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Wagner takes dig at Verisign as GoDaddy reports $310 million domain revenue

Kevin Murphy, November 7, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy CEO Scott Wagner ducked a question about how the company will react to future .com price increases during its third-quarter earnings call yesterday, but used the opportunity to take a gentle swipe at Verisign.

Asked by an analyst whether the first 7% price increase, almost certainly coming in 2020, would have any effect on GoDaddy’s gross margins (ie, will they shrink as the company swallows increased costs, or swell as it increases its own prices above 7%), Wagner said:

the last time VeriSign took a price increase the industry passed that through to the end registrant.

.com and more importantly the software around bringing somebody’s .com to life is valuable and, modestly, we’re providing the value in that relationship around taking a domain name and actually turning it into something that somebody cares about.

I’m interpreting that as a pop at the idea that Verisign enjoys the fat registration margins while GoDaddy is the one that actually has to market domains, up-sell, innovate, deal with customers, and so on.

The remarks came just a few days after Verisign, in a blog post, branded GoDaddy and other secondary-market players “scalpers”, infuriating domainers.

Wagner was talking to analysts as the market-leading registrar reported revenue for Q3 of $679.5 million, up 16.7% year over year.

Revenue from domains, still the biggest of its three reporting business segments, was $309.5 million, up 14.0% compared to the year-ago quarter. GoDaddy now has 18 million customers and over 77 million domains under management.

Overall net income was down to $13.2 million from $22.4 million, as operating expenses rose over 16% to hit $642 million, after the company invested more in marketing, development and so on. Its operating income was $37.5 million.

Contrast this with Verisign’s performance for the same quarter, reported two weeks ago.

It saw revenue about the same as GoDaddy’s domains revenue — $306 million — but net income of $138 million and operating income of $195 million.

GoDaddy and Verisign could find themselves competing before long. As part of its deal with the US government to allow it to raise .com wholesale prices once more, the government also lifted its objection to Verisign becoming a registrar, just as long as it does not deal in .com names.

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Will ICANN take a bigger slice of the .com pie, or will .domainers get URS?

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Will ICANN try to get its paws on some of Verisign’s .com windfall? Or might domainers get a second slap in the face by seeing URS imposed in .com?

With Verisign set to receive hundreds of millions of extra dollars due to the imminent lifting of .com price caps, it’s been suggested that ICANN may also financially benefit from the arrangement.

In a couple of blog posts Friday, filthy domain scalper Andrew Allemann said that ICANN will likely demand higher fees from Verisign in the new .com registry agreement.

Will it though? I guess it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty by any means.

Verisign currently pays ICANN $0.25 per transaction, the same as almost all other gTLDs. Technically, there’s no reason this could not be renegotiated.

Putting aside some of the legacy gTLD contracts, I can only think of two significant cases of ICANN imposing higher fees on a registry.

The first was .xxx, which was signed in 2011. That called for ICM Registry, now part of MMX, to pay $2 per transaction, eight times the norm.

The rationale for this was that ICANN thought (or at least said it thought) that .xxx was going to be a legal and compliance minefield. It said it envisaged higher costs for overseeing the then-controversial TLD.

There was a school of thought that ICANN was just interested in opportunistically boosting its own coffers, given that ICM was due to charge over $60 per domain per year — at the time a ludicrously high amount.

But risk largely failed to materialize, and the two parties last year renegotiated the fees down to $0.25.

The second instance was .sucks, another controversial TLD. In that case, ICANN charged registry Vox Populi a $100,000 upfront fee and per-transaction fees of $1 per domain for the first 900,000 transactions, four times more than the norm.

While some saw this as a repeat of the .xxx legal arse-covering tactic, ICANN said it was actually in place to recoup a bunch of money that Vox Pop owner Momentous still owed when it let a bunch of its drop-catch registrars go out of business a couple years earlier.

While the .sucks example clearly doesn’t apply to Verisign, one could make the case that the .xxx example might.

It’s possible, I guess, that ICANN could make the case that Verisign’s newly regained ability to raise prices opens it up to litigation risk — something I reckon is certainly true — and that it needs to increase its fees to cover that risk.

It might be tempting. ICANN has a bit of a budget crunch at the moment, and a bottomless cash pit like Verisign would be an easy source of funds. A transaction fee increase of four cents would have been enough to cover the $5 million budget shortfall it had to deal with earlier this year.

On the other hand, it could be argued that ICANN demanding more money from Verisign would unlevel the playing field, inviting endless litigation from Verisign itself.

ICANN’s track record with legacy gTLDs has been to reduce, rather than increase, their transaction fees.

Pre-2012 gTLDs such as .mobi, .jobs, .cat and .travel have all seen their fees reduced to the $0.25 baseline in recent years, sometimes from as high as $2.

In each of these cases, the registries concerned had to adopt many provisions of the standard 2012 new gTLD registry agreement including, controversially, the Uniform Rapid Suspension service.

Domainers hate the URS, which gives trademark owners greater powers to take away their domains, and the Internet Commerce Association (under the previous stewardship of general counsel Phil Corwin, since hired by Verisign) unsuccessfully fought against URS being added to .mobi et al over the last several years, on the basis that eventually it could worm its way into .com.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that ICANN might reduce Verisign’s fees, but what if URS is the price the registry has to pay for its massive .com windfall?

It’s not as if Verisign has any love for domainers, despite the substantial contribution they make to its top line.

Since the NTIA deal was announced, it’s already calling them “scalpers” and driving them crazy.

ICA lost the .com price freeze fight last week, could it also be about to lose the URS fight?

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Trump gives Verisign almost $1 billion in free money

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

The Trump administration may have just handed Verisign close to $1 billion in free money.

That’s according to the back of the envelope I’m looking at right now, following the announcement that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is reinstating Verisign’s right to increase .com registry fees.

As you may have read elsewhere already (I was off sick last week, sorry about that) a new amendment to the Verisign-NTIA Cooperative Agreement restores Verisign’s ability to raise prices by 7% per year in four of the six years of the deal.

The removal of the Obama-era price freeze still needs to be incorporated into Verisign’s ICANN contract, but it’s hard to imagine ICANN, which is generally loathe to get into pricing regulation, declining to take its lead from NTIA.

Verisign would also have to choose to exercise its option to increase prices in each of the four years. I think the probability of this happening is 1 in 1.

Layering this and a bunch of other assumptions into a spreadsheet, I’m coming up with a figure of roughly an extra $920 million that Verisign will get to add to its top line over the next six years.

Again, this isn’t an in-depth study. Just back-of-the-envelope stuff. I’ll talk you through my thinking.

Not counting its occasional promotions, Verisign currently makes $7.85 for every year that a .com domain is added or renewed, and for every inter-registrar transfer.

In 2017, .com saw 40.89 million add-years, 84.64 million renew-years and 3.79 million transfers, according to official registry reports.

This all adds up to 129,334,643 revenue events for Verisign, or just a tad over $1 billion at $7.85 a pop.

Over the four-year period of the price increases transaction fees will go up to $8.40, then $8.99, then $9.62, then $10.29. I’m rounding up to the nearest penny here, it’s possible Verisign may round down.

If we assume zero transaction growth, that’s already an extra $762.2 million into Verisign’s coffers over the period of the contract.

But the number of transactions inevitably grows each year — more new domains are added, and some percentage of them renew.

Between 2016 and 2017, transaction growth was 3.16%.

If we assume the same growth each year for the next six years, the difference between Verisign’s total revenue at $7.85 and at the new pricing comes to $920 million.

Verisign doesn’t have to do anything for this extra cash, it just gets it.

Indeed, the new NTIA deal is actually less restrictive on the company. It allows Verisign to acquire or start up an ICANN-accredited gTLD registrar, something it is currently banned from doing, just as long as that registrar does not sell .com domains.

Verisign’s .net contract also currently bans the company from owning more than 15% of a registrar, so presumably that agreement would also need to be amended in order for Verisign to get into the registrar business.

I say again that my math here is speculative; I’m a blogger, not a financial analyst. There may be some incorrect assumptions — I’ve not accounted for promotions at all, for example, and the 3.16% growth assumption might not be fair — and there are of course many variables that could move the needle.

But the financial markets know a sweetheart deal when they see one, and Verisign’s share price went up 17.2% following the news, reportedly reaching heights not seen since since the dwindling days of the dot-com bubble 18 years ago.

The reason given for the lifting of the price freeze was, for want of a better word, bullshit. From the NTIA’s amendment:

In recognition that ccTLDs, new gTLDs, and the use of social media have created a more dynamic DNS marketplace, the parties agree that the yearly price for the registration and renewal of domain names in the .com registry may be changed

Huh?

This seems to imply that Verisign has somehow been disproportionately harmed by the rise of social media, the appearance of new gTLDs and some unspecified change in the ccTLD marketplace.

While it’s almost certainly true that .net has taken a whack due to competition from new gTLDs, and that the domain marketplace overall may have been diminished by many small businesses spurning domains by choosing to set up shop on, say, Facebook, .com is still a growing money-printing machine with some of the fattest margins seen anywhere in the business world and about a 40% global market share.

If the Trump administration’s goal here is to make some kind of ideological statement about free markets, then why not just lift the price caps altogether? Give Verisign the right to price .com however it pleases?

Or maybe Trump just wants to flip the bird to Obama once more by reversing yet another of his policies?

Who knows? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

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Kirikos lawyers up after ICANN etiquette fight

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2018, Domain Policy

Domain investor George Kirikos has hired lawyers to send nastygrams to ICANN after a fight over the rules of etiquette on a working group mailing list.

Kirikos claims there’s a “campaign of intimidation” against him by fellow volunteers who do not agree with his opinions and forthright tone, but that he “has not done anything wrong”.

In response, ICANN CEO Goran Marby this evening revealed that he has assigned his general counsel and new deputy, John Jeffrey, to the case.

Even by ICANN standards, it’s a textbook case of a) manufacturing mountains out of molehills, and b) how it can become almost impossible to communicate like sensible human beings when everyone’s tangled in red tape.

The dispute started back in May, when Kirikos got into a fight with IP lawyer Greg Shatan on the mailing list of the Rights Protection Mechanisms working group.

Both men are volunteers on the group, which seeks to refine ICANN policy protecting trademark owners in gTLDs.

The argument was about the content of a World Intellectual Property Organization web page listing instances of UDRP cases being challenged in court.

Kirikos took a strident tone, to which Shatan took exception.

Shatan then reported Kirikos to the working group’s co-chairs, claiming a breach of the Expected Standards of Behavior — the informal code of conduct designed to prevent every ICANN discussion turning into a flame war and/or bare-knuckle alley fight.

Under GNSO PDP rules, working group volunteers have to agree to abide by the ESB. Group chairs have the ability to kick participants who repeatedly offend.

At this point, the sensible thing to do would have been for Shatan and Kirikos to hug it out and move on.

But this is ICANN.

What actually happened was a pointless procedural back-and-forth between Kirikos, Shatan, and working group chairs Phil Corwin of Verisign and Brian Beckham of WIPO, which resulted in Kirikos hiring two lawyers — Andrew Bernstein of Torys and regular ICANN participant Robin Gross of IP Justice.

It’s believed to be the first time a WG participant has hired counsel over a mailing list argument.

Far too boring to recount here, Corwin’s timeline of events can be found from page 24 of this transcript (pdf) of remarks delivered here in Barcelona during ICANN 63, while the Bernstein/Kirikos timeline can be found here (pdf).

The rub of it is that Kirikos reckons both Corwin and Beckham are biased against him — Beckham because Kirikos voted against his chairship, Corwin because of a similar dispute in a related working group earlier this year — and that the ESB is unenforceable anyway.

According to Bernstein: “Mr. Kirikos has strong concerns that whatever process ICANN purports to operate with respect to Mr. Shatan’s complaint, it will not be fairly or neutrally adjudicated.”

He added that Kirikos had said that “due to the precise language of Section 3.4 of the Working Group Guidelines, Mr. Shatan lacked a basis to initiate any complaint”.

That language allows complaints to be filed if the ESB is “abused”. According to Corwin’s account, Kirikos — well-known as a detail-oriented ICANN critic — reckons the correct term should be “violated”, which rendered the ESB “null and void and unenforceable” in this instance.

Bernstein has since added that the ICANN board of directors never intended the ESB to be anything but voluntary.

The sum of this appears to be that the dispute has had a chilling effect on the RPM working group’s ability to get anything done, consuming much of its co-chairs’ time.

Kirikos lawyering up seems to have compounded this effect.

Now, as ICANN 63 drew to a close this evening, CEO Marby said in a brief prepared statement that the WG’s work has “more or less stalled for the last several months” and that he’s assigned general counsel John Jeffrey to “look into the issues surrounding this matter”.

ICANN “takes the issue very seriously”, he said.

As well it might. The Kirikos/Shatan incident may have been blown waaaaay out of proportion, but at its core is a serious question about civil discourse in ICANN policy-making.

Personally, I hold out hope it’s not too late for everyone to hug it out and move on.

But this is ICANN.

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This is how AppDetex works

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2018, Domain Services

A small brand-protection registrar with a big friend caused quite a stir at ICANN 63 here in Barcelona this week, after accusing registrars for the second time of shirking their duties to disclose private Whois data to trademark owners.

AppDetex, which has close ties to Facebook, has sent something like 9,000 Whois requests to registrars over the last several months, then complained to ICANN last week that it only got a 3% response rate.

Registrars cried foul, saying that the company’s requests are too vague to action and sometimes seem farcical, suggesting an indiscriminate, automated system almost designed to be overly burdensome to them.

In chats with DI this week, AppDetex CEO Faisal Shah, general counsel Ben Milam and consultant Susan Kawaguchi claimed that the system is nowhere near as spammy as registrars think, then showed me a demo of their Whois Requester product that certainly seemed to support that claim.

First off, Whois Requester appears to be only partially automated.

Tucows had noted in a letter to ICANN that it had received requests related to domains including lincolnstainedglass.com and grifflnstafford.com, which contain strings that look a bit like the “Insta” trademark but are clearly not cybersquatting.

“That no human reviewed these domains was obvious, as the above examples are not isolated,” Tucows CEO Elliot Noss wrote.

“It is abundantly clear to us that the requests we received were generated by an automated system,” Blacknight CEO Michele Neylon, who said he had received similarly odd requests, wrote in his own letter.

But, according to AppDetex, these assumptions are not correct.

Only part of its service is automated, they said. Humans — either customers or AppDetex in-house “brand analysts” — were involved in sending out all the Whois requests generated via its system.

AppDetex itself does not generate the lists of domains of concern for its clients, they said. That’s done separately, using unrelated tools, by the clients themselves.

It’s possible these could be generated from zone files, watch services, abuse reports or something else. The usage of the domain, not just its similarity to the trademark in question, would also play a role.

Facebook, for example, could generate its own list of domains that contain strings matching, partially matching, or homographically similar to its trademarks, then manually input those domains into the AppDetex tool.

The product features the ability to upload lists of domains in bulk in a CSV file, but Kawaguchi told me this feature has never been used.

Once a domain has been input to main Whois Requester web form, a port 43 Whois lookup is automatically carried out in the background and the form is populated with data such as registrar name, Whois server, IANA number and abuse email address.

At this point, human intervention appears to be required to visually confirm whether the Whois result has been redacted or not. This might require also going to the registrar’s web-based Whois, as some registrars return different results over port 43 compared to their web sites.

If a redacted record is returned, users can then select the trademark at issue from a drop-down (Whois Requestor stores its’ customers trademark information) and select a “purpose” from a different drop-down.

The “purposes” could include things like “trademark investigation” or “phishing investigation”. Each generates a different piece of pre-written text to be used in the template Whois request.

Users can then choose to generate, manually approve, and send off the Whois request to the relevant registrar abuse address. The request may have a “form of authorization” attached — a legal statement that AppDetex is authorized to ask for the data on behalf of its client.

Replies from registrars are sent to an AppDetex email address and fed into a workflow tool that looks a bit like an email inbox.

As the demo I saw was on the live Whois Requester site with a dummy account, I did not get a view into what happens after the initial request has been sent.

Registrars have complained that AppDetex does not reply to their responses to these initial requests, which is a key reason they believe them frivolous.

Shah and Milam told me that over the last several months, if a registrar reply has included a request for additional information, the Whois Requester system has been updated with a new template for that registrar, and the request resent.

This, they said, may account for duplicate requests registrars have been experiencing, though two registrars I put this to dispute whether it fits with what they’ve been seeing.

The fact that human review is required before requests are sent out “just makes it worse”, they also said.

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