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ICANN urged to reject .com price increases

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

The Internet Commerce Association has asked ICANN to refuse to allow Verisign to raise its wholesale prices for .com domain names.

The domainer trade group wrote to ICANN last week to point out that just because the Trump administration has dropped the US government objection to controlled price increases, that doesn’t necessarily mean ICANN has to agree.

Verisign’s deal with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration “does not of course, compel ICANN to agree to any such increases. Any such decision regarding .com pricing
remains with ICANN” ICA general counsel Zak Muscovitch wrote.

The deal allows Verisign to increase the price of .com registrations, renewals and transfers by 7% per year in four of the next six years, leading to a compound 30% increase by the time it concludes.

The arguments put forth Muscovitch’s letter are pretty much the same as the arguments ICA made when it was lobbying NTIA to maintain the price freeze.

Namely: Verisign already makes a tonne of money from .com, it has a captive audience, it cannot claim credit for .com’s success, and .com is not constrained by competition.

“As NTIA makes clear, it is up to Verisign to request a fee increase and ICANN that may agree or disagree. ICANN should not agree. Indeed, it would be a dereliction of ICANN’s responsibilities to the ICANN community if Verisign were permitted to raise its fees when it is already very well paid for the services which it provides,” Muscovitch’s letter (pdf) concludes.

For many years ICANN has been reluctant to get involved in price regulation. It remains to be seen whether it will make an exception for .com.

Hebrew .com off to a slow start

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

The Hebrew transliteration of .com has only sold a couple hundred domains since it went into general availability.

Verisign took the new gTLD קום. (Hebrew is a right-to-left script, so the dot comes after the string) to market November 5, when it had about 3,200 domains in its zone file. It now stands around the 3,400 mark.

The pre-GA domains are a combination of a few hundred sunrise regs and a few thousand exact-match .coms that were grandfathered in during a special registration period.

It’s not a stellar performance out of the gates, but Hebrew is not a widely-spoken language and most of its speakers are also very familiar with the Latin script.

There are between seven and nine million Hebrew speakers in the world, according to Wikipedia. It doesn’t make the top 100 languages in the world.

The ccTLD for Israel, where most of these speakers live, reports that it currently has 246,795 .il domains under management. That’s a middling amount when compared to similarly sized countries such as Serbia (about 100,000 names) and Switzerland (over 2 million).

Verisign’s original application for this transliteration had to be corrected, from קום. to קוֹם. If you can tell the difference, you have better eyesight than me.

In the root, the gTLD is Punycoded as .xn--9dbq2a.

Wagner takes dig at Verisign as GoDaddy reports $310 million domain revenue

Kevin Murphy, November 7, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy CEO Scott Wagner ducked a question about how the company will react to future .com price increases during its third-quarter earnings call yesterday, but used the opportunity to take a gentle swipe at Verisign.

Asked by an analyst whether the first 7% price increase, almost certainly coming in 2020, would have any effect on GoDaddy’s gross margins (ie, will they shrink as the company swallows increased costs, or swell as it increases its own prices above 7%), Wagner said:

the last time VeriSign took a price increase the industry passed that through to the end registrant.

.com and more importantly the software around bringing somebody’s .com to life is valuable and, modestly, we’re providing the value in that relationship around taking a domain name and actually turning it into something that somebody cares about.

I’m interpreting that as a pop at the idea that Verisign enjoys the fat registration margins while GoDaddy is the one that actually has to market domains, up-sell, innovate, deal with customers, and so on.

The remarks came just a few days after Verisign, in a blog post, branded GoDaddy and other secondary-market players “scalpers”, infuriating domainers.

Wagner was talking to analysts as the market-leading registrar reported revenue for Q3 of $679.5 million, up 16.7% year over year.

Revenue from domains, still the biggest of its three reporting business segments, was $309.5 million, up 14.0% compared to the year-ago quarter. GoDaddy now has 18 million customers and over 77 million domains under management.

Overall net income was down to $13.2 million from $22.4 million, as operating expenses rose over 16% to hit $642 million, after the company invested more in marketing, development and so on. Its operating income was $37.5 million.

Contrast this with Verisign’s performance for the same quarter, reported two weeks ago.

It saw revenue about the same as GoDaddy’s domains revenue — $306 million — but net income of $138 million and operating income of $195 million.

GoDaddy and Verisign could find themselves competing before long. As part of its deal with the US government to allow it to raise .com wholesale prices once more, the government also lifted its objection to Verisign becoming a registrar, just as long as it does not deal in .com names.

Will ICANN take a bigger slice of the .com pie, or will .domainers get URS?

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Will ICANN try to get its paws on some of Verisign’s .com windfall? Or might domainers get a second slap in the face by seeing URS imposed in .com?

With Verisign set to receive hundreds of millions of extra dollars due to the imminent lifting of .com price caps, it’s been suggested that ICANN may also financially benefit from the arrangement.

In a couple of blog posts Friday, filthy domain scalper Andrew Allemann said that ICANN will likely demand higher fees from Verisign in the new .com registry agreement.

Will it though? I guess it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty by any means.

Verisign currently pays ICANN $0.25 per transaction, the same as almost all other gTLDs. Technically, there’s no reason this could not be renegotiated.

Putting aside some of the legacy gTLD contracts, I can only think of two significant cases of ICANN imposing higher fees on a registry.

The first was .xxx, which was signed in 2011. That called for ICM Registry, now part of MMX, to pay $2 per transaction, eight times the norm.

The rationale for this was that ICANN thought (or at least said it thought) that .xxx was going to be a legal and compliance minefield. It said it envisaged higher costs for overseeing the then-controversial TLD.

There was a school of thought that ICANN was just interested in opportunistically boosting its own coffers, given that ICM was due to charge over $60 per domain per year — at the time a ludicrously high amount.

But risk largely failed to materialize, and the two parties last year renegotiated the fees down to $0.25.

The second instance was .sucks, another controversial TLD. In that case, ICANN charged registry Vox Populi a $100,000 upfront fee and per-transaction fees of $1 per domain for the first 900,000 transactions, four times more than the norm.

While some saw this as a repeat of the .xxx legal arse-covering tactic, ICANN said it was actually in place to recoup a bunch of money that Vox Pop owner Momentous still owed when it let a bunch of its drop-catch registrars go out of business a couple years earlier.

While the .sucks example clearly doesn’t apply to Verisign, one could make the case that the .xxx example might.

It’s possible, I guess, that ICANN could make the case that Verisign’s newly regained ability to raise prices opens it up to litigation risk — something I reckon is certainly true — and that it needs to increase its fees to cover that risk.

It might be tempting. ICANN has a bit of a budget crunch at the moment, and a bottomless cash pit like Verisign would be an easy source of funds. A transaction fee increase of four cents would have been enough to cover the $5 million budget shortfall it had to deal with earlier this year.

On the other hand, it could be argued that ICANN demanding more money from Verisign would unlevel the playing field, inviting endless litigation from Verisign itself.

ICANN’s track record with legacy gTLDs has been to reduce, rather than increase, their transaction fees.

Pre-2012 gTLDs such as .mobi, .jobs, .cat and .travel have all seen their fees reduced to the $0.25 baseline in recent years, sometimes from as high as $2.

In each of these cases, the registries concerned had to adopt many provisions of the standard 2012 new gTLD registry agreement including, controversially, the Uniform Rapid Suspension service.

Domainers hate the URS, which gives trademark owners greater powers to take away their domains, and the Internet Commerce Association (under the previous stewardship of general counsel Phil Corwin, since hired by Verisign) unsuccessfully fought against URS being added to .mobi et al over the last several years, on the basis that eventually it could worm its way into .com.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that ICANN might reduce Verisign’s fees, but what if URS is the price the registry has to pay for its massive .com windfall?

It’s not as if Verisign has any love for domainers, despite the substantial contribution they make to its top line.

Since the NTIA deal was announced, it’s already calling them “scalpers” and driving them crazy.

ICA lost the .com price freeze fight last week, could it also be about to lose the URS fight?

Trump gives Verisign almost $1 billion in free money

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

The Trump administration may have just handed Verisign close to $1 billion in free money.

That’s according to the back of the envelope I’m looking at right now, following the announcement that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is reinstating Verisign’s right to increase .com registry fees.

As you may have read elsewhere already (I was off sick last week, sorry about that) a new amendment to the Verisign-NTIA Cooperative Agreement restores Verisign’s ability to raise prices by 7% per year in four of the six years of the deal.

The removal of the Obama-era price freeze still needs to be incorporated into Verisign’s ICANN contract, but it’s hard to imagine ICANN, which is generally loathe to get into pricing regulation, declining to take its lead from NTIA.

Verisign would also have to choose to exercise its option to increase prices in each of the four years. I think the probability of this happening is 1 in 1.

Layering this and a bunch of other assumptions into a spreadsheet, I’m coming up with a figure of roughly an extra $920 million that Verisign will get to add to its top line over the next six years.

Again, this isn’t an in-depth study. Just back-of-the-envelope stuff. I’ll talk you through my thinking.

Not counting its occasional promotions, Verisign currently makes $7.85 for every year that a .com domain is added or renewed, and for every inter-registrar transfer.

In 2017, .com saw 40.89 million add-years, 84.64 million renew-years and 3.79 million transfers, according to official registry reports.

This all adds up to 129,334,643 revenue events for Verisign, or just a tad over $1 billion at $7.85 a pop.

Over the four-year period of the price increases transaction fees will go up to $8.40, then $8.99, then $9.62, then $10.29. I’m rounding up to the nearest penny here, it’s possible Verisign may round down.

If we assume zero transaction growth, that’s already an extra $762.2 million into Verisign’s coffers over the period of the contract.

But the number of transactions inevitably grows each year — more new domains are added, and some percentage of them renew.

Between 2016 and 2017, transaction growth was 3.16%.

If we assume the same growth each year for the next six years, the difference between Verisign’s total revenue at $7.85 and at the new pricing comes to $920 million.

Verisign doesn’t have to do anything for this extra cash, it just gets it.

Indeed, the new NTIA deal is actually less restrictive on the company. It allows Verisign to acquire or start up an ICANN-accredited gTLD registrar, something it is currently banned from doing, just as long as that registrar does not sell .com domains.

Verisign’s .net contract also currently bans the company from owning more than 15% of a registrar, so presumably that agreement would also need to be amended in order for Verisign to get into the registrar business.

I say again that my math here is speculative; I’m a blogger, not a financial analyst. There may be some incorrect assumptions — I’ve not accounted for promotions at all, for example, and the 3.16% growth assumption might not be fair — and there are of course many variables that could move the needle.

But the financial markets know a sweetheart deal when they see one, and Verisign’s share price went up 17.2% following the news, reportedly reaching heights not seen since since the dwindling days of the dot-com bubble 18 years ago.

The reason given for the lifting of the price freeze was, for want of a better word, bullshit. From the NTIA’s amendment:

In recognition that ccTLDs, new gTLDs, and the use of social media have created a more dynamic DNS marketplace, the parties agree that the yearly price for the registration and renewal of domain names in the .com registry may be changed

Huh?

This seems to imply that Verisign has somehow been disproportionately harmed by the rise of social media, the appearance of new gTLDs and some unspecified change in the ccTLD marketplace.

While it’s almost certainly true that .net has taken a whack due to competition from new gTLDs, and that the domain marketplace overall may have been diminished by many small businesses spurning domains by choosing to set up shop on, say, Facebook, .com is still a growing money-printing machine with some of the fattest margins seen anywhere in the business world and about a 40% global market share.

If the Trump administration’s goal here is to make some kind of ideological statement about free markets, then why not just lift the price caps altogether? Give Verisign the right to price .com however it pleases?

Or maybe Trump just wants to flip the bird to Obama once more by reversing yet another of his policies?

Who knows? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.