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Ethos volunteers for .org pricing handcuffs

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2020, Domain Registries

Ethos Capital has volunteered to have price caps written back into Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, should ICANN approve its $1.1 billion proposed acquisition.

The private equity firm said Friday that it has offered to agree to a new, enforceable Public Interest Commitment that bakes its right to increase prices into the contract under a strict formula that goes like this:

Applicable Maximum Fee = $9.93 x (1.10n)

The $9.93 is the current wholesale price of a annual .org registration. The “n” refers to the number of full years the current .org registry agreement has been in play, starting June 30, 2019.

In other words, it’s a 10%-per-year increase on average, but PIR could skip a year here and there and be eligible for a bigger price increase the following year.

For example, PIR could up the fee by 10% or $0.99 to $10.92 this coming June if it wanted, but if it decided to wait a year (perhaps for public relations reasons) if could increase the price to $12.13 in June 2021, an increase of $2.20 or roughly 22%.

It could wait five years before the first price increase, and up it from $9.93 to $16.53, a 66% increase, in year six.

While price increases are of course unpopular and will remain so, the formula does answer the criticism posed on DI and elsewhere that Ethos’ previous public statements on pricing would allow PIR to front-load its fee hikes, potentially almost doubling the price in year one.

But the caps have a built-in expiry date. They only run for eight years. So by the middle of 2027, when PIR could already be charging $18.73, the registry would be free to raise prices by however much it pleases.

It’s a better deal for registrants than what they’d been facing before, which was a vague commitment to stick to PIR’s old habit of not raising prices by more than 10% a year, but it’s not perfect and it won’t sate those who are opposed to increased fees in principle.

On the upside, a PIC is arguably an even more powerful way to keep PIR in line after the acquisition. Whereas other parts of the contract are only enforceable by ICANN, a Public Interest Commitment could theoretically be enforced via the PIC Dispute Resolution Procedure by any .org registrant with the resources to lawyer up. Losing a PICDRP triggers ICANN Compliance into action, which could mean PIR losing its contract.

The PIC also addresses the concern, which always struck me as a bit of a red herring, that .org could become a more censorial regime under for-profit ownership.

Ethos says it will create a new seven-person .ORG Stewardship Council, made up of field experts in human rights, non-profits and such, which will have the right to advise PIR on proposed changes to PIR policy related to censorship and the use of private user/registrant data.

The Council would be made up initially of five members hand-picked by PIR. Another two, and all subsequent appointments, would be jointly nominated and approved by PIR and the Council. They’d serve terms of three years.

The proposed PIC, the proposed Council charter and Ethos’ announcement can all be found here.

Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it’s worth noting that the proposal comes after ICANN had started playing hard-ball with PIR, Ethos and the Internet Society (PIR’s current owner).

In fact, I was just putting the finishing touches to an opinion piece entitled “I’m beginning to think ICANN might block the .org deal” when the Ethos statement dropped.

In that now-spiked piece, I referred to two letters ICANN recently sent to PIR/ISOC and their lawyers, which bluntly asserted ICANN’s right to reject the acquisition for basically any reason, and speculated that the deal may not be a fait accompli after all.

In the first (pdf), Jones Day lawyer Jeffrey LeVee tells his counterpart at PIR’s law firm in no uncertain terms that ICANN is free to reject the change of control on grounds such as the “public interest” and the interests of the “.org community”.

Proskauer lawyer Lauren Boglivi had told ICANN (pdf) that its powers under the .org contract were limited to approve or reject the acquisition based only on technical concerns such as security, stability and reliability. LeVee wrote:

This is wrong. The parties’ contracts authorize ICANN to evaluate the reasonableness of the proposed change of control under the totality of circumstances, including the impact on the public interest and the interest of the .ORG community.

Now, the cynic in me saw nothing but a couple of posturing lawyers trying to rack up billable hours, but part of me wondered why ICANN would go to the trouble of defending its powers to reject the deal if it did not think there was a possibility of actually doing so.

The second letter (pdf) was sent by ICANN’s new chair, Maarten Bottermann, to his ISOC counterpart Gonzalo Camarillo.

The letter demonstrates that the ICANN board of directors is actually taking ownership of this issue, rather than delegating it to ICANN’s executive and legal teams, in large part due to the pressure exerted on it by the ICANN community and governments. Botterman wrote:

It is not often that such a contractual issue raises up to a Board-level concern, but as you might appreciate, PIR’s request is one of the most unique that ICANN has received.

He noted that the controversy over the deal had even made ICANN the target of a “governmental inquiry”, which is either a reference to the California attorney general’s probe or to a letter (pdf) received from the French foreign office, demanding answers about the transaction.

It’s notable from Botterman’s letter that ICANN has started digging into the deep history of PIR’s ownership of .org, much as I did last December, to determine whether the commitments it made to the non-profit community back in 2002 still hold up under a return to for-profit ownership.

Given these turns of events, I was entertaining the possibility that ICANN was readying itself to reject the deal.

But, given Ethos’ newly proposed binding commitments, I think the pendulum has swung back in favor of the acquisition eventually getting the nod.

I reserve the right to change my mind yet again as matters unfold.

Verisign shits on domainers, again

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2020, Domain Registries

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Verisign makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from .com domain investors, and yet it’s been developing a habit in recent years of shitting on them whenever it serves its purpose.

The company’s submission to ICANN’s just-closed public comment period on the proposed new .com contract, which re-enables Verisign’s ability to increase its prices, is the latest such example.

In the letter, which is unsigned, Verisign accuses the Internet Commerce Association, as well as registrars Namecheap and Dynadot, of conducting a “deceptive” campaign to persuade .com registrants to submit comments opposing the deal.

It notes that ICA represents “speculators” — it never uses the term “investors” — as if this was some kind of closely guarded secret, and describes the practice of domaining in a way that implies that the practice is somehow “illegitimate”, like this:

More than any other group engaged in the ICANN multistakeholder process, these speculators are highly sensitive to even the smallest wholesale price changes because of the enormous portfolios of .com domain names they control.

Speculators sometimes sell these domain name registrations to other speculators, but often they pass these costs along when they sell the domain names to legitimate internet users who wish to use .com domain names to build websites. We believe this resale activity adds little value to the DNS.

It’s not wrong, but good grief! The chutzpah on this company is sometimes jaw-dropping.

It’s like a car manufacturer complaining that its billion-dollar range of off-road SUVs are mostly being used by obese city dwellers for the school run. Just take the billion dollars and stop complaining about your biggest customers!

It’s not the first time Verisign has rolled out this line of attack. Back in 2018, when price caps were being negotiated with the US government, it posted an article on CircleID accusing domainers of “exploit[ing] consumers” and “scalping”.

Verisign’s able to get away with this kind of attitude, of course, because most domainers have an almost erotically slavish devotion to .com. The company could spend all day every day emailing them disgustingly personalized “yo momma” jokes and they wouldn’t stop buying up its product by the millions.

The two sides are trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship but they can’t break up because they’re both making so much goddamn money out of it. They’re like the Clintons of the domain world, in other words.

Anyway, the gist of the company’s comment to ICANN is basically “Ignore the 9,000 other comments you’ve received, the commenters were suckered into writing them by lying registrars”.

Read it here (pdf).

As a matter of disclosure, Verisign cites the DI piece last week about covid-19.com as an example of why domainers suck. That wasn’t the intent of the article, but there you go.

9,000 people tell ICANN they don’t want .com price increases. Here’s what some of them said

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The public have spoken: they don’t want Verisign to get the right to raise .com prices again.

ICANN’s public comment period on the amended .com contract closed on Friday, with just shy of 9,000 comments which appear to be overwhelmingly against price-raising powers.

Comments

Almost 2,000 of the comments have the same subject line, “Proposed Amendment 3 to the .COM Registry Agreement”, suggesting they were generated by the Internet Commerce Association’s semi-automated outrage tool.

It’s a lot, but it’s dwarfed by seemingly non-ICA submissions, which will make the opposition to the deal harder to ignore than with last year’s .org deal, where many of the 3,000 comments were written off as “akin to spam”.

.com’s wholesale fee has been frozen at $7.85 per year since 2012, but Verisign managed to persuade the Trump administration in 2018 to allow it to return to the old policy of being able to raise prices by 7% in four out of the contract’s six years.

After a year’s negotiation, ICANN agreed to incorporate that change into its Registry Agreement with Verisign. Some commentators, including the Registrars Stakeholder Group, are now saying that ICANN should put contracts out to comment BEFORE they are negotiated.

The RrSG said of price increases:

The RrSG is concerned that the proposed price increases are without sufficient justification or an analysis of its potentially substantial impact on the DNS. ICANN has not explained how increase domain name prices are in the public interest or how this furthers the security and stability of the DNS. The price increases appear only to benefit one company, which has the right to operate .com in perpetuity (and without a competitive bidding process). This is inconsistent with ICANN’s bottom-up multi-stakeholder model.

It’s also understandably pissed off that Verisign is to get the right to own its own registrar for the first time, which could shake up the retail domain market.

While the proposed contract does not allow the hypothetical Verisign registrar to sell .com domains, the registrars think they’ve spotted a loophole:

nothing in the amendment prevents Verisign from reselling .COM domains via another registrar. In theory, Verisign could resell .COM domain names at or below cost and still profit from the wholesale .COM price

Some registrars submitted separate comments that echoed the RrSG collective view.

GoDaddy commented that there should be an economic study on the potential impact of higher pricing on competition before any increases are allowed to go into effect, adding:

GoDaddy believes that ICANN has agreed to a framework for wholesale price increases in .COM that will negatively impact current and future registrants of .COM domain names, as well as the overall domain name industry, which is disproportionately dependent and impacted by changes in .COM pricing. We are further concerned that there is no effective competition to assist in establishing what is a reasonable price for .COM.

Namecheap, which has also been vocal in fighting .org price increases, noted that .com prices could go up by as much as 70% over the next decade, due to the compound impact of annual 7% rises, adding:

The .com registry is well-established, so due to gained efficiencies, the cost of .com domain names should remain static or go down. It is not clear how much registrars will pass these price increases along to consumers, but it is likely that most of this increase will be paid for by domain name registrants.

Drop-catch specialist TurnCommerce/NameBright called for .com to be put out for competitive bidding:

There is simply no legitimate argument that competition for registry contracts—especially the largest registry contract—is bad for the domain name system or for consumers. Without the prospect of competitive pressure, Verisign has no incentive to be efficient, innovative, and effective. In the time that Verisign has operated the registry, prices have increased, we believe innovation has stalled, while Verisign’s operating costs have apparently declined.

As far as I can tell, the Registries Stakeholder Group, of which Verisign is a member, did not submit a comment. But some other constituencies did.

The Business Constituency generally supports ICANN’s somewhat hands-off approach to price regulation, but it did complain that there should have been a public consultation before the bilateral contract talks began a year ago. It wrote:

The BC has no practical objection to price increases that average just 4.5% per year for businesses who register .COM domains. Some BC members are concerned that Verisign has not provided justification for increasing .COM prices, though we are not aware of any requirement for gTLD operators to provide such justification. And while some BC members would prefer that ICANN seek competitive bids to operate existing registries, the BC has generally supported presumptive renewal performance incentives in registry agreements.

If you’re picking up hints of internal BC dissent in that comment, it’s almost certainly because BC member Zak Muscovitch is also general counsel of the ICA and was one of several contributors to its drafting.

The only other formal GNSO stakeholder group to submit a comment appears to be the Intellectual Property Constituency, but it took no position on pricing.

The At-Large Advisory Committee, which according to its web site “acts on the interests of Internet users”, sent a borderline humorous “Valentine” to the ICANN board that does not mention pricing but does congratulate ICANN on securing a $20 million Verisign bung, which is earmarked for DNS security work.

Here’s a sample of 10 public comments I clicked on randomly:

I’m writing to express disappointment and concern regarding the recent ICANN changes made to their contract with Verisign. These changes potentially create a lot of harm and unnecessary expense to customers for years to come. Please take customers into consideration before going forward with this.

Please don’t increase .com prices. As a small business owner we feel every price increase in our family business. We want to be able to keep the domain name that we have spent years building as our small business home on the web.

I’m here to tell you to stop this proposed price increase. You are being greedy. 40% price hikes with no caps in sight are ridiculous, stop it. I’m tired of getting ripped off by big secretive corporations and sleazy government agencies, and now this includes YOU!. We aren’t going to just put up with it, I, and a lot of others are here to fight! We demand to know
what you are doing with the money you propose to reap from us, aside from lining your pockets! Proveme wrong, give the internet community the clarity it deserves, and now demands!

This is a disgrace and not right.

I disagree with the changes that this amendment (3) will make to the domain registry system. I believe that this increase of fees will stifle innovation and takes the web further towards privatization and big money.

I know that I would not have taken as many opportunities or risks if prices were significantly higher and domains were a larger cost of business.

I urge you to reconsider these changes and reject this amendment.

I am writing in opposition to the proposed Verisign deal with respect to .com domains. I believe the current arrangement should be kept and strict price controls from ICANN should be preserved for .com domains. Verisign has no business exerting control or influence over ICANN, and the deal as proposed will be bad for consumers and anyone who holds a .com domain.

Please do not proceed with the proposed changes.

Please stop trying to fuck up the internet. It has been excessively adapted to suit capitalism. I think many more than just me have had enough. Stop being a shady ass business.

I do not agree with the extraordinary increase in prices for .com domains that appears to be a direct response to a bribe paid by Verisign company to the board of ICANN.

We live in perilous times, where democracy is threatened in every side by the resurgence of corruption, cronyism, and the far right.

You appear to be allowing the backbone of the internet become corrupted by greed, which would horrify the founding fathers of this essential technology.

Show some integrity and don’t give in to the basest of your natures.

I am a registrant of more .com domain names. I am against the proposed price increase to .COM domains. Verisign is merely your manager of the .COM Registry – it has no business dictating the price. ICANN is supposed to govern the domain name system in the public interest.

Thanks first for your hard work.

Please keep prices as they are and avoid this change that could have dire consequences for the entire internet as other less democratic countries will start soon offering alternative domains to .com. Furthermore, any increase will cause difficulties for us who are part of the third world.

If you’ve got more time on your hands than I have, you can peruse all 9,000 comments at your leisure over here. If you find anything good, please do drop a link in the comments.

Some poor bastard at ICANN now has the job of going through and summarizing all of them into ICANN’s official comment report, which has a March 6 deadline.

ICA will help you support .com price increases (but doesn’t want you to)

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2020, Domain Registries

The Internet Commerce Association has released a new version of its semi-automated commenting tool, making it a bit easier for domainers and others to complain to ICANN about the proposed .com price increases.

Surprisingly, the tool will also help you file a comment in support of Verisign’s 7%-a-year price-raising powers, though obviously ICA would prefer you do not.

The tool is based on the one ICA launched last year when Public Interest Registry was due to get its .org price caps lifted by ICANN, but ICA general counsel Zak Muscovitch says that it’s been refined following feedback.

It allows users to identify what kind of registrant they are (domainer, end user, or just concerned netizen) and select from several options to create pre-written comments that reflect their own views. They can also enter their own free text before hitting submit.

One of the options is “I support the proposed price increase which allows for a 31% price increase through 2024”, but I can’t imagine anyone apart from Verisign staff and shareholders checking that particular box.

The .org version of the tool caused a bit of a stir last year after ICANN’s Ombudsman compared submissions made through it to “spam”. He caught some flak for that.

Muscovitch tells DI that it’s not just domainers using the service. Some registrars are directly contacting their customers to encourage them to submit comments, he said, so the views of “the public at large” are being reflected.

At the time of publication about 350 comments have been submitted, more than half of which appear to have originated via the ICA tool.

The public comment period closes February 14.

If you don’t fancy using the ICA tool, submitting a comment directly to ICANN doesn’t appear to be particularly difficult. You simply go here, click the “Submit Comment” button, and ICANN will open up your mail client’s compose window with the appropriate address pre-populated.

Perhaps predictably, I remain skeptical that this kind of thing will have any impact on ICANN’s decision to approve a contract it spent a year negotiating.

But it can’t hurt, right? After all, the reason Verisign only gets to raise prices in four out of six years is because so many people complained about the much more expansive proposed powers back in 2006, and ICANN is still reeling from the outrage over .org…

.gay hires pop star equality campaigner as spokesperson

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2020, Domain Registries

Top Level Design has hired a pop musician with a history of gay rights activism and anti-bullying work as its new spokesperson for .gay, which launches today.

Logan Lynn has a 20-year career as a musician and TV presenter with nine studio albums under his belt. He also has experience doing public relations for LGBT charities.

He’s also been the recipient of homophobic trolling. Last year, he told People magazine about the relentless online abuse he suffered after putting his friend, Hollywood actor Jay Mohr, full-frontal nude in one of his music videos in 2018.

He wrote on Top Level Design’s blog over the weekend:

Over the past couple of years, as online abuse directed at me reached an all-time high, I realized I was in a unique position to use my platform and story to help usher in change. It’s this fight that has led to me partnering with Top Level Design on the launch of .gay.

We know that we will not be able to single-handedly turn the internet into a hate-free zone, but .gay is committed to doing our part, and we absolutely reject the status quo — which is to do nothing without a court order.

The registry, which kicks off its sunrise period today, has policies in place that allow it to suspend .gay domains if they’re being used for homophobic bullying. General availability begins May 20.

Ethos’ .org pricing promise may be misleading

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2020, Domain Registries

The more Ethos Capital protests that its plans for .org pricing are not as bad as its critics think, the less I believe it.

Since November, the would-be buyer of Public Interest Registry has being publicly committing to maintain what it calls PIR’s “historic practices” related to pricing.

PIR, under its last ICANN contract, was allowed to raise prices by up to 10% per year, but it did not always exercise that right. In fact, the wholesale price of .org has been fixed at $9.93 since August 2016.

Ethos has described its price increase plans in a very specific, consistent way. In November it said:

Our plan is to live within the spirit of historic practice when it comes to pricing, which means, potentially, annual price increases of up to 10 percent on average — which today would equate to approximately $1 per year.

Last month, chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta-Ouri wrote:

We committed to limiting any potential increase in the price of a .ORG domain registration to no more than 10% per year on average

Last week, she wrote:

Ethos has committed to limiting any potential increase in the price of a .ORG domain registration to no more than 10% per year on average

Over the weekend, she added:

we are not saying that we will raise prices 10% every year — our commitment is that any price increase would not exceed 10% per year on average, if at all.

Clearly, the talking point has been copy-pasted a few times, and it always includes the words “10% per year on average”.

On average.

What does that mean? What are we averaging out here? It can’t be across the .org customer base, as registries aren’t allowed to vary pricing by registrant, so we must be talking about time. PIR has a 10-year contract with ICANN, so we must be talking about prices going up no more than 10% per year “on average” over the next decade.

If PIR, under Ethos’ stewardship, decides to raise prices by exactly 10% every year starting in 2020, the wholesale cost of a .org domain will be $25.76 by 2029, a 159% increase on today’s rate.

Assuming for the sake of this thought experiment that .org stays flat at 10 million registrations (it’s actually a little more today, but it’s declining), Ethos would be looking at a $258 million-a-year business by 2029, up from today’s $99 million.

Over the course of the 10-year contract, .org would be worth a cumulative $1.74 billion in reg revenue, up from the $993 million it would see without price increases.

But Ethos is only promising that price increases will be no more than 10% per year on average, remember, and it’s even hinted that there could be some years with no increases at all.

I noted in November that this commitment could see Ethos raise prices in excess of 10% early on, then freeze them so the increase averages back down to 10% over time.

It would of course make the most sense to front-load the price increases, to maximize the return.

At one extreme, Ethos could raise the price to $25.76 a year immediately, then lock the price down until 2029. That would make .org a $258 million-a-year business overnight, and making the cumulative 10-year revenue around the $2.58 billion mark.

Or, it could raise prices by 20% in alternate years, adding up to $1.77 billion in total top-line and a price to registrants of $24.71 by 2028.

There’s an infinity of variations on these strategies, and Ethos’ modeling is certainly more complex than the envelope upon which I just jotted these simplified figures down, but it’s pretty clear that while the company may well stick to the letter of its promises, it gets its best returns if it raises prices hard and early.

The more I read “on average” repeated in Ethos’ literature, the more convinced I become that this is exactly what it has in mind.

Possibly the strangest new gTLD acquisition yet

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2020, Domain Registries

The company running .icu has taken over a similar-sounding but ugly dot-brand from a Chinese games company.

ShortDot took over the ICANN registry agreement for .cyou from a Chinese games company in November, recently updated ICANN records show.

The seller is Beijing Gamease Age Digital Technology Co, which makes massively multiplayer online games targeted at the Chinese market.

The company is branded as Changyou.com and CYOU is its Nasdaq ticker symbol. The .cyou gTLD was not technically a dot-brand under ICANN rules.

Changyou signed its registry agreement with ICANN five years ago, but never registered any .cyou domains.

The decision to dump .cyou is no doubt related to the fact that Changyou is currently in the process of being reacquired and delisted by Sohu, its majority owner and former parent. The domain presumably soon will have no meaning for the company, even defensively.

It’s such a clumsy, otherwise meaningless string, that surely there was one one potential home for it: the .icu registry. Just as .icu can be read as “I see you”, .cyou can be read as “see you”.

ShortDot has had an inexplicable success with .icu in the last 12 months, during which it has become the industry volume leader in new gTLD sales. Today’s zone files show over SIX MILLION domains have been registered. That’s up from about 400,000 a year ago.

Most of its sales are coming via Chinese registrars, which are selling .icu names for under a dollar for the first year. It has yet to see its first junk drop.

If SpamHaus statistics are any guide, the buyers are largely domainers, rather than spammers. SpamHaus says .icu has under a 2% “badness” rating.

So, while .cyou would look like utter rubbish to any other registry, if ShortDot can bundle it with .icu, perhaps persuading a portion of its registrants to double-up, it may be worth a bit of money.

The registry expects to launch its new acquisition in June.

It’s the second branded gTLD ShortDot has acquired and repurposed after .bond, which used to belong to a university of the same name.

XYZ expands gTLD stable as L’Oreal exits the domain game

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2020, Domain Registries

XYZ.com has acquired four new gTLDs from the cosmetics company L’Oreal.

The portfolio registry expanded its stable with the additions of .makeup, .beauty, .hair and .skin, all of which had their contracts change hands last month, ICANN records show.

XYZ seems to have told Domain Name Wire last week that it plans to relaunch its new acquisitions this year alongside another recent purchase, .quest (sorry for the delay, Andrew, I’ve been sick).

For L’Oreal, the deal marks the end of its lofty ambitions in the new gTLD space. The company applied for 14 strings back in 2012, a mixture of generic dictionary words and brands.

Now, none remain.

A bunch of its dot-brand applications were dumped prior to contract signing. The others were turned off, unused, after L’Oreal asked ICANN to terminate its contracts.

The four non-branded strings XYZ picked up were originally intended as “closed generics” — an attempt to close competitors out of the market for industry-relevant keywords — but that was scuppered when ICANN decided to ban the concept.

L’Oreal attempted to worm its way around the ban by pricing domains at $5,500 wholesale and imposing extremely restrictive registration policies. This was pretty effective at warding off unwanted sales.

But the company did actually attempt something fairly innovative with .makeup, as I documented in 2017, registering the names of a couple hundred beauty-obsessed social media influencers in an attempt to create a registry-owned social media portal focused on pushing L’Oreal products.

The hub site, at welove.makeup, now bounces web visitors to makeup.com.

To the best of my knowledge, L’Oreal didn’t do anything with its other generics.

Still, L’Oreal’s loss is XYZ’s gain. All four are fairly strong strings that could find a market, in my view.

XYZ now has 13 gTLDs under direct contract (12 of which were acquired post-2012) and partial stakes, with Uniregistry, in three others.

Is the .co rebid biased toward Afilias? Yeah, kinda

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The Colombian government has come under fire for opening up the .co registry contract for rebid in a way that seems predetermined to pick Afilias as the winner, displacing its fierce rival Neustar.

As I blogged in November, Colombia thinks it might be able to secure a better registry deal, so it plans to shortly open .co up to competitive proposals.

A company called .CO Internet, acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014, has been running the ccTLD for the last decade. There are currently around 2.3 million .co domains under management, according to Colombia.

With the renewal deadline looming, the government’s technology ministry, MinTIC, published an eyebrow-raising request for proposals last month.

What’s surprising about the RFP is that some of the four main technical performance criteria listed are so stringent that probably only two companies in the industry qualify — Verisign and Afilias, and so far Verisign has not been involved in the RFP process.

The companies that have been engaging with the government to date are Afilias, Neustar/.CO, Nominet, CentralNic and Donuts.

First, MinTIC wants a registry that’s had at least two million domains under management across its portfolio continuously for two years. All five registries qualify there.

Second, it wants a registry that’s been involved in the migration of a TLD of at least one million names, either as the gaining or losing back-end.

That immediately narrows the pack to just two of the five aforementioned registries — Neustar and Afilias.

Verisign would also qualify, if it’s in the bidding, but I suspect it’s not. Taking over .co would look like a “buy it to kill it” strategy, which would be horrible optics for the Colombian government.

There have only ever been three migrations over one million names, to my knowledge: the Verisign->Afilias .org transition of 2003, the Neustar->Afilias .au move of 2018, and last year’s Afilias->Neustar .in handover.

CentralNic, Nominet and Donuts have all moved numerous TLDs between back-ends, but with much smaller per-TLD domain volumes.

Third — and here’s the kicker — the successful .co bidder will have to show that it processes on average 25 million registry transactions — defined as “billable EPP (write) transactions, as well as all EPP search (read) transactions” — per day. (All of the RFP quotes in this post have been machine-translated from Spanish by Google and run by a few generous Spanish speakers for verification.)

The RFP is not entirely clear on what exact data points it’s looking at here, but my take is that qualifying transactions include, at an absolute minimum, attempts to create a domain, renew a domain, transfer a domain and check whether a domain is registered.

The vast majority of such transactions are in the check and create functions, and I believe a great deal of that activity relates to drop-catching, where registries are flooded with add requests for just-deleted domains.

Whichever way you split it, 25 million a day is a ludicrously high number. Literally only .com, which sees 2.3 billion checks and 1.5 billion adds per month, sees that kind of action.

According to Neustar, which actually runs .co, it only sees 6.4 million transactions per day on average. The requirement to handle 25 million a day is “exaggerated, unjustified and discriminatory” against Neustar, Neustar told MinTIC.

But the RFP allows for the bidding registries to spread their 25-million-a-day quota across all of the TLDs they manage, and this MAY sneak Afilias over the line.

I say MAY in big letters because I don’t believe the numbers that Afilias (and probably other registries too) reports to ICANN every month are reliable.

If you add up the reported, qualifying EPP transactions for September in Afilias’ top four legacy gTLDs — .org, .info, .mobi and .pro — you get to over 25 million per day.

But those same records show that, for example, .mobi, .pro and .info had exactly the same number of EPP availability checks that month — 215,988,497 each.

This is clearly bad data.

I reported on this issue last May, when ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee informed ICANN that major registries were providing “not reliable” or possibly “fabricated” data about port 43 Whois queries.

Afilias, which was one of the apparent offenders, told me at the time that it was addressing the issue with ICANN, but it does not yet appear to have fully fixed its reporting to enable TLD-by-TLD breakdowns of its registry activity.

It is of course quite possible, even very likely, that Afilias has on average more than 25 million qualifying EPP transactions per day, but how’s it going to prove that to the Colombian government when the numbers it reports under contract to ICANN are clearly unreliable?

It’s a little harder to determine whether Neustar would qualify under the 25-million transaction rule, because some of its largest zones are ccTLDs — .co, .in and .us — that do not publicly report this kind of data. Its comments to the RFP suggest it would not.

Numbers aside, I’ll note that there’s very probably an inherent bias towards legacy gTLD operators like Afilias and against relative newcomers such as CentralNic if you’re counting EPP transactions. As I noted above, a lot of these transactions are coming from drop-catch activity, which is more prevalent on larger, older TLDs where there are more dropping domains that are more likely to have existing backlinks and traffic.

The fourth technical requirement in the Colombian RFP that looks a bit fishy is the requirement that the new registry must have channel relationships with at least 10 of the largest 25 registrars, as listed by a web site called domainstate.com.

I can’t say I’ve looked at domainstate.com very often, if at all, but a quick look at its numbers for September strongly suggests to me that it does not count post-2012 new gTLD registrations in its registrar league table. One registrar with almost four million domains under management doesn’t even show up on the list. This arguably could give an advantage to a registry that plays strongly in legacy gTLDs.

That said, it’s probably an academic point — I don’t think any of the bidders for the .co contract would have difficulty showing that they have 10 of the top 25 registrars on board, whichever way you calculate that league table.

Cumulatively, these four technical hurdles have led some to suggest that Afilias has somehow steered MinTIC towards creating an RFP only it could win.

Apart from what I’ve discussed here, I’ve no evidence that is the case, and Afilias has not yet responded to my request for comment today.

Luckily for the bidding registries, the Columbian RFP has not yet been finalized. Comments submitted by the bidders and others are apparently going to be taken on board, so the barriers to entry for respondents could be lowered before bids are finally accepted.

MinTIC posted an update last night that extends the period that the RFP could run, and the transition period should Neustar lose the contract. A handover, should one happen at all, could now happen as late as February next year.

SaveDotOrg to protest outside ICANN HQ. #lol

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2020, Domain Registries

Good grief.

Just when you thought the outrage over .org manager Public Interest Registry’s imminent sale to Ethos Capital couldn’t get any weirder, the #SaveDotOrg campaign has announced that it is going to physically protest ICANN’s headquarters in Los Angeles next week.

From 0900 until 1100 local time, Friday January 24, they’ll gather to demand that non-profit voices are heard in ICANN’s decision whether to approve the acquisition. From the announcement:

Join us in demanding that ICANN commit to a process that includes the voices and priorities of nonprofits and grassroots organizations. The .ORG domain isn’t up for sale without our participation. We’ll rally outside ICANN’s offices in Los Angeles on Friday, January 24. This is an important moment in the SaveDotOrg campaign, and we want you to join us!

Sloganed T-shirts and signs will be available.

The event is being organized by NTEN, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight For The Future. All very lovely people; I can’t see this turning into some Hong Kong-style riot situation.

Unusual as it is, this kind of direct action against ICANN is not unprecedented.

Back in 2011, a group of pornographers and civil liberties activists gathered outside the Westin St Francis hotel in San Francisco to, where ICANN was holding its public meeting, protest the imminent approval of .xxx, which they thought was a threat to free speech online. About 25 people showed up, by my count, chanting slogans such as “We want porn! No triple-X!”. Buttman was there.

Those protesters, it turns out many years later, really had nothing to worry about; nobody has been forced to buy a .xxx domain, and my friends tell me porn is still very much available on the internet.

I rather suspect the #SaveDotOrg guys are in the same boat. Of all the arguments against the acquisition, the one claiming that free speech is at risk still seems to me the least convincing.