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ICANN urged to reject .com price increases

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

The Internet Commerce Association has asked ICANN to refuse to allow Verisign to raise its wholesale prices for .com domain names.

The domainer trade group wrote to ICANN last week to point out that just because the Trump administration has dropped the US government objection to controlled price increases, that doesn’t necessarily mean ICANN has to agree.

Verisign’s deal with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration “does not of course, compel ICANN to agree to any such increases. Any such decision regarding .com pricing
remains with ICANN” ICA general counsel Zak Muscovitch wrote.

The deal allows Verisign to increase the price of .com registrations, renewals and transfers by 7% per year in four of the next six years, leading to a compound 30% increase by the time it concludes.

The arguments put forth Muscovitch’s letter are pretty much the same as the arguments ICA made when it was lobbying NTIA to maintain the price freeze.

Namely: Verisign already makes a tonne of money from .com, it has a captive audience, it cannot claim credit for .com’s success, and .com is not constrained by competition.

“As NTIA makes clear, it is up to Verisign to request a fee increase and ICANN that may agree or disagree. ICANN should not agree. Indeed, it would be a dereliction of ICANN’s responsibilities to the ICANN community if Verisign were permitted to raise its fees when it is already very well paid for the services which it provides,” Muscovitch’s letter (pdf) concludes.

For many years ICANN has been reluctant to get involved in price regulation. It remains to be seen whether it will make an exception for .com.

Nominet takes down 32,000 domains for IP infringement

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

The number of .uk domains suspended by Nominet has doubled over the last year, almost entirely due to takedown requests concerning intellectual property.

The .uk registry said this week that it suspended 32,813 domains in the 12 months to October 31, up from 16,632 in the year-ago period.

It’s the fourth year in a row that the number of suspensions has more than doubled. In 2014, it was a paltry 948.

While Nominet has trusted notifier relationships with 10 law enforcement agencies, it’s the Police Intellectual Property Crimes Unit that is responsible for almost all of the takedown requests, 32,669 this year.

No court order or judicial review is required. Nominet simply carries out unspecified “administrative checks” then suspends the domain.

Only 114 domains did not make the cut this year, Nominet said, but that’s up considerably from 32 last year.

There’s an appeals mechanism that can be used by registrants to restore their domains, for example if they’ve removed the infringing content. It was used successfully 16 times in the year, up by one on last year.

The registry also reported that no domains were suspended due to its ban on incitement-to-rape domains, down from two last year, but that staff had to manually review 2,717 new registrations containing suspect strings.

Hebrew .com off to a slow start

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

The Hebrew transliteration of .com has only sold a couple hundred domains since it went into general availability.

Verisign took the new gTLD קום. (Hebrew is a right-to-left script, so the dot comes after the string) to market November 5, when it had about 3,200 domains in its zone file. It now stands around the 3,400 mark.

The pre-GA domains are a combination of a few hundred sunrise regs and a few thousand exact-match .coms that were grandfathered in during a special registration period.

It’s not a stellar performance out of the gates, but Hebrew is not a widely-spoken language and most of its speakers are also very familiar with the Latin script.

There are between seven and nine million Hebrew speakers in the world, according to Wikipedia. It doesn’t make the top 100 languages in the world.

The ccTLD for Israel, where most of these speakers live, reports that it currently has 246,795 .il domains under management. That’s a middling amount when compared to similarly sized countries such as Serbia (about 100,000 names) and Switzerland (over 2 million).

Verisign’s original application for this transliteration had to be corrected, from קום. to קוֹם. If you can tell the difference, you have better eyesight than me.

In the root, the gTLD is Punycoded as .xn--9dbq2a.

Incel hate site jumps to Iceland after doMEn suspends .me domain

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

Incels.me, a web forum that hosts misogynist rants by “involuntarily celibate” men, has found a new home after .me registry doMEn suspended its domain.

The web site has reappeared, apparently unscathed, under Iceland’s .is domain, at incels.is.

doMEn said in a blog post yesterday that it had suspended incels.me at the registry level due to the owner “allowing part of its members to continuously promote violence and hate speech”.

The suspension happened October 15, and the site reappeared in .is not long after. It’s not entirely clear why doMEn chose to explain its decision over a month later. It said:

The decision to suspend the domain was made after the .ME Registry exhausted all other possibilities that could assure us that the registrant of incels.me domain and the owner of i
incels.me forum was able to remove the subject content and prevent the same or similar content from appearing on the forum again.

An “incel” is a man who has decided that he is too ugly, charmless, short, stupid or otherwise unattractive, and is therefore permanently unfuckable.

While that may provoke sympathetic thoughts, a great many of the incels frequenting sites like incels.me choose to channel their frustration into cartoonish misogyny ranging from the laughable to the extremely disturbing.

While the registry didn’t mention it, the site also has many threads that appear to encourage suicide.

doMEn seems to have turned off the domain because certain threads crossed the line from misogyny to incitement to violence against women.

The Montenegro-based company said it had been monitoring the site since May, after being told that “certain members” of the forum “might have been involved in or associated with” an attack in Toronto that killed 10 people in April, a charge the incels.is admin denies.

The second reason given — preventing content appearing in future — may be the crux here.

The site’s administrator said in a post on the new site that he had personally removed all of the threads highlighted by doMEN as being in violation of its registry policies.

He also posted a partial email thread between himself and his former registrar, China-based NiceNIC.net, in which he explains how difficult it is to monitor all the content posted by his users. He wrote on the forum:

They obviously weren’t going to give us a fair shake either way, and we’re not going to search through 1.6 MILLION posts nor do we have the technological capabilities to check to see if any of them are against their vague anti-abuse policy.

Domain registries have no place in enforcing arbitrary rules against domains that go against their ideology.

It seems from the thread that Afilias, 37%-owner of doMEn and .me back-end provider, had a hands-on role in the suspension.

Incels certainly isn’t the first controversial site to have to resort to TLD-hopping to stay alive.

The most notable example is piracy site KickAssTorrents, which bounced from ccTLD to ccTLD for years before finally being shut down by the US Feds.

The incels.is admin said he had confidence in Iceland’s registry due to “their stance as pro free-speech enforcers”.

But ISNIC is not above suspending domains when the associated sites break Icelandic law. Four years ago it took down some domains associated with ISIS.

The takedown comes not long after GoDaddy attracted attention for suspending the domain of far-right Twitter clone Gab.com, again due to claims of incitement to violence related to an act of domestic terrorism.

Bad.monster? Two more gTLDs have been acquired

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2018, Domain Registries

Two more new gTLDs have changed hands, DI has learned.

XYZ.com has picked up former dot-brand .monster from recruitment web site Monster.com, while newbie registry Intercap Holdings has acquired .dealer from Dealer.com.

Both ICANN contracts were reassigned last month.

Neither acquiring company has announced their purchases or published their launch plans yet.

That said, XYZ has already registered a few intriguing domains: bad.monster, good.monster, my.monster and go.monster.

It appears that go.monster — slogan: “It’s Alive!” — will be the registry’s launch site. It’s the only one I could get to resolve.

It’s the second example I can think of of a dot-brand gTLD being acquired by a registry that intends to run it as a generic.

In 2016, Top Level Spectrum acquired .observer from the newspaper of the same name.

Most dot-brands that don’t want their TLDs any more choose to retire them. That number is up to 45 now.

.dealer wasn’t technically a dot-brand — it had no Spec 13 in its contract — but its 2012 application certainly made it look like a dot-brand, with most of the domains reserved for Dealer.com and its affiliates. It looked defensive.

Shayam Rostam, chief registry officer of ICH, told me the plan for .dealer is to primarily target car dealers (also its former owner’s market) but that it will be unrestricted and open to all comers.

Intercap wants to get its January launch of .inc out of the way before turning its attention to .dealer, so we’re probably looking at mid-late 2019 for a launch, Rostam said.

It also needs to do some housekeeping such as moving the TLD to Uniregistry’s back-end.

What do y’all think about these TLDs? Could .monster be the next .guru? Could .dealer find a home in the burgeoning legal cannabis market? Comment below!

First non-brand gTLD to go dark

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2018, Domain Registries

The number of new gTLDs to voluntarily terminate their ICANN contracts has hit 45, with the first non-brand calling it quits.

It’s a geo-gTLD, .doha, which was meant to represent the Qatari capital of Doha.

There were no registered domains. Despite being delegated in March 2015, it never launched.

The registry was the country’s Communications Regulatory Authority, which also runs local ccTLD .qa.

No reason was given for the request — registries are allowed to terminate their contracts for any reason, with notice.

The registry’s web site hasn’t been updated in some time, so perhaps resources are an issue.

Given Doha is a protected geographic term, it’s unlikely to return in future unless the government changes its mind in future application rounds.

Dot-brand gTLDs to go the same way since I last reported the number include .blanco, .spiegel, .bond, .epost, .active and .zippo.

Two controversial new gTLDs launching in January

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2018, Domain Registries

Five years after the first batch of new gTLDs hit the market, registries continue to drip-feed them into the internet.

At least two more are due to launch on January 16 — .dev and .inc.

.dev is the latest of Google’s portfolio to be released, aimed at the software developer market.

It proved controversial briefly when it first was added to the DNS in 2014, causing headaches for some developers who were already using .dev domains on their private networks.

Four years is plenty of time for all of these collisions to have been cleaned up, however, so I can’t imagine many problems emerging when people start buying these names.

.dev starts a one-month sunrise January 16, sells at early access prices from February 19 to 28 before going to regular-price general availability.

Google has already launched one of its own products, web.dev, a testing tool for web developers, on a .dev domain.

Launching with a pretty much identical phased launch plan is .inc, from new market entrant Intercap Holdings, a Caymans-based subsidiary of a Toronto firm founded by .tv founder Jason Chapnik and managed by .xyz alumnus Shayan Rostam.

Intercap bought the .inc contract from Edmon Chong’s GTLD Limited earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. GTLD Ltd is believed to have paid in excess of $15 million for the TLD at auction.

.inc has proved controversial in the past, attracting criticism from states attorneys general in the US, which backed another bidder.

It may prove controversial in future, too. I have a hunch it’s going to attract more than its fair share of cybersquatters and will probably do quite well out of defensive registration fees.

Afilias bought .io for $70 million

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2018, Domain Registries

Did you know Afilias owns .io? I didn’t, but it paid $70 million for the popular alternative TLD 18 months ago.

A recently published financial statement in Ireland shows that the company spent $70.17 million cash — a 10x revenue multiple — for 100% of Internet Computer Bureau Ltd in April 2017.

ICB runs .io, .ac and .sh, the ccTLDs for the British Indian Ocean Territories (.io), Ascension Island (.ac), and Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan Da Cunha (.sh).

Afilias has never publicly announced the deal, and I haven’t seen it reported elsewhere, so I thought it was worth blogging up here.

At the time, the deal was characterized to registrars as a back-end contract win.

But it seems that Afilias actually purchased the back-end provider, then migrated (not as smoothly as it usually does) the TLDs over to its own infrastructure.

That would have opened up .io to all the registrars already plugged in to Afilias’ TLDs, potentially greatly increasing its reach.

But it’s probably not just the back-end Afilias has acquired.

Would a registry service provider spend 10 times annual revenue on a ccTLD back-end contractor, unless it had a damn good reason to believe that it would be able to at least recoup its investment, either through a long-term contract or some other mechanism?

It’s quite possible Afilias actually bought the .io ccTLD Manager.

The ccTLD Manager listed by ICANN in the IANA database is “IO Top Level Domain Registry”, but “c/o Sure (Diego Garcia) Limited”. That changed a week or so ago from “IO Top Level Domain Registry, Cable & Wireless”

Sure is the arm of telecommunications firm Cable & Wireless that provides internet access to remote islands in various parts of the world.

I don’t know what “IO Top Level Domain Registry” is.

Afilias tells me confidentiality arrangements are in place.

.io has proven popular as a TLD for technology startup companies that couldn’t get the .com they wanted.

Across its small portfolio, ICB was a $6.9 million business last year, but .io, with a reported 270,000 domains, must account for the large majority of that.

Due to the timing of the deal, ICB contributed $5.3 million to Afilias’ top line and was the main reason its revenue grew last year, its 2017 accounts reveal.

In 2017, Afilias saw revenue grow from $106.7 million to $113.6 million. Profit before tax was down slightly, from $38.6 million to $36 million

Again, that was due largely to ICB, which contributed $1.4 million of red ink to the bottom line.

Afilias is a private company, by the way, which is why these numbers all refer to 2017. It’s the final full year of it being based in Ireland, before its move to the US for tax reasons.

The disclosure also reveals that Afilias took a 45% stake in Dot Global, manager of the .global gTLD registry, in December 2017.

Dot Global had revenue of $1.9 million and a $320,000 loss last year, the report states.

doMEn, the Montenegro ccTLD (.me) operator in which Afilias has a 36.85% share, made a profit of $2.59 million on revenue of $7.39 million, it says. Both of those numbers were down slightly on 2016.

Afilias also says in the filing that it expects revenue to be down in 2018, due to the renegotiation of back-end contracts. I gather the contract with Public Interest Registry, which reportedly could cost about $10 million a year, is the main problem.

Given the accounts were signed off in May this year, it seems that this decline is expected despite the lucrative .au ccTLD contract, which Afilias signed at the end of 2017.

Will ICANN take a bigger slice of the .com pie, or will .domainers get URS?

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Will ICANN try to get its paws on some of Verisign’s .com windfall? Or might domainers get a second slap in the face by seeing URS imposed in .com?

With Verisign set to receive hundreds of millions of extra dollars due to the imminent lifting of .com price caps, it’s been suggested that ICANN may also financially benefit from the arrangement.

In a couple of blog posts Friday, filthy domain scalper Andrew Allemann said that ICANN will likely demand higher fees from Verisign in the new .com registry agreement.

Will it though? I guess it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty by any means.

Verisign currently pays ICANN $0.25 per transaction, the same as almost all other gTLDs. Technically, there’s no reason this could not be renegotiated.

Putting aside some of the legacy gTLD contracts, I can only think of two significant cases of ICANN imposing higher fees on a registry.

The first was .xxx, which was signed in 2011. That called for ICM Registry, now part of MMX, to pay $2 per transaction, eight times the norm.

The rationale for this was that ICANN thought (or at least said it thought) that .xxx was going to be a legal and compliance minefield. It said it envisaged higher costs for overseeing the then-controversial TLD.

There was a school of thought that ICANN was just interested in opportunistically boosting its own coffers, given that ICM was due to charge over $60 per domain per year — at the time a ludicrously high amount.

But risk largely failed to materialize, and the two parties last year renegotiated the fees down to $0.25.

The second instance was .sucks, another controversial TLD. In that case, ICANN charged registry Vox Populi a $100,000 upfront fee and per-transaction fees of $1 per domain for the first 900,000 transactions, four times more than the norm.

While some saw this as a repeat of the .xxx legal arse-covering tactic, ICANN said it was actually in place to recoup a bunch of money that Vox Pop owner Momentous still owed when it let a bunch of its drop-catch registrars go out of business a couple years earlier.

While the .sucks example clearly doesn’t apply to Verisign, one could make the case that the .xxx example might.

It’s possible, I guess, that ICANN could make the case that Verisign’s newly regained ability to raise prices opens it up to litigation risk — something I reckon is certainly true — and that it needs to increase its fees to cover that risk.

It might be tempting. ICANN has a bit of a budget crunch at the moment, and a bottomless cash pit like Verisign would be an easy source of funds. A transaction fee increase of four cents would have been enough to cover the $5 million budget shortfall it had to deal with earlier this year.

On the other hand, it could be argued that ICANN demanding more money from Verisign would unlevel the playing field, inviting endless litigation from Verisign itself.

ICANN’s track record with legacy gTLDs has been to reduce, rather than increase, their transaction fees.

Pre-2012 gTLDs such as .mobi, .jobs, .cat and .travel have all seen their fees reduced to the $0.25 baseline in recent years, sometimes from as high as $2.

In each of these cases, the registries concerned had to adopt many provisions of the standard 2012 new gTLD registry agreement including, controversially, the Uniform Rapid Suspension service.

Domainers hate the URS, which gives trademark owners greater powers to take away their domains, and the Internet Commerce Association (under the previous stewardship of general counsel Phil Corwin, since hired by Verisign) unsuccessfully fought against URS being added to .mobi et al over the last several years, on the basis that eventually it could worm its way into .com.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that ICANN might reduce Verisign’s fees, but what if URS is the price the registry has to pay for its massive .com windfall?

It’s not as if Verisign has any love for domainers, despite the substantial contribution they make to its top line.

Since the NTIA deal was announced, it’s already calling them “scalpers” and driving them crazy.

ICA lost the .com price freeze fight last week, could it also be about to lose the URS fight?

Trump gives Verisign almost $1 billion in free money

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

The Trump administration may have just handed Verisign close to $1 billion in free money.

That’s according to the back of the envelope I’m looking at right now, following the announcement that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is reinstating Verisign’s right to increase .com registry fees.

As you may have read elsewhere already (I was off sick last week, sorry about that) a new amendment to the Verisign-NTIA Cooperative Agreement restores Verisign’s ability to raise prices by 7% per year in four of the six years of the deal.

The removal of the Obama-era price freeze still needs to be incorporated into Verisign’s ICANN contract, but it’s hard to imagine ICANN, which is generally loathe to get into pricing regulation, declining to take its lead from NTIA.

Verisign would also have to choose to exercise its option to increase prices in each of the four years. I think the probability of this happening is 1 in 1.

Layering this and a bunch of other assumptions into a spreadsheet, I’m coming up with a figure of roughly an extra $920 million that Verisign will get to add to its top line over the next six years.

Again, this isn’t an in-depth study. Just back-of-the-envelope stuff. I’ll talk you through my thinking.

Not counting its occasional promotions, Verisign currently makes $7.85 for every year that a .com domain is added or renewed, and for every inter-registrar transfer.

In 2017, .com saw 40.89 million add-years, 84.64 million renew-years and 3.79 million transfers, according to official registry reports.

This all adds up to 129,334,643 revenue events for Verisign, or just a tad over $1 billion at $7.85 a pop.

Over the four-year period of the price increases transaction fees will go up to $8.40, then $8.99, then $9.62, then $10.29. I’m rounding up to the nearest penny here, it’s possible Verisign may round down.

If we assume zero transaction growth, that’s already an extra $762.2 million into Verisign’s coffers over the period of the contract.

But the number of transactions inevitably grows each year — more new domains are added, and some percentage of them renew.

Between 2016 and 2017, transaction growth was 3.16%.

If we assume the same growth each year for the next six years, the difference between Verisign’s total revenue at $7.85 and at the new pricing comes to $920 million.

Verisign doesn’t have to do anything for this extra cash, it just gets it.

Indeed, the new NTIA deal is actually less restrictive on the company. It allows Verisign to acquire or start up an ICANN-accredited gTLD registrar, something it is currently banned from doing, just as long as that registrar does not sell .com domains.

Verisign’s .net contract also currently bans the company from owning more than 15% of a registrar, so presumably that agreement would also need to be amended in order for Verisign to get into the registrar business.

I say again that my math here is speculative; I’m a blogger, not a financial analyst. There may be some incorrect assumptions — I’ve not accounted for promotions at all, for example, and the 3.16% growth assumption might not be fair — and there are of course many variables that could move the needle.

But the financial markets know a sweetheart deal when they see one, and Verisign’s share price went up 17.2% following the news, reportedly reaching heights not seen since since the dwindling days of the dot-com bubble 18 years ago.

The reason given for the lifting of the price freeze was, for want of a better word, bullshit. From the NTIA’s amendment:

In recognition that ccTLDs, new gTLDs, and the use of social media have created a more dynamic DNS marketplace, the parties agree that the yearly price for the registration and renewal of domain names in the .com registry may be changed

Huh?

This seems to imply that Verisign has somehow been disproportionately harmed by the rise of social media, the appearance of new gTLDs and some unspecified change in the ccTLD marketplace.

While it’s almost certainly true that .net has taken a whack due to competition from new gTLDs, and that the domain marketplace overall may have been diminished by many small businesses spurning domains by choosing to set up shop on, say, Facebook, .com is still a growing money-printing machine with some of the fattest margins seen anywhere in the business world and about a 40% global market share.

If the Trump administration’s goal here is to make some kind of ideological statement about free markets, then why not just lift the price caps altogether? Give Verisign the right to price .com however it pleases?

Or maybe Trump just wants to flip the bird to Obama once more by reversing yet another of his policies?

Who knows? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.