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South Africa might raise, or lower, some wholesale domain fees

ZADNA, the South African ccTLD registry, has put out a call for comments on plans to adjust the wholesale price of .za domain names.

For the last nine years, it’s had a two-tier pricing system, with registrars on its EPP registry paying a lower fee than those still on its outdated bespoke technology.

Now, the registry is talking about possibly raising the price of the EPP, which has been at ZAR 45 ($2.62) for the last five years, and/or scrapping the legacy system, where prices currently stand at ZAR 130 ($7.58).

The fee for the legacy registry has been going up for years, to encourage registrars to migrate to the more modern, efficient EPP system. Today, all but 2.5% of .za domains are on the EPP system.

While ZADNA says it has not made up its mind whether to raise, lower or freeze its fees, its consultation document (pdf) seems to pitch pretty hard for increases.

The registry argues that an hike linked to the local Consumer Price Index, which it says has gone up 21% since 2015, may be called in order to track the cost of doing business.

In terms of lowering the price, ZADNA says it may help .za become more competitive, but at the expense of its ability to invest in infrastructure.

Interested parties have until June 30 to send in their comments. A decision will be made by the end of July, and any price changes will come into effect in October,

Verisign says its coronavirus fee waivers have saved businesses millions

Verisign has decided to extend the temporary fee waiver it introduced in April for another two months, declaring the scheme a success so far.

On April 2, the company said it would no longer charge a fee when a registrant restores a domain in the period between expiration and deletion. Many registrars passed this on to their customers.

The stated goal of the offer was to help out registrants laid low by coronavirus.

“We estimate these restore fee waivers have already saved several million dollars for registrants of all types, including hard hit small businesses,” Verisign said in a blog post yesterday.

The service typically retails for around $80, so we’re talking about tens of thousands of domains that have been restored post-expiration for free over the space of two months.

Now, Verisign says the offer, which had been due to expire at the start of June, will end on August 1.

The company added that it will also waive the restore fees for names in .cc, .tv, .name and its four IDN gTLDs effective June 1.

Industry growth driven by new gTLD(s) in Q1

The number of domain names registered worldwide increased by 4.5 million in the first quarter, a sequential growth of 1.2%, largely due to new gTLDs and one new gTLD in particular, judging by Verisign’s latest data.

According to the company’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief, ShortDot’s .icu grew by 1.6 million domains during the quarter.

That’s more than half the growth of the new gTLDs as a whole, which grew by three million names to close March at 32.3 million.

.icu is one of those inexplicable, faddy Chinese phenomena. Its top registrar, West.cn, is currently selling them for the equivalent of $0.70 for the first year.

It’s now the eighth-largest TLD of any type, sitting on the DNIB league table between .org and .nl.

Fellow Chinese favorite .top was responsible for about 300,000 extra domains, though it’s lost most of that growth post-quarter, if zone files are any guide.

.xyz also appears to have had a decent quarter, growing by a couple hundred thousand names.

Verisign’s own .com contributed an additional 1.9 million domains, ending Q1 at 147.3 million. Baby brother .net was basically flat at 13.4 million.

The ccTLD space continued the decline of the last few quarters, coming in down 200,000 names at 157.4 million. Annually, ccTLDs were up by 600,000 names, however.

Overall, there were 366.8 million domain registrations in the world at the end of Q1, an increase of 14.9 million or 4.2% compared to the same moment last year.

World’s youngest country launches its Nazi-risk TLD next week

South Sudan is gearing up to launch its controversial top-level domain, .ss, on Monday.

It’s being run by the National Communication Authority for the country, which was founded in 2011 after its split from Sudan and is the world’s youngest nation.

As I noted back then, while SS was the natural and obvious choice of ISO country code, it’s potentially controversial due to the risk of it being used by modern-day Nazis in honor of Hitler’s Schutzstaffel.

Arguably, the risk nine years later is even greater due to the rise of the populist, nationalist right around the world.

So some readers may be pleased to hear that the registry is playing its launch by the book, starting with a sunrise period from June 1 to July 15. Trademark owners will have to show proof of ownership.

I’m sure Hugo Boss already has an intern with a checkbook, trademark certificate and sleeping bag outside the registry’s HQ, to be sure to be first in line on Monday.

Sunrise will be followed by a landrush period from July 17 to August 17, during which names can be acquired for a premium fee.

Immediately after that there’ll be an early access period, from August 19 to August 29, with more premium fees. General availability will begin September 1.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the direction other ccTLDs have been taking over the last decade, South Sudan has opted for a three-level structure, with registrations possible under .com.ss, .net.ss, .biz.ss, .org.ss, .gov.ss, .edu.ss, .sch.ss and .me.ss.

The com/net/biz/me versions are open to all. The others require some proof that the registrant belongs to the specific category.

The registry says it plans to make direct second-level regs available “at a later date”.

Getting your hands on a .ss domain may prove difficult.

Trademark owners won’t be able to use their regular corporate registrar (at least not directly) as NCA is only currently accredited South Sudan-based registrars. So far, only two have been accredited. Neither are also ICANN-accredited.

One is rather unfortunately called JuHub. It’s apparently using a free domain from Freenom’s .ml (Mali) and is listed as having its email at Gmail, which may not inspire confidence. Its web site does not resolve for me.

The other is NamesForUs, which is already taking pre-registration requests. No pricing is available.

The registry’s web site has also been down for most of today, and appears to have been hacked by a CBD splogger at some point, neither of which bodes well.

ICANN dissenter explains why she wanted .org sale approved

ICANN has finally published the dissenting statement made by one of its directors following the vote to deny Ethos Capital the right to acquire Public Interest Registry from the Internet Society.

Avri Doria was one of only two directors to vote against the majority on the April 30 resolution, and the only one to file a written statement for the record, which ICANN has now published (pdf). It reads:

Briefly, I believe that the contractual conditions have been met by PIR and Ethos and that they have gone beyond these required contractual conditions to offer significant public interest commitments currently missing from the current contract.

On balance after intense study of the proposal I have come to conclusion that the Public Interest of registrants and users is better served by the PICs offered by PIR, though they could
be stronger, than by forcing PIR to remain within ISOC without any guarantees on public interest related to data usage and freedom of expression.

In exchange for ICANN approval of the deal, Ethos had promised to cap its price increases at 10% for eight years and to create a largely independent stewardship council to monitor issues related to privacy and free speech in .org.

With ICANN voting to deny the acquisition, PIR is not required to live up to those commitments, but opponents of the deal feel that its not-for-profit status under ISOC control provide stronger protections against bad behavior.

ICANN said it rejected the deal on “public interest” grounds for a variety of reasons including the lack of transparency into Ethos’ ultimate ownership, distrust that Ethos would be able to service its debt, doubt over its management in the long term, and the sheer volume of dissent from the community.

Also playing a strong role was an objection from the California attorney general, who pulled rank and informed ICANN that it should reject the deal, reminding the organization that it was subject to his oversight. This has been described as a dangerous precedent.

Google launches .meet gTLD after Meet service goes free during lockdown

Google Registry is to launch its .meet gTLD next week with a sunrise period for trademark owners, but, perhaps controversially, it intends to keep the rest of the domains for itself.

It is expected that the company plans to use .meet domains in its Google Meet conferencing service, which was recently revamped and went free-to-use after Google realized that rival Zoom was eating its lunch during the coronavirus lockdown.

Google bought the .meet gTLD from Afilias back in 2015 but has kept it unused so far, even after the Meet service opened in 2017.

But according to ICANN records, it’s due to go into a one-month sunrise period from May 25, with an open-ended Trademark Claims period from June 25.

In a brief statement on its web site Google says:

Google Registry is launching the .meet TLD. This domain is Spec 9/ROCC exempt, which means we will be the registrant for all domains on the TLD and it will not be made generally available. The RRA for the TLD is available upon request, but registrations on behalf of the registry will be processed through a small number of registrars with whom the relevant product teams at Google work.

Translated from ICANN-speak, this means that Google has an exemption from Specification 9 in its .meet registry contract, releasing it from the Registry Operator Code of Conduct, which obliges registries to treat all registrars equally.

This means Google can’t sell the domains to anyone else, nor can it allow them to be controlled by anyone else, and it can use a limited pool of registrars to register names.

Spec 9 is a bit different to Spec 13, which exempts dot-brands from ICANN trademark-protection rules such as sunrise and Trademark Claims. You could argue that Spec 9 is “dot-brand lite”.

But what both Spec 9 and Spec 13 have in common is that they can’t be used in gTLDs ICANN considers a “generic string”, which is defined as:

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.

Does .meet qualify there? It’s undoubtedly a dictionary word, but does it also describe a class of things? Maybe.

Google’s search engine itself gives one definition of “meet” as “an organized event at which a number of races or other athletic contests are held”, which one could reasonably argue is a class of services.

When Afilias applied for .meet in 2012, it expected it to be used by dating sites.

Google did not addresses the non-genericness of the string in its Spec 9 application. That judgement appears to have been made by ICANN alone.

Previously, requests for Spec 9 exemptions from the likes of .giving, .star, .analytics, .latino, .mutual, and .channel have been rejected or withdrawn.

It seems that Spec 9 exemption is going to somewhat limit .meet’s utility, given that third-parties will not be able to get “control or use of any registrations”.

Aussie ccTLD surges under coronavirus lockdown

Australia’s .au ccTLD may have been in decline recently, but it saw a surge in new domain registrations during its coronavirus lockdown, according to registry stats.

auDA said that 48,754 new .au domains were registered in April, a more than 23% increase on its April 2019 number.

The registry called this leap “the biggest month for new domain name creations we’ve seen in a while”. It averages about 40,000 per month, with seasonality.

The overall number of extant registrations was down a bit to 3,168,883, but auDA chalks this up to the expiration of domains registered during registrar promotions a year ago.

Australia was under its lockdown, which was less severe than in other countries, for the whole month of April. The measures were put in place March 21 and relaxed last week.

Numbers for March show a year-over-year decline of 1.4% in new adds.

While auDA does not attribute its April growth to lockdown, I think the numbers show that the movement restrictions imposed certainly didn’t hurt .au’s business.

ICANN’s .org decision was NOT unanimous, and it was made in secret

When ICANN announced its decision to deny Public Interest Registry’s request to be acquired by Ethos Capital at the end of April, I felt a little foolish.

I’d confidently predicted just days earlier that the decision by the board would not be unanimous, but ICANN, in announcing the decision, said “the entire Board stands by this decision”.

But it turns out I was right after all. Three directors voted against the consensus and one abstained.

The dissenting votes were cast by industry policy consultant Avri Doria, Serbian internet pioneer Danko Jevtović, and former Sudanese ccTLD operator Ihab Osman.

Doria and Jevtović voted against the first resolved clause, which rejected PIR’s request. All three voted against the second resolved clause, which would have allowed PIR to file a second request.

Sarah Deutsch, a private practice lawyer, abstained from both votes, presumably because she also sits on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the civil liberties group that can, via California’s attorney general, probably be credited most with getting the transaction killed.

All three dissenters and Deutsch are Nominating Committee appointees.

According to the preliminary report of the April 30 meeting, “Doria indicated that she would be voting against the resolution and explained her views about how the public interest would be better served by ICANN granting its consent to PIR’s request.”

What her reasons were are not reflected in the record.

It also seems likely that any substantive minuting of ICANN’s decision is likely to be limited, as it appears to have been made at a different, off-the-books session at an unspecified earlier date.

The preliminary report notes the “the Board discussed and considered alternative draft resolutions for potential Board action as part of an earlier briefing”.

No such earlier meeting is listed on ICANN’s web site. The board’s previous formal meeting, two weeks earlier, had PIR’s request removed from the agenda at the last minute.

So it appears that ICANN’s board decided to reject the deal basically in secret at some point between April 17 and April 29, during a meeting of which ICANN has no obligation to publicly release the minutes.

Nice transparency loophole!

There’s always the Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, I suppose.

Donuts kicks down .place fences after attempt at innovation

Donuts has made its temporarily restricted gTLD .place unrestricted once again, two years after announcing it would be taking a stab at some technological innovation.

.place has been under lockdown for two years as Donuts planned to use it in “geofencing” applications developed by a startup it had invested in.

Geofencing is the practice of dividing the world up into three dimensional GPS-based chunks, placing those chunks into a registry, then selling them to businesses and others.

The idea was that each .place domain would be linked to a specific geofenced area. Mick could register mickscafe.place and assign the coordinates of his cafe to that domain.

In 2018, Donuts started telling registrars not to sell .place domains until its partner, Geo.Network, had launched its applications. It had invested an undisclosed sum in Geo.Network in 2016, when it was known as GeoFrenzy.

But these applications do not appear to have yet surfaced, and Donuts is now letting anyone register .place names for $10 a pop.

Since the 2018 freeze, the number of registered .place domains has tumbled from about 7,500 to about 3,800. Donuts says it has a 63% renewal rate and that 26% of its names are in active use.

.org sale officially dead

Public Interest Registry has formally announced that its proposed $1.13 billion acquisition by Ethos Capital is dead.

The company told ICANN yesterday that it is withdrawing its request for a change of control under its .org contract and that it “will not be pursuing an ICANN Request for Reconsideration or taking any other action to try to revive the Transaction”.

In a statement, CEO Jon Nevett said that PIR is no longer for sale to any other party. It will remain under the Internet Society’s control.

He also pointed out that it’s not within ICANN’s power to arbitrarily transfer .org to another registry, as some critics have called for.

“Such a transfer by ICANN is a contractual impossibility under our registry agreement,” he wrote.

ICANN rejected the change of control request after deciding it was not in the public interest for .org to pass into for-profit hands.

Following the decision, ISOC had indicated that PIR was no longer for sale.