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Formerly massive drop-catcher faces ICANN probe

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2021, Domain Registrars

Pheenix, which used to operate a network of hundreds of accredited registrars, now faces potentially losing its last remaining accreditation, due to an ICANN probe.

ICANN told the US-based company in a breach notice last week that it faces additional action unless it fixes a bunch of problems related to domain transfers and Whois before May 14.

According to ICANN, for over a year Pheenix has been declining to provide data showing it is in compliance with the Expired Registration Recovery Policy and the Transfer Policy, related to dozens of domains.

Pheenix was told about at least one such disputed domain as far back as February last year, but ICANN says it’s been unresponsive to its outreach.

It’s also failed to implement an RDAP server, which ICANN has been nagging it about since October 2019. RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol, is the successor protocol to Whois.

A quick spot-check reveals that the disputed names are traffic domains once belonging to legitimate organizations, usually with inbound Wikipedia links, that were captured after the organization in question folded and its domains expired. Most were repurposed with low-quality content and advertising.

That fits in with Pheenix’s registrar business model. It was until a few years ago a huge drop-catching player, with over 500 shell accreditations it used to gain speedy access to dropping domains.

But it dumped almost 450 of these in November 2017, and another 50 the following April.

Since then, Pheenix’s primary IANA number (the coveted “888”) has been associated with fewer and fewer domains.

It had 6,930 domains under management at the end of 2020, down from a November 2017 peak of 71,592.

It hasn’t recorded any new domain adds in any gTLDs since April 2020.

According ICANN’s chronology of events, it’s sent dozens of emails, faxes and voicemails over the last year, related to multiple domain names, and it’s only received a single email in response. And that was in May 2020.

ICANN finally cans Net 4 India

iCANN has terminated Net 4 India’s registrar accreditation, after many months of criticism and foot-dragging and a recent sharp uptick in customer complaints.

The move comes after an unprecedented four concurrent public breach notices over 20 months, almost four years after the company entered insolvency proceedings — grounds for termination which ICANN became aware of almost two years ago.

ICANN has received over 2,600 customer complaints over the last year, and almost 1,000 of these were submitted in February alone, according to the organization.

“The termination of the RAA is due to Net 4 India’s repeated and consistent breaches of the RAA and failure to cure such breaches despite multiple notices from ICANN and opportunity to cure,” ICANN said in its ginormous 59-page execution warrant (pdf).

Among the charges ICANN levels at Net4 is its failure to operate a functioning Whois service, something it’s warned the company about 30 times since November.

This hindered ICANN’s ability to investigate the more serious charges — that Net4 transferred some of its customers’ domains to a different registrar, OpenProvider, without their knowledge or consent, in violation of ICANN transfer policies.

The registrar also failed to enable its customers to renew their expired domains or transfer them to other registrars, also in violation of binding policy, ICANN said.

ICANN said:

Currently, more than 400 cases remain unresolved; and hundreds of complaints are still under review, which, once vetted, will become more new cases. In addition, ICANN Contractual Compliance continues to receive more than 20 new complaints each day. And it is not known how many more complaints are pending with Net 4 India that have not yet been brought to ICANN’s attention.

The termination notice contains 10 pages of complaints from Net4 customers, saying their domains could not be renewed or transferred. Some came from non-profits and hospitals. One registrant said he was contemplating suicide.

Net4’s customer service was non-responsive in each of these cases, the complainants said.

While some of Net4’s problems could be chalked down to coronavirus-related restrictions, the company has been in trouble for much longer.

It entered insolvency proceedings in 2017 after a debt recovery company called Edelweiss bought roughly $28 million of unpaid debt from the State Bank of India and took Net4 to court.

ICANN did not find out about this until April 2019 — it’s probably not a coincidence that this was the same month Net4 was late paying its first ICANN invoice — and it issued its first public breach notice in June that year.

Insolvency is grounds for termination in itself under the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

It’s never been clearly stated why ICANN did not escalate at that time. Had it done so, it could have saved Net4’s customers from a world of hurt.

The Indian insolvency court admitted last month that it had no jurisdiction over ICANN or the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, both of which are governed primarily by California law.

Nevertheless, the court asked ICANN to not terminate Net4’s contract until after April 25, to give the company time to get its house in order.

But the termination notice, issued on Friday, will see the RAA cut off March 13. ICANN notes that it hasn’t heard from the court-appointed resolution professional, to whom previous breach notices were addressed, since mid-January.

Affected domains — there are still thousands under Net4’s accreditation — will be moved to another registrar under ICANN’s De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure.

Net4 could have a say in where its domains wind up. It’s already an OpenProvider reseller so that’s a possibility. Otherwise, ICANN will pick a beneficiary from a queue of qualified candidates.

Net 4 India gets unwelcome Christmas gift from ICANN

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2021, Domain Registrars

Struggling Indian registrar Net 4 India has been hit by its third notice of contract breach by ICANN, in a letter delivered Christmas Eve.

Net4 is on ICANN’s naughty list this time due to its alleged violations of ICANN’s transfer and expired domains policies. The breach notice is very similar to that delivered just two weeks earlier, concerning different domains.

ICANN reckons Net4, once India’s largest independent registrar, has in some cases been transferring domains to a partner registrar, OpenProvider, without the consent or knowledge of the registrant.

It’s been asking the company for records proving compliance, which Net4 has apparently not been providing. Therein lies the alleged breach.

Net4 has been persona non grata among many of its customers for several months, with complaints about billing and renewal failures, expirations, and a general lack of customer service availability compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

The company has also been fighting an insolvency proceeding over millions of dollars in allegedly unpaid debts for years, which has been the subject of an ICANN breach notice for about 18 months.

The Christmas Eve breach notice gives Net4 until January 14 to turn over the relevant records or possibly face termination.

But that might prove moot — the December 10 notice had a deadline of December 31, so the wheels may already be in motion.

ICANN throws the book at Net4 over dodgy transfer claims

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2020, Domain Registrars

Struggling Indian registrar Net 4 India has been slammed with a massive breach notice by ICANN, following claims of domain transfers failing or happening without the consent of the registrant.

ICANN also accuses the company, which is or was India’s largest independent registrar, of trying to bullshit its compliance staff about whether expired domains had been renewed or not.

According to ICANN, Net4 is in breach of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement on four counts, three of which relate to domain ownership records.

ICANN says the company isn’t operating a Whois service on the web or port 43, has failed to escrow its registration data on two recent occasions, and has failed to hand over registrant information upon ICANN’s request.

It’s also past due with its fees, ICANN says.

ICANN’s been dealing with complaints about Net4 for months, after the company’s customer service system appeared to break down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of customers have said their domains were unrenewable and that they were unable to transfer to another registrar.

In the latest breach notice — the first published breach notice against any registrar since February — ICANN names almost 200 domain names that have allegedly been held hostage at Net4, despite the registrant’s efforts to transfer out.

ICANN wants proof that registrants were given transfer authorization codes and that their domains were unlocked.

In a smaller number of cases, ICANN wants proof that domains were transferred to Net4 partner Openprovider, for which it acts as a reseller, with the consent of the registrants.

It also claims that Net4 has more than once tried to prove that a registrant renewed their expired name by supplying the registry’s expiration date instead of its own, to blag its way out of accusations that registrants were unable to renew.

ICANN also accuses the registrar of dragging its feet to address complaints:

Over the past few months, the number of complaints ICANN Contractual Compliance has received from [registered name holders], and authorized representatives, asserting that Net 4 India is exhibiting a pattern of non-response to domain transfer and renewal requests has steadily increased. While addressing the relevant compliance cases, Net 4 India’s responses to ICANN Contractual Compliance have also regularly been untimely and incomplete.

Net4 is now in the unprecedented position of being subject to two different breach notices simultaneously.

ICANN actually issued a suspension notice in June 2019, after noticing that Net4 had been in insolvency proceedings for two years — a debt recovery agency is trying to recover $28 million in unpaid debts.

But that suspension deadline was paused after talks with the “resolution professional” handling the insolvency case, for reasons ICANN’s been rather quiet about, and it remains on pause to this date.

The newest breach notice has a December 31 deadline on it. Unless Net4 turns on its Whois and hands over the reams of requested data by then, ICANN could terminate its contract.

Assuming the insolvency court allows it to, presumably.

First deadbeat dot-brand ripped from the root

ICANN has terminated a dot-brand gTLD contract for non-payment of fees for the first time.

The unlucky recipient of the termination notice is aigo, a privately held Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer.

ICANN first hit the company with a breach of contract notice in March 2018, noting its non-payment and a litany of other infractions.

The two parties have been in mediation and arbitration ever since, but the arbitrator found aigo was in fact in breach in late May.

ICANN issued its termination notice June 25 and IANA yanked .aigo from the DNS root servers a couple of days later.

While aigo is not the first dot-brand registry to be hit with a non-payment breach notice, it is the first to have it escalated all the way to involuntary termination.

Also recently, .intel and .metlife — run by the chipmaker and insurance company respectively — both decided to voluntarily their dot-brand registry agreements.

The total number of voluntary terminations is now 78.

.whoswho survives!

Kevin Murphy, October 3, 2019, Domain Registries

The registry running the failing new gTLD .whoswho has managed to avoid having its contract terminated by ICANN.

According to an update on the ICANN web site, Who’s Who Registry came back into compliance with its obligations earlier this week, meaning it can continue operating.

It had been under a cloud of uncertainty since January, when ICANN Compliance sent off a breach notice saying the company was overdue with its $25,000-a-year fees.

Who’s Who originally had until a date in February to pay up, but this deadline has been extended repeatedly over the course of the year.

Registry CEO John McCabe had told ICANN last November that the fee is “onerous” and “the single largest item in .whoswho’s budget”.

ICANN later rejected his request for a fee reduction.

.whoswho, which seeks to replicate the once-popular biography compilation books of the same name, has fewer than 100 real registrations to its name, most of which appear to be defensive, despite being live for five years.

At about $70 a pop, that’s still not nearly enough to cover ICANN fees, never mind other operating costs.

It sold barely a dozen names in the first half of this year.

I thought it was a goner for sure.

But it looks like it’s been saved from the axe for now, so maybe there’s time to turn things around.

Five more gTLD deadbeats fingered by ICANN

The company that tried unsuccessfully to get the .islam new gTLD has been slammed by ICANN for failing to pay its dues on five different gTLDs.

Asia Green IT System, based in Turkey, has been considered “past due” on its registry fees since at least January, according to an ICANN breach notice sent yesterday.

The company runs .nowruz (Iranian New Year), .pars (refers to Persia/Iran), .shia (a branch of Islam), .tci (a closed dot-brand) and .همراه (.xn--mgbt3dhd, appears to mean something like “comrade” in Persian).

The only one of these to actually launch is .nowruz. It came to market March last year — bizarrely, it didn’t leave sunrise until a week after Nowruz was over — and has scraped just over 40 registrations. It does not appear to have any active web sites.

With little to no revenue, one can imagine why it might have difficulty paying ICANN’s $25,000 annual per-TLD registry fee, which it will have been paying for almost four years before lapsing.

None of its mandatory “nic.example” sites resolve for me today, though its “whois.nic.example” sites can be reached once you click through an SSL security warning.

The primary registry web site for AGIT, agitsys.com, also does not resolve for me.

ICANN’s breach notice claims that it has been unable to contact anyone at the registry, despite many outreach attempts, since January. It believes it has outdated contact data for the company.

AGIT is perhaps best-known to DI readers for its unsuccessful attempts to apply for .islam and .halal.

ICANN rejected these applications last October after an outcry from governments of Muslim-majority nations and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

Given AGIT’s apparent difficulties, perhaps that was a good call.

If the registry doesn’t cough up by June 13, ICANN may start termination proceedings.

It’s the 19th published breach notice ICANN has sent to a gTLD registry. In most cases, even the handful of cases that have escalated to termination, the registry has managed to resolve the issue before losing their contracts.

The only gTLD to actually get terminated to date I believe is .wed, which is currently being wound down by Nominet in its role as Emergency Back-End Registry Operator.

The most-recent registry breach notice, filed against .whoswho in January, is still “under review” by ICANN.

Another failing gTLD not paying its “onerous” dues

Kevin Murphy, January 15, 2019, Domain Registries

ICANN has sent out its first public contract breach notice of the year, and it’s going to another new gTLD registry that’s allegedly not paying its fees.

The dishonor goes to Who’s Who Registry, manager of the spectacularly failing gTLD .whoswho.

According to ICANN, the registry hasn’t paid its registry fees for several months and hasn’t been responding to private compliance outreach.

The company has a month to pay up or risk suspension or termination.

CEO John McCabe actually wrote to ICANN (pdf) the day after one of its requests for payment in November, complaining that its fees were too “onerous” and should be reduced for registries that are “good actors” with no abuse.

ICANN’s annual $25,000 fee is “the single largest item in .whoswho’s budget”, McCabe wrote, “the weight of which suppresses development of the gTLD”.

Whether ICANN fees are to blame is debatable, but all the data shows that .whoswho, which has been in general availability for almost four years, has failed hard.

It had 100 domains under management at the last count, once you ignore all the domains owned by the registry itself. This probably explains the lack of abuse.

Well over half of these names were registered through brand-protection registrars. ICANN statistics show 44 names were registered during its sunrise period.

A Google search suggests that only four people are currently using .whoswho for its intended purpose and one of those is McCabe himself.

The original intent of .whoswho was to mimic the once-popular Who’s Who? books, which contain brief biographies of notable public figures.

The gTLD was originally restricted to registrants who had actually appeared in one of these books, but the registry scrapped that rule and slashed prices from $70 to $20 a year in 2016 after poor uptake.

I’d venture the opinion that, in a world of LinkedIn and Wikipedia, Who’s Who? is an idea that might have had its day.

.tel’s second-biggest registrar gets canned

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2018, Domain Registrars

A Chinese registrar that focused exclusively on selling .tel domain names has been shut down by ICANN.

Tong Ji Ming Lian (Beijing) Technology Corporation Ltd, which did business as Trename, had its registrar contract terminated last week.

ICANN claims the company had failed to pay its accreditation fees and failed to escrow its registration data.

The organization had been sending breach notices since June, but got no responses. Trename’s web site domain currently resolves to a web server error, for me at least.

Trename is a rare example of a single-TLD registrar, accredited only to sell .tel domains. It didn’t even sell .com.

It is Telnames’ second-largest registrar after Name.com, accounting for about 6,000 names at the last count. At its peak, it had about 55,000.

Its share seems to be primarily as a result of a deal the registry made with a Chinese e-commerce company way back in 2011.

I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of that deal, but it saw Trename add 50,000 .tel names pretty much all at once.

Back then, .tel still had its original business model of hosting all the domains it sold and publishing web sites containing the registrant’s contact information.

Since June 2017, .tel has been available as a general, anything-goes gTLD, after ICANN agreed to liberalize its contract.

That liberalization doesn’t seem to have done much to stave off .tel’s general decline in numbers, however. It currently stands at about 75,000 names, from an early 2011 peak of over 305,000.

ICANN told Trename that its contract will end September 19, and that it’s looking for another registrar to take over its domains.

With escrow apparently an issue, it may not be a smooth transition.

$44 billion company is latest deadbeat gTLD registry

Indian car-making giant Tata Motors has become the latest new gTLD registry to fail to pay its ICANN fees.

According to a breach notice (pdf), $44 billion-a-year Tata hasn’t paid its $6,250 quarterly registry fee since at least November last year (though probably much earlier).

Listed on the New York Stock Exchange and elsewhere and part of the Indian conglomerate Tata Group, the company runs .tatamotors as a dot-brand gTLD.

The breach notice, dated 10 days ago, also says that the company is in breach of its contract for failing to publish an abuse contact on its nic.tatamotors web site, something it seems to have corrected.

.tatamotors had half a dozen domains under management at the last count and seems to have at least experimented with using the TLD for private purposes.

Tata becomes the second dot-brand registry to get a slap for non-payment this year.

Back in April, the bank Kuwait Finance House, with revenues of $700 million a year, was also told it was late paying its fees.

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