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Domainers could lose their names as .au loophole closes

Kevin Murphy, June 14, 2018, Domain Policy

Domain investors dabbling in the .au space could face losing their names under new policies set to be proposed.

The .au Policy Review Panel, which helps set policy for Australian ccTLD registry auDA, said this week it is thinking about closing a loophole related to domain monetization that has allowed “speculation and warehousing” in violation of longstanding rules.

Monetized domains are “largely detrimental” to .au and rules permitting the practice should be scrapped, the panel is expected to formally conclude.

Anyone currently monetizing domains could be given as little as a day to comply with the new rules or face losing their names.

The expected recommendations were outlined in a memo (pdf) penned by panel chair John Swinson, an intellectual property lawyer, who wrote:

the Panel received a lot of feedback and information from the public that Domain Monetisation is largely detrimental to the name space. Feedback, including from sophisticated businesses, domain brokers and portfolio owners, was one could register almost any domain name under the Domain Monetisation rule, and that the current rules were unclear, and that domain names were being registered under the cover of Monetisation primarily for the purposes of resale or warehousing (which is contrary to the current policy).

Current auDA policy on domaining, dating from 2012, is pretty clear when it comes to domainers: “A registrant may not register a domain name for the sole purpose of resale or transfer to another entity.”

However, there’s a loophole when it comes to domains that are monetized with ad links. If a domain is monetized, reselling no longer becomes its “sole purpose”.

Another auDA policy also from 2012 specifically permits monetization as a valid reason for owning a .com.au or .net.au name.

It says that monetized domains must carry ad content relevant to the topic of the domain, and that there should be no brand infringement in the domain itself.

Swinson’s panel agreed in a May 1 meeting (pdf) that this rule should be scrapped.

It’s not entirely clear what would come to replace it, as the panel doesn’t seem likely to actually ban monetization as such. Swinson wrote:

Because the current rules are outdated, inconsistent and unclear, it is difficult to enforce the current rules that prevent the registration of domain names for domain speculation and warehousing.

The Panel’ s current view is that Domain Monetisation will not be banned, but of itself will not be a basis to meet the allocation criteria.

The “allocation criteria” refers to the eligibility requirements for .au domains, which currently require a “close and substantial” link between the registrant and the name.

The panel’s memo states that there would be a “grandfathering” period during which domainers whose sites do not comply with the new policy would have time to update them:

The Panel’s current view is to recommend that any new eligibility and allocation rules should apply on the next renewal of a domain name license. This will give domain name licensees who meet the current rules, but who will not meet any new rules, time to deal with the non-compliance.

The problem here of course is that the “next renewal” could be anywhere from a day to two years away, depending on the domain. That’s probably an area the panel needs to look at.

The monetization issue is one of several addressed in the panel’s interim report (pdf), which also looks at the possibility of direct, second-level domain registration.

Any new policy on either issue is still many months away.

auDA may sue to delay boardroom bloodbath

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2018, Domain Registries

auDA is thinking about taking its membership to court in order to delay a vote on the jobs of four of its directors.

The Australian ccTLD registry has also delayed further consideration of its policy to introduce direct, second-level registrations in .au until late 2019.

Both announcements came in the wake of a government review of the organization, which found it “no longer fit-for-purpose”.

auDA last week asked its members to agree to a postponement of the special general meeting, called for by a petition of more than 5% of its members, at which there would be votes on whether to fire the CEO, its chair, and two independent directors.

Under the law, auDA has to hold the SGM by June 7 at the latest, according to a letter (pdf) sent to members on Friday.

But auDA wants to delay the meeting until mid-September, at the earliest, to coincide with its regular Annual General Meeting.

If its members do not consent to the delay — it gave them a deadline of 4pm local time today, meaning responses would have to be drafted over the weekend — auDA said it “intends to apply for a court order… extending the time for calling the requested SGM”.

The delay is needed, auDA said, in order to give the organization the breathing space to start to implement the reforms called for by the government review.

The government wants the makeup of the auDA board substantially overhauled within a year to better reflect the stakeholder community and to ensure directors have the necessary skills and experience.

In response, auDA has told the government (pdf) that it agrees with the need for reform, but that it will not be able to hit its deadlines unlesss the SGM is delayed.

It also said calling the SGM on time would cost it somewhere in the region of AUD 70,000, based on the cost of a similar meeting last year.

auDA announced separately last week that it is delaying any more discussion on second-level registrations — something the reform campaigners largely are opposed to — “until the second half of 2019 at the earliest”.

Josh Rowe, coordinator of the Grumpier.com.au petitioners, said in his response that he found the request for the SGM delay “extremely disappointing”, adding:

auDA is at an important juncture following the Australian Government’s review. However, it is critical that people with the right skills and experience lead auDA through its reform.

Members have lost confidence in the auDA CEO, and the three auDA independent directors. They do not have the right skills and experience to lead auDA through its reform.

He noted that members do not have the resources to fight auDA in court.

Grumpier Aussies call for more blood on the auDA boardroom floor

A group of pissed-off members of the Australian domain name industry are calling for the heads of auDA’s CEO, its new chair, and two other members of its board.

A triumvirate of long-time participants in the auDA community say they have secured enough signatures on a petition to force the organization to call the meeting under Aussie law.

They want a vote of no confidence in the CEO, Cameron Boardman, and the firing of all three “independent” directors: Chris Leptos (also chair), Sandra Hook and Suzanne Ewart.

Their list of beefs is long, but high on it is auDA’s plan to open up .au to direct, second-level registrations for the first time, enabling folk to register example.au instead of example.com.au.

If this all sounds worryingly familiar, it’s because it’s the second year in a row members have called a special meeting in order to oust its top brass.

A campaign orchestrated at Grumpy.com.au last year resulted in chair Stuart Benjamin quitting ahead of a member vote to fire him.

This year’s campaign is being coordinated, with a nod and a wink but none of Grumpy’s original leaders, at Grumpier.com.au.

Entrepreneur Josh Rowe appears to have held the pen on the petition, backed up by former head of auDA public affairs Paul Szyndler and businessman Jim Stewart.

As well as the direct registration issue, which the three men think is merely a cash-grab with no benefits for registrants, the petitioners have some harsh things to say about auDA’s governance and transparency.

The organization has promised to be more open in the wake of last year’s carnage, but Grumpier thinks “things have only got worse”.

The petition also alludes to rumors of “whispering campaigns” against former staff and “possible financial irregularities”.

Rowe recently complained on his blog about a freedom of information request related to his own conduct, filed by the same person pursing form auDA CEO (and current ICANN vice chair) Chris Disspain with FOIA requests.

They also unhappy that auDA is switching .au’s registry service provider from Neustar to Afilias, gaining a rumored 60% discount of which only 10% will be passed on to registrars.

It’s all getting rather nasty, and I’ve not even mentioned some of the rumors of shenanigans that I seem to find in my inbox on an almost daily basis.

To force a special member meeting under Australian law, Grumpier says it had to secure signatures of 5% of the members, which it says it has done.

That’s not much of a threshold, given that auDA only has about 320 members at the moment.

Assuming auDA agrees that it has to hold a meeting, it has a couple of months to do so.

Now South Africa looks to second-level domain sales

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2018, Domain Registries

South Africa looks to be the next country to start letting people register domains directly at the second level of its ccTLD.

Local registry authority ZADNA this week opened a policy consultation on allowing registrants access to direct, second-level .za names.

Currently, if you want a .za you have to register at the third level under the likes of .co.za or .net.za.

But ZADNA says second-level names will help it continue to compete in a market now populated by hundreds of new gTLDs.

The company said it has been “inundated” by calls for such a move.

The policy shift would see South Africa follow the the path beaten in recent years by UK, New Zealand, Kenya and (probably) Australia, which have all changed policy to allow second-level names.

But these things are never without controversy.

Domain investors are typically resistant to such moves, fearing dilution and the possible devaluing of their portfolios.

There are often also intellectual property concerns, and concerns about priority “grandfathering” rights when matching .co.za and .org.za names, for example, have different owners.

ZADNA is floating the possibility of auctions to resolve these kinds of conflicts.

The proposal (pdf) is open for comment until April 16.

auDA probably won’t pass on full Afilias savings to registrants

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2018, Domain Registries

Switching .au’s back-end to Afilias will cut auDA’s per-domain costs by more than half, but registrants are not likely to benefit from the full impact of the savings.

auDA’s Bruce Tonkin, who led the committee that selected Afilias to replace incumbent Neustar, told DI this week that the organization is likely to take a bigger cut of .au registration fees in future, in order to invest in marketing.

That would include marketing the ability of Aussies to register .au domains at the second level for the first time — a controversial, yet-to-roll-out proposal.

Tonkin confirmed that the back-end fee auDA will be paying Afilias is less than half of what it is currently paying Neustar — the unconfirmed rumor is that it’s 40% of the current rate — but said that Afilias was not the cheapest of the nine bidders.

While .au names are sold for a minimum of two years, the current wholesale price charged to registrars works out to AUD 8.75 ($6.85) per year, of which Neustar gets AUD 6.33; auDA receives the other AUD 2.42.

A back-end fee of roughly $5 (US) per domain per year is well above market rates, so it’s pretty clear why auDA chose to open the contract to competition.

Tonkin explained the process by which Afilias was selected:

We first considered scoring without price, and Afilias received the highest score for non-financial criteria.

We then considered pricing information to form an assessment of value for money. The average pricing across the 9 [Request For Tender] responses was less than half of the present registry back-end fee ($6.33). Afilias was close to the average pricing, and while it was not the cheapest price — it was considered best value for money when taking into account the highest score in non-financial criteria.

I asked Afilias for comment on rumors that its price was 60% down on the current rate and received this statement:

Afilias believes auDA chose us based on the best overall value for the Australian internet community. The evaluation heavily weighted expertise, quality and breadth of service over price. While we don’t know what others bid, Afilias works to be competitive in today’s market. Attempts to price significantly higher than market without a value proposition are unrealistic and could even be considered price gouging.

It’s not known what price Neustar bid for the continuation of the contract, but I expect it will have also offered a deep discount to its current rate.

By switching, auDA is basically going to be saving itself over AUD 3 per domain per year, which works out to a total of AUD 9 million ($7 million) per year at least.

But the organization has yet to decide how much of that money, if any, to pass on to its registrars and ultimately registrants.

The auDA board of directors will meet in March to discuss this, Tonkin (who is in charge of the registry transition project but not on the board) said.

“We don’t want to set expectations that the wholesale price is going to change massively,” he said.

“I don’t expect it’s going to be any higher than the current wholesale price,” he said.

But he said he expects auDA to increase its slice of the pie in order to raise more money for marketing. The organization does “basically no marketing” now, he said.

“There’s certainly strong interest in doing more to market and grow the namespace,” he said. “One option is that more money is put into marketing the namespace and growing awareness of .au… That AUD 2.42, I expect that to change.”

This would include marketing direct second-level registrations, an incoming change to how .au names are sold that has domain investors worried about confusion and market dilution.

Outrage over the 2LD proposal — it appears to be a done deal, even if the details and timeline have yet to be finalized — has started attracting the attention of business media in Australia recently.

But auDA’s own research shows that opposition is not that substantial outside of these “special interests”.

A survey last year showed that 40% of .com.au registrants “support” or “strongly support” the direct registration proposal, with 18% “opposed” or “strongly opposed” Another 42% were completely unaware of the changes.

Support among .org.au registrants was lower, and it was higher among .net.au registrants.

But 36% of “special interests” — which appears to mean people who discovered the survey due to their close involvement in the domain industry — were opposed to the plan.

There’s no current timeline for the introduction of direct registrations, but the back-end handover from Neustar to Afilias is set to happen July 1 this year.

Neustar acquired AusRegistry, which has been running .au since 2002, for $87 million a couple of years ago.

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