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Amazon sold rights to .box gTLD for $3 million

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2020, Domain Registries

Amazon relinquished its rights to the .box gTLD five years ago for $3 million, according to court documents seen by DI.

Amazon was one of two applicants for .box, the other being a company called NS1 (that’s the numeral 1; this has nothing to do with Network Solutions).

According to a complaint filed a couple of years ago that I came across today, Amazon agreed to withdraw its application, giving its rival an unobstructed shot at the gTLD, for $3 million.

It was a private settlement of the contention set and the payout was not publicly revealed at the time.

A $3 million deal puts .box in the same ballpark as public auctions such as MMX’s .vip and Johnson & Johnson’s (now XYZ.com’s) .baby.

While the deal is years old, I thought the data point was worth publishing.

NS1’s application suggests that its business plan was to offer registrants cloud storage services, along the lines of DropBox.

But the ICANN contract was sold to Intercap, which also runs .inc and .dealer, earlier this year. The plan now appears to be to operate it as an open niche gTLD, but no launch dates have been announced.

It’s not known how much the gTLD sold for second time around.

Big pharma firm dumps its gTLD

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2020, Domain Registries

Indian pharmaceuticals company Lupin has become the latest new gTLD registry to drop its dot-brand.

The firm told ICANN recently that it no longer wishes to continue running .lupin, which it has never actually used.

It’s the 82nd dot-brand to self-terminate, the 13th this year.

Lupin is one of the world’s largest manufacturer of generic medicines, with revenue in excess of $2 billion per year.

.web ruling might not come this year

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2020, Domain Registries

A decision about who gets to run the .web gTLD may not arrive until early next year, according to Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos.

“A final decision from the [Independent Review Process[ panel may be issued later this year or early next year,” he told analysts late last week.

.web sold at auction for $135 million four years ago to a company being secretly bankrolled by Verisign, but the outcome is being challenged in the IRP by runner-up bidder Afilias.

Afilias argues that the auction should be voided because ICANN failed to sufficiently investigate links between Verisign and the winning bidder. ICANN denies any wrongdoing.

It’s widely believed that .web is the strongest potential competitor to Verisign’s .com, and its attempt to secure the string is largely defensive.

The IRP case heard several days of testimony in August and the panel retired to consider its decision.

Verisign sells a million more domains than it did last year

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign has posted third-quarter financial results that were strong in spite of, or possibly due to, the economic impact of the coronovirus pandemic.

The company sold 10.9 million new .com and .net domains in the quarter to September 30, a million more than the same period last year.

This led to a net sequential increase in total .com/.net registrations of 1.65 million. It ended the quarter with 163.7 million names under management.

This strong performance led Verisign to increase its guidance for the full year. It now says domain growth will be between 3.5% and 4% compared to 2019.

That represents an increase from 2.75% at the low end of the range the company predicted three months ago and a lowered expectation of 2% in April.

CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts that there’s still some coronavirus-related uncertainty, along with the usual Q4 seasonable weakness, baked into the guidance, despite two consecutive quarters of decent growth.

Renewal rates, which were their lowest for years in Q2, recovered slightly, up from 72.8% to 73.5%.

For Q3, Verisign reported net income of $171 million, compared to $154 million a year ago, on revenue that was up 3.1% at $318 million. The bottom line was aided by $24 million in tax benefits.

Bidzos repeated the company’s commitment to not raise .com prices until March, while confirmed that its fee will definitely go up at some point over the next 12 months.

The internet just got its first proper new gTLD of the year, and the timing couldn’t be worse

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2020, Domain Registries

The DNS root zone has just had its first non-branded TLD delegation of the year, and the midst of a highly virulent pandemic is probably the worst possible time for its niche.

It’s .spa, newly assigned to a Malaysian company called Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council.

Spas, of course, are at the top of every government’s list when it comes to sectors that get shut down at the first whiff of virus.

Unlike restaurants and bars, which drove registrations of gTLDs such as .bar in the locked-down second quarter, spa services are not something that can easily be adapted to take-out or home delivery.

.spa has taken this long to reach the root largely due to to a fight with rival applicant Donuts.

ASWPC, backed by spas worldwide and the Belgian government (which claimed geographical protection because spas are named after the town of Spa) applied as a Community Priority Evaluation applicant, and won its CPE.

The company has said it will donate 25% of its profits to the town of Spa.

Donuts fought the CPE decision, preventing ASWPC from proceeding for three years, before backing off without explanation two years ago.

Hopefully, by the time .spa is properly ready to launch, its niche will be approaching some kind of normality.

It’s the fourth root delegation this year, after Amazon’s three dot-brands.

That .sucks weirdness? Worse than I thought

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2020, Domain Registries

A business plan to turn .sucks into a massive Wikipedia-style gripe site, described by trademark lawyers five years ago as a “shakedown”, has reared it ugly head again.

You may recall that earlier this week I reported how somebody had registered many hundreds of .sucks domain names and listed them for sale on secondary market web sites at cost price. It looked weird, almost as if the registry or an affiliate was the registrant, which the registry denied.

It turns out I only told you half the story, for which I can only apologize.

At the time, the domains in question were not resolving for me, probably due to my terrible, block-happy ISP. But now they are resolving, and they reveal the return of Everything.sucks, a plan first floated by the .sucks registry in 2015.

It’s a network of hundreds of .sucks micro gripe-sites, each targeted to a specific brand and each each populated with content scraped, usually without citation, from Wikipedia, social media, and consumer-review aggregator web sites.

Here’s where jackdaniels.sucks takes you, for example (click to enlarge).

Jack Daniels sucks

The description of the company is taken from Wikipedia. The customer comments below are taken from reviews of an apparently unrelated company called The Whisky Exchange published by TrustPilot, and the social media posts have been pulled from Instagram users deploying the hashtag #jackdanielssucks.

Other pages on the site seem to scrape content from GlassDoor, a site where employees review their employers.

While there’s nothing wrong with gripe sites, automating their creation over hundreds or even thousands of brands that you don’t genuinely have gripes with seems, charitably, churlish.

And these gripe sites are — or at least were — being monetized.

You’ll see a banner ad in the top-right corner of the above screen-grab, offering jackdaniels.sucks for sale. The link took you to a page on Sedo that offers the domain for sale with a buy-now price of $199 (the same as the registry’s wholesale fee).

Banners on other pages led to landers on GoDaddy-owned Uniregistry.com with prices of $599.

These banners, which appeared on every brand’s page that I checked, seem to have disappeared at some point over the last two days. I’m sure the change is unrelated to the fact that I started asking .sucks registry Vox Populi and parent Momentous difficult questions about these trademark-match domains on Wednesday.

While UDRP panels have disagreed over the years, there’s precedent dating back two decades that “trademarksucks.tld” domains with sites that contain genuine, non-commercial criticism can confer legitimate rights to the registrant and are therefore NOT cybersquatting.

I doubt a site that actively tries to sell the domain name in question for above out-of-pocket costs could be considered non-commercial.

Still, it looks like those banners are gone now, and I can’t find any other examples of obvious monetization.

I use jackdaniels.sucks as an example here as it’s the site I took a screenshot of before the changes, but there are many hundreds of similar trademark-match domains being used to feed traffic to Everything.sucks.

I note that unitedinternet.sucks, named after the parent company of Sedo, is for sale for $199 on Sedo and leads to a gripe site on Everything.sucks containing less-than-complimentary remarks. It’s for sale at $599 on Uniregistry.

But who is Everything.sucks?

The concept itself originates with the .sucks registry itself. Before the TLD launched in 2015, it floated the idea to a tsunami of criticism from trademark owners.

The plan back then was to sell .sucks domains for .com prices — a discount of a couple hundred dollars — but only to registrants unaffiliated with the trademark owner. These registrants would have had to forward their domains to an Everything.sucks-branded discussion forum.

Back then, Vox Pop said it planned to work with a non-for-profit third party on this initiative.

That third party never materialized, and later in 2015 appeared to mutate into a system called This.sucks, operated by a company called This.sucks Ltd, which took over the Everything.sucks domain name.

This.sucks sold .sucks domains for $12 a year, with the domains pointing to a forum/blogging platform that the company hoped to monetize.

Both This.sucks and Vox Pop denied there was any link between the two companies, but I later uncovered a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence linking the two companies, including the fact that Rob Hall, CEO of Vox Pop parent Momentous, paid for This.sucks’ web site design.

This.sucks appears to have fizzled out in the intervening years, but now Everything.sucks is back with a mystery registrant snapping up thousands of domains, at a cost of at least half a million bucks, under the Everything.sucks brand.

Public Whois is useless nowadays, of course.

But the front page of Everything.sucks describes it as “a non-profit organization and communications forum for social activism”.

Many of the domains that redirect to its site appear to be registered to a Turks and Caicos company called Honey Salt Ltd, a name that does not naturally suggest a non-profit entity.

Others use Momentous’ domain privacy service. All appear to be registered via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, which sells .sucks domains at cost and is therefore one of the cheapest registrars on the market.

Back in 2015, intellectual property interests expressed doubt that the proposed Everything.sucks third party and the This.sucks third party were not in fact just smokescreens, fronts for the registry itself.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard on Wednesday denied to DI that the company had any involvement in the recent spurt of trademark-match registrations being used by Everything.sucks and expressed a lack of knowledge about the registrant’s intent.

I’ve not yet received comment from Momentous, but I’d be very surprised if the company does not know who is behind Everything.sucks.

At the very least, Vox Pop and Rebel are both privy to the unexpurgated Whois and/or customer records for whoever is running Everything.sucks and whoever it is that has grown the .sucks zone file by about 50% since June.

Something weird’s going on at .sucks

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Ever heard of a domainer or cybersquatter putting their freshly-registered domains up for sale at cost?

Me neither, but that’s what seems to be going on at .sucks right now.

The sudden appearance of many hundreds of .sucks domains — many of them matching very famous trademarks — at Sedo and Uniregistry comes as the registry unveils plans to open up a secondary marketplace of its own.

.sucks registry Vox Populi, a part of the Momentous group of companies, wants to open its own marketplace, according to a letter it recently sent to ICANN.

The registry told ICANN it plans to launch a service “whereby a Registrant of a .sucks domain name can list their domain for resale with the Registry”, saying it will “allow our Registrars to show the domain as available for purchase by third parties at the price set by the current Registrant.”

It’s taking a somewhat confrontational approach from the outset, telling ICANN that it does not believe the service would constitute a “registry service” that would require ICANN’s approval under the Registry Service Evaluation Process.

It points to the fact that registrants can already list their .sucks names on existing marketplaces such as Sedo as proof that it’s not a “product or service that only a registry operator is capable of providing, by reason of its designation as the registry operator” requiring the RSEP.

This interpretation strikes me as open to debate, but I’m not going to get into that here.

What’s more interesting is that the vast majority of the domains listed on these competing platforms appear to have been registered relatively recently, in bulk, all via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, and quite possibly by the same registrant.

What’s weird is that the majority of the .sucks names listed at Sedo have a buy-now price of $199. Some are priced higher. Some priced at $199 at Sedo are priced at $599 at Uniregistry.

$199 is the absolute cheapest you can buy a .sucks domain name anywhere. It’s Rebel’s retail price, and I believe it’s also Vox Pop’s wholesale price. Even the cheapest unaffiliated registrars slap a $50 markup on the registry fee.

The domains started being listed on the aftermarkets after a sharp spike in .sucks sales back in June, where my data shows that over 2,000 names were registered, via Rebel, in the space of about 24 hours.

The .sucks zone file has been growing ever since, swelling from 7,347 — where volume had been flattish and under 8,000 names for years — to 11,255 since June 16, the date of the first spike.

Almost every .sucks listing I spot-checked on Sedo has three things in common: the $199 price-tag, a recent registration date, and a seller who signed up for the service in 2020 submitting their home territory as Turks and Caicos.

Turks and Caicos, which is also where Rebel is legally based, is a British island territory in the Caribbean with fewer than 38,000 inhabitants. It’s often used for offshore company registrations.

Whois records for the domains I checked with June reg dates use Momentous privacy service Privacy Hero, while other more-recent regs list the registrant as Honey Salt Ltd, a company apparently also based in Turks and Caicos.

So what we seem to have here is a registrant willing to invest half a million dollars or more in .sucks domain names, a great many matching famous brands, and then list them for resale at the exact same price he paid for them.

Why would a cybersquatter pay $199 for jackdaniels.sucks or dolceandgabbana.sucks or unitedinternetmedia.sucks and then put them up for sale for $199? It makes no sense to me.

And it comes at a time when Vox Pop is trying to persuade ICANN that there’s a thriving aftermarket for .sucks domains.

I put all these observations to the CEOs of Momentous and the registry earlier today, and Vox Pop chief John Berard got back to us to say:

With regard to those 2,000 registered names, that was most welcome. I don’t know much more than that about Honey Salt… I am certainly not going to speculate on their plans.

That they are in the Turks and Caicos is interesting, for sure. But you know as well as I that the Caribbean is a hotbed of domain name innovation and investment.

He later added: “Yes, take it to the bank that VPR [Vox Populi Registry] is not behind the registrations.”

On the issue of the registry’s own secondary market plans, Berard said:

we are trying to catch up to others in the domain name industry who first saw the customer value of fostering a secondary market. I think we may be the first registry to do it, but we, i am sorry to say, weren’t the first to market.

If I receive more information or commentary on this weirdness I shall provide updates accordingly.

Are 25x price increases on the cards as XYZ corners the cars market?

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Grab-happy registry XYZ.com has expanded its stable of strings to 22 after buying five little-used gTLDs from Dominion Registries.

It recently came into control of .autos, .motorcycles, .homes, .yachts, and .boats, CEO Daniel Negari confirmed earlier this week.

Following XYZ’s buyout of .auto, .car and .cars from former joint venture partner UNR a couple months back, it seems the company now pretty much has a lock on the English-language automotive domain market.

This raises the question, so far unanswered by the registry, about whether .autos registrants could be about to face some of the steepest price increases the new gTLD market has seen to date.

XYZ’s .auto, .car and .cars currently command among the highest base prices in the market — about $2,500 at retail for a basic, non-premium name — while .autos has been chugging along at $100 per domain per year.

It would make perfect sense for the registry to give its new acquisition a 25x price increase to align it with the rest of the automotive portfolio, but so far the company is tight-lipped on the subject.

Fortunately, the current pool of .autos registrants is quite small — a little over 400 names, about the same as .auto but a couple hundred ahead of .cars and .car — so there would not be many customers to piss off.

Indeed, three of the other TLDs XYZ just bought have what you might generously call “growth potential”.

The only one of the five gTLDs to have more than 500 domains under management is .homes, which has more than 13,000.

With XYZ’s broader channel reach and superior marketing prowess, there’s certainly upside on the horizon.

.gay and Star Trek star troll the right to promote new gTLD

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Registries

.gay registry Top Level Design has latched onto a social media trolling trend to promote the gTLD shortly after its launch.

The registry has created the web site TheProudBoys.gay, with the support of Star Trek actor and gay rights activist George Takei, as part of a broader social media effort to shame an American far-right group called The Proud Boys.

The Proud Boys is a political collective active in North America, widely regarded as far-right, neo-fascist, and sometimes a “hate group” or “white-supremacist”.

Whether it’s overtly homophobic is probably open to question — the group denies the charge — but in the US if you’re on the far right it’s usually implicit you do not support gay rights.

The Proud Boys are are probably most famous due to the first US Presidential debate last month, when Donald Trump declined to condemn the group with sufficient clarity.

After the debate, Takei suggested on Twitter that people who support gay rights post images of gay people doing gay things on social media using the hashtag #proudboys.

Sure enough, the hashtag was shortly dominated by photos of men kissing each other, or dressed in revealing leather outfits. It was really quite funny.

And then Top Level Design put up its web site on a .gay domain, which compiles some of these social media posts alongside a post condemning the Proud Boys.

The registry said it wants to “create a positive online space that celebrates this new community and galvanizes voters”, presumably referring to the imminent US Presidential election.

Takei seemed to endorse the site on Twitter, and Top Level Design suggested he had endorsed it.

While I find this all very funny, I have to wonder whether it’s strictly within .gay’s stated goals.

Top Level Design has said that it won’t allow bullying in its TLD.

I assumed that meant that if somebody used a .gay domain to “out” somebody not gay or not ready to come out, the domain would be suspended.

In this case the domain appears to be being used to imply plainly straight people are gay, which just feels wrong to me.

Forty weddings and a funeral? .wed is dead but may come up for auction

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Registries

.wed has become the first commercial, open, non-branded new gTLD to have its registry contract unilaterally terminated by ICANN, and it could soon be looking for a new home.

ICANN terminated the contract with US-based Atgron last week, almost three years after imposing emergency measures to protect registrants after the company’s business model failed miserably.

The company wanted to provide a space for engaged couples to promote their weddings for about $50 a year, but its business model was based around basically forcing registrants to abandon their names by charging a $30,000 renewal fee after year two.

Unsurprisingly, it attracted few registrants — about 300 at its 2016 peak — and only one registrar.

By the time the end of 2017 rolled around, it was languishing at 39 domains (for the purposes of a whimsical headline, let’s round it up to 40) and its agreement with its back-end registry operator was on the verge of expiring.

In the hope of keeping its customers’ domains working, Atgron turned off its Whois for a week, attracting the attention of ICANN and triggering a criterion for transitioning to an Emergency Back-End Registry Operator.

It’s been on an EBERO, in this case Nominet, since December 2017, with all domains essentially frozen.

In the meanwhile, it’s been fighting against contract termination with ICANN, first in mediation and then in arbitration.

Last month, the arbitrator ruled that Atgron was in breach for failure to pay its ICANN fees, and ICANN terminated the registry agreement October 5.

.wed is certainly not the first new gTLD to get terminated by ICANN — there’s been about a dozen to date — but it is the first to be a non-dot-brand.

This means ICANN will get to test its Registry Transition Process for the first time.

When a dot-brand dies, ICANN just removes it from the root and lets it stay dead on the grounds that there’s no plausible successor and no registrants will suffer.

In this case, we’re talking about an open, non-branded gTLD with a generic string that could potentially rack up many thousands of registrations.

There’d be no obligation for a future operator to take on the silly business model.

The Registry Transition Process will go one of two ways.

If Atgron has already picked a successor registry, ICANN will conduct a series of evaluations that look like they would be a piece of cake for any existing gTLD portfolio owner to pass.

But if Atgron has no heir apparent, it goes to an RFP which basically amounts to an auction, with the company prepared to pay Atgron the most money becoming the company’s presumed preferred successor.

With Atgron still owing ICANN money — presumably hundreds of thousands of dollars — in past-due fees, I’ve little doubt what ICANN’s preferred outcome would be.

For Atgron, there’s the distinct possibility that it could make more money from crashing .wed into the ground than it ever did by actually selling domains.

.wed is not a bad string — it’s short, meaningful, and has a niche of potential registrants already forced to overpay for almost everything else — and I’m fairly confident it could easily find a new home at an existing registry.