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Google adds censorship workaround to Android devices

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2018, Domain Tech

Google is using experimental DNS to help people in censorious regimes access blocked web sites.

Alphabet sister company Jigsaw this week released an Android app called Intra, which enables users to tunnel their DNS queries over HTTPS to compatible servers, avoiding common types of on-the-wire manipulation.

The company reportedly says it has been testing the app with Venezuelan dissidents recently.

The feature will also be built in to the next version of Android — known as Android 9 or Android Pie — where it will be called Private DNS.

The app is designed for people who for one reason or another are unable to update their device’s OS.

Intra and Private DNS use “DNS over HTTPS”, an emerging protocol Google and others have been working on for a while.

As it’s non-standard, end users will have to configure their devices or Intra apps to use a DoH-compatible DNS server. The public DNS services operated by Google (8.8.8.8) and Cloudflare (1.1.1.1) are both currently compatible.

The release comes even as Google faces controversy for allegedly kowtowing to the Chinese government’s demands for censored search and news results.

You may notice that the new app is being marketed via a .org web site, rather than Google’s own .app gTLD, but intra.app takes visitors directly to the Intra page on the Google Play store.

How .com became a restricted TLD

Verisign has been given approval to start restricting who can and cannot register .com and .net domain names in various countries.

Customers of Chinese registrars are the first to be affected by the change to the registry’s back-end system, which was made last year.

ICANN last week gave Verisign a “free to deploy” notice for a new “Verification Code Extension” system that enables the company to stop domains registered via selected registrars from resolving unless the registrant’s identity has been verified and the name is not on China’s banned list.

It appears to be the system Verisign deployed in order to receive its Chinese government license to operate in China.

Under Verification Code Extension, Verisign uses ICANN records to identify which registrars are based in countries that have governmental restrictions. I believe China is currently the only affected country.

Those registrars are able to register domains normally, but Verisign will prevent the names from resolving (placing them in serverHold status and keeping them out of the zone file) unless the registration is accompanied by a verification code.

These codes are distributed to the affected registrars by at least two verification service providers. Verisign, in response to DI questions, declined to name them.

Under its “free to deploy” agreement with ICANN (pdf), Verisign is unable to offer verification services itself. It must use third parties.

The company added the functionality to its .com and .net registry as an option in February 2016, according to ICANN records. It seems to have been implemented last July.

A Verisign spokesperson said the company “has implemented” the system.

The Verification Code Extension — technically, it’s an extension to the EPP protocol pretty much all registries use — was outlined in a Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf) last May, and approved by ICANN not long after.

Verisign was approved to operate in China last August in the first wave of gTLD registries to obtain government licenses.

Under Chinese regulations, domain names registered in TLDs not approved by the government may not resolve. Registrars are obliged to verify the identities of their registrants and names containing certain sensitive terms are not permitted.

Other gTLDs, including .vip, .club, .xyz .site and .shop have been granted approval over the last few months.

Some have chosen to work with registration gateway providers in China to comply with the local rules.

Apart from XYZ.com and Verisign, no registry has sought ICANN approval for their particular implementation of Chinese law.

Because Chinese influence over ICANN is a politically sensitive issue right now, it should be pointed out that the Verification Code Extension is not something that ICANN came up with in response to Chinese demands.

Rather, it’s something Verisign came up with in response to Chinese market realities. ICANN has merely rubber-stamped a service requested by Verisign.

This, in other words, is a case of China flexing market muscle, not political muscle. Verisign, like many other gTLD registries, is over-exposed to the Chinese market.

It should also be pointed out for avoidance of doubt that the Chinese restrictions do not apply to customers of non-Chinese registrars.

However, it appears that Verisign now has a mechanism baked into its .com and .net registries that would make it much easier to implement .com restrictions that other governments might choose to put into their own legislation in future.

GMO and Radix secure Chinese gTLD approval

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2017, Domain Registries

GMO Registry and Radix have won Chinese government approval for their respective new gTLDs .shop and .site.

It’s the second batch of foreign new gTLDs to get the nod from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, following .vip, .club and .xyz in early December.

They’re also the first two Asian registries from outside China to get the right to flog their domains in China — GMO is Japanese and Radix is UAE-based with Indian roots.

Their new Chinese government licenses mean Chinese registrars will now be able to allow their customers to actually use .shop and .site domains to host web sites.

The registries in turn have had to agree to enforce China’s rather arbitrary and Draconian censorship policies on their Chinese customers.

The approvals were announced by MIIT December 29.

.site currently has about 570,000 domains in its zone file, making it a top-10 new gTLD by volume, while .shop, which launched much more recently, has over 100,000.

The ability for Chinese customers to develop their domains is no doubt good for the long-term health of TLDs, but it’s not necessarily a harbinger of shorter-term growth in a market where domains are often treated little more than meaningless baseball cards to be traded rather than commodities with intrinsic value.

.xyz, .club and .vip get the nod to sell in China

Kevin Murphy, December 5, 2016, Domain Registries

The Chinese government has granted licenses to operate in the country to its first tranche of new gTLDs — .vip, .club and .xyz.

The agreements mean that Chinese registrars will be able to give their Chinese customers the ability to actually use their domains for web sites.

It also means the companies will be obliged to censor domains the government does not like, but only those domains registered via Chinese registrars.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced the licenses, given to the Chinese subsidiaries of Minds + Machines, .CLUB Domains and XYZ.com respectively, today.

M+M CEO Toby Hall told DI that it’s “a great moment of support for Chinese registrars”, giving them a “very clear signal about which TLDs they can focus on”.

XYZ.com said in a blog post that some of its Chinese registrars (its biggest channel) are planning on offering discounts to celebrate the approval.

It’s always been possible for Chinese people to register new gTLD domains via Chinese registrars — it’s estimated that 42% of the 27 million new gTLD domains in existence today are Chinese-owned.

However, Chinese citizens need a government license if they want to launch a web site, and the government only issues licenses for domains in approved TLDs.

In addition to .cn and China-based gTLDs, which were the first to be given the nod, Verisign was approved earlier this year for .com.

Hall said that while .vip has been popular with Chinese domainers, the MIIT license means it can start to tap the small business market there too.

Obtaining the license means that the three registries, which are all based in the US or Europe, will have to comply with Chinese regulations when it comes to Chinese customers.

That basically means the Chinese government gets to censor pretty much anything it doesn’t like, up to and including sites that “spread rumors”.

Hall said that there’s no chance of this censorship bleeding out to affect non-Chinese customers.

M+M, along with XYZ and .CLUB, are using Chinese registry gateway ZDNS to act as a proxy between their own back-ends (Nominet for .vip, Neustar for .club and CentralNic for .xyz) and Chinese registrars.

“All of our Chinese web sites go through ZDNS, so only web sites going through ZDNS would be affected,” Hall said, referring to the censorship rules.

Hall added that he was “not aware” of there being a blocklist of politically sensitive strings that Chinese customers are not allowed to register.

China floats domain crackdown plans

Kevin Murphy, March 30, 2016, Domain Policy

The Chinese government is planning a crackdown on internet domains that could see mass censorship of non-Chinese names.

Draft rules floated for public comment this week are being widely reported as potentially blocking any domain that is not registered via a registry or registrar with a government license.

There are more than 50 provisions in the draft, but Article 37 is the one causing the most concern.

A translation published by Quartz yesterday has it reading like this:

Domain names engaging in network access within the borders shall have services provided by domestic domain name registration service bodies, and domestic domain name registration management bodies shall carry out operational management.

For domain names engaging in network access within the borders, but which are not managed by domestic domain name registration service bodies, Internet access service providers may not provide network access services.

At its worst, it suggests that every domain name not registered entirely through China-approved registries and registrars could be blocked from resolving in China.

You’d need a domain in .cn or a licensed gTLD, registered through a Chinese registrar, to access Chinese internet users, in other words.

But even Chinese locals who follow the issue closely are reportedly saying the regulations are vaguely worded, so it’s not clear exactly what would be blocked.

If you can read Chinese, the draft rules can be downloaded from this page. I’d be interested in hearing your take on them.

The rules also demand that domain name companies prevent domains carrying words deemed harmful from being registered.

There are additional controls on content — bans on porn, “rumor” and basically anything the Chinese government does not like — and registrant identity validation requirements.

The rules appear to be designed to replace the existing 2004 regulations that among other things force registrars and registries to obtain government licenses before the names they sell are allowed to resolve.

Those rules have led to several Western new gTLD registries, including Rightside, Famous Four Media and Minds + Machines, opening up corporate entities in China, in order to tap into the thriving market.

Local entities are of course subject to local laws — and ICANN contracts oblige them to abide by all applicable laws — which opens up the risk of Chinese regulations leaking out into the wider internet.

That almost happened with XYZ.com, which announced and then retracted (or clarified) an apparent plan to globally block domains deemed unsuitable by the Chinese censors.

It is inevitable that the proposals, which are open for public comment until April 25, will be used by US Congressional Republicans as a stick to beat ICANN and fight the imminent transition of IANA away from US government oversight.

High profile GOP politicians including presidential hopeful Ted Cruz have pointed to Chinese censorship as a risk of removing the USG from DNS root zone management.

But this isn’t really an ICANN problem as such. It’s a market forces problem.

Some new gTLD registries are seeing huge sales volume from Chinese registrants, who are trading many thousands of short, meaningless domains like baseball cards at the moment.

DI data shows that Chinese registrars accounted for 18.4 million gTLD domains in November 2015, up by 8.8 million domains in 12 months.

That number is likely to be several millions greater now, given the speculative activity of the last few months.

For registries, fully exploiting this market requires some sort of local presence, which in turn means exposing themselves to the already pretty bad Chinese censorship regime.

They’re going to have to be careful if they want to avoid China using the market to achieve the kind of back-door policy control it would never be able to obtain via ICANN.

Rape ban results in just one .uk takedown, but piracy suspensions soar

Kevin Murphy, February 19, 2016, Domain Registries

Nominet’s controversial policy of suspending domain names that appear to condone rape resulted in one .uk domain being taken down last year.

That’s according to a summary of take-downs published by Nominet yesterday.

The report (pdf) reveals that 3,889 .uk names were taken down in the 12 months to October 31, 2015.

That’s up on the the 948 domains suspended in the six months to October 31, 2014.

The vast majority — 3,610 — were as a result of complaints from the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit. In the October 2014 period, that unit was responsible for 839 suspensions.

Unlike these types of suspensions, which deal with the allegedly illegal content of web sites, the “offensive names” ban deals purely with the words in the domain names.

Nominet’s systems automatically flagged 2,407 names as potentially in breach of the policy — most likely because they contained the string “rape” or similar — in the 12 months.

But only one of those was judged, upon human perusal, in breach.

In the previous 12 months period, 11 domains were suspended based on this policy, but nine of those had been registered prior to the implementation of the policy early in 2014.

The policy, which bans domains that “promote or incite serious sexual violence”, was put in place following an independent review by Lord Macdonald.

He was recruited for advice due to government pressure following a couple of lazy anti-porn articles, both based on questionable research by a single anti-porn campaigner, in the right-wing press.

Assuming it takes a Nominet employee five minutes to manually review a .uk domain for breach, it seems the company is paying for 200 person-hours per year, or 25 working days, to take down one or two domain names that probably wouldn’t have caused any actual harm anyway.

Great policy.

XYZ says it won’t block censored Chinese domains

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2015, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry XYZ.com has said it will not preemptively censor domain names based on the wishes of the Chinese government.

Over the last couple of days, CEO Daniel Negari has sought to “clarify” its plans to block and suspend domain names based on Chinese government requests.

It follows XYZ’s Registry Services Evaluation Request for a gateway service in the country, first reported by DI and subsequently picked up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Wall Street Journal columnist, Fortune magazine and others.

The clarifications offered up by XYZ probably did more to confuse matters.

A blog post on Wednesday said that XYZ will not reserve any .xyz domain names from being registered, except those ICANN makes all new gTLD registries reserve.

Subsequent comments from Negari stated that XYZ will, as the RSEP stated, prevent names that have been banned in China from being registered.

However, there’s one significant difference.

Now, the registry is saying that it will only put those bans in place for domain names that have been specifically banned by the Chinese government when the name had already been registered by a Chinese registrant.

So, if I understand correctly, it would not preemptively ban anyone anywhere from registering [banned term].xyz.

However, if [banned term].xyz was registered to a Chinese resident and the Chinese government told the registry to suspend it, it would be suspended and nobody would be able to re-register it anywhere in the world.

Negari said in a blog comment yesterday:

if we receive a Chinese legal order tomorrow (before the gateway has launched) which requires disabling a domain name registered in China and properly under Chinese jurisdiction, then it will be disabled at the registry level, and not by the gateway. When the gateway launches the name will continue to be unavailable, and the gateway will not implement the action on a localized basis only in China. The normal registry system would continue to be the only system used to resolve the name globally. Again — the specific stability concern ICANN had was that we would use the Chinese gateway to make .xyz names resolve differently, depending on what country you are in. I completely agree that our [RSEP] re-draft to address that concern came out in a way that can be read in a way that we sincerely did not intend.

So there is a list of preemptively banned .xyz, .college, .rent, .security and .protection domains, compiled by XYZ from individual Chinese government requests targeting names registered to Chinese registrants.

Negari said in an email to DI yesterday:

To clarify the statement “XYZ will reserve domains,” we meant that XYZ will takedown domains in order to comply with “applicable law.” Unfortunately, the inaccuracies in your post caused people to believe that we were allowing the Chinese government to control what names could be registered or how they could be used by people outside of China. The idea that XYZ is going to impose Chinese law and prevent people outside of China from registering certain domain names is simply incorrect and not true. To be 100% clear, there is no “banned list.”

That was the first time anyone connected with XYZ had complained about the October 12 post, other than since-deleted tweets that corrected the size of the list from 40,000 domains to 12,000.

The RSEP (pdf) that causes all this kerfuffle has not been amended. It still says:

XYZ will reserve names prohibited for registration by the Chinese government at the registry level internationally, so the Gateway itself will not need to be used to block the registration of of any names. Therefore, a registrant in China will be able to register the same domain names as anyone else in the world.

This fairly unambiguous statement is what XYZ says was “misinterpreted” by DI (and everyone else who read it).

However, it’s not just a couple of sentences taken out of context. The context also suggests preemptive banning of domains.

The very next sentence states:

When the Gateway is initially implemented we will not run into a problem whereby a Chinese registrant has already registered a name prohibited for registration by the Chinese government because Chinese registrars are already enforcing a prohibition on the registration of names that are in violation of Chinese law.

This states that Chinese residents are already being preemptively banned, by Chinese registrars, from registering domains deemed illegal in China.

The next few paragraphs of the RSEP deal with post-registration scenarios of domains being banned, clearly delineated from the paragraph dealing with pre-registration scenarios.

In his blog post, Negari said the RSEP “addressed the proactive abuse mitigation we will take to shut down phishing, pharming, malware, and other abuse in China”.

I can’t believe this is true. The consequence would be that if China sent XYZ a take-down notice about a malware or phishing site registered to a non-Chinese registrant, XYZ would simply ignore it.

Regardless, the takeaway today is that XYZ is now saying that it will not ban a domain before it has been registered, unless that domain has previously been registered by a Chinese resident and subsequently specifically banned by the Chinese government.

The registry says this is no different to how it would treat take-down notices issued by, for example, a US court. It’s part of its contractual obligation to abide by “applicable law”, it says.

Whether this is a policy U-turn or a case of an erroneous RSEP being submitted… frankly I don’t want to get into that debate.

Disclosure: during the course of researching this story, I registered .xyz domains matching (as far as this monoglot can tell) the Chinese words for “democracy”, “human rights”, “porn” and possibly “Tiananmen Square”. I have no idea if they have value and have no plans to develop them into web sites.

XYZ to put global block on domains banned in China

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2015, Domain Registries

XYZ.com plans to slap a global ban on domain names censored by the Chinese government.

Chinese words meaning things such as “human rights” and “democracy” are believed to be on the block list, which an industry source says could contain as many as 40,000 words, names and phrases.

(UPDATE: Gavin Brown, CTO of XYZ back-end CentralNic, tweeted that the list is nowhere near 40,000 names long.)

The registry seems to be planning to allow the Chinese government to censor its new gTLDs, which include .xyz, .college, .rent, .protection and .security, in every country of the world.

And it might not be the last non-Chinese registry to implement such a ban.

The surprising revelation came in a fresh Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf), filed with ICANN on Friday.

The RSEP asks ICANN to approve the use of a gateway service on the Chinese mainland, which the company says it needs in order to comply with Chinese law.

As previously reported, Chinese citizens are allowed to register domains in non-Chinese registries, but they may not activate them unless the registry complies with the law.

That law requires the registry to be located on the Chinese mainland. XYZ plans to comply by hiring local player ZDNS to proxy its EPP systems and mirror its Whois.

But the Chinese government also bans certain strings — which I gather are mostly but not exclusively in Chinese script — from being registered in domain names.

Rather than block them at the ZDNS proxy, where only Chinese users would be affected, XYZ has decided to ban them internationally.

Registrants in North America or Europe, for example, will not be able to register domains that are banned in China. XYZ said in its RSEP:

XYZ will reserve names prohibited for registration by the Chinese government at the registry level internationally, so the Gateway itself will not need to be used to block the registration of of any names. Therefore, a registrant in China will be able to register the same domain names as anyone else in the world.

It seems that XYZ plans to keep its banned domain list updated as China adds more strings to its own list, which I gather it does regularly.

Customers outside of China who have already registered banned domains will not be affected, XYZ says.

If China subsequently bans more strings, international customers who already own matching domains will also not be affected, it says.

CEO Daniel Negari told DI: “To be clear, we will not be taking action against names registered outside of China based on Chinese government requests.”

But Chinese registrants do face the prospect losing their domains, if China subsequently bans the words and XYZ receives a complaint from Chinese authorities.

“We treat requests from the Chinese government just like we treat requests from the US government or any other government,” Negari said.

“When we receive a valid government or court order to take action against a name and the government has jurisdiction over the registration, we will take action the registration,” he said.

Up to a third of the .xyz zone — about three hundred thousand names — is believed to be owned by Chinese registrants who are currently unable to actually use their names.

The company clearly has compelling business reasons to comply with Chinese law.

But is giving the Chinese government the ongoing right to ban tens of thousands of domain names internationally a step too far?

ICANN allows anyone to file public comments on RSEP requests. I expect we’ll see a few this time.

Free speech banned from .bible

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2015, Domain Registries

The Bible may be a piece of literature that belongs to the world, but in .bible it’s going to be a propaganda tool for Christians.

The just-published Acceptable Use Policy (pdf) bans any content that the American Bible Society, acting as registry, deems unsuitable. Specifically prohibited:

Pointing to any content that may, as determined in ABS’s sole discretion, disparage or blaspheme God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Christianity (to include any sects or denominations), the Bible, or any other such tenet, symbol, representative or principles of the Christian faith.

Pointing to any content that, as determined in ABS’s sole discretion, espouses or promotes a religious, secular or other worldview that is antithetical to New Testament principles, including but not limited to the promotion of a non-Christian religion or set of religious beliefs.

This would seem to ban, for example, a web site that used the Bible’s text to question whether human sacrifice and scapegoating are really moral precepts by which people should live their lives.

ABS is a non-denominational organization, so presumably you are allowed to set up sites that say Eucharistic wine is really magic human blood, and also that it isn’t.

The registry is the publisher of the “Good News” modern-English translation of the Bible, which ends with billions of people being cast into a lake of fire to burn for eternity.

Turkey blocks Google DNS in Twitter crackdown

Kevin Murphy, March 23, 2014, Domain Policy

The Turkish government has reportedly blocked access to Google’s public DNS service from with its borders, as part of its recently instituted censorship of Twitter.

According to local reports, the IP addresses 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4 — Google’s public DNS servers — were banned after they became widely used to circumnavigate blocks on Twitter’s domain names.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week vowed to “wipe out” Twitter, after the company refused to take down tweets criticizing his government over corruption allegations ahead of an election next week.

Twitter is encouraging Turkish users to use SMS to send tweets instead. Many Turks are also turning to VPNs to evade this bizarre piece of Draconian censorship.