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Watch: the exact moment Nominet’s CEO sealed his fate

Kevin Murphy, March 19, 2021, Domain Registries

With Nominet CEO Russell Haworth set to lose his job on Monday, the chain of events that led to his ouster can probably be traced back to a single statement made last year, which was happily caught on camera.

At the company’s Annual General Meeting last September, Haworth announced the closure of the member discussion forum it had hosted on its own web site for many years.

He said the forum was “dominated by a handful of posters, and has increasingly become aggressive and hostile, not least towards our staff”.

The plug was pulled on the site immediately, mid-speech, driving active members into a rage.

One unimpressed member was Simon Blackler, CEO of Krystal Hosting, who later went on to start the PublicBenefit.uk campaign, whose supporters are set to ouster five directors on Monday.

Blackler told The Register recently that the “deliberately spiteful” forum closure was the final straw after years of complaints about Haworth’s leadership.

Here’s the video of Haworth’s speech, cued up to the time-code when he seals his fate:

Restoring the old forum was one of a raft of measures Nominet recently said it would introduce in order to respond to member concerns and stave off the boardroom cull. But that was apparently too little too late.

Stick a fork in Nominet’s leadership. Tucows votes to fire half the board

Kevin Murphy, March 19, 2021, Domain Registries

Tucows has become the latest registrar to say it will vote to fire five of Nominet’s 11 directors, including its CEO and chair, making the success of the ongoing member-driven coup pretty much inevitable.

The company said yesterday that it has already voted for the PublicBenefit.uk campaign’s motion, to be considered at the .uk registry’s Emergency General Meeting on Monday.

Tucows is Nominet’s fourth-largest registrar, with 381,468 domains under management. Its voting rights are capped at 3% of the total.

PublicBenefit.uk now says it has 29.1% of all votes backing its campaign, with 473 members signed up.

Because the threshold to pass its resolution is a simple majority of those who actually turn out to vote on the day, the likelihood of the five directors surviving the EGM are now surely negligible.

The first motion kicks out CEO Russell Haworth, chair Mark Wood, CFO Ben Hill, registry managing director Eleanor Bradley and appointed non-executive director Jane Tozer.

The second, which Nominet refused to put on the ballot, would have appointed two new directors: Sir Michael Lyons, who will serve as chair, and Axel Pawlik, deputy chair. Lyons is a former chair of the BBC Trust, who in 2015 oversaw a review into Nominet’s corporate governance. Pawlik is a former MD of European IP address registry RIPE-NCC.

Both have promised to refocus Nominet by abandoning its attempts to diversify into commercial areas such as cybersecurity, while also reducing .uk wholesale prices and donating more of its profits to public benefit causes.

In throwing its weight behind the resolution, Tucows’ director of domains Ashley La Bolle said in a blog post:

Most registries, but particularly country code registries are, or should be, very profitable operations. A country code TLD is also a public asset and an important component of a nation’s critical infrastructure. The registry should have a narrow and focused mandate, deliver a stable and secure service, operate in a risk-averse manner, and manage costs appropriately. As a public asset, surplus funds from the operation of a registry should be delivered to thoughtful and relevant public benefit initiatives, while also containing and reducing costs for the millions of businesses and consumers that use and rely on the domain names.

It’s the second of Nominet’s top 10 registrars to back PublicBenefit.uk, after #7 Namecheap, which has 201,355 .uk names under management.

The Internet Commerce Association, which represents the interest of domain investors but is not a Nominet member, said it took no position on the resolution, but broadly supported the overarching goals:

The ICA urges Nominet members to support efforts to restore Nominet’s core mission to operate the registry at cost as a not-for profit. Nominet’s management should never raise registration fees beyond what it takes to operate the registry in a prudent manner, with any excess revenue being directed to worthy causes and not to growing the breadth of Nominet’s limited mandate.

Those Nominet members who have pledged support for the board shakeup are being urged to give their voting proxy to Simon Blackler, who runs the registrar Krystal Hosting and initiated the PublicBenefit.uk campaign, before close of business UK time today.

Blackler says that almost all of these members have already voted.

It’s going to take an unprecedented turnout of Nominet’s remaining membership, with the vast majority opposed to the firings, to save these five directors at this point.

UPDATE: This article was updated shortly after its original posting to clarify that Nominet had refused to put the campaign’s second motion on the ballot.

Donuts adds another TLD to its stable as Richemont finally bows out of new gTLD program

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2021, Domain Registries

Luxury goods maker Richemont, an early and strong proponent of the new gTLD concept, has got rid of the final string of the 14 it originally applied for.

According to ICANN records, the registry agreement for .watches was officially transferred to Afilias at the end of December, one day before it was in turn acquired by Donuts.

The domain nic.watches current resolves to a placeholder bearing the Afilias branding.

Richemont, the company behind luxury brands such as Cartier and Piaget, now has no TLDs left.

It had applied for nine dot-brands, along with five generic dictionary terms that it at first intended to maintain as single-registrant spaces, before that use case was banned by ICANN.

At the start of the decade, the company was an enthusiastic endorser of new gTLDs, even sending speakers to conferences to promote the concept.

Richemont was also the first registrant of second-level domains in third-party new gTLDs, when it registered Arabic versions of some of its famous brands in December 2013.

But its enthusiasm waned gradually over the last eight years.

Its dot-brands were discarded in tranches, either during the application process or after contracting. Donuts beat it to .jewelry at auction, and it terminated its contracts for Chinese versions of .jewelry and .watches last year.

There’s not much money in internationalized domain names, so now it seems likely these Chinese IDNs were shopped around but failed to find a buyer.

.watches, however, is right in Donuts’ wheelhouse, a niche generic English string related to a specific product or service.

Last month, I reported that Donuts had acquired .markets, .forex, .broker and .trading from Boston Ivy as it exited the new gTLD game, while letting the less-attractive .spreadbetting die on the vine.

As .gov changes hands, would Verisign run it for free?

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2021, Domain Registries

The .gov top-level domain is moving for the first time since 1997, and the new owner is promising some pricing changes from next year.

The US General Services Administration has been running .gov, one of the original gTLDs, for almost a quarter-century, but next month it will be taken over by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

No changes have been made at IANA yet, but CISA is talking of the handover as if it is a done deal.

It will be the first time ICANN has been asked to redelegate what is essentially an uncontracted gTLD with some of the characteristics of a ccTLD. To be honest, I’ve no idea what rules even apply here.

The move was mandated by the DOTGOV Act of 2019, which was incorporated in a recently passed US spending bill.

Legislators wanted to improve .gov’s usefulness by increasing its public profile and security.

The bill was quite adamant that .gov domains should be priced at “no cost or a negligible cost”, but there’s a catch — Verisign runs the technical infrastructure for the domain, and currently charges $400 per domain per year.

According to CISA, “The way .gov domains are priced is tied closely with the service contract to operate the TLD, and change in the price of a domain is not expected until next year.”

So we’re looking at either a contract renegotiation or a rebid.

Frankly, given the really rather generous money-printing machine the US government has granted Verisign with its perpetual right to run .com and increase its profit margins in most years, it seems to me the company should be running it for free.

The .gov zone currently has domains measured in the low thousand.

Correction: UNR’s trademark block service

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2021, Domain Registries

The registry or registries that buy UNR’s portfolio of new gTLDs at its firesale auction next month will be obliged to honor domains blocked by subscribers to its UniEPS brand protection service.

That’s contrary to what I reported yesterday, which was pretty much the opposite. I apologize for the error.

I asked UNR CEO Frank Schilling for comment about the post-auction UniEPS service, but did not receive a reply. Today, I learned that Schilling had in fact sent a lengthy reply, but it wound up in my email spam folder. Apparently my emails to him also wound up in his spam folder. The filtering gods clearly do not approve of our relationship.

According to Schilling, bidders for each of the 23 auctioned TLDs have been told “blocked names have to remain blocked, banned, or reserved after acquisition, even if they do not participate in our blocking service”.

Registrars were told:

Should an auction winner elect to withdraw the Asset(s) from UNR’s blocking services, the blocked domains will have to remain blocked, reserved, or banned in the acquired Registries until the expiry dates below. This is no different than a new owner honoring prepaid domains under management with expiry dates in the future. Once a block expires, the associated domains can be released for any registrant to purchase (fees from future registrations will be paid to the new owner).

Schilling also said that UNR is forgoing revenue from UniEPS auto-renews after March 15 until the gTLDs change hands. The new owners will be able to cancel these free renewals, he said.

The new owners will be able to continue to use UniEPS if the gTLDs remain on its registry platform. They could also choose to migrate them to their own blocking service, should they have one.

UniEPS, like other products on the market, blocks trademarks and variants such as IDN homographs from registration. It works out cheaper than defensively registering domains, but the domains cannot be used.

UNR, the former Uniregistry, will auction all of its 23 gTLD contracts April 28, as the company refocuses on back-end registry services.

Everything.sucks, in losing UDRPs, puts the lie to the .sucks business model

The World Intellectual Property Organization has delivered its first UDRP decision concerning a .sucks domain name, ruling that the name sanofi.sucks is in fact cybersquatting.

The three-person panel ruled that the domain was identical or confusingly similar to a trademark owned by Sanofi, a French pharmaceuticals manufacturer involved in producing vaccines for the COVID-19 virus.

That was despite the fact that the registrant, affiliated with the Everything.sucks project, argued that nobody would think a domain name ending in “.sucks” would be affiliated with the trademark owner.

That argument flies in the face of official .sucks registry marketing from Vox Populi Registry, which positions .sucks as a place for brand owners to consolidate and manage customer criticism, feedback and support.

The sanofi.sucks case is one of two UDRP losses in the last few weeks for Honey Salt, a Turks and Caicos-based company that is believed to account for over a third of all .sucks registrations.

Honey Salt has registered thousands of brand names in .sucks, linking them to a wiki site operated by Everything.sucks Inc that contains criticism of the brands concerned copied from third-party web sites such as TrustPilot and GlassDoor.

There’s evidence that Everthing.sucks and Honey Salt are affiliated or share common ownership with Vox Pop, but the registry has denied this.

In the Sanofi case, Honey Salt mounted a free speech defense, saying it was providing a platform for legitimate criticism of the company and that Sanofi was using the UDRP to silence such criticism.

Sanofi claimed that the domain had in fact been registered for commercial purposes and to unfairly suggest an official connection to the company.

But what’s interesting is how Honey Salt argues that the domain itself, regardless of the associated web site’s content, is not confusingly similar to the Sanofi mark. The WIPO panelsts wrote, with my added emphasis:

The Respondent maintains that the disputed domain name is not identical or confusingly similar to a trademark in which the Complainant has rights. According to it, the “.sucks” gTLD is not like other generic TLDs, and its pejorative nature renders the disputed domain name as a whole nonidentical and prevents confusion, and the inclusion of “.sucks” in the disputed domain name makes clear that the associated website is not affiliated with the Complainant, but instead contains criticism of it and of its business.

In other words, if you visit a .sucks domain, you automatically will assume that the site is not associated with the brand owner.

Honey Salt seems to have made an identical argument in the UDRP case of cargotec.sucks, which it also lost at the Czech Arbitration Forum last month. The panelists in that decision summarized the company’s defense like this:

The TLD at issue here, however, .sucks, is not like other generic top level domains. Its pejorative nature renders the domain name as a whole nonidentical and prevents confusion… The inclusion of “.sucks” makes abundantly clear that the website is not affiliated with Complainant and instead contain criticism of its business.

Again, this is completely contrary to the stated goal of the .sucks registry.

Vox Pop has from the outset claimed that .sucks domains are a way for brands to aggregate customer feedback and criticism in one place, using a .sucks domain controlled by the brands themselves.

That purpose goes all the way back to its 2012 ICANN new gTLD application and continues to this day on its official web site and Twitter feed, which is primarily used to goad companies undergoing media controversies into registering and using their .sucks exact-match.

Back in 2015, Vox Pop CEO John Berard told us:

A company would be smart to register its name because of the value that consumer criticism has in improving customer loyalty, delivering good customer service, understanding new product and service possibilities… They’re spending a lot more on marketing and customer service and research. This domain can another plank in that platform

Vox Pop even owns and uses voxpopuli.sucks and dotsucks.sucks, where it hosts a little-used forum welcoming criticism from people who say the company sucks.

But Honey Salt, its largest registrant by a significant margin, is now on-record stating that .sucks domains only imply ownership by third parties and could not possibly be confused with brand-owner ownership.

If the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, there exists a corner of the multiverse in which Honey Salt and Everything.sucks are just fronts for the entities that also control Vox Pop and its top registrar, Rebel.com. In that universe, it would be trippy indeed for the registry’s own affiliates to admit its entire stated business model is bullshit.

In our universe, that particular cat, which very probably has a goatee, is still firmly in the box, however.

Speculative forays into science fiction aside, Honey Salt’s record on UDRP is now three losses versus one win. It has six more cases pending at WIPO

Domain industry shrank in Q4, but as usual there’s a big BUT

The worldwide domain name count shrank in the fourth quarter, according to newly released Verisign data, but as usual the numbers were hugely impacted by big swings in just a few TLDs.

The latest Domain Name Industry Brief (pdf), which is mainly compiled from zone file counts, shows that 2020 ended with 366.3 million names, down by 4.4 million or 1.2% compared to the end of the third quarter.

It’s the free and almost-free TLDs that swung the math.

Remarkably, industry wild-card .tk actually shrank during the quarter. This is highly unusual, as the registry’s business model is based on giving out names for free, never deleting domains, and monetizing the traffic to expired or suspended names.

It saw domains down by 2.8 million names over the quarter, from 27.5 million to 24.7 million.

Another big dipper was .icu, which sells cheap (usually under $1) and appeals to speculators largely in China.

While it slipped out of the top 10 TLDs, meaning the DNIB no longer breaks out its numbers, DI’s own zone file counts show its zone decline from 5.3 million to 3.4 million during Q4, a 1.9 million decline.

Notably spammy new gTLD .top, which also costs next to nothing and is popular in China, also had a role to play. Its zone count was down by about 900,000 between September 30 and December 31.

Those three TLDs alone account for a loss of 5.6 million names, far more than the 4.4 million industry-wide quarterly drop calculated by Verisign.

The impact of .icu’s continued spiral downwards is likely to be felt in Q1 2021 also. It’s lost another 2.4 million zone file names since the start of the year.

Verisign said the the universe of ccTLD domains contracted by 1.7 million of 1% during the quarter, ending the year with 158.9 million names.

The .tk shrinkage of course more than accounts for this dip. Without it, ccTLDs would be up by 1.1 million names or 1.1%. The major, top-10 ccTLDs mostly showed six-figure growth, the DNIB reflects.

New gTLDs were down 4.2 million names or 13.8% sequentially, ending the quarter with 26 million.

In addition to the aforementioned .top and .icu, this figure appears to have been affected by six-figure losses in some of the highest-volume, lowest-priced new gTLDs, including .club, .site .work and .vip.

In the main legacy gTLDs, Verisign’s own .com grew by 1.5 million names, from 151.8 million to 150.3 million, during the quarter. Its .net was again flat at 13.4 million. Public Interest Registry’s .org gained a (rounded) 100,000 names, ending the year at 10.3 million.

The annual numbers across the industry for 2020 have better optics. The DNIB shows that domain volume was up by 4.0 million or 1.1% year over year.

That breaks down into a 6.3 million increase in .com, a 1.3 million increase across the ccTLDs, and a 3.3 million decrease in new gTLDs, not all of which can be explained away by factoring out .icu and .top.

EU cancels .eu tender after Brexit cock-up

Kevin Murphy, February 23, 2021, Domain Registries

The European Commission has been forced to cancel its search for a new .eu registry operator after apparently misunderstanding how Brexit works.

When the Commission put the .eu contract up for grabs last October, it said deal was only open to organizations based in the EU or the UK.

It seemed weird at the time, given that the UK had already officially left the EU and was just a few months away from terminating its year-long transition agreement, under which it still operated as if it were still a member.

And it turns out to have been a mistake, based on a misunderstanding of the legalities of the Brexit process. UK registries should never have been allowed to bid in the first place.

The Commission said today “the inclusion of the clause for applicants established in the United Kingdom in the Call was an error”.

It’s therefore scrapped the entire process and intends to relaunch it “in the near future”.

Only not-for-profit entities may apply.

.eu is currently managed by EURid, which is of course not barred from bidding to renew its longstanding contract.

Facebook lawsuit brings one country’s domain to a screeching halt

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2021, Domain Registries

Bangladesh’s ccTLD registry has reportedly frozen all registrations and transfers after a cybersquatting lawsuit filed by Facebook.

According to local reports a couple weeks back, Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Ltd has implemented Draconian pre-registration roadblocks to registration, such that only exact-match domain names are available to individuals and organizations.

And Western corporate registrar CSC said today that BTCL has “implemented a temporary suspension to registration and transfer orders due to an ongoing legal matter” and is “diligently working to draft new regulations and procedures for registration orders.”

Registrants can still manage their Whois and DNS settings as normal, CSC said.

Facebook sued the registrant of the domain facebook.com.bd last November, asking for the domain to be cancelled and for $50,000 in damages, dragging BTCL into the case.

According to reports, the domain had been registered in 2008 when the registry used a largely paper-based system, but Facebook only resorted to the courts last year when the registrant listed it for sale for $6 million.

It’s a textbook case of cybersquatting, but .bd evidently does not have the mechanisms — such as UDRP — to handle such malfeasance outside of the courts.

While a Dhaka court reportedly issued an injunction against the domain in question, it’s still resolving and still listed for sale at $6 million.

ICANN purges another dormant dot-brand

Kevin Murphy, February 19, 2021, Domain Registries

The 89th unwanted dot-brand has filed with ICANN for voluntarily contract termination.

Iveco, an Italian industrial vehicle manufacturer, has told ICANN it no longer wishes to run the .iveco dot-brand.

As is the case with self-terminations more often than not, the gTLD was almost completely unused, with only the obligatory nic.example domain active.

Iveco is a big ole company, with revenue of €4.9 billion ($5.9 billion) a year, so it appears to be a case of a lack of enthusiasm rather than a lack of resources.