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Afilias loses back-end deals on two Chinese gTLDs

TLD Registry, the Finnish/Irish registry that runs two Chinese-script gTLDs, has ditched Afilias in favor of a Chinese back-end provider.

Afilias said tonight that as of Friday it will no longer be the back-end for .在线 (.xn--3ds443g, “Chinese online”) and .中文网 (.xn--fiq228c5hs, “Chinese website”).

The company said:

Afilias has been directed by TLD Registry to shut down the Afilias operated SRS’s for .xn—3ds443g and .xn—fiq228c5hs on June 17, 2016 at 00:00:00 UTC and transfer the registry files to TLD Registry and its new provider. In accordance with this directive from our client, the SRS will be shut down and the files will be transferred, and Afilias will no longer operate the SRS for these two strings.

TLD Registry VP Pinky Brand declined to name the registry’s new back-end provider, beyond that the winning provider is Chinese.

The new back-end will be named in the next day or so, he said.

Registrars have been informed about the switch, Afilias said.

It’s not yet clear whether TLD Registry has decided to switch providers for cost reasons or in order to more deeply embed itself in China.

The company was founded by and is managed by Finns and is legally based in Ireland, but it only runs Chinese-script gTLDs.

The Chinese government has regulations, and is proposing more, preventing Chinese citizens using domains that do not meet certain guidelines, which include a corporate presence in China.

Several registries are opening up offices in China in order to abide by these rules, but I’m not aware of any that have switched back-ends for that reason.

The two gTLDs have fewer than 30,000 domains in their zone files between them.

At least one in 10 new gTLDs are shrinking

While the universe of new gTLDs is growing at a rapid clip, DI research shows that at least one in 10 individual new gTLDs are shrinking.

Using zone file data, I’ve also established that almost a third of new gTLDs were smaller June 1 than they were 90 days earlier, and that more than one in five shrunk over a 12-month period.

There’s been a lot written recently, here and elsewhere, about the volume boom at the top-end of the new gTLD league tables, driven by the inexplicable hunger in China for worthless domain names, so I thought I’d try to balance it out by looking at those not benefiting from the budget land-grab madness.

It’s been about two and a half years since the first new gTLDs of the 2012 round were delegated. A few hundred were in general availability by the end of 2014.

These are the ones I chose to look at for this article.

Taking the full list of delegated 2012-round gTLDs, I first disregarded any dot-brands. For me, that’s any gTLD that has Specifications 9 or 13 in its ICANN Registry Agreement.

Volume is not a measure of success for dot-brands in general, where only the registry can own names, so we’re not interested in their growth rates.

Then I disregarded any gTLD that had a general availability date after March 14, 2015.

That date was selected because it’s 445 days before June 1, 2016 — enough time for a gTLD to go through its first renewal/deletion cycle.

There’s no point looking at TLDs less than a year old as they can only be growing.

This whittling process left me with 334 gTLDs.

Counting the domains in those gTLDs’ zone files, I found that:

  • 96 (28.7%) were smaller June 1 than they were 30 days earlier.
  • 104 (31.1%) were smaller June 1 than they were 90 days earlier.
  • 76 (22.7%) were smaller June 1 than they were 366 days earlier.
  • 35 (10.4%) were smaller on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis.

Zone files don’t include all registered domains, of course, but the proportion of those excluded tends to be broadly similar between gTLDs. Apples-to-apples comparisons are, I believe, fair.

And I think it’s fair to say that if a gTLD has gotten smaller over the previous month, quarter and year, that gTLD is “shrinking”.

There are the TLDs.

TLDRegistryDomainsAnnual ChangeQuarterly ChangeMonthly Change
.网址 (xn--ses554g)KNET330554-7487-11016-3699
guruDonuts59631-5940-6219-448
ninjaRightside45705-3548-7272-6247
МОСКВА (xn--80adxhks)FAITID15190-2769-1075-87
موقع. (xn--4gbrim)Suhub760-2168-813-13
moscowFAITID17816-1296-624-160
directoryDonuts17203-1229-1963-180
futbolRightside3326-1192-76-4
..在线 (xn--3ds443g)TLD Registry34800-1161-1183-1124
singlesDonuts4585-1058-1003-24
cheapDonuts3504-826-29-36
estateDonuts9291-737-1083-192
bargainsDonuts2582-718-80-25
plumbingDonuts3709-478-583-11
voyageDonuts2627-452-474-22
floristDonuts2722-439-306-222
holidayDonuts5035-386-309-295
.شبكة (xn--ngbc5azd)International Domain Registry1103-379-150-84
immobilienRightside7827-336-52-42
democratRightside990-332-38-19
buildersDonuts3957-316-349-326
viajesDonuts1259-226-8-12
limoDonuts2728-201-266-24
contractorsDonuts4278-150-348-16
luxuryLuxury Partners1007-128-4-12
.ОНЛАЙН (xn--80asehdb)CORE Association2350-128-157-215
glassDonuts3410-89-176-217
qpondotCOOL538-63-10-4
exposedDonuts2731-42-14-71
versicherungDotversicherung-registry2580-40-79-83
kaufenRightside9246-38-10-8
hivUniregistry434-21-22-6
republicanRightside778-19-6-16
wedAtgron144-12-41-16
.САЙТ (xn--80aswg)CORE Association1072-8-46-65

Concerning those 35 shrinking gTLDs:

  • The average size of the zones, as of June 1, was 17,299 domains.
  • Combined, they accounted for 605,472 domains, down 34,412 on the year. That’s a small portion of the gTLD universe, which is currently over 20 million.
  • The smallest was .wed, with 144 domains and annual shrinkage of 12. The largest was .网址 (Chinese for “.website”) which had 330,554 domains and annual shrinkage of 7,487.
  • The mean shrinkage over the year was 983 domains per gTLD. Over the quarter it was 1,025. Over the month it was 400.

Sixteen of the 35 domains belong to Donuts, which is perhaps to be expected given that it has the largest stable and was the most aggressive early mover.

Of its first batch of seven domains to go to GA, way back in February 2014, only three — .guru, .singles, and .plumbing — are on our list of shrinkers.

A Donuts spokesperson told DI today that its overall number of registrations is on the increase and that “too much focus on individual TLDs doesn’t accurately indicate the overall health of the TLD program in general and of our portfolio specifically.”

He pointed out that Donuts has not pursued the domainer market with aggressive promotions, targeting instead small and medium businesses that are more likely to actually use their domains.

“As initial domainer investors shake out, you’re likely to see some degradation in the size of the zone,” he said.

He added that Donuts has seen second-year renewal rates of 72%, which were higher than the first year.

“That indicates that there’s more steadiness in the registration base today than there was when first-year renewals were due,” he said.

Cruz-Duffy bill would put brakes on IANA transition

Kevin Murphy, June 9, 2016, Domain Policy

America’s continuing unique oversight role in the DNS root management system, fuck yeah!

That’s basically the takeaway from a new bit of proposed US legislation, put forward by Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Sean Duffy in both houses of Congress yesterday.

The two Republican Congressmen have proposed the inappropriately named Protecting Internet Freedom Act, which is specifically designed to scupper the IANA transition at the eleventh hour.

PIFA would prevent the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from backing away from its role in the DNS root management triumvirate.

It’s supported, ironically, by a bunch of small-government right-wing think tanks and lobby groups.

If the bill is enacted, NTIA would need a further act of Congress in order to cancel or allow to expire its current IANA functions contract with ICANN

The bill (pdf) reads:

The Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information may not allow the responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with respect to the Internet domain name system functions, including responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file and the performance of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions, to terminate, lapse, expire, be cancelled, or otherwise cease to be in effect unless a Federal statute enacted after the date of enactment of this Act expressly grants the Assistant Secretary such authority.

The bill also seeks to ensure that the US government has “sole ownership” of the .gov and .mil TLDs “in perpetuity”.

These ownership rights are not and have never been in question; the inclusion of this language in the bill looks like a cheap attempt to stir up Congresspeople’s basest jingoistic tendencies.

A Cruz press release said the IANA transition “will allow over 160 foreign governments to have increased influence over the management and operation of the Internet.”

Duffy added:

President Obama wants to hand over the keys to the Internet to countries like China and Russia. This is reckless and absurd. The governments of these countries do not value free speech. In fact, they censor the Internet and routinely repress and punish political dissidents. They cannot be trusted with something as fundamental to free speech as a free and open Internet.

It’s unfiltered scaremongering.

No country — not China, Russia, the US nor any other government — gets increased powers under the IANA transition proposal, which was painstakingly crafted by, and is now supported by, pretty much all community stakeholders over two years.

In fact, governmental power is significantly curtailed under the proposal.

Post-transition, the Governmental Advisory Committee’s current voting practice, which essentially requires unanimity, would be enshrined in ICANN’s bylaws.

If the GAC came to ICANN with advice that did not have consensus — that is, some governments formally objected to it — ICANN would be able to reject it much more easily than it can today.

The one area where the GAC does get a new role is in the so-called “Empowered Community”, a new concept that will enter the ICANN bylaws post-transition.

The Empowered Community would be a non-profit legal entity formed by the ICANN community in the exceptional event that the ICANN board goes rogue and starts doing really egregious stuff that nobody wants — for example, introducing Draconian policy regulating freedom of speech.

The EC would have the power to kick out the ICANN board members of its choice, reject the ICANN budget, throw out proposed bylaws amendments and so on. As far as ICANN is concerned, the EC would be God.

Its members, or “Decisional Participants” would be the GNSO, the ccNSO, the ALAC, the ASO and the GAC.

The fact that the GAC has a seat at the EC table is the straw that Cruz, Duffy and co grasp at when they talk about governments getting increased power in a post-transition ICANN.

But the GAC’s voice is equal to those of the other four participants, and the GAC is not allowed a vote on matters stemming from ICANN’s implementation of consensus GAC advice.

In other words, the only way Cruz’s boogeymen governments would ever get to push through a censorship policy would be if that policy was also supported by all the other governments or by the majority of the diverse, multi-stakeholder ICANN community.

The arguments of Cruz and Duffy are red herrings, in other words.

Not only that, but the US record on attempted censorship of the DNS root is hardly exemplary.

While it’s generally been quietly hands-off for the majority of the time ICANN has had its hand on the rudder, there was a notable exception.

The Bush-era NTIA, following a letter-writing campaign by the religious right — Bible-thumping Cruz’s base — exerted pressure on ICANN to reject the proposed porn-only .xxx gTLD.

So who’s the real threat here, Red China or Ted Cruz, the man who tried to ban the sale of dildos in Texas?

The Protecting Internet Freedom Act is obviously still just a bill, but Republicans still control both houses of Congress so it’s not impossible that the tens of thousands of hours the ICANN community has put into the IANA transition could be sacrificed on the altar of embarrassing the President, who is probably Kenyan anyway.

China conference leads to 49% .vip spike

The Global Domain Industry Conference, held in China over the weekend, has led to a huge boost in .vip domain sales.

Registry Minds + Machines told the markets this morning that the recently launched gTLD hit 404,892 as of 1600 UTC yesterday, up 49% from Friday.

CEO Toby Hall confirmed to DI that China is very much behind the spike, and that the conference helped raise the profile of .vip.

Billings and orders have now hit $5.5 million, up from $3.2 million on May 22, M+M said. That number includes sunrise and premium sales.

At GDS, M+M sold eight .vip domains auction for a total of $232,000 before auction commissions, which very likely inspired the spike in base-fee registrations.

Photos of GDS published on social media yesterday show a packed auditorium, with hundreds of attendees.

While M+M makes much of the fact that it has not used a “freenium” strategy for .vip — which it says may lead to better renewal rates than competitors — retail prices are still pretty damn cheap.

At West.cn, its leading Chinese registrar, a .vip can be had today for about $3. It’s closer to $10 at GoDaddy.

Today’s batch of zone files have not yet been published by ICANN for verification, but yesterday there were 245,872 names in .vip.

Registrars selling .xyz names for pennies

XYZ.com’s campaign to keep its volumes high as .xyz approaches its second anniversary seem to have resulted in basically free registrations.

Uniregistry said yesterday that it has started selling .xyz domains for just $0.01, and NameCheap is offering them for $0.02.

The prices, which apply to first-year registrations, kicked in yesterday and expire at midnight June 3.

Over in China, Xin Net and West.cn are both pricing the domains at a relatively huge CNY 2 ($0.30).

I expect there are similar offers at other registrars too.

West.cn. the largest .xyz registrar, said last week that it is also subsidizing renewals for the month of June, bringing the cost down to $2.73.

The aforementioned registrars have big splashes announcing the offers on their home pages.

XYZ said Friday that it has put aside “several million dollars” to advertise its birthday on registrar storefronts and elsewhere.

Uniregistry said that from June 3 to June 30 the price will be just $0.18.

Uniregistry’s current .xyz volume is measured in the tens of thousands. It’s ranked just behind Go Daddy, which does not appear to be participating in this promotion, by .xyz domains under management.

.xyz went into general availability June 2, 2014.

Since August 2015, not long after its anniversary deletes have been substantially outstripping renewals, but adds have been going nuts.

It has about 2.8 million domains in its zone file right now, two million of which have been added in the last 12 months.

Despite the anniversary hoopla this time around, there was not a big spike in .xyz registrations around its first birthday last year, when it added a fairly normal 50,000 or so domains.

M+M makes $3.2 million in five days from .vip

Minds + Machines has billed $3.2 million in .vip domain names sales after the first five days of operation, the company said this morning.

It’s already managed to pay off the cost of acquiring the domain at the September 2014 auction, which was $3.1 million.

Between 1600 UTC May 17, when .vip went to general availability, and the same time May 22, the gTLD racked up 203,720 domains, the company said.

The $3.2 million is a “billings” number, which will convert to accounting revenue over the lifetime of the domains.

For comparison, billings in the whole of 2015 was $7.9 million.

M+M now has over half a million domains under management, a 64% increase from the start of the year, the company said.

Registrations from China, where presumably owning a .vip name does not make you look like a douchebag, accounted for over 80% of the registrations. Almost half of its registrars are Chinese.

Major Chinese registrars are currently selling .vip names for CNY 25-26 (about $4) apiece.

The discrepancy between that low price and the $3.2 million (which implies an average wholesale price of about $16) is due to the effects of premiums, sunrise and multi-year registrations, CEO Toby Hall told DI.

M+M, like the vast majority of TLD registries, is not currently licensed in China, so these names will not legally be allowed to be developed into sites until the company has gone through the full governmental approval process.

Hall said in a press release:

The Chinese market for top-level domains is real and we are delighted to have accessed this key region through the .vip launch… It is a major milestone for the Company, the new management team and our business model centred on working with best-in-class partners across every aspect of our business so as to best monetize our assets while maintaining a tight control on central overheads. It demonstrates that, when properly executed, how quickly the initial investment costs for a domain can be recovered and the potential for a strong recurring revenue established. The .vip launch equally illustrates how as a b2b business we do not have to burn funds on marketing to reach end-consumers and achieve outstanding results.

He’s referring there primarily to M+M’s ongoing restructuring, which has seen the company ditch its registrar business in favor of a more heavily channel-focused approach.

Rightside to modernize eNom, predicts $75m new gTLD revs

Rightside used its first quarter earnings call yesterday to address, albeit indirectly, some of the criticisms recently leveled at it by activist investors and competitors.

CEO Taryn Naidu revealed for the first time how the company sees the new gTLD market playing out in the longer term.

He said than in three to five years, Rightside expects annual revenue from its registry business to come it at $50 million to $75 million.

That’s a hell of a lot more than it makes today.

In the first quarter, registry revenue was $2.6 million, compared to $1.6 million a year ago. Annualized, that’s a shade over $10 million.

On the back of an envelope, Rightside seems to need roughly 50% growth per year over five years to hit the low end of its target.

Naidu told analysts that one factor built into this projection is that third-party registrars will start to sell just as many new gTLD domains as Rightside’s registrars do.

Currently, Rightside sees 15% to 20% new gTLD, but with others it’s 3% to 5%, he said.

Naidu said he expects margins to be 20% at the EBITDA level.

The revelation of these targets may go some way to address investor concerns that Rightside is putting too much effort into its new gTLD business at the expense of its cash-generating registrars.

J Carlo Cannell of Cannell Capital expressed these views and others in March, and was supported by fellow investor Frank Schilling, CEO of Uniregistry.

Naidu last night also addressed concerns about eNom, which Cannell had called a “time capsule” due to its aging user experience.

He admitted that eNom is “encumbered by some older technology” but said it was being fixed.

“Later this quarter we will be rolling out the first phase of our development efforts, which include a dramatically revamped user interface, a new suite of software development tools and a new developer hub to help our partners learn, develop and test faster,” he said.

The registrar business brought in $44 million in the quarter, up from $41.9 million. Aftermarket revenue was $9.3 million compared to $7.3 million.

Overall, revenue was up 9% at $55.1 million, with a net loss of $5.1 million. That compared to income of $1.9 million a year ago.

Naidu also seemed to obliquely address the criticism that a lot of Rightside’s new gTLDs are shit — .democrat, .dance, .army, .navy, and .airforce have been singled out by Cannell and others — by talking about how the company doesn’t necessarily put the same amount of effort into marketing its whole stable.

Some gTLDs will be marketed more heavily later, he said, comparing it to a real estate owner holding on to parcels of land for later development.

Naidu also talked up Rightside’s prospects in China, where apparently .pub is doing quite well because registrants think it means “public” rather than “drinking establishment”.

Verisign has great quarter but sees China growth slowing

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2016, Domain Registries

Verisign beat its sales expectations in the first quarter of the year, but leadership said rapid growth from Chinese registrants will now “normalize”.

The .com/.net registry last night reported net income up 21% at $107 million, on revenue that was up 9.1% to $282 million.

That’s based primarily on it selling 2.65 million net new .com/.net names during the quarter, at 7.1% increase on the Q1 2014 level baseline. It said it sold 10 million new names in the quarter, up from 8.7 million a year ago.

For comparison, Q1 2015 saw 1.51 million net adds across the two TLDs. Three months ago, the company had predicted net adds to be 1.5 to 2 million names.

It had 142.5 million names at the end of the quarter, 126.6 million of which were .com.

CEO James Bidzos told analysts: “We again saw activity coming from registrars in China that exceeded our expectations.”

However, he added: “At this point, we expect activity from registrars in China to normalize as we continue through the second quarter.”

When pressed, CFO George KIlguss elaborated (according to the SeekingAlpha earnings call transcript):

as we look at the trends, we’ve seen the demand that happened in the second half of the first quarter kind of ebb and flow. So we saw it come. It was pretty strong for a few weeks and then it came back to more than normalized path. So we don’t have a perfect crystal ball, but based on the trends that we’ve seen that we’ve been tracking, it seems to be back on the normalized path for that particular region, at least as what we’ve seen historically.

Verisign is currently negotiating for the renewal of its .com contract with ICANN, which may or may not enable it to raise its government-frozen registry prices in future.

M+M turns $22m profit into $10m loss

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2016, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines today reported a 2015 loss of $10 million and further outlined its “transformative” restructuring and China strategy.

It’s the second full year of operating results M+M has posted since its first new gTLDs went live, and they’re not encouraging.

Revenue for accounting purposes was $6.3 million, but the cost of sales was $6.2 million, leaving gross profit of just $101,000.

Factoring in $12.1 million of operating expenses, a $7.9 million gain from losing new gTLD auctions, and other expenses, the total loss before tax was $10 million.

That’s compared to the $22 million profit M+M reported for 2014, a number entirely reliant on $33.7 million of auction loss payments.

The company also reported its “billings”, a line item that does not use the accounting method of deferring revenue across the life of a domain and is therefore more in line with incoming cash.

Billings for 2015 were $7.9 million, compared to $5 million in 2014. Gross profit under that measure was $1.7 million, but the $12 million of operating costs still made the company very unprofitable.

Ignoring the auction benefits in 2015, which will not last forever, it’s pretty clear that M+M was a company spending much more operating new gTLDs than it was making from them.

COO/CFO Michael Salazar said in a statement:

However, billings of $7.9 million for the year were simply not of a sufficient scale to cover the associated cost of sales ($6.2 million) and operating expenses ($12.2 million), which combined reached $18.4 million for 2015. Similarly, the $0.6 million savings achieved in the period by the decisions mid-year to stream-line the existing operational set-up were not of a magnitude to have any material impact in the year under review. That said, forfeited cost of sales and operational expenses as a result of the 2015 cost-cutting decisions will amount to $2.7 million in 2016

It’s perhaps little wonder that activist shareholders, apparently not prepared to play the long game, threw out half of the board and key senior executives during the period.

Former PR man Toby Hall took over as CEO in February, replacing co-founder Anthony Van Couvering, and announced earlier this month that M+M is dumping its registrar and back-end registry businesses.

Its registrar customers have been sold to Uniregistry, and it will outsource its registry back-end to Nominet, to save costs.

Salazar said that the two deals will lead to $2 million in savings, but won’t be complete before the fourth quarter. It seems unlikely they’ll have a great impact on 2016 numbers.

Headcount has been reduced from a peak of 61 to 43 at the end of the year, and is expected to drop further to 25. Salazar said this will save it $4.7 million a year.

Even with these cost reductions, M+M will still need to essentially double its revenue in order to hit operating profitability, it seems.

The company is pinning some of its growth hopes on .vip, which it expects to do well in China. It launches May 18.

Hall said in a statement that M+M would not follow the lead of competitors (Famous Four Media springs to mind) by offering first-year registrations for free to build market share. He said:

Based on the enquiries received during Sunrise and feedback gained through our two recent marketing trips to China, it is clear that there is genuine interest in the domain both within and outside of China. As a result, we will not be using a year-one freemium approach to simply inflate year-one registrations. Instead, we intend to be keenly priced to ensure margin to ourselves — and registrations — as well as protect the integrity of the domain. The volume we anticipate to be generated through keen pricing will then support the sales of our premium names in this domain.

The company also plans to invest in its .law sales team, because billings for that gTLD have been behind expectations.

M+M had $34.6 million in the bank and eight outstanding contested new gTLD applications at the end of the year.

Facebook, under Chinese court threat, transfers Instagram.com to its new registrar

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2016, Domain Registrars

It’s not quite cyberflight, but Facebook has transferred threatened domain name instagram.com to its newly acquired in-house registrar.

Whois records show that the domain, used for the popular photo-sharing social network, was moved from MarkMonitor to RegistrarSEC yesterday.

It emerged on Friday that Facebook had recently acquired RegistrarSEC.

So why the transfer?

It does not appear that the move is part of a wholesale transfer of domains — facebook.com, whatsapp.com, fb.com and all the other Facebook domains I checked are still with MarkMonitor.

Instead, I would speculate that it’s related to the lawsuit in China in which the family of a deceased cybersquatter are fighting for the return of the domain to their ownership.

Instagram acquired the name for $100,000 from the Guangdong-based Zhou family in January 2011, just a couple of months after Zhou Weiming, the now deceased patriarch, bought it from an American domainer.

According to a lawsuit (pdf) filed against the family in California by Instagram this January, Zhou’s widow and two daughters are suing the third daughter in a Chinese court for selling the domain without the proper authority.

They want the domain returned to them.

By transferring instagram.com to a registrar completely controlled by Facebook, the company has removed one huge risk factor from the Chinese lawsuit.

If MarkMonitor were to be served with a Chinese court order ordering the transfer of the domain to the Zhous, and it were to comply, the Instagram service used by millions could be held hostage by a group of known cybersquatters.

Now that the domain is at RegistrarSEC, Facebook gets the ability to refuse to comply with any such order.

This all begs the question of whether the deep-pocketed social network would go to the trouble of acquiring a registrar (with only 11 names to its accreditation) purely to provide a layer of insurance.

A fresh ICANN accreditation would be cheaper, but would take longer, and transferring to a different third-party registrar wouldn’t really solve the problem.

Instagram is predicted by one analyst to provide Facebook with $5.8 billion in annual revenue by the end of the decade.