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No .web until 2021 after Afilias files ICANN appeal

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2018, Domain Registries

Afilias has taken ICANN to arbitration to prevent .web being delegated to Verisign.

The company, which came second in the $135 million auction that Verisign won in 2016, filed Independent Review Process documents in late November.

The upshot of the filing is that .web, considered by many the best potential competitor for .com — Afilias describes it as “crown jewels of the New gTLD Program” — is very probably not going to hit the market for at least a couple more years.

Afilias says in in its filing that:

ICANN is enabling VeriSign to acquire the .WEB gTLD, the next closest competitor to VeriSign’s monopoly, and in so doing has eviscerated one of the central pillars of the New gTLD Program: to introduce and promote competition in the Internet namespace in order to break VeriSign’s monopoly

Its beef is that Verisign acquired the rights to .web by hiding behind a third-party proxy, Nu Dot Co, the shell corporation linked to the co-founders of .CO Internet that appears to have been set up in 2012 purely to make money by losing new gTLD auctions.

Afilias says NDC broke the rules of the new gTLD program by failing to notify ICANN that it had made an agreement with Verisign to sign over its rights to .web in advance of the auction.

The company says that NDC’s “obligation to immediately assign .WEB to VeriSign fundamentally changed the nature of NDC’s application” and that ICANN and the other .web applicants should have been told.

NDC’s application had stated that .web was going to compete with .com, and Verisign’s acquisition of the contract would make that claim false, Afilias says.

This means ICANN broke its bylaws commitment to apply its policies, “neutrally, objectively, and fairly”, Afilias claims.

Allowing Verisign to acquire its most significant potential competitor also breaks ICANN’s commitment to introduce competition to the gTLD market, the company reckons.

It will be up to a three-person panel of retired judges to decide whether these claims holds water.

The IRP filing was not unexpected. I noted that it seemed likely after a court threw out a Donuts lawsuit against ICANN which attempted to overturn the auction result for pretty much the same reasons.

The judge in that case ruled that new gTLD applicants’ covenant not to sue ICANN was valid, largely because alternatives such as IRP are available.

ICANN has a recent track record of performing poorly under IRP scrutiny, but this case is by no means a slam-dunk for Afilias.

ICANN could argue that the .web case was not unique, for starters.

The .blog contention set was won by an affiliate of WordPress maker Automattic under almost identical circumstances earlier in 2016, with Colombian-linked applicant Primer Nivel paying $19 million at private auction, secretly bankrolled by WordPress.

Nobody complained about that outcome, probably because it was a private auction so all the other .blog applicants got an even split of the winning bid.

Afilias wants the .web IRP panel to declare NDC’s bid invalid and award .web to Afilias at its final bid price.

For those champing at the bit to register .web domains, and there are some, the filing means they’ve likely got another couple years to wait.

I’ve never known an IRP to take under a year to complete, from filing to final declaration. We’re likely looking at something closer to 18 months.

Even after the declaration, we’d be looking at more months for ICANN’s board to figure out how to implement the decision, and more months still for the implementation itself.

Barring further appeals, I’d say it’s very unlikely .web will start being sold until 2021 at the very earliest, assuming the winning registry is actually motivated to bring it to market as quickly as possible.

The IRP is no skin off Verisign’s nose, of course. Its acquisition of .web was, in my opinion, more about restricting competition than expanding its revenue streams, so a delay simply plays into its hands.

Exclusive: Tiny island sues to take control of lucrative .nu

Kevin Murphy, November 28, 2018, Domain Registries

The tiny Pacific island of Niue has sued the Swedish ccTLD registry to gain control of its own ccTLD, .nu, DI has learned.

The lawsuit, filed this week in Stockholm, claims that the Internet Foundation In Sweden (IIS) acted illegally when it essentially took control of .nu in 2013, paying its American owner millions of dollars a year for the privilege.

Niue wants the whole ccTLD registry transferred to its control at IIS’s expense, along with all the profits IIS has made from .nu since 2013 — many millions of dollars.

It also plans to file a lawsuit in Niue, and to formally request a redelegation from IANA.

While .nu is the code assigned to Niue, it has always been marketed in northern Europe, particularly Sweden, in countries where the string means “now”.

It currently has just shy of 400,000 domains under management, according to IIS’s web site, having seen a 50,000-name slump just a couple weeks ago.

It was expected to be worth a additional roughly $5 million a year for the registry’s top line, according to IIS documents dated 2012, a time when it only had about 240,000 domains.

For comparison, Niue’s entire GDP has been estimated at a mere $10 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. The island has about 1,800 inhabitants and relies heavily on tourism and handouts from New Zealand.

According to documents detailing its 2013 takeover, IIS agreed to pay a minimum of $14.7 million over 15 years for the right to run the ccTLD, with a potential few million more in performance-related bonuses.

The Niue end of the lawsuit is being handled by Par Brumark, a Swedish national living in Denmark, who has been appointed by the Niuean government to act on its behalf on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, where he is currently a vice-chair.

Brumark told DI that IIS acted illegally when it took over .nu from previous registry, Massachusetts-based WorldNames, which had been running the ccTLD without the consent of Niue’s government since 1997.

The deal was characterized by WorldNames in 2013 as a back-end deal, with IIS taking over administrative and technical operations.

But IIS documents from 2012 reveal that it is actually more like a licensing deal, with IIS paying WorldNames the aforementioned minimum of $14.7 million over 15 years for the rights to manage, and profit from, the TLD.

The crux of the lawsuit appears to be the question of whether .nu can be considered a “Swedish national domain”.

IIS is a “foundation”, which under Swedish law has to stick to the purpose outlined in its founding charter.

That charter says, per IIS’s own translation, that the IIS “must particularly promote the development of the handling of domain names under the top-level domain .se and other national domains pertaining to Sweden.”

Brumark believes that .nu is not a national domain pertaining to Sweden, because it’s Niue’s national ccTLD.

One of his strongest pieces of evidence is that the Swedish telecoms regulator, PTS, refuses to regulate .nu because it’s not Swedish. PTS is expected to be called as a witness.

But documents show that the Stockholm County Administrative Board, which regulates Foundations, gave permission in 2012 for IIS to run “additional top-level domains”.

Via Google Translate, the Board said: “The County Administrative Board finds that the Foundation’s proposed management measures to administer, managing and running additional top-level domains is acceptable.”

Brumark thinks this opinion was only supposed to apply to geographic gTLDs such as .stockholm, and not to ccTLD strings assigned by ISO to other nations.

The Stockholm Board did not mention .nu or make a distinction between ccTLD and gTLDs in its letter to IIS, but the letter was in response to a statement from an IIS lawyer that .nu, with 70% of its registrations in Sweden, could be considered a Swedish national domain under the IIS charter.

Brumark points to public statements made by IIS CEO Danny Aerts to the effect that IIS is limited to Swedish national domains. Here, for example, he says that IIS could not run .wales.

IIS did not respond to my requests for comment by close of business in Sweden today.

Niue claims that if .nu isn’t Swedish, IIS has no rights under its founding charter to run it, and that it should be transferred to a Niuean entity, the Niue Information Technology Committee.

That’s a governmental entity created by an act of the local parliament 18 years ago, when Niue first started its campaign to get control of .nu.

The history of .nu is a controversial one, previously characterized as “colonialism” by some.

The ccTLD was claimed by Boston-based WorldNames founder Bill Semich and an American resident of the island, in 1997. That’s pre-ICANN, when the IANA database was still being managed by Jon Postel.

At the time, governments had basically no say in how their ccTLDs were delegated. It’s not even clear if Niue was aware its TLD had gone live at the time.

The official sponsor of .nu, according to the IANA record, is the IUSN Foundation, which is controlled by WorldNames.

Under ICANN/IANA policy, the consent of the incumbent sponsor is required in order for a redelegation to occur, and WorldNames has been understandably reluctant to give up its cash cow, despite Niue trying to take control for the better part of two decades.

The 2000 act of parliament declared that NITC was the only true sponsor for .nu, but even Niuean law has so far not proved persuasive.

So the lawsuit against IIS is huge twist in the tale.

If Niue were to win, IIS would presumably be obliged to hand over all of its registry and customer data to Niue’s choice of back-end provider.

Both Afilias and Danish registrar One.com have previously expressed an interest in running .nu, providing a share of the revenue to Niue, according to court documents.

Brumark said that a settlement might also be possible, but that it would be very costly to IIS.

Readers might also be interested in my 2011 article about Niue, which was once widely referred to as the “WiFi Nation”.

Incel hate site jumps to Iceland after doMEn suspends .me domain

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

Incels.me, a web forum that hosts misogynist rants by “involuntarily celibate” men, has found a new home after .me registry doMEn suspended its domain.

The web site has reappeared, apparently unscathed, under Iceland’s .is domain, at incels.is.

doMEn said in a blog post yesterday that it had suspended incels.me at the registry level due to the owner “allowing part of its members to continuously promote violence and hate speech”.

The suspension happened October 15, and the site reappeared in .is not long after. It’s not entirely clear why doMEn chose to explain its decision over a month later. It said:

The decision to suspend the domain was made after the .ME Registry exhausted all other possibilities that could assure us that the registrant of incels.me domain and the owner of i
incels.me forum was able to remove the subject content and prevent the same or similar content from appearing on the forum again.

An “incel” is a man who has decided that he is too ugly, charmless, short, stupid or otherwise unattractive, and is therefore permanently unfuckable.

While that may provoke sympathetic thoughts, a great many of the incels frequenting sites like incels.me choose to channel their frustration into cartoonish misogyny ranging from the laughable to the extremely disturbing.

While the registry didn’t mention it, the site also has many threads that appear to encourage suicide.

doMEn seems to have turned off the domain because certain threads crossed the line from misogyny to incitement to violence against women.

The Montenegro-based company said it had been monitoring the site since May, after being told that “certain members” of the forum “might have been involved in or associated with” an attack in Toronto that killed 10 people in April, a charge the incels.is admin denies.

The second reason given — preventing content appearing in future — may be the crux here.

The site’s administrator said in a post on the new site that he had personally removed all of the threads highlighted by doMEN as being in violation of its registry policies.

He also posted a partial email thread between himself and his former registrar, China-based NiceNIC.net, in which he explains how difficult it is to monitor all the content posted by his users. He wrote on the forum:

They obviously weren’t going to give us a fair shake either way, and we’re not going to search through 1.6 MILLION posts nor do we have the technological capabilities to check to see if any of them are against their vague anti-abuse policy.

Domain registries have no place in enforcing arbitrary rules against domains that go against their ideology.

It seems from the thread that Afilias, 37%-owner of doMEn and .me back-end provider, had a hands-on role in the suspension.

Incels certainly isn’t the first controversial site to have to resort to TLD-hopping to stay alive.

The most notable example is piracy site KickAssTorrents, which bounced from ccTLD to ccTLD for years before finally being shut down by the US Feds.

The incels.is admin said he had confidence in Iceland’s registry due to “their stance as pro free-speech enforcers”.

But ISNIC is not above suspending domains when the associated sites break Icelandic law. Four years ago it took down some domains associated with ISIS.

The takedown comes not long after GoDaddy attracted attention for suspending the domain of far-right Twitter clone Gab.com, again due to claims of incitement to violence related to an act of domestic terrorism.

Afilias bought .io for $70 million

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2018, Domain Registries

Did you know Afilias owns .io? I didn’t, but it paid $70 million for the popular alternative TLD 18 months ago.

A recently published financial statement in Ireland shows that the company spent $70.17 million cash — a 10x revenue multiple — for 100% of Internet Computer Bureau Ltd in April 2017.

ICB runs .io, .ac and .sh, the ccTLDs for the British Indian Ocean Territories (.io), Ascension Island (.ac), and Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan Da Cunha (.sh).

Afilias has never publicly announced the deal, and I haven’t seen it reported elsewhere, so I thought it was worth blogging up here.

At the time, the deal was characterized to registrars as a back-end contract win.

But it seems that Afilias actually purchased the back-end provider, then migrated (not as smoothly as it usually does) the TLDs over to its own infrastructure.

That would have opened up .io to all the registrars already plugged in to Afilias’ TLDs, potentially greatly increasing its reach.

But it’s probably not just the back-end Afilias has acquired.

Would a registry service provider spend 10 times annual revenue on a ccTLD back-end contractor, unless it had a damn good reason to believe that it would be able to at least recoup its investment, either through a long-term contract or some other mechanism?

It’s quite possible Afilias actually bought the .io ccTLD Manager.

The ccTLD Manager listed by ICANN in the IANA database is “IO Top Level Domain Registry”, but “c/o Sure (Diego Garcia) Limited”. That changed a week or so ago from “IO Top Level Domain Registry, Cable & Wireless”

Sure is the arm of telecommunications firm Cable & Wireless that provides internet access to remote islands in various parts of the world.

I don’t know what “IO Top Level Domain Registry” is.

Afilias tells me confidentiality arrangements are in place.

.io has proven popular as a TLD for technology startup companies that couldn’t get the .com they wanted.

Across its small portfolio, ICB was a $6.9 million business last year, but .io, with a reported 270,000 domains, must account for the large majority of that.

Due to the timing of the deal, ICB contributed $5.3 million to Afilias’ top line and was the main reason its revenue grew last year, its 2017 accounts reveal.

In 2017, Afilias saw revenue grow from $106.7 million to $113.6 million. Profit before tax was down slightly, from $38.6 million to $36 million

Again, that was due largely to ICB, which contributed $1.4 million of red ink to the bottom line.

Afilias is a private company, by the way, which is why these numbers all refer to 2017. It’s the final full year of it being based in Ireland, before its move to the US for tax reasons.

The disclosure also reveals that Afilias took a 45% stake in Dot Global, manager of the .global gTLD registry, in December 2017.

Dot Global had revenue of $1.9 million and a $320,000 loss last year, the report states.

doMEn, the Montenegro ccTLD (.me) operator in which Afilias has a 36.85% share, made a profit of $2.59 million on revenue of $7.39 million, it says. Both of those numbers were down slightly on 2016.

Afilias also says in the filing that it expects revenue to be down in 2018, due to the renegotiation of back-end contracts. I gather the contract with Public Interest Registry, which reportedly could cost about $10 million a year, is the main problem.

Given the accounts were signed off in May this year, it seems that this decline is expected despite the lucrative .au ccTLD contract, which Afilias signed at the end of 2017.

Is auDA’s new marketing windfall working?

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Australian ccTLD .au appears to be growing at a faster rate after registry auDA cut its wholesale prices and devoted millions of dollars to marketing.

While the numbers are by no means conclusive, in the three months after the new business model came into effect .au grew almost twice as much as in the comparable year-ago period.

At the end of June, auDA switch its back-end registry from Neustar to Afilias.

It cut its wholesale price by 10% and said it would invest AUD 8 million ($5.7 million) over four years into a marketing and innovation fund.

The fund offers financial incentives to registrars and resellers that promote .au domains.

Growing .au’s market share is one of the defined objectives of the program, and stats collected by DI show it might be working.

In the three months between June 28 (two days before the transition to Afilias) and September 28, the number of reported .au domains went up from 3,153,432 to 3,163,998, an increase of 10,566 domains.

In the immediately prior three months, registered domains actually declined by 1,150.

In the same period June-September period of 2017, domains were up by 5,734, about half the level of this year.

So is the new regime succeeding in growing numbers more rapidly? Maybe. It’s probably too early to tell for sure.

Any increase in DUM could be offset by declines from domain investors, if a proposed policy change about who is allowed to register domains comes into effect.

The numbers above have two caveats: 1) they’re based on the running total published more or less live on auDA’s web site, so should be considered ball-park as they may have been collected at different times during the day, and 2) it’s possible that Afilias and Neustar report numbers from their back-ends differently, which might mean comparisons of numbers reported before and after the transition are unfair.