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ICANN urged to crack down on new gTLD abuse

Kevin Murphy, November 29, 2017, Domain Registries

Registries selling dirt-cheap new gTLD domains should be rewarded with lower ICANN fees when they get proactive about abuse, while registrars that turn a blind eye to spammers should be suspended, an ICANN working group will recommend.

In its second batch of findings, the Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice Review Team (CCT) said that financial incentives and a new complaints procedure should be used to persuade registries and registrars to fight DNS abuse.

The CCT said it “proposes the development of incentives to reward best practices preventing technical DNS abuse and strengthening the consequences for culpable or complacent conduits of technical DNS abuse” in a paper published today.

The review, which drew on multiple sources of market and abuse data, original research, and analysis of third-party research, is probably the most comprehensive study into the impact of the new gTLD program to date.

It concluded that overall rates of DNS abuse did not increase as a result of the program, but that bad actors are increasingly migrating away from legacy gTLDs such as .com to 2012-round TLDs such as .top, .gdn and Famous Four Media’s stable.

Indeed, much of the paper appears to be a veiled critique of FFM’s practices.

The registrar AlpNames, known to be affiliated with FFM and responsible for most of its retail sales, is singled out as the currently accredited registrar particularly favored by abusers.

The CCT report notes that AlpNames regularly sells domains for under $1, or gives them away for free, and offered a tool allowing registrants to randomly generate up to 2,000 available domains in 27 different gTLDs, pretty much inviting abuse.

“Certain registries and registrars appear to either positively encourage or at the very least willfully ignore DNS abuse. Such behavior needs to be identified rapidly and action
must be taken by ICANN compliance as deemed necessary,” the paper says.

The review found that gTLDs with no registration restrictions and the lowest prices had the most abuse. Duh.

“Generally, the DNS Abuse Study indicates that the introduction of new gTLDs did not increase the total amount of abuse for all gTLDs,” its report says. “[F]actors such as registration restrictions, price, and registrar-specific practices seem more likely to affect abuse rates.”

Drawing on data provided by 11 domain block-lists (SURBL, SpamHaus, etc), the paper states that at least one TLD (FFM’s .science) had an abuse rate excess of 50%.

Using SpamHaus data, the paper identities FFM’s .science, .stream, .trade, .review, .download and .accountant as having over 10% abuse during the period of its study. Also on that list: Uniregistry’s low-price .click and the China-based .top and .gdn.

One thing they all have in common is that AlpNames is a leading registrar, usually accounting for at least a quarter of domains under management.

There’s no way AlpNames/FFM is not aware of the amount of bad actors in its customer base, the question is what can ICANN do about it?

The CCT team recommends that registries and registrars with over 10% of their names used for abusive purposes should be tasked by ICANN with proactively cleaning up their zones. Those that fail to do so should be subject to a new Domain Abuse Dispute Resolution Process, it said.

These companies should have their contracts suspended when they’re “associated with unabated, abnormal and extremely high rates of technical abuse”, the report recommends.

There’s a big boilerplate specifying, tellingly, that registry operators that control registrars are affected by this recommendation too.

It should be noted that there was not a full consensus of support for the idea of a DADRP. Half a dozen working group members filed minority statements opposing it.

It’s not all stick in the report, however. There’s some carrot, too.

The CCT report recommends financial incentives such as fee reductions for registries that have “proactive anti-abuse measures” in place.

It noted that there is precedent for ICANN doing this kind of thing when it implemented an anti-tasting policy that seriously restricted registrars’ ability to get registry refunds.

The CCT Review Team was formed to figure out what impacts the 2012 new gTLD round had on the domain name market.

The completion of its work is one of several gating factors to the next new gTLD application round under ICANN’s new bylaws and the old Affirmation of Commitments with the US government.

It published initial recommendations earlier this year. This new set of recommendations is now open for public comment until January 8.

People are forgetting .com exists — ICANN survey

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2016, Domain Policy

Have you ever heard of .com, .net and .org?

That question was posed to 3,349 domain name registrants in 24 countries by market research firm Nielsen this June and guess what — awareness of all three cornerstone gTLDs was down on a comparable 2015 survey.

Unbelievably, only 85% of respondents professed to be aware of .com’s existence, compared to 86% in 2015.

Equally unbelievably, awareness of .net and .org fell from 76% to 69% and from 70% to 65% respectively between 2015 and 2016, the survey found.

Those are just three among many hundreds of findings of the Nielsen survey, which was carried out in order to inform ICANN’s Competition, Consumer Trust & Consumer Choice Review.

The CCT is one of the reviews deemed mandatory before ICANN is able to launch the next round of new gTLD applications.

A great many of the numbers revealed by the survey are seriously open to question — some could even be empirically proven wrong.

But David Dickinson, project lead for Nielsen on the survey, told DI yesterday that the numbers themselves are less important than the trends, or lack thereof, that they might represent.

Nielsen carried out two surveys in 2015 — one of consumers and one of registrants — then repeated both surveys again a year later.

Respondents were selected from a pool of people who have at some point indicated to third-party market research companies that they are available to take surveys online, Dickinson said. They are usually compensated via some kind of redeemable loyalty points scheme.

The registrant surveys were limited to those who said they have registered a domain name. The consumer survey was limited to those who said they spend more than five hours a week online.

While the number of respondents were measured in the low thousands, the idea is that they provide a representative sample of all internet users and domain name registrants.

But there’s a lot of weirdness in the numbers.

Dickinson said that the 85% awareness number for .com could be due partly to random “mechanical errors” — people clicking the wrong buttons on their survey form — but said that lack of awareness was more common among younger respondents who were more likely to be aware of newer, less generic TLDs.

The surveys also highlighted a bizarre split in TLD awareness between consumers and registrants.

Given that registrants are a subset of consumers, and given that they are by definition more familiar with domain names, you’d expect respondents to the registrant surveys to show higher TLD awareness than those responding to the consumer surveys.

But the opposite was true.

The surveys found, for example, that 95% of consumers knew about .com, but only 85% of registrants did. For .net and .org the numbers were 88%/69% and 83%/65% respectively. None of it makes any sense.

Dickinson said that the 2015 consumer/registrant awareness numbers were “almost identical”.

“My only real conclusion here is that [in 2016] there was some systematic difference in the diligence that the registrants selected these names on these awareness questions, and that a large portion of that is just due to random variation,” he said.

“However, when we do look at those people who are registering new gTLDs, they tended to have much lower awareness of those legacy gTLDs than those people who were unaware or had not registered those new gTLDs,” he said.

“The people who said they did not recognize any of those new gTLDs at all the are very very centric on the legacy gTLDs and in particular .com,” he said.

“I think the data is overstated because of the random variation but there is a learning here when we break it down… that those legacy domains are becoming less relevant or less noticed by the younger people and the people who are registering these new gTLDs,” he said.

“I think there is a shift going on, but it’s not as big as what is stated here [in the numbers],” he said.

The surveys also looked at awareness and registration levels for new, 2012-round gTLDs, but again the numbers probably don’t accurately reflect reality.

For example, 39% of registrants claimed to have heard of .email domain names and 15% claimed to have actually registered one.

Again, these numbers don’t seem plausible. There are fewer than 60,000 .email domains in existence today. Even if there were only one million domain registrants in the world, 15% registration rate would mean at least 150,000 names should have been sold.

Dickinson said that this number could have been higher due to selection bias. The survey took about half an hour on average to fill out, so people more personally interested or invested in internet or domain name related stuff might have been more likely to stick around and complete it.

Interestingly, new gTLD awareness rates in North America were substantially lower than awareness elsewhere in the world. For example, only 25% of North Americans professed to have heard of .news, but that grew to 42% in Asia where most languages use a different script.

My sense here is that respondents — which all took the surveys in their native languages — may have just been clicking to confirm English words they recognized, rather than TLDs they had seen in the wild.

Nielsen clearly suspected that there would be an element of “false recall” among respondents because it actually included some fake TLDs among the real ones.

This led to findings such as: 26% of Africans have heard of .cairo, 17% of North Americans have heard of .toronto and 21% of South Americans have heard of .bogota.

None of those city TLDs exist.

Dickinson explained this as “assumed familiarity”.

“What very much seems to happen is that if something has an implied ‘face validity’ — it seems to make sense or seems to be readily interpretable — then those ones will get higher stated awareness than the ones that are just random letters, such as .xyz,” he said.

Indeed, while there are over six million .xyz domains out there today, with high-profile registrants including Google, only 13% of respondents claimed to be aware of it.

“The more implied familiarity or sense of familiarity there is, the more likely people are to feel like they’ve been there or seen it, so it’s definitely a false recall, but the learning from that is that the more interpretable… those things are then they have more easy acceptance by consumers than things that are not interpretable,” Dickinson said.

The surveys did not only cover awareness and registration patterns. There are literally hundreds of data points in there covering different perceptions of TLDs new and old. I’ve just focused here on the ones that made me question whether the survey was worth the time, expense and paper it was written on.

But Dickinson said that the raw numbers are not necessarily what the ICANN review teams should be looking at.

“Maybe the absolute number is not exactly dead-on, but what are the relationships between the numbers?” he said.

“I tend to look at the relationships, so for example one of the objectives of doing this survey was to see if the new gTLD program impacted the perception of the industry in any way, or trustworthiness in the industry,” he said.

“For example, we can say we’re not sure it improved — the numbers didn’t change significantly in that direction to allow us to definitively say it improved — but it certainly did not decline,” he said. “We can rule out that it declined.”

“Overall, we can say that the new gTLD program is emerging with fairly strong awareness, relative,” he said.

“We can also say with certainty that none of those new gTLDs are anywhere approaching the awareness of the legacy gTLDs, and even if there is some erosion in the legacy gTLDs it’s going to take a long time for those to reach parity, if they ever do,” he said.

The Nielsen surveys are one input to the work of the volunteer CCT Review Team, which intends to publish its preliminary report before the end of the year.

CCT-RT chair Jonathan Zuck recently published a blog post on the ICANN web site giving a progress report on recent work.