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ICANN still has no clue how coronavirus will affect the domain industry

Kevin Murphy, July 21, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is still in the dark about how the coronavirus pandemic is going to affect the domain industry’s fortunes and its own budget, judging by a blog post published overnight by CEO Göran Marby.

In the post, Marby outlined his 10 priorities (six created by himself, four by the ICANN board) for the recently commenced fiscal year, and the impact of the virus is front and center.

Notably, it appears that ICANN is thinking about creating a new department or hiring a new senior “economist” to track the domain market and forecast trends.

Bullet #6 on Marby’s list is:

Develop a plan for the potential economist function within ICANN org to follow and evaluate Domain Name System (DNS) market trends.

Background: I’ve heard the question asked, “Is the DNS market changing?” My answer is yes, probably. The questions we need to ask now are, what’s good for the end user, and what will be bad?

My read on this is that we might be looking at a new VP — an astrologer-in-chief, if you like — whose job it would be to read the tea leaves, stare into a crystal ball, rummage through pigeon guts, and predict budget-affecting market moves before they happen.

That’s a function currently occupied by the office of CFO Xavier Calvez, but his track record is spotty, having in previous years failed to predict basic stuff like junk drops in the new gTLD space.

Another of Marby’s goals, set by the board, is:

Develop and implement a plan to ensure continued financial stability in a world affected by COVID-19.

Background: While ICANN’s financial situation is sound at the moment, the impact of the unprecedented effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world economy is still unknown.

ICANN’s recently passed FY21 budget predicts an 8% slump in revenue due to an estimated 33% plummet in new gTLD registrations and a 2.3% drop in legacy gTLD regs, as well as a loss of 62 fee-paying dot-brand gTLDs and 380 accredited registrars.

That said, it’s also saving millions by eschewing face-to-face meetings until the whole coronavirus mess is sorted.

It’s not entirely clear how ICANN arrived at its numbers, but it seems the domain industry is looking into unknown waters right now.

It’s undeniable that the pandemic-related lockdown mandates around the world have proved a huge boon to the industry, as bricks-and-mortar businesses retreat online to try to save their livelihoods, but it’s unclear whether this boost will continue as nations emerge from quarantine and into record-setting recessions.

ICANN’s budget is dependent more than anything else on registration volumes in gTLDs, so its fiscal stability will depend on whether people continue to buy and renew domains as they lose their jobs and their companies go out of business.

It seems inevitable that companies going bust and dropping their domains is a trend we’re going to face over the coming few years, but as long as there’s enough liquidity in the domainer community that shouldn’t prove a massive issue for ICANN, which does not care who registers a domain, merely that it is registered.

Aside from budgeting concerns, the impact of coronavirus on ICANN meetings is #1 on Marby’s list of priorities.

Work with Supporting Organization and Advisory Committee leaders, community members, and the Board to define and implement a phased plan to return to face-to-face meetings. This plan will ensure the provision of safe and effective meeting formats that support the ongoing work of the community as well as allow robust remote participation options for anyone unable to attend in person. The final plan will be integrated with regional and global engagement activities.

Background: Face-to-face meetings have always been an important part of ICANN’s DNA. Despite the current pandemic-related restrictions, the Board, community, and org must ensure that we remain able to collaborate, and that we are still able to attract new participants into ICANN.

Since March, every meeting that would usually be held face to face, including the two big public meetings, has instead been held over Zoom, which has drawbacks and limitations. This October’s Hamburg meeting will also be online-only.

Marby to a great extent has his hands tied here.

As long as the virus rages out of control in ICANN’s native US, he’s going to be limited to hosting meetings in locations not only where the coronavirus has been tackled to the degree where large congregations are permitted but also where Americans are allowed to travel quarantine-free.

The next scheduled public meeting is due to take place in Cancun, Mexico in March 2021, but that country currently has locked its border to travelers from the north.

And regardless of what laws are in place next March, ICANN’s going to have to get a read on whether any community members will feel safe enough to travel — to a windowless room where everyone wears masks two meters apart for 10 hours a day — before going ahead with an expensive in-person meeting.

It seems more likely that F2F meetings will resume first on a regional level before going fully international. Travel narriers within the European Union, for example, are relatively low, so it’s not impossible to imagine small meetings going ahead with only participants from that community.

Coronavirus is saving ICANN millions of your money, but will it use the cash wisely?

Kevin Murphy, June 21, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is saving millions this year due to the coronavirus-related shift to online-only public meetings.

But it’s thinking about using some of the cash to do things like pay for broadband upgrades and hotel rooms for some of its community volunteers.

During a conference call on Thursday, CFO Xavier Calvez gave out figures suggesting that the switch from in-person to Zoom meetings could save as much as $8 million of your money in 2020.

Calvez said that ICANN meetings usually cost an average of $4 million, but that the virtual ICANN 67 in March only cost the org $1.5 million to $2 million.

Because the face-to-face component was canceled only at the last minute, ICANN had already incurred some costs associated with a physical meeting.

The ICANN 68 meeting, which begins tomorrow, is expected to cost $1 million to $1.5 million, Calvez said.

If we assume that October’s ICANN 69, recently moved from Hamburg to Zoom, will see similar savings, then the total 2020 meetings bill could be down by between $6 million and $8 million.

Calvez added that ICANN’s funding during the coronavirus crisis has so far been holding steady.

No sooner had Calvez finished speaking than a pre-submitted community member question was read out wondering whether some of this cash could be redistributed to participants who are usually travel-subsidized.

Intellectual property expert Jonathan Zuck said that money could be handed out to volunteers in order to pay for things such as broadband upgrades and “finding quiet places to participate in the middle of the night”.

Perhaps surprisingly, Calvez and senior VP of global stakeholder engagement Sally Costerton did not rule this out.

In fact, she said such ideas are currently under active discussion and may be floated for public comment after ICANN 68.

One idea, I suggest, might be to compensate the 200-odd people who tuned into Thursday’s “Q&A” session for their time.

The session was scheduled to be an hour long, but the first 45 minutes were devoted to the 12 members of the ICANN executive team introducing themselves and patting themselves on the back for all the awesome work they’ve been doing.

Top-level reshuffle as ICANN loses its COO

Kevin Murphy, June 4, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN today announced a series of organizational changes at the highest level of management after its COO decided to quit.

Susanna Bennett, senior veep and chief operations officer, will leave July 1 for pastures new after seven years on the job, and her role will be split between other senior figures.

ICANN also said today that Theresa Swinehart has been appointed head of the Global Domains Division, a role she’s been filling on an interim basis since Cyrus Namazi quit a few months back.

She’s also senior VP of multistakeholder strategy and strategic initiatives and CEO Göran Marby’s co-deputy. She’ll be keeping both of those jobs too.

In terms of ops, Bennett’s functions will be split between CFO Xavier Calvez, senior VP of HR Gina Villavicencio, and general counsel John Jeffrey. Calvez will also take on some of the MSSI responsibilities previously held by Swinehart.

The fact that Bennett and Namazi, who together were compensated to the tune of $860,000 in ICANN’s fiscal 2019, had functions that can be easily redistributed among other staffers does rather beg the question of whether ICANN has been spending domain registrants’ money as efficiently as possible.

Still, the rejigger will presumably be welcomed by those who believe that ICANN has in recent years become overly bloated and bureaucratic.

ICANN recently slashed its FY21 budget by 8% due to the expected impact of the coronavirus-related recessions.

ICANN whistleblower expects to be fired after alleging budget irregularities, bugged meetings

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2020, Domain Policy

The chair of ICANN’s highly influential Nominating Committee expects to lose his seat after turning whistleblower to expose what he says are budgetary irregularities and process failures that could have altered the outcome of ICANN’s board-selection process.

In a remarkable March 25 letter, Jay Sudowski even accuses ICANN of secretly recording and transcribing NomCom’s confidential deliberations.

The NomCom is the secretive committee responsible for selecting people to fill major policy-making roles at ICANN, including eight members of its board of directors. It’s made up of people drawn from all areas of the community.

Because its role is essentially to conduct job interviews with board hopefuls, it’s one of the few areas of the ICANN community whose conversations are almost entirely held in private.

But Sudowski is attempting to shine a little light on what’s going on behind the scenes by filing a broad and deep request under the Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, which is ICANN’s equivalent of a freedom of information law.

In it, he accuses ICANN Org of some fairly serious stuff.

First, he claims ICANN is fudging its budget by over-reporting how many full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members are involved in NomCom work, and by denying requests for “trivial” reimbursements of as little as $47 even as NomCom cuts costs by moving to a remote-only working model.

ICANN grants NomCom a FY20 budget of $900,000, of which $600,000 is allocated to “personnel costs” related to three FTEs.

“Nowhere near 3 FTEs are allocated to NomCom. Where is this money going?” Sudowski asks, demanding under the DIDP to see records of how much ICANN actually spent supporting NomCom’s work over the last five years.

He also claims that the NomCom process may have been compromised by allowing non-voting members to participate in decision-making meetings during the 2017 cycle, writing:

ICANN Org potentially allowed the NomCom to violate ICANN Bylaws by allowing nonvoting members of the NomCom to participate in outcome determinate components of the assessment and selection process that may have fundamentally alerted [I believe this is a typo for “altered”] the outcome of the 2017 NomCom process.

The non-voting members of the NomCom are the board-appointed chair and chair-elect, as well as appointees from the Root Server System Advisory Committee, Security and Stability Advisory Committee and Governmental Advisory Committee.

The board members appointed by NomCom in 2017 were Avri Doria and Sarah Deutsch. NomCom also picked members of the GNSO Council, ccNSO Council and At-Large Advisory Committee.

Sudowski, whose day job is running a data center company in Colorado, further claims that the ICANN board has been instructed by the Org to refuse to communicate with NomCom members.

“In recent years, ICANN Org has secretly recorded and transcribed confidential deliberations of the NomCom,” he adds.

He wants evidence of all of this to be released under the DIDP, under a nine-point list of documentation requests.

It’s unfortunate that I am forced to make this request in such a public manner, but when there is controversy over a $47 expense to support a NomCom member, I can only come to the conclusion that ICANN Org is unable and unwilling to provide necessary “administrative and operational support” for the NomCom.

He also expects retribution:

I also expect that the Board, which has been instructed to not communicate with me, will remove me from my role as Chair of the NomCom, given the nature of the concerns noted in this letter. Frankly, if this comes to pass, my removal is a clear and direct attack on the autonomy and authority of the entire NomCom.

So far, his request has not been answered.

Under the DIDP, ICANN has a maximum of 30 days to reply to such requests. In reality, this has always been treated as a minimum, with both request and response typically published on the same day, exactly 30 days after the original filing.

Its responses are typically links to information already in the public record and a list of excuses why no more info will be released.

But so far, neither request nor response has been published in the usual place, 42 days after Sudowski sent his letter. ICANN has missed its deadline by almost two weeks.

The only reason the DIDP (pdf) is in the public domain at all is that Sudowski copied it to the mailing list of the Empowered Community, ICANN’s community-based oversight body. Thanks to George Kirikos for posting the link to Twitter last week.

It is a pretty extensive request for information, that presumably would take some time to collate, so I’d be hesitant to cry “cover-up” just yet.

But the fact that the request exists at all serves to highlight the shocking lack of trust between ICANN and one of its most powerful committees.

UPDATE: Sudowski has said that his request was withdrawn. There’s no particular reason it could not be refiled by somebody else, however, as DIDP is open to all.

Domain industry likely to suffer from coronavirus as ICANN slashes budget by 8%

Kevin Murphy, April 28, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is predicting a miserable time for the domain name industry due to the coronavirus pandemic, today announcing that it’s slashing its revenue outlook for the next year by 8%.

The organization expects to receive revenue of $129.3 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. That’s $11.1 million lower than its previous estimate, which was made in December.

ICANN’s budget is based on projections based on previous industry performance and its accountants’ conversations with registries and registrars, so this is another way of saying that it expects the industry to suffer due to the pandemic.

ICANN said in its newly revised budget:

ICANN org funding may be impacted because the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic has the potential to impact the funding from domain name registrations and contracted parties through the end of FY20 and into the first months of FY21. ICANN org also anticipates there may be long-lasting effects of such impacts. At the time this document is published, the impact cannot yet be quantified.

The drill-down is not great, showing that ICANN expects registries and registrars in both legacy and new gTLDs to be hit.

New gTLDs are predicted to be hit hardest, with revenue from registry transaction fees dropping by a full 33% from its FY20 forecast. That’s a drop from $6.7 million to $4.5 million.

Extrapolating from its $0.25 registry fee, that means ICANN thinks there will be 8.8 million fewer billable transactions — registrations, renewals and transfers in new gTLDs with over 50,000 names — for the year ending June 30, 2021.

Expected revenue from registrars selling new gTLDs has also been slashed by a third, down from $5.3 million this year to $3.5 million next year.

Legacy gTLDs are expected to fare a little better.

ICANN predicts transaction revenue from legacy gTLDs to decrease over the period, down to $47.7 million in FY21 from $49 million in FY20. Registrars selling legacy gTLDs are expected to bring in revenue of $29.7 million, down from $33.3 million.

That also represents shrinkage measured in the millions of domains.

It gets worse. ICANN is also expecting the number of registries and registrars to decrease even faster over the course of the next year.

It thinks it will end June with 1,174 fee-paying registries, but for this to decrease by 62 in FY21. It decreased by 29 in FY20. Many of these will probably be unused dot-brands having their contracts cancelled.

On the registrar side, it expects to lose 380 accreditations in FY21, compared to a loss of 104 this fiscal year, to end FY21 with 1,977 registrars.

ICANN does not expect its voluntary contributions from ccTLDs and Regional Internet Registries to decrease, but it does expect to lose a few hundred thousand bucks from the absence of sponsorship of its in-person meetings.

This overall predicted decrease in funding has led to a matching decrease in planned expenditure, with ICANN saying it will operate with “increased prudence, frugality, and with heightened conditions of necessity”.

It’s going to save 20% less on travel — $12.4 million — due to coronavirus-related restrictions, but seems to still be planning to take the industry to Hamburg in October for ICANN 69 (even though Munich has cancelled Oktoberfest this year).

ICANN also plans to delay some projects and to reduce its average headcount by 15 to 395.

The lower budget projections come even as some registries —including CentralNic, which looks after some very large new gTLDs — have said they expect the financial impact of coronavirus to be minimal.

The revised budget is published here and ICANN’s board may approve it as early as next week.

ICANN expects “significant” budget impact from coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2020, Domain Policy

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a “significant” impact on ICANN’s budget, according to an update from the organization.

The organization published its expectations of a $140.4 million budget for the fiscal year that begins this July last December, and opened it up for public comments.

In its summary of those comments (pdf), which had a February 25 deadline and therefore were not focused on the pandemic’s potential impact, ICANN said:

the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting significantly the entire world. ICANN expects that its activities and financial position will be significantly impacted as well. The ICANN org is working with the Board to assess and monitor the potential impact to ICANN’s funding, and planned work such as face-to-face meetings, travel, etc.

Any pandemic-related changes to the budget will be published prior to board approval, ICANN said.

So where is ICANN expecting the impact? It’s not entirely clear. I would expect to see some minor gains from slashing its travel budget in the wake of social distance rules, but it’s less obvious where a “significant” shortfall could occur.

ICANN had operational revenue — the money it gets from billing registries and registrars — of $136.8 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, its most recently reported year (pdf).

Of that total, roughly $56 million came from the market leaders in both segments, Verisign and GoDaddy, both of which have been given glowing analyst coverage since the outbreak began.

One commentator recently wrote that Verisign is “immune” from coronavirus and GoDaddy’s CFO told analysts just last week that he expects the impact of coronavirus to be “minimal” in the first quarter. That could of course change in future.

Almost half of ICANN’s revenue, some $65.7 million, comes from the top 10 registries and registrars.

So is ICANN expecting to see weakness in the long tail, the few thousand accredited registrars and gTLD registries that account for under $1 million in ICANN contributions per year? Is it expecting reduced voluntary contributions from the ccTLDs and Regional Internet Registries?

Will coronavirus cause huge numbers of small businesses to abandon their domains as they go out of business? Will it inspire large numbers of the recently unemployed and quarantined to start up web-based businesses in an attempt to put food on the table? Will it cause large portfolio owners to downsize to save costs?

All of these outcomes seem possible, but these are unprecedented times, and I couldn’t being to guess how it will play out.

ICANN predicts shrinkage in new gTLD sector

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN will make less money from new gTLDs in its fiscal 2021 because fewer domains will be registered and renewed, according to its recently published draft budget.

The budget, released the day ICANN broke up for its Christmas holidays, shows that the organization expects to bring in $140.4 million in FY21, up a modest $300,000 on its FY20.

But it’s expecting the amount of money contributed by registries and registrars in the new gTLD sector to decline.

For FY21, it expects new gTLD registry transaction fees — the $0.25 paid to ICANN whenever a domain is registered, renewed or transferred — to be $5.1 million. That’s down from the $5.5 million currently forecast for FY20.

It expects registrar transaction fees for new gTLD domains to dip from $4.6 million to $4.3 million.

But at the same time, ICANN is predicting growth from its legacy gTLD segments, which of course are primarily driven by .com sales. All the other legacy gTLDs of note, even .org and .net, are currently on downward trajectories in terms of volumes.

For FY21, ICANN is forecasting legacy gTLD registry transaction fees to come in at $52.6 million, versus the $50.5 million it expects to see in the current FY20. In percentage terms, it’s about double the growth it’s predicting for the current FY.

Legacy gTLD registrar transaction fees are estimated to grow, however, from $31.2 million to $32.7 million.

In terms of fixed fees — the $25,000 every new gTLD registry has to pay every year regardless of transaction volume — ICANN is also predicting shrinkage.

It reckons it will lose a net seven registries in FY21, dropping from 1,170 to 1,163 by the end of June 2021. These are most likely dot-brand gTLDs that could follow the path of 69 predecessors and flunk out of the program.

ICANN also expects its base of paying registrars to go down by 100 accreditations, with no new registrar applications, causing fees to drop from $10.7 million this year to $9.6 million in FY21.

In short, it’s not a particularly rosy outlook for the gTLD industry, unless you’re Verisign.

ICANN’s financial year runs from July 1 to June 30 this year, and usually the December release of its draft budget includes some mid-year reevaluations of how it sees the current period playing out. But that’s not the case this time.

ICANN appears to be on-budget, suggesting that it’s getting better at modeling the industry the more years of historical transaction data it has access to.

The budget (pdf) is now open for public comment. I spotted a few errors, maybe you can too.

Time for some more ICANN salary porn

Kevin Murphy, June 3, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN has filed its tax return for its fiscal 2018, so it’s once again that time of the year in which the community gets to salivate over how much its top staffers get paid.

The latest form 990, covering the 12 months to June 30, 2018, shows that the top 21 ICANN employees were compensated to the tune of $10.3 million, an average of $492,718 each.

That’s up about 4% from $9.9 million in the previous year, an average across the top 21 staffers of $474,396 apiece.

These numbers include base salary, bonuses, and benefits such as pension contributions.

Employee compensation overall increased from $60 million to $73.1 million.

The biggest earner was of course CEO Göran Marby, who is now earning more than his immediate predecessor Fadi Chehadé but a bit less than last-but-one boss Rod Beckstrom.

Marby’s total compensation was $936,585, having received a bonus of almost $200,000 during the year. His base salary was $673,133.

The number of staffers receiving six-figure salaries increased from 159 in fiscal 2017 to 183 — about 44% of its estimated end-of-year headcount.

Towards the end of the reported year, as ICANN faced a budget crunch, many members of the ICANN community had called on the organization to rein in its spending on staff.

ICANN says it targets compensation in the 50th to 75th percentile range for the relevant industry.

The top five outside contractors in the year were:

  • Jones Day, ICANN’s go-to law firm. It received $5.4 million, down from $8.7 million in 2017.
  • Zensar Technologies, the IT consultancy that develops and supports ICANN software. It received $3.7 million.
  • IIS, the Swedish ccTLD registry, which does pre-delegation testing for new gTLDs. It received $1.3 million.
  • Iron Mountain, the data escrow provider. It received $1.1 million.
  • Infovity, which provides Oracle software support. It received $1 million.

The return shows that ICANN made a loss of $23.9 million in the year, on revenue that was down from $302.6 million to $136.7 million.

The primary reason for this massive decrease in revenue was the $135 million Verisign paid for the rights to run .web, at an ICANN last-resort auction, in ICANN’s fiscal 2017.

The tax form for 2018 can be found here (pdf) and 2017’s can be found here (pdf).

ICANN budget predicts small new gTLD recovery and slowing legacy growth

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2018, Domain Services

The new gTLD market will improve very slightly over the next year or so, according to ICANN’s latest budget predictions.

The organization is now forecasting that it will see $5.2 million of funding from new gTLD registry transaction fees in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, up from the $5.1 million it predicted when it past the FY19 budget in May.

That’s based on expected transactions being 24 million, compared to the previous estimate of 23.9 million.

It’s the first time ICANN has revised its new gTLD transaction revenue estimates upwards in a couple years.

ICANN is also now estimating that FY20 transaction fees from new gTLDs will come in at $5.5 million.

That’s still a few hundred grand less than it was predicting for FY17, back in 2016.

Transaction fees, typically $0.25, are paid by registries with over 50,000 names whenever a domain is created, renewed, or transferred.

The FY19 forecast for new gTLD registrar transaction fees has not been changed from the $4.3 million predicted back in May, but ICANN expects it to increase to $4.6 million in FY20.

ICANN’s budget forecasts are based on activity it’s seeing and conversations with the industry.

It’s previously had to revise new gTLD revenue predictions down in May 2018 and January 2018. 

ICANN is also predicting a bounceback in the number of accredited registrars, an increase of 15 per quarter in FY20 to end the year at 2,564. That would see accreditation fees increase from an estimated $9.9 million to $10.7 million.

The budget is also less than optimistic when it comes to legacy, pre-2012 gTLDs, which includes the likes of .com and .net.

ICANN is now predicting FY19 legacy transaction fees of $49.8 million. That’s compared to its May estimate of $48.6 million.

For FY20, it expects that to go up to $50.5 million, reflecting growth of 2.1%, lower than the 2.6% it predicted last year.

Overall, ICANN expects its funding for FY19 to be $137.1 million, $600,000 less than it was predicting in May.

For FY20, it expects funding to increase to $140.1 million. That’s still lower than the $143 million ICANN had in mind for FY18, before its belt-tightening initiatives kicked off a year ago.

The budget documents are published here for public comment until February 8.

ICANN will also hold a public webinar today at 1700 UTC to discuss the plans. Details of the Adobe Connect room can be found here.

After outcry, ICANNWiki to get ICANN funding next year

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANNWiki will continue to get funding from its namesake, after community members complained about ICANN’s plan to abandon its $100,000 annual grant.

The independent wiki project will get $66,000 instead in the year beginning July 1, which will drop to $33,000 in ICANN’s fiscal 2020.

The funding will then disappear completely.

It’s a slight reprieve for ICANNWiki, which uses the money not only for its 6,000-article web site but also in-person outreach at events around the world.

The organization had complained about the plans to drop funding back in December, and fans of the site later called on ICANN to change its mind.

Supporters say the site fulfills a vital educational service to the ICANN community.

ICANNWiki also receives over $60,000 a year from corporate sponsors.

ICANN has also offered a reprieve to its Fellowship program in the new draft budget, reducing the number of people accepted into the program by fewer than expected.

It said in January it would slash the program in half, from 60 people per meeting to 30. That number will now drop to 45, at a cost of $151,000.

As discussed in this February article, the community has differing opinions about whether the program is an important way to on-board volunteers into ICANN’s esoteric world, or a way for freeloaders to vacation in exotic locations around the globe.