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Is the .co rebid biased toward Afilias? Yeah, kinda

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The Colombian government has come under fire for opening up the .co registry contract for rebid in a way that seems predetermined to pick Afilias as the winner, displacing its fierce rival Neustar.

As I blogged in November, Colombia thinks it might be able to secure a better registry deal, so it plans to shortly open .co up to competitive proposals.

A company called .CO Internet, acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014, has been running the ccTLD for the last decade. There are currently around 2.3 million .co domains under management, according to Colombia.

With the renewal deadline looming, the government’s technology ministry, MinTIC, published an eyebrow-raising request for proposals last month.

What’s surprising about the RFP is that some of the four main technical performance criteria listed are so stringent that probably only two companies in the industry qualify — Verisign and Afilias, and so far Verisign has not been involved in the RFP process.

The companies that have been engaging with the government to date are Afilias, Neustar/.CO, Nominet, CentralNic and Donuts.

First, MinTIC wants a registry that’s had at least two million domains under management across its portfolio continuously for two years. All five registries qualify there.

Second, it wants a registry that’s been involved in the migration of a TLD of at least one million names, either as the gaining or losing back-end.

That immediately narrows the pack to just two of the five aforementioned registries — Neustar and Afilias.

Verisign would also qualify, if it’s in the bidding, but I suspect it’s not. Taking over .co would look like a “buy it to kill it” strategy, which would be horrible optics for the Colombian government.

There have only ever been three migrations over one million names, to my knowledge: the Verisign->Afilias .org transition of 2003, the Neustar->Afilias .au move of 2018, and last year’s Afilias->Neustar .in handover.

CentralNic, Nominet and Donuts have all moved numerous TLDs between back-ends, but with much smaller per-TLD domain volumes.

Third — and here’s the kicker — the successful .co bidder will have to show that it processes on average 25 million registry transactions — defined as “billable EPP (write) transactions, as well as all EPP search (read) transactions” — per day. (All of the RFP quotes in this post have been machine-translated from Spanish by Google and run by a few generous Spanish speakers for verification.)

The RFP is not entirely clear on what exact data points it’s looking at here, but my take is that qualifying transactions include, at an absolute minimum, attempts to create a domain, renew a domain, transfer a domain and check whether a domain is registered.

The vast majority of such transactions are in the check and create functions, and I believe a great deal of that activity relates to drop-catching, where registries are flooded with add requests for just-deleted domains.

Whichever way you split it, 25 million a day is a ludicrously high number. Literally only .com, which sees 2.3 billion checks and 1.5 billion adds per month, sees that kind of action.

According to Neustar, which actually runs .co, it only sees 6.4 million transactions per day on average. The requirement to handle 25 million a day is “exaggerated, unjustified and discriminatory” against Neustar, Neustar told MinTIC.

But the RFP allows for the bidding registries to spread their 25-million-a-day quota across all of the TLDs they manage, and this MAY sneak Afilias over the line.

I say MAY in big letters because I don’t believe the numbers that Afilias (and probably other registries too) reports to ICANN every month are reliable.

If you add up the reported, qualifying EPP transactions for September in Afilias’ top four legacy gTLDs — .org, .info, .mobi and .pro — you get to over 25 million per day.

But those same records show that, for example, .mobi, .pro and .info had exactly the same number of EPP availability checks that month — 215,988,497 each.

This is clearly bad data.

I reported on this issue last May, when ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee informed ICANN that major registries were providing “not reliable” or possibly “fabricated” data about port 43 Whois queries.

Afilias, which was one of the apparent offenders, told me at the time that it was addressing the issue with ICANN, but it does not yet appear to have fully fixed its reporting to enable TLD-by-TLD breakdowns of its registry activity.

It is of course quite possible, even very likely, that Afilias has on average more than 25 million qualifying EPP transactions per day, but how’s it going to prove that to the Colombian government when the numbers it reports under contract to ICANN are clearly unreliable?

It’s a little harder to determine whether Neustar would qualify under the 25-million transaction rule, because some of its largest zones are ccTLDs — .co, .in and .us — that do not publicly report this kind of data. Its comments to the RFP suggest it would not.

Numbers aside, I’ll note that there’s very probably an inherent bias towards legacy gTLD operators like Afilias and against relative newcomers such as CentralNic if you’re counting EPP transactions. As I noted above, a lot of these transactions are coming from drop-catch activity, which is more prevalent on larger, older TLDs where there are more dropping domains that are more likely to have existing backlinks and traffic.

The fourth technical requirement in the Colombian RFP that looks a bit fishy is the requirement that the new registry must have channel relationships with at least 10 of the largest 25 registrars, as listed by a web site called domainstate.com.

I can’t say I’ve looked at domainstate.com very often, if at all, but a quick look at its numbers for September strongly suggests to me that it does not count post-2012 new gTLD registrations in its registrar league table. One registrar with almost four million domains under management doesn’t even show up on the list. This arguably could give an advantage to a registry that plays strongly in legacy gTLDs.

That said, it’s probably an academic point — I don’t think any of the bidders for the .co contract would have difficulty showing that they have 10 of the top 25 registrars on board, whichever way you calculate that league table.

Cumulatively, these four technical hurdles have led some to suggest that Afilias has somehow steered MinTIC towards creating an RFP only it could win.

Apart from what I’ve discussed here, I’ve no evidence that is the case, and Afilias has not yet responded to my request for comment today.

Luckily for the bidding registries, the Columbian RFP has not yet been finalized. Comments submitted by the bidders and others are apparently going to be taken on board, so the barriers to entry for respondents could be lowered before bids are finally accepted.

MinTIC posted an update last night that extends the period that the RFP could run, and the transition period should Neustar lose the contract. A handover, should one happen at all, could now happen as late as February next year.

Now PIR rubbishes .org “downtime” claims

Kevin Murphy, December 30, 2019, Domain Registries

Two of Public Interest Registry’s top geeks have come out swinging against recent claims that .org will suffer days of downtime if PIR is acquired by Ethos Capital.

Chief technology officer Joe Abley and Susanne Woolf, senior director of technology community engagement, have penned a blog post calling the recent assertions by subcontractor Packet Clearing House “baffling” and “wrong”.

PCH claimed earlier this month that should PIR fall into for-profit hands, donations made to PCH would dry up, giving Ethos no choice but to either significantly increase .org prices or risk over three days of downtime per year.

PCH is a not-for-profit provider of DNS resolution services that contracts with Afilias to support .org and a couple hundred other Afilias-managed TLDs.

But PIR’s technologists today wrote:

PCH is a contractor to Afilias and has no business relationship with PIR; consequently PCH has no access to non-public financial information. We’re more concerned with the assertions that the current costs of maintaining DNS services are only sustainable if PIR remains a non-profit, and that a for-profit PIR will need to make deep cuts to funding for operations. These inferences are at odds with our knowledge and experience regarding the costs of providing solid DNS service. To be clear – they are wrong.

They go on to say “we find that PCH’s claims about their operational costs and funding models are baffling” and to suggest that if PCH is unhappy with .org’s forthcoming for-profit status, Afilias has plenty of competitors to choose from, writing:

If PCH is unable or unwilling to continue to provide service to Afilias at current pricing, Afilias has many options to ensure that .ORG continues to function at the high levels the technical community expects.

Afilias has already rubbished PCH’s claims in a letter to ICANN.

The $1.135 billion acquisition of PIR from the Internet Society is expected to close in the first quarter, but it’s currently undergoing some scrutiny by ICANN, which has to first approve the change of control.

Afilias denies .org will go down post-acquisition

Kevin Murphy, December 23, 2019, Domain Registries

.org domains will not suffer downtime as a result of Ethos Capital’s acquisition of Public Interest Registry, according to Afilias.

Afilias, which provides PIR’s back-end registry services, wrote to ICANN (pdf) last week to reject claims by DNS resolution subcontractor Packet Clearing House that .org could suffer more than three days a year of downtime if .org moves into commercial hands.

Chief technology officer Ram Mohan wrote:

Afilias — not PCH — is responsible for ensuring that .org names remain available 100% of the time. The Afilias global DNS network is diverse and robust; PCH is a contracted secondary DNS provider. Since Afilias began supporting .org in 2003, we have maintained an exemplary record of uptime, and will continue performing at world-standard levels.

Afilias states for the record that, for .org and PIR’s other TLDs, we will continue our exemplary performance at pricing consistent with our current contract with PIR.

Not-for-profit PCH had claimed that US tax law would see almost $30 million of annual donations dry up if .org became a for-profit enterprise again.

Ethos would be forced to increase .org prices dramatically or under-invest in DNS and see days of downtime, the organization claimed.

Mediocre .vote gTLD drops restrictions

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2019, Domain Registries

The .vote and .voto gTLDs have had their registration restrictions removed in a bid to increase numbers.

Both domains were previously technically restricted to those who could show they had a legitimate connection to democratic proceedings, and were sometimes used by political campaigns.

But it appears those post-registration restrictions were lightly enforced, and now they’ve been dropped entirely.

Neither gTLD has been particularly successful — .vote has been wobbling around the 3,000-domain mark for a while, while .voto (the Spanish version) has about a tenth of that figure.

Both renew at retail for about $60 a year, but first-year regs can currently be obtained for about half that amount.

They’re both managed by Afilias.

The highest-profile .vote domain I’m aware of to date was used in the spectacularly successful Hollywood-backed campaign to keep Donald Trump out of the White House in 2016.

MMX switches porn TLDs from Afilias to Uniregistry

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2019, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines is moving its four porn-themed gTLDs to a new back-end provider.

MMX CEO Toby Hall confirmed to DI today that the company is ditching Afilias, which had been providing registry services for .xxx since 2011.

“We’re in the process of switching the back-ends from Afilias to Uni for the ICM portfolio,” he said.

This portfolio, which MMX acquired last year, also includes .porn, .adult and .sex. There are roughly 170,000 domains under management in total, but about half of these are sunrise-period blocks in .xxx, which could add a wrinkle to the transition.

It appears that Afilias is still providing DNS for the TLDs, but Uniregistry has been named the official tech contact.

It’s not currently clear when the handover will be complete. Hall was not immediately available for further comment.

It’s also not currently clear why Uniregistry was selected. All of MMX’s 27 other gTLDs — the likes of .vip, .work and .law — have been running on Nominet’s platform since MMX dropped its own self-hosted infrastructure a few years back.

During the same restructuring, Uniregistry took on MMX’s registrar business.

Uniregistry has also been working closely with MMX on its recently launched AdultBlock trademark blocking services, which could wind up accounting for a big chunk of MMX’s porn-related revenue.

These latest four gTLDs to switch providers are merely the latest in a game of musical chairs that has been playing out for the last several months, five years after the first new gTLDs started going live and registries shop around for better back-end deals.

Nominet picked up most of Amazon’s portfolio, replacing Neustar, earlier this year.

But Nominet has lost high-profile .blog to CentralNic, and Afilias lost a Brazilian dot-brand to Nic.br

Cloudflare “bug” reveals hundreds of secret domain prices

The secret wholesale prices for hundreds of TLDs have been leaked, due to an alleged “bug” at a registrar.

The registry fees for some 259 TLDs, including those managed by Donuts, Verisign and Afilias, are currently publicly available online, after a programmer used what they called a “bug” in Cloudflare’s API to scrape together price lists without actually buying anything.

Cloudflare famously busted into the domain registrar market last September by announcing that it would sell domains at cost, thumbing its nose at other registrars by suggesting that all they’re doing is “pinging an API”.

But because most TLD registries have confidentiality clauses in their Registry-Registrar Agreements, accredited registrars are not actually allowed to reveal the wholesale prices.

That’s kind of a problem if you’re a registrar that has announced that you will never charge a markup, ever.

Cloudflare has tried to get around this by not listing its prices publicly.

Currently, it does not sell new registrations, instead only accepting inbound transfers from other registrars. Registry transaction reports reveal that it has had tens of thousands of names transferred in, but has not created a significant number of new domains.

(As an aside, it’s difficult to see how it could ever sell a new reg without first revealing its price and therefore breaking its NDAs.).

It appears that the only way to manually ascertain the wholesale prices of all of the TLDs it supports would be to buy one of each at a different registrar, then transfer them to Cloudflare, thereby revealing the “at cost” price.

This would cost over $9,500, at Cloudflare’s prices, and it’s difficult to see what the ROI would be.

However, one enterprising individual discovered via the Cloudflare API that the registrar was not actually checking whether they owned a domain before revealing its price.

They were therefore able to compile a list of Cloudflare’s prices and therefore the wholesale prices registries charge.

The list, and the script used to compile it, are both currently available on code repository Github.

The bulk of the list comprises Donuts’ vast portfolio, but most TLDs belonging to Afilias (including the ccTLD .io), XYZ.com and Radix are also on there.

It’s not possible for me to verify that all of the prices are correct, but the ones that are comparable to already public information (such as .com and .net) match, and the rest are all in the ballpark of what I’ve always assumed or have been privately told they were.

The data was last refreshed in April, so without updates its shelf life is likely limited. Donuts, for example, is introducing price increases across most of its portfolio this year.

Afilias buys the other half of .global

Afilias has acquired one of its new gTLD back-end customers, Dot Global Domain Registry Limited, the registry for .global.

It immediately makes .global Afilias’ best-performing 2012-round new gTLD.

The price of the deal, between two private companies, was undisclosed.

As DI reported last November, Afilias already owned 45% of the company, which had 2017 revenue of $1.9 million and a $320,000 loss.

.global is a relatively good new gTLD business, as new gTLDs go.

We’re looking at a business with probably still low-seven-digit annual revenue, with annual adds and renewals trending upwards.

It had over 48,000 domain under management at the last count, with about about 22,500 annual renews.

The names renew at $100 at GoDaddy, which with 30% of .global regs is the largest .global registrar.

NameCheap, the second-largest registrar (with 11%), renews at about $65.

Anecdotally, it’s a new gTLD that I regularly come across in the wild, which is still relatively noteworthy. It’s often used by multinational companies for global gateway sites.

Afilias said that because .global already runs on its back-end, there won’t be any burdensome migration work for registrars, just some “paperwork will need to be updated”.

In terms of domains under management, .global immediately becomes Afilias’ highest-volume new gTLD (excluding pre-2012 .info, .pro and .mobi).

Its biggest 2012-round TLD, from the about 20 it owns, was .red, with around 34,000 DUM.

Nic.br wins dot-brand from Afilias

Brazilian registry Nic.br has won its sixth gTLD client.

It’s taking on the dot-brand back-end business of Natura, a cosmetics company based in its home town of Sao Paulo.

The .natura gTLD was previously managed by Afilias.

I can’t imagine it’s a hugely valuable deal.

Natura has only a few domains in its zone. It’s using global.natura as a portal to its various national ccTLD sites and app.natura as a gateway to app stores where its mobile app can be obtained.

It’s the latest gTLD to change back-ends in the current wave of new gTLD rejiggering to come about as contracts negotiated during the 2012 application round start to expire.

Nic.br also runs the dot-brands .uol and .globo, the small city TLD .rio, the unlaunched generics .bom (means “good” in Portuguese) and .final, and of course its original ccTLD, .br.

Major registries posting “fabricated” Whois data

One or more of the major gTLD registries are publishing Whois query data that may be “fabricated”, according to some of ICANN’s top security minds.

The Security and Stability Advisory Committee recently wrote to ICANN’s top brass to complain about inconsistent and possibly outright bogus reporting of Whois port 43 query volumes.

SSAC said (pdf):

it appears that the WHOIS query statistics provided to ICANN by registry operators as part of their monthly reporting obligations are generally not reliable. Some operators are using different methods to count queries, some are interpreting the registry contract differently, and some may be reporting numbers that are fabricated or otherwise not reflective of reality. Reliable reporting is essential to the ICANN community, especially to inform policy-making.

SSAC says that the inconsistency of the data makes it very difficult to make informed decisions about the future of Whois access and to determine the impact of GPDR.

While the letter does not name names, I’ve replicated some of SSAC’s research and I think I’m in a position to point fingers.

In my opinion, Google, Verisign, Afilias and Donuts appear to be the causes of the greatest concern for SSAC, but several others exhibit behavior SSAC is not happy about.

I reached out to these four registries on Wednesday and have published their responses, if I received any, below.

SSAC’s concerns relate to the monthly data dumps that gTLD registries new and old are contractually obliged to provide ICANN, which publishes the data three months later.

Some of these stats concern billable transactions such as registrations and renewals. Others are used to measure uptime obligations. Others are largely of academic interest.

One such stat is “Whois port 43 queries”, defined in gTLD contracts as “number of WHOIS (port-43) queries responded during the reporting period”.

According to SSAC, and confirmed by my look at the data, there appears to be a wide divergence in how registries and back-end registry services providers calculate this number.

The most obvious example of bogosity is that some registries are reporting identical numbers for each of their TLDs. SSAC chair Rod Rasmussen told DI:

The largest issue we saw at various registries was the reporting of the exact or near exact same number of queries for many or all of their supported TLDs, regardless of how many registered domain names are in those zones. That result is a statistical improbability so vanishingly small that it seems clear that they were reporting some sort of aggregate number for all their TLDs, either as a whole or divided amongst them.

While Rasmussen would not name the registries concerned, my research shows that the main culprit here appears to be Google.

In its December data dumps, it reported exactly 68,031,882 port 43 queries for each of its 45 gTLDs.

If these numbers are to be believed, .app with its 385,000 domains received precisely the same amount of port 43 interest as .gbiz, which has no registrations.

As SSAC points out, this is simply not plausible.

A Google spokesperson has not yet responded to DI’s request for comment.

Similarly, Afilias appears to have reported identical data for a subset of its dot-brand clients’ gTLDs, 16 of which purportedly had exactly 1,071,939 port 43 lookups in December.

Afilias has many more TLDs that did not report identical data.

An Afilias spokesperson told DI: “Afilias has submitted data to ICANN that addresses the anomaly and the update should be posted shortly.”

SSAC’s second beef is that one particular operator may have reported numbers that “were altered or synthesized”. SSAC said in its letter:

In a given month, the number of reported WHOIS queries for each of the operator’s TLDs is different. While some of the TLDs are much larger than others, the WHOIS query totals for them are close to each other. Further statistical analysis on the number of WHOIS queries per TLD revealed that an abnormal distribution. For one month of data for one of the registries, the WHOIS query counts per TLD differed from the mean by about +/- 1%, nearly linearly. This appeared to be highly unusual, especially with TLDs that have different usage patterns and domain counts. There is a chance that the numbers were altered or synthesized.

I think SSAC could be either referring here to Donuts or Verisign

Looking again at December’s data, all but one of Donuts’ gTLDs reported port 43 queries between 99.3% and 100.7% of the mean average of 458,658,327 queries.

Is it plausible that .gripe, with 1,200 registrations, is getting almost as much Whois traffic as .live, with 343,000? Seems unlikely.

Donuts has yet to provide DI with its comments on the SSAC letter. I’ll update this post and tweet the link if I receive any new information.

All of the gTLDs Verisign manages on behalf of dot-brand clients, and some of its own non-.com gTLDs, exhibit the same pattern as Donuts in terms of all queries falling within +/- 1% of the mean, which is around 431 million per month.

So, as I put to Verisign, .realtor (~40k regs) purportedly has roughly the same number of port 43 queries as .comsec (which hasn’t launched).

Verisign explained this by saying that almost all of the port 43 queries it reports come from its own systems. A spokesperson told DI:

The .realtor and .comsec query responses are almost all responses to our own monitoring tools. After explaining to SSAC how Verisign continuously monitors its systems and services (which may be active in tens or even hundreds of locations at any given time) we are confident that the accuracy of the data Verisign reports is not in question. The reporting requirement calls for all query responses to be counted and does not draw a distinction between responses to monitoring and non-monitoring queries. If ICANN would prefer that all registries distinguish between the two, then it is up to ICANN to discuss that with registry operators.

It appears from the reported numbers that Verisign polls its own Whois servers more than 160 times per second. Donuts’ numbers are even larger.

I would guess, based on the huge volumes of queries being reported by other registries, that this is common (but not universal) practice.

SSAC said that it approves of the practice of monitoring port 43 responses, but it does not think that registries should aggregate their own internal queries with those that come from real Whois consumers when reporting traffic to ICANN.

Either way, it thinks that all registries should calculate their totals in the same way, to make apples-to-apples comparisons possible.

Afilias’ spokesperson said: “Afilias agrees that everyone should report the data the same way.”

As far as ICANN goes, its standard registry contract is open to interpretation. It doesn’t really say why registries are expected to collect and supply this data, merely that they are obliged to do so.

The contracts do not specify whether registries are supposed to report these numbers to show off the load their servers are bearing, or to quantify demand for Whois services.

SSAC thinks it should be the latter.

You may be thinking that the fact that it’s taken a decade or more for anyone to notice that the data is basically useless means that it’s probably not all that important.

But SSAC thinks the poor data quality interferes with research on important policy and practical issues.

It’s rendered SSAC’s attempt to figure out whether GDPR and ICANN’s Temp Spec have had an effect on Whois queries pretty much futile, for example.

The meaningful research in question also includes work leading to the replacement of Whois with RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol.

Finally, there’s the looming possibility that ICANN may before long start acting as a clearinghouse for access to unredacted Whois records. If it has no idea how often Whois is actually used, that’s going to make planning its infrastructure very difficult, which in turn could lead to downtime.

Rasmussen told DI: “Our impression is that all involved want to get the numbers right, but there are inconsistent approaches to reporting between registry operators that lead to data that cannot be utilized for meaningful research.”

ICANN redacts the secrets of Verisign’s .web deal

Afilias thinks it has found the smoking gun in its fight to wrestle .web out of the hands of rival Verisign, but for now the details are still a closely guarded secret.

The company recently filed an amended complaint in its Independent Review Process case against ICANN, after it managed to get a hold of the deal that Verisign struck with Nu Dot Co, the company that spent $135 million of Verisign’s money to win .web at auction in 2016.

The Domain Acquisition Agreement, which apparently set out the terms under which NDC would bid for .web on Verisign’s behalf, was revealed during disclosure in December.

But in publishing the amended complaint (pdf) (which seems to have happened in the last week or two), ICANN has whited out all references to the contents of this document.

Afilias claims that the DAA proves that NDC broke the rules of the new gTLD program by refusing to disclose to ICANN that it had essentially become a Verisign proxy:

It claims that ICANN should therefore have disqualified NDC from the .web auction.

Based on the terms of the DAA, it is evident that NDC violated the New gTLD Program Rules. ICANN, however, has refused to disqualify NDC from the .WEB contention set, or to disqualify NDC’s bids in the .WEB Auction.

Afilias came second in the 2016 auction, bidding $135 million. NDC/Verisign won with a $142 million bid, committing it to pay the amount Afilias was willing to pay.

While Verisign has said that it plans to market .web, Afilias believes that Verisign’s primary motivation at the auction was to essentially kill off what could have been .com’s biggest competitor. It says in its amended complaint:

ICANN has eviscerated one of the central pillars of the New gTLD Program and one of ICANN’s founding principles: to introduce and promote competition in the Internet namespace in order to break VeriSign’s monopoly

Whether the DAA reveals anything we do not already know is an open question, but Afilias reckons ICANN’s prior failure to disclose its contents represents a failure of its commitment to transparency.

Reading between the lines, it seems Afilias is claiming that ICANN got hold of the DAA some time before it was given to Afilias in discovery last December, but that ICANN “had refused to provide the DAA (or even confirm its existence)”.

By redacting its contents now, ICANN is helplessly playing into the narrative that it’s trying to cover something up.

But ICANN is probably not to blame for the redactions. It was ICANN holding the axe, yes, but it was Verisign that demanded the cuts.

ICANN said in its basis for redactions document (pdf) that it “has an affirmative obligation to redact the information designated as confidential by the third party(ies) unless and until said third party authorizes the public disclosure of such information.”

Afilias has also managed to put George Sadowsky, who for the best part of the last decade until his October departure was one of ICANN’s most independent-minded directors, on the payroll.

In his testimony (pdf), he apparently reveals some details of the ICANN boards private discussions about the .web case.

Guess what? That’s all redacted too, unilaterally this time, by ICANN.