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Industry lays into Verisign over .com deal renewal

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2016, Domain Registries

Some of Verisign’s chickens have evidently come home to roost.

A number of companies that the registry giant has pissed off over the last couple of years have slammed the proposed renewal of its .com contract with ICANN.

Rivals including XYZ.com (sued over its .xyz advertising) and Donuts (out-maneuvered on .web) are among those to have filed comments opposing the proposed new Registry Agreement.

They’re joined by business and intellectual property interests, concerned that Verisign is being allowed to carry on without implementing any of the IP-related obligations of other gTLDs, and a dozens of domainers, spurred into action by a newsletter.

Even a child protection advocacy group has weighed in, accusing Verisign of not doing enough to prevent child abuse material being distributed.

ICANN announced last month that it plans to renew the .com contract, which is not due to expire for another two years, until 2024, to bring its term in line with Verisign’s contracts related to root zone management.

There are barely any changes in the proposed new RA — no new rights protection mechanisms, no changes to how pricing is governed, and no new anti-abuse provisions.

The ensuing public comment period, which closed on Friday, has attracted slightly more comments than your typical ICANN comment period.

That’s largely due to outrage from readers of the Domaining.com newsletter, who were urged to send comments in an article headlined “BREAKING: Verisign doubles .COM price overnight!”

That headline, for avoidance of doubt, is not accurate. I think the author was trying to confer the idea that the headline could, in his opinion, be accurate in future.

Still, it prompted a few dozen domainers to submit brief comments demanding “No .com price increases!!!”

The existing RA, which would be renewed, says this about price:

The Maximum Price for Registry Services subject to this Section 7.3 shall be as follows:

(i) from the Effective Date through 30 November 2018, US $7.85;

(ii) Registry Operator shall be entitled to increase the Maximum Price during the term of the Agreement due to the imposition of any new Consensus Policy or documented extraordinary expense resulting from an attack or threat of attack on the Security or Stability of the DNS, not to exceed the smaller of the preceding year’s Maximum Price or the highest price charged during the preceding year, multiplied by 1.07.

The proposed amendment (pdf) that would extend the contract through 2024 does not directly address price.

It does, however, contain this paragraph:

Future Amendments. The parties shall cooperate and negotiate in good faith to amend the terms of the Agreement (a) by the second anniversary of the Effective Date, to preserve and enhance the security and stability of the Internet or the TLD, and (b) as may be necessary for consistency with changes to, or the termination or expiration of, the Cooperative Agreement between Registry Operator and the Department of Commerce.

The Cooperative Agreement is the second contract in the three-way relationship between Verisign, ICANN and the US Department of Commerce that allows Verisign to run not only .com but also the DNS root zone.

It’s important because Commerce exercised its powers under the agreement in 2012 to freeze .com prices at $7.85 a year until November 2018, unless Verisign can show it no longer has “market power”, a legal term that plays into monopoly laws.

So what the proposed .com amendments mean is that, if the Cooperative Agreement changes in 2018, ICANN and Verisign are obligated to discuss amending the .com contract at that time to take account of the new terms.

If, for example, Commerce extends the price freeze, Verisign and ICANN are pretty much duty bound to write that extension into the RA too.

There’s no credible danger of prices going up before 2018, in other words, and whether they go up after that will be primarily a matter for the US administration.

The US could decide that Verisign no longer has market power then and drop the price freeze, but would be an indication of a policy change rather than a reflection of reality.

The Internet Commerce Association, which represents high-volume domainers, does not appear particularly concerned about prices going up any time soon.

It said in its comments to ICANN that it believes the new RA “will have no effect whatsoever upon the current .Com wholesale price freeze of $7.85 imposed on Verisign”.

XYZ.com, in its comments, attacked not potential future price increases, but the current price of $7.85, which it characterized as extortionate.

If .com were put out to competitive tender, XYZ would be prepared to reduce the price to $1 per name per year, CEO Daniel Negari wrote, saving .com owners over $850 million a year — more than the GDP of Rwanda.

ICANN should not passively go along with Verisign’s selfish goal of extending its unfair monopoly over the internet’s most popular top-level domain name.

Others in the industry chose to express that the proposed contract does not even attempt to normalize the rules governing .com with the rules almost all other gTLDs must abide by.

Donuts, in its comment, said that the more laissez-faire .com regime actually harms competition, writing:

It is well known that new gTLDs and now many other legacy gTLDs are heavily vested with abuse protections that .COM is not. Thus, smaller, less resource-rich competitors must manage gTLDs laden (appropriately) with additional responsibilities, while Verisign is able to operate its domains unburdened from these safeguards. This incongruence is a precise demonstration of disparate treatment, and one that actually hinders effective competition and ultimately harms consumers.

It points to numerous statistics showing that .com is by far the most-abused TLD in terms of spam, phishing, malware and cybersquatting.

The Business Constituency and Intellectual Property Constituency had similar views about standardizing rules on abuse and such. The IPC comment says:

The continued prevalence of abusive registrations in the world’s largest TLD registry is an ongoing challenge. The terms of the .com registry agreement should reflect that reality, by incorporating the most up-to-date features that will aid in the detection, prevention and remediation of abuses.

The European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online submitted a comment with a more narrow focus — child abuse material and pornography in general.

Enasco said that 41% of sites containing child abuse material use .com domains and that Verisign should at least have the same regulatory regime as 2012-round gTLDs. It added:

Verisign’s egregious disinterest in or indolence towards tackling these problems hitherto hardly warrants them being rewarded by being allowed to continue the same lamentable
regime.

I couldn’t find any comments that were in unqualified support of the .com contract renewal, but the lack of any comments from large sections of the ICANN community may indicate widespread indifference.

The full collection of comments can be found here.

“Ditch .com!” government to tell Indians

The Indian government is to urge citizens to register .in domain names instead of .com, according to local reports.

The Economic Times reports today that the Ministry of Economy and IT is to launch a “massive advertising campaign aimed at companies, individuals and startups” promoting .in.

Rajiv Bansal, MEIT joint secretary, is reported as saying the campaign will play up to nationalist sentiments

The government wants to grow .in from about 2.1 million domains to 3 million domains by March next year, it said.

Prices could come down to the $2 to $3 range, the paper said.

The campaign is due to start in a month or so, it was reported.

Verisign to get .com for six more years, but prices to stay frozen

ICANN and Verisign have agreed to extend their .com registry contract for another six years, but there are no big changes in store for .com owners.

Verisign will now get to run the gTLD until November 30, 2024.

The contract was not due to expire until 2018, but the two parties have agreed to renew it now in order to synchronize it with Verisign’s new contract to run the root zone.

Separately, ICANN and Verisign have signed a Root Zone Maintainer Agreement, which gives Verisign the responsibility to make updates to the DNS root zone when told to do so by ICANN’s IANA department.

That’s part of the IANA transition process, which will (assuming it isn’t scuppered by US Republicans) see the US government’s role in root zone maintenance disappear later this year.

Cunningly, Verisign’s operation of the root zone is technically intermingled with its .com infrastructure, using many of the same security and redundancy features, which makes the two difficult to untangle.

There are no other substantial changes to the .com agreement.

Verisign has not agreed to take on any of the rules that applies to new gTLDs, for example.

It also means wholesale .com prices will be frozen at $7.85 for the foreseeable future.

The deal only gives Verisign the right to raise prices if it can come up with a plausible security/stability reason, which for one of the most profitable tech companies in the world seems highly unlikely.

Pricing is also regulated by Verisign’s side deal (pdf) with the US Department of Commerce, which requires government approval for any price increases until such time as .com no longer has dominant “market power”.

The .com extension is now open for public comment.

Predictably, it’s already attracted a couple of comments saying that the contract should instead be put out to tender, so a rival registry can run the show for cheaper.

That’s never, ever, ever, ever going to happen.

Verisign has great quarter but sees China growth slowing

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2016, Domain Registries

Verisign beat its sales expectations in the first quarter of the year, but leadership said rapid growth from Chinese registrants will now “normalize”.

The .com/.net registry last night reported net income up 21% at $107 million, on revenue that was up 9.1% to $282 million.

That’s based primarily on it selling 2.65 million net new .com/.net names during the quarter, at 7.1% increase on the Q1 2014 level baseline. It said it sold 10 million new names in the quarter, up from 8.7 million a year ago.

For comparison, Q1 2015 saw 1.51 million net adds across the two TLDs. Three months ago, the company had predicted net adds to be 1.5 to 2 million names.

It had 142.5 million names at the end of the quarter, 126.6 million of which were .com.

CEO James Bidzos told analysts: “We again saw activity coming from registrars in China that exceeded our expectations.”

However, he added: “At this point, we expect activity from registrars in China to normalize as we continue through the second quarter.”

When pressed, CFO George KIlguss elaborated (according to the SeekingAlpha earnings call transcript):

as we look at the trends, we’ve seen the demand that happened in the second half of the first quarter kind of ebb and flow. So we saw it come. It was pretty strong for a few weeks and then it came back to more than normalized path. So we don’t have a perfect crystal ball, but based on the trends that we’ve seen that we’ve been tracking, it seems to be back on the normalized path for that particular region, at least as what we’ve seen historically.

Verisign is currently negotiating for the renewal of its .com contract with ICANN, which may or may not enable it to raise its government-frozen registry prices in future.

Verisign warns about Chinese .com boom

Kevin Murphy, November 24, 2015, Domain Registries

Verisign has warned investors that the current boom in .com sales is largely coming from Chinese domainers and may not be sustainable.

The company has added an unprecedented 4.1 million domain in .com and .net so far during the fourth quarter.

“While there continues to be demand for domain names globally, the recent increased volume for Verisign’s top level domains, as well as top level domains of other registries, during the fourth quarter is coming largely through registrars in China,” the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

It listed several factors that are likely responsible for the sudden uptick, but warned that renewal rates are typically not great.

In the past, Verisign has discussed many factors that affect the demand for domain names, including, but not limited to economic, social, and regulatory conditions, Internet adoption, Internet penetration, and increasing e-commerce. In addition to these factors affecting demand, Verisign is also evaluating additional potential factors unique to China that may also be responsible for the recent increased volume of new registrations in China.

In no particular order, these potential factors, or combination of factors, could include, but may not be limited to, government initiatives in China to develop their online economy such as ‘Internet Plus;’ registry and registrar regulatory requirements; cultural influences such as the popularity of numeric domain names; increasing competition amongst Chinese registrars; potential increases in domain name investment activity; and recent capital markets volatility and access to capital in China.

Verisign cannot predict if or how long this increased pace of gross additions will continue and we cannot at this time predict what the renewal rate for these domain names will be. Verisign has noted in the past that renewal rates for domain names registered in emerging markets, such as China, have historically been lower than those registered in more developed markets.

It’s difficult to imagine that Chinese investors have managed to find four million unregistered domains worth keeping.

There are currently 123,497,852 domains in the .com zone file, according to Verisign’s web site.

Verisign is not the only registry that appears to be benefiting from a deluge of registrations from China.

XYZ.com has seen over 440,000 domains added to its .xyz zone file in the last three weeks, bringing its total to over 1.5 million, which appear to be largely coming through Chinese registrars.