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Grumpier Aussies call for more blood on the auDA boardroom floor

A group of pissed-off members of the Australian domain name industry are calling for the heads of auDA’s CEO, its new chair, and two other members of its board.

A triumvirate of long-time participants in the auDA community say they have secured enough signatures on a petition to force the organization to call the meeting under Aussie law.

They want a vote of no confidence in the CEO, Cameron Boardman, and the firing of all three “independent” directors: Chris Leptos (also chair), Sandra Hook and Suzanne Ewart.

Their list of beefs is long, but high on it is auDA’s plan to open up .au to direct, second-level registrations for the first time, enabling folk to register example.au instead of example.com.au.

If this all sounds worryingly familiar, it’s because it’s the second year in a row members have called a special meeting in order to oust its top brass.

A campaign orchestrated at Grumpy.com.au last year resulted in chair Stuart Benjamin quitting ahead of a member vote to fire him.

This year’s campaign is being coordinated, with a nod and a wink but none of Grumpy’s original leaders, at Grumpier.com.au.

Entrepreneur Josh Rowe appears to have held the pen on the petition, backed up by former head of auDA public affairs Paul Szyndler and businessman Jim Stewart.

As well as the direct registration issue, which the three men think is merely a cash-grab with no benefits for registrants, the petitioners have some harsh things to say about auDA’s governance and transparency.

The organization has promised to be more open in the wake of last year’s carnage, but Grumpier thinks “things have only got worse”.

The petition also alludes to rumors of “whispering campaigns” against former staff and “possible financial irregularities”.

Rowe recently complained on his blog about a freedom of information request related to his own conduct, filed by the same person pursing form auDA CEO (and current ICANN vice chair) Chris Disspain with FOIA requests.

They also unhappy that auDA is switching .au’s registry service provider from Neustar to Afilias, gaining a rumored 60% discount of which only 10% will be passed on to registrars.

It’s all getting rather nasty, and I’ve not even mentioned some of the rumors of shenanigans that I seem to find in my inbox on an almost daily basis.

To force a special member meeting under Australian law, Grumpier says it had to secure signatures of 5% of the members, which it says it has done.

That’s not much of a threshold, given that auDA only has about 320 members at the moment.

Assuming auDA agrees that it has to hold a meeting, it has a couple of months to do so.

auDA role “could have killed me” says resigning domainer

Domainer and activist blogger Ned O’Meara has resigned from the auDA board of directors, about four months after being elected.

He said in an apologetic blog post that the “negative stress” caused by being on the .au registry’s board had sent his blood pressure up, making him worry about having a third heart attack.

“[I]f I continued slugging it out at auDA, I believe it could have killed me,” he wrote.

He went on to say that he expected to be sidelined on key votes such as auDA’s decision to sell domains directly at the second level, due to perceived “conflicts of interest”, which he disputed.

O’Meara was elected in November as a “demand-class” member of the board, after using his blog to spearhead a campaign for greater transparency at the organization.

It sounds to me like he’s made the correct decision in stepping aside. No matter how important you believe a domain policy to be, it’s not worth your health. I wish him well.

auDA said it is now looking for two demand-class directors, to fill O’Meara’s vacant seat and another seat that is opening up due to the end of another director’s term.

auDA probably won’t pass on full Afilias savings to registrants

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2018, Domain Registries

Switching .au’s back-end to Afilias will cut auDA’s per-domain costs by more than half, but registrants are not likely to benefit from the full impact of the savings.

auDA’s Bruce Tonkin, who led the committee that selected Afilias to replace incumbent Neustar, told DI this week that the organization is likely to take a bigger cut of .au registration fees in future, in order to invest in marketing.

That would include marketing the ability of Aussies to register .au domains at the second level for the first time — a controversial, yet-to-roll-out proposal.

Tonkin confirmed that the back-end fee auDA will be paying Afilias is less than half of what it is currently paying Neustar — the unconfirmed rumor is that it’s 40% of the current rate — but said that Afilias was not the cheapest of the nine bidders.

While .au names are sold for a minimum of two years, the current wholesale price charged to registrars works out to AUD 8.75 ($6.85) per year, of which Neustar gets AUD 6.33; auDA receives the other AUD 2.42.

A back-end fee of roughly $5 (US) per domain per year is well above market rates, so it’s pretty clear why auDA chose to open the contract to competition.

Tonkin explained the process by which Afilias was selected:

We first considered scoring without price, and Afilias received the highest score for non-financial criteria.

We then considered pricing information to form an assessment of value for money. The average pricing across the 9 [Request For Tender] responses was less than half of the present registry back-end fee ($6.33). Afilias was close to the average pricing, and while it was not the cheapest price — it was considered best value for money when taking into account the highest score in non-financial criteria.

I asked Afilias for comment on rumors that its price was 60% down on the current rate and received this statement:

Afilias believes auDA chose us based on the best overall value for the Australian internet community. The evaluation heavily weighted expertise, quality and breadth of service over price. While we don’t know what others bid, Afilias works to be competitive in today‚Äôs market. Attempts to price significantly higher than market without a value proposition are unrealistic and could even be considered price gouging.

It’s not known what price Neustar bid for the continuation of the contract, but I expect it will have also offered a deep discount to its current rate.

By switching, auDA is basically going to be saving itself over AUD 3 per domain per year, which works out to a total of AUD 9 million ($7 million) per year at least.

But the organization has yet to decide how much of that money, if any, to pass on to its registrars and ultimately registrants.

The auDA board of directors will meet in March to discuss this, Tonkin (who is in charge of the registry transition project but not on the board) said.

“We don’t want to set expectations that the wholesale price is going to change massively,” he said.

“I don’t expect it’s going to be any higher than the current wholesale price,” he said.

But he said he expects auDA to increase its slice of the pie in order to raise more money for marketing. The organization does “basically no marketing” now, he said.

“There’s certainly strong interest in doing more to market and grow the namespace,” he said. “One option is that more money is put into marketing the namespace and growing awareness of .au… That AUD 2.42, I expect that to change.”

This would include marketing direct second-level registrations, an incoming change to how .au names are sold that has domain investors worried about confusion and market dilution.

Outrage over the 2LD proposal — it appears to be a done deal, even if the details and timeline have yet to be finalized — has started attracting the attention of business media in Australia recently.

But auDA’s own research shows that opposition is not that substantial outside of these “special interests”.

A survey last year showed that 40% of .com.au registrants “support” or “strongly support” the direct registration proposal, with 18% “opposed” or “strongly opposed” Another 42% were completely unaware of the changes.

Support among .org.au registrants was lower, and it was higher among .net.au registrants.

But 36% of “special interests” — which appears to mean people who discovered the survey due to their close involvement in the domain industry — were opposed to the plan.

There’s no current timeline for the introduction of direct registrations, but the back-end handover from Neustar to Afilias is set to happen July 1 this year.

Neustar acquired AusRegistry, which has been running .au since 2002, for $87 million a couple of years ago.

Hundreds of words and acronyms banned from .au, domains frozen

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2018, Domain Policy

auDA has added hundreds of words, phrases and acronyms to its list of strings that are banned in .au and locked domains containing those strings.

There were only about 40 strings on the old banned list; now it’s closer to 300.

auDA has added to the list the names of brands protected by direct legislation, such as “Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix” and “Australian Defence Force Reserves”.

Also, phrases such as “What a Great Place for the Great Race” and “Commonwealth games Bronze”.

But what will be most concerning for non-cybersquatter .au registrants will be the acronyms and dictionary words that have been added.

These include the word “university” and acronyms such as “ran”, “adi” and “ara”, which could quite easily appear as substrings of legitimate words such as “grandma”, “radio” and “karate”.

Registrants of domains that exactly match the newly banned strings will find themselves unable to renew those domains, according to an auDA FAQ:

All words, phrases or acronyms on the list at Schedule A have been blocked from registration at the Registry. If you believe that you should be able to renew the domain name, you will need to demonstrate to your Registrar and auDA that you have Ministerial consent to use the domain name or your use of the domain name does not attract the restriction.

If there’s only a partial, substring match, registrants won’t be able to transfer the domain to a different registrant, according to the FAQ:

auDA has placed a lock on domain names that contain words, phrases or acronyms which appear on the list in Schedule A to prevent the transfer of these names to third parties. auDA will remove the lock where registrants can provide the requisite consent, or demonstrate that the use of the domain name does not attract the restriction.

The list was expanded following an auDA policy review that looked at what words are protected under Australian legislation.

The review itself acknowledged that the banned list is a bit of a blunt instrument, as in many cases it’s not the string that is banned but rather the use of the string.

Presumably, if you own “karate.com.au” it will be fairly straightforward to show you’re not infringing the rights of the Australian Regular Army.

The registry’s advice to registrants who believe their names are affected is to lawyer up:

Registrants are encouraged to check whether their domain name/s contain any words, abbreviations, acronyms or phrases appearing on the Schedule. If a name appears on the Schedule, registrants should seek independent legal advice on appropriate action. auDA cannot provide legal advice.

The new list of banned words can be found here. I’ve taken a screen capture of the old list from Google’s cache of January 20, here.

Shocker! After 15 years, Afilias kicks Neustar out of Australia

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2017, Domain Registries

Afilias has been awarded the contract to run .au, Australia’s ccTLD, kicking out incumbent Neustar after 15 years.

It’s currently a 3.1 million-domain contract, meaning it’s going to be the largest back-end transition in the history of the DNS.

It’s also very likely going to see the price of a .au domain come down.

Neustar, via its 2015 acquisition of AusRegistry, has been the back-end provider for .au since 2002. That deal is now set to end July 1, 2018.

auDA, the ccTLD manager, said today that Afilias was selected from a shortlist of three bidders, themselves whittled down from the initial pool of nine.

It’s not been disclosed by auDA who the other shortlisted bidders were, and Afilias execs said they do not know either. I suspect Neustar would have been one of them.

The contract was put up for bidding in May, after auDA and Neustar failed to come to terms on a renewal.

At 3.1 million domains under management, .au is currently bigger than .org was when Afilias took over the back-end from Verisign in 2003.

Back then, .org was at 2.7 million names. It’s now at over 10 million.

“It’s the biggest transition ever, but not by much,” Afilias chief marketing officer Roland LaPlante said.

CTO Ram Mohan said that it should actually be easily than the .org transition, which had the added wrinkle of switching registrars from Verisign’s legacy RPP protocol to the now-standard EPP.

auDA said that Afilias will start reaching out to the 40-odd current .au registrars about the transition “as early as this week”.

About half of registrars are already on Afilias’ back-end and about half are ICANN-accredited, LaPlante said.

“We don’t expect to have many changes for registrars, but we have plenty of time to prepare them for what is needed,” Mohan said. “It ought to be a fairly easy glide path.”

There will be a live test environment for registrars to integrate with prior to the formal handover, he said.

There are several local presence requirements to the contract, so Afilias will open up a 20-person office in Melbourne headed by current VP of corporate services John Kane, who will shortly move there.

The company will also have to open a data center there, as the contract requires all data to be stored in-country.

Mohan, LaPlante and Kane said they’re all jumping on planes to Melbourne tonight to begin transition talks with local interested parties.

Financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed right now, but LaPlante said that .au registrars should see prices come down. This could lead to lower prices for registrants.

They currently pay AUD 17.50 ($13.44) per domain for a two-year registration, and I believe Neustar’s cut is currently around the $5 (USD) per year mark.

Afilias is not known for being a budget-end back-end provider, but it seems its slice of the pie will be smaller than Neustar’s.

LaPlante said that fees charged to registrars will be set by auDA, but that it now has flexibility to reduce prices that it did not have under the incumbent.

“Some savings should flow down to registrars as part of this,” he said.

The term of the contract is “four or five years” with options to renew for additional years, he said.

The loss of .au has no doubt come as a blow to Neustar, which paid $87 million for AusRegistry parent Bombrra just two years ago.

While Bombora also had dozens of new gTLD clients, many dot-brands, .au was undoubtedly its key customer.