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.food goes live, and it’s a closed generic

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2016, Domain Registries

The new gTLD .food went live in the DNS on Friday, but nobody except the registry will be able to register domains there.

In what I would argue is one of the new gTLD program’s biggest failures, .food will be a dot-brand, closed to all except the “brand” owner.

The registry is Lifestyle Domain Holdings, a subsidiary of US media company Scripps Networks.

Scripps runs the Food Network TV station in the States and the site Food.com. It has a trademark on the word “Food”.

Its registry agreement for .food, signed back in April, includes Specification 13, which allows registries to restrict all the second-level domains to themselves and their affiliates.

So food producers, restaurants, chefs and the like will never be able to use .food for their web sites.

ICANN signed the contract with Scripps despite objections from several entities including the Australian government, which warned “restricting common generic strings, such as .food, for the exclusive use of a single entity could have a negative impact on competition”.

Under ICANN rules hastily cobbled together after outrage over so-called “closed generics”, a registry cannot run as a dot-brand a gTLD that is:

a string consisting of a word or term that denominates or describes a general class of goods, services, groups, organizations or things, as opposed to distinguishing a specific brand of goods, services, groups, organizations or things from those of others.

Almost all applications flagged as closed generics were subsequently amended to make them restricted but not brand-exclusive. Scripps was the major hold-out.

The loophole that allowed .food to stay in exclusive hands appears to be that Scripps’ trademark on “Food” covers television, rather than food.

If .food winds up publishing content about food, such as recipes and healthy eating advice, I’d argue that it would go against the spirit of the rules on closed generics.

It would be a bit like Apple getting .apple as a Spec 13 dot-brand and then using the gTLD to publish content about the fruit rather than computers.

No sites are currently live in .food.

Afilias retains .org back-end deal

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2016, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry is sticking with Afilias to run the .org registry back-end.

The announcement came yesterday after a open procurement process that lasted for most of 2016.

Over 20 back-end providers from 15 nations — basically the entire industry — responded to PIR’s February request for proposals, we reported back in March.

Afilias retaining the contract is not a huge surprise. The bidding process was widely believed to be a way for non-profit PIR to reduce its costs, believed to be among the highest in the industry.

PIR said yesterday:

Afilias was selected as the best value solution based on the objective criteria and requirements set forth in Public Interest Registry’s procurement process. It is anticipated that Afilias will commence operations under the new contractual agreement on Jan. 1, 2018.

It’s very likely that the new deal will be worth a lot less to Afilias than the current arrangement, which costs PIR about $33 million per year.

In 2013, the last year for which we have Afilias’ financials, .org brought in $31 million of its $77 million revenue.

It’s believed that PIR is currently paying about $3 per domain per year, but Kieren McCarthy at The Register, citing unnamed industry sources, reckons that’s now been bumped down to $2, saving PIR about $10 million per year.

The .org gTLD has about 11.2 million domains under management, but its numbers have been slipping for several months, according to registry reports.

GMO offers free SSL with .shop domains

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2016, Domain Registries

GMO Registry is to offer .shop domain registrants a free one-year SSL certificate with every purchase.

The company said yesterday that the deal, made via sister certificate company GMO GlobalSign, should be in place by the end of the month.

The certs on offer appear to be the of low-end “Domain Validation” variety.

Nevertheless, GlobalSign usually sells them for over $150 per year, many times more expensive than .shop domains themselves.

Popular registrars are currently selling .shop names from $10 to $25.

There are about 90,000 domains in .shop’s zone file today.

That’s a goodish volume by new gTLD standards, but probably not good enough to help GMO recoup the $41.5 million it paid for .shop at auction any time soon.

Upsell opportunities such as the SSL offer, assuming they get any uptake, may help accelerate its path to breakeven.

Verisign and Afilias in open war over $135m .web

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2016, Domain Registries

Two of the industry’s oldest and biggest gTLD registries escalated their fight over the .web gTLD auction this week, trading blows in print and in public.

Verisign, accused by Afilias of breaking the rules when it committed $130 million to secure .web for itself, has now turned the tables on its rival.

It accuses Afilias of itself breaking the auction rules and of trying to emotionally blackmail ICANN into reversing the auction on spurious political grounds.

The .web auction was won by obscure shell-company applicant Nu Dot Co with a record-setting $135 million bid back in July.

It quickly emerged, as had been suspected for a few weeks beforehand, that Verisign was footing the bill for the NDC bid.

The plan is that NDC will transfer its .web ICANN contract to Verisign after it is awarded, assuming ICANN consents to the transfer.

Afilias has since revealed that it came second in the auction. It now wants ICANN to overturn the result of the auction, awarding .web to Afilias as runner-up instead.

The company argues that NDC broke the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook rules by refusing to disclose that it had become controlled by Verisign.

It’s now trying to frame the .web debate as ICANN’s “first test of accountability” under the new, independent, post-IANA transition regime.

Afilias director Jonathan Robinson posted on CircleID:

If ICANN permits the auction result to stand, it may not only invite further flouting of its rules, it will grant the new TLD with the highest potential to the only entity with a dominant market position. This would diminish competition and consumer choice and directly contradict ICANN’s values and Bylaws.

Given the controversy over ICANN’s independence, all eyes will be on the ICANN board to see if it is focused on doing the right thing. It’s time for the ICANN board to show resolve and to demonstrate that it is a strong, independent body acting according to the letter and spirit of its own AGB and bylaws and, perhaps most importantly of all, to actively demonstrate its commitment to act independently and in the global public interest.

Speaking at the first of ICANN’s two public forum sessions at ICANN 57 in Hyderabad, India this week, Robinson echoed that call, telling the ICANN board:

You are a credible, independent-minded, and respected board who recognized the enhanced scrutiny that goes with the post-transition environment. Indeed, this may well be the first test of your resolve in this new environment. You have the opportunity to deal with the situation by firmly applying your own rules and your own ICANN bylaw-enshrined core value to introduce and promote competition in domain names. We strongly urge you to do so.

Then, after a few months of relative quiet on the subject, Verisign and NDC this week came out swinging.

First, in a joint blog post, the companies rubbished Afilias’ attempt to bring the IANA transition into the debate. They wrote:

Afilias does a great disservice to ICANN and the entire Internet community by attempting to make this issue a referendum on ICANN by entitling its post “ICANN’s First Test of Accountability.” Afilias frames its test for ICANN’s new role as an “independent manager of the Internet’s addressing system,” by asserting that ICANN can only pass this test if it disqualifies NDC and bars Verisign from acquiring rights to the .web new gTLD. In this case, Afilias’ position is based on nothing more than deflection, smoke and cynical self-interest.

Speaking at the public forum in Hyderabad on Wednesday, Verisign senior VP Pat Kane said:

This is not a test for the board. This issue is not a test for the newly empowered community. It is a test of our ability to utilize the processes and the tools that we’ve developed over the past 20 years for dispute resolution.

Verisign instead claims that Afilias’ real motivation could be to force .web to a private auction, where it can be assured an eight-figure payday for losing.

NDC/Verisign won .web at a so-called “last resort” auction, overseen by ICANN, in which the funds raised go into a pool to be used for some yet-to-be-determined public benefit cause.

That robbed rival applicants, including Afilias, of the equal share of the proceeds they would have received had the contention set been settled via the usual private auction process.

But Verisign/NDC, in their post, claim Afilias wants to force .web back to private auction.

Afilias’ allegations of Applicant Guidebook violations by NDC are nothing more than a pretext to conduct a “private” instead of a “public” auction, or to eliminate a competitor for the .web new gTLD and capture it for less than the market price.

Verisign says that NDC was under no obligation to notify ICANN of a change of ownership or control because no change of ownership or control has occurred.

It says the two companies have an “arms-length contract” which saw Verisign pay for the auction and NDC commit to ask ICANN to transfer its .web Registry Agreement to Verisign.

It’s not unlike the deal Donuts had with Rightside, covering over a hundred gTLD applications, Verisign says.

The contract between NDC and Verisign did not assign to Verisign any rights in NDC’s application, nor did Verisign take any ownership or management interest in NDC (let alone control of it). NDC has always been and always will be the owner of its application

Not content with defending itself from allegations of wrongdoing, Verisign/NDC goes on to claim that it is instead Afilias that broke ICANN rules and therefore should have disqualified from the auction.

They allege that Afilias offered NDC a guarantee of a cash payout if it chose to go to private auction instead, and that it attempted to coerce NDC to go to private auction on July 22, which was during a “blackout period” during which bidders were forbidden from discussing bidding strategies.

During the public forum sessions at ICANN 57, ICANN directors refused to comment on statements from either side of the debate.

That’s likely because it’s a matter currently before the courts.

Fellow .web loser Donuts has already sued ICANN in California, claiming the organization failed to adequately investigate rumors that Verisign had taken over NDC.

Donuts failed to secure a restraining order preventing the .web auction from happening, but the lawsuit continues. Most recently, ICANN filed a motion attempting to have the case thrown out.

In my opinion, arguments being spouted by Verisign and Afilias both stretch credulity.

Afilias has yet to present any smoking gun showing Verisign or NDC broke the rules. Likewise, Verisign’s claim that Afilias wants to enrich itself by losing a private auction appear to be unsupported by any evidence.

ICANN to terminate Guardian’s last gTLD

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2016, Domain Registries

Newspaper publisher Guardian News & Media is out of the gTLD game for good now, with ICANN saying this week that it will terminate its contract for the dot-brand, .theguardian.

It’s the 14th new gTLD registry agreement to be terminated by ICANN. All were dot-brands.

The organization has told Guardian that it started termination proceedings October 21, after the company failed to complete its required pre-delegation testing before already-extended deadlines.

.theguardian was the only possible gTLD remaining of the five that Guardian originally applied for.

It signed its registry agreement with ICANN in April 2015, but failed to go live within a year.

Guardian also applied for .guardian, which it decided not to pursue after facing competition from the insurance company of the same name.

The .observer gTLD, a dot-brand for its Sunday sister paper, was sold off to Top Level Spectrum last month and has since been delegated as a non-brand generic.

Applications for .gdn and .guardianmedia were withdrawn before Initial Evaluation had even finished.