litigation. But whatever the reason, the position adopted by the liquidator of FFM in these proceedings has been unusual and certainly capable of being construed as running counter to the fundamental principle of objectivity required of a Liquidator, now codified in the Insolvency Practitioner Regulations 2014. Rather than formulate his own view (or as urged by me at a preliminary hearing seek his own independent legal advice) by letter dated 1 March 2019 GJ sought to abrogate his responsibility and authorised IR and JSF to act on behalf of FFM

That aside, the main piece of evidence that appears to have caused Dudley to side with DVP was a set of emails from Famous Four chief legal officer Oliver Smith to DVP investors that were sent at the time the LoCs were switching banks.

Smith confirmed in one of these emails that FFM was basically just acting as a conduit for DVPs bid vehicles, which by that point were operational registries.

The judge noted that the Smith email that confirmed this was submitted in evidence by Lavarello and Maroney only after Roache had submitted the rest of the thread, excluding this email, in his own evidence.

Dudley ruled that the DVP companies should get what they asked for, namely the funds associated with the LoCs. It’s not entirely clear from his ruling how much this is, but by my reading it’s around the $1.5 million mark.

The liquidation, which is ongoing, is to the best of my knowledge unrelated to the still unexplained demise of AlpNames, the registrar and close FFM partner also owned by Roache and Rasmussen.

Finally, a disclaimer.

Because I’ve already had one spurious legal threat related to my ongoing coverage of Famous Four’s demise, and don’t really need the arseache of any more, I’m going to state unequivocally for the record that I’m not alleging any wrongdoing by anyone.

If I’ve got anything wrong, as always I will gladly issue a correction. Just ask, and show your working. No need to sic the lawyers on me.

You can read the judge’s decision (pdf) and decide for yourself what’s been going on.

Future of .io domains has become party-political issue in the UK

The future of the Chagos Islands and therefore the longevity of .io domain names may well depend on which party holds the reins of power in the UK.

The current Conservative government under Theresa May has this month rejected an international court ruling calling for the British Indian Ocean Territory — currently the official name of the archipelago — to be wound down and the lands returned to the exiled Chagossians.

But the leader of the official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has reportedly slammed the government’s position and said Labour is “committed to respecting the advisory opinion in full, so as to ensure that Chagossians are able to return to their homes”.

In February, the International Court of Justice ruled that the UK had kept control of the islands unlawfully when Mauritius, which had the prior claim, gained its independence in 1968.

The couple thousand natives were kicked out of the country a few years later to make way for a US naval base, and have been living in Mauritius and the Seychelles with no ability to return ever since.

Were the UK to follow the ICJ ruling, it would quite possibly mean the end of BIOT as the name of the islands and therefore the demise of its two-letter country code, IO, and therefore the eventual retirement of the popular .io domain name.

.io, which is believed to have around 270,000 domains, is run by London-based Internet Computer Bureau Ltd, which Afilias bought for $70 million two years ago.

It’s popular with tech startups as a kind of domain hack for “input/output”.

Now that the UK government has officially come out against the ICJ ruling, and Labour has supported it, it appears the future of the Chagossians and .io registrants alike will depend rather on who is occupying 10 Downing Street in future.

Dead dot-brands hit 50

Two more dot-brands are on their way out, bringing the total to fall on their swords to date to a nice round 50.

Both of the new departures appear to be brands belonging to the Saudi telecommunications company Etihad Etisalat, which does business as Mobily and has annual revenue approaching $1.8 billion.

The gTLDs in question are .mobily and موبايلي., the Arabic version of the brand, which sits in the root as .xn--mgbb9fbpob.

As is usual in cases of dot-brand self-termination, neither TLD had actually been put to any use beyond the obligatory nic. site.

Despite Mobily being based in Saudi Arabia, the registry is actually a Bahrain company, Greentech Consulting, apparently being run by a US-based new gTLD consultancy called WiseDots.

I’ve never heard of this outfit or its point man before today and its social media activity seems to have dried up shortly after the new gTLD application window closed in 2012.

The registry was hit by a breach of contract notice in December 2016 after it apparently forgot to pay its ICANN fees for a while, but it managed to resolve the issue without further action.

Turkish government takes over ccTLD

Turkey’s ccTLD has been transferred into government hands.

ICANN’s board of directors at the weekend formally approved a redelegation request from the country to its IANA division.

The new official ccTLD manager is Bilgi Teknolojileri ve İletişim Kurumu (BTK), which translates as Information and Communication Technologies Authority.

That’s Turkey’s telecommunications regulator, part of the government.

The original manager, since the delegation in 1990, was Middle East Technical University, an Ankara-based university that caters to over 30,000 students.

As is usual with ccTLD redelegations, all the discussions happened behind closed doors. Typically, the losing manager has to agreed to the transfer.

IANA will release a report at some point explaining the process leading up to the handover.

Pricey .inc does quite well in sunrise

The new gTLD .inc, which goes into general availability today, had a better-than-average number of sales in its sunrise period.

Intercap Registry, which runs .inc, said today that it had “over 270” sunrise registrations.

It’s not a massive amount, but it’s probably enough to put the TLD into the top 50 sunrises to date.

There had been 491 sunrise periods as of December 2018, according to ICANN data. The average number of sunrise regs was 137. The median was 77.

The largest sunrise to date was Google’s .app, which sold 2,908 domains during its sunrise last year.

Only five new gTLDs have racked up more than 1,000 sunrise sales, and three of those were porn-related. The fifth was .shop.

Based on 270 domains .inc would rank alongside similarly themed .llc, but also the likes of .solutions, .world and .team, where the case for a defensive reg is less clear.

While one can see a clear risk for companies whose names end in “Inc”, the expected retail price of .inc will be around $2,000, which Intercap says will deter cybersquatters.

Sunrise registrants will have paid a substantial markup on this regular price.

For those without zone file access, Intercap is actually posting the names and logos of the companies that have registered on its web site.

These five TLDs contain 80% of all child abuse images

Online child abuse watchdog the Internet Watch Foundation has released its 2018 annual report, and it fingers the five TLDs that host four in five cases of child sexual abuse images and videos.

The TLDs in question are Verisign’s .com and .net, Neustar’s repurposed Colombian ccTLD .co, Russia’s .ru and Tonga’s .to.

IWF found the illegal content in 3,899 unique domains, up 3% from 2017’s 3,791 domains, in 151 different TLDs.

Despite the apparent concentration of illegal web pages in just five TLDs, it appears that this is largely due to the prevalence of image-hosting and file-sharing “cyberlocker” sites in these TLDs.

These are sites abused by the purveyors of this content, rather than being specifically dedicated to abuse.

It would be tricky for a registry to take action against such sites, as they have substantial non-abusive uses. It would be like taking down twitter.com whenever somebody tweets something illegal.

In terms of domains being registered specifically for the purpose of distributing child abuse material, the new gTLDs created since 2012 come off looking much worse.

IWF said that last year it found this material on 1,638 domains across 62 new gTLDs. That’s 42% of the total number of domains used to host such content, compared to new gTLDs’ single-figures overall market share.

The number of URLs (as opposed to domains) taken down in new gTLD web sites was up 17% to 5,847.

IWF has a service that alerts registries when child abuse material is found in their TLDs.

Its 2018 report can be found here (pdf).

PIR says it has no plans to raise .org prices

Public Interest Registry claims it has no plans to raise its wholesale fee for .org domains, in the face of outrage from domainers and non-profits.

Under a proposed renegotiated contract with ICANN, price caps that have limited PIR to a 10% price increase every year would be removed.

But in a statement last week, the company said:

Rest assured, we will not raise prices unreasonably. In fact, we currently have no specific plans for any price increases for .ORG. We simply are moving to the standard registry agreement with all of its applicable provisions that already is in place for more than 1,200 other top-level domain extensions.

This does not necessarily translate to a commitment to not raise prices, of course. PIR may have “no specific plans” today, but it may tomorrow.

Over 3,300 people and organizations filed comments with ICANN about the proposed removal of the price caps, almost all of them negative.

Comments came initially from domain investors, but they were soon joined by many non-profit .org registrants and others.

Most claimed that it was unfair to allow unlimited price increases in legacy, pre-2012 gTLDs such as .org, which can be seen more as a public trust.

PIR went on to point out in its letter that it has not raised its prices — believed to be still under $10 a year — for the last three years.

But it might be worth noting that senior management has changed in that period. Brian Cute left the CEO job a year ago and, after an interim caretaker manager, was replaced by Donuts alumnus Jon Nevett in December.

.org’s registration numbers have been dipping. Over the last three years, it’s dropped from a peak of 11.3 million to 10.6 million at the end of 2018.

But it’s also renegotiated its back-end contract with Afilias over that period, meaning it’s now paying millions less on technical running costs than it once was.

PIR also reiterates that, like many of its customers, it is also a non-profit that is not motivated by investors and share prices.

More than half of its profits go to fund the Internet Society, itself a non-profit organization.

“We are different. We are mission based and not every decision is a financial one; we are not just driven by the bottom line,” its statement says.

PIR says that registrants are also protected by the measure in all ICANN gTLD contracts that allows registrants to lock in prices for up to 10 years in the event of a price increase, and by the fact that .org operates in a competitive market.

Reasonable people can and do disagree on whether these are effective protections in a case like .org.

Another five Amazon TLDs move to Nominet

Another five gTLDs owned by Amazon have made the back-end switch from Neustar to Nominet.

According to changes to IANA records this week, Nominet is now the registry services provider for .bot, .zappos, .imdb, .prime, and .aws.

This brings the number of Amazon TLDs to migrate from Neustar to Nominet recently to 40.

Amazon has 52 gTLDs in its portfolio. It moved 35 of them to Nominet a couple weeks ago.

Neustar told us at the time:

in an effort to diversify their back-end support, Amazon has chosen to move some, but not all, of their TLDs to another provider. Neustar will still manage multiple Amazon TLDs after the transition and we look forward to our continued partnership.

Moving .bot is notable as it is one of only six Amazon TLDs currently accepting registrations. It’s still many months away from general availability, but it has about 1,500 names in its zone. The other four movers are currently pre-launch.

It may or may not be significant that no non-Latin-script TLDs belonging to Amazon have made the transition.

According to IANA records, Neustar is still managing 12 Amazon strings, only three of which — .song, .coupon and .zero — are not internationalized domain names.

If those three TLDs were to also make the jump to Nominet over the coming weeks, I would not be in the least bit surprised.

Nominet does not currently handle IDN TLDs for any client.

Non-coms say .org price cap should be RAISED

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2019, Domain Registries

With the entire domain name community apparently split along binary lines on the issue of price caps in .org, a third option has emerged from a surprising source.

ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group has suggested that price caps should remain, but that they should be raised from their current level of 10% per year.

In its comments to ICANN (pdf), NCSG wrote that it would “not object to the price cap being raised by a reasonable level”, adding:

Rather than removing price caps from the agreement entirely, these should be retained but raised by an appropriate amount. In addition, this aspect of the contract should be subject to a review midway through the contract, based on the impact of the price changes on non-profit registrants.

The NCSG does not quote a percentage or dollar value that it would consider “reasonable” or “appropriate”.

The letter notes that Public Interest Registry, which runs .org, uses some of its registration money to fund NCSG’s activities.

The NCSG disagrees with the decision to remove price cap provisions in the current .org agreement. On the one hand, we recognize the maturation of the domain name market, and the need for Public Interest Registry to capitalize on the commercial opportunities available to it. Public Interest Registry, as a non-profit entity, supports many excellent causes (including, it is worth noting, the NCSG). On the other hand, as the home for schools, community organizations, open-source projects, and other non-profit entities that are run on shoestring budgets, this registry should not necessarily operate under the same commercial realities that guide other domains. Fees should remain affordable, with domains which are priced within reach of everyone, no matter how few resources they have. Consequently, we support leaving the price cap provisions in place. We would not object to the price cap being raised by a reasonable level.

Basically, the ICANN community group nominally representing precisely .org’s target market doesn’t mind prices going up, just as long as PIR doesn’t get greedy.

It’s slightly surprising, to me, to find NCSG on the middle ground here.

There are currently over 3,250 comments on the renewal of PIR’s registry contract with ICANN — coming from domainers, individual registrants, and large and small non-profit organizations — almost all of which are firmly against the removal of price caps.

The only comments I’ve been able to find in favor of the scrapping of caps came from the Business Constituency. Intellectual property interests had no opinion.

I don’t believe the registries and registrars stakeholder groups filed consensus comments, but Tucows did file an individual comment (pdf) objecting to the removal of caps.