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OpenRegistry wins .sx contract

Kevin Murphy, March 16, 2011, Domain Registries

OpenRegistry, the recently formed registry services provider, has won its first top-level domain deal.

The Benelux-based company has been signed up to provide the back-end registry for .sx, the country-code TLD newly assigned to Sint Maarten.

The deal with Sint Maarten’s government will see the formation of a new company, SX Registry SA, a joint venture of OpenRegistry and MediaFusion, a small Canadian registrar.

MediaFusion’s president, Normand Fortier, will serve as CEO of the company.

The registry’s policies and registrar partners will be announced over the coming weeks, but OpenRegistry CEO Jean-Christophe Vignes tells me the plan is to have a completely open, global ccTLD, along similar lines to the recently relaunched .co domain.

The ClearingHouse for Intellectual Property, CHIP, has been engaged to provide trademark protection services for .sx’s sunrise period.

Sint Maarten is a new country, one of three that formed following the break-up of the Netherlands Antilles (.an) last October. It was assigned .sx in December.

As such, the ccTLD has not yet been officially delegated to anyone, and the new company is hopeful it will be able to lock it down by ICANN’s June meeting in Singapore.

OpenRegistry, while employing experienced staff, does not currently operate any TLD registries. The .sx deal may make the company more appealing to other new TLD applicants.

ICANN staff grilled over new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s San Francisco meeting kicked off this morning with staff members responsible for the new top-level domains program answering – and trying to answer – stakeholder questions.

The short version: it’s still not clear what the end result of San Francisco will be when it comes to new TLDs.

The big deal this week is ICANN’s ongoing consultation with its Governmental Advisory Committee, which remains the biggest hurdle before ICANN can approve the program.

GNSO stakeholders wanted to know the current state of play with this consultation, and how close ICANN is to wrapping up policy development and launching the new TLD program.

A key question is whether the two days of talks the board has scheduled for this week count as the final GAC consultation called for in ICANN’s bylaws.

If they are, the board and the GAC could wrap up their negotiations before the board meets on Friday, and the program is one step closer to approval. ICANN wants this.

If they’re not, we could be looking at further GAC talks stretching on into the weeks or months between now and the Singapore meeting in June. The GAC seems to want this.

ICANN senior vice president Kurt Pritz said that the board and GAC met for one hour yesterday, but that they still have not agreed on the “bylaws” designation.

He said that the board “has a sense of urgency” about approving the program as soon as possible, and that the GAC is newly “energized”.

Staff were asked, by VeriSign’s Chuck Gomes and Minds + Machines’ Antony Van Couvering, whether such a consultation is needed at all.

After all, as has been discussed in articles on CircleID and .nxt recently, there’s no mention in the ICANN bylaws of a “consultation” per se.

Deputy general counsel Dan Halloran said that this is an area still open for discussion, but indicated that reaching common ground on the substantive issues is currently the priority.

There seems to be a feeling that the current talks represent not only a necessary step in approving new TLDs, but also a landmark piece of cooperation in the sphere of internet governance.

On the substantive issues, ICANN has currently marked each of the 80 points the GAC has made with the designation 1a, 1b or 2, depending on whether agreement has been reached, only reached in principle, or has not been reached at all.

The focus this week is going to be on the 23 “2s”. These are the issues, Pritz said, where ICANN has determined that to agree with the GAC would run contrary to the GNSO’s consensus positions.

Philip Corwin of the Internet Commerce Association, which represents domain investors, wanted to know whether “1a” topics are currently locked – the ICA is unhappy with a 1a concession ICANN has made regarding the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

The answer from staff was basically yes — a 1a is where ICANN’s board and staff think “we’re done”, Pritz said.

The plan for the rest of the week is to hold open discussions on the new TLD process on Monday and Wednesday, with corresponding bilateral GAC-board sessions on Tuesday and Thursday.

Stakeholder groups have been invited to make statements before and to inform these sessions.

Neustar wants to be a registrar ASAP

Kevin Murphy, March 10, 2011, Domain Registries

Neustar, registry manager for the .biz and .us top-level domains, has put the wheels in motion to acquire an ICANN registrar accreditation as soon as possible.

It’s the first major gTLD operator to formally request permission to “vertically integrate” since ICANN announced last November that it was prepared to lift the ownership caps that have previously kept registries and registrars quite strictly separated.

Neustar’s .biz contract currently forbids it from owning more than 15% of an ICANN registrar.

In a letter to ICANN sent this afternoon, Neustar vice president of law and policy Jeff Neuman said the company wants this provision deleted:

We are asking for this language now to allow Neustar to compete fairly for new gTLDs on the same terms and conditions as registrars entering the new gTLD registry market.

It is critical to resolve this issue immediately to ensure that Neustar is able to compete on a level playing field with the new entrants into the marketplace and to promote the efficiencies and innovation for consumers as advocated by the ICANN Board.

ICANN shocked the industry last year when its board of directors decided to allow registries and registrars to own each other.

The decision meant that niche community and brand TLDs will be able to sell direct to registrants, without having to secure the support of reluctant big-name registrars.

It also meant that existing gTLD operators will be able to own registrars for the first time.

As a caveat, designed to protect consumers from gaming registries, ICANN proposed a Code of Conduct designed to limit the cross-pollination of data that could be abused.

Similarly, the Code calls for registries to treat all approved registrars equally, regardless of ownership stakes, to avoid competition concerns.

Neuman wrote that Neustar is prepared to have language along the lines of the current draft Code of Conduct, but “no more restrictive”, incorporated into the .biz registry contract.

Other incumbent gTLD registry operators, notably VeriSign and Afilias, are bound by similar contractual restrictions and will presumably also pursue their options along the same lines in future.

Competition for .africa heats up

Kevin Murphy, March 10, 2011, Domain Registries

AfTLD, an organization of African country-code top-level domain operators, has announced its intention to apply to ICANN for the .africa TLD.

The initiative appears to be different to and competitive with the best-known .africa applicant to date, Sophia Bekele’s DotConnectAfrica.

AfTLD said that it plans to seek a mandate for .africa from the Commission of the African Union. It also expects to discuss forming a company to manage the bid at a meeting in Ghana next month.

Vika Mpisane, AfTLD’s chairman and general manager of South Africa’s .za ccTLD, said in a press release:

We are not just interested in .africa only, but we want to also take on .afrique, which is the French version of .africa. It’s only natural for us to do this because at least 50% of Africa speaks French. We also intend to have an internationalised version of .africa as well because we have significant Arabic Africa population, but we will start definitely with .africa first.

AfTLD shortly intends to announce a “leading registry services provider” to run its back-end, but indicated that in future it would expect to run the registry from within Africa.

The current version of ICANN’s new TLDs Applicant Guidebook sets the bar for a .africa bid very high, in practice possibly requiring near-universal governmental support.

A bidder for this kind of protected geographic term would require letters of support from 60% of the nations concerned. For Africa, as the Guidebook defines it, that’s about 34 countries.

However, crucially, if more than one African government were to object in writing to any given .africa application, that bid could be killed off.

AfTLD has 24 ccTLD registry members. They’re not all government-run TLDs, of course, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that it already has 24 countries on board.

A key question is whether endorsement of a bid by the African Union could be interpreted as blanket approval from all of its 53 member governments. I don’t think that’s a given, under the letter of the Guidebook.

But if it is, DotConnectAfrica may already be there. It has a signed letter from AU Commission chairman Jean Ping, dated August 2009, that endorses its specific bid.

AusRegistry chalks up third Arabic domain win

AusRegistry International has announced it has been picked to provide the back-end registry for عمان., the Arabic-script internationalized domain name for Oman.

It’s the company’s third IDN ccTLD contract in the region, following on from Qatar’s forthcoming قطر. and the United Arab Emirates’ already-live امارات.

The company’s press release suggests to me that it’s a software/support deal, rather than a full-blown hosted back-end registry solution.

AusRegistry said it will “provide Domain Name Registry Software and supporting services for the establishment of a new Domain Name Registry System”.

It has previously announced back-end deals for ASCII ccTLDs including .qa and .ae, and manages Australia’s .au, which recently passed the two million domains milestone.

The deal with Oman, which AusRegistry said was competitively bid, also encompasses .om, the nation’s regular ccTLD.

While ICANN approved Oman’s chosen string under its IDN ccTLD Fast Track program back in October, it has not yet been delegated to the DNS root zone.

With the approval of Ukraine’s Cyrillic ccTLD last week, 25 territories have had their choice of local-script ccTLD given the nod under the program.