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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.

Future of .io domains has become party-political issue in the UK

The future of the Chagos Islands and therefore the longevity of .io domain names may well depend on which party holds the reins of power in the UK.

The current Conservative government under Theresa May has this month rejected an international court ruling calling for the British Indian Ocean Territory — currently the official name of the archipelago — to be wound down and the lands returned to the exiled Chagossians.

But the leader of the official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has reportedly slammed the government’s position and said Labour is “committed to respecting the advisory opinion in full, so as to ensure that Chagossians are able to return to their homes”.

In February, the International Court of Justice ruled that the UK had kept control of the islands unlawfully when Mauritius, which had the prior claim, gained its independence in 1968.

The couple thousand natives were kicked out of the country a few years later to make way for a US naval base, and have been living in Mauritius and the Seychelles with no ability to return ever since.

Were the UK to follow the ICJ ruling, it would quite possibly mean the end of BIOT as the name of the islands and therefore the demise of its two-letter country code, IO, and therefore the eventual retirement of the popular .io domain name.

.io, which is believed to have around 270,000 domains, is run by London-based Internet Computer Bureau Ltd, which Afilias bought for $70 million two years ago.

It’s popular with tech startups as a kind of domain hack for “input/output”.

Now that the UK government has officially come out against the ICJ ruling, and Labour has supported it, it appears the future of the Chagossians and .io registrants alike will depend rather on who is occupying 10 Downing Street in future.

Mohan takes the reins at Afilias

Ram Mohan appears to have taken over the C-suite at Afilias.

The long-time chief technology officer was also yesterday named to the newly created role of chief operating officer, with the suggestion that he’s also taken over much of the work of CEO Hal Lubsen.

Afilias said Mohan will continue to report to Lubsen, but that “most all of Mr. Lubsen’s previous direct reports will now report to Mr. Mohan”.

Lubsen, who has been listed on the Afilias web site as “72 years old” for at least four years, will “continue to be responsible for and oversee finance, mergers and acquisitions and most legal matters.”

Mohan has been with the company as CTO since the very outset, when it was awarded .info back in 2001. He wrapped up a 10-year term on ICANN’s board of directors last October.

He’s going to carry on with the CTO’s job “initially”, Afilias said, but it sounds like a replacement will be sought.

Nevett headhunts top execs from three rivals

Public Interest Registry has filled out its executive team by poaching senior staff from rivals Afilias, Donuts and Neustar.

Judy Song-Marshall of Neustar has joined as chief of staff, Joe Abley of Afilias is the new chief technology officer and Anand Vora has joined from Donuts as VP of business affairs.

They’re the first senior level appointments to be announced since Donuts co-founder Jon Nevett was appointed CEO three months ago.

PIR, the non-profit which runs .org and related gTLDs, has also let it be known that it’s looking for a chief financial officer. The job ad can be found here.

Neustar completes .in migration

The transfer of India’s suite of ccTLDs from Afilias to Neustar is done.

NIXI, the .in registry, announced today: “The transition of .IN to its new Neustar-backed Registry platform is now complete.”

With 2.2 million names, not counting names in NIXI’s plethora of localized transliterations, .in is the third-largest TLD migration, behind the 3.1 million .au names that made the reverse journey from Neustar to Afilias last year and the 2.7 million .org names that went from Verisign to Afilias in 2003.

The .in migration started yesterday. NIXI had expected up to 48 hours downtime at the registry EPP level, with obviously no DNS downtime.

The name servers for .in and its IDN equivalents currently all simultaneously include Afilias-owned and Neustar-owned servers.

An Afilias lawsuit against the Indian government, which claimed Neustar lacked experience with Indian scripts and attempted to block the transition, appears to have been dropped last week.

Neustar is reportedly charging NIXI $0.70 per transaction, $0.40 less than Afilias had bid to renew its contract. It won the contract after an open bidding process last August.

UN ruling may put .io domains at risk

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2019, Domain Policy

The future of .io domains may have been cast into doubt, following a ruling from the UN’s highest court.

The International Court of Justice this afternoon ruled (pdf) by a 13-1 majority that “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible”.

The Chagos Archipelago is a cluster of islands that the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.

It was originally part of Mauritius, but was retained by the UK shortly before Mauritius gained independence in 1968, so a strategic US military base could be built on Diego Garcia, one of the islands.

The native Chagossians were all forcibly relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles over the next several years. Today, most everyone who lives there are British or American military.

But the ICJ ruled today, after decades of Mauritian outrage, that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago”.

So BIOT, if the UK government follows the ruling, may cease to exist in the not-too-distant future.

BIOT’s ccTLD is .io, which has become popular with tech startups over the last few years and has over 270,000 domains.

It’s run by London-based Internet Computer Bureau Ltd, which Afilias bought for $70 million almost two years ago.

Could it soon become a ccTLD without a territory, leaving it open to retirement and removal from the DNS root?

It’s not impossible, but I’ll freely admit that I’m getting into heavy, early speculation here.

There are a lot of moving parts to consider, and at time of writing the UK government has not even stated how it will respond to the non-binding ICJ ruling.

Should the UK abide by the ruling and wind down BIOT, its IO reservation on the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 list could then be removed by the International Standards Organisation.

That would mean .io no longer fits the ICANN criteria for being a ccTLD, leaving it subject to forced retirement.

Retired TLDs are removed from the DNS root, meaning all the second-level domains under them stop working, obviously.

It’s not entirely clear how this would happen. ICANN’s Country Code Names Supporting Organization has not finished work on its policy for the retirement of ccTLDs.

TLDs are certainly not retired overnight, without the chance of an orderly winding-down.

Judging by the current state of ccNSO discussions, it appears that ccTLDs could in future be retired with or without the consent of their registry, with a five-to-10-year clock starting from the string’s removal from the ISO 3166-1 list.

Under existing ICANN procedures, I’m aware of at least two ccTLDs that have been retired in recent years.

Timor-Leste was given .tl a few years after it rebranded from Portuguese Timor, and .tp was removed from the DNS a decade later. It took five years for .an to be retired after the Netherlands Antilles’ split into several distinct territories in 2010.

But there are also weird hangers-on, such as the Soviet Union’s .su, which has an “exceptional reservation” on the ISO list and is still active (and inexplicably popular) as a ccTLD.

As I say, I’m in heavy speculative territory when it comes to .io, but it strikes me that not many registrants will consider when buying their names that the territory their TLD represents may one day simple poof out of existence at the stroke of a pen.

Afilias declined to comment for this article.

Despite Afilias lawsuit, Neustar names date for Indian takeaway

Kevin Murphy, February 7, 2019, Domain Registries

Neustar has named the date for the transition of the .in registry away from incumbent Afilias..

It’s due to happen February 28, according to a new web site the company has set up to publicize the handover.

The registry will be down for up to 48 hours, starting from 1830 UTC, February 17, as a result.

There will be no new adds, and registrants won’t be able to update their domains, during the downtime. DNS will not be affected, so domains should still resolve.

Neustar won the back-end contract from .in manager NIXI last year, out from under Afilias, after reportedly undercutting Afilias’ $1.10 per-domain-per-year bid with a $0.70 bid of its own.

Given the 2.2 million domains in .in, that makes the contract worth about $7.7 million over its five-year duration.

The transition appears to be going ahead despite a lawsuit filed by Afilias against the Indian government last August, which sought to block the deal.

According to Neustar, the contract was awarded, regardless, last September.

But the lawsuit seems to be still active, judging by the latest filings published on the Delhi High Court web site, which show no judgement has yet been filed.

Huge batch of Afilias TLDs approved in China

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2019, Domain Registries

Seventeen Afilias-operated gTLDs have been approved for use in China.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced yesterday that the following Afilias-owned TLDs now have its official seal of approval: .archi, .bio, .black, .blue, .green, .lotto, .organic, .pet, .pink, .poker, .promo, .ski, .vote, .voto and .移动 (xn--6frz82g, means “mobile”),

Also approved are .asia and .网站 (.xn--5tzm5g means “website”), which to the best of my knowledge are not owned by Afilias but are quite closely managed by it.

All 17 were approved via the same Shanghai-based Afilias subsidiary, due to MIIT’s local presence requirements.

Chinese approval means Chinese registrants using Chinese registrars will be permitted to have their names resolve in China, subject to the country’s rather stringent censorship practices.

It’s the first batch of Afilias names to get the nod since April 2017, when .info, .pro and .mobi were approved.

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”.