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ICANN chair: “all options open” on .org deal

Kevin Murphy, March 10, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has not yet decided to approve the acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital, but has not ruled out rejecting the deal either.

That’s according to chair Maarten Botterman, speaking to his Governmental Advisory Committee this evening.

At the online-only ICANN 67 meeting, he was asked by GAC chair Manal Ismail whether ICANN is considering withholding its consent for the $1.13 billion deal, which would see the .org registry return to for-profit hands for the first time in 18 years.

“At this moment all options remain open. We are open-minded to taking all input into account before it is time for us to decide,” Botterman replied.

“ICANN will consider the request based upon the totality of the information received,” he also said.

ICANN has the ability, under its registry agreement with PIR, to reject a change of control such as an acquisition, if it believes it’s not in the public interest.

Critics of the deal believe it would allow private equity firm Ethos and its anonymous backers to price-gouge non-profits such as charities, which need the money more.

But Ethos has offered to cap price increases at 10% per year on average for the next seven years, reimposing a price cap that PIR negotiated its way out of last year.

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Could .org debate bring back the glory days of ICANN public forums?

Kevin Murphy, March 5, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is going to devote 90 minutes to discussing the controversial acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital on Monday, and the sparks could fly.

It’s actually going to be the first formal session of the abridged, online-only ICANN 67 meeting, which had been due to take place in Cancun but will now be carried out fully online. The customary opening ceremony has been scrapped.

Seventy minutes will be devoted to taking questions and comments from the “room”. ICANN 67 is sticking to Cancun’s time zone and the .org session starts at 1400 UTC, which would have been 0900 at the venue.

ICANN warned that the sessions is devoted to the process ICANN is using to approve, or not, the acquisition, and that it “cannot address questions and comments that relate to the ISOC, PIR, Ethos Capital, or other parties involved in the proposed transfer”.

The deal is controversial largely because critics believe Ethos, as a private equity company, is much more likely to start to rip off .org registrars with price hikes than not-for-profit ISOC. But Ethos has offered to bake conditions into its contract that limit it to 10% increases per year on average.

Given the vast amount of interest in the .org deal from outside the usual ICANN community, we could see the kind of robust debate that was common in the ICANN public forum sessions during the birth throes of the new gTLD program, but which has been sadly lacking in recent years.

Newcomers wishing to get involved might like to first familiarize themselves with ICANN’s Expected Standards of Behavior. Anyone dropping the F-bomb or calling the deal “gay”, as happened during the recent .com comment period, will very likely be kicked and banned. Just imagine you’re talking to Titania McGrath and you should be okay.

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The latest industry C-suite musical chairs

There have been several top-level hires at big new gTLD players in the last week.

Donuts has announced it has appointed Mina Neuberg as chief marketing officer. Neuberg appears to be a newcomer to the domain industry, having most recently worked at a learning software company called Revolution Math. It’s the first time has had a named top marketing exec on its web site since VP Judith McGarry left a year ago.

Her appointment follows February’s announcement that Donuts hired Randy Haas as chief financial officer. He was previously CFO of Rhapsody/Napster, the online music company.

Meanwhile, Shayan Rostam has moved from Intercap Holdings, the registry for .inc, .dealer and .box, where he was chief registry officer, to portfolio registry Uniregistry, where he will be chief growth officer, a newly created position.

And DNW is reporting that new gTLD registry MMX has made two new C-level hires, both coming from Uniregistry: Vaughn Lilely has been recruited as chief growth officer while Ben Anderson is coming in as chief operating officer.

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Poblete to replace Disspain on ICANN board

Kevin Murphy, March 3, 2020, Domain Policy

Chilean registry manager Patricio Poblete will join ICANN’s board of directors this October, replacing longstanding member Chris Disspain.

PobleteThe Country Code Names Supporting Organization confirmed Poblete as its new nominee at the weekend following a lengthy election process also fought by Australian Nigel Phair and South African Calvin Browne.

Poblete is the director of NIC Chile, the ccTLD registry for some almost 600,000 .cl domains. He’s been involved in ICANN since its very beginning.

In the election, he received 57 votes compared to Browne’s 42 and Phair’s eight.

Disspain, a very influential member of the board who was vice-chair for years until he stepped aside last September, is being forced out due to term limits in ICANN’s bylaws. He’s almost done serving his third and final three-year term.

Poblete will become one of two ccNSO-selected directors. The other is Nigel Roberts, who runs the Channel Islands ccTLDs. Roberts’ term ends next year.

The nomination frees up a spot for a possible future director from Asia-Pacific, while reducing the available spots from Latin America.

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Chinese registrars ask ICANN to waive fees due to Coronavirus

Almost 50 registries and registrars based in China have asked ICANN to temporarily waive its fees due to the economic impact they say Covid-19 — the new Coronavirus — is having on them.

They’ve all put their names to a February 21 letter (pdf) that ICANN published over the weekend, saying they “believe that it’s essential that ICANN provides immediate fee waiver to registries and registrars in China”.

The letter, signed by more than half of the currently accredited registrars in China, notes the cancellation of the Cancun public meeting, adding:

We highly respect and welcome ICANN’s approach to keep our community safe. Meanwhile, the contracted parties in China, including their staff, suppliers, and relevant business counterparts, are being hit and suffered by the 2019-nCoV in a much greater scale than in other countries and regions combined since January 2020. Many of the staff members have been restrained to perform sales and support functions at the level they are required to. There are significant delays in collections, payments and wire transfers. While we expect that the scale of 2019-nCoV could not go greater, the business growth estimate in 2020 has been jeopardized and the time of recovery can be very long.

While domestic aid on tax, rentals, etc. are being discussed and confirmed, we believe that it’s essential that ICANN provides immediate fee waiver to registries and registrars in China. The waiver of 2020 fees, including annual fees and transaction fees, will greatly help stabilize our business in the difficult time.

This is not a small ask. ICANN collects fees based on transaction volume, and many millions of transactions originate in China. That’s particularly true in the new gTLD space, where China dominates.

The Chinese companies say that ICANN could afford to waive the fees due to the money they say ICANN will save by cancelling Cancun and other international travel.

My hunch is that ICANN won’t agree to these demands. While China is currently undoubtedly disproportionately affected by Covid-19, that situation is rapidly changing.

In the coming weeks and months it’s quite possible — worst-case scenario — the rest of the world could be similarly affected. Is ICANN prepared to set a precedent that could see it sacrifice its entire annual budget? I doubt it.

All previous requests for ICANN to waive its fees for various other reasons have been denied.

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Most languages won’t be available at ICANN 67

Kevin Murphy, March 3, 2020, Domain Policy

Translation services are the first component of ICANN 67 to fail victim to the org’s decision to hold the meeting entirely online.

ICANN announced last week that it has cancelled the in-person meeting, which had been due to kick off this coming Saturday in Cancun, due to fears about importing Covid-19 into Mexico and exacerbating its worldwide spread.

But it seems the lack of physical space is going to cause problems. It simply doesn’t have the room at its Los Angeles headquarters to accommodate all of its usual services.

There will be eight rooms operating simultaneously via Zoom during the meeting, ICANN said yesterday, and only two of those will have real-time interpretation.

Of the five non-English United Nations languages usually supported — Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish — only French and Spanish will be supported live. Portuguese, which is also usually available, will not be supported.

Sessions of the Governmental Advisory Committee and other high-interest meetings such as open board meetings and the Public Forums, will be given priority.

According to data released by ICANN in December, it appears very few remote participants people actually take advantage of live interpretation.

Of the 1,752 remote participants at ICANN 66, only 15 people tuned in non-English web audio streams and nine of those were listening to the Spanish, this report states. It appears the Arabic interpreter was broadcasting to an international audience of literally nobody.

This, of course, does not take into account how many people were physically in the room and using the live-interpretation headsets ICANN provides. These people will presumably have to switch to the web streams this time around.

Translated transcripts will be available after the meeting, faster than they are normally provided, ICANN said.

It seems that ICANN community members with limited English are going to be hardest hit by the switch to online-only.

Given that these people are most likely reading this article via Google Translate, I’d just like to add for clarity: my lonely moped speedily devours yawning leopards, while gorgeous shoelaces envelope my thorax.

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Domain Incite turns 10 today. What the fuck have I done with my life?

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2020, Gossip

February 27, 2010. That was the day, 10 years ago today, I registered domainincite.com and posted my first post.

Seriously, what the fuck have I done with my life?

Back in 2009, during a hiatus from my previous life as an all-round Silicon Valley tech reporter, I was back in the UK as a budding comedy writer with his foot in the door at the BBC and a handful of broadcast credits.

I made about £1,000 that year. A BBC producer told me that, if I was lucky enough and good enough, my radio sitcom spec script might get commissioned, but that it would take a couple of years and I would probably only make about three grand.

I figured it was time to get a proper job, and do comedy in the evenings, so started doing some regular freelancing, for The Register at first and then something called Thinq (I think, the site doesn’t appear to exist any more).

Around the same time, a friend at a domain registry made me an unsolicited offer of work, ghost-writing white papers for a buck a word. I took it.

I think it was early January 2010 that I first started thinking about starting up my own blog. I was probably inspired by security reporter Brian Krebs, who I admired and who’d recently left the Washington Post to launch Krebs On Security.

Internet security and domain names were the two areas of tech where I calculated I had the knowledge and contacts to make a go of it as a solo enterprise. I’d always been slightly more drawn to the domain name side, and that was the area where it looked like I could find a niche.

I was of course already aware of Andrew Allemann’s excellent Domain Name Wire and a few other blogs, but it seemed to me there were very much focused on the domainer part of the industry and there was an opportunity to focus more on the the sell-side and ICANN-related news.

The good thing about ICANN was that, even if the organization was not interested in talking to a lowly blogger, its transparency regime would mean there would be no shortage of material for anyone prepared to trawl through a 200-page PDF for nuggets, I reckoned.

And, like the security beat, there would be no shortage of scumbags to write about.

I recall brainstorming branding ideas with my dad in his living room, 10 years ago today.

I wanted something that conveyed a certain cheekiness or snarkiness. I didn’t want DI to be a dry recounting of events. No doubt influenced by years of enjoying The Register, and my brief foray into the world of comedy, I wanted to be humorous without resorting to fabrication, satire, or parody.

My first domain preference was already registered by a domainer. I offered him $100 for it. He countered with $1,000, and that was the end of that negotiation. He still owns it.

When I settled upon the punny domainincite.com, I was fully aware that it failed the radio test, but I was not too concerned. I figured the chances of my ever having to spell it out on the radio were pretty slim (it only took a couple of years to be proven wrong about that) and it did not seem to affect my ability to get people to read the site.

A few months later, I showed up at ICANN’s public meeting in Brussels, my first in-person meeting for a few years.

I recall walking the streets near the venue and having to stop and shake hands with a familiar face every few minutes. It very much felt like I’d rediscovered a community I had never really considered myself a part of previously. Most of them were already enthusiastic DI readers.

It felt pretty good.

Almost a decade later, I’m a much more miserable person, and I find myself asking: what the fuck have I done with my life?

I write about domain names for a living.

Domain names.

Entries in a database.

I’ve spent a decade thinking about what most people will probably never consider spending 10 minutes thinking about.

Not only does my domain fail the radio test, but my career choice almost always fails the taxi driver test (or, less frequently, the Tinder date test).

I’m sure most people reading this post will know what I’m talking about. You’re stuck in traffic with a chatty cabby, and before long you’re attempting to explain what you do for a living.

His eyes glaze over.

“No, no,” you say. “Some of it’s really, really interesting.”

Then you roll out your top few anecdotes — probably about wedge issues like censorship, or big secondary market sales — and before you know it the driver has fallen unconscious and fucked the car through the window of a convenience store, seriously injuring an elderly woman.

You try to explain to the arriving police what happened, but when it gets to the bit about what you do for a living you’re very quickly arrested for wasting police time.

You now have a permanent criminal record and no chance of being employed by anyone else. The elderly woman eventually recovers, but you don’t. You’re stuck. Stuck!

It’s happened to all of us, I’m sure.

The ticking over of a decade is always a time for reflection, is what I’m getting at.

Having done a fair bit of that recently, I like to think I’ve made more friends than enemies writing DI, but I’m sure a lot of those people who shook my hand in Brussels now think I’m a utter prick.

This goes with the territory for any reporter, but it’s a lot harder to bear when you’re solo. The life of a blogger can be a lonely one. There’s no bustling newsroom banter, no editor to give you advice on tricky stories, no subs to catch your typoes, no lawyers to get your back when you screw up.

It’s easy in that situation to become soft.

While I treat every company, organization or individual I write about as fairly as I can, I’ve started to wonder whether sometimes I’m too quick to default to believing the party line, particularly but not exclusively when it comes to ICANN.

I’ve genuinely written a 3,000-word article Devil’s-advocating in favor of the forthcoming .com price increases. I may or may not publish it.

I’ve come to realize in recent weeks that ICANN is not the soft and cuddly community I found in Brussels, and it probably deserves a much more critical eye than I’ve been providing lately.

So, faced with the existential crises of a 10-year anniversary, a critical reevaluation of your life choices, and accidentally putting a wholly fictional elderly woman in hospital, you’re faced with a stark choice: throw in your cards, or double-down.

I’m doubling down.

I was never a fan of the sunk-cost fallacy anyway.

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Ethos volunteers for .org pricing handcuffs

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2020, Domain Registries

Ethos Capital has volunteered to have price caps written back into Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, should ICANN approve its $1.1 billion proposed acquisition.

The private equity firm said Friday that it has offered to agree to a new, enforceable Public Interest Commitment that bakes its right to increase prices into the contract under a strict formula that goes like this:

Applicable Maximum Fee = $9.93 x (1.10n)

The $9.93 is the current wholesale price of a annual .org registration. The “n” refers to the number of full years the current .org registry agreement has been in play, starting June 30, 2019.

In other words, it’s a 10%-per-year increase on average, but PIR could skip a year here and there and be eligible for a bigger price increase the following year.

For example, PIR could up the fee by 10% or $0.99 to $10.92 this coming June if it wanted, but if it decided to wait a year (perhaps for public relations reasons) if could increase the price to $12.13 in June 2021, an increase of $2.20 or roughly 22%.

It could wait five years before the first price increase, and up it from $9.93 to $16.53, a 66% increase, in year six.

While price increases are of course unpopular and will remain so, the formula does answer the criticism posed on DI and elsewhere that Ethos’ previous public statements on pricing would allow PIR to front-load its fee hikes, potentially almost doubling the price in year one.

But the caps have a built-in expiry date. They only run for eight years. So by the middle of 2027, when PIR could already be charging $18.73, the registry would be free to raise prices by however much it pleases.

It’s a better deal for registrants than what they’d been facing before, which was a vague commitment to stick to PIR’s old habit of not raising prices by more than 10% a year, but it’s not perfect and it won’t sate those who are opposed to increased fees in principle.

On the upside, a PIC is arguably an even more powerful way to keep PIR in line after the acquisition. Whereas other parts of the contract are only enforceable by ICANN, a Public Interest Commitment could theoretically be enforced via the PIC Dispute Resolution Procedure by any .org registrant with the resources to lawyer up. Losing a PICDRP triggers ICANN Compliance into action, which could mean PIR losing its contract.

The PIC also addresses the concern, which always struck me as a bit of a red herring, that .org could become a more censorial regime under for-profit ownership.

Ethos says it will create a new seven-person .ORG Stewardship Council, made up of field experts in human rights, non-profits and such, which will have the right to advise PIR on proposed changes to PIR policy related to censorship and the use of private user/registrant data.

The Council would be made up initially of five members hand-picked by PIR. Another two, and all subsequent appointments, would be jointly nominated and approved by PIR and the Council. They’d serve terms of three years.

The proposed PIC, the proposed Council charter and Ethos’ announcement can all be found here.

Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it’s worth noting that the proposal comes after ICANN had started playing hard-ball with PIR, Ethos and the Internet Society (PIR’s current owner).

In fact, I was just putting the finishing touches to an opinion piece entitled “I’m beginning to think ICANN might block the .org deal” when the Ethos statement dropped.

In that now-spiked piece, I referred to two letters ICANN recently sent to PIR/ISOC and their lawyers, which bluntly asserted ICANN’s right to reject the acquisition for basically any reason, and speculated that the deal may not be a fait accompli after all.

In the first (pdf), Jones Day lawyer Jeffrey LeVee tells his counterpart at PIR’s law firm in no uncertain terms that ICANN is free to reject the change of control on grounds such as the “public interest” and the interests of the “.org community”.

Proskauer lawyer Lauren Boglivi had told ICANN (pdf) that its powers under the .org contract were limited to approve or reject the acquisition based only on technical concerns such as security, stability and reliability. LeVee wrote:

This is wrong. The parties’ contracts authorize ICANN to evaluate the reasonableness of the proposed change of control under the totality of circumstances, including the impact on the public interest and the interest of the .ORG community.

Now, the cynic in me saw nothing but a couple of posturing lawyers trying to rack up billable hours, but part of me wondered why ICANN would go to the trouble of defending its powers to reject the deal if it did not think there was a possibility of actually doing so.

The second letter (pdf) was sent by ICANN’s new chair, Maarten Bottermann, to his ISOC counterpart Gonzalo Camarillo.

The letter demonstrates that the ICANN board of directors is actually taking ownership of this issue, rather than delegating it to ICANN’s executive and legal teams, in large part due to the pressure exerted on it by the ICANN community and governments. Botterman wrote:

It is not often that such a contractual issue raises up to a Board-level concern, but as you might appreciate, PIR’s request is one of the most unique that ICANN has received.

He noted that the controversy over the deal had even made ICANN the target of a “governmental inquiry”, which is either a reference to the California attorney general’s probe or to a letter (pdf) received from the French foreign office, demanding answers about the transaction.

It’s notable from Botterman’s letter that ICANN has started digging into the deep history of PIR’s ownership of .org, much as I did last December, to determine whether the commitments it made to the non-profit community back in 2002 still hold up under a return to for-profit ownership.

Given these turns of events, I was entertaining the possibility that ICANN was readying itself to reject the deal.

But, given Ethos’ newly proposed binding commitments, I think the pendulum has swung back in favor of the acquisition eventually getting the nod.

I reserve the right to change my mind yet again as matters unfold.

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Yup. ICANN cancelled Cancun

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has cancelled its public meeting in Cancun, Mexico, due to fears over Covid-19, aka Coronavirus.

Late this evening, the organization said that the ICANN 67 meeting, scheduled for March 7 to March 12, will now take place purely online.

In a statement, the org said:

Each ICANN Public Meeting attracts thousands of attendees from more than 150 countries. With cases in at least 26 of those countries, there is the potential of bringing the virus to Cancún and into the ICANN meeting site. If this were to happen, there could be accidental exposure of the virus to attendees, staff, and others who come in contact with an infected individual.

ICANN had been putting in place measures to mitigate the risk of the disease arriving and spreading.

The decision to cancel the face-to-face meeting was made by the ICANN board of directors today.

It’s going to be the first ICANN meeting to take place fully online. It’s not clear at all that ICANN knows how to do this. ICANN is very good at enabling remote participation, but it’s never run a fully remote week-long meeting with a few thousand participants before.

It seems virtually certain that there will be problems and complaints.

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The Queen has beef with Prince Harry’s domain name

Kevin Murphy, February 19, 2020, Domain Policy

Queen Elizabeth II reportedly wants her grandson Prince Harry to stop using the domain name sussexroyal.com.

Harry and his wife, Meghan, recently announced that they’re going to quit their royal duties and spend part of the year in Canada. They will no longer get taxpayer handouts, and will probably (speculating here) make money launching a line of fragrances or something.

The Queen’s beef is that by opting out of the royal family, by convention Harry should no longer get to call himself “royal”. It’s like when his parents divorced, Diana no longer got to use the “Her Royal Highness” title.

They will continue to be known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

But it seems Harry and Meghan are going to have to pick a new brand to put on the tacky mugs and dish rags they will inevitably end up flogging to gullible Americans. They’ve been using Sussex Royal as their social media handle too, and have filed for trademarks on the term.

It’s a strange edge case of domain ownership law, where royal edict and constitutional convention is seemingly going to trump trademark law.

I look forward to the ICANN working group.

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