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Huge registrar shake-up coming to .biz and .info

Afilias and Neustar will be soon able to sell .biz and .info domains direct, and may have to shut down registrars that refuse to sign up to the new 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

Those are two of the biggest changes proposed to the companies’ ICANN contracts, drafts of which were published this morning six months after their last registry agreements expired.

The new .biz and .info deals would allow both companies to vertically integrate — that is, own a controlling position in a registrar that sells domains in their respective gTLDs.

This would remove unwanted friction from their sales and marketing efforts, but would mean both registries would start competing with their own registrar channel in the retail market.

That’s currently not allowed in almost all gTLD contracts, but is expected to become commonplace in the era of new gTLDs, which have no such ownership restrictions.

These new vertical integration clauses were not unexpected; it’s been envisaged for a couple of years that the restrictions would be dropped in legacy gTLDs.

What is surprising are newly proposed clauses that would oblige Neustar and Afilias to terminate accredited registrars’ access to their TLDs if they don’t sign up to the 2013 RAA.

Under the process set out in the contracts, when registrars representing 67% of the domains in each given TLD have signed up to the 2013 RAA, all the other registrars would have between 270 and 330 days to also sign up to it or lose their ability to access the .biz/.info registries.

That would mean no selling new names and no accepting inbound transfers — a growth death sentence in the affected TLDs.

In the case of .info, in which Go Daddy has a 45% market share, it would only take the top four registrars to sign up to the 2013 RAA before the clock started ticking for the others.

However, this 67% rule would only kick in for Afilias and Neustar if Public Interest Registry and Verisign also voluntarily agree to the same rules for their .org, .com and .net gTLDs.

It’s a pretty aggressive move by ICANN to push the 2013 RAA onto registrars via its contracts with registries, but not the first.

In the separately proposed base New gTLD Registry Agreement, expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, registrars can only sell new gTLD domains if they’re on the 2013 RAA.

Other changes to the .biz and .info contracts include giving the registries the ability to block certain domains from registration to deal with security threats. Registries have been doing this since Conficker, but now they’ll be explicitly allowed to under their contracts.

They’ll also now be subject to the same emergency back-end transition provisions as new gTLDs, in the event of a catastrophic failure.

Both companies will also get to keep their ability to raise registry fees by 10% a year.

Presumably, given that the US Department of Commerce is not party to the .biz and .info deals, neither registry will get the same nasty surprise that Verisign got last year when Commerce froze its prices.

Both proposed contracts are now open for public comment at ICANN, here and here.

The previous contracts actually expired last December but were extended for six months due to ICANN’s focus on new gTLDs and the fact that it wanted to bring both agreements closer to the new gTLD contract.

New registrar deal to bring big changes to the domain name industry

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2013, Domain Registrars

Big changes are coming to Whois, privacy services and resellers, among other things, under the terms of a newly agreed contract between domain name registrars and ICANN.

A proposed 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement that is acceptable to the majority of registrars, along with a plethora of supporting documentation, has been posted by ICANN this morning.

This “final” version, which is expected to be approved by ICANN in June, follows 18 months of often strained talks between ICANN and a negotiating team acting for all registrars.

It’s expected that only 2013 RAA signatories will be able to sell domain names in new gTLDs.

Overall, the compromise reflects ICANN’s desire to ensure that all registrars adhere to the same high standards of conduct, bringing contractual oversight to some currently gray, unregulated areas.

It also provides registrars with greater visibility into their future businesses while giving ICANN ways to update the contract in future according to the changing industry landscape.

For registrants, the biggest changes are those that came about due to a set of 12 recommendations made a few years ago by law enforcement agencies including the FBI and Interpol.

Notably, registrars under the 2013 RAA will be obliged to verify the phone number or email address of each registrant and suspend the domains of those it cannot verify.

That rule will apply to both new registrations, inter-registrar transfers and domains that have changes made to their Whois records. It will also apply to existing registrations when registrars have been alerted to the existence of possibly phony Whois information.

It’s pretty basic stuff. Along with provisions requiring registrars to disclose their business identities and provide abuse points of contact, it’s the kind of thing that all responsible online businesses should do anyway (and indeed all the big registrars already do).

Registrars have also agreed to help ICANN create an accreditation program for proxy and privacy services. Before that program is created, they’ve agreed to some temporary measures to regulate such services.

This temporary spec requires proxy services to investigate claims of abuse, and to properly inform registrants about the circumstances under which it will reveal their private data.

It also requires the proxy service to hold the registrant’s real contact data in escrow, to be accessed by ICANN if the registrar goes out of business or has its contract terminated.

This should help registrants keep hold of their names if their registrar goes belly-up, but of course it does mean that their private contact information will be also stored by the escrow provider.

But the biggest changes in this final RAA, compared to the previously posted draft versions, relate to methods of changing the contract in future.

Notably, registrars have won the right to perpetual renewal of their contracts, giving them a bit more long-term visibility into their businesses.

Under the current arrangement, registrars had to sign a new RAA every five years but ICANN was under no obligation to grant a renewal.

The 2013 contract, on the other hand, gives registrars automatic renewal in five-year increments after the initial term expires, as long as the registrar remains compliant.

The trade-off for this is that ICANN has codified the various ways in which the agreement can be modified in future.

The so-called “unilateral right to amend” clauses introduced a few months ago — designed to enable “Special Amendments” — have been watered down now to the extent that “unilateral” is no longer an accurate way to describe them.

If the ICANN board wants to introduce new terms to the RAA there’s a series of complex hoops to jump through and more than enough opportunities for registrars to kill off the proposals.

Indeed, there are so many caveats and a so many procedural kinks that would enable registrars to prevent ICANN taking action without their consent I’m struggling to imagine any scenario in which the Special Amendment process is successfully used by the board.

But the final 2013 RAA contains something entirely new, too: a way for ICANN’s CEO to force registrars back to the negotiating table in future.

This seems to have made an appearance at this late stage of negotiations precisely because the Special Amendment process has been castrated.

It would enable ICANN’s CEO or the chair of the Registrars Stakeholder Group to force the other party to start talking about RAA amendments with a “Negotiation Notice”. If the talks failed, all concerned would head to mediation, and then arbitration, to sort out their differences.

My guess is that this Negotiation Notice process is much more likely to be used than the Special Amendment process.

It seems likely that these terms will provide the template for similar provisions in the new gTLD Registry Agreement, which is currently under negotiation.

The 2013 RAA public comment period is open until June 4, but I don’t expect to see any major changes after that date. The documents can be downloaded, and comments filed, here.

Cops say new gTLDs shouldn’t launch without a Big Brother RAA

Law enforcement agencies are not happy with the proposed 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement, saying it doesn’t go far enough to help them catch online bad guys.

Europol and the FBI told ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee yesterday that people need to have their full identities verified before they’re allowed to register domain names.

They added that new gTLDs shouldn’t be allowed to launch until a tougher RAA is agreed to and signed by registrars.

The draft 2013 RAA would force registrars to validate their customers’ email addresses or phone numbers after selling them a domain, but law enforcement thinks this is not enough.

“We need a bit more in this area,” Troels Oerting, head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre, told the GAC during a Sunday session. “We need a bit more to be verified in addition to the phone or email.”

“It’s very, very important that we are able to identify perpetrators able, to identify the originators, and it’s not enough that you just put in the email or phone,” he said.

He added that there should also be re-verification procedures and ongoing compliance monitoring from ICANN, and said that only registrars signing the 2013 RAA should be allowed to sell new gTLD domains.

Europol has sent a letter to ICANN (not yet published, it seems) outlining four areas it wants to see the RAA “improved”, Oerting said.

Given that many GAC members, including the US, seem to support this position, it’s yet another threat to ICANN’s new gTLD launch timetable, not to mention privacy and anonymous speech in general.

The law enforcement recommendations are not new, of course. They’ve been in play and GAC-endorsed for many years, but were watered down during ICANN’s RAA talks with registrars.

Registrars and ICANN hit impasse on new RAA

ICANN and its accredited domain name registrars have hit a brick wall in their long-running contract negotiations, after ICANN demanded the right to unilaterally amend the deal in future.

Documents published by ICANN this morning reveal that the two sides have reached agreement on almost all of their previous sticking points — including the extremely thorny issue of Whois verification — but have run into some fundamental, eleventh-hour disagreements.

As we’ve been reporting for the last couple of weeks, the big unresolved issue is ICANN’s unilateral right to amend the Registrar Accreditation Agreement in future, which registrars absolutely hate.

Death of the GNSO? Again?

The text of that proposed change has today been revealed to be identical to the text ICANN wants to insert into the Registry Agreement that all new gTLD registries must sign.

It gives ICANN’s board of directors the right, by two-thirds majority, to make essentially any changes they want to the RA and RAA in future, with minimal justification.

Registrars are just as livid about this as new gTLD applicants are.

The proposed change appears to be one of those introduced last month that ICANN said “[stems] from the call by ICANN’s CEO, Fadi Chehadé, to work to improve the image of the domain industry and to protect registrants”.

Chehadé has been on the road for the last couple of months trying to raise ICANN’s profile in various stakeholder groups in the private and public sectors around the world.

One of the memes he’s impressed upon contracted parties and others is that people don’t trust the domain name industry. Part of ICANN’s solution, it seems, is to grant its board more powers over registries and registrars.

But the Registrars Stakeholder Group reckons unilateral amendments would torpedo the multistakeholder process by emasculating the Generic Names Supporting Organization. It said:

The effect of such a clause in the primary agreements between ICANN and its commercial stakeholders would be devastating to the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model.

First, it will effectively mean the end of the GNSO’s PDP [Policy Development Process], as the Board will become the central arena for all controversial issues, not the community.

Second, it creates an imbalance of authority in the ICANN model, with no limits on the scope or frequency of unilateral amendments, and no protections for registrars and more important registrants.

That’s the biggest barrier to an agreement right now, and it’s one shared by the entire contracted parties constituency of ICANN. Expect fireworks in Beijing next month.

Friction over new gTLDs

Registrars and registries are also angry about the fact that ICANN wants to force registrars to adopt the 2013 RAA, even if their 2009 or 2001 deals are still active, if they want to sell new gTLDs.

RrSG secretary Michele Neylon of Blacknight told DI today that it looks like ICANN is trying to “drive a wedge” between registrars and registries.

Here’s why:

ICANN is trying desperately to stick to its new gTLD program timetable, which will see it start signing Registry Agreements with new gTLD applicants in late April.

But it wants the base RA to include a clause obliging registries to only sell via registrars on the 2013 RAA.

Because the 2013 RAA is not yet finalized, registrars could potentially hold up the approval and delegation of new gTLDs if they don’t quickly agree to the changes ICANN wants.

According to Neylon, the documents released today have been published prematurely; with a little more time agreement could be reached on some of the remaining differences.

Again: expect fireworks in Beijing.

Whois records will be verified

But the new RAA is not all friction.

ICANN and registrars have finally come to agreement on important topics where there was previously sharp divergence.

Registrars have agreed to a new Whois Accuracy Program Specification that is a lot weaker than ICANN had, working from a blueprint laid out by governments and law enforcement agencies, first asked for.

Under the 2013 RAA signed-up registrars will have to start verifying certain elements of the contact information submitted by their registrants.

Notably, there’ll be a challenge-response mechanism for first-time registrants. Registrars will ask their customers to verify their email address or enter a code that has been sent to them via SMS text message or phone.

Note the “or” in that sentence. ICANN and law enforcement wanted registrars to do email “and” phone verification, but ICANN appears to have relented after months of registrars yapping about costs.

In future practice, because email verification is far easier and cheaper to implement, I’d be surprised if phone verification is used in anything but the rarest of cases.

Other data points will also be verified, but only to see that they conform to the correct formats.

Registrars will have to make sure that mailing addresses meet the Universal Postal Union standards, and that phone numbers conform to International Telecommunications Union formatting, for example.

They’ll also have to verify that the street address exists (if they have access to that data) but there will be no obligation to make sure that address and phone number actually belong to the registrant.

Registrants that provide patently false information that fails registrar verification will get 15 days to correct it or face the suspension of their domains.

ICANN wants registrars to also verify their customer records (which are usually different to the Whois records and, anecdotally, more accurate anyway) too, but registrars have so far not agreed to do so.

Taken as a whole, at first reading it’s difficult to see how the new Whois verification spec will do anything to prevent fast-turnover abuse such as phishing, but it may go a small way to help law enforcement investigate longer-term scams such as counterfeit goods sites.

The proposed 2013 RAA, along with more explanatory documents than you could possibly read in a coffee break is now open for public comment, with the reply period closing shortly after the Beijing meeting.