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Will ICANN punt .xxx in Brussels?

Is ICANN set to delay approval of the proposed .xxx top-level domain – again – in Brussels?

That’s my reading of ICANN’s latest document concerning ICM Registry’s long-running and controversial battle for a porn-only TLD.

This week, ICANN submitted its summary of the public comment period that ran to May 10. It’s a fair bit shorter than the one Kieren McCarthy compiled for ICM last month.

As usual, it’s written in a fairly neutral tone. But, if you’re feeling conspiratorial, the mask does slip on occasion, perhaps giving a sense of where the .xxx application could head next.

The ICANN summary occasionally breaks from reporting what a commenter actually said in order to highlight a potential problem they did not address.

Example (my emphasis):

Only two commenters directly addressed the question of further interaction with the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) on the .XXX sTLD Application. Both of those commenters were against seeking any further input from the GAC outside of any public comment period. Neither of these commenters – nor any other – addressed the potential violation of the ICANN Bylaws that could result from the Board’s failure to properly consider the advice of the GAC

This suggests, to me, that the ICANN board will be receiving advice to the effect that further GAC input needs to be forthcoming before it can move forward with .xxx.

If this is the case, the GAC might have to produce some advice before next Friday’s board meeting if ICM has any hope of getting back around the negotiating table prior to Cartagena in December.

That’s not the only reason to believe ICANN may punt .xxx again, however. Elsewhere in the report, we read (my emphasis again):

For those in favor of proceeding with the .XXX sTLD Application, many created an alternative option – that ICM and ICANN should proceed to a contract right away. There was substantial discussion on this point in the ICM submissions. Few commenters addressed the technical realities identified within the Process Report ‐ that prompt execution of the agreement negotiated in 2007 is not feasible.

The Process Report referenced says that it is not possible to go straight into contract talks because ICM first applied for .xxx more than six years ago.

This has been a bone of contention. ICM points to .post, which was applied for at the same time as .xxx and only approved late last year, as proof that the passage of time should be no barrier.

But ICANN president Rod Beckstrom doesn’t buy that comparison. He wrote to ICM (pdf) at the end of March noting that .post was backed by the International Postal Union, whereas .xxx is “sponsored” by IFFOR, an organization created by ICM purely to act as its sponsor.

In that letter, Beckstrom talks about due diligence to make sure ICM and IFFOR still satisfy financial and technical criteria, and a review of whether .xxx “can still satisfy the requisite sponsorship criteria”.

I’ll admit that I’m breaking out the crystal ball a bit here, and I’ve been wrong before, but I don’t think it’s looking great for ICM in Brussels.

Employ Media asks ICANN for a .jobs landrush

The company behind the .jobs sponsored top-level domain wants to loosen the shackles of sponsorship by vastly liberalizing its namespace.

Employ Media has applied (pdf) to ICANN to get rid of the current restrictions on .jobs domain ownership and open hundreds of thousands of strings to the highest bidder.

The registry wants to amend its contract with ICANN to cut the text that limits .jobs domains to the exact match or abbreviation of a company name, and add:

Domain registrations are permitted for other types of names (e.g., occupational and certain geographic identifiers) in addition to the “company name” designation.

Employ Media is basically asking for the right to open the floodgates to a complete relaunch of the .jobs TLD with very few restrictions on who can register and what strings they can register.

Phase One of the relaunch would be an RFP “to invite interested parties to propose specific plans for registration, use and promotion of domains that are not their company name”.

It sounds a little like the current .co Founders Program, or the marketing initiatives Afilias and Neustar asked for to supplement the auction of their single-character domains.

In practice, I expect that this first phase is when the DirectEmployers Association would expect to grab hundreds of thousands of .jobs domains under its universe.jobs business plan, in which it intends to offer job listings tailored to “city, state, geographic region, country, occupation [and] skill”.

Phase Two would see your basic landrush auction of any premium domains left over.

Phase three would be “A first-come, first-served real-time release of any domains not registered through the RFP or auction processes.”

While I have no strong views on the merits of this particular proposal, I do think that the application and ICANN’s response to it could wind up setting the template for how to operate a bait-and-switch in ICANN’s forthcoming round of new TLD applications.

If you say you want to do one thing with your TLD, and later decide you could make more money doing another, how much will ground will ICANN give when it comes to renegotiating your contract? It will be interesting to find out.

Reactions so far from the HR community have not been positive.

Steven Rothberg of CollegeRecruiter.com wrote that the process by which Employ Media’s sponsor, the Society for Human Resource Management, approved the new proposal “stunk”.

“The only winner here is Employ Media,” he wrote.

Comments posted at ERE.net, which has been on top of this story from the beginning, express what could be easily described as outrage over Employ Media’s plans.

The comment posted by Ted Daywalt of VetJobs.com is especially worth a read.

The Employ Media proposal has been submitted under ICANN’s Registry Services Evaluation Process, which allows comments to be submitted.

WSJ reporting bogus Indian domain name market info?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that India “passed an Internet milestone of sorts” in the first quarter, when the number of .com domains registered in the country broke through 1 million.

Did it?

This is what the WSJ says:

[India] now has more than one million registered web sites using the suffixes .com or .net, according to data released today by VeriSign Inc., the U.S. company that tracks this sort of thing.

In its Domain Name Industry Brief, it reported that India now has a registered total of 1.037 million .com and .net domain names, up from about 800,000 in the same period the year before.

The number 1.037 million is terribly specific, considering that VeriSign’s Domain Name Industry Brief doesn’t say anything of the sort.

There’s nothing in the DNIB to suggest that anybody in India has ever registered a single .com domain.

The DNIB has never broken down .com registrations by location, and the Q1 report, released on Monday, doesn’t use the word “India” once.

If the WSJ numbers are accurate – the paper does appear to have interviewed a VeriSign India executive – I’m wondering how they were calculated.

It can’t be a case of tallying the number of .com domains managed by Indian registrars. Mumbai-based Directi alone has had more than a million .com names under its belt for a long time.

Could VeriSign be mining Whois records for location data?

It runs a thin registry, so it would have to reference Whois data acquired from its registrars in order to compute the numbers.

Or did the WSJ hit on unreliable sources? It seems possible.

Twitter registers t.co for URL shortener

Twitter has registered the domain name t.co, to use as a secure URL shortener.

Just minutes ago, t.co started resolving to a page containing this text:

Twitter uses the t.co domain as part of a service to protect users from harmful activity, to provide value for the developer ecosystem, and as a quality signal for surfacing relevant, interesting tweets.

The page links to a FAQ describing its current URL shortener, twt.tl.

Whois.co shows it’s registered as part of .CO Internet’s Founders’ Program, the scheme the Colombian registry put in place to plug its upcoming launch.

Under this program, companies can partner with .CO to get a free premium .co domain if they commit to promote it.

TechCrunch was previously the highest-profile site to join the program, when it registered disrupt.co.

I would say getting Twitter on board definitely beats that deal.

.CO Internet is also currently auctioning e.co for charity. Bids have already reached $24,000.

UPDATE: Twitter published a blog post on the launch. I guess they beat me by about three minutes.

“When this is rolled out more broadly to users this summer, all links shared on Twitter.com or third-party apps will be wrapped with a t.co URL,” the firm says.

Probably too soon to say for sure, but it looks like Bit.ly is kinda screwed.

Domain name industry growth slowed by China crackdown

The massive slump in Chinese domain name registrations appears to have hit the overall domain name market significantly in the first quarter 2010, slowing its growth.

According to the latest VeriSign Domain Name Industry Brief, only one million net new domains were registered across all TLDs in the period, a paltry 0.6% increase.

There were about 193 million domains active at the end of March, up from 192 million at the start of the year.

A million might seem like a lot, until you consider that the market grew by 11 million domains in the fourth quarter and by three million in the first quarter of 2009.

The slump is certainly due to the rapid decline in .cn domains.

China’s ccTLD had about 13.4 million names at the end of last year, and only 8.8 million at the end of March. April’s numbers show the decline continued, with 8.5 million names registered.

The China drag has been caused by a combination of pricing and the Draconian new identification requirements the communist government placed on the registry, CNNIC.

Chinese registrants now have to present photo ID before they can register a domain.

VeriSign’s own .com/.net business did a decent trade in the quarter, up 7% compared to the same quarter last and 2.7% on December to 99.3 million names in total.

With registrations growing by 2.7 million per month, this means VeriSign already has more than 100 million names in its com/net database.

Nominet appoints Baroness to chair

Nominet, the .uk registry manager, has hired Irene Fritchie, aka Baroness Fritchie, to be its new chair.

No, I’d never heard of her either, but apparently Fritchie is a life peer and a dame, with a seat in the House of Lords since 2005.

Her geek credentials appear to comprise her chairmanship, until last year, of the Web Science Research Initiative, a joint initiative between the University of Southampton and MIT.

So she’s on speaking terms with Tim Berners-Lee, it seems.

Fritchie replaces Bob Gilbert, who quit in March after guiding the organization through a tricky period.

A cynic would say that it’s fortuitous that Nominet now has a member of the UK legislature fighting its corner, given that the recently passed Digital Economy Act originated and was primarily written in the Lords.

The Act created powers for the British government to take over .uk if Nominet screws up by letting domainers commandeer its board.

Fritchie is a cross-bencher, meaning she is beholden to no one political party.

Nominet also said that it has appointed Piers White MBE as a non-executive director. White has a background in banking and currently sits on the board of Ordnance Survey.

ICANN’s Sword algorithm fails Bulgarian IDN test

ICANN has released version 4 of its new TLD Draft Applicant Guidebook (more on that later) and it still contains references to the controversial “Sword” algorithm.

As I’ve previously reported, this algorithm is designed to compare two strings for visual similarity to help prevent potentially confusing new TLDs being added to the root.

The DAG v4 contains the new text:

The algorithm supports the common characters in Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Devanagari, Greek, Japanese, Korean, and Latin scripts. It can also compare strings in different scripts to each other.

So I thought I’d check how highly the internationalized domain name .бг, the Cyrillic version of Bulgaria’s .bg ccTLD, scores.

As you may recall, .бг was rejected by ICANN two weeks ago due to its visual similarity to .br, Brazil’s ccTLD. As far as I know, it’s the only TLD to date that has been rejected on these grounds.

Plugging “бг” into Sword returns 24 strings that score over 30 out of 100 for similarity. Some, such as “bf” and “bt”, score over 70.

Brazil’s .br is not one of them.

Using the tool to compare “бг” directly to “br” returns a score of 26. That’s a lower score than strings such as “biz” and “org”.

I should note that the Sword web page is ambiguous about whether it is capable of comparing Cyrillic strings to Latin strings, but the new language in the DAG certainly suggests that it is.

Could litigation delay ICANN’s new TLDs?

Intellectual property lawyers are wondering aloud about the possibility of ICANN being sued in order to delay the launch of new top-level domains.

The idea was raised during a panel at the annual meeting of INTA, the International Trademark Association, in Boston yesterday, according to its daily newsletter (pdf).

Kristina Rosette of the law firm Covington & Burling reportedly “suggested litigation is a possibility to slow down the application launch. One source of litigation could be trademark owners, worried about mass cybersquatting”.

That’s reported speech, by the way, not a quote. The article does not make clear the context.

Rosette is Intellectual Property Constituency representative for North America on ICANN’s GNSO Council.

The IP community is worried that the launch of new TLDs will lead to companies splurging more money unnecessarily on defensive registrations.

The current best, arguably most optimistic guess on the new TLD timeline comes from registry hopeful Minds + Machines. M+M has applications opening next April.

A delay in the launch of new TLDs would hurt most the startup companies that intend to apply for them, and the service providers and consultants hoping to facilitate the launches.

Some of these companies make minimal revenue, are dependent on funding, and would prefer applications open sooner rather than later.

dotSport complains to ICANN about other .sports

One of the companies that intends to apply for the .sport top-level domain has written to ICANN, begging that it does not approve any TLDs for individual sports.

dotSport’s Policy Advisory Committee, which appears to think it already has rights in the .sport string, said ICANN should respect “sport solidarity”.

In other words, please don’t allow .tennis or .golf to be approved.

The company wrote:

The PAC members reiterate our concern that ICANN may be prematurely entertaining a process that will allow proliferation of names in sub-categories or individual sports, which will lead to a number of detrimental effects

The detrimental effects, referenced in this letter last August, basically boil down to the potential for user confusion and the need for defensive registrations by sports teams and personalities.

You could apply the same arguments to pretty much any potential new TLD – what would .music mean for the .hiphop community?

The dotSport PAC is filled with high-level appointees from more than half a dozen sports federations, representing sports from basketball to rugby to archery, so its views are far from irrelevant.

Its position appears to be that the DNS hierarchy should be used for taxonomic purposes, at least when it comes to sports.

It’s an argument that was floated all the way back in the 2000 round of TLD applications, and probably before.

Purely from a marketing point of view, it seems like a self-defeating objective to mandate the use of www.example.hockey.sport when www.example.hockey is an option.

The main example of such a mandatory multi-level taxonomy, the old-style .us ccTLD, was a spectacular commercial failure.

Could it be that dotSport wants to be the registry for all .sports for the price of one? It certainly appears that way.

DotAsia wants lower ICANN fees

As its active base of .asia domain name registrations continues to plummet, the DotAsia Organization wants to reduce its ICANN fees by a third.

CEO Edmon Chung has written to ICANN’s Kurt Pritz, asking if the annual transaction fee it pays per domain can be reduced from $0.75 to $0.50.

“A lower fee would enable DotAsia to invest further into meaningful community projects as well as to extend the awareness and adoption of the .ASIA domain,” Chung wrote. “The suggested amendment would also bring the fees into line with other gTLDs.”

I don’t expect the proposed changes to be especially controversial, but they do highlight how tough it is to launch a new TLD.

The .asia TLD has proved to be a bit of a damp squib, especially since the early-mover speculators started jumping ship, so the company could probably use being thrown a bone.

After .asia’s landrush, the company grew its registration base to a peak of 243,000 in April 2009, according to HosterStats.com, but it currently stands at around 183,000.