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More domain industry response to coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, Domain Registrars

It’s beginning to look like home-working has become the norm, rather than the exception, in the domain name industry.

Following on my post Monday, here are the latest companies and organizations to provide updates on their responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • ICANN has told its staff in Brussels, Geneva and Singapore to work from home, while recommending that its guys in Istanbul, LA and Washington DC do the same. Staff in Montevideo and Nairobi, where confirmed cases of the virus are pretty light, will carry on as normal for now. The edict will be in effect until March 31. One imagines there’s a good chance it could be renewed.
  • In the UK, Nominet said yesterday that it has “initiated home-working across all our teams from today” and expects “business as usual”. All in-person events through the end of May have been postponed.
  • In Ireland, registry IEDR said that it closed its offices in Dublin on Friday and may reopen March 30, pending further government guidance. Like other registries, IEDR said it’s already well-equipped for staff to work remotely.
  • Also in Ireland, registrar Blacknight Solutions tells me its team are also now working from home.
  • Canada-based registrar Tucows said: “On Sunday March 8, Tucows’ executive leadership announced that all employees who could conceivably work from home were encouraged to do so in the week that followed. On Monday, it looked like an overabundance of caution but by Thursday morning it seemed prescient.” While there is expected to be no impact to the registrar side of the house, the Ting Internet ISP arm has cancelled and rescheduled all home egineering visits, which obviously could cause customer disruption.
  • French registrar Gandi, operating under some of the world’s most stringent government guidelines, said yesterday its staff are naturally enough now all working from home.
  • Not strictly domain industry, but the World Intellectual Property Organization said yesterday it has limited access to its Geneva headquarters to only “essential” staff.
  • US-based registrar MarkMonitor said Monday it has implemented a remote-working regime for its staff.

Given how dog-bites-man such announcements have rapidly become, I doubt I’ll be following up this series of posts again, unless something truly extraordinary happens. It’s pretty safe to assume that before long almost everyone in the industry will be working from home.

.org decision delayed another month

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, Domain Registries

ICANN has been given another month to decided whether or not to approve Ethos Capital’s proposed $1.13 billion acquisition of Public Interest Registry from the Internet Society.

PIR said today that it has agreed to give ICANN until April 20 to give it the yay or nay on the controversial deal.

It seems the disruption and distraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic played at least a small role in the decision. PIR said:

To ensure ICANN and the California Attorney General’s office, with which we have been communicating, have the time they need to address any outstanding questions regarding the transaction, especially in light of current events, we have agreed to an ICANN deadline extension to April 20th. We look forward to ICANN’s decision by this date.

Yesterday, opponents of the deal suggested that the acquisition could interfere with the global pandemic response, but PIR has dismissed these claims today as “misleading and alarmist” and “deceiving the public”.

Meanwhile, PIR has updated the proposed contractual Public Interest Commitments that it believes will address some of its critics’ concerns.

Future changes to the PICs will be subject to ICANN’s public comment process, the company said. This is presumably designed to calm fears that the registry will simply dump the PICs next time its contract comes up for renegotiation.

Given the level of confidence in the efficacy of the public comment process — which I would argue is currently close to zero — I doubt this new promise will have its intended effect.

PIR has also taken on criticism that its proposed .ORG Stewardship Council, designed to make sure .org continues to be managed in the public interest, could easily be captured by Ethos yes-men.

Now, instead of appointing the first five members of the council itself, Ethos will instead recruit an “internationally-recognized executive search firm” to find five suitable candidates from stakeholder groups including ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group and At-Large Advisory Committee.

Those nominations will still be subject to final approval by the PIR board, however, so again I think the deal’s critics will still have complaints to cling to.

PIR expects to announce further details of the council selection process next Monday, March 23.

Delay .org deal because of… coronavirus? Gimme a break

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, Domain Policy

Opponents of Public Interest Registry’s proposed acquisition by Ethos Capital are now claiming that ICANN should delay approval of the deal due to coronavirus.

A statement, released yesterday by digital rights group Access Now with the apparent approval of several other like-minded groups, outlines a few reasons why coronavirus means ICANN should reject, or at least delay its consideration of, the deal.

ICANN is currently working towards a March 20 deadline to deliver its verdict.

Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now, said in the statement:

Far from routine, this transfer would further imperil crucial channels of trusted information in a precarious time. From Médecins Sans Frontières to Wikipedia to many of the world’s hospitals, organizations that disseminate accurate health information and connect affected communities with public resources depend on the .ORG domain. Now is not the time to shift the ground beneath their online activities.

Could a $0.97 increase in the cost of wikipedia.org this year see Wikipedia’s hive mind crumble and turn into the digital equivalent of Jenny McCarthy’s brain? Will it prompt MSF volunteers to retreat, screaming, from the front lines? I don’t think so.

The statement goes on to suggest that China would be able to use its substantial financial and political clout to lean on Ethos’ secretive backers to something something something coronavirus. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said:

The Chinese government routinely uses economic pressure to censor critics or inconvenient information, such as about its disastrous early cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak. Investors in the private equity firm that wants to buy the .ORG domain inevitably will have economic interests that Beijing could threaten.

While there may well be a nugget of truth in there, I fail to see how it applies to the current pandemic. Is the argument that China will pressure Ethos’ billionaire money men to close down domains belonging to organizations disseminating accurate Covid-19 information? It seems a stretch.

China already has substantial powers to shut down domains within its own borders, and requires registries operating in the country to comply with Draconian censorship rules. I’m not aware of any cases of these existing powers being exercised against domains globally.

A third argument is that ICANN is using coronavirus as a convenient smokescreen to quietly approve the acquisition while everyone else is busy ram-raiding corner stores for toilet paper.

Daniel Eriksson, head of technology at Transparency International, said in the statement:

If this transfer goes ahead during the current crisis as planned, we’ll look back on it as an example of vested interests taking advantage of the extraordinary situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic to further their own concerns at the expense of the broader good of society. We need to be vigilant against any such actions, and this is precisely the role of many civil society organizations that have a watchdog function. We need maximum transparency and integrity around the sale of .ORG, and that is simply not possible if the sale is rushed through at a moment when peoples’ attention is elsewhere.

Again, this seems like a stretch. The announcement of the acquisition predates the discovery of Covid-19 by weeks, and it has been subject to intense scrutiny, engagement, comment and unprecedented — albeit imperfect — levels of transparency ever since. This is an acquisition being negotiated to a large extent in the public square.

I’ll be generous and suggest a fourth explanation: this is probably just a poor-taste (but, let’s face it, successful) attempt to grab headlines by linking the #SaveDotOrg campaign, however thinly, to the pandemic currently occupying the world’s collective conscious.

There are plenty of good arguments that could be — and are being — made in favor of further delay and scrutiny of the deal, but I don’t think coronavirus is one of them.

Not every coronavirus domain registrant is a douchebag

Kevin Murphy, March 16, 2020, Domain Sales

While there are plenty of domain registrants apparently trying to make a quick buck out of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve managed to dig up several that appear to have less parasitical motives.

I spent some time today poking around gTLDs where one might reasonably expect to find coronavirus information, products or services. In each TLD, I looked up the second-level strings “coronavirus”, “covid-19” and “covid19”. I did not check any ccTLDs, IDNs or geographic gTLDs.

In the large majority of gTLD cases, the domain was parked, offered for sale, or displayed default web host information.

Some were being monetized in other ways, and at least one appears to be actively dangerous to public health.

These are the ones that don’t seem to be purely out to make a quick buck or get people killed:

  • covid19.health — a web site, attributed to one Steven Liu, has been produced containing interactive data about the current state of worldwide infections, deaths and recoveries.
  • coronavirus.live — redirects to the pandemic data page at the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, which resembles a scene from War Games (1983).
  • covid19.news, covid-19.news, covid-19.live and covid19.live — all redirect to covid2020.com, a web site run by somebody going by “CovidDataGirl” that appears to be at the very least a serious attempt to build a web site containing actual information. It does, however, also solicit small “buy me a coffee” donations to support the site, so it might not be fully altruistic.
  • covid-19.com — frames Chinese-languages news and data about the outbreak from two other web sites, as it has since day one. I can’t fully verify the sources are legit, but they appear to be at first glance.
  • coronavirus.com — this has been registered since 2002 and reportedly belongs to GoDaddy following its recent acquisition of Frank Schilling’s portfolio. It bounces visitors to the World Health Organization’s coronavirus web page. GoDaddy didn’t really have any choice here — any appearance of an attempt to monetize would have been public relations suicide.
  • coronavirus.app — more hard data overlaid onto a fairly slick world map.
  • covid19.care and covid19.today — somebody is attempting or has attempted to make a useful web site here, but it’s either a work in progress or abandoned.
  • covid19.consulting — bare-bones pandemic data.
  • coronavirus.media — a news aggregator that looks like it was abandoned over a month ago.
  • coronavirus.rehab — all the information is copy-pasted from sources such as WHO and Johns Hopkins, or fed in via open news APIs, but at least it’s therefore factual and there does not appear to be any overt attempt at monetization.
  • covid-19.rehab — Russian news aggregator with no obvious monetization.
  • coronavirus.horse — I had no particular reason to check this one out, other than I know the internet’s penchant for putting wacky stuff on .horse domains. To my surprise, it resolves, bouncing users to the nightmare fuel at the aforementioned Johns Hopkins site.

There were no registered domains in tightly restricted spaces such as .loan, .insurance and .pharmacy, as you might expect.

And now the bad news.

I found no clearly non-douchey uses in .blog, .doctor, .center, .clinic, .education, .equipment, .fit, .fitness, .flights, .healthcare, .hospital, .lawyer, .supplies, .supply, or .wiki. Just parking, sales and host default pages.

Sadly, coronavirus.science is being used by a bunch of irresponsible quacks to peddle dangerous pseudoscience.

I found one Spanish-language splog at coronavirus.consulting and an Amazon affiliate page selling hand sanitizer and face-masks at coronavirus.equipment.

One guy has registered one of the three strings in at least 10 different new gTLDs — including .deals, .host and .enterprises — each of which invites visitors to click on a link to the next in a never-ending cycle. None of the pages are monetized.

Somebody is attempting to make money selling merchandise featuring a cartoon cat in a face mask at coronavirus.shop and coronavirus.rocks. I have mixed feelings on this one, but I am a sucker for cats.

I was close to featuring the three .org domains in the “good” list above, as they actually present a great deal of content related to coronavirus, but they appear to belong to the same guy who’s currently arguing with Andrew Allemann on Domain Name Wire about whether it’s acceptable for domainers to profit from tragedy.

For the record, I agree with Allemann: serious domain investors should never attempt to exploit these kinds of crises for financial gain. Not coronavirus, not anything. It casts the entire profession in a terrible light and will probably harm domainers’ collective interests in the long run.

There’s a reason the Internet Commerce Association has a code of conduct banning such activity.

It’s a lot easier to ignore their complaints about, say, price increases in .com or .org, if you can easily characterize domainers as a bunch of ambulance-chasing assholes. Verisign has already done this and ICANN could well be next.

Roundup: domain industry starts to respond to coronavirus pandemic

Kevin Murphy, March 16, 2020, Domain Registries

With much of the world already laboring under coronavirus-related movement and assembly restrictions, many domain industry companies have started to publicly outline their business continuity plans.

Some companies have already implemented blanket home-working rules, while others are ready to pull the trigger on such regimes just as soon as local government policy or other circumstances require it.

Here’s a roundup of what some of these companies have said over the last few days.

It’s not an exhaustive list — I’m sure many companies have unannounced contingencies in place — and it should be noted that some of these announcements may well be out of date already, due to the speed at which the virus risk, and government responses to it, are changing.

  • In Italy, the nation hardest-hit by the virus outside of China, local ccTLD registry Registro.it said: “Due to the current health emergency, there may be delays in the processing of legal and administrative procedures in the coming days. Activities related to the registration and maintenance of domains will be carried out as usual”.
  • NIC Chile, the .cl registry, has imposed a ban on outsiders attending its offices, effective today, “in order to safeguard the health of its clients and officials”.
  • Portugal’s Associação DNS.PT, the .pt registry, has gone a step further, saying Friday that it has already adopted remote working. It added that it was not aware of any confirmed cases and that it expected business to continue as normal.
  • An undated notice on DNS Belgium’s web site states: “To guarantee maximum business continuity, we temporarily close our office and all work from home.”
  • Dutch ccTLD registry SIDN said Friday that “most” of its employees are working from home, and it will minimize in-person contacts to “strictly necessary” meetings. It does not expect disruption to services.
  • Austrian Nic.at said that employees “who are not tied to the Vienna or Salzburg office locations due to their work can work from home by telework”, adding “strict hygiene measures apply in the offices”.
  • In Denmark, DK-Hostmaster said that customer support will now be conducted purely via email, with phone support suspended until March 27.
  • It’s the same story in Poland for .pl domains, according to a notice on the NASK web site.
  • Afilias said Thursday that it has contingency plans in place to keep its registry business ticking over even if staff fall ill or office closures are mandated. It’s also stepped up office cleaning and made hand sanitizer available to staff. Employees will be able to home-work should the need arise, the company said.
  • Corporate registrar family Com Laude said that it’s updated its business continuity and disaster recovery plans to account for the pandemic threat, including providing remote-working solutions for its staff.
  • Network Solutions, part of Web.com, told customers Friday that its workforce is geared up to work from home too, and that customer service should be unaffected during the crisis.
  • British registrar Astutium said it won’t book any in-person meetings with clients for the next 90 days, and that if anyone shows up for an already-booked meeting they will be required wash thoroughly before they’re let through the door.

I’ve not heard any reports yet of members of the industry with confirmed infections. So that’s good.

At ICANN 67, nobody knew you’re a dog

Kevin Murphy, March 16, 2020, Gossip

Want to see what your fellow ICANN 67 attendees looked like on the other side of the Zoom chat room?

The meeting may have been held entirely remotely, but that hasn’t stopped the ICANN org from populating its Flickr page with a big wedge of photos, one of which seems to prove the old adage that “On the internet, nobody know’s you’re a dog.”

Virtual Photo Gallery #42

Photo credit: @icannphotos

At regular, face-to-face ICANN meetings, there’s a professional photographer doing the rounds, doing his or her level best to make jet-lagged, bearded. middle-aged men sitting in circles at laptops look thrusting and dynamic.

This time, it was largely up to remote participants to submit their own mug shots, taken in their home offices, kitchens, and lounges, for your viewing delight. And what a jolly nice bunch of people they look.

The batch of photos from 67 also includes a number taken on-site at ICANN’s Los Angeles headquarters, which had been hastily rigged up to act as the meeting’s hub after the face-to-face meeting in Cancun, Mexico was cancelled over coronavirus fears.

Here.

GoDaddy cancels in-person investor day over coronavirus fears

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2020, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has followed in the footsteps of many other companies and organizations, cancelling a large in-person meeting to avoid exacerbating the coronavirus pandemic.

The market-leading registrar, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, announced this week that will host its investor day, scheduled for April 2, as a webcast only, out of “concern for the health and well-being of participants and attendees”.

There had been planned a face-to-face component in New York, but that will no longer go ahead.

New York’s mayor this week slapped a ban on public gatherings of over 500 people, but GoDaddy’s announcement predates that edict.

The news came as ICANN conducted its first-ever online-only public policy meeting.

WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! In other news, ICANN 67 was… “muted”

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2020, Domain Policy

Without wishing to scaremonger about Covid-19, I don’t mind admitting that I’ve never been so terrified of anything as much in my adult life.

I have relatives in their nineties or with existing lung conditions, and I’m generally a pretty unhealthy middle-aged bloke myself. In the last few days, I’ve become increasingly concerned that not every member of the clan is going to make it out of 2020 alive.

I’m sure many readers are feeling the same way right now.

The UK government’s response may or may not be scientifically sound, but it seems to me the underlying strategy is not to prevent people from getting the disease, which may well no longer be possible, but rather to spread out infections over as long a period as possible, so as to reduce the peak strain on the National Health Service.

My feeling, which I don’t think is particularly paranoid, is that Boris Johnson, in apparent contrast to other world leaders, has made the call to throw a generation of British grannies under the bus in the name of herd immunity.

We’re living in dark times, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

I hope all my readers stay safe. And, in all seriousness, keep washing those hands and stay at home if you start coughing!

Awkward segue incoming.

There was little doubt in my mind that ICANN made the correct decision three weeks ago when it cancelled the in-person Cancun public meeting and quickly organized a much-truncated online-only ICANN 67 instead. There seemed a possibility that it was acting through an over-abundance of caution.

But, given the developments in the coronavirus pandemic since ICANN pulled the plug on Cancun, all such doubt has surely been eliminated. ICANN made entirely the right call.

That’s not to say that 67 was a roaring success. It suffered from the entirely predictable and unavoidable limitations of online conferencing.

When I say it was “muted”, I mean that in two senses of the word.

Watching the American late-night talk show hosts last night performing to empty audiences this morning was a surreal experience. Like watching survivors of the zombie apocalypse broadcasting a plaintive SOS into an eerily silent ether.

I kinda felt the same listening to ICANN 67.

While I’m no stranger to remote participation — that’s how I experience most ICANN meetings — there’s usually a detectable sense of place, of a jostling community on the other side of the Zoom room. I hesitate to use a word as strong as “vibrancy”, but you probably know what I’m getting at.

There was none of that at 67, which largely played out in much the same way as a regular policy working group call.

And that’s when we get to the other sense of the word “muted” — I lost count of the amount of time squandered to technical issues such as dropped or laggy connections, background noise, and, most commonly, people not realizing that they have to unmute their lines before speaking.

I don’t think a single session I attended was not plagued by periods of uncomfortable silence.

As I said, this was entirely predictable and largely unavoidable. I don’t think the fact that each session’s Zoom room appeared to be configured differently helped, but it’s probably a problem that will be mitigated as people become more accustomed to the Zoom platform.

The next ICANN meeting, numbered 68, is currently still scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from June 22, but I think that it’s almost inevitable that we’ll be looking at another online-only session.

Malaysia currently has 158 confirmed cases of coronavirus, suggesting that it’s still in the relatively early stages of the pandemic compared to, say, Europe.

With UK experts predicting peak infections here around late May, it’s entirely possible ICANN 68 would take place while Malaysia’s problem is significantly worse than it is today.

Chinese registrars ask ICANN to waive fees due to Coronavirus

Almost 50 registries and registrars based in China have asked ICANN to temporarily waive its fees due to the economic impact they say Covid-19 — the new Coronavirus — is having on them.

They’ve all put their names to a February 21 letter (pdf) that ICANN published over the weekend, saying they “believe that it’s essential that ICANN provides immediate fee waiver to registries and registrars in China”.

The letter, signed by more than half of the currently accredited registrars in China, notes the cancellation of the Cancun public meeting, adding:

We highly respect and welcome ICANN’s approach to keep our community safe. Meanwhile, the contracted parties in China, including their staff, suppliers, and relevant business counterparts, are being hit and suffered by the 2019-nCoV in a much greater scale than in other countries and regions combined since January 2020. Many of the staff members have been restrained to perform sales and support functions at the level they are required to. There are significant delays in collections, payments and wire transfers. While we expect that the scale of 2019-nCoV could not go greater, the business growth estimate in 2020 has been jeopardized and the time of recovery can be very long.

While domestic aid on tax, rentals, etc. are being discussed and confirmed, we believe that it’s essential that ICANN provides immediate fee waiver to registries and registrars in China. The waiver of 2020 fees, including annual fees and transaction fees, will greatly help stabilize our business in the difficult time.

This is not a small ask. ICANN collects fees based on transaction volume, and many millions of transactions originate in China. That’s particularly true in the new gTLD space, where China dominates.

The Chinese companies say that ICANN could afford to waive the fees due to the money they say ICANN will save by cancelling Cancun and other international travel.

My hunch is that ICANN won’t agree to these demands. While China is currently undoubtedly disproportionately affected by Covid-19, that situation is rapidly changing.

In the coming weeks and months it’s quite possible — worst-case scenario — the rest of the world could be similarly affected. Is ICANN prepared to set a precedent that could see it sacrifice its entire annual budget? I doubt it.

All previous requests for ICANN to waive its fees for various other reasons have been denied.

ICANN wants to take your temperature before letting you into ICANN 67

Kevin Murphy, February 18, 2020, Domain Policy

Face masks, hand-sanitizer stations, and nurses taking your temperature on the doors… these are some of the measures ICANN plans to deploy at its upcoming public meeting in Cancun next month, in an effort to mitigate the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak.

That’s assuming the meeting goes ahead at all, which is still undecided.

Speaking to community leaders in a teleconference this evening, ICANN staffers outlined the following precautionary measures they expect to put in place:

  • A doctor from International SOS will be on site, alongside the usual two medics.
  • A team of nurses will be deployed at the venue’s two entrances to check attendees’ temperatures (via the forehead, you’ll be pleased to hear) as they enter the building.
  • “Anyone registering a fever will be escorted to the doctor for assessment.”
  • ICANN is “stockpiling” face masks and is already shipping some to the venue. This is complicated by the global supply shortage. Attendees will be encouraged to source their own before leaving home.
  • Hand sanitizer facilities will be dotted around, particularly at large meeting rooms and outside bathrooms.
  • A Mexican familiar with the local public health service will be available.
  • It will be up to the local Mexican authorities to determine how to respond to a confirmed case. It’s not particularly clear what the policy would be on quarantine and the dreaded “cruise ship scenario”. There have been no cases in Mexico yet.

The temperature checks will be daily. One would assume that people leaving the venue for lunch, or a cigarette or something will be checked more frequently.

ICANN has yet to decide whether the meeting is going to go ahead. Its board of directors will meet on Wednesday to make a call, but CEO Göran Marby noted that should the situation with Covid-19 change there’s always the possibility it could be cancelled at a later date.

The meeting could also be cancelled if a large enough number of ICANN support staff refuse to go.

Some companies have already informed ICANN that they won’t be sending employees to the meeting. Marby said that if it looks like only 600 or 700 people are going to show up, the meeting probably won’t go ahead.

Governmental Advisory Committee chair Manal Ismail said on the call that only 30 GAC members have so far indicated that they’re going to attend. That’s about half of the usual level, she said.

If it were to be cancelled, the meeting would go ahead online. All ICANN meetings allow remote participation anyway, but ICANN has been prepping for the possibility that its online tools will need much greater capacity this time.

The audio recording of the call can be found here. Thanks to Rubens Kuhl for the link.

Are you going to go to Cancun, or will you cancel due to Covid? Let me know in the comments.