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Is the Trump administration really trying to reverse the IANA transition?

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2018, Domain Policy

Questions have been raised about the US government’s commitment to an independent ICANN, following the release of letters sent by two top Trump appointees.

In the letters, new NTIA head David Redl and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross expressed an interest in looking at ways to “unwind” the IANA transition, which in 2016 severed the formal ties between ICANN and the US in DNS root zone management.

Responding to questions from senators during his lengthy confirmation process, now National Telecommunications and Information Administration assistant secretary Redl wrote:

I am not aware of any specific proposals to reverse the IANA transition, but I am interested in exploring ways to achieve this goal. To that end, if I am confirmed I will recommend to Secretary Ross that we begin the process by convening a panel of experts to investigate options for unwinding the transition.

The letters were first obtained by Politico under the Freedom of Information Act. We’re publishing them here (pdf).

They were sent last August, when Redl’s confirmation to the NTIA role was being held up by Senator Ted Cruz, who vehemently opposed the transition because he said he thought it would give more power over online speech to the likes of Russia and China.

He was confirmed in November.

The question is whether Redl was serious about unwinding the transition, or whether he was just bullshitting Cruz in order to remove a roadblock to his confirmation.

Technically, he only promised to “recommend” convening a panel of experts to his boss, Ross.

NTIA declined to comment last week when DI asked whether the department still supports the IANA transition, whether any efforts are underway to unwind it, and whether the panel of experts has already been convened.

Redl’s statements on ICANN since his confirmation have been more or less consistent with his Obama-era predecessor, Larry Strickling, in terms of expressing support for multi-stakeholder models, but with perhaps some causes for concern.

During his first public speech, delivered at the CES show in Las Vegas earlier this month, Redl expressed support for multi-stakeholder internet governance amid pushes for more multi-lateral control within venues such as the International Telecommunications Union.

However, he added:

I’ll also focus on being a strong advocate for U.S. interests within ICANN. We need to ensure transparency and accountability in ICANN’s work. And in light of the implementation of the European General Data Privacy Regulation, or GDPR, we need to preserve lawful access to WHOIS data, which is a vital tool for the public.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be seeking out the views of stakeholders to understand how else NTIA can best serve American interests in these global Internet fora.

Could this be an allusion to the “panel of experts”? It’s unclear at this stage.

One of Redl’s first moves as NTIA chief was to slam ICANN for its lack of accountability concerning the shutdown of a review working group, but that was hardly a controversial point of view.

And in a letter to Senator Brian Schatz, the Democrat ranking member of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, sent earlier this month, Redl expressed support for the multi-stakeholder model and wrote:

NTIA will be a strong advocate for US interests with the Governmental Advisory Committee of the Internet Cooperation [sic] for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in the existing post-transition IANA phase. NTIA will also monitor the [IANA operator] Public Technical Identifiers (PTI) and take action as necessary to ensure the security and stability of the DNS root.

That certainly suggests NTIA is happy to work in the new paradigm, while the promise to “take action as necessary” against PTI may raise eyebrows.

While a lot of this may seem ambiguous, my hunch is that there’s not really much appetite to reverse the IANA transition. Apart from appeasing Cruz’s demons, what could possibly be gained?

Ross, quizzed by Cruz at his own confirmation hearing a year ago, seemed reluctant to commit to such a move.

US “threatens” Costa Rica over Pirate Bay domains

Kevin Murphy, June 16, 2017, Domain Policy

The US government has been threatening to “close down” Costa Rica’s .cr registry over its refusal to take down a Pirate Bay domain name, according to the registry.

Representatives of the US embassy in Costa Rica have been badgering NIC.cr to take down thepiratebay.cr since 2015, according to a letter from Pedro León Azofeifa, president of Academia Nacional de Ciencias, which runs the registry.

The letter claims:

These interactions with the United States Embassy have escalated with time and include great pressure since 2016 that is exemplified by several phone calls, emails and meetings urging our ccTLD to take down the domain, even though this would go against our domain name policies

According to the letter, a US official “has mentioned threats to close our registry, with repeated harassment regarding our practices and operation policies and even personal negative comments directed to our Executive Director”.

The letter was sent to the chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee 10 days ago, CC’d to senior ICANN, Costa Rican and US governmental figures, and has been circulated this week in the Latin American domain name community.

The form of the alleged threats to close the registry is not clear, but it should be noted that prior to October 1 last year the US Department of Commerce, via its now-relinquished oversight of ICANN, played a key role in the administration of the DNS root zone.

The Pirate Bay is of course a popular directory of BitTorrent links largely used to disseminate pirated copies of movies and music, much of it American-made.

The site has been TLD-hopping for years, as registries around the world shut down its domains for violations of their own local rules. It has been live on thepiratebay.cr since December 2014, when its Swedish operation was shut down by authorities.

The NIC.cr letter says that its own policies follow international “best practices” and allow it to take down domains when presented with a Costa Rican court order, but that “the pressure and harassment [from the US] to take down the domain name without its proper process and local court order persists”.

The US Department of Commerce even pressured its Costa Rican counterpart to investigate NIC.cr, but that probe concluded that the registry was acting within its procedures, according to the letter.

It’s not the first attempt to get rid of the Pirate Bay this year.

Public Interest Registry in February announced a “UDRP for copyright” proposal that would allow copyright holders to have piracy disputes heard by independent arbitrators. It looked like a way to get unloved thepiratebay.org domain taken down without PIR having to take unilateral action.

That proposal was shelved after an outcry from the industry and civil rights watchdogs.

In April, one of the Pirate Bay’s founders launched a piracy-friendly domain registration service.

Just this week, the European Court of Justice ruled, after seven years of legal fights, that the Pirate Bay infringes copyright, raising the possibility of the site being blocked in more European countries.

The NIC.cr letter is dated June 6. It has not yet been published by ICANN or the GAC.

Trump nominee open to retaking ICANN oversight role

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2017, Domain Policy

The incoming head of the US Department of Commerce has indicated that it is unlikely he’ll try to reestablish the US government’s unique oversight of ICANN, at least in the short term.

But at his confirmation hearing in Congress yesterday, Trump nominee for secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross said he’d be open to ideas about how the US could increase its power over ICANN.

He was responding to a question from Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who made halting the IANA transition one of his key concerns last year.

Cruz, framing the question in such a way as to suggest ICANN is now in the hands of an intergovernmental consortium (which it is not) asked Ross whether he was committed to preventing censorious regimes using ICANN to hinder Americans’ freedom of speech.

Ross replied:

As such a big market and really as the inventors of the Internet, I’m a little surprised that we seem to be essentially voiceless in the governance of that activity. That strikes me as an intellectually incorrect solution. But I’m not aware of what it is that we actually can do right now to deal with that. If it exists, if some realistic alternative comes up, I’d be very interested.

His response also mischaracterizes the power balance post-transition.

The US is not “essentially voiceless”. Rather, it has the same voice as every other government as a member of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

Its role is arguably still a lot more powerful than other nations, given that ICANN is now bylaws-bound to remain headquartered in California and under US jurisdiction.

As head of Commerce, Ross will have authority over the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency most directly responsible for dealing with ICANN and domain name issues in general.

NTIA itself will to the best of my knowledge still be headed by assistant secretary Larry Strickling, who handled the IANA transition from the US government side. (UPDATE: this may not be correct)

Ross, 79, is a billionaire investor who made most of his estimated $2.5 billion fortune restructuring bankrupt companies in the coal and steel industries.

Chehade to face Congressional grilling this week

Kevin Murphy, February 23, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade is heading to Washington DC this week to defend plans to decouple the organization from formal US oversight in front of a potentially hostile committee of Congresspeople.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will meet this Wednesday at 1000 local time to grill Chehade and others on the plan to remove the US government from the current triumvirate responsible for managing changes to the DNS root zone under the IANA arrangements.

He will be joined by Larry Strickling, who as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is the US government’s point person on the transition, and Ambassador David Gross, a top DC lawyer formerly with the Department of State.

All three men are pro-transition, while the Republican-tilted committee is likely to be much more skeptical.

The blurb for the Wednesday hearing reads:

As the U.S. government considers relinquishing control over certain aspects of Internet governance to the private sector, concerns remain that the loss of U.S. involvement over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) could empower foreign powers — acting through intergovernmental institutions or other surrogates — to gain increased control over critical Internet functions.

Republicans and right-leaning media commentators have warned that handing over IANA oversight to a multistakeholder body risks giving too much power to governments the US doesn’t like, such as Russia and China.

Several bills introduced in the House and Senate over the last year would have given Congress much more power to delay or deny the transition.

An amendment to an appropriations bill approved in December prevents the NTIA from spending any taxpayer money on relinquishing its DNS root oversight role until after September 30 this year, the same day that the current IANA contract expires.

This effectively prevents a transition during the current IANA contract’s run. Strickling recently said that the NTIA is complying with this legislation, but noted that it does not prevent the agency participating in the development of the transition proposal.

ICANN community working groups are currently working on plans for ICANN oversight post-NTIA and for addressing ICANN accountability.

These documents are hoped to be ready to sent to the NTIA by July, so the NTIA will have enough time to consider them before September 30.

Strickling recently addressed this date in a speech at the State of the Net conference in Washington, saying:

I want to reiterate again that there is no hard and fast deadline for this transition. September 2015 has been a target date because that is when the base period of our contract with ICANN expires. But this should not be seen as a deadline. If the community needs more time, we have the ability to extend the IANA functions contract for up to four years. It is up to the community to determine a timeline that works best for stakeholders as they develop a proposal that meets NTIA’s conditions, but also works.

Opponents of the transition say that because the NTIA is prevented from terminating the IANA contract before October 1, the NTIA will have no choice but to extend it until September 30, 2017.

Given that 2016 is a presidential election year in the US, Barack Obama would be a private citizen again by the time the next opportunity to transition comes around, they say.

Which presidential hopeful — from either party — would not buckle if asked whether he supports a plan to let Iran run the internet? That’s the political logic at work here.

Chehade himself told the AFP news agency earlier this month that the transition would have to happen before the 2016 elections, to avoid political distractions.

I’m not so sure I agree with the premise that, due to the restraints imposed by the appropriation bill, the transition now has to happen under the next president’s administration.

In my layman’s reading of the current IANA contract, the NTIA is able to terminate it for the “convenience of the government” pretty much whenever it wants.

There’s also an option to extend the contract by up to six months. The NTIA exercised this option in March 2012 when it did not approve of ICANN’s first renewal proposals.

Unanimous support for new ICANN appeals process

Kevin Murphy, June 30, 2014, Domain Policy

The Generic Names Supporting Organization has issued an “unprecedented” statement of “unanimous” support for a new way for ICANN community members to appeal ICANN decisions.

All seven constituency groups signed onto a statement that was read by representatives of registries, non-commercial users and intellectual property interests at the ICANN 50 public forum last week.

“It only took us 50 meetings, but I think the rarity of what you’re witnessing this afternoon sends a very strong message about our views,” the Registries Stakeholder Group’s Keith Drazek said.

This is the meat of the demand:

The entire GNSO joins together today calling for the Board to support community creation of an independent accountability mechanism that provides meaningful review and adequate redress for those harmed by ICANN action or inaction in contravention of an agreed upon compact with the community.

Rafik Dammak of the Non-Commercial Users Constituency added that the creation of such a mechanism is “a necessary and integral element of the IANA stewardship transition.”

“The Board’s decisions must be open to challenge and the Board cannot be in a position of reviewing and certifying its own decisions,” he said.

“We need an independent accountability structure that holds the ICANN Board, Staff, and various stakeholder groups accountable under ICANN’s governing documents, serves as an ultimate review of Board/Staff decisions,” said Kristina Rosette of the Intellectual Property Constituency.

What they’re basically looking for is a third way to appeal ICANN decisions beyond the existing Independent Review Process and Request for Reconsideration mechanisms.

IRP is considered too time-consuming and expensive for anyone other than well-funded commercial stakeholders. It cost ICM Registry millions in legal fees to win its IRP in 2010.

RfR, meanwhile, sees the ICANN board review its own decisions, and is only successful (in 15 years it’s only happened once, a week ago) when a requester can bring new evidence to the table.

What the GNSO seems to be looking for is a third way — independent review of ICANN decisions that doesn’t cost a bomb and can be used to reexamine decisions on the merits.

In many ways the demand represents the low-hanging fruit of the amorphous “accountability” discussion that took place at length at the London meeting last week.

ICANN accountability is being examined simultaneously with the proposed transition of the IANA stewardship functions from the US Department of Commerce to a yet-undefined mechanism.

There seems to be broad community consensus that the transition should be linked to improvements in accountability.

During the “constituency day” sessions on Tuesday, during which the ICANN board visits in turn with each GNSO constituency, accountability was the theme common to each and every session.

Time and again, CEO Fadi Chehade pushed the constituency he was addressing to provide some specifics.

“What is accountability and how accountable are we today?” he asked the RySG. “Who are we accountable to for what? We need to get precise before you ask us to answer a question that says when you finish accountability, then you can move to the transition.”

The GNSO statement two days later, which still needs fleshing out with details, appears to be the first step toward providing the precision Chehade wants.

Chehade said multiple times that the accountability review and the IANA transition discussions are “interrelated” but not “interdependent.”

If one were dependent on the other, it would be easier for opponents to stonewall the IANA transition by delaying the accountability review, he said.

“There are people in this community would like the transition from the US government to never happen,” he told the RySG. “They won’t admit it, but there are several, in this room even, who want this to never happen.”

He later told the NCUC that these bogeymen were “not in this room”, highlighting perhaps his belief that one or more gTLD registries is preparing to throw a spanner in the works.

Suspicion immediately fell on Verisign, forcing Drazek to issue a separate statement at the public forum on Thursday denying that the company (his employer) opposes the transition:

VeriSign supports NTIA’s March 14th, 2014 announcement. VeriSign supports NTIA’s four key principles. VeriSign Supports the bottom-up multistakeholder process that is now under way and that we have already been very much engaged. VeriSign supports the target date of September 2015 for transition. We support these things provided the multistakeholder community recommendations for ICANN’s accountability reforms are accepted by NTIA before the final transition, and sufficiently implemented by ICANN subject to measurable deliverables.

It’s not much of a denial, really, more of a clarification of where Verisign stands and confirmation that it wants, as Chehade alluded to, accountability reform prior to the IANA transition.

In my view, accountability is the more important of these two threads.

The Department of Commerce doesn’t actually do much in terms of its hands-on role as steward of the IANA functions as they related to domain names. It merely checks that ICANN’s proper procedures have been followed before signing off on DNS root zone changes.

If sanity prevails in the ICANN community’s transition discussions (and I have no reason to believe it will) whatever replaces the US should be similarly mute and invisible.

However, Commerce’s arguably more important role has been to act as a constant Sword of Damocles, a threat that ICANN could lose its IANA powers if it goes rogue and starts acting (in the US government’s view) against the best interests of the internet community.

That’s a very crude accountability mechanism.

What ICANN needs in future is not a direct replacement of that existential threat, but a mechanism of accessible, independent third-party review that will give the ICANN community and internet users everywhere confidence that ICANN isn’t a loose cannon with its hand on the internet’s tiller.

Verisign stock punished after US move from root control

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2014, Domain Registries

Verisign’s share price is down around 8% in early trading today, after analysts speculated that the US government’s planned move away from control of the DNS root put .com at risk.

The analyst firm Cowan & Co cut its rating on VRSN and reportedly told investors:

With less US control and without knowledge of what entity or entities will ultimately have power, we believe there is increased risk that VRSN may not be able to renew its .com and .net contracts in their current form.

It’s complete nonsense, of course.

The US announced on Friday it’s intention to step away from the trilateral agreements that govern control of the root between itself, ICANN and Verisign. But that deal has no dollar value to anyone.

What’s not affected, as ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade laboriously explained during his press conference Friday, are the contracts under which Verisign operates .com and .net.

The .com contract, through which Verisign derives most of its revenue, is slightly different to regular gTLD contracts in that the US has the right to veto terms if they’re considered anti-competitive.

The current contract, which runs through 2018, was originally going to retain Verisign’s right to increase its prices in most years, but it was vetoed by the US, freezing Verisign’s registry fee.

So not only has the US not said it will step away from .com oversight, but if it did it would be excellent news for Verisign, which would only have to strong-arm ICANN into letting it raise prices again.

Renewal of the .com and .net contracts shouldn’t be an issue either. The main rationale for putting .com up for rebid was to improve competition, but the new gTLD program is supposed to be doing that.

If new gTLDs, as a whole, are considered successful, I can’t see Verisign ever losing .com.

Verisign issued a statement before the markets opened today, saying:

The announcement by NTIA on Friday, March 14, 2014, does not affect Verisign’s operation of the .com and .net registries. The announcement does not impact Verisign’s .com or .net domain name business nor impact its .com or .net revenue or those agreements, which have presumptive rights of renewal.

Roundup: industry reaction to US giving up IANA role

Kevin Murphy, March 16, 2014, Domain Policy

Members of the domain name industry and ICANN community reacted generally positively to the news Friday night that the US will step aside from its central role in ICANN oversight.

Several companies, organizations and individuals issued early statements in response. We present a summary of those to hit the wires so far here.

First, the so-called I* organizations (IETF, IAB, RIRs, ccTLD ROs, ISOC, and W3C), which manage the internet’s various technical functions and standards, issued a joint statement via ICANN:

Our organizations are committed to open and transparent multi-stakeholder processes. We are also committed to further strengthening our processes and agreements related to the IANA functions, and to building on the existing organizations and their roles. The Internet technical community is strong enough to continue its role, while assuming the stewardship function as it transitions from the US Government.

The Domain Name Association’s executive director Kurt Pritz said this:

The DNA welcomes a deliberate, thoughtful process, inclusive of all stakeholder views to determine the future of the IANA function. As our members are some of the most widely recognized customers of IANA, we will be playing an active role in the process moving forward. The US government performs admirably in this role and it is important that any new oversight mechanism perform as reliably and consistently, and in a manner that prevents the Internet from onerous regulations and/or content controls.

New gTLD portfolio applicant Donuts said:

The IANA function is very important to Internet stability, and Donuts supports the multistakeholder approach to managing this vital resource. As the largest applicant for new top-level domains, we look forward to providing a constructive contribution in this multi-stakeholder discussion. It’s critical that any new mechanisms for IANA oversight ensure not only stability and accountability but also uphold the vital public sector role in promoting Internet innovation and openness.

Lisa Hook, CEO of back-end registry provider Neustar, said in a press release:

We share the US government’s view that the time has come for ICANN to convene global stakeholders to develop the policies, procedures, and accountability framework needed to transition ultimate responsibility for the IANA functions, and we look forward to participating in that process.

Back-end and portfolio applicant Afilias said in its own press release:

We endorse the statements of the NTIA and the organizations noted above [the I*s] with respect to the maturation of these organizations and processes, and we are committed to continuing to contribute to the stewardship of the Internet as part of a globally inclusive, open and transparent multi-stakeholder community.

Michele Neylon, CEO of domain name registrar Blacknight Solutions said:

This is an incredibly historic and important day for Internet governance. As a member of the International governance and infrastructure communities I applaud this move away from a single government to a regulating body that represents the interests of the global community. However, the real challenge now lies ahead in identifying and implementing a strong, diverse community to oversee these crucial organizations.

Milton Mueller, the principal academic behind the Internet Governance Project blogged:

IGP has been leading the call for the US government to be consistent about its non-governmental approach to Internet governance since 2005. Naturally, we were gratified to see the Commerce Department finally come around to that position. Far from “giving up” something or “losing control,” the U.S. is sure to find that its policy has gained strength. We have just made it a lot harder for opponents of a free and open Internet to pretend that what they are really against is an Internet dominated by one hegemonic state.

The news broke rather late on a Friday night, with an NTIA press release and hastily convened ICANN press conference, after the story was leaked to the Washington Post.

There hasn’t been much time for formal written reactions yet, but I’m sure more will be forthcoming as people get into work on Monday morning.

US to give up control over ICANN

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2014, Domain Policy

In what can only be described as an historic announcement, the United States government tonight said that it will walk away from its control of the DNS root zone.

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said during a press conference tonight that the organization has begun a consultation to figure out “accountability mechanisms” that will replace the US role as ICANN’s master.

The news comes in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US spying, but Chehade and ICANN chair Steve Crocker said that the changes would have been made sooner or later anyway.

So what just happened?

Earlier this evening, the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced its “intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community.”

That’s basically referring to the IANA contract, the US government procurement contract under which ICANN has the ability to make changes — essentially by recommendation — to the DNS root zone.

The current version of the contract is due to expire next year, and the hope is that when it does there won’t be any need for a renewal.

Between now and then, the ICANN community (that’s you) is tasked with coming up with something to replace it.

It’s going to be the hottest topic at the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore, which kicks off a week from now, but it’s expected to be under discussion for much longer than that.

Chehade said during the press conference tonight that the idea is not to create a new oversight body to replace the NTIA. We seem to be talking about “mechanisms” rather than “organizations”.

He also said that the US government has made it plain that any attempt to replace the US with an intergovernmental body (ie, the International Telecommunications Union) will not be considered acceptable.

Whatever oversight mechanism replaces NTIA, it’s going to have to be “multistakeholder” — not just governments.

The root zone is currently controlled under a trilateral relationship between the NTIA, ICANN and Verisign.

Essentially, ICANN says “add this TLD” or “change the name servers for this TLD” and, after the NTIA has approved the change, Verisign implements it on its root zone servers. The other root zone operators take copies and the DNS remains a unique, reliable namespace.

The NTIA has said that it’s going to withdraw from this relationship.

One question that remains is whether Verisign will retain its important role in root zone management.

Chehade appeared slightly (only slightly) evasive on this question tonight, spending some time clarifying that Verisign’s root zone management contract is not the same as its .com contract.

I assume this prevarication was in order to not wipe billions off Verisign’s market cap on Monday, but I didn’t really get a good sense of whether Verisign’s position as a root zone manager was in jeopardy.

My guess is that it is not.

A second question is whether the US stepping away from the IANA function means that the Affirmation of Commitments between the US government and ICANN also has its days numbered.

Apparently it does.

Chehade and ICANN chair Steve Crocker pointed to the ICANN board’s decision a few weeks ago to create a new board committee tasked with exploring ways to rewrite the AoC.

And they said tonight that there’s no plan to retire the AoC. Rather, the idea is to increase the number of parties that are signatories to it.

The AoC, it seems, will be ICANN’s affirmation to the world, not just to the US government.

Winners and losers in the new .com pricing regime

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2012, Domain Registries

Today’s shock news that Verisign will be subject to a .com price freeze for the next six years will have broad implications.

The US Department of Commerce has told the company it will have to continue to sell .coms at $7.85 wholesale until 2018, barring exceptional circumstances.

Here’s my initial take on the winners and losers of this new arrangement.

Domain investors

Volume .com registrants are of course the big winners here. A couple of dollars a year for a single .com is pretty insignificant, but when you own tens or hundreds of thousands of names…

Mike Berkens of Most Wanted Domains calculated that he’s saved $170,000 $400,000 over the lifetime of the new .com deal, and he reckons fellow domainer Mike Mann will have saved closer to $800,000 $2 million.

Brand owners

The other big constituency of volume registrants are the brand owners who spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year maintaining defensive registrations — mostly in .com — that they don’t need.

Microsoft, for example, owns over 91,000 domain names, according to DomainTools. I’d hazard a guess that most of those are defensive and that most are in .com.

Registries

There’s potentially trouble on the horizon for new gTLD applicants and existing registry operators. Verisign is looking for new ways to grow, and it’s identified its patent portfolio as an under-exploited revenue stream.

The company says it has over 200 patents either granted or pending, so its pool of potential licensees could be quite large.

Its US portfolio includes patents such as 7,774,432, “Registering and using multilingual domain names”, which appear to be quite broad.

Verisign also owns a bunch of patents related to its security business, so companies in that field may also be targeted.

Registrars

Verisign’s registrars will no longer have to pass their cost increases on to consumers every year.

While this may help with renewal rates, it also means registrars won’t be able to sneak in their own margin increases whenever Verisign ups its annual fees.

IDN buyers

Another area Verisign plans to grow is in internationalized domain names, where it’s applied to ICANN for about a dozen non-Latin variants of .com and .net.

Those registry deals, assuming they’re approved by ICANN, will not be governed by the .com pricing restrictions. Now that Verisign’s growth is getting squeezed, we might expect higher prices for IDN .com variants.

ICANN

ICANN may have suffered a small reputational hit today, with Commerce demonstrating it has the balls to do what ICANN failed to do six years ago, but money-wise it’s doing okay.

The new .com contract changes the way Verisign pays ICANN fees, and Commerce does not appear to have made any changes to that structure. ICANN still stands to get about $8 million a year more from the deal.

The Department of Commerce

Unless you’re a Verisign shareholder, Commerce comes out of this deal looking pretty good. It played hard-ball and seems to have won a lot of credibility points as a result.

Verisign loses right to increase .com prices

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2012, Domain Registries

Verisign has sensationally lost the right to increase .com prices under a new deal struck with the US Department of Commerce.

In a statement to the markets just now, the company announced that the .com contract approved by ICANN earlier this year has now also been approved by Commerce, but with no more price increases:

Verisign’s current pricing of $7.85 per domain name registration will continue for the six-year term of the Agreement. Second, Verisign no longer has the right to four price increases of up to seven percent over the six-year term.

The company will only be able to increase prices with prior Commerce approval in response to “extraordinary” circumstances such as a security problem, or when the competitive landscape changes.

For example, if .com loses its “market power”, pricing restrictions could be lifted entirely, subject to Commerce approval.

Similarly, if ICANN approves a Consensus Policy that changes Verisign’s cost structure, the company could apply for price-increasing powers.

The deal is a huge blow for Verisign’s shareholders, wiping tens — potentially hundreds — of millions of dollars from the company’s top line over the coming six years.

Its share price is sure to nose-dive today. It’s already trading down 15% before the New York markets open.

It’s also an embarrassment to ICANN, which seems to have demonstrated that it’s less capable of looking after the interests of registrants than the US government.

That said, the new contract appears to have kept ICANN’s new fee structure, meaning the organization will be about $8 million a year richer than before.

In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Verisign said the new pricing provisions came in Amendment 32 to its Cooperative Agreement with Commerce:

Amendment 32 provides that the Maximum Price (as defined in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement) of a .com domain name shall not exceed $7.85 for the term of the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, except that the Company is entitled to increase the Maximum Price of a .com domain name 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 as described in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, provided that the Company may not exercise such right unless the DOC provides prior written approval that the exercise of such right will serve the public interest, such approval not to be unreasonably withheld. Amendment 32 further provides that the Company shall be entitled at any time during the term of the 2012 . com Registry Agreement to seek to remove the pricing restrictions contained in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement if the Company demonstrates to the DOC that market conditions no longer warrant pricing restrictions in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, as determined by the DOC. Amendment 32 also provides that the DOC’s approval of the 2012 .com Registry Agreement is not intended to confer federal antitrust immunity on the Company with respect to the 2012 .com Registry Agreement and extends the term of the Cooperative Agreement through November 30, 2018.

On a conference call with analysts, Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos said that the deal was in the best interests of the company. It still gives the company the presumptive right for renewal, he said.

Growth, he said, will come in future from an expansion of its .com installed base, new IDN gTLD variants, and providing back-end registry services to other new gTLDs.

“We’re still a growth company,” he said.

“We have a patent portfolio we haven’t really exploited,” he said, referring to about 200 patents granted and pending. “We think there’s a revenue opportunity there.”

Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at Commerce, said in a statement:

Consumers will benefit from Verisign’s removal of the automatic price increases. At the same time, the agreement protects the security and stability of the Internet by allowing Verisign to take cost-based price increases where justified.

The full Amendment 32 is posted here.

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