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Have your say on single-character .com domains

ICANN wants your opinion on its plan to allow Verisign to auction off o.com, with a potential impact on the future release of other single-character .com domain names.

The organization has published a proposed amendment to the .com registry contract and opened it for public comment.

The changes would enable Verisign to sell o.com, while keeping all other currently unallocated single-character names on its reserved list.

The company would not be able to benefit financially from the auction beyond its standard $7.85 reg fee — all funds would be held by an independent third-party entity and distributed to undisclosed non-profit causes.

The arrangement would also see the buyer pay a premium renewal fee of 5% of the initial outlay, doubling the purchase price over the course of 25 years.

They would not be able to resell the domain without selling the registrant company itself.

It’s a pretty convoluted system being proposed, given that there may well end up only being one bidder.

Overstock.com, the online retailer, has been pressuring ICANN and Verisign to release o.com for well over a decade, and the proposed auction seems to be a way to finally shut it up.

The company has a US trademark on O.com, so any other bidder for the name would probably be buying themselves a lawsuit.

The proposed auction system does not address trademark issues — there’s no sunrise period of trademark claims period.

One party already known to be upset about lack of rights protection is First Place Internet, a search engine company that has a US trademark on the number 1.

It told ICANN (pdf) back in January that the o.com deal would “set a dangerous precedent” for future single-character name releases.

The ICANN public comment period, which comes after ICANN received the all-clear from US competition regulators, closes June 20.

As a matter of disclosure, several years ago I briefly acted as a consultant to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions, but I have no current interest in the situation one way or the other.

.com adds 5.5 million names, renewals back over 70%

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2018, Domain Registries

Verisign reported first-quarter financial results that reflected a healthier .com namespace following the spike caused by Chinese speculation in 2016.

The company Friday reported that .com was up to 133.9 million domains at the end of March, an increase of 5.5 million over the year.

The strong showing was tempered slightly by a further decline in .net, where domains were down from 15.2 million to 14.4 million.

Over the quarter, there was a net increase of 1.9 million names across both TLDs and the renewal rate was an estimated 74.9%, a pretty damn good showing.

Actual renewals for Q4, measurable only after Verisign announced its earnings, were confirmed at 72.5%, compared to a worryingly low 67.6% in Q4 2016.

In a call with analysts, CEO James Bidzos confirmed that the turnaround was due to the surge in Chinese domainer speculation that drove numbers in 2016 finally working its way out of the system.

In Q1, the cash-printing company saw net income of $134 million, compared to $116 million a year earlier, on revenue up 3.7% at $299 million.

Bidzos told analysts that it’s “possible” that the company may get to launch .web in 2018, but said Verisign has not baked any impact from the contested gTLD into its forecasts.

Child abuse becoming big problem for new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, April 18, 2018, Domain Policy

There were 3,791 domain names used to host child sexual abuse imagery in 2017, up 57%, according to the latest annual report from the Internet Watch Foundation.

While .com was the by far the worst TLD for such material in terms of URLs, over a quarter of the domains were registered in new gTLDs.

Abuse imagery was found on 78,589 URLs on 3,791 domains in 152 TLDs, the IWF said in its report.

.com accounted for 39,937 of these URLs, a little over half of the total, with .net, .org, .ru and .co also in the top five TLDs. Together they accounted for 85% of all the abuse URLs found. The 2016 top five TLDs included .se, .io and .cc.

New gTLDs accounted for a small portion of the abuse URLs — just over 5,000, up 221% on 2016 — but a disproportionate number of domains.

The number of new gTLD domains used for abuse content was 1,063, spread over 50 new gTLDs. Equivalent numbers were not available in the 2016 report and IWF does not break down which TLDs were most-abused.

According to Verisign’s Q4 Domain Name Industry Brief (pdf), new gTLDs account for just 6.2% of all existing domain names, and yet they account for over 28% of the domains where IWF found child abuse imagery.

IWF said that the increasing number of domains registered to host abuse imagery can be linked to what it calls “disguised websites”.

These are sites “where the child sexual abuse imagery will only be revealed to someone who has followed a pre-set digital pathway — to anyone else, they will be shown legal content.”

Presumably this means that registries and registrars spot-checking domains they have under management could be unaware of their true intended use.

Domain universe grows almost 1% in 2017 despite new gTLD slump

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2018, Domain Registries

The total number of registered domain names in all TLDs was up 0.9% in 2017, despite a third-quarter dip, according to the latest data compiled by Verisign.

The latest Domain Name Industry Brief, published yesterday, shows that there were 332.4 million domains registered at the end of the year.

That’s up by 1.7 million names (0.5%) on the third quarter and up 3.1 million names (0.9%) on 2016.

Growth is growth, but when you consider that 2015-2016 growth was 6.8%, under 1% appears feeble.

The drag factors in 2017 were of course the 2012-round new gTLDs and Verisign’s own .net, offset by increases in .com and ccTLDs.

New gTLD domains were 20.6 million at the end of the year, down by about 500,000 compared to the third quarter and five million names compared to 2016.

As a percentage of overall registrations, new gTLDs dropped from 7.8% at the end of 2016 to 6.2%.

The top 10 new gTLDs now account for under 50% of new gTLD regs for the first time.

The numbers were primarily affected by big declines in high-volume spaces such as .xyz, which caused the domain universe to actually shrink in Q3.

Verisign’s own .com fared better, as usual, with .net suffering a decline.

The year ended with 131.9 million .com names, up by five million names on the year, exactly offsetting the shrinkage in new gTLDs.

But .net ended up with 14.5 million names, a 800,000 drop on 2016.

In the ccTLD world, total regs were up 1.4 million (1%) quarterly and 3.4 million (2.4%) annually.

Excluding wild-card ccTLD .tk, which never deletes domains and for which data for 2017 was not available to Verisign, the growth was a more modest 0.7 million (0.5%) quarterly and 2.3 million (1.8%) annually.

The DNIB report for Q4 2017 can be downloaded here (pdf).

CentralNic spends $3.3 million on .com portfolios

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2018, Domain Sales

CentralNic has splashed out £2.5 million ($3.3 million) to bolster its portfolio of domain names for the secondary market.

The company said in a brief statement today that it acquired an unspecified number of domains across “a number of portfolios”. The sellers were not disclosed.

The names were all in .com.

CEO Ben Crawford said the names were acquired “at an attractive discount to current market rates”.

The deals mean London-listed CentralNic might be able to continue to prop up its recurring revenue (registry/registrar) numbers through the sale of premium names, something it still needs to do if it wants to show investors a pleasing growth curve.

That’s assuming it can sell the names at a profit, of course.

Some call this the premium domain “hamster wheel”.

Namecheap to bring millions of domains in-house next week

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2018, Domain Registrars

Namecheap is finally bringing its customer base over to its own ICANN accreditation.

The registrar will next week accept transfer of an estimated 3.2 million .com and .net domains from Enom, following a court ruling forcing Enom owner Tucows to let go of the names.

The migration will happen from January 8 to January 12, Namecheap said in a blog post today.

Namecheap is one of the largest registrars in the industry, but historically it mostly acted as an Enom reseller. Every domain it sold showed up in official reports as an Enom sale.

While it’s been using its own ICANN accreditation to sell gTLD names since around 2015 — and has around four million names on its own credentials — it still had a substantial portion of its customer base on the Enom ticker.

After the two companies’ arrangement came to an end, and Enom was acquired by Tucows, Namecheap decided to also consolidate its .com/.net names under its own accreditation.

After Tucows balked at a bulk transfer, Namecheap sued, and a court ruled in December that Tucows must consent to the transfer.

Now, Namecheap says all .com and .net names registered before January 2017 or transferred in before November 2017 will be migrated.

There may be some downtime as the transition goes through, the company warned.

ICANN punts o.com auction to US watchdogs

Kevin Murphy, December 11, 2017, Domain Registries

Verisign’s proposed auction of the domain o.com might have a negative effect on competition and has been referred to US regulators.

That’s according to ICANN’s response to the .com registry’s request to release the domain, which is among the 23 single-letter domains currently reserved under the terms of its contract.

ICANN has determined that the release “might raise significant competition issues” and has therefore been referred to “to the appropriate governmental competition authority”.

It’s forwarded Verisign’s request to the US Department of Justice.

Verisign late last month asked ICANN if it could release o.com to auction as a test that could presumably lead to other single-character .com names being released in future.

The plan is for a charity auction, in which almost all the proceeds are donated to internet-related good causes.

Only the company running the auction would make any significant money; Verisign would just take its standard $7.85 annual fee.

ICANN told the company that it could find no technical reason that the release could not go ahead.

The only barrier is the fact that Verisign arguably has government-approved, cash-printing, market dominance and is therefore in a sensitive political position.

Whether its profitless plan will be enough to see the auction given the nod remains to be seen.

A certain bidder in the proposed auction would be Overstock.com, the online retailer, which has been pressuring ICANN and Verisign for the release of O.com for well over a decade and even owns trademarks covering the domain.

Disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Verisign wants to auction off O.com for charity

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2017, Domain Registries

The internet could soon gets just its fourth active single-character .com domain name, after Verisign revealed plans to auction off o.com for charity.

The company has asked ICANN to allow it to release just one of the 23 remaining one-letter .com domains, which are currently reserved under the terms of the .com registry agreement.

It’s basically a proof of concept that would lead to this contractual restriction being lifted entirely.

O.com has been picked as the guinea pig, because of “long-standing interest” in the domain, according to Verisign.

Overstock.com, the $1.8 billion-a-year US retailer, is known to have huge interest in the name.

The company acquired o.co from .CO Internet for $350,000 during the ccTLD’s 2010 relaunch, then embarked upon a disastrous rebranding campaign that ended when the company estimated it was losing 61% of its type-in traffic to o.com.

Overstock has obsessed over its unobtainable prize for over a decade and would almost certainly be involved in any auction for the domain.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Overstock pressured Verisign into requesting the release of o.com.

Despite the seven or eight figures that a single-letter .com domain could fetch, Verisign’s cut of the auction proceeds would be just $7.85, its base registry fee.

Regardless, it has a payment schedule in mind that would see the winning bidder continue to pay premium renewal fees for 25 years, eventually doubling the sale price.

The winner would pay their winning bid immediately and get a five-year registration, but then would have to pay 5% of that bid to renew the domain for years six through 25.

In other words, if the winning bid was $1 million, the annual renewal fee after the first five years would be $50,000 and the total amount paid would eventually be $2 million.

All of this money, apart from the auction provider’s cut, would go to a trust that would distribute the funds to internet-focused non-profit organizations, such as those promoting security or open protocols.

There’s also a clause that would seem to discourage domain investors from bidding. The only way to transfer the domain would be if the buyer was acquired entirely, though this could be presumably circumvented with the use of a shell company.

It’s an elaborate auction plan, befitting of the fact that one-character .com domains are super rare.

Only x.com, q.com and z.com are currently registered and it’s Verisign policy to reserve them in the unlikely event they should ever expire.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk this July reacquired x.com, the domain he used to launch PayPal in the 1990s, back from PayPal for an undisclosed sum.

Z.com was acquired by GMO Internet for $6.8 million in 2014.

Single-character domains are typically not reserved in the ICANN contracts of other gTLDs, whether pre- or post-2012, though it’s standard practice for the registry to reserve them for auction anyway.

Verisign’s reservations in .com and .net are a legacy of IANA policy, pre-ICANN and have been generally considered technically unnecessary for some years.

Still, there’s been a reluctance to simply hand Verisign, already a money-printing machine through accident of history, another windfall of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars by allowing it to sell off the names for profit. Hence the elaborate plan with the O.com trust fund.

The proposal to release O.com requires a contractual amendment, so Verisign has filed a Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf) with ICANN that is now open for public comment.

As a matter of disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Verisign launches name-spinner tool for if you really, really need a .com

Kevin Murphy, November 20, 2017, Domain Registries

Verisign has launched a new name-spinning tool, designed to help new businesses find relevant domain names in Verisign-managed TLDs.

It’s called NameStudio. Verisign said:

NameStudio can deliver relevant .com and .net domain name suggestions based on popular keywords, trending news topics and semantic relevance. Pulling from multiple and diverse data sources, the service can identify the context of a word, break search terms apart into logical combinations and quickly return results. It can also distinguish personal names from other keywords and use machine-learning algorithms that get smarter over time.

The machine-learning component may come in handy, based on my non-scientific, purely subjective messing around at the weekend.

I searched for “london pubs”, a subject close to my heart. Naturally enough, londonpubs.com is not available, but the suggestions were not what you’d call helpful.

NameStudio

As you can see, the closest match to London it could find was “Falkirk”, a town 400 miles away in Scotland. The column is filled with the names of British towns and cities, so the tool clearly knows what London is, even if its suggestions are not particularly useful for a London-oriented web site.

The closest match to “pubs” was “cichlids”, which Google reliably informs me is a type of fish. “ComicCon” (a famous trademark), “barbarians” and a bunch of sports, dog breeds and so on feature highly on its list of suggestions.

NameStudio obviously does not know what a “pub” is, but it’s not a particularly common word in most of Verisign’s native USA, so I tried “london bars” instead. The results there were a little more encouraging.

Again, Falkirk topped the list of London alternatives, a list that this time also prominently included the names of Australian cities.

On the “bars” column, suggestions such as “parties”, “stags” and “nights” suggests that NameStudio has a notion what I’m looking for, but the top suggestion is still “birthdays”.

I should note that the service also suggests prefixes such as “my” and “free” and suffixes such as “online” or “inc”, so if you have your heart set on a .com domain you’ll probably be able to find something containing your chosen keywords.

The domains alllondonpubs.com and alllondonbars.com were probably the best available alternatives I could find. For my hypothetical London-based pub directory/blog web site, they’re not terrible choices.

I also searched NameStudio for “domain blog”, another subject close to my heart.

The top three suggestions in the “domain” column were “pagerank”, “websites” and “query”. Potentially relevant. Certainly some are in the right ball-park. Let’s ignore that “pagerank” is a Google trademark that nobody really talks about much any more.

The top suggestions to replace “blog” were “infographic”, “snippets” and “rumor”. Again, right ball-park, but my best bet still appears to be adding a prefix or suffix to my original keywords.

I tried a few more super-premium one-word keywords too.

The best suggestion for “vodka” was “dogvodka.com”. For “attorney”, it was “funattorney.com”. For “insurance”, there were literally no available suggestions.

Currently — and to be fair the tool just launched last week — you’re probably better off looking at other name suggestion tools.

NameStudio does not appear to currently suggest domains that are listed for sale on the aftermarket. I expect that’s a feature addition that could come in future.

But possibly the main problem with the tool appears to be that it currently only looks for available names in .com, .net, .tv or .cc.

Repeating my “london pubs” search with GoDaddy and DomainsBot, which each support hundreds more TLDs, produced arguably superior results.

NameStudio

They’re only superior, of course, if you consider your chosen keywords, and the brevity of your domain, more important than your choice of TLD. For some people, a .com at the end of the domain will always be the primary consideration, and perhaps those people are Verisign’s target market.

Verisign and Afilias testing Whois killer

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2017, Domain Tech

Verisign and Afilias have become the first two gTLD registries to start publicly testing a replacement for Whois.

Both companies have this week started piloting implementations of RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol, which is expected to usurp the decades-old Whois protocol before long.

Both pilots are in their very early stages and designed for a technical audience, so don’t expect your socks to be blown off.

The Verisign pilot offers a web-based, URL-based or command-line interface for querying registration records.

The output, by design, is in JSON format. This makes it easier for software to parse but it’s not currently very easy on the human eye.

To make it slightly more legible, you can install a JSON formatter browser extension, which are freely available for Chrome.

Afilias’ pilot is similar but does not currently have a friendly web interface.

Both pilots have rudimentary support for searching using wildcards, albeit with truncated result sets.

The two new pilots only currently cover Verisign’s .com and .net registries and Afilias’ .info.

While two other companies have notified ICANN that they intend to run RDAP pilots, these are the first two to go live.

It’s pretty much inevitable at this point that RDAP is going to replace Whois relatively soon.

Not only has ICANN has been practically champing at the bit to get RDAP compliance into its registry/registrar contracts, but it seems like the protocol could simplify the process of complying with incoming European Union privacy legislation.

RDAP helps standardize access control, meaning certain data fields might be restricted to certain classes of user. Cops and IP enforcers could get access to more Whois data than the average blogger or domainer, in other words.

As it happens, it’s highly possible that this kind of stratified Whois is something that will be legally mandated by the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect next May.