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Nominet chair eats humble pie to stave off mass board cull

Kevin Murphy, February 9, 2021, Domain Registries

Nominet’s board of directors has outlined a series of changes it plans to make, including freezing its own pay and .uk domain prices, in an effort to avoid a member move to fire half the board, including the CEO and chair.

They’re also going to bring back the late, lamented member discussion forums.

Chair Mark Wood today wrote that Nominet plans to increase the amount of revenue it gives to “public benefit” purposes, which he said will hit £4 million by June, double last year’s amount.

After 2021, the company will donate 10% if its annual revenue to these causes, he said. That would be roughly £4.5 million a year, based on 2020 revenues, and roughly in line with 2015 levels, when the current senior management took over.

He went on to say that .uk registry fees will be frozen for two years. The last price increase went into effect last year after staying in place for four years.

The board won’t bump up its own salaries for two years either, Wood wrote.

The letter is in response to the member-driven move to fire Wood, CEO Russell Haworth, and three other members of the board, over what they see as mismanagement of the company. Currently, 13.6% of member votes — 196 registrars and individuals — have backed an Extraordinary General Meeting to hold this vote. This may be sufficient to successfully oust the targeted directors.

Among the demands of PublicBenefit.uk, initiated by Krystal Hosting, are an increased focus on public benefit causes, lower prices, improved member communications and a reversal of Nominet’s policy of diversification into non-registry services.

Wood thinks the EGM effort is foolhardy, however. He wrote:

Whatever the intention, the EGM proposal destabilises the organisation and, as a result, is not in the interest of members, registrars or registrants. If the EGM initiative achieves its aims, it will leave the company leaderless and facing an exodus of the highly-skilled staff we depend on to maintain the highly complex registry service we provide. It will erode trust and confidence in .UK, which is part of critical national infrastructure, and put Nominet’s independence at risk.

He’s proposing increased transparency of the cyber-security division, a new Registry Advisory Council, and new communication tools for members, including the launch of a “a well-governed next-generation member forum”.

The old forum was shut down last year, and announced (some members think with a certain amount of glee) by Haworth during Nominet’s Annual General Meeting. The forum was overly hostile to Nominet staff, he said at the time.

Wood now says “the decision to close the Nominet Forum, and the way in which this was done, damaged our relationship with some members in a way we had not intended.”

It’s quite a list of concessions from a board that clearly knows it’s on the ropes, but whether it’s enough to change the minds of large enough number of members remains to be seen.

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ShortDot adds fourth gTLD to its stable, plans March launch

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2021, Domain Registries

Another unused new gTLD has changed hands, ending up at ShortDot, the registry best-known for high-volume .icu.

ShortDot confirmed to DI today that it has acquired .cfd from its former owner, DotCFD.

The original plan for .cfd, one of the Boston Ivy collection of investment-related new gTLD applications, was for it to represent CFDs, or “contracts for difference”, a risky type of financial instrument that has proved sufficiently controversial that they’re not even legal in the US.

Since 2012, when the string was first applied for, CFDs have come in for serious criticism from market regulators and others due to the risk of significant losses they present to retail investors.

No .cfd domains have ever been sold, and it doesn’t appear to have ever properly launched, even though it’s been in the DNS root for five years.

But ShortDot COO Kevin Kopas tells me the plan is to repurpose the domain for an entirely different market.

“When we were contemplating the purchase and subsequent marketing angle we found that the traditional meaning of a CFD in the finance world doesn’t have the most positive connotation to it,” he said.

“We’re branding .cfd for the Clothing & Fashion Design industry and will be marketing it to entrepreneurs, bloggers, vloggers and others that are on the cutting edge of the fashion industry,” he said.

If that sounds like a stretch, you’re probably right — as far as I can tell, the fashion industry has never used that acronym and creating demand there will be a tall order. We’re in “professional web” territory here.

But Kopas said that ShortDot is already working with some influencers in the space “to create some pioneer cases that will go live at launch”. It’s also planning to attend fashion industry events after pandemic travel restrictions are over.

The company is planning to launch the domain with a first-come, first-served sunrise period beginning March 10 and ending April 12. General availability is slated for April 13 with a seven day early access period.

It’s the fourth unwanted gTLD ShortDot has acquired, repurposed and relaunched.

Its biggest success to date is .icu, a low-cost domain that proved popular almost exclusively in China and currently has 2.5 million domains in its zone file (down from a peak of 6.3 million less than a year ago).

ShortDot has shifted, then lost, so many .icu domains over the last two years that you’ve really got to factor out its influence if you want to get any sensible picture of what the new gTLD industry’s growth looks like.

It also runs .bond (2,500 names in its zone today) and .cyou (with 65,000).

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Nominet boss has epiphany and calls for calm as his job hangs by a thread

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2021, Domain Registries

Nominet’s CEO has abruptly taken a conciliatory tone with members in a new blog post, as support grows for his ouster.

Russell Haworth today posted that the organization and its members need to change the tone of their often-hostile arguments, and agreed to play his part in doing that in future.

In the next several weeks, Nominet will be forced to hold an Extraordinary General Meeting in which members will try to fire Haworth and most of the board of directors.

He also called for members to be “pragmatic” about Nominet’s strategy, reminding them that the internet is a very different and more dangerous place than the idealistic technology Eden that birthed it 25 years ago:

Nominet was founded at a time when the Internet was a palpable source of hope and optimism, long before it was considered critical national infrastructure, and before the very real challenges all of us now face keeping things running and safe.

We try to manage Nominet for the Internet that we have, even as we keep striving for the world where technology continues to deliver on its potential as a force for good.

As we know, today’s Internet sadly has too many bad actors bent on destruction and equipped with increasingly complex digital weaponry. Managing crucial elements of the UK’s Internet infrastructure requires that we bring a cold realism to the challenge and that we equip ourselves professionally and commercially to succeed.

This appears to be a justification for the company’s venture into commercial network security services, which Nominet’s critics believe is non-core, eating up resources that could otherwise be diverted to public benefit causes.

Simon Blackler of the registrar Krystal Hosting, who launched the petition for the EGM at PublicBenefit.uk, told DI:

He seems to be saying that Nominet needs to protect against bad actors; something we’ve not disagreed with. Of course Nominet should secure critical .UK infrastructure. That’s just a part of the core business. It’s more questionable whether it needs to be making forays in to commercial “cyber defence”, something that’s being covered by the private sector (and presumably Government) already.

One of PublicBenefit’s criticisms has been that spending on board compensation, and Haworth’s pay in particular, has risen even while operating profits have declined.

Haworth’s post goes on to say that Nominet staff are regularly headhunted by other tech firms, which may or may not be a response to this criticism.

Addressing the “tone” of the debate, Haworth acknowledges that Nominet has been at odds with some members for a very long time. Members have been angered by changes such as the decision six years ago to allow direct, second-level registrations, he notes.

Perhaps as a result of the length of some of these disagreements, we all may have found ourselves approaching our interactions with the wrong tone.

In order to make progress, that needs to change. I commit to playing my part to make that happen. Starting now.

The post comes as the PublicBenefit.uk campaign hits 176 supporting members representing 13% of all potential votes.

That not may not seem like a lot, but due to Nominet’s complicated system of vote caps and the fact that EGN turnout is not usually very high, it could well be enough to get the 50%+1 of votes cast required to ouster Haworth and the other targeted board members.

On the “tone” question, Blackler disputes Haworth’s narrative, telling us:

I find it surprising that he feels the need to address “tone”. The campaign I’ve put together is based on fact and where there’s emotion from me it’s to do with the staggering waste of an opportunity with regards to Nominet’s public benefit mandate

He said he talked this week to chairman Mark Wood, who’s also on the EGM hit-list, and the tone was “entirely civil”.

An impetus for the current campaign was Nominet’s decision to close down its age-old web-based member discussion forum, which happened live during the company’s Annual General Meeting last year.

While Haworth described the forum at the time “increasingly become aggressive and hostile” towards Nominet staff, many members took the move as a deliberate slap in the face and an indication the company was no longer interested in engaging with members.

It is now.

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One year on, Namecheap still fighting aborted .org takeover and may target GoDaddy and Donuts next

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2021, Domain Registrars

Even though Ethos Capital’s proposed takeover of Public Interest Registry was rejected last May, registrar Namecheap is still doggedly pursuing legal action against ICANN’s handling of the deal, regardless.

The Independent Review Process complaint filed last February is still active, with Namecheap currently fighting a recent ICANN motion to dismiss the case.

The company is also demanding access to information about GoDaddy’s acquisition of Neustar and Donuts’ acquisition of Afilias, and is threatening to file separate actions related to both those deals.

Namecheap has essentially two beefs with ICANN. First, that it should not have lifted price caps in its .org, .biz and .info registry contracts. Second, that its review of Ethos’ bid for PIR lacked the required level of transparency.

ICANN’s trying to get the IRP complaint thrown out on two fairly simple grounds. First, that Namecheap lacks standing because it’s failed to show a lack of price caps have harmed it. Second, that it rejected the PIR acquisition, so Namecheap’s claims are moot.

In its motion to dismiss (pdf), its lawyers wrote:

Namecheap’s entire theory of harm, however, is predicated on the risk of speculative future harm. In fact, nearly every explanation of Namecheap’s purported harm includes the words “may” or “potential.” Namecheap has not identified a single actual, concrete harm it has suffered.

Namecheap’s claims related to the Change of Control Request should be dismissed because ICANN’s decision not to consent to the request renders these claims moot
and, separately, Namecheap cannot demonstrate any harm resulting from this decision.

In December, Namecheap had submitted as evidence two analyses of its business prospects in the event of registry price increases, one compiled by its own staff, the other prepared by a pair of outside expert economists.

While neither shows Namecheap has suffered any directly quantifiable harm, such as a loss of revenue or customers, Namecheap argues that that doesn’t matter and that the likelihood of future harm is in fact a current harm.

A mere expectation of an increase in registry prices is sufficient to show harm. This is because such expectation reduces Namecheap’s expected profits and its net present value.

It further argues that if Namecheap was found to not have standing, it would give ICANN the ability to evade future IRP accountability by simply adding a 12-month delay to the implementation of controversial decisions, pushing potential complainants outside the window in which they’re able to file for IRP.

On the PIR change of control requests, Namecheap says it’s irrelevant that ICANN ultimately blocked the Ethos acquisition. The real problem is that ICANN failed in its transparency requirements related to the deal, the company claims.

The fact that ICANN withheld its consent is no excuse for refusing to provide full transparency with respect to the actions surrounding the proposed acquisition and ICANN’s approval process. Namecheap’s claims relate to the non-transparent process; not the outcomes of such process. Irrespective of the outcome, lack of transparency increases the level of systemic risk in Namecheap’s business environment.

How did ICANN come to its decision? Was an imminent request for a change of control known to ICANN, when it took the decision to remove the price control provisions? What was discussed in over 30 hours of secret meetings between ICANN org and the Board? What discussions took place between ICANN, PIR and other entities involved? All these questions remain unanswered

Namecheap refers to two incidents last year in which ICANN hid its deliberations about industry acquisitions by conducting off-the-books board discussions.

The first related to the PIR deal. I called out ICANN for avoiding its obligation to provide board meeting minutes in a post last May.

The second relates to the board’s consideration of Donuts’ proposed (and ultimately approved) acquisition of Afilias last December. Again, ICANN’s board discussed the deal secretly prior to its official, minuted December 17 meeting, thereby avoiding its transparency requirements.

In my opinion, this kind of bullshit has to stop.

Namecheap is also now threatening to bring the Afilias deal and GoDaddy’s acquisition of Neustar’s registry business last April into the current IRP, or to file separate complaints related to them, writing in its response to ICANN’s motion (pdf):

Namecheap seeks leave to have ICANN’s actions and inactions regarding its consideration of the Neustar and Afilias changes of control reviewed by this IRP Panel. If, per impossibile such leave is not granted, Namecheap reserves all rights to initiate separate proceedings on these issues.

The deals are similar because both involve the change of control of legacy gTLD contractors with millions of domains under management that have recently had their price caps lifted — Afilias ran .info and Neustar ran .biz.

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Defensive windfall on the cards for .spa? It’s not just for spas any more

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registries

Forthcoming new gTLD .spa has published its planned launch dates and registrations policies, and it’s not just for spas any more.

Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council, the registry, has informed ICANN that it plans to take .spa to sunrise for 30 days starting April 20 and expects to go to general availability around the start of July.

But despite being a “Community” gTLD under ICANN rules, it appears to be also marketing itself at any Italian company that uses the S.p.A corporate suffix, which is generally equivalent to the US Inc/Corp and UK Plc.

According to its eligibility criteria (pdf), under the heading “Coincidental Community Guidelines”, proof of an Italian business address should be enough for any SpA company to qualify to register.

The registry’s web site at nic.spa currently says:

Apart from the spa and wellness industry, .spa can also be a abbreviation to represent:

  • Società per Azioni (a form of corporation in Italy, Public Limited Companies By Shares)
  • Sociedad por acciones (Joint-stock company in South American Countries)

This offers a great opportunity for entitles in Italy and South American Countries to registered a wonderful name.

This is interesting, because ASPWC applied for .spa as a Community applicant dedicated to the spa and wellness industry.

The primary reason it’s getting to run .spa rather than rival applicant Donuts is that ASPWC won a Community Priority Evaluation, enabling it to avoid a potentially costly auction against its deeper-pocketed competitor.

There’s no mention of Italians or South Americans in its 2015 CPE result (pdf).

Donuts fought the CPE result in ICANN’s Cooperative Engagement Process for three years, but eventually backed away for unknown reasons.

In its original application, ASWPC spends a lot of time discussing its “intended use” of .spa and possible overlap with other meanings of the string. Among this text can be found:

The use of “S.p.A.” as a short form for the Italian form of stock corporation: “Società Per Azioni” is also relatively much less prevalent than the word as intended for the spa community. Furthermore, a more proper and popular way of denoting the form of corporation is “S.p.A.” with the periods included. While this is an important usage of the string “SpA”, the Registry believes that it should not take away from the significant meaning of the word “spa” in its intended use for the spa community as a TLD. Furthermore, additional preventive measures can be put in place to mitigate against any concerns for abusive utilization of the TLD in this manner.

I could find no text explicitly ruling out the Italian corporate use in the application, nor could I find any indication that it was part of the hard-C “Community” upon whose behalf ASWPC was applying for, and eventually won, the gTLD.

The application does seem to envisage some kind of reserved names list that could include S.p.A companies, but that doesn’t appear to be what the registry has in mind any more.

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Two more dot-brands take the easy way out

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registries

A US insurance giant with close to $50 billion in annual revenue has taken the decision to kill off its two dormant dot-brand gTLDs.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance has informed ICANN that it wants to cancel its .nationwide and .onyourside gTLD contracts.

Neither was being used beyond the obligatory nic.example web sites.

In fact, it appears that Nationwide cared so little about its dot-brands that both NIC sites inadvertently plug another, unaffiliated gTLD.

nationwide

The text on both sites reads:

To better serve our members, Nationwide has secured a top-level domain.

Now, when you visit a Nationwide.Insurance website, you can have confidence that it’s from the company you trust – Nationwide.

But Nationwide does not run .insurance, that’s owned by fTLD. It does however have nationwide.insurance registered and parked with the same messaging.

They’re the 87th and 88th dot-brands to cancel their ICANN registry agreements.

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RobinHood.club showered with five-star reviews after .com confusion

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Gossip

In a world where it’s still common for internet users to automatically assume companies use the .com version of their brand, instead of a new gTLD, it’s sometimes refreshing to see the opposite scenario occur.

It was a mixed blessing for a German price comparison app developer, which found itself confused with an American stock-trading app of the same name this week.

The company, which uses robinhood.club as its primary domain, received a handful of negative, one-star reviews on the Google app store, apparently from people who confused it with the scandal-hit trading app, which can be found at robinhood.com.

The American RobinHood was of course the app of choice for the Reddit users who last week clubbed together to pump the stock of floundering bricks-and-mortar games retailer GameStop, in order to frustrate the plans of big short-selling hedge funds and in many cases make some healthy profits screwing over The Man.

When RobinHood limited trading of GameStop and other stocks, it faced accusations of siding with billionaire Wall Street pros at the expense of armchair investors, and the unaffiliated German app maker seems to have taken some of the overspill of this criticism.

robinghood play store

But the negative impact was short-lived. When news of the confusion filtered back to Reddit, hundreds of users — who presumably had never used the app — flooded to the store to leave five-star reviews to counteract the one-stars.

robin hood

At time of writing, every review appears to be related in one way or the other to the stock-trading scandal, and the German app holds an average rating of over four stars.

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EURid reports 3% growth in final quarter before Brexit crunch

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registries

The .eu ccTLD grew by 108,682 domains in the fourth quarter of 2020, the last reporting period before the full impact of Brexit is felt.

The registry said this week that it ended December with 3,684,984 names under management, a number which also includes .ею and .ευ. That’s a 3% increase over the three months.

Portugal was the big driver, due to local registrar promotions. It was up 64.8% sequentially and 116% year-over-year. Portuguese registrants owned 105,895 names at the end of the year.

The Q4 numbers show 77,000 names registered to UK registrants and do not reflect the impact of the Brexit transition, which ended at the end of the year.

EURid said last month that it had suspended around 80,000 domains belonging to about 48,000 registrants, as the UK fell out of eligibility.

Some of those will likely be recovered during Q1, as UK-resident EU citizens are still eligible for .eu domains.

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Webcentral to change its branding yet again after tricky takeover

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registrars

Pioneering Aussie registrar Webcentral is to undergo yet another rebranding under its new ownership.

The company said last week that its new strategy “will include the transition to a single brand, with a standardised set of core products”.

It also plans to bring its customer support back to Australia. It is currently outsourced overseas.

Its current brands include Melbourne IT, Netregistry, WME and Domainz. There’s no word on which of these, if any, will survive.

The company was founded as Melbourne IT and became one of the first half-dozen registrars accredited by ICANN over two decades ago.

It rebranded as Arq Group in 2018 after a series of acquisitions, and then again to Webcentral Group last year after a series of divestitures.

Late last year, it became majority-owned by a company called 5G Networks, beating a rival offer from Web.com.

That takeover is currently subject to protests to government regulators by shareholder Keybridge Capital, which believes the 5G takeover was coerced.

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Fire the board! Registrars attempt a coup at Nominet

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registries

The registrars are revolting — again — at Nominet.

Members representing 12.2% of the .uk registry’s voting rights have put their names to a call for five of the company’s unelected directors, including CEO Russell Haworth, to be fired and replaced with two hand-picked alternatives.

The plan is to shake up the company by slashing wholesale .uk prices and donating more money to worthy “public benefit” causes.

Nominet has warned in response that such a move would be “highly disruptive to our work and our team”.

The campaign, which can be found at PublicBenefit.uk, was kicked off by the registrar Krystal Hosting, which has about 45,000 .uk domains under management.

Signatories want to call an Extraordinary General Meeting that would vote on kicking out Haworth, along with chair Mark Wood, registry managing director Eleanor Bradley and directors Benjamin Hill and Jane Tozer.

Four elected non-exec directors and two non-elected directors would remain.

A second resolution would replace these directors with former BBC Trust chair Sir Michael Lyons and former RIPE NCC managing director Axel Pawlik, who have both confirmed their interest in the positions. Lyons would be chair.

Only 5% of Nominet’s voting rights — calculated largely from how many domains each member manages — are needed to call an EGM. At 12.2%, the campaign has already succeeded in passing that threshold. It would need 50%+1 of those attending the EGM to actually carry the resolutions.

The campaign claims that Nominet has gone downhill ever since Haworth was appoint five years ago.

It claims that the amount of money Nominet donates to “public benefit” causes has shrunk from £26 million ($35.5 million) in the preceding five years to £9.8 million in the five years since. That’s even while its wholesale prices for .uk domains increased 50% from £2.50 to £3.75 a year.

Director pay has gone up by 70% over the same period, it claims.

The registry also stands accused of frittering away money on acquisitions and pointless diversification into non-core businesses. Krystal founder Simon Blackler wrote:

This is not a VC-backed Silicon Valley startup that needs to take risks, make speculative acquisitions, “pivot” or worry about unnecessary diversifications. This is Nominet, the guardian of the .UK namespace and we’d like it back, please.

A second — and arguably more-important, if you’re a cynic — goal is to get the price of .uk domains to come down. This would reduce the carrying cost of portfolios held for resale by some Nominet members.

In response, Haworth has blogged that “an EGM and change of board at this time would be highly destabilising to Nominet and disrupt a range of fantastic programmes that are currently underway or planned”. He wrote:

I understand that there are frustrations and disagreements about how we run the business, and we are open to looking at those and making any adjustments that are in the interests of the company and the wider stakeholder community we serve. More on that to come.

The company has just approved a pricey multi-year investment in improving the registry infrastructure, he wrote.

The board has also approved a new Registry Advisory Council, which would be made up of members and have the ability to make recommendations on pricing, which could address concerns that Nominet has not been especially responsive to its members, he wrote.

Nominet came under fire last year when it unilaterally closed down the discussion forums on its web site, announcing and executing the move during its Annual General Meeting, saying posters had become “increasingly aggressive and hostile” towards Nominet staff.

At time of writing, 153 Nominet members, including four of the top 20 by .uk domain volume, have signed up to the campaign.

UPDATE: This article was updated 1248 UTC to correct the composition of the board and voting thresholds.

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