Afilias has applied to ICANN to have its ban on owning registrars in two of its own gTLDs, .mobi and .pro, lifted.
With requests to ICANN a few days ago (here and here), the company said it wants to be able to own more than 15% of an ICANN-accredited registrar that sells both TLDs, which is currently forbidden by the two Registry Agreements in question.
Afilias’ proposed new .info contract, which was renegotiated this year (because it expired) and closed for public comment last week, would also enable the company to vertically integrate with a .info registrar.
A process for relaxing the cross-ownership rules on a per-TLD basis was approved by ICANN’s board of directors last October.
The only registry so far to have its contractual ban lifted is puntCat, the .cat registry operator.
When an ICANN working group was discussing the vertical integration issue a couple of years ago, Afilias was one of the participants that held fast against any relaxation of the 15% ownership cap, eventually driving the working group into stalemate and forcing the ICANN board’s hand.
PuntCAT, the .cat registry, has become the first gTLD operator to apply to ICANN for the right to dump the registrar ownership ban in its contract.
If the request is approved by ICANN, the company will be able to own an ICANN-accredited registrar and start selling .cat domain names more or less directly to registrants.
The company has proposed several amendments to its existing contract that would allow it to become an “affiliate” of — ie own — a registrar with respect to its own gTLD.
ICANN believes the request, which is open for public comment until February 13, will not create any competition problems.
ICANN approved the rules for enabling cross-ownership in October, after competition concerns from the European Commission and US Department of Commerce appeared to disappear.
The .cat request was handled via the Process for Handling Requests for Removal of Cross-Ownership Restrictions on Operators of Existing gTLDs, which absolutely nobody is calling PFHRFROCOROOOEG.
Under the rules, the alternative to amending an existing contract is adopting the standard new gTLDs registry agreement wholesale, but I’m not expecting any incumbent registries to do that.
PuntCAT is pretty much unique among “sponsored” gTLD operators in that it’s experienced steady growth, not subject to the same degree of speculation-related spikes as others, since launching in 2006.
It currently has roughly 60,000 domains under management, growing at about 10,000 names a year. Three Spanish registrars hold over half of the market between them, led by Nominalia.
But the gTLD faces an uncertain future.
The Catalonia region of Spain, which .cat represents, is set for an independence referendum in 2014. If it were to split off into a new country, it would get its own potentially competing ccTLD.
Sales could benefit from the imminent delegation of .dog, which three companies have applied for as a gTLD, but PuntCAT’s rules state that all .cat sites must have Catalan-language content.
With little fanfare, ICANN last week formally approved new rules that could allow incumbent registry operators to own registrars that sell domains in their own gTLDs.
The policy would give the likes of Verisign, Neustar and Afilias the right to become affiliated with registrars that sell .com, .biz and .info names respectively.
These registries would have to sign up to the standard new gTLD registry agreement first, or submit to contract renegotiation in order to drop their current cross-ownership bans.
In either case, they would become bound by the new registry Code of Conduct, preventing them from offering preferential terms to their affiliated registrars.
The new rule came into effect following the ICANN board meeting on Thursday, at which this resolution was passed.
ICANN had already dropped cross-ownership restrictions for new gTLD registry operators, but held back from bringing in the same rules for incumbents due to concerns from competition authorities.
After exchanges of letters with the European Commission and US Department of Commerce, these concerns appear to have dried up, however. ICANN said in its resolution:
it appears that there is no longer any reason against extending the approved process to existing registry operators for their own TLDs.
This action will be an advantage for the ICANN community, as it will provide the opportunity for treating all registry operators equally with respect to cross-ownership restrictions.
Registries would have their requests for contract changes referred to competition authorities for comment before ICANN would approve them.
Based on previous comments, Verisign might have a struggle with respect to .com but the other incumbents might have an easier time renegotiating their deals.
Neustar has been particularly outspoken in its desire to get rid of the contractual language preventing it owning a .biz registrar, so we might see that company first to get into talks.
Both .biz and .info contracts are up for renewal before the end of the year.