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ICANN to tackle Trojan TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2010, Domain Registries

When failing community-based top-level domain registries attempt to change their business models, ICANN may in future have a new way of dealing with them.

That seems to be a possible result of Employ Media’s controversial .jobs liberalization plans and the subsequent Reconsideration Request, which I blogged about last week.

The .jobs reconsideration revealed that not only are Reconsideration Requests a rubbish way to appeal ICANN’s decisions, but also that the Registry Services Evaluation Process is often a rubbish way to handle major contract changes.

The RSEP was introduced back in 2005 in belated response to a couple of controversial “services” that VeriSign, testing boundaries, had planned to unilaterally introduce in the .com registry, notably Site Finder and the Waiting List Service.

But since then the process has been used as a general-purpose tool for requesting changes to registry contracts, even when it’s debatable whether the changes fit the definition of “registry services”.

For example, when .jobs launched five years ago, it was put into Employ Media’s contract that the TLD was designed for companies to register their brands and list their jobs, and that’s all.

But that model didn’t work. It’s one of the least successful TLDs out there.

So the registry decided it could make more money with general purpose jobs boards, using generic .jobs domains. But it did not necessarily want to let existing independent jobs sites take part.

For want of a better term, I’ll call this an example of a “Trojan” TLD – a registry that gets its attractive TLD string approved by ICANN after making a certain set of promises, then later decides to move the goal posts to broaden its market, potentially disenfranchising others.

I’ve no reason to believe it was a premeditated strategy in Employ Media’s case, but precedent has now been set for future TLD applicants to use “community” as a foot in the door for broader aspirations.

To take a stupid, extreme, unrealistic example, imagine that ICM Registry’s .xxx flops badly. Should the company be allowed to start selling all the good .xxx domains to churches and other anti-porn campaigners? That would be a pretty big departure from its promises.

There were similar concerns, although not nearly as loudly expressed, with regards to Telnic’s recent contract changes, which will allow it to start registering phone number domain names in .tel, despite years of promises that it would not.

Go Daddy’s policy chief Tim Ruiz objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would be “unfair to other [.tel] applicants and potential applicants to allow an sTLD to change its purpose after the fact.”

The ICANN Board Governance Committee, which handles Reconsideration Requests, acknowledged these problems in its decision on .jobs in Cartagena (pdf), concluding that it:

thinks that the Board should address the need for a process to evaluate amendments that may have the effect of changing, or seeking to change, an sTLD Charter or Stated Purpose of a sponsored, restricted or community-based TLD.

The BGC seems to be saying that the RSEP is not up to the task of dealing with community-based TLDs that later decide their business plans are not the money-spinners they had hoped and want to loosen up their agreed community restrictions.

The committee went on to say that:

Because such a process may impact gTLDs greatly and is a policy issue, the GNSO is the natural starting point for evaluating such a process. We therefore further recommend that the Board direct the CEO to create a briefing paper for the GNSO to consider on this matter, and for the GNSO to determine whether a policy development process should be commenced.

So the GNSO will soon have to decide whether new policies are needed to deal with broad contract changes at failing community TLDs.

Any new policies would, I believe, be binding on community TLDs approved under the new gTLD program as well as older sTLDs, so it will be an interesting policy track to follow.

OpenRegistry latest player in new TLD market

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2010, Domain Registries

OpenRegistry has become the domain name industry’s newest top-level domain registry operator.

The new company, which went by the name Sensirius while in stealth mode, announced itself officially at the ICANN meeting in Cartagena two weeks ago.

Jean-Christophe Vignes is giving up his operational role at EuroDNS to be CEO of the new company, which hopes to bring more modular, custom-tailored options to organizations that want to launch new TLDs.

For “open”, read “flexible” – OpenRegistry plans to differentiate itself by offering clients “a la carte” options, rather than the one-size-fits-all services it believes some competitors offer.

“We’ve noticed that no two clients are the same,” Vignes said. “Some of them are already pretty well taken care of when it comes to drafting applications and so on, and just need the registry solution, but others are happy to have the full suite of our services.”

The idea is that a city TLD or niche community TLD will not necessarily have the same needs as a full-blown mass-market gTLD, Vignes said.

OpenRegistry plans to make three packages available at first, according to its web site – all-inclusive, managed registry, and software-only. Prices appear to start at around 100,000 euros.

The software itself is based on the registry expertise used in the design of Belgium’s .be and EurID’s .eu, although it appears to be a fresh creation.

Vignes said that it will be able to natively handle start-up functions such as premium domain auctions and interfacing with the IP Clearinghouse.

The company does not intend to apply for its own TLDs, Vignes said, allowing it to focus on its clients.

But it does plan on being somewhat selective on which TLDs with which it works, with “feasibility studies” one of the services on offer.

Like the incumbent registry triumvirate of VeriSign, Afilias and Neustar, OpenRegistry hopes that the ICANN-accredited registrar community will be a good source of clients.

ICANN recently said it plans to lift restrictions on registrars applying for and running registries.

Did .jobs win or lose in Cartagena?

Kevin Murphy, December 17, 2010, Domain Registries

Employ Media, the .jobs registry, had a victory in Cartagena last week, when the ICANN board voted not to overturn its August decision to allow .jobs to relax its registration policies.

The company will now be able to continue with its RFP process, allocate premium generic .jobs domains to its partners, auction them, and generally liberalize the namespace.

But the registry may not have got everything it wanted.

For at least a year, Employ Media, along with the DirectEmployers Association, has been pushing the idea of creating a massive free jobs board called universe.jobs.

The site would be fed traffic from thousands of premium geographic domains such as newyork.jobs, texas.jobs and canada.jobs, as well as vocational names such as nursing.jobs and sales.jobs.

Because Employ Media was previously only allowed to sell domains that corresponded to the names of companies, such as ibm.jobs and walmart.jobs, it asked ICANN to change its contract to allow these new classes of generic names to be registered.

The registry submitted a Registry Services Evaluation Process request, which was approved by the ICANN board in early August. The contract was amended shortly thereafter.

A few weeks later, a group of jobs sites including Monster.com, calling itself the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition, filed a Reconsideration Request, asking ICANN to reverse its decision.

The Coalition was concerned that the contract changes would enable universe.jobs, creating a potentially huge competitor with an unfair SEO advantage, while continuing to prohibit independent jobs sites from registering .jobs domains.

While the .jobs contract had been amended, the .Jobs Charter, which restricts those who can register .jobs domains to members of the human resources community, was not.

This potentially presented a problem for universe.jobs, as DirectEmployers may not have qualified to be a registrant under the charter.

But Employ Media’s RSEP proposal talked about creating a “self-managed class” of domains – the domains would belong to the registry but would be shared with third parties such as DirectEmployers.

That would have created an interesting precedent – registries would be able to keep hold of premium generic domain names and allow them to be “used” by only partner companies that agree to enter into revenue-sharing agreements.

But that “implementation method was withdrawn” by Employ Media after the ICANN Board Governance Committee asked about it as part of its Reconsideration Request investigation.

The BGC, while rejecting the Coalition’s request (pdf), also asked ICANN’s compliance department to keep a close eye on Employ Media, to make sure it does not overstep the bounds of its charter:

the BGC recommends that the Board direct the CEO, and General Counsel and Secretary, to ensure that ICANN’s Contractual Compliance Department closely monitor Employ Media’s compliance with its Charter

Even though its Reconsideration Request was denied, the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition counted both of these developments as a big win for its campaign, saying in a press release:

Given the Board’s commitment to aggressively monitor Employ Media’s implementation of the Phased Allocation Program, the Coalition is highly confident that ICANN will not permit Employ Media to register domain names to “independent job site operators” for purposes of operating job sites.

So does this mean that universe.jobs is dead?

Apparently not. Talk in the halls at the ICANN Cartagena meeting last week leads me to believe that the registry has figured out a way to launch the service anyway.

And DirectEmployers this Monday published a white paper (pdf), dated January 2011, which says universe.jobs will launch early next year.

DirectEmployers declined to immediately comment on its plans when I inquired this week, and the white paper sheds little light on the technicalities of the plan.

Judging from a promotion currently being run by EnCirca, a .jobs registrar, it seems that companies will only be able to list their jobs on universe.jobs if they own their own companyname.jobs domain.

EnCirca’s offer, which alludes to the .jobs sponsor, the Society for Human Resources Management, a “SHRM special“, says:

NEWS ALERT: December 13, 2010: ICANN has RE-CONFIRMED the .Jobs registry’s plan to allocate generic occupational and geographic-related .jobs domain names. Register your companyname.jobs to be part of this new initiative.

It will be interesting to see how domain allocations are ultimately handled.

While Employ Media’s request for proposals is ostensibly open, it looks a little bit like a smokescreen for its plan to hand big chunks of the .jobs namespace to the universe.jobs project.

But who will be the registrant of these domains? And will the allocations violate the .jobs charter? Will the registry carry on with its plan to create new “self-managed” class of domain names?

I think we’re going to have to wait for the new year to find out.

Possible new TLDs timeline revealed

Kevin Murphy, December 16, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s decision to delay the approval of its new top-level domains Applicant Guidebook last week in Cartagena left one big question hanging:

When will the program open for applications?

ICANN had pencilled in May 30 for the launch, but the new delay appeared to make that impossible. In the absence of an announcement from ICANN, nobody really knows what the current timetable is.

A few possible answers have now emerged with the publication this week of ICANN staff briefing documents (pdf) used by the board to make their original decision to target May 2011.

An October 28 document entitled “New gTLD Launch Scenarios”, penned by ICANN’s Kurt Pritz and Carole Cornell, explores the board’s options for approving a launch timeline.

It notes that applications cannot be solicited until ICANN has finished its mandatory four-month outreach/marketing campaign, which in turn can’t kick off until the AGB has been approved.

I’ll let the rest speak for itself:

If the Board were to approve the Guidebook after the January/February meeting, the announcement and communications campaign launch would be made shortly thereafter. The first applications could be received as early as (but not earlier than) 1 July 2011.

If the Board elects that a full comment analysis and sixth version of the Guidebook be written, with approval at the Silicon Valley meeting, the approval would be followed by an April announcement and communications campaign launch. First applications could be received as early as (but no earlier than) August 2011.

And here’s a lovely graphic illustrating the options (click to enlarge):

New gTLD Launch Scenarios

Given that we now know that the ICANN board intends to meet with the Governmental Advisory Committee to address its outstanding issues in February, the final scenario – with a San Francisco approval and August launch – now seems more likely.

Most of the rest of the briefing document is heavily redacted.

Some countries not paying ICANN for their IDNs

Kevin Murphy, December 16, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN may have to fund some of its IDN ccTLD Fast Track program out of its own pocket, due to at least one country not paying its full fees, judging from information released this week.

ICANN had invoiced applicants for a total of $572,000, but only $106,000 had been received, according to briefing documents (pdf, page 114) presented at the ICANN board’s October 28 meeting.

The organization invoices registries $26,000 for each TLD string it evaluates, but the fees are not mandatory, for political reasons. As of October, it had presumably billed for 22 strings.

At least one country appears to have had its applications processed at a knock-down rate.

Sri Lanka, which was billed $52,000 for two strings, only paid $2,000, and the remaining $50,000 appears to have been written off as “uncollectable”.

Russia, Egypt, South Korea and Tunisia had paid their fees in full.

While the remaining 17 evaluated ccTLDs may not have paid up by October, that’s not to say they have not paid since or will not pay in future.

ICANN also plans to bill IDN ccTLDs 1-3% of annual revenue as a “contribution”, which also won’t be mandatory, but no registry has been live long enough to receive that bill yet.