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Ten years ago I predicted Oscar winners wanted a .movie gTLD. Was I right?

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Almost 10 years ago, when DI was barely a month old, I looked at that year’s Oscar nominees and predicted that a .movie gTLD could find some demand in the movie industry. Was I right?

Of course I was. As regular readers know, I’m always right. Apart from those times I’m wrong.

In 2010, there was no .movie gTLD and no publicly announced applications, but I noted at the time that almost half of the 50 nominated movies that year included the word “movie” immediately before the dot.

This year, there were 52 nominated movies across all categories (I’m well aware that this is a pretty small sample size to draw any conclusions from, but this post is just a bit of fun) so one might reasonably expect there to be roughly 25 official sites using .movie domains among them.

There are not. Only nine of the films, including four of the nine Best Picture nominees, use freshly registered .movie domains for their official sites.

These include the likes of 1917.movie, thecave.movie, joker.movie, onceuponatimeinhollywood.movie and littlewomen.movie.

.movie, managed by Donuts, has been around since August 2015. It competes with Motion Picture Domain Registry’s .film, which was not used by any of this year’s Oscars hopefuls.

What about the rest of this year’s nominees? Did they all register fresh .com domains for their movies?

No. In fact, only 10 of the 52 movies appear to have registered new .com domains for their official sites — one more than .movie — including two of the Best Picture nominations.

These fresh .com regs include domains such as parasite-movie.com, richardjewellmovie.com, ilostmybodymovie.com, forsamafilm.com and breakthroughmovie.com.

One movie — Honeyland, a North Macedonian environmentalist documentary about bees — uses a .earth domain.

I discovered today that, rather brilliantly, the Japan-based .earth registry demands registrants “voluntarily pledge to become ambassadors for Earth and do away with actions that harm Earth and its inhabitants” in its Ts&Cs.

So, of the 52 nominated movies, only 20 opted to register a new domain for their official site — down from 24 in 2010 — and that business was split evenly between .com and new gTLDs.

Whether the movies opted for a .movie domain appears to depend in large part on the distributor.

Sony appears to be a bit of a fan of the gTLD, while Fox, Disney and Warner tend to use after-the-slash branding on their existing .com domains for their films’ official sites.

I tallied 17 movies that have their official sites on their distributor’s .com/.org domain.

There are also trends that I could not have predicted a decade ago, such as the rise of streaming services. Back in 2010, Netflix was still largely a DVD-delivery player and was not yet creating original content.

But this year, seven of the Oscar-nominated movies were made and/or distributed by Netflix, and as such the official web site is the same place you go to actually watch the film — netflix.com.

A few of the nominated animated shorts don’t need official sites either — you just head to YouTube to watch them for free.

There are currently only about 3,200 domains in the .movie zone file, about 1,200 fewer than rival .film. It renews at over $300 a year at retail, so it’s not cheaper than the alternatives by a long way.

New CEO to step into the lion’s den at auDA

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Australian ccTLD manager auDA has named its next CEO: Rosemary Sinclair, current CEO of Energy Consumers Australia.

She’ll join the organization in March, about nine months after the last guy, Cameron Boardman, quit after enduring three years of controversy.

Sinclair appears to come from the consumer side of the house. As well as being a “demand-class” member of auDA, she’s also the founding CEO of ECA, which was set up to represent the rights of Australian energy customers.

She’s been involved in auDA before, sitting as a non-executive director from 2009 to 2011, and was also involved heavily in the ICANN community around the same time.

She joins the organization at a time of change, with controversial initiatives such as the release of second-level .au domains on the horizon. She’s unlikely to get an easy ride; auDA members can be a vocal, activist bunch at times.

Sinclair is a Member of the Order of Australia, an honorific handed out by the Queen, meaning she gets to put AM after her name.

She’s NOT the octogenarian former Miss Australia that pops up first when you Google her name, as much as this headline-writer wants her to be.

Secrets of the .org deal revealed, but much info remains private

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2020, Domain Registries

ICANN has published a ream of new information about the proposed acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital, a deal widely criticized for what it could mean for millions of .org registrants.

The documentation was provided to ICANN by Ethos, PIR and the Internet Society, PIR’s current owner, on the understanding that certain confidential information would remain private or would be redacted.

Almost all of the juicy financial details remain unpublished, but there’s still plenty of interesting revelations among the packet’s 27 pages.

Before we dive into the details, here are the headlines:

  • The deal is being partly funded by an enormous loan.
  • Technically, Ethos isn’t the direct buyer. There are at least three corporate entities involved in the acquisition that we haven’t heard of before.
  • Ethos won’t reveal the names of the directors of PIR’s would-be owner.
  • Another former senior ICANN staffer and long-time Fadi Chehadé collaborator has been revealed as having an interest in the acquisition.

Most of the info relates to the proposed corporate ownership structure of PIR during and following the acquisition, and it’s a little bit more complex than Ethos simply signing a check to ISOC and taking the reins at PIR.

First, PIR is going to undergo what it calls a “statutory conversion” in its home state of Pennsylvania, changing its name from Public Interest Registry to Public Interest Registry LLC — essentially changing from a non-profit to a for-profit.

The company notes that this is not a change of entity — PIR will still be PIR — but is rather a change of its company type and legal name.

At the same time, a newly created non-profit fully owned by ISOC called Connected Giving Foundation will take 100% ownership of PIR LLC, before immediately selling its entire stake to the Ethos group.

But the buyer is not, directly, Ethos Capital. Instead, it’s an acquisition vehicle, created October 24 last year in Delaware, called Purpose Domains Direct, LLC. That company is owned in turn by another vehicle, formed the same day in Delaware, called Purpose Domains Holdings LLC.

Ethos controls both of these companies. It’s not unusual for acquisitions to be carried out via subsidiaries in this way.

That said, Ethos appears reluctant to reveal the names of these companies’ directors.

In its letter to ICANN asking for approval of the acquisition, apparently sent November 14 (one day after the public announcement), the names of the three Purpose Domains Direct directors are redacted. Corporation-friendly Delaware doesn’t make it easy to get at this information either.

However, in December 20 answers to a list of dozens of questions posed by ICANN about the deal, Ethos discloses that it has expanded its proposed board to five directors — the CEO of PIR (currently Jon Nevett), alongside two people selected by Ethos and two selected by “one or more minority equity holders”.

The minority owners are not named, but they could be the three entities revealed by ISOC’s CEO last November, which include funds managed by the Perot and Romney families.

The board will therefore be controlled by Ethos and PIR together, the documents state. No proposed directors other than Nevett are named and it’s not known whether the three redacted names from the November letter are still in line for seats.

The identities of individuals involved in the deal have been of keen interest since it emerged, shortly after the acquisition was announced, that former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé was acting as an adviser to Ethos, closely enough that he actually registered at least one domain name on Ethos’ behalf.

Ethos chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta-Ouri was a senior VP at ICANN until 2016, and CEO Erik Brooks worked for 20 years at Donuts owner Abry Partners, the private equity firm where Chehadé now works as a senior advisor.

Abry is not involved in the acquisition, the new documentation states. Neither are any current ICANN staffers or any other registries or registrars.

But it turns out that yet another former senior ICANN staffer is in fact involved.

The new documentation reveals that Allen Grogan, who worked as head of contracting for the new gTLD program and then chief of contract compliance at ICANN between 2013 and 2017, is also acting as an “advisor” on the deal.

It’s not clear whether Grogan is on the payroll of Ethos, Abry, Chehadé & Company, PIR, ISOC, or none of the above, but the smart money would surely be on him having being brought on board by Chehadé. Like so many senior ICANN officers hired during Chehadé’s tenure, the two men worked together for years at other companies.

The final nugget of new information that leaped out at me in the new docs is how the deal will be funded.

The packet reveals, I believe for the first time, that a good chunk of the $1.135 billion proposed purchase price is actually being paid for with new debt.

Ethos says that Purpose Domains Direct has taken out a total of $360 million in loans from various US banks to make up the shortfall left by its own investors.

The company said that PIR — a mature, high-margin business — will easily have the money to service this debt and, as a for-profit, pay its taxes. Repayments will be less than half of what it currently pays to ISOC every year, the documents state.

The documents were published here (pdf) on Saturday. Let me know if you spot something interesting I missed.

.gay prices and availability revealed as registry promises to give 20% of revenue to charity

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2020, Domain Registries

The long-fought, once-controversial gTLD .gay is to launch a month from now.

Top Level Design, which won the string at auction against three other applicants last February, this week informed registrars that its sunrise period will begin February 10 this year. General availability will start May 20.

The registry, which beat a mission-focused, restricted “community” applicant for .gay, also said that it will give 20% of its top-line registration revenue to two LGBT charities — GLAAD and CenterLink.

With base registry fee of $25 per domain, that’s at least $5 going to gay charities for every domain sold. Registrars are being encouraged to match that donation at the retail level.

There will also be six tiers of “premium” domains — $100, $250, $650, $2,000, $5,000 and $12,500 — for which the 20% donation will also apply. Premium domains will renew at premium prices.

Top Level Design also says it is to enforce an anti-bullying policy. Any registrant using a .gay domain for “harassment, threats, and hate speech” will stand to lose their name. It’s a complaint-based enforcement policy; the registry will not actively monitor content.

Registrants who have forums on their .gay web sites will also have to police their user-generated content, to keep it in line with registry policy.

Its official policy even includes helpline numbers for bullied gay people who are feeling suicidal.

The registry appears to be making the right noises when it comes to calming concerns that an unrestricted, non-community .gay space could do more harm than good.

The key area where it diverges from the community application, which had been backed by dozens of gay-rights groups, is the lack of a ban on pornography. I’d hazard a guess that a good chunk of registration volume will come from that space.

The launch will comprise two sunrise periods and an early access period, before .gay goes to GA.

The first sunrise is the ICANN-mandated period, open only to those trademark owners with listings in the official Trademark Clearinghouse. That will run from February 10 to March 31. A second sunrise will be open to other trademarks, validated by back-end provider CentralNic. That runs from April 6 to May 6.

Both sunrise periods will include the automatic reservation of 10 potentially confusing Latin internationalized domain name variants, generated by CentralNic algorithm. This will include strings that transpose 0 and O or e and ë, for example.

EAP, the period in which early birds can grab the names they want for premium fees that decrease every day, runs from May 11 to May 17. Prices are not yet available.

GA is May 20.

Top Level Design originally planned to launch .gay last year, timed to coincide with National Coming Out Day in the US.

The new GA date appears to land on the anniversary of a landmark gay rights ruling in the US Supreme Court, Romer v Evans, but this may just be a coincidence.

.gay is launching about a month before the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, in June, so we might see some marketing around that event.

Registrars signing up to sell .gay domains are also being given some schooling, apparently courtesy of GLAAD, about what language is currently cool and uncool to use in marketing.

Apparently, the terms “homosexual”, “sexual preference” and “transvestite” are considered offensive nowadays and are therefore verboten in registrar marketing. “Queer”, as a partially reclaimed offensive term, should be used with caution.

I suppose Top Level Design had better hope the word “gay” is not added to this list any time soon, otherwise it has a serious problem on its hands.

Now .org critics actually want to take over the registry, blocking billion-dollar sale

Kevin Murphy, January 8, 2020, Domain Registries

A group of ICANN alumni and non-profits want to block the $1.135 billion sale of .org manager Public Interest Registry and for ICANN to hand over the reins to a new not-for-profit entity.

The Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants was reportedly formed in California this week, supported by a long list of opponents of the .org deal, which would see the Internet Society sell PIR to a new private equity company called Ethos Capital.

Currently not-for-profit .org would become commercial again, answerable to shareholders who want to see a return on their investment. PIR recently had its 10%-a-year price caps lifted by ICANN, enabling it to increase its annual registry fees by as much as it wants.

Founding directors of the new co-op reportedly include ICANN founding chair Esther Dyson and founding CEO Mike Roberts, neither of whom have been heavily involved in ICANN or the domain name industry for the better part of two decades.

According to Reuters, Also on the board are Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher, Jeff Ubois of the MacArthur Foundation, and Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House, which provides .org, via back-end Afilias, with DNS resolution services.

Dyson told the New York Times: “If you’re owned by private equity, your incentive is to make a profit. Our incentive is to serve and protect nonprofits and the public.”

The new registry would not have a profit motive, and excess funds would be returned to the non-profit community.

While the new group has yet to make a formal, public proposal, the idea is reportedly to persuade ICANN to block the sale of PIR to Ethos — something nobody can seem to agree is even within its powers — and instead transfer stewardship to this new co-op.

It’s a crazily ambitious goal.

The group would be basically asking ICANN to cut off ISOC’s primary funding source. PIR currently gives tens of millions of dollars a year to its owner, and after the Ethos deal ISOC intends to live off the interest of its billion-dollar windfall.

If ICANN canceled the PIR contract and handed .org to a third party, ISOC would get nothing, potentially crippling it and subsidiaries such as the IETF.

I can’t imagine such a decision, on the outside chance ICANN actually went down this path, not resulting in litigation.

The Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants is reportedly also being backed by other supporters of the #SaveDotOrg campaign (which now has over 20,000 supporters), including the free speech advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and NTEN, a conference/community hub for non-profits.

This campaign last month managed to persuade a group of four Democrat members of Congress — Ron Wyden, Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Anna Eshoo — to express their concerns about the Ethos deal and ask ISOC/Ethos/PIR a series of pointed questions about its potential ramifications.

In its response this week (pdf), the leaders of the three entities avoided directly answering the bulleted questions, but did make some commitments that I believe are new.

Notably, they said that the registry would reincorporate as a Public Benefit LLC before the acquisition closes. This is a relatively new form of legal entity, which has been described like this:

A Public Benefit LLC is a for-profit entity; however, in operating a Public Benefit LLC, the LLC’s management can take into account social, economic and political considerations without violating its fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the company.

In other words, PIR would be free to place the needs of .org’s non-profit registrants ahead of the needs of its own shareholders without opening itself up to legal action.

A “statement of public benefit” would be in its certificate of formation, and would include a commitment “to limit any potential increase in the price of a .ORG domain registration to no more than 10% per year on average”.

I’ve noted before that this is worded vaguely enough to give Ethos some flexibility to raise prices by over 10%, but the fact that it’s offering to bake a commitment on pricing into its corporate DNA may be seen as a step in the right direction by critics.

It’s also proposing a “Stewardship Council”, which would be “an independent and transparent body” tasked with providing policy guidance to PIR and overseeing a new “Community Investment Fund” that would be used for initiatives such as the annual .org awards program.

Verisign pays ICANN $20 million and gets to raise .com prices again

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign is to get the right to raise the price of .com domains by 7% per year, under a new contract with ICANN.

The deal, announced this hour, will also see Verisign pay ICANN $20 million over five years, starting in 2021, “to support ICANN’s initiatives to preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS”.

According to ICANN, the pricing changes mean that the maximum price of a .com domain could go as high as $10.26 by October 2026.

Verisign getting the right to once more increase its fees — which is likely to be worth close to a billion dollars to the company’s top line over the life of the contract — was not unexpected.

Pricing has been stuck at $7.85 for years, due to a price freeze imposed by the Obama-era US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but this policy was reversed by the Trump administration in late 2018.

The amendment to the .com registry agreement announced today essentially takes on the terms of the Trump appeasement, so Verisign gets to up .com prices by 7% in the last four years of the six-year duration of the contract.

ICANN said:

ICANN org is not a price regulator and will defer to the expertise of relevant competition authorities. As such, ICANN has long-deferred to the [US Department of Commerce] and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for the regulation of pricing for .COM registry services.

But ICANN will also financially benefit from the deal over and above what it receives from Verisign under the current .com contract.

First, the two parties have said they will sign a binding letter of intent (pdf) committing Verisign to give ICANN $4 million a year, starting one year from now, to help fund ICANN’s activities:

conducting, facilitating or supporting activities that preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS, which may include, without limitation, active measures to promote and/or facilitate DNSSEC deployment, Security Threat mitigation, name collision mitigation, root server system governance and research into the operation of the DNS

That’s basically describing one of ICANN’s core missions, which is already funded to a great extent by .com fees, so quite why it’s being spun out into a separate agreement is a little bit of a mystery to me at this early stage.

Don’t be surprised if you hear the words “bung” or “quid pro quo” being slung around in the coming hours and days by ICANN critics.

The second financial benefit to ICANN comes from additional payments Verisign will have to make when it sells its ConsoliDate service.

This is the service that allows .com registrants, via their registrars, to synchronize the renewal dates of all of the domains in their portfolio, so they only have to worry about renewals on a single day of the year. It’s basically a partial-year renewal.

Under the amended .com contract, ICANN will get a piece of that action too. Verisign has agreed to pay ICANN a pro-rated fee, based on the $0.25 per-domain annual renewal fee, for the number of days any given registration is extended using ConsoliDate.

I’m afraid to say I don’t know how much money this could add to ICANN’s coffers, but another amendment to the contract means that Verisign will start to report ConsoliDate usage in its published monthly transaction reports, so we should get a pretty good idea of the $$$$ value in the second half of the year.

The amended contract — still in draft form (pdf) and open for public comment — also brings on a slew of new obligations for Verisign that bring .com more into line with other gTLDs.

There’s no Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, so domain investors and cybersquatters can breath a sigh of relief there.

But Verisign has also agreed to a new Registry-Registrar Agreement that contains substantial new provisions aimed at combating abuse, fraud and intellectual property infringement — including trademark infringement.

It has also agreed to a series of Public Interest Commitments, along the same lines as all the 2012-round new gTLDs, covering the same kinds of dodgy activities. The texts of the RRA addition and PICs are virtually identical, requiring:

a provision prohibiting the Registered Name Holder from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, pharming, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities, including suspension of the registration of the Registered Name;

There are also many changes related to how Verisign handles data escrow, Whois/RDAP and zone file access. It looks rather like users of ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, including yours truly, will soon have access to the humongous .com zone file on a daily basis. Yum.

The proposed amendments to the .com contract are now open for public comment here. You have until February 14. Off you go.

Now PIR rubbishes .org “downtime” claims

Kevin Murphy, December 30, 2019, Domain Registries

Two of Public Interest Registry’s top geeks have come out swinging against recent claims that .org will suffer days of downtime if PIR is acquired by Ethos Capital.

Chief technology officer Joe Abley and Susanne Woolf, senior director of technology community engagement, have penned a blog post calling the recent assertions by subcontractor Packet Clearing House “baffling” and “wrong”.

PCH claimed earlier this month that should PIR fall into for-profit hands, donations made to PCH would dry up, giving Ethos no choice but to either significantly increase .org prices or risk over three days of downtime per year.

PCH is a not-for-profit provider of DNS resolution services that contracts with Afilias to support .org and a couple hundred other Afilias-managed TLDs.

But PIR’s technologists today wrote:

PCH is a contractor to Afilias and has no business relationship with PIR; consequently PCH has no access to non-public financial information. We’re more concerned with the assertions that the current costs of maintaining DNS services are only sustainable if PIR remains a non-profit, and that a for-profit PIR will need to make deep cuts to funding for operations. These inferences are at odds with our knowledge and experience regarding the costs of providing solid DNS service. To be clear – they are wrong.

They go on to say “we find that PCH’s claims about their operational costs and funding models are baffling” and to suggest that if PCH is unhappy with .org’s forthcoming for-profit status, Afilias has plenty of competitors to choose from, writing:

If PCH is unable or unwilling to continue to provide service to Afilias at current pricing, Afilias has many options to ensure that .ORG continues to function at the high levels the technical community expects.

Afilias has already rubbished PCH’s claims in a letter to ICANN.

The $1.135 billion acquisition of PIR from the Internet Society is expected to close in the first quarter, but it’s currently undergoing some scrutiny by ICANN, which has to first approve the change of control.

Afilias denies .org will go down post-acquisition

Kevin Murphy, December 23, 2019, Domain Registries

.org domains will not suffer downtime as a result of Ethos Capital’s acquisition of Public Interest Registry, according to Afilias.

Afilias, which provides PIR’s back-end registry services, wrote to ICANN (pdf) last week to reject claims by DNS resolution subcontractor Packet Clearing House that .org could suffer more than three days a year of downtime if .org moves into commercial hands.

Chief technology officer Ram Mohan wrote:

Afilias — not PCH — is responsible for ensuring that .org names remain available 100% of the time. The Afilias global DNS network is diverse and robust; PCH is a contracted secondary DNS provider. Since Afilias began supporting .org in 2003, we have maintained an exemplary record of uptime, and will continue performing at world-standard levels.

Afilias states for the record that, for .org and PIR’s other TLDs, we will continue our exemplary performance at pricing consistent with our current contract with PIR.

Not-for-profit PCH had claimed that US tax law would see almost $30 million of annual donations dry up if .org became a for-profit enterprise again.

Ethos would be forced to increase .org prices dramatically or under-invest in DNS and see days of downtime, the organization claimed.

Palestine to release all one-character .ps domains, at a price

Kevin Murphy, December 23, 2019, Domain Registries

In a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to register single-character domains under the Palestinian ccTLD, .ps.

Local registry PNINA, the Palestinian Nation Internet Naming Authority, says that on January 6 at 0800 UTC it will add these names to its premium list, making them available via approved registrars.

Wholesale prices for the first year appear to be $2,000 across the board, with a $500-a-year renewal fee. Registrants can expect to pay more at the registrar check-out.

There are no local presence eligibility requirements under PNINA policy.

While investing in ccTLDs always carries some risk and uncertainty, one imagines that .ps may be riskier than most over the long term. It’s been on the ISO 3166 list of two-letter country codes for 20 years and has been in the root since 2000, but Palestine is not a full member of the United Nations.

PIR thinks 20-year domain regs are a good idea

Kevin Murphy, December 23, 2019, Domain Registries

Want to lock in the price of a .org domain for 20 years? Public Interest Registry thinks that might be a good idea.

In a blog post, head of policy Paul Diaz wrote:

PIR supports the ICANN community conducting policy work that could extend the maximum allowable registration term to 20 years. We’d look to ICANN to support the community’s policy work and, if consensus is reached, to change the longstanding ICANN policy that currently limits registration to 10 years uniformly across all registries.

Extending the maximum permitted reg/renewal to 20 years was suggested last week by ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group as one of a few ideas to protect registrants following PIR’s acquisition by for-profit investor Ethos Capital.

It’s worth drawing the distinction here that PIR is only saying it would support consensus policy work to introduce the new limit across all gTLDs, not just .org.

And it might be a bit of a pipe-dream anyway, at least in the short term.

ICANN’s volunteer community still languishes under its perpetual workload/burnout problems, and I doubt there’s a massive appetite to open up yet another Policy Development Process right now, particularly one with potentially significant technical and business model implications.

If a PDP were to open, why would the output limit regs to just 20 years? Why not 100? Why not make the limit arbitrary?

Diaz was less committal on NCSG’s suggestion that the Uniform Rapid Suspension process be removed from the .org contract, saying merely that PIR would comply with (not necessarily support) a consensus policy emerge removing URS from all gTLDs.

On NCSG’s demand that PIR/Ethos commit itself to freedom of speech in .org, Diaz noted that PIR has suspended 36,000 .org domains this year, almost all of which were due to technical abuse such as malware distribution, botnets and phishing.

Ten domains were suspended based on content, he wrote. Eight of those were publishing child abuse material and two were illegally selling opioids.