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US asks if it should take back control over ICANN

Kevin Murphy, June 6, 2018, Domain Policy

The US government has asked the public whether it should reverse its 2016 action to relinquish oversight of the domain name system root.

“Should the IANA Stewardship Transition be unwound? If yes, why and how? If not, why not?”

That’s the surprisingly direct question posed, among many others, in a notice of inquiry (pdf) issued yesterday by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The inquiry “is seeking comments and recommendations from all interested stakeholders on its international internet policy priorities for 2018 and beyond”. The deadline for comments is July 2.

The IANA transition, which happened in September 2016, saw the NTIA remove itself from the minor part it played, alongside meatier roles for ICANN and Verisign, in the old triumvirate of DNS root overseers.

At the handover, ICANN baked many of its previous promises to the US government into its bylaws instead, and handed oversight of itself over to the so-called Empowered Community, made up of internet stakeholders of all stripes.

The fact that the question is being asked at all would have been surprising not too long ago, but new NTIA chief David Redl and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed their willingness to look into a reversal as recently as January.

Back then Redl told Congresspeople, in response to questions raised primarily by Senator Ted Cruz during his confirmation process:

I am not aware of any specific proposals to reverse the IANA transition, but I am interested in exploring ways to achieve this goal. To that end, if I am confirmed I will recommend to Secretary Ross that we begin the process by convening a panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding the transition.

Cruz had objected to the transition largely based on his stated (albeit mistaken or disingenuous) belief that it gave China, Iran and a plethora of bad guys control over Americans’ freedom of speech, something that has manifestly failed to materialize.

But in the meantime another big issue has arisen — GDPR, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation — which is in the process of eroding access rights to Whois data, beloved of US law enforcement and intellectual property interests.

NTIA is known to be strongly in favor of retaining access to this data to the greatest extent possible.

The notice of inquiry does not mention Whois or GDPR directly but it does ask several arguably related questions:

A. What are the challenges to the free flow of information online?

B. Which foreign laws and policies restrict the free flow of information online? What is the impact on U.S. companies and users in general?

C. Have courts in other countries issued internet-related judgments that apply national laws to the global internet? What have been the practical effects on U.S. companies of such judgements? What have the effects been on users?

NTIA’s statement announcing the inquiry prominently says that the agency is “working on” items such as “protecting the availability of WHOIS information”.

It also says it “has been a strong advocate for the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance and policy development”.

While GPDR and Whois are plainly high-priority concerns for NTIA, it’s beyond my ken how reversing the IANA transition would help at all.

GDPR is not ICANN policy, after all. It’s a European Union law that applies to all companies doing business in Europe.

Even if the US were to fully nationalize ICANN tomorrow and rewrite Whois policy to mandate the death penalty for any contracted party that refused to openly publish full Whois records, that would not make GDPR go away, it would probably just kick off a privacy trade war or mean that all US contracted parties would have to stop doing business in Europe.

That sounds like an extreme scenario, but Trump.

The NTIA’s inquiry closes July 2, so if you think the transition was a terrible idea or a wonderful idea, this is where to comment.

MMX could announce acquisition this week

New gTLD registry MMX could announce plans to be acquired as early as this week.

The company told the markets last week that its delayed 2017 financial results would be announced in “early May”, along with the “conclusion of the strategic review” it has been teasing investors about for almost a year.

The “strategic review”, announced last May, is exploring “how MMX can participate in a broader industry consolidation” including acquisition or merger.

MMX said last week that “constructive discussions continue to progress”.

It has previously described the duration of the negotiations, initially slated to close last September, as “frustrating”.

Unlike AIM-listed rival CentralNic, which has confirmed it is in reverse-takeover talks with KeyDrive, MMX has not revealed which potential buyer(s) it has been talking to.

MMX, also listed on AIM, has a market cap of £69.3 million ($94.3 million) today.

In January, it informally reported that its 2017 billings are expected to be around the $15.6 million mark, allowing the company to hit operating profitability for the first time.

The company runs 25 new gTLDs solo and five more in partnerships with other companies, but by far and a way the best volume performer is .vip, which accounts for well over half of its registrations largely due to its resonance in China.

ICANNWiki fans protest funding cut

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN should continue to fund the independent ICANNWiki project, according to high-profile industry supporters.

As I first reported back in December, ICANN plans to stop giving a $100,000 annual grant to ICANNWiki, a repository of about 6,000 community-sourced articles on the people and organizations involved in the ICANN community.

While ICANNWiki does not merit an explicit mention in ICANN’s latest proposed budget, both organizations have confirmed to DI that the funding is for the chop, as ICANN attempts to rein in spending in the face of depressed revenue.

About a quarter of the 41 comments filed on the budget express support for the wiki.

Consultant Kurt Pritz, a 10-year veteran of ICANN and one of the key architects of its new gTLD program, wrote that the wiki “has been an essential part of the ICANN culture for many years… often saving ICANN meetings from terminal ennui.”

Roland LaPlante, chief marketing officer of Afilias (one of about 15 sponsors listed on ICANNWiki’s front page), wrote:

The complete withdrawal of funding from ICANN so abruptly not only threatens the viability of the project, but rather disrespectfully junks the valuable time and resources that the community has invested over the years. Ultimately the loss of ICANNWiki would be a loss to our overall sense of community.

ICANN should continue to support ICANNWiki at a reasonable level in the next fiscal year. At a minimum, please consider giving the team time to find other sources of funding.

Sandeep Ramchandani, CEO of Radix, concurred, writing:

ICANNNWiki benefits the entire ICANN community. Cutting the funding entirely would effectively halt its operations and be a disservice to the community it serves. It is in ICANN and the community’s best interest to continue funding it in an amount that works for ICANN long-term, and provide ICANNWiki sufficient time to develop a more sustainable business plan.

Simon Cousins, CEO of Chinese market localization specialist Allegravita, said:

Before ICANNWiki, there was precious little information on industry fundamentals in China, and since Allegravita has supported the pro-bono translation of ICANNWiki content into Chinese, the vital platform that is ICANNWiki has been acknowledged hundreds of times.

We do not support the immediate and full withdrawal of funding for ICANNWiki. We guardedly support incremental, annual decreases to give ICANNWiki the time necessary to generate new sponsorship income to cover their costs.

Pablo Rodriguez of .pr ccTLD operator PRTLD, host of ICANN 61 and an ICANNWiki sponsor, wrote:

We believe that they should not be cut out from the ICANN’s Budget, instead, they should be supported and embraced to continue their engaging approach and work with ICANN’s Community and as well newcomers, veterans, special programming for beginners and others in order to deliver what is ICANN and what does the organization do and so forth.

Several other commentators on ICANN’s budget asked ICANN to maintain the funding and I was unable to find any comments supporting its withdrawal.

It’s worth noting that ICANN’s $100,000 is not ICANNWiki’s only financial support. It says it receives an additional $61,000 a year from corporate sponsorship, and as a wiki much of its output is produced by volunteers.

It has been in existence for a decade, but ICANN has only been giving it money for three years.

The costs associated with running it appear to be mostly centered not on maintaining the web site but on its outreach and promotional activities, such as attending meetings and the popular caricatures and card decks it distributes.

It could be argued that ICANNWiki is pretty good value for money when compared to cost of a dedicated outreach professional (the average cost of an ICANN staffer has been estimated at $175,000+ in the latest budget).

ICANNWiki will host an “Edit-A-Thon” during the current ICANN 61 public meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Tuesday at 0900 local time.

Is the Trump administration really trying to reverse the IANA transition?

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2018, Domain Policy

Questions have been raised about the US government’s commitment to an independent ICANN, following the release of letters sent by two top Trump appointees.

In the letters, new NTIA head David Redl and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed an interest in looking at ways to “unwind” the IANA transition, which in 2016 severed the formal ties between ICANN and the US in DNS root zone management.

Responding to questions from senators during his lengthy confirmation process, now National Telecommunications and Information Administration assistant secretary Redl wrote:

I am not aware of any specific proposals to reverse the IANA transition, but I am interested in exploring ways to achieve this goal. To that end, if I am confirmed I will recommend to Secretary Ross that we begin the process by convening a panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding the transition.

The letters were first obtained by Politico under the Freedom of Information Act. We’re publishing them here (pdf).

They were sent last August, when Redl’s confirmation to the NTIA role was being held up by Senator Ted Cruz, who vehemently opposed the transition because he said he thought it would give more power over online speech to the likes of Russia and China.

He was confirmed in November.

The question is whether Redl was serious about unwinding the transition, or whether he was just bullshitting Cruz in order to remove a roadblock to his confirmation.

Technically, he only promised to “recommend” convening a panel of experts to his boss, Ross.

NTIA declined to comment last week when DI asked whether the department still supports the IANA transition, whether any efforts are underway to unwind it, and whether the panel of experts has already been convened.

Redl’s statements on ICANN since his confirmation have been more or less consistent with his Obama-era predecessor, Larry Strickling, in terms of expressing support for multi-stakeholder models, but with perhaps some causes for concern.

During his first public speech, delivered at the CES show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Redl expressed support for multi-stakeholder internet governance amid pushes for more multi-lateral control within venues such as the International Telecommunications Union.

However, he added:

I’ll also focus on being a strong advocate for U.S. interests within ICANN. We need to ensure transparency and accountability in ICANN’s work. And in light of the implementation of the European General Data Privacy Regulation, or GDPR, we need to preserve lawful access to WHOIS data, which is a vital tool for the public.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be seeking out the views of stakeholders to understand how else NTIA can best serve American interests in these global Internet fora.

Could this be an allusion to the “panel of experts”? It’s unclear at this stage.

One of Redl’s first moves as NTIA chief was to slam ICANN for its lack of accountability concerning the shutdown of a review working group, but that was hardly a controversial point of view.

And in a letter to Senator Brian Schatz, the Democrat ranking member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, sent earlier this month, Redl expressed support for the multi-stakeholder model and wrote:

NTIA will be a strong advocate for US interests with the Governmental Advisory Committee of the Internet Cooperation [sic] for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in the existing post-transition IANA phase. NTIA will also monitor the [IANA operator] Public Technical Identifiers (PTI) and take action as necessary to ensure the security and stability of the DNS root.

That certainly suggests NTIA is happy to work in the new paradigm, while the promise to “take action as necessary” against PTI may raise eyebrows.

While a lot of this may seem ambiguous, my hunch is that there’s not really much appetite to reverse the IANA transition. Apart from appeasing Cruz’s demons, what could possibly be gained?

Ross, quizzed by Cruz at his own confirmation hearing a year ago, seemed reluctant to commit to such a move.

.club is the bestest new gTLD, .club survey finds

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2017, Domain Registries

.CLUB Domains has published the results of some research it commissioned into media mentions of new gTLDs that show .club coming out on top.

It’s an interesting new way to compare the relative success of new gTLDs based on usage or eyeballs rather than registration volumes, even if the report has its flaws.

In a blog post, .CLUB chief marketing officer Jeff Sass wrote:

A business will invest their time and money to incorporate a domain name that they trust and value. Their domain becomes an active component of their branding, marketing, and PR activities.

When the press or media picks up announcements and/or writes articles about these businesses, the domain name typically gets mentioned in the articles and press releases. This leads to further awareness, familiarity, and trust built around the domain name extensions that are mentioned most frequently in the press.

The registry paid Meltwater, a media monitoring company, to dig up all the media references to domains using any of the top 10 largest new gTLDs over the first half of the year.

It found that .club had the most mentions both empirically and adjusted for TLD size, and that .club’s media mentions had the most positive slant.

From the report (pdf):

When tracking the number of press impressions (articles) in terms of raw numbers, the top 3 were: .CLUB, with 14,519 impressions; .XYZ, with 10,770 impressions; and .ONLINE, with 9,595 impressions. When looking at the impression data against topline registration numbers, the top 3 TLDs were: .CLUB, with 13.29 impressions for every 1,000 registrations; .ONLINE, with 12.87 impressions for every 1,000 registrations; and .SITE, with 6.55 impressions for every 1,000 registrations. As for positive sentiment, the top 3 TLDs were: .CLUB, with 4,300 articles; .ONLINE, with 2,200 articles; and .XYZ with 2,189 articles.

The definition of “article” used by Meltwater is pretty broad. It’s certainly not looking at only the mainstream media.

The survey included press releases as well as editorial, and seems to include a fair bit of user-generated content, such as posts on Medium.com and Sohu.com, too.

There’s even one “article” cited that is actually just a Kickstarter crowd-funding project page.

The survey also double-counts articles, so if a press release appears on multiple sites, or an article is syndicated to multiple publications, each appearance was counted separately.

One could argue that all of this is a fair enough way to conduct such a survey — .CLUB is looking for evidence of grassroots usage and awareness, not just of coverage by publications with rigorous editorial controls.

And the methodology also called for all articles produced by or written about the registries themselves to be disregarded, presumably reducing the number of hits per registry and the chance of the results being gamed.

But a lot of the 30 articles cited directly in the Meltwater report, particularly those coming out of China, appear to be rather spammy. Others are just odd. Others offer negative views of specific new gTLD domains.

One of them is an inexplicable Chinese translation of a warning about a UK company using a .loan domain to scam people, for example.

Another is a BuzzFeed article from Japan about a fake news site using a .xyz domain to target Koreans.

Other references are so minor that even though Meltwater’s spiders spotted them I doubt many human beings would.

One of .club’s big hits is just a tiny photo credit on an stock image used in a forgettable BuzzFeed listicle, another is the Daily Mail quoting an Instagram post by an American athlete who uses a .club domain in a hashtag, the third is a self-promotional blog post on Medium.com by the owner of minicomic.club.

If these are the most prominent citations Meltwater could dig up over six months, these new gTLDs still have a way to go in terms of awareness.

But my main issue with the research is that it was limited to the top 10 new gTLDs by registration volume: .xyz, .top, .loan, .club, .win, .online, .vip, .wang, .site and .bid.

As we all know by now, there’s a correlation (at least anecdotally) between volume, low price and low quality usage/abuse.

I’d love to see subsequent reports of this nature delve into smaller TLDs, including dot-brands, that may not have as many sales but may have greater engagement and more press coverage.

The full .CLUB/Meltwater report can be found here (pdf).