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As Kabul falls, Whois could present a danger to ordinary Afghans

Kevin Murphy, August 19, 2021, Domain Policy

With Afghanistan falling to the Taliban this week, there’s potential danger to .af registrants — both in terms of losing domain services and of Whois being used for possibly deadly reprisals.

At time of writing, it’s been four days since the fall of Kabul. The uneasy truce between NATO and Taliban forces has failed to prevent scenes of chaos at the city’s main airport and the PR machine of so-called “Taliban 2.0” is in full bluster.

The new Taliban is, its spokespeople suggest, more tolerant of western liberal values and more supportive of human rights than its brutal, pre-9/11 incarnation.

Few believe this spin, and there have been multiple reports of 1990s-style oppression, including revenge killings and the suppression of women’s rights, across the country.

With all that in mind, a blog post about .af domain names may seem trivial, but it’s not my intention to trivialize.

I’m as appalled as any right-minded observer by the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and the neglect that led to it. But I believe .af could prove a learning moment in the ongoing conversation about Whois privacy.

The .af ccTLD has been managed since not long after the US-led invasion by the country’s Ministry of Communications and IT as the Afghanistan Network Information Center.

The registry had previously been managed for free from London by NetNames, with an admin contact in Kabul, according to the report of the 2003 IANA redelegation, which happened at a time when Afghanistan was still under a transitional government heavily overseen by the foreign governments behind the invasion.

Domain policy for .af was created in 2002, and it includes provisions for an open, freely available Whois database that is still in effect today.

Domains registered via overseas registrars appear to be benefiting from the impact of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which redacts personal information, but this obviously does not apply in Afghanistan.

This means the names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of .af registrants are available for querying via various Whois interfaces, including the registry’s own, which is managed by New Zealand-based back-end CoCCA.

Using a combination of web searches and Whois queries, it is possible to find personally identifiable information of registrants, including names and addresses, at local human rights groups, as well as local news media and technology providers supportive of human rights causes.

If the reports of Taliban fighters conducting house-to-house searches for enemies of the new state are accurate, the easy availability of this personal data could be a serious problem.

To a great extent, this could be a case study in what privacy advocates within the ICANN community are always warning about — public access to Whois data gives oppressive regimes a tool to target their oppression.

And as we have seen this week, oppressive regimes can appear almost literally overnight.

While it seems unlikely there’s anyone from the old Afghan ministry still in control of the registry, I think .af back-end provider CoCCA, as well as Whois aggregators such as DomainTools, should have a long think about whether it’s a good idea to continue to provide open access to .af Whois records at this time.

Fortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a great many .af domains under management. DomainTools reckons it’s under 7,000.

At the other end of the scale of seriousness, overseas .af registrants may also see issues with their names due to the Taliban takeover.

It seems incredible today, but in 2001 a Taliban decree restricted internet access to a single computer at a government ministry. Others in government could apply to use this computer by sending a fax to the relevant minister.

While it seems impossible that such a Draconian restriction could be reintroduced today, it still seems likely that the Taliban will crack down on internet usage to an extent, including introducing morality or residency restrictions to .af regs.

.af is currently open to registrants from anywhere in the world, with no complex restrictions and .com-competitive prices.

Many multinational corporations have registered .af names for their local presence.

The string “af” has in recent years become social media shorthand for “as fuck”, and a small number overseas registrants appear to be using it as a domain hack in that context — type “corrupt.af” into your browser and see what happens.

Others seem to be using .af, where short domains are still available, as shortcuts to their social media profiles.

I don’t believe ICANN will need to get directly involved in this situation. Its Whois query tool does not support .af, and IANA presumably won’t need to get involved in terms of redelegation any more than it would following a general election or a coup d’état.

Irish domain sales closely track pandemic restrictions

Kevin Murphy, August 4, 2021, Domain Registries

Sales of .ie domains saw their best-ever first half this year, with registration growth closely tracking pandemic-related restrictions.

Local registry IEDR reported this week that it added 33,815 new .ie domains in the six months to June 30, up 1.6% on last year. It ended the period with 324,074 .ie domains under management, up 9.6% on last year.

The registry is in no doubt that it benefited from the cross-industry lockdown bump associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

Comparing first quarter numbers show Q1 2021 regs up 34% on Q1 2020.

Ireland was in strict lockdown measures in the first months of this year, but did not enter lockdown until towards the end of the quarter in 2020.

Second quarter number reflected the same pattern in reverse — regs were down 22% this year, when lockdown had been eased, IEDR said.

The lockdown bump is a phenomenon whereby domain name sales spiked as traditional bricks-and-mortar small businesses rushed to establish an online presence in order to carry on business behind closed doors.

Domain keywords directly related to the pandemic were down in H1 compared to last year, while domains related to summertime, pools and barbecues spiked, the registry said.

Cambodia looking at new registry overseer

Kevin Murphy, July 13, 2021, Domain Policy

The Cambodian government is reportedly planning to create a new group to oversee its national ccTLD, .kh.

According to The Phnom Penh Post, the local telecommunications ministry is considering legislation that would create KH Network Information Centre.

KHNIC would be modeled on APNIC and combine domain name and IP address management under one roof, the report says.

.kh is currently delegated to Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia and managed by Telecom Cambodia.

There are reportedly only around 3,000 .kh domains under management. The infrastructure-poor south-east Asian country has about 16.5 million inhabitants but only around 250,000 fixed broadband subscribers.

Domain regs dip for second quarter in a row and it’s all China’s fault

There were 363.5 million domain name registrations across all top-level domains at the end of March, down by 2.8 million names compared to the end of 2020, Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief shows.

But the losses can be attributed mostly to China, which saw plummeting .cn regs in the ccTLD world and big declines across gTLDs popular with Chinese speculators.

In .cn, regs were down a whopping four million at 20.7 million in the quarter. China has historically been subject to steep fluctuations due to local government regulations.

Overall, ccTLD registrations were down 2.4 million at 156.5 million, but that seems to be all down to China.

All the other ccTLDs in the DNIB top 10 were either flat or up slightly on Q4. The frequent wild-card .tk did not have an impact on this quarter’s numbers, staying flat.

Verisign does not break down new gTLD registrations, but zone file and transaction report data shows that the likes of .icu and .wang, which typically sell first-year regs very cheaply, were hit by material junk drops in Q1.

ShortDot’s .icu zone file shrank by 2.5 million names between January 1 and March 30. It’s still in decline in Q2, but the trajectory isn’t nearly as steep. It had 814,000 zone file names at the end of Q1.

Zodiac’s .wang was at 525,000 at the end of 2020 but had dropped to 86,000 by March 30.

.top also lost around half a million names in the first quarter.

The vast majority of regs in .icu, .top and .wang come through Chinese registrars, which often sell for under a dollar for the first year.

The DNIB reports that .com performed well as usual, up from 151.8 million reported in the Q4 report to 154.6 million, but Verisign bedfellow .net was once again flat at 13.4 million.

Kiwis finally making the switch to EPP with Canadian deal

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2021, Domain Registries

InternetNZ has picked the winner in its registry replacement project RFP, which will see it switch the entire .nz back-end to the industry standard EPP protocol by the end of next year.

It’s selected the CIRA Registry Platform from Canadian .ca registry CIRA, but will continue to run its own back-end in-house in New Zealand.

InternetNZ had said last October that it planned to overhaul its outdated infrastructure, and put out its feelers for would-be vendors or service providers.

At that time, 65% of its over 720,000 .nz registrations and about 65% of its registrars were still using its old, proprietary Shared Registration System protocol.

Now, SRS is to be deprecated in favor of the CIRA platform and the Extensible Provisioning Protocol that has been industry standard across all gTLDs and many ccTLDs for the better part of two decades.

And they say New Zealand is progressive.

InternetNZ plans to make the switch fully by the end of next year. This is of course going to require some implementation work by registrars, which will have to code new hooks into the .nz registry.

UPDATE: This article was updated April 20 to correct “this year” to “next year”. InternetNZ plans to finish the switch before the end of 2022, not 2021.

Domain industry shrank in Q4, but as usual there’s a big BUT

The worldwide domain name count shrank in the fourth quarter, according to newly released Verisign data, but as usual the numbers were hugely impacted by big swings in just a few TLDs.

The latest Domain Name Industry Brief (pdf), which is mainly compiled from zone file counts, shows that 2020 ended with 366.3 million names, down by 4.4 million or 1.2% compared to the end of the third quarter.

It’s the free and almost-free TLDs that swung the math.

Remarkably, industry wild-card .tk actually shrank during the quarter. This is highly unusual, as the registry’s business model is based on giving out names for free, never deleting domains, and monetizing the traffic to expired or suspended names.

It saw domains down by 2.8 million names over the quarter, from 27.5 million to 24.7 million.

Another big dipper was .icu, which sells cheap (usually under $1) and appeals to speculators largely in China.

While it slipped out of the top 10 TLDs, meaning the DNIB no longer breaks out its numbers, DI’s own zone file counts show its zone decline from 5.3 million to 3.4 million during Q4, a 1.9 million decline.

Notably spammy new gTLD .top, which also costs next to nothing and is popular in China, also had a role to play. Its zone count was down by about 900,000 between September 30 and December 31.

Those three TLDs alone account for a loss of 5.6 million names, far more than the 4.4 million industry-wide quarterly drop calculated by Verisign.

The impact of .icu’s continued spiral downwards is likely to be felt in Q1 2021 also. It’s lost another 2.4 million zone file names since the start of the year.

Verisign said the the universe of ccTLD domains contracted by 1.7 million of 1% during the quarter, ending the year with 158.9 million names.

The .tk shrinkage of course more than accounts for this dip. Without it, ccTLDs would be up by 1.1 million names or 1.1%. The major, top-10 ccTLDs mostly showed six-figure growth, the DNIB reflects.

New gTLDs were down 4.2 million names or 13.8% sequentially, ending the quarter with 26 million.

In addition to the aforementioned .top and .icu, this figure appears to have been affected by six-figure losses in some of the highest-volume, lowest-priced new gTLDs, including .club, .site .work and .vip.

In the main legacy gTLDs, Verisign’s own .com grew by 1.5 million names, from 151.8 million to 150.3 million, during the quarter. Its .net was again flat at 13.4 million. Public Interest Registry’s .org gained a (rounded) 100,000 names, ending the year at 10.3 million.

The annual numbers across the industry for 2020 have better optics. The DNIB shows that domain volume was up by 4.0 million or 1.1% year over year.

That breaks down into a 6.3 million increase in .com, a 1.3 million increase across the ccTLDs, and a 3.3 million decrease in new gTLDs, not all of which can be explained away by factoring out .icu and .top.

Eight years after asking, Israel to get its Hebrew ccTLD

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registries

Israel is likely to be awarded the Hebrew-script version of its ccTLD, at a meeting of ICANN’s board of directors next week.

ICANN is poised to approved ישראל. (the dot goes on the right, in accordance with Hebrew writing practice), which means “Israel”, on February 8.

The beneficiary will be not-for-profit ISOC-IL, which has been running .il for the last 25 years. The Latin-script version currently has just shy of 270,000 domains under management.

ISOC-IL first expressed its interest in an internationalized domain name ccTLD (pdf) in 2012, but only received final technical approval from ICANN last May.

The proposal appears to have been held up by government delays in selecting a registry operator — government approval is a requirement under ICANN’s increasingly inappropriately named IDN ccTLD “Fast Track” program, which began in 2009.

It’s debatable how much demand there is for Hebrew domains. There are fewer than 10 million speakers in the world and most are very familiar with the Latin script.

Verisign’s gTLD קום., a transliteration of .com, has fewer than 1,700 domains in its zone file today, and is on a downward trend, two years after launch. Most are registered via local registrar Domain The Net, which had planned to compete with ISOC-IL for the IDN contract.

Would-be new country wants to share another country’s ccTLD

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2021, Domain Policy

What do you do if you’re the government of a country without a ccTLD, because the rest of the world does not recognize you as a country?

Perhaps the strangest solution to this predicament is to ask another country with a semantically meaningful ccTLD of its own if you can share that national resource.

And that’s reportedly what the government of Somaliland has done, reaching out to Sierra Leone for permission to use its .sl TLD.

According to the Somaliland Chronicle, its IT minister has written to his counterpart in Sierra Leone to propose “a commercial partnership with your esteemed office regarding the internet Top Level Domain”.

The east African country, which has its own government and a small degree of international recognition, is not currently acknowledged by the United Nations — it’s considered part of neighboring Somalia — and as such does not qualify for a ccTLD under International Standards Organization (and therefore ICANN) policies.

The minister has reportedly forbidden the use of Somalia’s .so domain, and the government itself uses a .org.

Sierra Leone, on the other side of the continent, uses .sl, which would also be the perfect choice for Somaliland if it were not already taken.

It’s not clear to what extent Somaliland wishes to share the ccTLD, but if it were to go as far as full joint ownership that would be unusual indeed.

Of course, the quickest way into the DNS root in its own right could be to apply for a memorable, relevant gTLD in ICANN’s next application round, which is probably not too many years away right now.

In 2012, there were several applications for geo-gTLDs representing regions that want, to a greater or lesser extent, independence.

This trail was over course blazed almost in 2003 by Catalonia’s .cat and now includes the likes of .scot (Scottish), .eus (Basques) and .krd (Kurds).

New gTLD consultants, start your engines.

Free domains for .in registrants

Kevin Murphy, January 8, 2021, Domain Registries

Registrants of new .in domain names will be offered a free domain in a non-Latin script, the Indian government announced today.

The National Internet Exchange of India said it will offer one free internationalized domain name, along with a free email account in the same script, when they register a .in name before the end of the month.

India has over 100 spoken languages, and NIXI runs 15 IDNs ccTLDs that it says cover the 22 official Indian languages, such as Hindi, Bengali and Gujarati, by far the most IDNs of any nation.

The offer is also available to existing .in registrants who renew their names during January.

The deal is designed to “to stimulate the adoption of भारत (IDN) domain name and proliferation of local language content”, NIXI said.

In 2017, India issued five million Hindi email addresses to government workers.

Island demands return of its “naked” ccTLD

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2021, Domain Policy

The Pacific island nation of Niue is loudly demanding that ICANN hand over control of its ccTLD, .nu, after two decades of bitter argument.

The government has taken the highly unusual move of filing a redelegation request with ICANN’s IANA unit publicly, forwarding it to other governments and the media.

The request is backed by UNR, the former Uniregistry, which is being put forward as the proposed back-end provider.

Niue claims, as it has since at least 2000, that the string was misappropriated by an American entrepreneur in the 1990s and has been used to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue, with almost no benefit to the country.

The word “nu” is Swedish for “now”. It’s also the masculine form of “naked” in French, which enables lazy reporters to write click-baity headlines.

The Swedish meaning was first spotted by Massachusetts-based Bill Semich in 1997. Together with Niue-based Kiwi ex-pat Stafford Guest, he obtained the delegation for .nu from pre-ICANN root zone supremo Jon Postel.

They used the name Internet Users Society Niue (IUSN) and started selling .nu names to Swedes as a meaningful alternative to .se and .com.

As of today, there are about 264,000 registered .nu names, retailing for about $30 a year. Pre-2018 data is not available, but a couple of years ago, it had over 500,000 names under management.

That kind of money would be incredibly useful to Niue, which has a population of under 2,000 and few other natural resources to speak of. The country relies on hand-outs from New Zealand and, historically, dubious offshore banking schemes and the sale of postage stamps to collectors.

The government has said in the past that .nu cash would enable it to boost its internet infrastructure, thereby boosting its attractiveness as a tourist destination.

IUSN and Niue signed a memorandum of understanding in 1999, but a year later the government passed a law decreeing “.nu is a National resource for which the prime
authority is the Government of Niue”.

It’s been trying to get control of .nu ever since, but IUSN has consistently refused to recognize this law, Niue has always claimed, and has always refused to cooperate in a redelegation.

The company made headlines back in 2003 for claiming that it was rolling out free nationwide Wi-Fi in Niue, but there are serious questions about whether that ever actually happened.

Now, Niue claims:

The Wi-Fi has been continuously unstable and exceedingly limited. As of today, the ccTLD.NU administration and local presence of the IUSN in Niue consists of a motel with a PO Box and the Wi-Fi is covering a [n]egligible are[a] surrounding the motel. There is no operational management of the ccTLD.NU by the IUSN present in Niue.

I believe the motel in question is Coral Gardens, north of capital Alofi, which is or was run by Guest.

While IUSN is still the official ccTLD manager for .nu, according to IANA records, the business operations and technical back-end were transferred to Swedish ccTLD manager IIS in 2013.

IIS agreed to pay IUSN a minimum of $14.7 million over 15 years for the license to .nu, but the domain remains delegated to IUSN.

Niue, represented by its Swedish special envoy Pär Brumark (who until recently was also vice-chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, representing Niue) sued IIS in late 2018 in an attempt to gain control of the ccTLD.

The government argues that under Swedish control, profits from .nu can only be earmarked for the development of the Swedish internet, at the expense of Niue.

Brumark tells us the case is currently being delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The problem Niue has now is pretty much the same as it always has been — IANA rules state that the losing party in a redelegation has to consent to the change of control, and IUSN really has no incentive to do so.

Niue’s best chance appears to be either the Swedish lawsuit or the possibility that it can get the GAC on board to support its request.

In-progress redelegation requests are also exempt by convention from ICANN’s transparency rules, so we’re not going to hear anything other than what Niue releases or the GAC can publicly squeeze out of ICANN leadership.

You can read the redelegation request (pdf) here.