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ICANN waves off EFF concerns about the Ethos-Donuts deal

ICANN has dismissed concerns from the Electronic Frontier Foundation about the recent acquisition of Donuts by Ethos Capital.

Responding to a letter from EFF senior attorney Mitch Stoltz, ICANN chair Maarten Botterman said the deal had been thoroughly reviewed according to the necessary technical and financial stability standards.

In reviewing this transaction, the ICANN org team completed a thorough review and analysis of information provided by Ethos Capital and Donuts. Based on the review, the ICANN org team concluded that Donuts, as controlled by its proposed new owners would still meet or exceed the ICANN-adopted specifications or policies on registry operator criteria in effect, including with respect to financial resources, operational and technical capabilities, and overall compliance with ICANN’s contracts and Consensus Policies. Before its final decision on the matter, ICANN org provided multiple briefings to the Board. Following its final briefing and discussion with the Board, ICANN org approved the change of control in late March 2021.

The EFF had claimed that the anti-abuse parts of Donuts various registry agreements amounted to giving Donuts the right to “censor” domains, and it took issue with the Domain Protected Marks List domain blocking service.

Botterman noted that these predate the Ethos acquisition and were not reviewed.

Prior to the deal, which closed in March, Donuts was owned by another PE firm, Abry Partners. ICANN CEO Göran Marby had previously expressed puzzlement that the acquisition to lead to such concerns.

Domain regs dip for second quarter in a row and it’s all China’s fault

There were 363.5 million domain name registrations across all top-level domains at the end of March, down by 2.8 million names compared to the end of 2020, Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief shows.

But the losses can be attributed mostly to China, which saw plummeting .cn regs in the ccTLD world and big declines across gTLDs popular with Chinese speculators.

In .cn, regs were down a whopping four million at 20.7 million in the quarter. China has historically been subject to steep fluctuations due to local government regulations.

Overall, ccTLD registrations were down 2.4 million at 156.5 million, but that seems to be all down to China.

All the other ccTLDs in the DNIB top 10 were either flat or up slightly on Q4. The frequent wild-card .tk did not have an impact on this quarter’s numbers, staying flat.

Verisign does not break down new gTLD registrations, but zone file and transaction report data shows that the likes of .icu and .wang, which typically sell first-year regs very cheaply, were hit by material junk drops in Q1.

ShortDot’s .icu zone file shrank by 2.5 million names between January 1 and March 30. It’s still in decline in Q2, but the trajectory isn’t nearly as steep. It had 814,000 zone file names at the end of Q1.

Zodiac’s .wang was at 525,000 at the end of 2020 but had dropped to 86,000 by March 30.

.top also lost around half a million names in the first quarter.

The vast majority of regs in .icu, .top and .wang come through Chinese registrars, which often sell for under a dollar for the first year.

The DNIB reports that .com performed well as usual, up from 151.8 million reported in the Q4 report to 154.6 million, but Verisign bedfellow .net was once again flat at 13.4 million.

.autos priced waaay below its XYZ rivals

When XYZ.com tied up the automotive gTLD market by bringing .car, .cars, .auto and .autos into its portfolio last year, I speculated that a big price increase may be on the cards for .autos. I was wrong.

The registry has in fact dropped its wholesale prices by quite a lot, keeping .autos domains a fraction of the cost of their stable-brothers and competitive with .com.

XYZ said yesterday that the recommended retail price for .autos will be around $20 per year, compared to the $100 under previous owner Dominion.

The new pricing comes into effect June 14.

By contrast, .auto, .cars and .car continue to be priced at around $2,000 per year at the cheaper registrars. At others your renewal fee could be as high as $4,000.

The pricing makes .autos a much more affordable choice for the likes of smaller car dealerships and garages, as well as an option for domain investors not scared away by the risky world of new gTLDs.

Under Dominion, .autos never broke through the 500 domains under management mark. Its three siblings all have roughly 300 names in their zones, with a leaning towards corporate registrar sales.

CentralNic trumpets organic growth as its registrars reverse shrinkage

While positioning itself as a consolidator for the last few years, CentralNic today boasted that it’s also growing organically by a healthy amount.

The company reported Q1 revenue up 48% compared to a year ago at $84.4 million. Organic revenue growth for the same period was reported at 16%. It made a loss after tax of $1.4 million, but adjusted EBITDA of $10.1 million.

CentralNic’s indirect segment, which includes its registry and wholesale registrar businesses, saw revenue up 24% to $25.4 million, led by the registrar. Organic growth was 13%.

The direct segment, which comprises customer-facing retail and corporate registrars and brand monitoring services, saw revenue up 29% to $13.7 million. Organic growth was also 13%.

That segment had seen a drag from the corporate segment in 2020 that was blamed on the coronavirus pandemic, but today CentralNic said “both the Retail business and the Corporate business have returned to growth”.

The company’s newest and already biggest revenue-generating segment is online marketing, which boils down to domain monetization services. Revenue there was up 76% or 19% organically at $45.3 million.

This was largely driven by PubTONIC, a traffic arbitrage platform it acquired with Team Internet last year. The service basically allows web site owners to buy redirect traffic from parked domains.

EURid sells 1,369 Cyrillic names in five years

EURid, the .eu registry, says the Cyrillic version of its TLD has amassed just 1,369 domain registrations in its first five years of operations.

The internationalized domain name .ею is predominantly used in Bulgaria, the only EU nation where Cyrillic is the primary official script. EURid says that 51% of its .ею names have web sites in Bulgarian.

The headline number is pretty much unchanged from the year-ago figure, and is down from 1,699 at the end of June 2019.

There are 37,107 Latin-script .eu domains registered to Bulgarians today, according to the registry’s web site.

The Bulgarian ccTLD registry Register.bg runs .bg and the Cyrillic .бг, but does not publish registration statistics for either.

.eu’s only other IDN version, the Greek .ευ, has 2,708 registrations but launched much later, in 2019.

Greece has a population of around 10.7 million, compared to Bulgaria’s seven million.

EURid says that Bulgarian registrar SuperHosting.bg joined its Registrar Advisory Board earlier this year, and that it is introducing a “Best of .ею and .ευ” to its annual awards ceremony.

Afilias hints at more legal action over .web

As Verisign does everything but declare outright victory in last week’s Independent Review Process result, .web rival Afilias is now strongly hinting that its lawyers are not quite ready to retire.

John Kane, VP of Afilias (now Altanovo) said in a statement that Afilias is prepared to “take all actions necessary to protect our rights in this matter”.

This matter is of course the contested 2015 auction for the new gTLD .web, which was won by Nu Dot Co with $135 million of Verisign’s money.

Afilias thinks the winning bid should be voided because Verisign’s involvement had been kept a secret. The IRP panel stopped short of doing that, instead forcing ICANN’s board of directors to make a decision.

The earliest they’re likely to do this is at ICANN 71 later this month.

But with one IRP down, Afilias is now reminding ICANN that the board’s ultimate decision will also be “subject to review by an IRP Panel.”

So if ICANN decides to award .web to Verisign, Afilias could challenge it with another IRP, adding another two years to the go-live runway and another couple million dollars to the lawyers’ petty cash jar.

None of which should overly bother Verisign, of course, if one subscribes to the notion that its interest in .web is not in owning it but rather in preventing its competitors from owning it and aggressively marketing it against .com.

But Verisign also put out a statement reviewing the IRP panel’s decision last week, reiterating that it believes Afilias should be banned from the .web contest and banned from making any further complaints about Verisign’s bid.

While Afilias spent its press release focusing on trashing ICANN, Verisign instead focused its blog post on trashing Afilias.

According to Verisign, Afilias is no longer competent to run a registry (having sold those assets to Donuts) and is just looking for a payday by losing a private auction.

“Afilias no longer operates a registry business, and has neither the platform, organization, nor necessary consents from ICANN, to support one,” Verisign claims.

Afilias could of course outsource its would-be .web registry, as is fairly standard industry practice, either to Donuts or any other back-end operator.

ShortDot plans domain blocking service for brands

Acquisitive new gTLD registry ShortDot is planning a trademark-blocking service along the same lines as those offered by some of its rivals.

The company has applied to ICANN for permission to start a new service called ShortBlock, which it compared to blocking offerings such as Donuts’ Domain Protected Marks List.

Such services block trademarked strings from being registered across a portfolio of gTLDs for a price lower than would be charged for individual defensive registrations.

ShortBlock would also permit typo-blocking, ShortDot’s request states.

Similar services are offered by MMX and .CLUB, both of which will shortly be part of GoDaddy.

ShortDot currently has five gTLDs in its portfolio: .cyou, .sbs, .icu, .bond and .cfd.

Its back-end provider is CentralNic. It says it plans to launch ShortBlock just as soon as ICANN approves its Registry Services Evaluation Process request.

No more acquisitions for Nominet

Nominet isn’t in the market for buying up other companies any more.

The .uk registry said today that its board of directors has dissolved its mergers and acquisitions committee, which means no more deals in the rapidly consolidating domain name space for the foreseeable future.

The company said the board has “agreed to a proposal to dissolve the M&A Committee in recognition that this type of activity is unlikely to form a central component in the corporate strategy moving forward.”

It’s also dissolved its Cyber Advisory Panel, which looked for potential business opportunities in the internet security space.

The moves come a couple of months after member pressure forced the resignation or sacking of five members of Nominet’s board, including its CEO, in part because of a perception that diversification was harming the core .uk domains business.

But a spokesperson confirmed that the M&A ban is “across the board”, including core and non-core sectors. The decision may be revisited in future, but there are no plans to do so right now.

The PublicBenefit.uk campaign that forced the change of strategic direction had also called for lower .uk prices, more profit sent to public benefit causes, and for greater member engagement.

At its May board meeting, Nominet also agreed to an as-yet-unspecified pricing promotion, an emphasis on public benefit contributions in its budget, and the creation of a UK Registry Advisory Council.

A call for applications for seats on this Council will go out next week.

As .spa launches, former partner pisses in the champagne

The world’s newest gTLD is due to hit its landrush launch phase tomorrow, but a disgruntled former business partner is warning that it plans to get all the registrations cancelled.

DotPH, the ccTLD registry for the Philippines, reckons it is owed half of the equity in .spa under a 2012 agreement, and has been warning registrars that to sell .spa domains would be to breach three injunctions it has secured through a Hong Kong court.

The latest such injunction (pdf), dated April 23, in part prevents the registry, Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council:

(whether directly or indirectly and whether by itself or via its agents or service providers (viz. registrars and registry backend) (“Agents/Service Providers”), employees and/or associated corporate entities whatsoever) be restrained from entering into any agreements for the sale, lease or other use or disposal of any .spa sub-domains (“Launch Agreements”) and/or causing, procuring or giving consent to the Agents/Service Providers to enter into any Launch Agreements

The injunctions are being interpreted differently by DotPH and ASWPC.

DotPH told participating registrars — there are at least 36 of them, according to the ASWPC web site — in a May 12 letter (pdf) from its lawyers:

ASWPC must stop selling .spa domains – by itself, or by or through its agents including Registrars… ASWPC cannot allow or permit any of its Registrars to sell any .spa domains.

It goes on to say:

Our clients will seek orders to cancel all registrations accepted by the .Spa Registry in breach of the Court order. You should alert any existing registrants, and any intending registrants of the Court order, and of the likelihood that any .spa domains registered are likely to be cancelled – unless they have a contract dating before 19 April 2021 requiring ASWPC, or you, to register their domains.

ASWPC’s interpretation appears to differ, in that it does not believe registrars are bound by the injunction, due to the chain of contracts between registry and registrant.

DotPH says that the Hong Kong High Court is next due to consider the case in August.

The .spa landrush phase is due to run from 1600 UTC May 26 until October 1. It’s ostensibly a community-based gTLD, but has eligibility policies that make it open to essentially anyone.

ICANN to auction off first failed new gTLD

ICANN is planning to auction off .wed, the first new gTLD from the 2012 application round to fail.

The TLD has been running on Nominet’s Emergency Back-End Registry Operator platform since late 2017, when former registry Atgron suffered a critical failure — apparently planned — of its registry services.

After some lawyering, Atgron finally lost its registry contract last October.

Now, ICANN has confirmed that .wed will be the subject of an open Request For Proposals, to find a successor registry operator.

It’s the first time it’s had to roll out its Registry Transition Process mechanism. All previous gTLD terminations were single-registrant dot-brands that were simply quietly removed from the DNS root.

The RFP will basically amount to an auction. Registries will have to pass the usual technical and financial background checks, but ultimately the winner will be selected based on how much they’re willing to pay.

In ICANNese: “The RFP process will identify the highest economic proposal and utilize it as the deciding factor to proceed to evaluation.”

But the money will not stuff ICANN’s overflowing coffers. After it’s covered the costs of running the RFP, any remaining cash will go to Atgron. There’s a non-zero chance the company could make more money by failing than it ever did selling domain names.

It currently has 39 domains under management, the same 39 it’s had since Nominet took over as EBERO, and the successor registry will be expected to grandfather these names. Only 32 of the names appear to be genuine end-user registrations.

Atgron’s business model, which was almost antithetical to the entire business model for domain names, is to blame for its failure.

The company tried to sell domains to marrying couples for $50 a year, on the understanding that the renewal fee after the first two years would be $30,000.

Atgron wanted to actively discourage renewals, in order to free up space for other couples with the same names.

Unsurprisingly, registrars didn’t dig that business model, and only one signed up.

Fortunately, whichever registry takes over from Atgron will be under no obligation to also take over its business model.

ICANN said it expects to publish its RFP “in the coming months” and pick a winner before the end of the year.