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ICANN could block Donuts from buying Afilias

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2020, Domain Registries

In what appears to be an almost unprecedented move, ICANN is to review Donuts’ proposed acquisition of rival Afilias at the highest level, raising a question mark over the industry mega-merger.

The org’s board of directors will meet Thursday to consider, among other things, “Afilias Change of Control Approval Request”.

It’s highly unusual for a change of control to be discussed at such a high level.

Every registry contract contains clauses requiring ICANN’s consent before a registry switches owners, and it has approved hundreds over the last decade. But the process is usually handled by legal staff, without board involvement.

The only time, to my memory, that the board has got involved was when it withheld consent from .org manager Public Interest Registry earlier this year.

It’s not entirely clear why Afilias has been singled out for special treatment.

It’s probably not due to its status as a legacy gTLD registry operator because of .info — when GoDaddy bought .biz operator Neustar’s registry business earlier this year, there was no such board review.

In addition, the .info contract’s change of control provisions are very similar to those in the standard new gTLD contract.

Could it be due to Donuts executives former ties to ICANN and the perception of a conflict of interest? Again, it seems unlikely.

While Donuts CEO Akram Atallah is former president of ICANN’s Global Domains Division, former ICANN CEO Fadi ChehadĂ© is no longer involved with Donuts owner Abry Partners, having jumped to erstwhile PIR bidder Ethos Capital this July.

Are there competition concerns? It’s a possibility.

Afilias holds the contracts for 24 gTLDs new and legacy, but supports a couple hundred more, while Donuts is contracted for over 240.

But between them, they have barely 10 million domains under management. Donuts isn’t even the market leader in terms of new gTLD registrations.

And ICANN avoids making competition pronouncements like the plague, preferring instead to refer to national competition regulators.

Could ICANN’s interest have been perked by the fact that Afilias is the back-end provider for .org’s 10 million domains, and the proposed Donuts deal comes hot on the heels of the failed PIR acquisition? Again, it’s a possibility.

But none of the dangers ICANN identified in the .org deal — such as pricing, freedom of speech, and the change from a non-profit to for-profit corporate structure — appear to apply here.

There could be technical concerns. Atallah told DI a couple weeks ago that the plan was to ultimately migrate its managed TLDs to its Amazon cloud-based registry.

But moving its clients’ TLDs to a new back-end infrastructure would require their consent — it would be up to PIR and its overlords at the Internet Society to agree to moving .org to the cloud.

I think it’s likely that a combination of all the above factors, and maybe others, are what’s driving the Afilias acquisition to the ICANN boardroom. It will be interesting to see what the board decrees.

Westerdal offloads two more gTLDs to Donuts

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2020, Domain Registries

Donuts has bulked out its gTLD portfolio yet again, acquiring two more strings from Fegistry and Top Level Spectrum.

ICANN records show that it recently took over the contracts for .observer and .realty.

They’re both launched, active TLDs. Both selling registries are backed by investor Jay Westerdal.

.observer was bought dormant by TLS from the British newspaper of the same name in 2016 and launched the following year with .com-competitive prices.

TLS has been marketing it as a place for news organizations, though it’s unrestricted. Registrations plateaued at about 1,000 a couple of years ago and haven’t seen much movement since.

.realty is a different story.

Fegistry paid ICANN $5,588,888 at a public auction — beating Donuts, in fact — in 2014, and launched it in 2017 with a roughly $300-a-year retail price.

It’s been cruising along with about 2,200 names under management for the last couple of years, until this September and early October, when its zone file shot up to almost 18,000 domains.

This seems to have been the result of a $0.99 promotion at Epik, which has since ended.

One would have to assume that the vast majority of those new domains will be speculative and are unlikely to renew at the full $300 reg fee a year from now.

While the contracts changed hands in late October, it’s inconceivable that Donuts was not aware of the quality of the recent registrations.

It’s not the first time Westerdal’s businesses have sold to Donuts, which took .contact off Top Level Spectrum’s hands in April 2019. That gTLD entered general availability this week.

It’s also handed off responsibility for .forum to MMX, which plans to launch it with a puzzling $1,000 price tag next March, although TLS is still listed as the ICANN contractor.

TLS still runs the controversial gripe site TLD .feedback, along with the unlaunched head-scratcher .pid.

Fegistry is still fighting for .hotel, along with rival applicants, in ICANN’s quasi-judicial Independent Review Process.

Credit union gTLD changes hands to perhaps surprising buyer

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2020, Domain Registries

Yet another new gTLD is moving to a new registry, but this time it’s not a case of a large gTLD holder bulking up its portfolio.

This time it’s .creditunion, and the new registry is 18-year-old .coop registry DotCooperation, according to ICANN records.

.creditunion was delegated to the Credit Union Nation Association, the trade group for US credit unions, in 2015 and launched in 2017.

Like .coop, it’s a tightly restricted TLD, with eligibility only for those with a “meaningful nexus to the credit union sector”.

It had 580 domains at the last count, having peaked at 640 a couple years ago. The domains are being used as primary domains by at least a couple dozen credit unions.

But volume was never the plan for .creditunion, with CUNA specifically citing .coop as its role model in its 2012 new gTLD application.

“The success of the gTLD will not be measured by the number of domain names registered. Instead, it will be measured by the level of consumer recognition and trust,” CUNA said back then.

CUNA actually announced the DotCooperation deal in a press release on its web site at the end of September, but I don’t think anyone in the domain industry noticed.

.coop, which is reserved for co-operative associations, was one of the original 2000-round new gTLDs. It’s been chugging along at relatively low volume for the last two decades, peaking at 15,000 in February 2013.

For the last few years, it’s been growing by maybe a dozen or so domains a month, and currently stands at about 8,300 names.

DotCooperation is jointly owned by the National Cooperative Business Association and the International Cooperative Alliance.

Gay charities get first taste of domain cash

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2020, Domain Registries

Top Level Design, which runs .gay, said today it has released its first tranche of cash to LGBTQ charities.

Since its September launch, it’s handed $124,400 to non-profits CenterLink and GLAAD, the company said.

Top Level Design has long promised to give 20% of its top line to these charities. At $25 a pop, that’s a $5 donation per domain.

This initial handout seems to be high, given the current level of domains under management, presumably due to higher sunrise fees and premium domains pricing.

The gTLD currently has 6,345 domains in its zone file.

CIRA hits major .ca milestone on 20th anniversary

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2020, Domain Registries

Canadian ccTLD registry CIRA has registered its three millionth domain, having grown .ca by over 160,000 names this year.

By happy coincidence, the milestone was hit November 30, exactly 20 years after CIRA officially took over the registry from its predecessor.

CIRA said that regs are up 34% this year, the boosted growth largely due to more small businesses coming online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This all means that .ca is the 12th-largest ccTLD in the world, according to the registry.

.org made $97 million last year

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2020, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry has published its 2019 tax returns, revealing a top line of $97.1 million.

That’s a tad under the $101.1 million it reported for 2018, presumably due to the declining number of .org domains under management.

It lost roughly 200,000 names in 2019, bottoming out at 10.4 million, though it has since recovered in 2020.

The returns also reveal that back-end provider Afilias was paid $18.3 million for its trouble, and ICANN was paid $2.6 million in fees.

The Internet Society, which owns PIR and uses it for most of its funding, was paid $67.5 million, up from the $48.7 million given in 2018.

The form also list the salary and bonuses for 20-odd staffers and directors, for the salary voyeurs among you.

XYZ launches its beauty-themed gTLDs with slashed prices

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2020, Domain Registries

XYZ.com is readying the launch of its four recently acquired beauty-themed gTLDs, along with one other.

.skin, .hair .makeup and .beauty entered their sunrise periods today, where they will stay until February 10.

All four were acquired from L’Oreal earlier this year, but .makeup was the only one that had launched and gone through its mandatory sunrise.

Despite this, XYZ is putting .makeup through what it calls a “trademark owner landrush”, where domains will cost IP owners about a grand.

That’s actually a lot cheaper than the price L’Oreal had the domains at during general availability — deterrent pricing of around $5,500 wholesale per year.

It looks like all four domains in this mini-portfolio will be priced around the $20 mark at registrars during general availability, which is due to begin March 2.

There’s also going to be an Early Access Period for seven days from February 10.

All of the above also applies to .quest, which XYZ acquired from a Hong Kong multilevel marketing firm a year ago. XYZ is marketing it as a TLD for “gurus, knowledgeable experts, and authorities in any field”.

“Criminal” domain suspensions drop again in .uk but thousands of pandemic domains frozen

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet suspended thousands fewer suspected criminal domains in 2020 than last year, according to the registry’s latest annual update.

For the 12 months to the end of October, Nominet took down 22,158 domains, is down from 28,937 in the year-ago period.

As usual, suspected intellectual property crime made up almost all the takedowns — the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit was behind 21,632 requests, down from 28,606.

Notably, despite the reported uptick in scams related to the coronavirus pandemic, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency made just 13 takedown requests, down from 31.

This is perhaps due to Nominet taking a proactive approach, putting domains containing certain related keywords on hold at the point of registration. It froze 3,811 such domains this year, later releasing 1,568.

Eight domains were suspended for criminal activity related to Covid-19, the company said.

There were no suspensions related to banned “rape” domains, despite over a thousand new registrations being flagged for manual review. Nor were there any takedowns of domains hosting child sexual abuse material.

It’s the second year in a row that suspensions have been down. In the 2017/18 period Nominet took down 32,813 domains.

Brits get small reprieve in Brexit domain crackdown

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2020, Domain Registries

The .eu registry has given UK-based registrants an extra window to keep hold of their domains, which will soon be deleted due to Brexit.

Brits were originally set to lose their .eu names at the end of the year, due to the expiry of the year-long Brexit transition deal.

But rather than immediately “withdrawing” these domains, EURid will now merely “suspend” them at midnight January 1.

Registrant will then have until midnight April 1 to bring their registration data back into compliance — by transferring them to an entity still based in the EU — to remove the suspension.

Suspended domains will not resolve.

All affected domains will be placed in “withdrawn” status April 1, and then will be deleted and returned to the available pool in batches from January 1, 2022.

Essentially, EURid has given procrastinating Brits a three-month final warning window to avoid losing their names, along with a de facto alert system for those who have not been paying attention.

Vaccine agency to get more domain takedown powers next year

Kevin Murphy, November 24, 2020, Domain Registries

The UK’s health regulator is going to be added to a Nominet pilot program enabling the speedy takeover of suspected criminal .uk domains next year, according to the registry.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will become the second government agency after the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit of the City of London Police to be added to the program.

The program is an expansion of the years-old takedown procedure coordinated between Nominet and law enforcement agencies, under which domains suspected by LEA of being used in criminal activity such as counterfeiting are promptly suspended by the registry.

In the pilot, when a domain is suspended it will bounce users to this informational image, rather than merely not resolving.

Nominet-landing-page-image.jpg

MHRA is the agency responsible for approving vaccines for, among everything else, COVID-19, so it’s bound to see nefarious activity next year as vaccines actually start hitting the market.

The news of its involvement was first announced in March as the pandemic took hold of the country but, like so much else in the UK government’s technology response to coronavirus, it looks like it’s going to be a year late and a quid short.