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Another victory for Amazon as ICANN rejects Colombian appeal

Kevin Murphy, September 9, 2019, Domain Registries

Amazon’s application for .amazon has moved another step closer to reality, after ICANN yesterday voted to reject an appeal from the Colombian government.

The ICANN board of directors voted unanimously, with two conflict-related abstentions, to adopt the recommendation of its Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which apparently states that ICANN did nothing wrong when it decided back in May to move .amazon towards delegation.

Neither the board resolution nor the BAMC recommendation has been published yet, but the audio recording of the board’s brief vote on Colombia’s Request for Reconsideration yesterday can be found here.

As you will recall, Colombia and the seven other governmental members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization have been trying to stymie Amazon’s application for .amazon on what you might call cultural appropriation grounds.

ACTO governments think they have the better right to the string, and they’ve been trying to get veto power over .amazon’s registry policies, something Amazon has been strongly resisting.

Amazon has instead offered a set of contractual Public Interest Commitments, such as giving ACTO the ability to block culturally sensitive strings, in the hope of calming the governments’ concerns.

These PICs, along with Amazon’s request for Spec 13 dot-brand status, will likely be published for 30 days of public comment this week, Global Domains Division head Cyrus Namazi told the board.

Expect fireworks.

After comments are closed, ICANN will then make any tweaks to the PICs that are necessary, before moving forward to contract-signing with Amazon, Namazi .said.

Why you should never let a pizza joint apply for your billion-dollar dot-brand

Kevin Murphy, September 9, 2019, Domain Registries

A multi-billion dollar telecoms company has lost its two dot-brand gTLDs after apparently hiring a failed pizza restaurant to manage them.

For reals.

Several times a year, my friends at other domain news blogs will post cautionary tales about companies losing their domains after falling out with the consultant or developer who originally registered the names on their behalf.

I believe this story is the first example of the same thing happening at the top level, with two valuable dot-brand gTLDs.

It concerns the Saudi Arabian telco Etihad Etisalat, which does business as Mobily. It’s publicly traded, with millions of subscribers and 2018 revenue of the equivalent of $3.14 billion.

The two gTLDs we’re concerned with are .mobily and موبايلي. (.xn--mgbb9fbpob), the Arabic version of the brand.

Back in 2012, a Bahrain company called GreenTech Consultancy Company applied for both of these TLDs. The applications made it explicit that they were to be single-registrant dot-brands to be used by Mobily.

Quite what the relationship between Mobily and GreenTech was — if there even was one — isn’t particularly clear.

GreenTech’s shareholders were Anwar Ahmed and Asma Malik, two Pakistani nationals living in Bahrain, according to Bahrain business records.

Its web site is an laughable mess of broken English, shameful grammar, irrelevant and impenetrable technobabble (much of which appears verbatim on several other South Asian tech companies’ web sites), and a suggestion that the company is primarily in the business of selling satellite modems.

The site just stinks of bogosity. It looks like a dirt-cheap developer threw the site together during his lunch break for beer money.

Bahrain company records show that GreenTech shared a registration with a company called Greentech Pizzeria Restaurant. Same two directors, same address, same company number.

The consultancy company was formed in February 2012 — during the ICANN application window — and the pizza joint opened a bit over a year later.

Why a multi-billion dollar telecommunications company would entrust its brands to these guys, if that is in fact what happened, is a bit of a mystery.

From information that has recently emerged, which I’ll get to shortly, it appears that the true applicant was a Los Angeles-based gTLD consultancy called WiseDots, which in 2011 was co-founded by recently departed ICANN CFO Kevin Wilson and Herman Collins.

WiseDots employees Collins, Wael Nasr and Alan Bair were all at some point listed as primary or secondary contacts for the two applications, as was domain lawyer Mike Rodenbaugh of Rodenbaugh Law.

Wilson left WiseDots in May 2012 and rejoined three years later as CEO after a stint at Donuts. He’s currently listed as the Admin contact for both Mobily gTLDs in the IANA records.

It appears that Mobily signed a letter of intent with WiseDots on April 9, 2012, just three days before the ICANN application window closed, and that was later formalized into a contract in 2014, six months before GreenTech signed its contracts with ICANN.

Both applications made it through ICANN’s evaluation process with apparently no trouble — there were no objections on trademark or any other grounds — and the Registry Agreements were signed in December 2014.

It’s worth noting that neither contract contains Specification 13, which is required for a registry to operate as a dot-brand. If you want to run a dot-brand, you have to show ICANN that you own a trademark matching the string you’ve applied for.

GreenTech did actually submit requests for Spec 13 approval (pdf) — a week after the contracts were already signed — but at a later date both were either withdrawn or rejected by ICANN for reasons unknown.

Both requests include what appear to be scans of Saudi trademark certificates, but they’re both in Arabic and I’ve no idea who they’re assigned to. Presumably, Mobily, which may explain why GreenTech couldn’t get its Spec 13.

After the contracts were signed, it took exactly one full year — the maximum delay permitted by ICANN — before they were delegated and entered the DNS root.

A year after that, in December 2016, ICANN whacked GreenTech with a breach-of-contract notice (pdf), after the company apparently failed to pay its ICANN fees.

The fees had been “past due” for at least six months. It seems quite possible GreenTech had never paid its fees after delegation.

The breach was later escalated to termination, and the two parties entered mediation.

According to Nasr, in a letter to ICANN, Mobily had promised to pay the ICANN fees, but had reneged on its promise, causing the breach.

The issue was resolved, with GreenTech apparently agreeing to some “confidential” terms with ICANN, in November 2017.

It has now transpired, from Nasr’s letter and attached confidential joint-venture agreement, that GreenTech, WiseDots, Collins, Ahmad, Nasr and yet another consultant — an Egyptian named Ahmed El Oteify, apparently with Varkon Group — made a pact in August 2016 whereby the two gTLDs would be transferred into the control of a new jointly owned Bahrain company to be called MobileDots WLL, which in turn would be owned by a new jointly owned Delaware company called MobileDots LLC.

The TLD contracts would then be transferred to Mobily, according to Nasr.

“GreenTech and the two Mobiledots companies were intended to be intermediate conduits for the future transfer of the two Mobily licenses to Mobily as their eventual Registered Operator,” he wrote.

“At no point in time was GreenTech ever contemplated as the true operator of the ‘Mobily’ gTLD licenses. Indeed, GreenTech ran a defunct pizza restaurant, and was long ago de-registered by the Bahraini government for its numerous payments and filing defaults,” he wrote.

The Delaware company was created, but there does not appear to be an official record of the Bahrain company being formed.

According to Nasr, after Mobily stopped paying its ICANN dues the joint venture partners fell out with each other over how to finance the registries. This led to GreenTech asking ICANN to terminate its contracts, which I blogged about in May.

As is customary when a brand registry self-terminates, ICANN made a preliminary decision not to transfer the GreenTech contracts to a third party and opened it up to public comments.

Nasr’s letter is the first example of anyone ever actually using that public comment opportunity.

He argued that because of the JV agreement, ICANN should instead transfer .mobily and the Arabic version to MobileDots.

ICANN declined, saying “it is not within the remit of ICANN org to transfer the TLDs to a specific successor Registry Operator (such as Mobiledots L.L.C., as Mr. Nasr requests) through this termination process”.

As a further twist in the tale, on August 23 this year, just four days before the contract terminations were due to become effective, GreenTech withdrew its requests for reasons unknown.

But it seems ICANN has had enough.

Last Thursday, it told GreenTech (Wilson and Ahmed) that it is terminating its registry contracts anyway, “invoking certain provisions set forth in the previously agreed-upon confidential terms between ICANN org and GreenTech”.

Its termination notices do not reveal what these “confidential terms” are.

But, given that GreenTech stopped existing as a legal entity in February (according to Bahrain company records) it appears it would have been on fairly solid grounds to terminate anyway.

ICANN’s decision is not open for comment this time around, and IANA has been asked to delete both TLDs from the root as soon as possible.

The upshot of all this is that a massive Saudi telco has lost both of the dot-brands it may or may not have wanted, and a whole mess of gTLD consultants appear to be out of pocket.

And the moral of this story?

Damned if I know. Something to do with pizzas, probably.

A third of the top TLDs are shrinking

Kevin Murphy, September 5, 2019, Domain Registries

Roughly one hundred of the top 300 top-level domains shrank in the second quarter, according to the latest CENTRstats Global TLD Report.

Median growth in domain registrations “hit a new recorded low” of 3.1%, the second new low in a row, CENTR said. It was 5.6% a year ago.

At the high end of the range, African ccTLDs — which have a relatively low base reg count, making impressive percentage growth easier — had median growth of 8.5%.

At the low end, European ccTLDs had median growth of 2%, CENTR said. These ccTLDs have more regs than all the other regions combined, making high-percentage growth trickier.

Europe was of course helped out by the UK, which spiked in July due to the end of the five-year second-level domain claims period, an effect I reported on last week.

Judging by CENTR’s numbers, Europe would have been virtually flat had .uk not grown by 1.1 million names in the quarter.

CENTR does not seem to count Taiwan’s .tw, the other ccTLD known to have driven growth internationally in Q2.

Verisign’s Domain Name Industry Brief, and DI’s own database, has Taiwan as the eighth-largest TLD, but it does not even make it to the CENTRstats’s top 10. (UPDATE September 9: .tw has since been added to the list.)

The gTLDs fared little better in percentage terms — up 2.4% year-over-year at the end of July. Verisign’s .com grew at 5% over the same period. For 2012-round new gTLDs, the number is 2.8%.

The CENTRstats report, which contains a whole lot more data, can be viewed or downloaded here.

These two ccTLDs drove two thirds of all domain growth in Q2

Kevin Murphy, August 30, 2019, Domain Registries

The number of registered domain names in the world increased by 2.9 million in the second quarter, driven by .com and two ccTLDs.

That’s according to the latest Verisign Domain Name Industry Brief, which was published (pdf) overnight, and other data.

The quarter ended with 354.7 million domains. Verisign’s own .com was up 1.5 million over Q1 at 142.5 million names.

ccTLDs across the board grew by 1.9 million names sequentially to 158.7 million. Year-over-year, the increase was 10.5 million domains.

The sequential ccTLD increase can be attributed almost entirely to two TLDs: .tw and .uk. These two ccTLDs appear to account for two thirds of the overall net new domains appearing in Q2.

Taiwan grew by about 600,000 in the quarter, presumably due to an ongoing, unusual pricing-related growth spurt among Chinese domainers that I reported in June.

The UK saw an increase of roughly 1.3 million domains, ending the quarter at 13.3 million.

That’s down to the deadline for registering second-level .uk matches for third-level .co.uk domains, which passed June 25.

Nominet data shows that 2LDs increased by about 1.2 million in the period, even as 3LDs dipped. The difference between this and the Verisign data appears to be rounding.

Factoring out the .uk and .tw anomalies, we have basically flat ccTLD growth, judging by the DNIB data.

Meanwhile, the new gTLD number was 23 million. That’s flat after rounding, but Verisign said that the space was actually up by about 100,000 names.

Growth as a whole was tempered by what I call the “other” category. That comprises the pre-2012 gTLDs such as .net, .org, .info and .biz. That was down by about a half a million names.

.net continued its gradual new gTLD-related decline, down 200,000 names sequentially at 13.6 million, while .org was down by 100,000 names.

The overall growth numbers are subject to the usual DNIB-related disclaimers: Verisign (and most everyone else) doesn’t have good data for some TLDs, including large zones such as .tk and .cn.

.blog registry handover did NOT go smoothly

Kevin Murphy, August 29, 2019, Domain Registries

The transition of .blog between registry back-end providers ended up taking six times longer than originally planned, due to “a series of unforeseen issues”.

Registry Knock Knock Whois There today told registrars that the move from Nominet to CentralNic took 18 hours to complete, far longer than the two to three hours anticipated.

An “unexpected database error” was blamed at one point for the delay, but KKWT said it is still conducting a post-mortem to figure out exactly what went wrong.

During the downtime, .blog registrations, renewals, transfers and general domain management at the registry level would not have been possible.

DNS resolution was not affected, so registrants of .blog domains would have been able to use their web sites and email as usual.

The migration, which covered roughly 200,000 domains, wrapped up at around 0800 UTC this morning. It seems engineers at the two back-end providers, both based in the UK, will have been working throughout the night to fix the issues.

KKWT reported the new CentralNIC EPP back-end functioning as expected but that several days of “post-migration clean-up” are to be expected.

Eighteen hours is more than the acceptable 14 hours of monthly downtime for EPP services under ICANN’s standard Registry Agreement, but below the 24 hours of weekly downtime at which emergency measures kick in.

CentralNic already handles very large TLDs, including .xyz, but I believe this is the largest incoming migration it’s handled to date.

KKWT is owned by Automattic, the same company as WordPress.com.

Donuts slashes prices on a million domains

Kevin Murphy, August 28, 2019, Domain Registries

Donuts is to overhaul the pricing on 1.1 million registry-reserved “premium” domain names, taking hundreds of thousands out of premium status altogether.

The company said today that it has decided to reduce the registration cost of 250,000 domains across its 242 new gTLDs. Discounts as deep as 90% are possible, judging by the company’s pricing page.

A further 850,000 will have their premium tag removed and return to regular pricing.

Part of the overhaul relates to the Rightside acquisition, which closed in 2017. While Rightside’s portfolio of TLDs was substantially smaller than Donuts’, it had been much more aggressive on its premium pricing.

For the domains being moved to standard pricing, Donuts will give it one last shot at squeezing a premium price out of them, however.

The company said that from September 5 to November 1 there will be a “pre-sales” event, during which registrants can pay the current premium fee for the first year on the understanding that they will renew at the standard pricing.

For example, drunk.games currently commands a roughly $130-a-year registration fee at registrars. If you buy it during the pre-sales event you’ll pay $130 for the first year but only about $20 upon renewal.

Donuts says this unusual landrush-style event is designed to make the names more attractive to investors who want to get in before prices fall.

The full effect of the price changes takes effect November 5.

It’s worth noting that standard pricing at Donuts is actually going up across most TLDs, by as much as 9%, on October 1, so you may want to check what your actual renewal fee is before buying.

A searchable database of the newly priced inventory can be found here.

.tech gTLD startups “raise $2 billion”

Kevin Murphy, August 28, 2019, Domain Registries

Tech startups using domain names in the .tech gTLD have raised $2 billion in venture capital financing over the last two years, according to Radix.

The registry looked at startups listed on Crunchbase as of June and found 650 companies using .tech domains. Of these, 170 of them had raised $2 billion in funding.

About 250 TLDs are in use by Crunchbase-listed startups, according to Radix.

According to a list provided by the company, funding amounts range from a modest $50,000 (obtained by the likes of the VR firm at virtualspaces.tech) to $620 million (obtained by the self-driving car company at aurora.tech).

Not every company on the list is still in business (if name resolution is any guide), and some of the .tech names bounce visitors to longer .com domains.

Meanwhile, domainer Morgan Linton has done a bit of similar research and discovered that 43% of the “top pick” startups appearing at Disrupt, the conference that like Crunchbase is owned by TechCrunch, are not using .com domains.

It’s a smaller sample size, but according to Linton, 18% of them use .io names. Most of the non-coms are on ccTLDs, in fact. The only new gTLD on his list is Google’s .app.

Disrupt made headlines in the domain world in 2010 when it launched its first conference web site on a .co domain, to coincide with the international launch of Colombia’s ccTLD by .CO Internet.

But that marketing deal lapsed after a year. Disrupt is back on techcrunch.com and disrupt.co is back in registry hands as a “premium” reserved name.

.co still appears on Linton’s list, however, so the initial partnership may still be bearing fruit.

CIRA replaces CORE as emergency backup registry

Kevin Murphy, August 28, 2019, Domain Registries

ICANN has switched around its line up of emergency registry providers, swapping out CORE Association for CIRA.

The organization last night announced that its three newly contracted Emergency Back-End Registry Operators are Nominet, CNNIC, and CIRA.

EBEROs are failsafe registries that will take over any gTLD that has failed or is on the verge of failing outright, putting its customers domains at risk.

The EBERO is responsible for winding down these gTLDs in an orderly fashion, giving registrants the chance to migrate to a different TLD.

So far, only .wed has entered the program, when the project with the imaginative business model of making it impractical to renew domains went out of business in 2017.

Nominet now caretakes .wed under the EBERO program.

Both Nominet (.uk) and CNNIC (.cn) have been approved EBEROs since 2013, under five-year contracts with ICANN.

CORE was also approved in 2013, but appears to have lost its contract. It’s been replaced by CIRA, the Canadian Internet Registry Association.

“We are honoured to be among this select group of trusted registry operators,” Dave Chiswell, VP of product development for CIRA, said in a statement. He said CIRA only suffered eight hours of downtime when it migrated .ca to a new back-end platform recently.

A key reason for CIRA replacing CORE is very likely geography. When ICANN put out its request for proposals last year, it made a big deal about how it wanted coverage in Europe, Asia and North America — where most gTLD registries are concentrated.

CORE is based in Switzerland. CIRA is obviously based in Canada and CNNIC is Chinese.

Another side-effect of the contract renegotiations is that ICANN is now paying 30% less for the services of the three providers, according to a recent board resolution.

The three providers are contracted for five years.

Whether, and to what extent, they’ll ever actually be triggered to provide EBERO services is open to debate.

Currently, there are six gTLDs in advanced stages of ICANN compliance proceedings, putting them at risk of having their contracts revoked: .whoswho, and five Persian-themed strings.

It’s not inconceivable than one or more of these gTLDs could wind up in EBERO, but ICANN appears to be cutting the registries a lot of slack to resolve their issues.

China’s MySpace trainwreck sells its gTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 23, 2019, Domain Registries

A once-hot Chinese social networking company that now sells used cars instead has offloaded its gTLD.

The registry contract for .ren, the Pinyin for the Chinese “人”, meaning “people”, has been transferred from Beijing Qianxiang Wangjing Technology Development Co to ZDNS International.

The original registry is better known by the name Renren.

At the time the new gTLD was applied for in 2012, Renren was at the peak of its powers, discussed in the same breath as Facebook.

A social networking site with close to 60 million active monthly users in China, it had recently raised $800 million by floating on the New York Stock Exchange.

But it has fallen on hard times since, and the site was sold for just $20 million in cash and $40 million of stock last November.

A number of articles around the same time chart its downfall, calling it a “trainwreck”, a “digital ghost town” and, even more embarrassingly, “China’s answer to MySpace”

You get the idea.

Renren the company is still a going concern due to its now-core business of selling used cars in China, but the NYSE threatened to delist its stock a couple of weeks ago because its share price had been below $1 for more than 30 days.

Now, it seems it’s getting rid of its gTLD too.

.ren has been bought (presumably) by ZDNS International, the Hong Kong-based arm of DNS service provider ZDNS.

It’s not a dot-brand. The space is open to all-comers and is currently priced competitively with .com.

The gTLD’s fortunes tracked the site’s declining popularity. It’s been on the slide, volume-wise, for years.

It peaked at around 320,000 zone file domains in November 2016, comparable to other TLDs popular in China, but today stands at around 17,000.

It’s the second registry contract ZDNS has taken over recently. A month ago, I reported it has taken over .fans from CentralNic.

ZDNS was already providing back-end services for .ren.

Second-level .au names delayed

Kevin Murphy, August 21, 2019, Domain Registries

If you’re champing at the bit to grab yourself some second-level .au domain names, you’re going to have to wait a little longer.

Australian ccTLD manager auDA said today that it is delaying the controversial release by three months, to give it more time to carry out public outreach.

In a statement, interim chair Suzanne Ewart said that “it is critically important that the changes are widely understood, backed by an education program and supported by robust business processes throughout industry.”

The original plan had been to been to make 2LDs available in a staggered manner starting at some point in the fourth quarter. The delay will push the release into 2020.

The proposed launch has been controversial among the domain investment part of the auDA membership, which largely believes that it could lead to confusion with the existing three-level structure of the .au space.