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.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.