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Verisign pays ICANN $20 million and gets to raise .com prices again

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign is to get the right to raise the price of .com domains by 7% per year, under a new contract with ICANN.

The deal, announced this hour, will also see Verisign pay ICANN $20 million over five years, starting in 2021, “to support ICANN’s initiatives to preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS”.

According to ICANN, the pricing changes mean that the maximum price of a .com domain could go as high as $10.26 by October 2026.

Verisign getting the right to once more increase its fees — which is likely to be worth close to a billion dollars to the company’s top line over the life of the contract — was not unexpected.

Pricing has been stuck at $7.85 for years, due to a price freeze imposed by the Obama-era US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but this policy was reversed by the Trump administration in late 2018.

The amendment to the .com registry agreement announced today essentially takes on the terms of the Trump appeasement, so Verisign gets to up .com prices by 7% in the last four years of the six-year duration of the contract.

ICANN said:

ICANN org is not a price regulator and will defer to the expertise of relevant competition authorities. As such, ICANN has long-deferred to the [US Department of Commerce] and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for the regulation of pricing for .COM registry services.

But ICANN will also financially benefit from the deal over and above what it receives from Verisign under the current .com contract.

First, the two parties have said they will sign a binding letter of intent (pdf) committing Verisign to give ICANN $4 million a year, starting one year from now, to help fund ICANN’s activities:

conducting, facilitating or supporting activities that preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS, which may include, without limitation, active measures to promote and/or facilitate DNSSEC deployment, Security Threat mitigation, name collision mitigation, root server system governance and research into the operation of the DNS

That’s basically describing one of ICANN’s core missions, which is already funded to a great extent by .com fees, so quite why it’s being spun out into a separate agreement is a little bit of a mystery to me at this early stage.

Don’t be surprised if you hear the words “bung” or “quid pro quo” being slung around in the coming hours and days by ICANN critics.

The second financial benefit to ICANN comes from additional payments Verisign will have to make when it sells its ConsoliDate service.

This is the service that allows .com registrants, via their registrars, to synchronize the renewal dates of all of the domains in their portfolio, so they only have to worry about renewals on a single day of the year. It’s basically a partial-year renewal.

Under the amended .com contract, ICANN will get a piece of that action too. Verisign has agreed to pay ICANN a pro-rated fee, based on the $0.25 per-domain annual renewal fee, for the number of days any given registration is extended using ConsoliDate.

I’m afraid to say I don’t know how much money this could add to ICANN’s coffers, but another amendment to the contract means that Verisign will start to report ConsoliDate usage in its published monthly transaction reports, so we should get a pretty good idea of the $$$$ value in the second half of the year.

The amended contract — still in draft form (pdf) and open for public comment — also brings on a slew of new obligations for Verisign that bring .com more into line with other gTLDs.

There’s no Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, so domain investors and cybersquatters can breath a sigh of relief there.

But Verisign has also agreed to a new Registry-Registrar Agreement that contains substantial new provisions aimed at combating abuse, fraud and intellectual property infringement — including trademark infringement.

It has also agreed to a series of Public Interest Commitments, along the same lines as all the 2012-round new gTLDs, covering the same kinds of dodgy activities. The texts of the RRA addition and PICs are virtually identical, requiring:

a provision prohibiting the Registered Name Holder from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, pharming, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities, including suspension of the registration of the Registered Name;

There are also many changes related to how Verisign handles data escrow, Whois/RDAP and zone file access. It looks rather like users of ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, including yours truly, will soon have access to the humongous .com zone file on a daily basis. Yum.

The proposed amendments to the .com contract are now open for public comment here. You have until February 14. Off you go.

ICANN throws out second .org appeal, so URS stays

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2019, Domain Registries

The Uniform Rapid Suspension process is to stay in .org, after the ICANN board of directors rejected an appeal from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF had challenged the inclusion of URS in the recently renegotiated .org Registry Agreement, on the basis that the anti-cybersquatting system was designed for post-2012 new gTLDs and was never supposed to be deployed in legacy gTLDs such as .org.

In a Request for Reconsideration, the EFF had argued that ICANN had ignored the many commenters opposed to its inclusion in the contract, and that the board had shirked its duties by delegating the renegotiation to ICANN’s executive leadership.

But the board disagreed on both of these counts, saying in its resolution and accompanying 36-page analysis (pdf) that at no point had the organization broken its bylaws.

ICANN did not ignore the anti-URS comments, the board said, it simply decided that on balance the public interest was better served by having URS in the contract.

The Requestor has not demonstrated that ICANN Staff failed to seek or support broad participation, ascertain the global public interest, or act for the public benefit. To the contrary, ICANN org’s transparent processes reflect the Staff’s continuous efforts to ascertain and pursue the global public interest by migrating the legacy gTLDs to the Base RA.

Additionally, the board was well within its rights to delegate negotiation and approval of the RA to the CEO, the board decided. The fact that the EFF disagrees with that position does not amount to a basis of reconsideration, it found.

Since the EFF filed its RfR back in August, we’ve had the news of the $1.135 billion acquisition of .org manager Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital, which will see it convert from a non-profit to a for-profit concern.

The EFF has since had the chance to put allegations to ICANN that its staff was aware of the deal before it was announced, and that the acquisition should have factored into its consideration of the RA renewal.

But ICANN flatly denies that it knew about the deal, which was announced four months after the renewal:

Since neither the Board nor ICANN Staff were aware of the PIR acquisition when the decision to renew the .ORG RA was made, there was no material information not considered, and therefore this is not a proper basis for reconsideration.

The Ethos Capital acquisition of PIR, which was announced more than four months after the execution of the .ORG Renewed RA, did not impact ICANN Staff’s determination that ICANN’s Mission and Core Values were best served by migrating the .ORG RA to the Base RA.

In conclusion, like almost all filers of RfRs, the EFF is SOL.

Another RfR, filed by the registrar NameCheap and related primary to .org pricing, was similarly rejected by ICANN’s board a few weeks ago.

ICANN is, however, currently quizzing Ethos and PIR seller ISOC for more details about the acquisition before it approves the change of contractor.

Porn-block retail prices revealed. Wow.

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2019, Domain Registrars

The first retail prices for MMX’s porn-blocking AdultBlock services have been revealed, and they ain’t cheap.

The registrar 101domain yesterday announced that it has started offering AdultBlock and sister service AdultBlock+, and published its pricing.

Trademark owners wanting to block a single string across .sex, .porn, .adult and .xxx will pay $349 per year with the vanilla, renew-annually service.

If they want the AdultBlock+ service, which also blocks homographs, they’ll pay $799 a year or $7,495 for the maximum 10-year term.

Compare this to the Sunrise B offer that ICM Registry made to trademark owners in 2011, where a string in .xxx cost roughly $200 to $300 for a 10-year block.

The two services are not directly comparable, of course. AdultBlock covers three additional TLDs and the AdultBlock+ service covers confusingly similar variants.

But trademark owners are buying peace of mind that their brands won’t be registered as porn sites, and the cost of that peace of mind just increased tenfold.

AdultBlock domains don’t resolve, and are a lot cheaper than domain registrations.

Renewing a single string in all four gTLDs at 101domain prices would cost around $480 a year, so customers will pay about 27% less buying a block instead.

The cost of the first year for those four domains would be $360, just $11 more than the AdultBlock price, according to 101domain’s price list.

MMX, which acquired the gTLD portfolio from ICM last year, is offering a discount on the AdultBlock+ service for customers buying before the end of 2019.

101domain is offering 10 years of AdultBlock+ for $3,999, a saving of $3,500.

101domain is not known as a particularly expensive registrar, so prices elsewhere in the industry could go higher.

EFF becomes second to appeal new .org contract

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2019, Domain Registries

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has appealed ICANN’s decision to add stronger trademark protection rules to .org.

The civil liberties organization has filed a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, saying that the new .org contract should not oblige Public Interest Registry to implement the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

URS is a swifter, cheaper version of the anti-cybersquatting UDRP policy. It can lead to clear-cut cases of trademark-infringing domains being relatively quickly suspended, but not transferred.

But the EFF is worried that it could be abused to curtail free speech.

It said URS is “particularly dangerous for the many .org registrants who are engaged in an array of noncommercial work, including criticism of governments and corporations”.

URS was created via ICANN’s bottom-up, community-led policy-making process to apply to new gTLDs applied for in 2012, not legacy gTLDs such as .org, EFF argues,

Adding more rights protection to a legacy gTLD “should be initiated, if at all, through the multistakeholder policy development process, not in bilateral negotiations between a registry operator and ICANN staff”, the RfR states.

The EFF is also concerned that the new contract allows PIR to unilaterally create its own additional rights protection mechanisms.

I don’t think this is a new power, however. Remember when PIR proposed a “Copyright UDRP” a couple of years ago, evidently as a way to turf out The Pirate Bay? That plan was swiftly killed off after protests from, among others, the EFF.

The EFF’s reconsideration request (pdf) does not address the issue of price increase caps, which were removed in the new contract.

That more-controversial provision is already the subject of an RfR, filed by NameCheap last month.

Both RfRs will be dealt with by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee before being passed to the full board.

Porn blocks could be worth millions to MMX

Minds + Machines could find itself making millions of dollars a year out of non-resolving defensive registrations in its recently acquired portfolio of porn-themed gTLDs.

The company recently announced the launch of AdultBlock and AdultBlock Plus, which will enable trademark owners to prevent anyone else registering their marks, and variants thereof, for up to 10 years.

Running the numbers, and taking into account MMX’s already substantial established client base for such services, AdultBlock could bring in as much as $11 million a year. But it’s almost certainly going to be much less than that.

The company won’t disclose it’s exact pricing for AdultBlock, or its revenue estimates, but it’s possible to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations and come to some ball-park guesses.

MMX has said that it’s pricing the service such that customers should be able to see a 35% saving compared to the cost of registering a single string across all four of its porn TLDs

The company acquired .xxx, .porn, .adult and .sex when it bought ICM Registry last year.

The wholesale fee for each of the four is believed to be about $68 a year. From this, we can calculate that the wholesale price of AdultBlock may well be around the $175-a-year mark.

There’s some room for error here, as MMX hasn’t revealed precisely how it came to its 35% number, but I think we can safely say we’re looking at $150 to $200 a year. For the purposes of this envelope, let’s split the difference and assume it’s $175.

It’s quite a high number, a bit like a recurring sunrise fee for a domain that you don’t even get to use.

But how many domains can MMX expect to be blocked?

A low-ball estimate could be modeled on the .porn/.adult/.sex sunrise periods.

.porn launched in 2015 and gathered 2,091 sunrise registrations, according to ICANN records, making it one of the largest new gTLD sunrise periods. The other two TLDs weren’t far behind.

If that’s a good guide for AdultBlock uptake, we’re talking about a piddling $360,000-a-year business.

But MMX has a secret weapon that it inherited from .xxx.

When .xxx launched back in 2011, it kicked off with two sunrise periods. Sunrise A was for trademark owners in the porn business who wanted to use their .xxx names. Sunrise B was for everyone else, who didn’t.

In Sunrise B, brand owners paid $162 (plus their registrar’s markup) to block their domains for a flat period of 10 years.

Customers couldn’t use their domains. They were registered to ICM and used specially designated ICM name servers to resolve to a standard, non-monetized placeholder page stating “This domain has been reserved from registration.”

There are over 80,000 domains using these name servers, but about 15,000 of those represent names of celebrities, cities, and religiously and culturally sensitive terms that ICM culled from Wikipedia and unilaterally reserved to help avoid a tabloid crucifixion if mileycyrus.xxx ever started bouncing children to something pornographic, such as one of her music videos.

(As an aside, I think it’s worth mentioning that the .xxx zone file only has 93,000 names in it. These means about nine out of 10 live .xxx domains are reserved by the registry.)

So we’ve got 65,000 trademarks that are currently blocked in .xxx, and they’re all going to expire in 2021 because ICM only sold blocks for the duration of its original 10-year ICANN contract.

If all 65,000 domains are upgraded to AdultBlock, the service would be worth over $11 million a year, to a company currently reporting annual revenue around $15 million.

But they won’t.

You don’t have to scroll too far down the .xxx zone file (and I didn’t) to discover some absolute garbage, no doubt the result of scaremongering around the 2011 .xxx launch.

I mean, seriously, look at some of this Sunrise B guff:

100percentwholewheatthatkidslovetoeat.xxx, 101waystoleaveagameshow.xxx, 1firstnationalmergersandacquisitions.xxx, 1stchoiceliquorsuperstore.xxx, 2bupushingalltherightbuttons.xxx, 247claimsservicethesupportyouneed30minutesguaranteed.xxx, 3pathpowerdeliverysystembypioneermagneticsinc.xxx

I think we’re going to be looking at a significant junk drop of blocked domains come 2021.

That said, I think MMX may have a psychological advantage here, when it comes to persuading Sunrise B users to “renew”.

Who hasn’t renewed a domain name they strongly suspect they will never use or sell, simply because they couldn’t bear the thought of somebody else owning “their” domain?

An additional consideration for brand owners is that these Sunrise B names are going to show up on drop-lists when they are eventually deleted from the .xxx zone file, perhaps giving inspiration to cybersquatters.

This is a fantastic opportunity for MMX and brand protection registrars to put the hard sell on its Sunrise B customers to “renew” their blocks by upgrading to the new and improved AdultBlock service, which could cost literally 10 times more than what they originally signed up for.

AdultBlock is of course more comprehensive than Sunrise B. It covers three additional TLDs, for starters, and customers can pay a little more for potentially thousands of potential homographs (non-Latin-script domains that look almost identical to the original) to also be blocked.

MMX isn’t waiting until 2021, however. It’s currently offering companies that buy a 10-year-block before the end of 2019 the AdultBlock+ service for the price of the vanilla, no-variants offering.

Existing Sunrise B customers have until the same deadline to purchase the new service without having to have their trademarks re-verified, which carries an additional fee.

For those that miss this early-bird offer, come December 2021, the holders of up 65,000 trademarks are going to face a stark choice: sign up to pay a couple hundred bucks a year, or risk their brands being snapped up by pornsquatters.

Cybersquatting cases down a bit in the UK

The number of cybersquatting complaints filed with Nominet declined slightly in 2018, according to the registry.

Nominet’s Dispute Resolution Service, which is a bit like the UDRP, handled 671 cases last year, compared to 712 in 2017.

The number of domains at issue was down from 783 to 763.

The slight decline appears to be because fewer complaints were filed against .org.uk, .me.uk and plain .uk domains.

The number of .co.uk registrations challenged was flat between 2017 and 2018 at 617 domains.

Only 49% of cases resulted in the disputed domain being transferred, according to the registry’s annual report (pdf).

PwC wants to be your Whois gatekeeper

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2019, Domain Services

PricewaterhouseCoopers has built a Whois access system that may help domain name companies and intellectual property interests call a truce in their ongoing battle over access to private Whois data.

Its new TieredAccess Platform will enable registries and registrars to “outsource the entire process of providing access to non-public domain registration data”.

That’s according to IP lawyer Bart Lieben, partner at the Belgian law firm ARTES, who devised the system and is working with PwC to develop it.

The offering is designed to give trademark lawyers access to the data they lust after, while also reducing costs and mitigating domain name industry liability under the General Data Protection Regulation.

TieredAccess would make PwC essentially the gatekeeper for all requests for private Whois data (at least, in the registries plugged into the platform) coming from the likes of trademark owners, security researchers, lawyers and law enforcement agencies.

At one end, these requestors would be pre-vetted by PwC, after which they’d be able to ask for unredacted Whois records using PwC as an intermediary.

They’d have to pick from one of 43 pre-written request scenarios (such as cybersquatting investigation, criminal probe or spam prevention) and assert that they will only use the data they obtain for the stated purposes.

At the other end, registries and registrars will have adopted a set of rules that specify how such requests should be responded to.

A ruleset could say that cops get more access to data than security researchers, for example, or that a criminal investigation is more important than a UDRP complaint.

PwC has created a bunch of templates, but registrars and registries would be able to adapt these policies to their own tastes.

Once the rules are put in place, and the up-front implementation work has been done to plug PwC into their Whois servers, they wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with Whois requests manually as most are today. The whole lot would be automated.

Not even PwC would have human eyes on the requests. The private data would only be stored temporarily.

One could argue that there’s the potential for abusive or non-compliant requests making it through, which may give liability-nervous companies pause.

But the requests and response metadata would be logged for audit and compliance, so abusive users could be fingered after the act.

Lieben says the whole system has been checked for GDPR compliance, assuming its prefabricated baseline scenarios and templates are adopted unadulterated.

He said that the PwC brand should give clients on both sides “peace of mind” that they’re not breaking privacy law.

If a registrar requires an affidavit before releasing data, the assertions requestors make to PwC should tick that box, he said.

Given that this is probably a harder sell to the domain name industry side of the equation, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the requestors that are likely to shoulder most of the cost burden of using the service.

Lieben said a pricing model has not yet been set, but that it could see fees paid by registrars subsidized by the fees paid by requestors.

There’s a chance registries could wind up paying nothing, he said.

The project has been in the works since September and is currently in the testing phase, with PwC trying to entice registries and registrars onto the platform.

Lieben said some companies have already agreed to test the service, but he could not name them yet.

The service was developed against the backdrop of ongoing community discussions within ICANN in the Expedited Policy Development Working group, which is trying to create a GDPR-compliant policy for access to private Whois records.

ICANN Org has also made it known that it is considering making itself the clearinghouse for Whois queries, to allow its contracted parties to offload some liability.

It’s quite possible that once the policies are in place, ICANN may well decide to outsource the gatekeeper function to the likes of PwC.

That appears to be what Lieben has in mind. After all, it’s what he did with the Trademark Clearinghouse almost a decade ago — building it independently with Deloitte while the new gTLD rules were still being written and then selling the service to ICANN when the time came.

The TieredAccess service is described in some detail here.

EURid inks trademark protection deal for non-trademark owners

.eu registry EURid is partnering on an alerts service for would-be trademark owners.

The company this week announced a deal with the EU Intellectual Property Office that will see applicants for European trademarks being able to receive alerts if and when somebody else registers the .eu domain matching their desired mark.

EURid said in a statement:

Some people have taken advantage of early publication of EUTM applications and registered the EUTM as a .eu domain name in bad faith. Effectively reducing the risk of such cyber-squatting infringements requires adopting preventive actions such as raising awareness and pro-actively informing the EUTM holders.

As of 18 May, holders and applicants of a EUTM can opt-in to receive alerts as soon as a .eu domain name is registered that is identical to their EUTM (application). By receiving such alert, EUTM holders are informed much faster and may take appropriate action much sooner.

It sounds a little like the Trademark Claims service new gTLD registries are obliged to offer during their launch, but for companies that not not yet actually own the trademarks concerned.

Offered by EUIPO itself, the service is also available to holders of EU trademarks.

Brand-blocking service plotted for porn gTLDs

MMX wants to offer a new service for trademark owners worried about cybersquatting in its four porn-themed gTLDs.

The proposed Adult Block Services would be similar to Donuts’ groundbreaking Domain Protected Marks List and the recent Trademark Sentry offering from .CLUB Domains.

The service would enable big brands to block their marks from registration across all four TLDs for less than the price of individual defensive registrations.

Prices have not been disclosed, but a more-expensive “Plus” version would also allow the blocking of variants such as typos. The registry told ICANN:

The Adult Block Services will be offered as a chance for trademark owners to quickly and easily make labels unavailable for registration in our TLDs. For those trademark owners registering domain names as a defensive measure only, the Adult Block Services offer an easy, definitive, and cost-effective method for achieving their goals by offering at-a-stroke protection for TLDs included in the program. The Adult Block Services are similar to the Donuts’ DPML, Uniregistry’s EP and EP Plus and the .Club UNBS and should be immediately understood and accepted by the trademark community.

The Adult Block will allow trademark owners to block unregistered labels in our TLDs that directly match their trademarks. The Adult Block Plus will allow trademark owners to block unregistered, confusingly similar variations of their trademarks in our TLDs.

It seems more akin to DPML, and Uniregistry’s recently launched clone, than to .CLUB’s forthcoming single-TLD offering.

The Registry Service Evaluation Process request was filed by ICM Registry, which was acquired by MMX last year.

It only covers the four porn gTLDs that ICM originally ran, and not any of the other 22 gTLDs managed by MMX (aka Minds + Machines).

This will certainly make the service appear less attractive to the IP community than something like DPML, which covers Donuts stable of 242 TLDs.

While there’s no public data about how successful blocking services have been, anecdotally I’m told they’re quite popular.

What we do have data on is how popular the ICM gTLDs have been in sunrise periods, where trademark owners showed up in higher-than-usual numbers to defensively register their marks.

.porn, .adult and .sex garnered about 2,000 sunrise regs each, more than 20 times the average for a new gTLD, making them three of the top four most-subscribed sunrise periods.

Almost one in five of the currently registered domains in each of these TLDs is likely to be a sunrise defensive.

Now that sunrise is long gone, there may be an appetite in the trademark community for less-expensive blocks.

But there have been calls for the industry to unify and offer blocking services to cover all gTLDs.

The brand-protection registrar Com Laude recently wrote:

What brands really need is for registry operators to come together and offer a universal, truly global block that applies across all the open registries and at a reasonable price that a trademark owner with multiple brands can afford.

Quite how that would happen across over 1,200 gTLDs is a bit of a mystery, unless ICANN forced such a service upon them.

Pricey .inc does quite well in sunrise

The new gTLD .inc, which goes into general availability today, had a better-than-average number of sales in its sunrise period.

Intercap Registry, which runs .inc, said today that it had “over 270” sunrise registrations.

It’s not a massive amount, but it’s probably enough to put the TLD into the top 50 sunrises to date.

There had been 491 sunrise periods as of December 2018, according to ICANN data. The average number of sunrise regs was 137. The median was 77.

The largest sunrise to date was Google’s .app, which sold 2,908 domains during its sunrise last year.

Only five new gTLDs have racked up more than 1,000 sunrise sales, and three of those were porn-related. The fifth was .shop.

Based on 270 domains .inc would rank alongside similarly themed .llc, but also the likes of .solutions, .world and .team, where the case for a defensive reg is less clear.

While one can see a clear risk for companies whose names end in “Inc”, the expected retail price of .inc will be around $2,000, which Intercap says will deter cybersquatters.

Sunrise registrants will have paid a substantial markup on this regular price.

For those without zone file access, Intercap is actually posting the names and logos of the companies that have registered on its web site.