Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

UNR getting out of the registry business with $17 million no-reserve auctions on 23 new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2021, Domain Registries

UNR, the former Uniregistry, plans to auction off its portfolio of 23 new gTLD contracts in April.

The company, owned by domain investor Frank Schilling, said on a new web site at auction.link:

In a move to completely dedicate the company and its resources to its backend registry and IP rights protection services, UNR has announced that 23 of its Top Level Domain assets will be sold in no-reserve auctions on April 28, 2021.

The TLDs will be sold individually, rather than as a package.

While they’re all no-reserve auctions, the published starting prices add up to $16,870,000. Some have minimum bids of zero, some are less than the price UNR paid ICANN for its application fee back in 2012.

Here’s a list of the TLDs, along with their starting prices.

.audio$500,000
.blackfriday$350,000
.christmas$350,000
.click$1,000,000
.country
.diet$500,000
,flowers$500,000
.game$3,500,000
,guitars$250,000
.help$1,300,000
.hiphop$250,000
.hiv$0
.hosting$1,000,000
.juegos$0
.link$3,000,000
.llp$0
.lol$500,000
.mom$500,000
.photo$1,300,000
.pics$500,000
.property$850,000
.sexy$570,000
.tattoo$150,000

The prices appear to be based on the reg fee and volume of existing registrations, which range wildly from around 300 for .hiv to 159,000 for .link. The .country gTLD, aimed at country music makers and fans, currently has no starting bid listed.

The most-likely buyers of these gTLDs would be the rapidly dwindling list of fellow portfolio registries, such as Donuts and Radix.

While UNR’s exit from the registry business may be surprising — Schilling was a big fan of new gTLDs and Uniregistry applied for 54 of them, investing $69 million — it’s merely the latest stage of the business being dismantled.

Uniregistry sold its registrar and secondary market businesses to GoDaddy last year, and later sold its stake in three car-related gTLDs to business partner XYZ.com.

UNR said the April auctions will be managed over one day by Innovative Auctions, which is pretty much the de facto standard player in new gTLD auctions.

While the company says the auctions are open to “businesses and individuals”, I’m pretty sure ICANN rules forbid a gTLD being owned by individuals.

The company now plans to focus on being a pure-play back-end registry services provider, with a focus on dot-brand gTLDs, where it will continue to compete with the likes of GoDaddy, CentralNic, Donuts and Verisign.

Crackdown looms for new gTLD auction gaming

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN will be urged to consider taking a stronger position against companies who apply for new gTLDs simply to lose them at auction or immediately flip them to others.

A community working group, known as SubPro and tasked with developing rules for the next new gTLD round, delivered its final Final Report this week, and the one area that failed to gain a designation of “consensus” or stronger was private auctions.

In the 2012 application round, several companies applied for large portfolios of strings that look — in hindsight at least — like efforts to game the system by forcing rivals to auctions they planned to deliberately use.

Companies such as MMX made millions losing auctions during the round, some of which was reinvested in winning auctions for other TLDs.

Applicant Nu Dot Co was notable for losing every private auction it participated in, then quickly flipping its successful .web application when Verisign stepped up with a $135 million bankroll.

While it’s difficult to know the extent to which this was all planned in advance, it proved the business model — filing spurious applications for new gTLDs you have no intention of launching — could be lucrative in future rounds.

But SubPro has put forward a slew of recommendations that, should they pass the remaining hurdles of the policy development track, could bring in substantial sanctions for those applicants and registries found to be gaming the system.

The SubPro recommendations are heavily buttressed with square parentheses, indicating disputed text, and supplemented by some minority statements from members of the working group who think that private auctions should be banned outright in future application rounds.

But the headline recommendation, numbered 35.3, is this:

Applications must be submitted with a bona fide (“good faith”) intention to operate the gTLD. Applicants must affirmatively attest to a bona fide intention to operate the gTLD clause for all applications that they submit.

Far from merely providing a check-box assertion that they’re legit, which would itself be easily gamed, applicants would also find their applications scrutinized by ICANN and its external evaluators to check for signs of a lack of bona fides.

Factors used to determine shadiness could include how many applications for contested strings are applied for, how many private auctions are lost, whether the successful applicant has not launched its gTLD within two years, and whether contracts are flipped within the first year.

SubPro discussed penalties for gaming could include the loss of registry contracts, a ban from future rounds or straight-up monetary fines. But the group did not put forward any recommendations.

SubPro couldn’t seem to come to agreement on most of this. The recommendations were determined to have “strong support but significant opposition” during the group’s recent consensus call.

One strong objection came from a somewhat diverse group of SubPro participants comprising Alan Greenberg (At-Large), Christopher Wilkinson (At-Large), Elaine Pruis (Verisign), George Sadowsky (Afilias/ISOC), Jessica Hooper (Verisign), Jim Prendergast (consultant), Jorge Cancio (Swiss government, but signed in a personal capacity) and Kathryn Kleiman (non-commercial users). They said:

The recommendations in the final report are a mix of overly complex disclosures and attestations that needlessly complicate the program to allow for private auctions. And they will not work. The only way to prevent a repeat of the activity from the 2012 round is to ban private auctions

They also claimed that allowing private auctions would putter smaller, niche and community applicants at a disadvantage, and that ICANN’s reputation would be harmed if it was seen to be overseeing gaming.

The At-Large Advisory Committee also issued a strong objection to private auctions along the same lines:

We remain concerned about attempts to “game” the application process through use of private auction and share the ICANN Board’s concerns on the consequences of shuffling of funds between private auctions. The ability for a loser to apply proceeds from one private auction to fund their other private auctions only really benefits incumbent registry operators or multiple-string applicants and clearly disadvantages single-TLD/niche applicants. We believe there should be a ban on private auctions, and that by mandating ICANN only auctions, the proceeds of ICANN auction can be directed for uses in public interest

The assumption there of course is that an ICANN “last resort” auction, in which the winning bid is funneled into ICANN’s cash pile, would be spent on stuff genuinely in the public interest, rather than frittered away on secretly settling employee lawsuits or indulging in more expensive, self-important navel-gazing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ICANN board of directors has indicated that it prefers the idea of last resort auctions to private auctions.

But SubPro has also made some recommendations that could potentially keep the price of last-resort bids down, completely redesigning the auction process compared to the 2012 round.

If the recommendations are implemented, applicants would have to submit bids towards the start of the application process, when they don’t even know who they’re bidding against.

After all the applications have been submitted, ICANN evaluators would group them all according to whether they’re identical or confusingly similar to each other, then inform each applicant in a contention set how many bidders — but not their identities — they’re up against.

Applicants would then have to submit a sealed bid stating the maximum price they’d be willing to pay for the gTLD in question. It would be only after “reveal day”, when ICANN publishes the applications themselves, that everyone would learn who they’re bidding against.

They’d then be able to engage in private resolutions (auctions could come into play at this point), but it would only be after contention resolution phases such as objections and Community Priority Evaluations were complete that applicants would find out who’d submitted the highest bid.

The winning bidder would pay the amount of the second-highest bid to ICANN.

The 400-page final report (pdf), along with the minority statements, will now be sent to the GNSO Council for approval, before it makes its way to the ICANN board.

Given how much work remains to be done on private auctions and other issues that I’ll get to in later coverage, it seems that a lot of the mechanics of how contention resolution will work will have to be devised by ICANN and the community during the Implementation Review Team and Operation Design Phase phases, along with at least one round of commentary on at least one edition of the next Applicant Guidebook.

The next round of new gTLDs has moved a step closer, but it’s still going to be well over a decade after the last application window before we see the next one.

One-letter .lu domains could be bought for peanuts

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2020, Domain Sales

Luxembourg’s ccTLD registry is auctioning off 2,825 one and two-character .lu domain names, and so far bids are looking very affordable.

The names have been reserved for two decades, but Restena began releasing them to trademark owners in August, and yesterday the landrush phase began.

The company has set up a special website for the auction.

After the first day of bidding, only one domain, j.lu, has attracted a bid in four figures (€2,000).

All 36 letters and numbers have at least one bid. Another 15 internationalized domains — single letters with diacritics or accents — have not yet attracted bids.

The domain with the most action so far is hu.lu — I wonder why — with a €500 top bid.

It’s still early days, and obviously most auction activity happens towards the end.

The plan is for the auctions to run for a minimum of 12 more days, but they could be extended into December.

On December 15, anything not already registered will be released for registration on a first-come, first-served basis.

Amazon sold rights to .box gTLD for $3 million

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2020, Domain Registries

Amazon relinquished its rights to the .box gTLD five years ago for $3 million, according to court documents seen by DI.

Amazon was one of two applicants for .box, the other being a company called NS1 (that’s the numeral 1; this has nothing to do with Network Solutions).

According to a complaint filed a couple of years ago that I came across today, Amazon agreed to withdraw its application, giving its rival an unobstructed shot at the gTLD, for $3 million.

It was a private settlement of the contention set and the payout was not publicly revealed at the time.

A $3 million deal puts .box in the same ballpark as public auctions such as MMX’s .vip and Johnson & Johnson’s (now XYZ.com’s) .baby.

While the deal is years old, I thought the data point was worth publishing.

NS1’s application suggests that its business plan was to offer registrants cloud storage services, along the lines of DropBox.

But the ICANN contract was sold to Intercap, which also runs .inc and .dealer, earlier this year. The plan now appears to be to operate it as an open niche gTLD, but no launch dates have been announced.

It’s not known how much the gTLD sold for second time around.

.jobs plans to raise millions from premium names after dumping its sponsor

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2020, Domain Registries

Third time lucky for .jobs?

Having had its first two business models fail, Employ Media has appealed to ICANN to scrap the cumbersome restrictions that have dogged .jobs for 15 years and allow it to raise potentially millions by auctioning off premium domains.

.jobs is one of a handful of “sponsored” gTLDs applied for in the 2003 round, but now it wants to dump its sponsor and substantially liberalize its eligibility policies.

.jobs has been sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management since its approval by ICANN back in 2005, but Employ Media wants a divorce.

It’s also asking ICANN to promise not to fire barrages of lawyers at it if (or, more likely, when) it attempts to auction off tens of thousands of premium .jobs domains, some of which are currently carrying six-figure asking prices.

The gTLD was one of a handful approved in the 2003 “Sponsored TLD” round, an experimental early effort to introduce top-level competition, which also produced TLDs including .xxx, .asia, .cat and .mobi.

.jobs was originally restricted in two primary ways: only card-carrying HR professionals could register names, and they could only register the name of the company they worked for.

As you might imagine, the domains didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. By January 2010 fewer than 8,000 names had been registered, while the likes of .mobi — also “sponsored”, but far less restricted — were approaching one million.

So Employ Media took a gamble, creating what it called Universe.jobs. It registered about 40,000 domains representing professions like nursing.jobs and geographic terms like newyork.jobs, and populated the sites with job listings provided in partnership with the non-profit DirectEmployers Association.

As I reported extensively in DI’s early days, ICANN saw this as a breach of its Registry Agreement and threatened to terminate the contract. But Employ Media fought back, and ICANN eventually retreated, allowing Universe.jobs to go ahead.

I’ve thought so little about .jobs in the last eight years that I didn’t notice that Universe.jobs had also crumbled until today.

It seems DirectEmployees terminated the deal in 2018 after the registry refused to give it a bigger slice of revenue, then launched a competing for-profit service called Recruit Rooster, stranding Employ Media without a key revenue stream.

The registry sued (pdf) last year, accusing DirectEmployers of stealing its clients in violation of their agreement. While DirectEmployers denied the claims (pdf), the lawsuit was nevertheless settled last November, according to court documents.

That didn’t solve the problem of Employ Media not having a strong business model any more, of course.

So the company wrote to ICANN back in April to ask for changes to its Registry Agreement, enabling it to split from SHRM after 15 years of nominal oversight and create its own “independent” HR Council to oversee .jobs policy.

The Council would be made up of HR professionals not employed by Employ Media and would make seemingly non-binding “recommendations” about registry policy.

The proposed changes also reduce registrant eligibility to what looks like a box-checking exercise, as well as permitting Employ Media to sell off “noncompanyname” domains at auction or for premium fees.

Under the current contract, you can only register a .jobs domain if you’re a salaried HR professional and are certified by the Human Resource Certification Institute.

If the proposed changes are approved by ICANN, which seems very likely given ICANN’s history of pushing through contract amendments, the new rule will be:

Persons engaged in human resource management practices that are supportive of a code of ethics that fosters an environment of trust, ethical behavior, integrity, and excellence (as exemplified in the current Society for Human Resource Management (“SHRM”) Code of Ethical and Professional Standards in Human Resource Management or other similar codes) each, a “Qualified Applicant” may request registration of second-level domains within the TLD.

Sounds rather like something that could easily be buried in the Ts&Cs or dealt with with a simple check-box at the checkout.

The proposed new contract further guts the restricted nature of the TLD and removes the ability of the new sponsor (essentially the registry itself) to increase eligibility requirements in future.

Another amendment not flagged up prominently by ICANN on its public comment page specifically permits the registry to launch a “Phased Allocation Program” for generic second-level names, what it calls “noncompanyname” domains:

Registry Operator may elect to allocate the domain names via the following processes: 1) Request for Proposals (RFP) to invite interested parties to propose specific plans for registration, use and promotion of domains that are not their company name; 2) By auction that offers domains not allocated through the RFP process; and 3) A first-come, first-served real-time release of any domains not registered through the RFP or auction processes. Registry Operator reserves the right to not allocate any of such names. The domain names included within the scope of the Phased Allocation Program shall be limited to noncompanyname.TLD domain names, not including all reserved names as identified in Specification 5 of this Agreement.

Basically, Employ Media plans to sell off the tens of thousands of Universe.jobs domains it still has registered to itself, potentially raising millions in the process. One and two-character domains will also be released, subject to ICANN rules.

Many of these domains, even universe.jobs itself, seem to have make-an-offer landing pages already, with suggested prices such as $500,000 for hotel.jobs and $750,000 for us.jobs.

Bizarrely, these landers have a logo branding .jobs as “a legacy TLD”, a slogan I imagine is meaningless to almost anyone outside the domain industry and not particularly evocative or sexy.

The sum of all this is that .jobs is arguably on the verge of becoming a sponsored TLD in name only, with the potential for a big windfall for the registry.

Oh, and it’s all up for public comment before ICANN gives final approval to the contract changes. Comments close November 16.

Will anyone begrudge the company a chance at success, after 15 years of being handcuffed by its own policies?

I can imagine Donuts may have a view, operating as it does the competing .careers, which currently has fewer than 8,000 regs and is almost certainly the weaker string.

Drop auctions not a slam-dunk, says Nominet

Nominet has responded to criticism of its plans to introduce registry-level .uk drop auctions by saying it’s not about money-grabbing and is not guaranteed to even happen.

Registry MD Eleanor Bradley today blogged:

In some quarters the commentary suggests the driver for change is financial, or to make life more difficult for some business models. It is not.

As commercial gain was not our objective, we have suggested that any additional funds raised by changing the policy would be directed towards public benefit activity or used to provide specific services to registrars. Indeed, how to best spend additional funds that result from any policy change is part of the consultation.

The consultation referred to here was launched earlier this month. It suggests replacing the current drop-catching system, in which Nominet suspects some members “collude” to pool their EPP connections, with one of two new processes.

One would be a straightforward auction of desirable dropping names. The other would be to charge drop-catchers up to £6,000 a year for extra concurrent registry connections.

Bradley wrote that “the assumption in some quarters that an auction approach is our preferred option — a fait accompli –- are wide of the mark”.

As I’m one of the people who reported that auctions were Nominet’s “apparently preferred” option, I’ll note that my take was based on the company’s own consultation document, which scores auctions more highly than the alternative on a five-point scale of its own devising.

And a preferred option is not the same as a fait accompli, of course.

The consultation is open for a couple more weeks. A group of disgruntled members plan to petition the board to retain the status quo at its AGM in September.

Nominet members revolt over “deepest pockets wins” auction plans

A group of Nominet members and registrars have launched a petition to prevent Nominet from introducing registry-level auctions for dropping .uk domain names.

The petition, organized by Netistrar, reads: “We the undersigned members request that Nominet maintains equal registrar access to expired domain names on a first come first served basis.”

Nominet recently launched a policy consultation that lays out plans to essentially kill off the existing system of drop-catching expired domains and replace it with either registry auctions or a pay-to-play model asking fees of up to £6,000 a year.

The petition says that “these proposals technically and financially restrict a registrars ability to access expired domains”, noting that other ccTLDs “manage an expiry process without an expensive and centralized auction system.”

So far, 70 registrars and individuals (out of the about 3,000 Nominet members) have signed the petition, but they account for more than 400,000 .uk domains.

The petition will be presented at Nominet’s annual general meeting in September. The current policy consultation ends August 14.

ICANN close to becoming $200 million gift-giver

Kevin Murphy, July 27, 2020, Domain Policy

Remember how ICANN raised hundreds of millions of dollars auctioning off new gTLD contracts, with only the vaguest of ideas how to spend the cash? Well, it’s coming pretty close to figuring out where the money goes.

The GNSO Council approved a plan last Thursday that will turn ICANN into a giver of grants, with some $211 million at its initial disposal.

And the plan so far does not exclude ICANN itself for applying to use the funds.

The plan calls for the creation of a new Independent Project Applications Evaluation Panel, which would be charged with deciding whether to approve applications for this auction cash.

Each project would have to fit these criteria:

  • Benefit the development, distribution, evolution and structures/projects that support the Internet’s unique identifier systems;
  • Benefit capacity building and underserved populations, or;
  • Benefit the open and interoperable Internet

Examples given include improving language services, providing PhD scholarships, and supporting TLD registries and registrars in the developing world.

The evaluation panel would be selected “based on their grant-making expertise, ability to demonstrate independence over time, and relevant knowledge.” Diversity would also be considered.

While existing ICANN community members would not be banned from being on the panel, it’s being strongly discouraged. The plan over and over again stresses how there must be rigorous conflict-of-interest rules in place.

What’s less clear right now is what role ICANN will play in the distribution of funds.

The Cross-Community Working Group that came up with the proposal offers three possible mechanisms, but there was no strong consensus on any of them.

The one being pushed, “Mechanism A”, would see ICANN org create a new department — potentially employing as many as 20 new staff — to oversee applications and the evaluation panel.

Mechanism B would see the same department created, but it would work with an existing independent non-profit third party.

Mechanism C would see the function offloaded to a newly created “ICANN Foundation”, but ICANN’s lawyers are not keen on this idea.

The Intellectual Property Constituency was the lone dissenting voice at Thursday’s GNSO Council vote. The IPC says that support for Mechanism A actually came from a minority of CCWG participants, depending on how you count the votes.

It thinks that ICANN should divorce itself as far as possible from the administration of funds, and that not to do so creates the “unreasonable risk” of ICANN being perceived as “self-dealing”.

But as the plan stands, ICANN is free too plunder the auction funds at will anyway. ICANN’s board of directors said as long ago as 2018:

ICANN maintains legal and fiduciary responsibility over the funds, and the directors and officers have an obligation to protect the organization through the use of available resources. In such a case, while ICANN would not be required to apply for the proceeds, the directors and officers would have a fiduciary obligation to use the funds to meet the organization’s obligations.

It already took $36 million from the auction proceeds to rebuild its reserve fund, which had been diminished by ICANN swelling its ranks and failing to predict the success of the new gTLD market.

The CCWG also failed to come to a consensus on whether ICANN or its constituent parts should be banned from formally applying for funds through the program.

Because the plan is a cross-community effort, it needs to be approved by all of ICANN’s supporting organizations and advisory committees before heading to the ICANN board for final approval.

There also looks to be huge amount of decision-making and implementation work to be done before ICANN puts its hand in its pocket for anyone.

The $135 million battle for .web could be won in weeks

Afilias is to get its day in “court” to decide the fate of the .web gTLD just 10 days from now.

The registry is due to face off with ICANN before an Independent Review Process panel in a series of virtual hearings beginning August 3.

The IRP complaint was filed late 2018 as the endgame of Afilias’ attempt to have the results of the July 2016 .web auction overturned.

You’ll recall that Verisign secretly bankrolled the winning bidder, a new gTLD investment vehicle called Nu Dot Co, to the tune of $135 million, causing rival bidders to cry foul.

If that win was vacated, Afilias could take control of .web with its second-place bid.

Afilias claims that ICANN broke its own rules by refusing to thoroughly analyze whether NDC had a secret sugar daddy, something DI first reported on two weeks before the auction.

It has put forward the entirely plausible argument that Verisign splashed out what amounts to about a month’s .com revenue on .web in order to bury it and fortify its .com mindshare monopoly against what could be its most formidable competitor.

In the IRP case to date, ICANN has been acting as transparently as you’d expect when its legal team is involved.

It first redacted all the juiciest details from the Verisign-NDC “Domain Acquisition Agreement” and the presumably damaging testimony of one of its own directors, and more recently has been fighting Afilias’ demands for document discovery.

In March, the IRP panel ruled against ICANN’s protests on almost every count, ordering the org to hand over a mountain of documentation detailing its communications with Verisign and NDC and its internal deliberations around the time of the auction.

But the ace up ICANN’s sleeve may be an allegation made by Verisign that Afilias itself is the one that broke the auction’s rules.

Verisign has produced evidence that an Afilias exec contacted his NDC counterpart five days before the auction, breaking a “blackout period” rule so serious that violators could lose their applications.

While Afilias denies the allegation, the IRP panel ruled in March that Afilias must hand over copies of all communications between itself and rival bidders over the auction period.

We’re not likely to see any of this stuff until the panel issues its final declaration, of course.

In the past, IRP panels have taken as long as six or seven months after the final hearing to deliver their verdicts, but the most-recently decided case, Amazon v ICANN, was decided in just eight or nine weeks.

Nominet wants to kill off the .uk drop-catching market

Nominet has revealed a sweeping set of policy proposals that would totally revamp how expired domains are deleted and could essentially kill off drop-catching in the .uk domains market.

The company is thinking about auctioning off expired domains at the registry level, or charging drop-catchers up to £6,000 ($7,500) a year to carry on more or less as normal.

Currently, expired .uk domains are deleted at an undisclosed time each day, leading drop-catch registrars to spam the registry back-end with availability checks on the best names.

Upon finding a desired domain has dropped, they then attempt to register it immediately by spamming EPP create commands.

About 0.7% of the domains deleted each year, about 12,000 of the 1.76 million names dropped in 2018, are re-registered within a second of release, Nominet says.

The system as it stands bothers the registry due to the technical load it creates and the fact that it means the most desirable names are snapped up by small number of domainers for resale.

It also does not like the fact the current system encourages collusion between Nominet members and the creation of dummy memberships by drop-catchers.

So it’s proposing two main options for rejiggering the economics.

The first and apparently preferred solution would be for Nominet to auction off the names, rather than deleting them. It would look a lot like auctions often seen in newly launching TLDs.

The second option is to charge drop-catchers extra fees for a greater number of simultaneous EPP connections.

Currently, each registrar gets six. Under the proposal, called “Economically controlled access to expiring domains”, they’d be able to buy additional batches of six for £600 a pop, up to a maximum of 10 batches or £6,000.

Regardless of which option is chosen, Nominet also wants to make drop times more predictable, by publishing a daily drop-list available to all.

Nominet knows there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be accused of profiteering, and says in the paper:

If either of the options proposed are implemented, we envisage that any profits derived from the auction or economically controlled access models will be directed towards public benefit activity and/or ringfenced to provide specific services to registrars e.g. a training fund. However, we are also seeking ideas on how any profits would be best spent to benefit the .UK namespace in this consultation.

The consultation can be found here. Interested parties have until August 14 to submit comments.