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The $135 million battle for .web could be won in weeks

Afilias is to get its day in “court” to decide the fate of the .web gTLD just 10 days from now.

The registry is due to face off with ICANN before an Independent Review Process panel in a series of virtual hearings beginning August 3.

The IRP complaint was filed late 2018 as the endgame of Afilias’ attempt to have the results of the July 2016 .web auction overturned.

You’ll recall that Verisign secretly bankrolled the winning bidder, a new gTLD investment vehicle called Nu Dot Co, to the tune of $135 million, causing rival bidders to cry foul.

If that win was vacated, Afilias could take control of .web with its second-place bid.

Afilias claims that ICANN broke its own rules by refusing to thoroughly analyze whether NDC had a secret sugar daddy, something DI first reported on two weeks before the auction.

It has put forward the entirely plausible argument that Verisign splashed out what amounts to about a month’s .com revenue on .web in order to bury it and fortify its .com mindshare monopoly against what could be its most formidable competitor.

In the IRP case to date, ICANN has been acting as transparently as you’d expect when its legal team is involved.

It first redacted all the juiciest details from the Verisign-NDC “Domain Acquisition Agreement” and the presumably damaging testimony of one of its own directors, and more recently has been fighting Afilias’ demands for document discovery.

In March, the IRP panel ruled against ICANN’s protests on almost every count, ordering the org to hand over a mountain of documentation detailing its communications with Verisign and NDC and its internal deliberations around the time of the auction.

But the ace up ICANN’s sleeve may be an allegation made by Verisign that Afilias itself is the one that broke the auction’s rules.

Verisign has produced evidence that an Afilias exec contacted his NDC counterpart five days before the auction, breaking a “blackout period” rule so serious that violators could lose their applications.

While Afilias denies the allegation, the IRP panel ruled in March that Afilias must hand over copies of all communications between itself and rival bidders over the auction period.

We’re not likely to see any of this stuff until the panel issues its final declaration, of course.

In the past, IRP panels have taken as long as six or seven months after the final hearing to deliver their verdicts, but the most-recently decided case, Amazon v ICANN, was decided in just eight or nine weeks.

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.com renewals lowest in years, but Verisign sees lockdown bump anyway

.com and .net saw decent growth in the lockdown-dominated second quarter, despite Verisign reporting the lowest renewal rate since 2017.

The company last night reported that it sold more new domains in Q2 than it did in the same period last year — 11.1 million versus 10.3 million a year ago.

It added a net 1.41 million names across both TLDs in the quarter, compared to growth of 1.34 in Q2 2019.

CEO Jim Bidzos did not directly credit coronavirus for the bump, but he told analysts that the growth was driven primarily by small businesses in North America getting online. The US went into lockdown in the last week of March.

Verisign has now upped its guidance for the year. It now expects growth in domains of between 2.75% and 4%. That’s higher than the guidance it was giving out at the start of the year, pre-coronavirus.

The company had lowered this guidance to between 2% and 3.75% in April due to coronavirus uncertainties, which with hindsight clearly seems overly cautious.

On the flipside, Verisign’s estimated renewal rate for the quarter was down to only 72.8%, down from 74.2% a year ago, the worst it’s been since Q1 2017, when renewals were suffering through the tail-end of a massive Chinese junk drop.

But Bidzos said that the low rate was “primarily related to the lower overall first-time renewal rate”, suggesting that it might be more due to registrar promotions or heightened speculation a year ago than any coronavirus-related drag factor.

For Q2, Verisign reported revenue up 2.6% year over year at $314 million, with net income up from $148 million to $152 million.

The company also announced yesterday that it is freezing its prices across all of its TLDs until March 31, 2021.

You’ll recall that it gets the right to increase prices 7% starting on October 26 this year, under its new deal with ICANN and the US government, and Verisign confirmed yesterday that there will definitely be a price increase next year.

Because there’s a six-month notice period requirement in the contract, news of the timing of this increase could come as soon as September this year.

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ICANN washes its hands of Amazon controversy

Kevin Murphy, July 22, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has declined to get involved in the seemingly endless spat between Amazon and the governments representing the Amazonia region of South American.

CEO Göran Marby has written to the head of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization to say that if ACTO still has beef with Amazon after the recent delegation of .amazon, it needs to take it up with Amazon.

ACTO failed to stop ICANN from awarding Amazon its dot-brand gTLD after eight years of controversy, with ICANN usually acting as a mediator in attempts to resolve ACTO’s issues.

But Marby yesterday told Alexandra Moreira: “”With the application process concluded and the Registry Agreement in force, ICANN no longer can serve in a role of facilitating negotiation”.

She’d asked ICANN back in May, shortly before .amazon and its Japanese and Chinese translations hit the root, to bring Amazon back to the table for more talks aimed at getting ACTO more policy power over the gTLDs.

As it stands today, Amazon has some Public Interest Commitments that give ACTO’s eight members the right to block any domains they feel have cultural significance to the region.

Marby told Moreira (pdf) that it’s now up to ACTO to work with Amazon to figure out how that’s going to work in practice, but that ICANN’s not going to get involved.

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Google’s .new now generally available

After many months of pre-launch registration periods, Google has taken its .new gTLD to general availability today.

Names in .new are not cheap, have strict usage restrictions, and are not available at most of the larger registrars.

You may recall that Google is doing something quite innovative with the gTLD — each .new domain must resolve to a page in which the visitor can immediately (or after logging in) create something new, such as a blog, image, spreadsheet, presentation, webcast and so on.

Over 500 domains have been claimed during sunrise and limited registration periods so far, and dozens are live and functioning according to spec already.

I’ve seen prices ranging from about $450 at Gandi to $550 at 101domain. Google Domains prices names at about $540.

Due to the high registry pricing and restrictions, many registrars do not seem to be carrying the TLD. But GA started just a few minutes ago at time of posting so it’s possible more might come online shortly.

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$11 billion dot-brand blames coronavirus as it self-euthanizes

Another new gTLD you’ve never heard of and don’t care about has asked ICANN to terminate its registry contract, but it has a rather peculiar reason for doing so.

The registry is Shriram Capital, the financial services arm of a very rich Indian conglomerate, and the gTLD is .shriram.

In its termination notice, Shriram said: “Due to unprecedented Covid-19 effect on the business, we have no other option but to terminate the registry agreement with effect from 3lst March 2020.”

Weird because the letter was sent in May, and weird because Shriram Group reportedly had revenue of $11 billion in 2017. The carrying cost of a dot-brand isn’t that much.

Registries don’t actually need an excuse to terminate their contracts, so the spin from Shriram is a bit of a mystery.

Shriram had actually been using .shriram, with a handful of domains either redirecting to .com sites or actually hosting sites of their own.

It’s the 79th dot-brand to self-terminate. ICANN expects to lose 62 in the fiscal year that started three weeks ago.

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ICANN still has no clue how coronavirus will affect the domain industry

Kevin Murphy, July 21, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is still in the dark about how the coronavirus pandemic is going to affect the domain industry’s fortunes and its own budget, judging by a blog post published overnight by CEO Göran Marby.

In the post, Marby outlined his 10 priorities (six created by himself, four by the ICANN board) for the recently commenced fiscal year, and the impact of the virus is front and center.

Notably, it appears that ICANN is thinking about creating a new department or hiring a new senior “economist” to track the domain market and forecast trends.

Bullet #6 on Marby’s list is:

Develop a plan for the potential economist function within ICANN org to follow and evaluate Domain Name System (DNS) market trends.

Background: I’ve heard the question asked, “Is the DNS market changing?” My answer is yes, probably. The questions we need to ask now are, what’s good for the end user, and what will be bad?

My read on this is that we might be looking at a new VP — an astrologer-in-chief, if you like — whose job it would be to read the tea leaves, stare into a crystal ball, rummage through pigeon guts, and predict budget-affecting market moves before they happen.

That’s a function currently occupied by the office of CFO Xavier Calvez, but his track record is spotty, having in previous years failed to predict basic stuff like junk drops in the new gTLD space.

Another of Marby’s goals, set by the board, is:

Develop and implement a plan to ensure continued financial stability in a world affected by COVID-19.

Background: While ICANN’s financial situation is sound at the moment, the impact of the unprecedented effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world economy is still unknown.

ICANN’s recently passed FY21 budget predicts an 8% slump in revenue due to an estimated 33% plummet in new gTLD registrations and a 2.3% drop in legacy gTLD regs, as well as a loss of 62 fee-paying dot-brand gTLDs and 380 accredited registrars.

That said, it’s also saving millions by eschewing face-to-face meetings until the whole coronavirus mess is sorted.

It’s not entirely clear how ICANN arrived at its numbers, but it seems the domain industry is looking into unknown waters right now.

It’s undeniable that the pandemic-related lockdown mandates around the world have proved a huge boon to the industry, as bricks-and-mortar businesses retreat online to try to save their livelihoods, but it’s unclear whether this boost will continue as nations emerge from quarantine and into record-setting recessions.

ICANN’s budget is dependent more than anything else on registration volumes in gTLDs, so its fiscal stability will depend on whether people continue to buy and renew domains as they lose their jobs and their companies go out of business.

It seems inevitable that companies going bust and dropping their domains is a trend we’re going to face over the coming few years, but as long as there’s enough liquidity in the domainer community that shouldn’t prove a massive issue for ICANN, which does not care who registers a domain, merely that it is registered.

Aside from budgeting concerns, the impact of coronavirus on ICANN meetings is #1 on Marby’s list of priorities.

Work with Supporting Organization and Advisory Committee leaders, community members, and the Board to define and implement a phased plan to return to face-to-face meetings. This plan will ensure the provision of safe and effective meeting formats that support the ongoing work of the community as well as allow robust remote participation options for anyone unable to attend in person. The final plan will be integrated with regional and global engagement activities.

Background: Face-to-face meetings have always been an important part of ICANN’s DNA. Despite the current pandemic-related restrictions, the Board, community, and org must ensure that we remain able to collaborate, and that we are still able to attract new participants into ICANN.

Since March, every meeting that would usually be held face to face, including the two big public meetings, has instead been held over Zoom, which has drawbacks and limitations. This October’s Hamburg meeting will also be online-only.

Marby to a great extent has his hands tied here.

As long as the virus rages out of control in ICANN’s native US, he’s going to be limited to hosting meetings in locations not only where the coronavirus has been tackled to the degree where large congregations are permitted but also where Americans are allowed to travel quarantine-free.

The next scheduled public meeting is due to take place in Cancun, Mexico in March 2021, but that country currently has locked its border to travelers from the north.

And regardless of what laws are in place next March, ICANN’s going to have to get a read on whether any community members will feel safe enough to travel — to a windowless room where everyone wears masks two meters apart for 10 hours a day — before going ahead with an expensive in-person meeting.

It seems more likely that F2F meetings will resume first on a regional level before going fully international. Travel narriers within the European Union, for example, are relatively low, so it’s not impossible to imagine small meetings going ahead with only participants from that community.

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ICANN throws out “Ugly Houses” UDRP appeal

Kevin Murphy, July 20, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has rejected an unprecedented attempt to get a UDRP decision overturned using the Reconsideration process.

The Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee late last week summarily dismissed a Request for Reconsideration filed by a group called the Emily Rose Trust.

Emily Rose had lost a UDRP case in May concerning the domain name uglyhousesri.com, which it had been using for the last couple of years to run a home renovation-and-resale service in Rhode Island.

The complainant was a company called HomeVestors, which has been running a near-identical service called We Buy Ugly Houses (a phrase it has trademarked) for substantially longer.

The National Arbitration Forum panelist had decided that the domain was confusingly similar to the mark, and that the similarity of the services constituted bad faith use.

In filing the rather poorly-written RfR, Emily Rose argued among other things that “Ugly Houses” is a generic term not protected by the mark.

But ICANN did not consider the merits of its request, instead rejecting the RfR for being outside the scope of the process.

The BAMC said that UDRP decisions do not involved the action or inaction of the ICANN board or staff, and are therefore not subject to board Reconsideration.

While UDRP decisions are often contested in court, this RfR makes it clear that ICANN is not an avenue for appeal in individual cases.

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Brazil to launch domains for detectives, librarians and geologists

Bucking the worldwide trend for major ccTLDs to simplify their namespaces, Brazil is poised to launch another dozen new third-level domain options.

NIC.br said last week that it will launch five open spaces and seven more dedicated to specific professions.

The open zones include .app.br and .dev.br, aping two fairly successful Google-owned gTLDs, as well as log.br (for “logistics”), .seg.br (for “security”) and .tec.br (for “technology”).

The profession-specific ones are .bib.br for librarians, .des.br for designers, .det.br for detectives, .enf.br for nurses, .coz.br for chefs, .geo.br for geologists and .rep.br for sales reps.

.br is already probably the most taxonomical of all the ccTLDs, with an eye-watering 130 3LD options, including over 40 profession-specific spaces, available.

Prices for .br domains are BRL 40 ($7.45) a year. The 12 new options become available July 20.

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Endurance also got a lockdown bump in Q2

Endurance International Group added its name to the list of registrars to see a lift from the coronavirus pandemic in the second quarter.

The company, which counts brands including Domain.com, BuyDomains and ResellerClub in its stable, this week upgraded its guidance for Q2.

Endurance said it added roughly 97,000 net subscribers in the quarter, compared to a loss of 13,000 in Q2 2019.

It expects revenue to be $274 million compared to an analyst consensus of $271.25 million, and adjusted EBITDA of about $84 million compared to the $76.3 million reported a year ago.

Cash bookings, perhaps a better indicator of actual sales during the quarter were up 5% year over year at $281.6 million.

Unlike other registrars and registries that have reported a lockdown bump, Endurance suggested that it performed well in spite of, rather than because of, the pandemic. In a statement, CEO Jeffrey Fox said:

As we entered the second quarter, the healthcare and economic uncertainties brought on by COVID-19 were impacting global businesses, including the millions of small businesses we serve. Despite these challenges, we remain focused on delivering value to our customers as they navigate this complex environment.

Endurance will report its Q2 results July 30.

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Nominet wants to kill off the .uk drop-catching market

Nominet has revealed a sweeping set of policy proposals that would totally revamp how expired domains are deleted and could essentially kill off drop-catching in the .uk domains market.

The company is thinking about auctioning off expired domains at the registry level, or charging drop-catchers up to £6,000 ($7,500) a year to carry on more or less as normal.

Currently, expired .uk domains are deleted at an undisclosed time each day, leading drop-catch registrars to spam the registry back-end with availability checks on the best names.

Upon finding a desired domain has dropped, they then attempt to register it immediately by spamming EPP create commands.

About 0.7% of the domains deleted each year, about 12,000 of the 1.76 million names dropped in 2018, are re-registered within a second of release, Nominet says.

The system as it stands bothers the registry due to the technical load it creates and the fact that it means the most desirable names are snapped up by small number of domainers for resale.

It also does not like the fact the current system encourages collusion between Nominet members and the creation of dummy memberships by drop-catchers.

So it’s proposing two main options for rejiggering the economics.

The first and apparently preferred solution would be for Nominet to auction off the names, rather than deleting them. It would look a lot like auctions often seen in newly launching TLDs.

The second option is to charge drop-catchers extra fees for a greater number of simultaneous EPP connections.

Currently, each registrar gets six. Under the proposal, called “Economically controlled access to expiring domains”, they’d be able to buy additional batches of six for £600 a pop, up to a maximum of 10 batches or £6,000.

Regardless of which option is chosen, Nominet also wants to make drop times more predictable, by publishing a daily drop-list available to all.

Nominet knows there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be accused of profiteering, and says in the paper:

If either of the options proposed are implemented, we envisage that any profits derived from the auction or economically controlled access models will be directed towards public benefit activity and/or ringfenced to provide specific services to registrars e.g. a training fund. However, we are also seeking ideas on how any profits would be best spent to benefit the .UK namespace in this consultation.

The consultation can be found here. Interested parties have until August 14 to submit comments.

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