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Is India’s largest registrar about to go titsup? And where the hell is ICANN?

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2020, Domain Registrars

India’s largest independent domain name registrar appears to be “doing an AlpNames”, with many customers complaining about domains going dark, transfer codes not being issued, and customer support being unavailable for weeks.

Net 4 India, which claims to have 400,000 customers, has been in insolvency proceeds for over two years, but it’s only in the last couple months that the complaints have started piling up by the scores from disgruntled customers.

A major complaint is that renewals are not processed even after they are paid for, that transfer authcodes never arrive, that customer support never picks up the phone or replies to emails, and (occasionally) that the Net4 web site itself is down.

As we saw with AlpNames last year and RegisterFly back in the mists of time, These are all the warning signs of a registrar in trouble.

On its web site, Net4 prominently warns customers that its call centers are operating on a skeleton staff due to India’s coronavirus lockdown measures, which may account for the lack of support.

But there are reports that customers have visited the company’s offices in person to find them closed.

There’s been radio silence from the registrar. Even its Twitter account is private.

Many local commentators are pointing to the fact that Net4 is in protracted insolvency proceedings as the true underlying issue.

There have been calls for government intervention, action by .in registry NIXI, ICANN enforcement, and even the Indian equivalent of a class action lawsuit. This local cyber law blogger is all over it.

But what is ICANN doing about it?

Net4 was taken to a quasi-judicial insolvency court in 2017 by a debt-recovery company called Edelweiss over the rupee equivalent of about $28 million of unpaid loans from the State Bank of India.

ICANN has been aware of this fact since at least April 2019, when it started calling the registrar for an explanation.

Under the standard Registrar Accreditation Agreement, being in insolvency for over 30 days is grounds for unilateral termination by ICANN.

ICANN could terminate the agreement and transfer all of Net4’s gTLD domain names to a different registrar pretty much at will — all the registrant data is in escrow. This would not protect Net4’s many thousands of .in registrants of course.

ICANN suspended Net4’s RAA in June last year, but Net4 somehow managed to talk its way out of it. ICANN later rescinded the suspension on the proviso that the registrar provide monthly updates regarding its insolvency.

Net4’s cure period has been extended three times by ICANN. The latest expired July 31 this year.

At least one ICANN staffer is on the case, however. ICANN’s head of India Samiran Gupta has recently been reaching out to customers on Twitter, offering his email address and assistance getting in contact with Net4 staff, apparently with some success.

But Net4 had 95,000 gTLD names under management at the last count (though it’s been hemorrhaging thousands per month) so this individual approach won’t go very far.

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Webcentral rejects Web.com buyout bid for LOWER offer from Aussie telco

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2020, Domain Registrars

Pioneering registrar Webcentral has turned down Web.com’s offer to acquire it in favor of a lower offer from telecommunications company 5G Networks.

The company announced this week that 5GN will pay one share for ever 12 shares of Webcentral, which works to to between AUD 18.7 million and AUD 19.5 million ($14.24), depending on which trailing average price you use.

That’s between AUD 0.153 and AUD 0.16 per share, compared to Web.com’s recently increased bid of AUD 0.18 per share.

It’s a 138% premium based on 5GN’s September 16 closing price and Webcentral’s closing price before the Web.com deal was announced two months ago.

So why take the lower offer? Webcentral offered a few reasons, the most compelling of which was that there seems to have been a certain amount of arm-twisting going on.

The Web.com deal would have required 75% of Webcentral’s shares to be voted in favor of the acquisition and 5GN already owned over 10% and said it would vote them against. The 5GN deal only requires it to acquire 50.1% of the shares.

5GN will also pay off Webcentral’s debts and pay Web.com the AUD 500,000 penalty incurred for breaking the original July deal.

Webcentral was previously known as ARQ Group and, as one of the original five ICANN=accredited registrars, Melbourne IT. It owns the registrars Netregistry and Domainz. it became Webcentral after selling its wholesale business to CentralNic and its enterprise unit to private equity.

5GN, despite the name, is a largely wire-based telco and hosting provider. It doesn’t currently own any registrars.

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Portugal reports lockdown boom continued through the summer

Kevin Murphy, September 16, 2020, Domain Registries

While the coronavirus pandemic is well past its first peak in western Europe, the lingering effects of government restrictions is a gift that continues to give for at least one ccTLD.

Associação DNS.PT today reported that total registrations of .pt names in August (6,843) were 35% higher than during the same period last year, and that July’s number was 17.28% higher than the year-ago month.

The registry added that the trend seems to be continuing into September.

The company said that registrations were mostly driven by “catering and domestic service companies, gyms and social solidarity projects” getting online for the first time due to pandemic restrictions.

Oddly, the new numbers appear to have been presented today at an in-person, though socially distanced, lecture by DNS.PT and government officials.

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No ICANN meetings until 2021

Kevin Murphy, September 16, 2020, Domain Policy

Community members itching to be able to suck up to (or berate) ICANN staffers in person rather than over the phone or videoconferencing will have to wait a little longer.

The Org announced today that all face-to-face meetings have been cancelled until the end of the year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

It doesn’t affect any of the big public meetings — the AGM in October was relocated from Hamburg to Zoom a few months ago — but regular business travel and intersessional meetings are hit.

It also means ICANN staffers will continue to work from home until January at the earliest, ICANN said.

The health and safety of our community and staff are always our top concern, and we believe it is not prudent to travel or encourage gatherings until at least the end of 2020. The ongoing and long-term health impact of COVID-19 on our community and staff is a risk that we are not willing to take. In addition, the travel landscape has not yet stabilized, which makes any travel complicated and risky.

Call me a pessimist, but I’d be very surprised if this is the last time the travel ban is extended.

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ZADNA hikes up the price of .za domains

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2020, Domain Registries

South African ccTLD registry ZADNA has upped the price of .za domains after a consultation.

Standard pricing will increase by ZAR 10 to ZAR 55 ($3.35), which works out at about a 22% increase, from April 1 next year.

There’s also a ZAR 10 increase on customers of its old, pre-EPP legacy system, where the base price is currently ZAR 130 ($7.58). That kicks in January 1.

ZADNA has been increasing the legacy pricing for years to encourage registrants onto its industry-standard EPP infrastructure.

The changes come despite receiving comments from the local internet community about affordability and the current economic conditions.

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Floodgates, open! Trademark Clearinghouse now supports .com

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2020, Domain Services

The Trademark Clearinghouse has added .com to the roster of TLDs supported by its infringement notification service.

The Deloitte-managed service recently announced the change to its Ongoing Notification Service, which came into effect late last month.

The update means TMCH subscribers will receive alerts whenever a .com domain is registered that contains their trademark, helping them to decide whether to pursue enforcement actions such as UDRP.

Unlike the ICANN-mandated 90-day Trademark Claims period that accompanies the launch of each new gTLD, the registrant herself does not receive an alert of possible infringement at point of registration.

The service, which is not regulated by ICANN, is still free to companies that have their marks registered in the TMCH, which charges an extra dollar for every variation of a mark the holder wishes to monitor.

Such services have been commercially available from the likes of MarkMonitor for 20 years or more. The TMCH has been offering it for new gTLDs since they started launching at the end of 2013.

With the .com-shaped gaping hole now plugged, two things could happen.

First, clients may find a steep increase in the number of alerts they receive — .com is still the biggest-selling and in volume terms the most-abused TLD.

Second, commercial providers of similar services now find themselves competing against a free rival with an ICANN-enabled captive audience.

The upgrade comes at the tail end of the current wave of the new gTLD program. With the .gay launch out of the way and other desirable open TLDs tied up in litigation, there won’t be much call for TMCH’s core services for the next few years.

It also comes just a couple months after the .com zone file started being published on ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, but I expect that’s just a coincidence.

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Radix premium renewals approach $1 million

Kevin Murphy, September 8, 2020, Domain Sales

New gTLD registry Radix made almost a million bucks in the first half of the year from renewal fees on its premium domains.

That’s one data point that jumps out from Radix’s latest premium sales report, released last night.

The company said that it made $1.96 million at the top line from premiums in the period, up 19% on the second half of 2019.

It added that $996,771 of that was from renewals, up from $903,687 in H2 2019.

Radix is one of the registries that charges a premium fee every year over the lifetime of the registration, a practice controversial among domain investors.

Still, it appears there is demand (or, at least, acceptance) among end users. Radix said it saw a 41% sequential increase in the number of premium sales in H1.

.tech, .online and .store were the biggest sellers, with the vast majority of sold names clustering in the $250 to $2,500 range.

The renewal rate after the first year was 63%, growing to 72% at the second renewal and a very respectable 78% thereafter.

Radix said it saw .store premium sales grow by more than fivefold during the half, which it attributed to the coronavirus pandemic:

While premium registrations and revenue have grown steadily for five quarters since Q2 2019, the 2020 pandemic has led to significant demand in eCommerce and have urged businesses from all verticals to build a strong web presence.

This has led to a surge in the adoption of premium domain names on meaningful extensions that are most suited for these businesses such as .STORE. Premium registrations for .STORE in Q2 2020 was up by 5.5X compared to Q2 2019.

More stats can be found here.

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GoDaddy could lose control of .co this week

Kevin Murphy, September 8, 2020, Domain Registries

It looks like GoDaddy’s recently acquired .co registry could lose formal control of the ccTLD this week.

ICANN’s board of directors has “Transfer of the .CO (Colombia) top-level domain to the Ministry of Information and Communications Technologies” on its agenda for its meeting this Thursday.

Since 2009, IANA record for .co shows the Colombian company .CO Internet as the sponsor, admin contact and tech contact.

.CO Internet was acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014. Neustar’s registry business, including the .co contract, was acquired by GoDaddy earlier this year. Most of .CO Internet’s original staff are still with the company.

GoDaddy now has the contract to run .co for the next five years, but as a service provider rather than having full administrative control of the TLD.

A redelegation to the Colombian ministry will not affect that contract, and in fact seems to have been envisaged by it.

Back in April when the renewal was announced, MinTIC said it would in future “be in charge of its [.co’s] administration through a group dedicated to Internet governance with technical personnel with knowledge and ability to manage and administer the domain”.

The new deal also sees Colombia receive 81% of the profits from .co, compared to the 6-7% it received under the old deal.

Assuming the ICANN board gives the redelegation the nod this week, it usually only takes IANA a day or two to make the appropriate updates to its registry.

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ICANN ordered to freeze .hotel after “serious questions” about trade secrets “theft”

Kevin Murphy, September 3, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has been instructed to place the proposed .hotel gTLD in limbo after four applicants for the string raised “sufficiently serious questions” that ICANN may have whitewashed the “theft” of trade secrets.

The order was handed down last month by the emergency panelist in the Independent Review Process case against ICANN by claimants Fegistry, MMX, Radix and Domain Ventures Partners.

Christopher Gibson told ICANN to “maintain the status quo” with regards the .hotel contention set, meaning currently winning applicant Hotel Top Level Domain, which is now owned by Afilias, won’t get contracted or delegated until the IRP is resolved.

At the core of the decision (pdf) is Gibson’s view that the claimants raised “sufficiently serious questions related to the merits” in allegations that ICANN mishandled and acted less than transparently in its investigation into a series of data breaches several years ago.

You may recall that ICANN seriously screwed up its new gTLD application portal, configuring in such a way that any applicant was able to search for and view the confidential data, including financial information such as revenue projections, of any other competing applicant.

Basically, ICANN was accidentally publishing applicants’ trade secrets on its web site for years.

ICANN discovered the glitch in 2015 and conducted an audit, which initially fingered Dirk Krischenowski — who at time was the half-owner of a company that owned almost half of HTLD as well as a lead consultant on the bid — as the person who appeared to have accessed the vast majority of the confidential data in March and April 2014.

ICANN did not initially go public with his identity, but it did inform the affected applicants and I managed to get a copy of the email, which said he’d downloaded about 200 records he shouldn’t have been able to access.

It later came to light that Krischenowski was not the only HTLD employee to use the misconfiguration to access data — according to ICANN, then-CEO of HTLD Katrin Ohlmer and lawyer Oliver Süme had too.

HTLD execs have always denied any wrongdoing, and as far as I know there’s never been any action against them in the proper courts. Krischenowski has maintained that he had no idea the portal was glitched, and he was using it in good faith.

Also, neither Ohlmer nor Krischenowski are still involved with HTLD, having been bought out by Afilias after the hacking claims emerged.

These claims of trade secret “theft” are being raised again now because the losing .hotel applicants think ICANN screwed up its probe and basically tried to make it go away out of embarrassment.

Back in August 2016, the ICANN board decided that demands to cancel the HTLD application were “not warranted”. Ohlmer barely gets a mention in the resolution’s rationale.

The losing applicants challenged this decision in a Request for Reconsideration in 2016, known as Request 16-11 (pdf). In that request, they argued that the ICANN board had basically ignored Ohlmer’s role.

Request 16-11 was finally rejected by the ICANN board in January last year, with the board saying it had in fact considered Ohlmer when making its decision.

But the IRP claimants now point to a baffling part of ICANN’s rationale for doing so: that it found “no evidence that any of the confidential information that Ms. Ohlmer (or Mr. Krischenowski) improperly accessed was provided to HTLD”.

In other words, ICANN said that the CEO of the company did not provide the information that she had obtained to the company of which she was CEO. Clear?

Another reason for brushing off the hacking claims has been that HTLD could have seen no benefit during the application process by having access to its rivals’ confidential data.

HTLD won the contention set, avoiding the need for an auction, in a Community Priority Evaluation. ICANN says the CPE was wholly based on information provided in its 2012 application, so any data obtained in 2014 would have been worthless.

But the losing applicants say that doesn’t matter, as HTLD/Afilias still have access to their trade secrets, which could make the company a more effective competitor should .hotel be delegated.

This all seems to have been important to Gibson’s determination. He wrote in his emergency ruling (pdf) last month:

The Emergency Panelist determines that Claimants have raised “sufficiently serious questions related to the merits” in in relation to the Board’s denial of Request 16-11, with respect to the allegations concerning the Portal Configuration issues in Request 16-11. This conclusion is made on the basis of all of the above information, and in view of Claimants’ IRP Request claim that ICANN subverted the investigation into HTLD’s alleged theft of trade secrets. In particular, Claimants claim that ICANN refused to produce key information underlying its reported conclusions in the investigation; that it violated the duty of transparency by withholding that information; that the Board’s action to ignore relevant facts and law was a violation of Bylaws; and further, to extent the BAMC and/or Board failed to have such information before deciding to disregard HTLD’s alleged breach, that violated their duty of due diligence upon reasonable investigation, and duty of independent judgment.

The Emergency Panelist echoes concerns that were raised initially by the Despegar IRP Panel regarding the Portal Configuration issues, where that Panel found that “serious allegations” had been made188 and referenced Article III(1) of ICANN’s Bylaws in effect at that time, but declined to make a finding on those issues, indicating “that it should remain open to be considered at a future IRP should one be commenced in respect of this issue.” Since that time, ICANN conducted an internal investigation of the Portal Configuration issues, as noted above; however, the alleged lack of disclosure, as well as certain inconsistencies in the decisions of the BAMC and the Board regarding the persons to whom the confidential information was disclosed and their relationship to, or position with HTLD, as well as ICANN’s decision to ultimately rely on a “no harm no foul” rationale when deciding to permit the HTLD application to proceed, all raise sufficiently serious questions related to the merits of whether the Board breached ICANN’s Article, Bylaws or other polices and commitments.

It’s important to note that this is not a final ruling that ICANN did anything wrong, it’s basically the ICANN equivalent of a ruling on a preliminary injunction and Gibson is saying the claimants’ allegations are worthy of further inquiry.

And the ruling did not go entirely the way of the claimants. Gibson in fact ruled against them on most of their demands.

For example, he said their was insufficient evidence to revisit claims that a review of the CPE process carried out by FTI Consulting was a whitewash, and he refused to order ICANN to preserve documentation relating to the case (though ICANN has said it will do so anyway).

He also ruled against the claimants on a few procedural issues, such as their demands for an Ombudsman review and for IRP administrator the International Center for Dispute Resolution to recuse itself.

Some of their claims were also time-barred under ICANN’s equivalent of the statute of limitations.

But ICANN will be prevented from contracting with HTLD/Afilias for now, which is a key strategic win.

ICANN reckons the claimants are just using the IRP to try to force deep-pocketed Afilias into a private auction they can be paid to lose, and I don’t doubt there’s more than a grain of truth in that claim.

But if it exposes another ICANN cover-up in the process, I for one can live with that.

The case continues…

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CentralNic parking boosts revenue even as its registrars suffer

Kevin Murphy, September 2, 2020, Domain Registrars

CentralNic reported what it called “outstanding” first-half financial results yesterday, with growth from its new parking business more than offsetting a decline in its registrar business.

The company reported H1 revenue of $111.1 million, up 124% year over year. Adjusted EBITDA was up 64% to $15.1 million.

But these remarkable numbers were driven primarily by acquisitions — CentralNic made four in the second half of last year. Its estimated organic growth was more modest.

On an apples-to-apples basis, revenue was up 18% and adjusted EBITDA was up 16%.

The company has reorganized how it reports its various segments into “direct”, “indirect” and “monetization”. Two of those segments grew while one shrank.

The direct segment, which basically means CentralNic’s collection of retail registrars, saw revenue down 11% at $21.6 million, but a lot of that was due to rejiggering the reporting segments. Apples-to-apples, revenue was down 1% at $20.9 million.

Indirect, which bundles together its wholesale registrars, registry and registry back-end services, saw revenue up 62% at $41.2 million. Apples-to-apples, the growth was 9%.

But the standout performer was the new monetization segment — domain parking, which became a big deal after CentralNic acquired German outfit Team Internet last year — which saw revenue up 38% at $48.5 million.

The one worryingly dark spot in this segment is the fact that one customer is responsible for over 92% of revenue.

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