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Five SAFE ways to buy and sell domains during the coronavirus pandemic

Kevin Murphy, April 9, 2020, Gossip

The coronavirus pandemic has hit every profession hard, and the domain industry is no exception.

Domain investors, many of whom are self-employed, lack health insurance, and are simply unable to self-isolate, may be among the hardest-hit. But no fear, I’ve put together some advice that should help you plucky domainers make it through the current crisis unscathed.

Here’s the DI Top Five Totally Legit Tips For Safe Domaining:

  • 1. Avoid domain stores. The Covid-19 virus is airborne, and can linger on hard surfaces for many hours, so it makes a lot of sense to avoid bricks-and-mortar domain stores. Believe it or not, alternatives are available. Instead of visiting your local branch of GoDaddy, why not consider staying at home and using the GoDaddy web site instead? It’s quick, simple, and a lot less hazardous to your health. Hey presto! Your domain should be delivered to your door by a FedEx guy in full hazmat gear in as little as 10 business days.
  • 2. Refrain from selling door-to-door. Carrying a suitcase full of premium domains around the streets and cold-calling at people’s front doors may be a tried and tested method of selling names, but in this era of social distancing, it’s no longer recommended. If you have a computer, why not set up an electronic mail account on the internet and use it to approach potential buyers remotely instead? They’ll appreciate it, and so will your feet!
  • 3. Limit in-person transfers. Once you and your buyer have sealed the deal, the next logical step is obviously to meet up and hand over the domain for the agreed-upon price. But many modern registrars allow their customers to transfer domains automatically online, which is a lot safer during a pandemic. If an in-person transfer is unavoidable, remember to meet your buyer in a large, public, open space and stand at least two meters (six feet) apart at all times. Do NOT shake hands — an elbow-bump or kiss on the lips will suffice — and be sure to wipe down the domain with a disinfectant cloth before placing it on the ground and backing away.
  • 4. Avoid expired domains. Domains that have already passed their expiry date are risky to your health at the best of times, but current World Health Organization advice recommends avoiding expired domains altogether in order to protect your immune system. Remember: if in doubt, throw it out!
  • 5. Buy as many “coronavirus” domains as you can. Everyone on the planet is currently obsessed with the pandemic, so it stands to reason that domain names related to the disease are surely worth many thousands of dollars each, if not millions. Experts at Verisign currently recommend that investors register as many .com domains as they can comprised of the words “coronavirus” or “covid-19” followed by literally any other word or string of digits. Domainers should also remember to buy the hyphenated AND non-hyphenated versions, just to be safe, Verisign says. And they should know — they’re all millionaires!

I hope this advice helps!

Stay indoors, social distance, and remember to take a hot bath every time you sneeze.

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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.

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No ICANN tax relief for Chinese registrars

ICANN has declined a request from dozens Chinese registrars for a fee waiver due to the impact of coronavirus.

In February, almost 50 China-based accredited registries and registrars said they were suffering financially as a result of the outbreak and asked ICANN for an “immediate fee waiver” to “greatly help stabilize our business in the difficult time”.

ICANN has denied this request. In a letter (pdf), senior director of gTLD accounts and services Russ Weinstein wrote:

While we sympathize with the potential financial impact this unprecedented event may have on contracted parties, we are not prepared to provide a waiver at this time. We are closely monitoring the situation and its impact on the domain industry. We are interested in hearing more from representatives from the contracted parties to better understand the problems both the contracted parties and the registrants are facing and ideas for potential solutions.

As I said back in February, what was then largely a Chinese problem looked likely to quickly become a global problem, which unfortunately seems to be the course we’re on. Just six weeks later, China isn’t even the worst-affected country any more.

Even without fee waivers, ICANN has noted that it expects a “significant” impact on it is 2020-21 budget due to the pandemic.

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ICANN declares coronavirus a “natural disaster” to protect expired domains

Registrants unable to renew their domain names when they expire may not lose them, following a decree from ICANN today.

The organization has declared the coronavirus a “natural disaster” and invoked part of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement that permits registrars to keep hold of domains that have come to the end of their post-expiration renewal period.

Under the RAA, registrars have to delete domains a maximum of 45 days after the reg period expires, unless there are “extenuating circumstances” such as an ongoing UDRP case, lawsuit or technical stability dangers.

There’s no accounting for natural disasters in the contract, but ICANN has the discretion to name any “other circumstance as approved specifically by ICANN” an extenuating circumstance. That’s what it’s done here.

It’s invoked this provision once before, following Hurricane Maria in late 2017.

ICANN said that policies to specifically protect domains in the event of natural disasters should be considered.

The new coronavirus exception applies to all registrars in all gTLDs, although implementation will vary by registrar.

The announcement follows Verisign’s announcement last week that it is waiving its registry-level restore fee for .com and .net domains until June 1.

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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.

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End of the road for Neustar as GoDaddy U-turns again and buys out its registry biz

GoDaddy has changed its mind about the registry side of the industry yet again, and has acquired the business of Neustar, one of the largest and oldest registries.

The deal will see GoDaddy purchase, for an undisclosed sum, all of Neustar’s registry assets, amounting to 215 TLDs and about 12 million domains.

It means the gTLD .biz is now under the new GoDaddy Registry umbrella, as are the contracts to run the ccTLDs .us, .in, and .co, 130 dot-brand gTLDs and 70 open gTLDs.

Neustar’s registry staff are also being taken on.

“We’re bringing the whole team aboard. One of the things we’re very excited about is bringing the team aboard,” Andrew Low Ah Kee, GoDaddy’s chief operating officer, told DI today.

He added that, due to coronavirus job insecurities wracking many minds right now, GoDaddy has promised its entire workforce that there will be no layoffs in the second quarter.

Nicolai Bezsonoff, currently senior VP of Neustar’s registry business, will run the new unit. He said for him the opportunity for “innovation” was at the heart of the deal.

“We’ve always been one step removed from the customer, so it can be hard to understand what customer wants to do,” he said. “This gives us huge customer insight into what customers want and how they want to use domains.”

Pressed for hypothetical examples of innovation, Bezsonoff floated ideas about selling domains for partial-year periods, or doing more to crack down on DNS abuse.

The deal is an example of “vertical integration”, which has been controversial due to the potential risk of a dominant registry playing favorites with its in-house registrar, or vice versa.

While registries such as Donuts, CentralNic and until recently Uniregistry vertically integrated with little complaint, the industry is currently nervous about Verisign’s newfound ability under its ICANN contract to own and run a registrar.

Because GoDaddy is the Verisign — the runaway market leader — of the registrar side of the industry, one might expect this deal (expected to close this quarter) to get more scrutiny than most.

But the company says it’s going to “strictly adhere to a governance model that maintains independence between the GoDaddy registry and registrar businesses”.

Low Ah Kee said that this means the registry and registrar “won’t share any information that gives or appears to given any unfair advantage” to the GoDaddy registrar, that their business performance will be assessed separately, and that they’ll be audited to make sure they’re not breaking this separation.

If GoDaddy appears to be preemptively expecting criticism, there’s a good reason why: the proposed acquisition of .org manager PIR by private equity group Ethos Capital has caused huge upset in recent months, and there are some parallels here.

First, like .org, pricing restrictions were lifted in Neustar’s .biz under a contract renewal with ICANN last year. It fell under the radar a little as .biz is substantially smaller, not a legacy gTLD as such, and not widely used.

Like the .org deal, the transfer of control of .biz will also be subject to ICANN’s approval before GoDaddy and Neustar can seal the deal.

Could we be looking at another big public fight over a gTLD acquisition?

But unlike Ethos with .org, GoDaddy says it has no intention of raising prices with .biz.

“We will not be raising prices, in fact we will look into reducing prices for some TLDs,” Bezsonoff said.

One TLD where one assumes prices won’t be going down is .co, where Neustar has just had its margins massively slashed by the Colombian government.

The acquisition was announced just days after the Colombian government announced that it has renewed its contract with Neustar to run .co for another five years, but under financial terms hugely more favorable to itself.

Whereas the initial 10-year term saw the government being paid 6% to 7% of the .co take, that number has soared to 81%, making .co — arguably Neustar’s registry crown jewel — a substantially less-attractive TLD to manage.

One assumes that the acquisition price would have fluctuated wildly based on the outcome of the .co renegotiation, but the GoDaddy/Neustar execs I talked to today didn’t want to talk about terms.

GoDaddy’s history with the registry side of the business has been changeable.

As far as ICANN contract is concerned, it is already a registry because it owns the .godaddy dot-brand. But that’s currently unused, with the registry functions outsourced to — cough — Neustar’s arch-rival Afilias.

Given Neustar’s religious devotion to the dot-brand concept, and the weirdness of using one of your primary competitors for a key function, one might expect both of those situations to change.

GoDaddy did also apply for .casa and .home back in 2012, but changed its mind and abandoned both bids fairly early in the process.

The sudden excitement about the registry business today begs the question of why GoDaddy didn’t buy Uniregistry’s registry business at the same time as it bought its secondary market and registrar earlier this year, but apparently it was not for sale.

Following the acquisition, Neustar is keeping its DNS resolution services and GoDaddy will continue to use them, so Neustar is not entirely out of the domain game, but it looks like the end of the road for Neustar as a brand I regularly report on.

The registry started life in 2000 as “NeuLevel”, a joint-venture between Neustar and Aussie registrar Melbourne IT formed to apply to ICANN for new gTLDs. It wanted .web, but got .biz, which now has about 1.7 million names under management, down from a 2014 peak of 2.7 million.

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ICANN to consider cancelling ICANN 68 tomorrow

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is to consider whether to cancel its in-person ICANN 68 gathering at a meeting of its board of directors tomorrow.

The agenda for its meeting tomorrow has one line item: “Impact of COVID-19 on ICANN68”.

The four-day Policy Forum is currently scheduled to take place from June 22 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I think the chances of this event going ahead in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic are zero point zero.

March’s ICANN 67 meeting was replaced with a series of virtual Zoom rooms on February 19, when cases of Covid-19 had been reported in just 26 countries and it was still widely thought of as a Chinese problem.

According to today’s data from the European Centre For Disease Prevention and Control, coronavirus cases have been reported in 204 countries and territories. That’s pretty much all of them.

Even if some currently hard-hit countries in North America and Europe are over the hump by June, you can guarantee that somewhere in the world there’ll be a horrific Biblical epidemic going on. I can’t see ICANN taking the risk of opening its doors to the world at a time like that.

Frankly, I think ICANN 69, the annual general meeting slated for Hamburg in October, has a big question mark hanging over it as well.

Germany may have been handling its crisis relatively well compared to other nations, but ICANN has participants from 150 countries and it may well have to make its call based not on the strongest national response but the weakest.

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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.

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CentralNic seeing no impact from coronavirus

CentralNic, the triple-play domain company, has told the markets that the coronavirus pandemic is not having an impact on its financial health.

In a statement yesterday, the company said:

To date, CentralNic has not experienced interruptions in its services to customers or in its supply chain, and the Company confirms that its current trading is in line with market expectations.

CentralNic’s business is expected to remain resilient. Its services are procured and delivered over the internet, and the majority of CentralNic’s revenues are payments from existing subscribers and customers on rolling contracts. The Company’s core product is the sale of domain names, which are core infrastructure that enable the functioning of email and websites — the most important communication tools used between work colleagues working remotely and between companies and their customers.

The company makes most of its money from the retail side of the industry nowadays, largely via a network of thousands of resellers, but it also runs its own TLD registries and acts as a back-end for some high-volume TLDs such as .xyz.

It expects to report its 2019 financial results and a summary of its Q1 performance a few weeks from now.

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ICANN expects “significant” budget impact from coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2020, Domain Policy

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a “significant” impact on ICANN’s budget, according to an update from the organization.

The organization published its expectations of a $140.4 million budget for the fiscal year that begins this July last December, and opened it up for public comments.

In its summary of those comments (pdf), which had a February 25 deadline and therefore were not focused on the pandemic’s potential impact, ICANN said:

the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting significantly the entire world. ICANN expects that its activities and financial position will be significantly impacted as well. The ICANN org is working with the Board to assess and monitor the potential impact to ICANN’s funding, and planned work such as face-to-face meetings, travel, etc.

Any pandemic-related changes to the budget will be published prior to board approval, ICANN said.

So where is ICANN expecting the impact? It’s not entirely clear. I would expect to see some minor gains from slashing its travel budget in the wake of social distance rules, but it’s less obvious where a “significant” shortfall could occur.

ICANN had operational revenue — the money it gets from billing registries and registrars — of $136.8 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, its most recently reported year (pdf).

Of that total, roughly $56 million came from the market leaders in both segments, Verisign and GoDaddy, both of which have been given glowing analyst coverage since the outbreak began.

One commentator recently wrote that Verisign is “immune” from coronavirus and GoDaddy’s CFO told analysts just last week that he expects the impact of coronavirus to be “minimal” in the first quarter. That could of course change in future.

Almost half of ICANN’s revenue, some $65.7 million, comes from the top 10 registries and registrars.

So is ICANN expecting to see weakness in the long tail, the few thousand accredited registrars and gTLD registries that account for under $1 million in ICANN contributions per year? Is it expecting reduced voluntary contributions from the ccTLDs and Regional Internet Registries?

Will coronavirus cause huge numbers of small businesses to abandon their domains as they go out of business? Will it inspire large numbers of the recently unemployed and quarantined to start up web-based businesses in an attempt to put food on the table? Will it cause large portfolio owners to downsize to save costs?

All of these outcomes seem possible, but these are unprecedented times, and I couldn’t being to guess how it will play out.

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