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US sneaks public Whois demands into pandemic relief bill

Kevin Murphy, December 28, 2020, Domain Policy

Outgoing US president Donald Trump has signed into law a coronavirus relief bill and spending package that contains a surprise instruction for the government to pursue open access to Whois records.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 is focused on federal spending for fiscal 2021, with billions set aside for pandemic-related economic stimulus. It’s the bill you may recall Trump refused to sign for several days on the purported basis that it only provided Americans with a piddling $600 check.

An accompanying document contains encouragement for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to “to require registrars and registries based in the United States to collect and make public accurate domain name registration information”.

It also asks the NTIA to continue to work within ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee to help create “a global access model that provides law enforcement, intellectual property rights holders, and third parties with timely access to accurate domain name registration information”.

The text can be found in a joint explanatory statement (pdf) accompanying the act. It’s not on the statute books as such, but it does tell NTIA how to spend the money it’s been allocated.

The full text relevant to the domain name industry reads:

NTIA is directed, through its position within the Governmental Advisory Committee o work with I CANN to expedite the establishment of a global access model that provides law enforcement, intellectual property rights holders, and third parties with timely access to accurate domain name registration information for legitimate purposes. NTIA is encouraged, as appropriate, to require registrars and registries based in the United States to collect and make public accurate domain name registration information.

As ICANN notes in its analysis, the first sentence is not telling NTIA to do anything it hasn’t been doing since the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation came into effect two and a half years ago.

The NTIA and GAC have been involved in efforts to create a privacy workaround for rights holders and law enforcement, which in September came up with the widely panned SSAD proposals. ICANN is currently pleading with the EU for clarity on whether it would even be legal.

The second sentence is perhaps a bit more worrying, dangling as it does the possibility of American registries and registrars having to either break EU law or implement a much more complex Whois infrastructure.

But, as ICANN notes, the words “encouraged, as appropriate” are doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, saying “encouragement is aspirational; it is not a mandate”.

However, ICANN appears to be treating it as a warning shot, with head of compliance Jamie Hedlund writing:

It appears to hint that if NTIA and the ICANN community can’t develop a robust access model, Congress could entertain more forceful measures that would impose requirements on U.S.-based registries and registrars to collect and publish domain name registration information.

It seems the NTIA has the wink to cause mischief, should ICANN not deliver what intellectual property lobbyists want.

Verisign drops half a mill on pandemic relief

Kevin Murphy, December 28, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign has donated over half a million dollars to pandemic-related causes, the company announced last week.

The donations are aimed at relieving economic side-effects of the pandemic such as food poverty and unemployment.

The .com registry operator said in a blog post it has given $275,000 to food banks in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware where most of its US operations are based, and in Fribourg, Switzerland, its European HQ.

It’s also given $250,000 to Virginia Cares, an initiative dedicated to retraining unemployed Virginians for in-demand jobs in the tech sector.

Verisign was of course an inadvertent beneficiary of the pandemic, as lockdown regimes worldwide led to a boost in domain registrations as businesses such as bars and cafes moved online.

Mixed messages from ICANN on pandemic travel in 2021

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN still hasn’t formally cancelled its public meeting in Cancun, Mexico next March, but it appears to be planning for scheduled in-person gatherings to not resume until the fourth quarter of next year.

While nobody in their right mind seems to believe ICANN 70 will go ahead anywhere other than virtually — and ICANN’s top brass acknowledged in October that a face-to-face community forum appeared highly unlikely — the Org has still not announced that it will be the fourth consecutive meeting to be held via Zoom.

But two recently published documents show that ICANN doesn’t see travel getting back to normal any time soon, though its expected timing is ambiguous.

First, the proposed budget for fiscal 2022, which was published on Friday, envisages pandemic-related travel restrictions for only “the first nine months” of its current FY21, which ends June 30 next year.

That means that ICANN, at least in its travel budget, still thinks there’s a chance that international travel may be an option as early as April next year. Its travel budget for this year is $4.7 million, which certainly suggests one normal public meeting.

That would rule out Cancun, but leaves open the possibility that June 14-17 public meeting in The Hague could actually go ahead.

The budget also assumes a normal level of travel spending for the whole of FY22, which would mean ICANN 72 in Seattle — a mere domestic flight for most ICANN staff and a good portion of the domain industry — would also take place in-person next October.

But a resolution passed by the ICANN board of directors last Thursday appears to have a more pessimistic outlook.

The board at that meeting approved the continuation of contingency plans for signing the cryptographic keys at the root of the DNS that would eliminate the need for travel until the fourth quarter of calendar 2021.

Normal, quarterly root Key-Signing Key ceremonies require a small number of trusted “secret key holders” to be flown from around the world into facilities in the US, carrying physical keys, to ensure the integrity of the process.

But those rules were tweaked under coronavirus lockdown last April to allow IANA employees to sub in for these key-holders.

Understanding that the pandemic wasn’t going away any time soon, but perhaps with hindsight on the optimistic side, the KSK ceremony in April generated three quarters’ worth of keys in advance, enabling root DNSSEC until the end of March 2021.

Last Thursday, the ICANN board resolved to again bulk-generate keys during its next ceremony, to be held some time in the first quarter. The plan states:

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to continue to significantly impact operations well into 2021. To limit the impact on the ability to hold quarterly key ceremonies, the plan again provides for generating signatures for an extended nine-month period. This relieves the need to hold a subsequent key signing ceremony until the fourth quarter of 2021.

So, while the proposed budget thinks travel could return to normal by April, the KSK plans are thinking October could be the best-case scenario.

Vaccines appear to be the key, as you might expect:

Staff will continue to monitor the pandemic and prepare for all possible scenarios for this ceremony in accordance with the graduated approach. Should widespread vaccination programs prove to be successful, and international travel limitations be relaxed, it is conceivable a late-2021 ceremony could be conducted in its normal format with international in-person participation.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the chances of a normal in-person ICANN meeting going ahead before Seattle are pretty slim.

For vaccination programs to be successful, we’re going to need a combination of competent governments capable of handling an unprecedented logistical challenge and a largely sane, rationale populace willing to go under the needle en masse. I’m afraid I don’t have that much faith in humanity.

Even if everything goes smoothly, we’re still looking at the vaccine rollout taking a long time indeed. I live in the UK, the first country to roll out vaccinations at scale, and I don’t anticipate getting the jab for six months or more.

An unofficial calculator tool estimates that a middle-aged Brit with no diagnosed preexisting conditions cannot reasonably expect to get a vaccine until July 2021, assuming the UK manages to quickly ramp up to one million vaccinations per week and 70% of those eligible choose to take the shot.

If that’s true elsewhere in the world, and vaccination becomes a passport to travel, then any hypothetical June face-to-face ICANN meeting could resemble a senior care home or retirement village even more than usual.

Not so much Club Med as a Saga Holiday.

And none of this takes into account the potential impact of the super-spreadable new coronavirus strain discovered to be hugely prevalent in the UK last week.

While it’s early days, it seems there’s a significant possibility that what I’m calling the limeyvirus (because what goes better with Corona than lime?) is going to significantly impact travel worldwide in the coming months.

ICANN predicts rosy post-pandemic domain industry — time to start panicking?

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2020, Domain Policy

Having totally misjudged the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the domain name industry and its own budget, ICANN is now forecasting a rosy (post-pandemic?) fiscal 2022.

The Org has just published its proposed budget for the 12 months beginning July 1, 2021, predicting decent growth in transactions for new and legacy gTLDs, along with a modest increase in new registrars.

It’s also predicting that international travel will be back to normal, with three full in-person public meetings going ahead as usual.

ICANN is planning to receive $144.4 million in FY22, up slightly from the $140 million it expects to receive in the current financial year.

The FY22 number is boosted by a $4 million bung from Verisign, negotiated as part of the .com contract renewal, which lifted the price freeze.

It’s predicting a 3% increase in legacy gTLD registry transaction fees to $52.8 million and a 6% increase in legacy gTLD registry transaction fees to $5.1 million.

Registrar transaction fees for legacy gTLDs is expected to be up 4% to $33.4 million, with registrar fees for new gTLDs is predicted to rise 5% to $4.2 million.

Altogether, that’s $3 million extra in transaction fees — paid whenever a domain is registered, renewed or transferred — compared to its expected FY21 performance.

But that’s offset by a $600,000 predicted decline in fixed registry fees, due to an expected loss of 15 new gTLD registries (most likely dormant dot-brands) in the period. It expects to end the year with 1,141 fee-paying registries.

ICANN expects its pool of accredited registrars to bounce back a little, adding 28 in FY22 having lost an expected 121 in FY21. It expects to end FY22 with 2,356 registrars on its books.

The proposed budget also sheds light on how ICANN expects the remainder of coronavirus-afflicted FY21 playing out.

It currently expects its top line for the year to June 30, 2021 to be $140 million, compared to the $129.3 million it predicted in the FY21 budget approved in May this year.

But that budget had been slashed in April by 8% from its original draft, published a year ago. It had planned for $140.4 million, but reduced expectations by $11.1 million due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In April, before the extent of the lockdown bump experienced by many registries and registrars became clear, ICANN said:

ICANN org funding may be impacted because the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic has the potential to impact the funding from domain name registrations and contracted parties through the end of FY20 and into the first months of FY21.

Today, it’s saying the impact from coronavirus was “less than expected” and generally forecasting “stable” and more or less business as usual in FY22.

ICANN had budgeted for $85.5 million in transaction fees from all sources in the current year, but now it expects that to come in at $92.6 million, much closer to its December 2019 estimate of $94.7 million.

It had expected to see transaction fees from new gTLDs at both registry and registrar levels to be down by a third, at $8 million, but that number’s now expected to come in at $8.9 million. Likewise, the budget predicted a legacy gTLDs dip of 2.3% to $77.5 million, rather than the $86.2 million it now thinks is heading its way.

I should probably point out for future reference that the proposed budget for FY22 was published Friday, the day before the new strain of ultra-infectious coronavirus was discovered in the UK. Who knows what the impact of that might be.

The budget is open for public comment for two months here.

CIRA hits major .ca milestone on 20th anniversary

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2020, Domain Registries

Canadian ccTLD registry CIRA has registered its three millionth domain, having grown .ca by over 160,000 names this year.

By happy coincidence, the milestone was hit November 30, exactly 20 years after CIRA officially took over the registry from its predecessor.

CIRA said that regs are up 34% this year, the boosted growth largely due to more small businesses coming online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This all means that .ca is the 12th-largest ccTLD in the world, according to the registry.

“Criminal” domain suspensions drop again in .uk but thousands of pandemic domains frozen

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet suspended thousands fewer suspected criminal domains in 2020 than last year, according to the registry’s latest annual update.

For the 12 months to the end of October, Nominet took down 22,158 domains, is down from 28,937 in the year-ago period.

As usual, suspected intellectual property crime made up almost all the takedowns — the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit was behind 21,632 requests, down from 28,606.

Notably, despite the reported uptick in scams related to the coronavirus pandemic, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency made just 13 takedown requests, down from 31.

This is perhaps due to Nominet taking a proactive approach, putting domains containing certain related keywords on hold at the point of registration. It froze 3,811 such domains this year, later releasing 1,568.

Eight domains were suspended for criminal activity related to Covid-19, the company said.

There were no suspensions related to banned “rape” domains, despite over a thousand new registrations being flagged for manual review. Nor were there any takedowns of domains hosting child sexual abuse material.

It’s the second year in a row that suspensions have been down. In the 2017/18 period Nominet took down 32,813 domains.

WIPO handles 50,000th UDRP case as coronavirus drives complaints

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2020, Domain Policy

The World Intellectual Property Organization handled its 50,000th UDPR case on November 20, the organization has announced.

It’s taken WIPO, which designed the policy and was the first to administer it back in 1999, over two decades to reach this milestone.

WIPO said that the 50,000 cases cover almost 91,000 domains, with complaints and respondents from over 180 countries.

The organization believes the coronavirus pandemic this year has driven growth, with an 11% increase in cases recorded between January and October. There were 3,405 cases over this period.

Erik Wilbers, director of the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center, said in a press release:

With a greater number of people spending more time online during the pandemic, cybersquatters are finding an increasingly target-rich environment. Rights owners, meantime, are stepping up their brand enforcement on the Internet as they further shift to marketing and selling online.

Vaccine agency to get more domain takedown powers next year

Kevin Murphy, November 24, 2020, Domain Registries

The UK’s health regulator is going to be added to a Nominet pilot program enabling the speedy takeover of suspected criminal .uk domains next year, according to the registry.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will become the second government agency after the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit of the City of London Police to be added to the program.

The program is an expansion of the years-old takedown procedure coordinated between Nominet and law enforcement agencies, under which domains suspected by LEA of being used in criminal activity such as counterfeiting are promptly suspended by the registry.

In the pilot, when a domain is suspended it will bounce users to this informational image, rather than merely not resolving.

Nominet-landing-page-image.jpg

MHRA is the agency responsible for approving vaccines for, among everything else, COVID-19, so it’s bound to see nefarious activity next year as vaccines actually start hitting the market.

The news of its involvement was first announced in March as the pandemic took hold of the country but, like so much else in the UK government’s technology response to coronavirus, it looks like it’s going to be a year late and a quid short.

GoDaddy sees 12% growth in domains revenue

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2020, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy delivered another quarter of impressive growth in the third quarter, showing again the resilience of the domain name market to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company reported total revenue up 11% on the same period last year at $844.4 million, with net income sliding from $76.8 million to $65.1 million.

GoDaddy spent more on marketing during the quarter, saying that as demand for its services increases it needs to make sure it captures as many customers as possible.

Revenue from domains slightly outperformed overall growth, coming in at $387.4 million, up 12.2% year over year.

The domains segment was also a bit more profitable because GoDaddy no longer has to pay Neustar for domains in TLDs managed by what is now GoDaddy Registry.

The business applications segment, which includes email and third-party apps such as shopping carts, was the standout growth segment, coming in at $154.6 million, up 18.7%.

GoDaddy expects to see a similar pattern in Q4, with domains growth coming in at low double figures and business apps growth coming in at high double figures.

Both Q3 growth and Q4 outlook were better than analysts expected, and GoDaddy stock was rewarded accordingly.

The company also announced the departure of COO Andrew Low Ah Kee after 10 years with the company. His position will not be immediately refilled, and he is said to be taking a presidential role at a company outside of the domain industry.

Verisign sells a million more domains than it did last year

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign has posted third-quarter financial results that were strong in spite of, or possibly due to, the economic impact of the coronovirus pandemic.

The company sold 10.9 million new .com and .net domains in the quarter to September 30, a million more than the same period last year.

This led to a net sequential increase in total .com/.net registrations of 1.65 million. It ended the quarter with 163.7 million names under management.

This strong performance led Verisign to increase its guidance for the full year. It now says domain growth will be between 3.5% and 4% compared to 2019.

That represents an increase from 2.75% at the low end of the range the company predicted three months ago and a lowered expectation of 2% in April.

CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts that there’s still some coronavirus-related uncertainty, along with the usual Q4 seasonable weakness, baked into the guidance, despite two consecutive quarters of decent growth.

Renewal rates, which were their lowest for years in Q2, recovered slightly, up from 72.8% to 73.5%.

For Q3, Verisign reported net income of $171 million, compared to $154 million a year ago, on revenue that was up 3.1% at $318 million. The bottom line was aided by $24 million in tax benefits.

Bidzos repeated the company’s commitment to not raise .com prices until March, while confirmed that its fee will definitely go up at some point over the next 12 months.