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The .org deal may be dead and buried, but calls remain for PIR to lose its contract

The Internet Society has revealed that the .org registry operator PIR is no longer for sale.

The news came in a statement from ISOC chair Andrew Sullivan late Friday, less than 24 hours after ICANN withheld its consent for the proposed $1.13 billion acquisition by private equity firm Ethos Capital.

ICANN had held the door open for Ethos and ISOC to resubmit a change of control request, and Ethos had said Thursday that it was evaluating its options, but it appears the decision has been made to keep PIR under ISOC’s wing.

In his statement, Sullivan expressed his dismay that ICANN had acted as a “regulator” by evaluating the deal using a public interest test rather than simply rubber-stamping it as it has in all other cases of registry acquisitions. He wrote:

It should concern the Internet community that ICANN has shown itself to be much more susceptible to political pressure than its limited mandate would recommend.

Now that we know that ICANN believes its remit to be much larger than we believe it is, we can state this clearly: neither PIR nor any of its operations are for sale now, and the Internet Society will resist vigorously any suggestion that they ought to be.

But who would want to, or could afford to, buy it? While ICANN has made it clear that PE firms are welcome to acquire other TLDs, it wants .org to remain in non-profit hands.

During the last few months of controversy, one other embryonic effort to take over .org was announced, led by founding ICANN chair Esther Dyson.

Called the Cooperative Corporation of dot-org Registrants (CCOR), it had no intention of handing over a billion dollars for .org, it simply wanted ICANN to assign the contract to its control.

It still wants that, or something like that. In a statement Saturday, CCOR said it “calls upon ICANN to proceed with the established multi-stakeholder led open request for proposals for stewardship of the dot-org domain”.

Unless it can be shown that PIR has seriously broken the terms of its Registry Agreement, the chances of ICANN randomly opening up .org to tender is pretty much zero.

CCOR goes on to say that it is still worried about .org falling into private hands and that it will lobby for legally binding policies “including the preservation of privacy, diversity and human rights, and freedom from censorship”.

“Dangerous precedent” as ICANN rejects $1.13 billion .org buyout

In a decision that will shock many, ICANN won’t let Ethos Capital buy Public Interest Registry from the Internet Society.

Its board of directors yesterday voted to reject PIR’s request for a change of control of the .org contract, saying that “the public interest is better served in withholding consent”.

Ethos responded angrily almost immediately, saying the decision “sets a dangerous precedent with broad industry implications” and that it is “evaluating its options”.

The ICANN resolution, which was published overnight, is justified by setting out the case that .org is a unique case: a large legacy gTLD with a mandate to serve non-profit entities.

The Board was presented with a unique and complex situation – a request to approve a fundamental change of control over one of the longest-standing and largest registries, that also includes a change in corporate form from a viable not-for-profit entity to a for-profit entity with a US$360 million debt obligation, and with new and untested community engagement mechanisms relying largely upon ICANN contractual compliance enforcement to hold the new entity accountable to the .ORG community. ICANN is being asked to agree to contract with a wholly different form of entity; instead of contracting with the mission-based not-for-profit that has responsibly operated the .ORG registry for nearly 20 years, with the protections for its own community embedded in its mission and status as a not-for-profit entity. If ICANN were to consent, ICANN would have to trust that the new proposed for-profit entity that no longer has the embedded protections that come from not-for-profit status, which has fiduciary obligations to its new investors and is obligated to service and repay US$360 million in debt, would serve the same benefits to the .ORG community.

Essentially, ICANN is holding ISOC to the by-and-for non-profits commitment that it made when it inherited the registry from Verisign back in 2002. You may recall I went into some depth on the history of .org back in December.

While noting the broad criticism from various parties — which included domainers and non-profits — about the proposed acquisition, the resolution makes specific reference to the investigation by the office of the California attorney general, which had made vague threats of legal action against ICANN.

Some commentators, including Jonathan Zuck and Michele Neylon — are worried that the AG’s influence now means ICANN has a new boss, and that special interest groups in future need only lobby his office in order to override community-built consensus.

But ICANN did not single out one reason for its decision, saying withholding consent was “reasonable in light of the balancing of all of the circumstances”.

Ethos, while not calling out the AG directly, made the broader claim that ICANN has acted outside its mandate by succumbing to lobbying by outside parties.

Its statement, which I think contains hints at future legal action, reads in full:

Today’s decision by ICANN sets a dangerous precedent with broad industry implications. ICANN has overstepped its purview, which is limited to ensuring routine transfers of indirect control (such as the sale of PIR) do not impact the registry’s security, stability and reliability. Today’s action opens the door for ICANN to unilaterally reject future transfer requests based on agenda-driven pressure by outside parties. It allows ICANN to base its decisions on a subjective interpretation of what it deems to be relevant in these transactions, rather than following its own clear and specified legal directive.

This decision will suffocate innovation and deter future investment in the domain industry. ICANN has empowered itself to extend its authority into areas that fall well outside of its legal mandate in acting as a regulatory body. Today’s decision also creates an uncertain and unpredictable business environment, where the enforceability and value of the ICANN contract itself may be called into question now that the rules of transferring ownership are open to influence by outside interests. Ethos is evaluating its options at this time.

In the same statement, PIR called the decision “a failure to follow its bylaws, processes, and contracts” and ISOC said ICANN “has acted as a regulatory body it was never meant to be”.

While the decision could be chalked up as a win for domain investors and civil libertarians that had challenged the acquisition, it has implications that may not entirely please them.

Assuming the deal stays dead, PIR is no longer promising to only increase prices by 10% a year. It will be able to raise its registry fee arbitrarily, whenever it likes, subject to notice periods and the usual uniform pricing rules.

Domainers will have to hope there’s no sour grapes at ISOC, or they could be looking at big price hikes before long.

And for those interested in censorship, remember PIR is no longer committing to a Stewardship Council that would help protect free speech in .org domains.

The ICANN decision came in spite of a last-minute plea from former chair and ISOC co-founder Vint Cerf, who in a letter (pdf) described the deal as a “wedge issue” that could be leverage to force ICANN into an existential crisis, with outside interests such as the ITU pushing itself as a replacement.

ICANN also received eleventh-hour submissions from the German government (which was against the deal) and German trade group Eco (which was vague but appeared to be for the deal).

Decision on .org deal may come sooner than you think

Kevin Murphy, April 28, 2020, Domain Registries

If you’re against the acquisition of .org and are thinking about an objection or spot of lobbying at the eleventh hour, be aware: this is the eleventh hour.

The deal, which would see Ethos Capital buy Public Interest Registry from the Internet Society for over a billion dollars, is on the agenda for a meeting of the ICANN board of directors this Thursday.

ICANN and Ethos have agreed to a May 4 deadline for a decision, but is whispered that the board plans to give the deal the nod, or not, at the Thursday meeting.

Given how long it usually takes for ICANN to post the results of its board meetings, typically a few days, there’s a decent chance that PIR, Ethos and ISOC could be given formal approval before any opponents have time to react to the resolution.

I think it could go either way.

The one thing I have a fairly high degree of confidence in is that I do not expect a unanimous vote.

While I think ICANN’s institutional instincts are to approve, the breadth and depth of the outrage over the deal may be difficult for some directors to ignore.

If it were only domain investors objecting, approval would be a slam dunk. But here we also have non-profits, civil liberties groups and governments crying foul.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s the objection of the California attorney generalobjection of the California attorney general to consider.

He has power over ICANN because it’s a non-profit registered in his state, and he’s said “will take whatever action necessary to protect Californians and the nonprofit community”.

His last letter to ICANN is believed to have caused the board to remove the .org deal from the agenda at its last meeting and seek a deadline extension from PIR.

One plausible interpretation of that chain of events is that the board was ready to give Ethos the nod, but the AG’s letter gave it pause.

Verisign expects to sell fewer domains because of coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign doesn’t expect its domain name base to grow as fast as previously expected this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday night, it ever so slightly downgraded its guidance for the year, saying it expects domains to grow by between 2% and 3.75%, compared to a previous high-end estimate of 4%.

It’s not a lot, but given how many domains Verisign has under management it still adds up to hundreds of thousands of domains and a few million in lost potential revenue.

CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts that the updated guidance reflected a “more cautious” outlook given the “uncertainty presented by Covid-19”.

It’s encouraging news for anyone wondering how the pandemic will effect the domain industry: the market-leading registry does not expect a big impact.

Verisign’s domain base totaled 160.7 million at the end of the quarter — 147.3 million in .com and 13.4 million in .net — which equates to growth of 3.8% over Q1 2019.

The growth is coming from .com — total .net regs were down by about 400,000 year over year.

The update came during Verisign’s first-quarter earnings call, which once again showed the .com registry printing money. It even managed to report net income higher than revenue, due to some quirks in its historical tax recognition.

For the three months to March 31, the company had net income of $334 million, compared to $163 million a year earlier, on revenue that was up 2% at $313 million.

Even discounting that bottom-line tax-related boost of $168 million, profits were up. Operating income was $206 million, up 3%, and the operating margin was up from 65.4% to 66%.

Even before the perhaps inevitable price increases next year, Verisign’s still managing to grow its margins organically, demonstrating that any prices hikes will be going straight to its bottom line and its shareholders’ pockets.

The company bought back $245 million of stock during the quarter and has another $826 million tucked away for further repurchases.

Coronavirus lockdown is working out great for at least one registry

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2020, Domain Registries

The Dutch ccTLD registry has revealed that its volume of new registrations has been growing rapidly since the Netherlands implemented its coronavirus lockdown measures.

“Since the measures came into effect, Dutch entrepreneurs and private individuals registered over 85,000 .nl domain names, 10,000 more than in the same period in 2019,” SIDN said today (translated from the Dutch by Google).

Only about 2% to 3% of these names relate directly to the pandemic, the registry said.

There were 5,930,715 .nl domains registered as of April 20, an increase of about 17,000 from the start of the month.

A survey of registrants carried out for SIDN found that 100% of them intended to use their domains for online-only activities, as opposed to using them to promote a bricks-and-mortar business, for the first time.

SIDN’s good luck may not be shared by all in the industry, however.

ICANN, which is funded by a tax on registration fees, is to host a call next week in which it will explain how it will have to adapt its budget to respond to the impact of the pandemic.

If we take Verisign’s .com as a benchmark, its zone file has grown by roughly 383,000 domains since the end of March. In the same period last year, the increase was 434,000.

Tonight, Verisign is due to report its first-quarter numbers, and no doubt we will get some color on how its bosses think the virus will affect the market.

Four more dot-brands join the gTLD deadpool

Kevin Murphy, April 21, 2020, Domain Registries

Four big-brand gTLDs have asked ICANN to terminate their contracts so far this year, bringing the total number of voluntarily discontinued strings to 73.

Notable among the terminations are two of the three remaining gTLDs being held by luxury goods maker Richemont, both of them Chinese-language generics.

It’s dumped .珠宝 (.xn--pbt977c) which is “.jewelry”, and .手表 (.xn--kpu716f) which is “.watches”.

The company, which applied for 14 gTLDs in the 2012 round, has already gotten rid of nine dot-brands. Only the English-language .watches remains of its former portfolio.

Also being terminated is .esurance, named for an American insurance provider owned by Allstate. This appears to be related to Allstate’s plan to discontinue the Esurance brand altogether this year.

There is still one .esurance domain active and listed in Google’s index: homeowners.esurance.

Allstate continues to own .allstate, which has a few active domains (which forward to its primary .com domain).

Finally, French reinsurance giant SCOR wants rid of .scor, which it has not been using.

To show new focus on registry, Uniregistry dumps “registry” from its brand. Um…

Uniregistry (or possibly “Uni Registry” or just “Uni”) has announced that it is changing its branding yet again.

UNR logoThe company now wishes to be known as UNR, which stands for Uni Naming & Registry, according to a press release today.

The change is related of course to the acquisition of several former Uniregistry business units — namely the registrar, the portfolio and the marketplace — by GoDaddy. That was announced in February but appears to have just closed.

UNR said it is “singularly focused on registry expansion”. It manages 20-odd of its own gTLDs and offers registry back-end services to others.

Its old web site, uniregistry.com, now displays GoDaddy branding — “Uni, a GoDaddy brand” — and functions as a retail registrar.

UNR is now using unr.link and unr.com, according to the press release. Both, for me, resolve to uniregistry.link — .link is one of the gTLDs UNR runs under ICANN contract.

So, Uniregistry is now a registrar in the GoDaddy stable and UNR is the registry. Or something. Got it? Good.

Ethos clarifies .org price rises, promises to reveal number of censored domains

Public Interest Registry and would-be owner Ethos Capital have slightly revised the set of promises they hope to keep if ICANN approves the $1.13 billion acquisition.

Notably, in updating their proposed Public Interest Commitments (pdf), they’ve set out in plain dollar terms for the first time the maximum annual price PIR would charge for a .org domain over the coming seven years.

Applicable Maximum FeeTime Period
$9.93June 30, 2019 to June 29, 2020
$10.92June 30, 2020 to June 29, 2021
$12.02June 30, 2021 to June 29, 2022
$13.22June 30, 2022 to June 29, 2023
$14.54June 30, 2023 to June 29, 2024
$15.99June 30, 2024 to June 29, 2025
$17.59June 30, 2025 to June 29, 2026
$19.35June 30, 2026 to June 29, 2027

Previous versions of the PICs just included a formula and invited the reader to do the math(s).

The two companies are proposing to scrap price caps altogether after June 2027.

If ICANN rejects the deal, under its current contract PIR would be free to raise its prices willy-nilly from day one, though some believe it would be less likely to do so under its current ownership by the non-profit Internet Society.

The new PICs also include a nod to those who believe that PIR would become less sensitive to issues like free speech and censorship — perhaps because China may lean on Ethos’ shadowy billionaire backers. The document now states:

Registry Operator will produce and publish annually a report… This report will also include a transparency report setting forth the number of .ORG domain name registrations that have been suspended or terminated by Registry Operator during the preceding year under Registry Operator’s Anti-Abuse Policy or pursuant to court order.

A few other tweaks clarify the launch date and composition of its proposed Stewardship Council, a body made up of expert outsiders that would offer policy guidance and have a veto on issues such as changes to .org censorship and privacy policy.

The PICs now ban family members of people working for PIR from sitting on the council, and clarify that it would have to be up and running six months after the acquisition closes.

Because .org is not a gTLD applied for in 2012, the PICs do not appear to be open for public comment, but post-acquisition changes to the document would be.

ICANN currently plans to approve or deny the acquisition request by April 20, just 11 days from now.

Coronavirus: more delay and free domains for .gay

Top Level Design is delaying its general-availability launch of .gay domains for an indeterminate period due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company said that the new gTLD, which had been slated to go GA May 20, will instead carry on in its trademark holders’ sunrise period indefinitely, until it’s figured out a new launch date.

But in the meantime it’s going to offer a “limited” number of .gay domains for free to any “LGBTQ organization, community group, individual, or small business looking for ways to foster digital Pride”.

These will presumably come from the pool of 100 domains that ICANN permits new gTLD registries to allocate prior to launch, so it certainly will not be a free-for-all.

It’s not the first time Top Level Design has rescheduled its launch. It had originally planned to come out to coincide with National Coming Out Day last October, but delayed to give it more time to get its marketing ducks in a row.

It looks like prospective .gay registrants are going to have to wait until the world’s attention is not so obsessively focused on coronavirus and life has somewhat returned to normal before they nab their names.

ICANN grants Verisign its price increases, of course

Kevin Murphy, March 30, 2020, Domain Registries

ICANN has given Verisign its ability to increase .com prices by up to 7% a year, despite thousands of complaints from domain owners.

The amendments give Verisign the right to raise prices in each of the last four years of its six-year duration. The current price is $7.85 a year.

Because the contract came into effect in late 2018, the first of those four years begins October 26 this year, but Verisign last week said that it has frozen the prices of all of its TLDs until 2021, due to coronavirus.

Not accounting for discounts, .com is already already worth $1.14 billion in revenue to Verisign every year, based on its end-of-2019 domains under management.

In 2019, Verisign had revenue of $1.23 billion, of which about half was pure, bottom-line, net-income profit.

In defending this shameless money-grab, ICANN played up the purported security benefits of the deal, while offering a critique of the domainers and registrars that had lobbied against it.

Göran Marby, ICANN’s CEO, said in a blog post.

I believe this decision is in the best interest of the continued security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet.

Overall, the decision to execute the .COM Registry Agreement amendment and the proposed binding Letter of Intent is of benefit to the Internet community.

The decision was explained in more detail in a eight-page analysis document (pdf) published late last week.

I’ll summarize this paper in three bullet points (my words, not ICANN’s):

  • Domainers are hypocrites.
  • The deal is good for DNS security.
  • Our hands were tied anyway.

First, while ICANN received over 9,000 comments about the proposed amendment, almost all negative, it said that publicity campaigns from domainer group the Internet Commerce Association and domainer registrar Namecheap were behind many of them.

the Internet Commerce Association (ICA) and Namecheap, are active players in the so called “aftermarket” for domain names, where domain name speculators attempt to profit by “buying low and selling high” on domain names, forcing end users to pay higher than retail prices for desirable domain names

It goes on to cite data from NameBio, which compiles lists of secondary market domain sales, to show that the average price of a resold domain is somewhere like $1,600 (median) to $2,400 (mean).

Both Namecheap and ICA supporter GoDaddy, which sells more .coms than any other registrar, have announced steep increases in their .com retail renewal fees in recent years — 20% in the case of GoDaddy — the ICANN document notes.

This apparent hypocrisy appears to be reason ICANN felt quite comfortable in disregarding many of the negative public comments it received.

Second, ICANN reckons other changes to the .com contract will benefit internet security.

Under a side deal (pdf) Verisign’s going to start giving ICANN $4 million a year, starting next January and running for five years, for what Marby calls “ICANN’s initiatives to preserve and enhance the security, stability, and resiliency of the DNS.” These include:

activities related to root server system governance, mitigation of DNS security threats, promotion and/or facilitation of Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) deployment, the mitigation of name collisions, and research into the operation of the DNS.

Note that these are without exception all areas in which ICANN already performs functions, usually paid for out of its regular operating budget.

Because it looks like to all intents and purposes like a quid pro quo, to grease the wheels of getting the contract amendments approved, Marby promised that ICANN will commit to “full transparency” as to how its new windfall will be used.

The new contract also has various new provisions that standardize technical standardization and reporting in various ways, that arguably could provide some minor streamlining benefits to internet security and stability.

But ICANN is playing up new language that requires Verisign to require its registrars to forbid their .com registrants from doing stuff like distributing malware and operating botnets. Verisign’s registrar partners will now have to include in their customer agreements:

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;

Don’t expect this to do much to fight abuse.

It’s already a provision that applies to hundreds of other TLDs, including almost all gTLDs, and registrars typically incorporate it into their registration agreements by way of a link to the anti-abuse policy on the relevant registry’s web site.

Neither Verisign nor its registrars have any obligation to actually do anything about abusive domains under the amendments. As long as Verisign does a scan once a month and keeps a record of the total amount of abuse in .com — and this is data ICANN already has — it’s perfectly within the terms of its new contract.

Third and finally, ICANN reckons its hands were pretty much tied when it comes to the price increases. ICANN wrote:

ICANN org is not a competition authority or price regulator and ICANN has neither the remit nor expertise to serve as one. Rather, as enshrined in ICANN’s Bylaws, which were
developed through a bottom up, multistakeholder process, ICANN’s mission is to ensure the security and stability of the Internet’s unique identifier systems. Accordingly, ICANN must defer to relevant competition authorities and/or regulators, and let them determine if any conduct or behavior raises anticompetition concerns and, if so, to address such concerns, whether it be through price regulation or otherwise. As such, ICANN org has long-deferred to the DOC and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for the regulation of wholesale pricing for .COM registry services.

It was of course the DoC, under the Obama administration, that froze Verisign’s ability to raise prices and, under the Trump administration, thawed that ability in November 2018.

If you’re pissed off that the carrying cost of your portfolio is about to go up, you can blame Trump, in other words.