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AlpNames could get PAID for abandoning its customers

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2019, Domain Registrars

So it turns out selling domain names for peanuts to spammers isn’t a viable business model. Who’d have thunk?

As you’ll have no doubt already read elsewhere, ICANN has shut down AlpNames, the deep-discounting registrar with an unenviable reputation for attracting abusive registrants.

But there’s a chance that the company might actually get paid for its customer base, under ICANN rules.

ICANN today terminated AlpNames’ contract, effective immediately, having discovered the “discontinuance of its operations”.

It’s a rare case of ICANN going straight to richly deserved termination, skipping over the breach notice phase.

The former registrar’s web site has been down for the best part of a week, resolving to a Cloudflare error message saying the AlpNames web server is missing its SSL certificate.

But it appears its customers may have been experiencing problems accessing their accounts even earlier.

Judging by ICANN’s termination notice, the organization has had just about as much luck contacting AlpNames management as DI, which is to say: none.

CEO Iain Roache appears to have simply stopped paying attention to the company, for reasons unknown, allowing it to simply fade away.

At least three members of senior staff have left the company over the last several months, with former COO Damon Barnard telling DI he was asked to leave as a cost-cutting measure as Roache attempted to relocate the company from Gibraltar to the UK.

I gather that Roache is also currently tied up in litigation related to the failure of his old registry management business, Famous Four Media, which was removed by gTLD portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners last year.

So what happens now to AlpNames customers?

Fortunately, most of them should suffer only minor inconvenience.

ICANN has initiated its De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure, which will see all of AlpNames’ domains forcibly transferred to another registrar.

This often uses the data that registrars are obliged to periodically escrow, but in this case AlpNames uses LogicBoxes as a registrar back-end, so presumably LogicBoxes still has fresh, live data.

AlpNames had 532,941 domain names across all gTLDs on its IANA tag at the last official count, at the end of November. It’s believed to be closer to 700,000 today.

In November, its top two gTLDs were .top and .gdn, which had 280,000 names between them. It had over 19,000 .com names under management

Almost 700,000 names is a big deal, making AlpNames a top 40 registrar, and would make a nice growth spurt for any number of struggling registrars.

The portfolio could be a bit of a poisoned chalice, however, containing as it likely does a great many low-quality and some possibly abusive registrations.

At least one registrar, Epik, has publicly stated its desire to take over these domains, but due to the volume of AlpNames DUM it could be a competitive bidding process between multiple registrars.

Under the ICANN rules (pdf), a “full application process” is generally favored for defunct registrars with over 1,000 domains, when the de-accredited registrar has not named a successor.

The scoring system used to pick a winner has many criteria, but it generally favors larger registrars. They have to show they have the scale to handle the extra technical and customer support load required by the transition, for example.

It also favors registrars with breadth of gTLD coverage. They have to be accredited in all the gTLDs the dead registrar was. AlpNames supported 352 gTLDs and had active domains in 270 of them, according to November’s registry reports.

Language support may be an issue too, in case for example a substantial chunk of AlpNames business came from, say, China.

All applying registrars that score above a certain threshold are considered tied, and the tie-breaker is how much they’re willing to pay for the portfolio.

Unlike gTLD auctions, ICANN does not receive the proceeds of this auction, however. According to the policy (with my emphasis):

This procedure is not intended to create a new form of revenue for ICANN. To the extent payment is received as part of a bulk transfer, ICANN will apply funds against any debt owed by the registrar to ICANN and forward the remaining funds, if any, to the de-accredited registrar.

That’s right, there’s a chance AlpNames might actually get a small windfall, despite essentially abandoning its customers.

Think about it like the government using eminent domain to buy a house it wishes to demolish to make way for a new road. Except the house’s cellar is full of kidnapped children. And it’s on fire.

Of course, this might not happen. ICANN might decide that there’s not enough time to run a full application process without risk to AlpNames’ customers and instead simply award the dead registrar’s portfolio to one of the registrars in its pre-approved pool of gaining registrars.

That choice would be partly based on ICANN judgement and partly on which registrar is next in the round-robin queue of pre-qualified registrars.

Here’s a handy diagram that shows the procedure.

Deaccred

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O.com might be a one-off for Verisign

Kevin Murphy, March 14, 2019, Domain Registries

Verisign today was finally given approval to auction off o.com, the first single-character .com domain to hit the market since the early 1990s.

The ICANN board of directors voted to approve a contractual amendment that will lift the ban on single-character .coms in this instance, but it may not necessarily mean more will be sold in future.

The resolution passed in Japan states that the approval is “limited to the unique circumstances of this particular domain name, and the approval of the amendment does not establish a precedent that applies in other circumstances.”

So if Verisign decides it wants to sell off the remaining 22 one-letter .com domains in future, it’s going to have to go through the same lengthy approval process again, with no guarantee that ICANN will give it the nod.

Still, if the o.com proposal is hunky-dory this time around, I fail to see why ICANN would reject an identical proposal to sell a different domain.

As I explained in a blog post a week ago, Verisign will only get $7.85 a year for the domain, regardless of how many millions it raises.

The rest of the money will be distributed to non-profit causes by an independent third party.

While the auction has already cost Verisign far more money than it will make, it’s a nice PR win for the next time its .com price-raising powers are questioned.

Overstock.com, which has been lobbying ICANN and Verisign for the release of o.com for years is a virtually guaranteed bidder.

Former ICANN bigwig Kurt Pritz said recently that Overstock offered to pay ICANN $1 million to $2 million for the domain (somewhat shadily, it has to be said) over a decade ago.

Other O trademark owners that may show up include sporting goods vendor Oakley and future President of the United States Oprah Winfrey.

I hope bidders have to sign a no-suing covenant, as this is the kind of thing that could easily wind up in court.

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Andruff escalates Disspain feud, asks ICANN to ban him from chair

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2019, Domain Policy

Domain consultant and former registry boss Ron Andruff has asked ICANN’s board of directors to ban Chris Disspain from becoming chair at the end of the year.

Writing on CircleID today, Andruff’s anti-Disspain message is veiled, but only thinly.

While not naming Disspain directly, Andruff wrote: “I call on the Chair and ICANN Board to ensure that no candidate who may be standing under a cloud of any type be considered for the highest position and authority within ICANN.”

Current chair Cherine Chalaby is out in October, when his nine-year term on the board comes to its bylaws-mandated end.

Disspain, who is currently vice chair and has always struck me as an obvious choice for the top job, has another year left on his term.

The “cloud” Andruff believes Disspain is standing under relates to longstanding allegations of “financial irregularities” at Australian ccTLD registry auDA, during the period Disspain was CEO.

It’s known that an unpublished audit of auDA by PPB Advisory in 2016 makes claims about some sloppy financial management, but there have never been any published allegations of wrongdoing by Disspain himself.

Andruff has been fighting for years with the Australian Information Commissioner to get this report, and other documents he believes might cast Disspain in a bad light, released under Aussie freedom of information law.

He was initially rebuffed, in November 2017, but appealed. After much back-and-forth, he was told two weeks ago that the Department of Communications and the Arts’ refusal to hand over the documents was in part “incorrect”. The Department is due to respond to that finding tomorrow.

It’s not at all clear what information, if any, the Department is going to release.

Andruff also notes that there’s an “ongoing police investigation” into the same “irregularities”.

The only such investigation I’m aware of involved “several” former auDA directors being referred to Victoria Police by auDA’s new management last April. There were 48 former directors at the time, and the names of those referred were not released.

Andruff is known to have beef with Disspain, who he holds responsible for his being passed over for the job as chair of the Nominating Committee in 2015.

ICANN typically does not name its new chairs until much later in the year, so it’s quite possible this is a storm that will have blown over by the time the board comes to picking Chalaby’s replacement.

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Rumors swirl as AlpNames suffers “days” of downtime

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2019, Domain Registrars

The web site of controversial registrar AlpNames has been offline for “days”, and rumors have started to circulate that it might not just a technical problem.

At time of writing, alpnames.com resolves to a Cloudflare error page, warning that the AlpNames web server has an invalid SSL certificate. Cloudflare may also show an ugly, bare-bones cached version of the site.

This means that AlpNames customers are unable to log in to manage their domains, according to threads on Namepros and Reddit, and conversations I’ve had with some of those affected.

It’s said that customers are able to manage their domains by logging in directly to LogicBoxes, AlpNames’ registrar-in-a-box provider, but I’ve been unable to personally verify this.

AlpNames is believed to have almost 700,000 names under management, double the size it was last June but well below its peak, at the height of its deep-discounting period in 2017, of over three million.

It’s not known how many individual registrants are affected. The company tends to attract what one might charitably call “bulk-buyers”, so it will be substantially lower than the number of registered domains.

It’s also not entirely clear when the web site went down. It’s not been loading here for at least 12 hours, but the first reference to downtime on Namepros was on Sunday. Multiple other sources have told me today that it’s been unavailable “for a few days”.

A separate AlpNames-owned web site focused on marketing .icu domains to the Chinese market is still online.

But it seems a lot of AlpNames customers have been left hanging in uncertainty, unsure how or when they will be able to manage their domains.

I’ve been unable to reach any of AlpNames’ senior executives for comment on the situation today.

An email sent to CEO Iain Roache this morning, at the address he was using in December, bounced back with a “disabled account” error message. I have received no response to messages I sent to two other email addresses he is known to use.

I understand that fellow AlpNames exec Geir Rasmussen who, with Roache, was enthusiastically pitching grand plans for AlpNames as recently as October, is no longer with the company.

Chief operating officer Damon Barnard also left the company last October and ceased work as a director around the same time.

Records show the salesperson due to represent AlpNames at this week’s ICANN 64 meeting in Japan did not show up and is believed to have also left the company in January.

The company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, which are not usually particularly active anyway, have not yet addressed the downtime problem.

If it is simply a case of an expired or misconfigured SSL cert, why is it taking so long to fix, and why has there been radio silence from AlpNames?

Opponents and competitors are putting the word around that there may be a more serious problem with the company, but I’ve not seen any conclusive evidence that this is the case.

It’s possible there’s some confusion between AlpNames and Famous Four Media, the now-defunct Roache/Rasmussen venture that managed the portfolio of new gTLDs owned by Domain Venture Partners, an investment vehicle set up by Roache prior to ICANN’s 2012 gTLD application round.

DVP is no longer affiliated with AlpNames and its gTLDs are managed by a new DVP-controlled entity, GRS Domains, after an investor revolt.

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ICANN plays tough over Amazon dot-brands

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN has given Amazon and the governments of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization less than a month to sort out their long-running dispute over the .amazon gTLD.

The organization’s board of directors voted on Sunday to give ACTO and the e-commerce leviathan until April 7 to get their shit together or risk not getting what they want.

But both parties are going to have to come to an agreement without ICANN’s help, with the board noting that it “does not think that any further facilitation efforts by ICANN org will be fruitful”.

Attempts by ICANN to meet with ACTO over the last several months have been agreed to and then cancelled by ACTO on at least two separate occasions.

The eight ACTO governments think the string “Amazon” more rightfully belongs to them, due to it being the English name for the rain forest region they share.

Amazon the company has promised to safeguard culturally sensitive terms in .amazon, to assist with future efforts to secure .amazonas or similar for the Amazonian peoples, and to donate services and devices to the nations concerned.

Now, the two parties are going to have to bilaterally decide whether this deal is enough, whether it should be sweetened or rejected outright.

If they can’t come to a deal by ICANN’s deadline (which could be extended if Amazon and ACTO both ask for more time), ICANN will base its decision on whether to approve .amazon based on how Amazon unilaterally proposes to address ACTO’s concerns.

While a rejection of the .amazon application is still on the table, my read is that this is a bigger win for Amazon than it is for ACTO.

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