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The latest industry C-suite musical chairs

There have been several top-level hires at big new gTLD players in the last week.

Donuts has announced it has appointed Mina Neuberg as chief marketing officer. Neuberg appears to be a newcomer to the domain industry, having most recently worked at a learning software company called Revolution Math. It’s the first time has had a named top marketing exec on its web site since VP Judith McGarry left a year ago.

Her appointment follows February’s announcement that Donuts hired Randy Haas as chief financial officer. He was previously CFO of Rhapsody/Napster, the online music company.

Meanwhile, Shayan Rostam has moved from Intercap Holdings, the registry for .inc, .dealer and .box, where he was chief registry officer, to portfolio registry Uniregistry, where he will be chief growth officer, a newly created position.

And DNW is reporting that new gTLD registry MMX has made two new C-level hires, both coming from Uniregistry: Vaughn Lilely has been recruited as chief growth officer while Ben Anderson is coming in as chief operating officer.

Ten years ago I predicted Oscar winners wanted a .movie gTLD. Was I right?

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Almost 10 years ago, when DI was barely a month old, I looked at that year’s Oscar nominees and predicted that a .movie gTLD could find some demand in the movie industry. Was I right?

Of course I was. As regular readers know, I’m always right. Apart from those times I’m wrong.

In 2010, there was no .movie gTLD and no publicly announced applications, but I noted at the time that almost half of the 50 nominated movies that year included the word “movie” immediately before the dot.

This year, there were 52 nominated movies across all categories (I’m well aware that this is a pretty small sample size to draw any conclusions from, but this post is just a bit of fun) so one might reasonably expect there to be roughly 25 official sites using .movie domains among them.

There are not. Only nine of the films, including four of the nine Best Picture nominees, use freshly registered .movie domains for their official sites.

These include the likes of 1917.movie, thecave.movie, joker.movie, onceuponatimeinhollywood.movie and littlewomen.movie.

.movie, managed by Donuts, has been around since August 2015. It competes with Motion Picture Domain Registry’s .film, which was not used by any of this year’s Oscars hopefuls.

What about the rest of this year’s nominees? Did they all register fresh .com domains for their movies?

No. In fact, only 10 of the 52 movies appear to have registered new .com domains for their official sites — one more than .movie — including two of the Best Picture nominations.

These fresh .com regs include domains such as parasite-movie.com, richardjewellmovie.com, ilostmybodymovie.com, forsamafilm.com and breakthroughmovie.com.

One movie — Honeyland, a North Macedonian environmentalist documentary about bees — uses a .earth domain.

I discovered today that, rather brilliantly, the Japan-based .earth registry demands registrants “voluntarily pledge to become ambassadors for Earth and do away with actions that harm Earth and its inhabitants” in its Ts&Cs.

So, of the 52 nominated movies, only 20 opted to register a new domain for their official site — down from 24 in 2010 — and that business was split evenly between .com and new gTLDs.

Whether the movies opted for a .movie domain appears to depend in large part on the distributor.

Sony appears to be a bit of a fan of the gTLD, while Fox, Disney and Warner tend to use after-the-slash branding on their existing .com domains for their films’ official sites.

I tallied 17 movies that have their official sites on their distributor’s .com/.org domain.

There are also trends that I could not have predicted a decade ago, such as the rise of streaming services. Back in 2010, Netflix was still largely a DVD-delivery player and was not yet creating original content.

But this year, seven of the Oscar-nominated movies were made and/or distributed by Netflix, and as such the official web site is the same place you go to actually watch the film — netflix.com.

A few of the nominated animated shorts don’t need official sites either — you just head to YouTube to watch them for free.

There are currently only about 3,200 domains in the .movie zone file, about 1,200 fewer than rival .film. It renews at over $300 a year at retail, so it’s not cheaper than the alternatives by a long way.

Donuts slashes prices on a million domains

Kevin Murphy, August 28, 2019, Domain Registries

Donuts is to overhaul the pricing on 1.1 million registry-reserved “premium” domain names, taking hundreds of thousands out of premium status altogether.

The company said today that it has decided to reduce the registration cost of 250,000 domains across its 242 new gTLDs. Discounts as deep as 90% are possible, judging by the company’s pricing page.

A further 850,000 will have their premium tag removed and return to regular pricing.

Part of the overhaul relates to the Rightside acquisition, which closed in 2017. While Rightside’s portfolio of TLDs was substantially smaller than Donuts’, it had been much more aggressive on its premium pricing.

For the domains being moved to standard pricing, Donuts will give it one last shot at squeezing a premium price out of them, however.

The company said that from September 5 to November 1 there will be a “pre-sales” event, during which registrants can pay the current premium fee for the first year on the understanding that they will renew at the standard pricing.

For example, drunk.games currently commands a roughly $130-a-year registration fee at registrars. If you buy it during the pre-sales event you’ll pay $130 for the first year but only about $20 upon renewal.

Donuts says this unusual landrush-style event is designed to make the names more attractive to investors who want to get in before prices fall.

The full effect of the price changes takes effect November 5.

It’s worth noting that standard pricing at Donuts is actually going up across most TLDs, by as much as 9%, on October 1, so you may want to check what your actual renewal fee is before buying.

A searchable database of the newly priced inventory can be found here.

Looks like .fans has a new Chinese owner

It appears that the struggling new gTLD .fans has changed ownership for the second time in a year.

According to ICANN’s web site, the .fans Registry Agreement was assigned to a company called ZDNS International on June 28.

Since August 2018, the contract had been in the hands of a CentralNic subsidiary called Fans TLD, having been originally operated by Asiamix Digital.

ZDNS International appears to be a newish Hong Kong subsidiary of major China-based DNS service provider ZDNS.

ZDNS provides DNS services for more than 20 TLDs, mostly Chinese-language, but as far as I can tell it is not the contracted party for any.

It’s also known for providing registry gateway services for non-Chinese registries that want to set up shop in the country.

CentralNic took over .fans last year after Asiamix failed to get the TLD’s sales to take off.

.fans had about 1,700 domains under management at the time, and it’s been pretty much flat ever since. I don’t think CentralNic has been promoting it.

Over the same period, singular competitor .fan, which Donuts acquired from Asiamix last year, has gone from 0 to almost 3,000 registrations.

If CentralNic, a public company, made a profit on the flip it does not appear to have been material enough to require disclosure to shareholders.

Cloudflare “bug” reveals hundreds of secret domain prices

The secret wholesale prices for hundreds of TLDs have been leaked, due to an alleged “bug” at a registrar.

The registry fees for some 259 TLDs, including those managed by Donuts, Verisign and Afilias, are currently publicly available online, after a programmer used what they called a “bug” in Cloudflare’s API to scrape together price lists without actually buying anything.

Cloudflare famously busted into the domain registrar market last September by announcing that it would sell domains at cost, thumbing its nose at other registrars by suggesting that all they’re doing is “pinging an API”.

But because most TLD registries have confidentiality clauses in their Registry-Registrar Agreements, accredited registrars are not actually allowed to reveal the wholesale prices.

That’s kind of a problem if you’re a registrar that has announced that you will never charge a markup, ever.

Cloudflare has tried to get around this by not listing its prices publicly.

Currently, it does not sell new registrations, instead only accepting inbound transfers from other registrars. Registry transaction reports reveal that it has had tens of thousands of names transferred in, but has not created a significant number of new domains.

(As an aside, it’s difficult to see how it could ever sell a new reg without first revealing its price and therefore breaking its NDAs.).

It appears that the only way to manually ascertain the wholesale prices of all of the TLDs it supports would be to buy one of each at a different registrar, then transfer them to Cloudflare, thereby revealing the “at cost” price.

This would cost over $9,500, at Cloudflare’s prices, and it’s difficult to see what the ROI would be.

However, one enterprising individual discovered via the Cloudflare API that the registrar was not actually checking whether they owned a domain before revealing its price.

They were therefore able to compile a list of Cloudflare’s prices and therefore the wholesale prices registries charge.

The list, and the script used to compile it, are both currently available on code repository Github.

The bulk of the list comprises Donuts’ vast portfolio, but most TLDs belonging to Afilias (including the ccTLD .io), XYZ.com and Radix are also on there.

It’s not possible for me to verify that all of the prices are correct, but the ones that are comparable to already public information (such as .com and .net) match, and the rest are all in the ballpark of what I’ve always assumed or have been privately told they were.

The data was last refreshed in April, so without updates its shelf life is likely limited. Donuts, for example, is introducing price increases across most of its portfolio this year.

After $30 million deal, is a .voice gTLD now inevitable?

Do big second-level domain sales translate into new gTLD success, and does the record-breaking $30 million sale of voice.com this week make a .voice gTLD inevitable?

The answers, I believe, are no and maybe.

Before the 2012 new gTLD application round, one way applicants picked their strings was by combing through the .com zone file to find frequently-occurring words that terminated the second level string.

This is where we get the likes of .site and .online from Radix and much of Donuts’ portfolio.

But applicants also looked at lists of high-priced secondary market sales for inspiration.

This is where we get the likes of .vodka, from MMX.

The latter strategy has seen mixed-to-poor results.

Five of the top domain sales, as compiled by Domain Name Journal, were not eligible for gTLD status are they are too short.

Of the remaining 15 strings, “sex” (which occurs twice), “fund”, “porn”, “toys” and “vodka” were all applied for in 2012 and are currently on sale.

The strings “clothes” and “diamond” do not appear as gTLDs, but Donuts runs both .clothing and .diamonds.

Not delegated in any fashion are “porno” (unless you count it as a derivative of “porn”), “slots”, “tesla”, “whisky” and “california”. A company called IntercontinentalExchange runs .ice as a dot-brand.

As well as .clothing and .diamonds, .fund and .toys are both also Donuts TLDs. None of them are doing spectacularly well.

At the lower end, .diamonds currently has fewer than 3,000 domain under management, but has a relatively high price compared to the the higher-volume TLDs in Donuts’ stable.

At the high-volume end, .fund has just shy of 16,000 names and .clothing has about 12,000.

Judging by their retail prices, and the fact that Donuts benefits from the economies of scale of a 240-strong TLD portfolio, I’m going to guess these domains are profitable, but not hugely so.

If we turn our attention to .vodka, with its roughly 1,500 domains, it seems clear that MMX is barely covering the cost of its annual ICANN fees. Yet vodka.com sold for $3 million.

So will anyone be tempted to apply for .voice in the next gTLD application round? I’d say it’s very possible.

First, “voice” is a nice enough string. It could apply to telephony services, but also to general publishing platforms that give their customers a “voice”. I’d say it could gather up enough registrations to fit profitably into a large portfolio, but would not break any records in terms of volume.

But perhaps the existence of voice.com buyer Block.one as a possible applicant will raise some other applicants out of the woodwork.

Block.one, which uses a new gTLD and an alt-ccTLD (.io) for its primary web sites, is certainly not out-of-touch when it come to alternative domain names.

Could it apply for .voice, and if it does how much would it be willing to spend to pay off rival applicants? It still apparently has billions of dollars from its internet coin offering in the bank.

How much of that would it be prepared to pay for .voice at private auction?

That prospect alone might be enough to stir the interest of some would-be applicants, but it has to be said that it’s by no means certain that the highly gameable application process ICANN deployed in 2012 is going to look the same next time around.

Major registries posting “fabricated” Whois data

One or more of the major gTLD registries are publishing Whois query data that may be “fabricated”, according to some of ICANN’s top security minds.

The Security and Stability Advisory Committee recently wrote to ICANN’s top brass to complain about inconsistent and possibly outright bogus reporting of Whois port 43 query volumes.

SSAC said (pdf):

it appears that the WHOIS query statistics provided to ICANN by registry operators as part of their monthly reporting obligations are generally not reliable. Some operators are using different methods to count queries, some are interpreting the registry contract differently, and some may be reporting numbers that are fabricated or otherwise not reflective of reality. Reliable reporting is essential to the ICANN community, especially to inform policy-making.

SSAC says that the inconsistency of the data makes it very difficult to make informed decisions about the future of Whois access and to determine the impact of GPDR.

While the letter does not name names, I’ve replicated some of SSAC’s research and I think I’m in a position to point fingers.

In my opinion, Google, Verisign, Afilias and Donuts appear to be the causes of the greatest concern for SSAC, but several others exhibit behavior SSAC is not happy about.

I reached out to these four registries on Wednesday and have published their responses, if I received any, below.

SSAC’s concerns relate to the monthly data dumps that gTLD registries new and old are contractually obliged to provide ICANN, which publishes the data three months later.

Some of these stats concern billable transactions such as registrations and renewals. Others are used to measure uptime obligations. Others are largely of academic interest.

One such stat is “Whois port 43 queries”, defined in gTLD contracts as “number of WHOIS (port-43) queries responded during the reporting period”.

According to SSAC, and confirmed by my look at the data, there appears to be a wide divergence in how registries and back-end registry services providers calculate this number.

The most obvious example of bogosity is that some registries are reporting identical numbers for each of their TLDs. SSAC chair Rod Rasmussen told DI:

The largest issue we saw at various registries was the reporting of the exact or near exact same number of queries for many or all of their supported TLDs, regardless of how many registered domain names are in those zones. That result is a statistical improbability so vanishingly small that it seems clear that they were reporting some sort of aggregate number for all their TLDs, either as a whole or divided amongst them.

While Rasmussen would not name the registries concerned, my research shows that the main culprit here appears to be Google.

In its December data dumps, it reported exactly 68,031,882 port 43 queries for each of its 45 gTLDs.

If these numbers are to be believed, .app with its 385,000 domains received precisely the same amount of port 43 interest as .gbiz, which has no registrations.

As SSAC points out, this is simply not plausible.

A Google spokesperson has not yet responded to DI’s request for comment.

Similarly, Afilias appears to have reported identical data for a subset of its dot-brand clients’ gTLDs, 16 of which purportedly had exactly 1,071,939 port 43 lookups in December.

Afilias has many more TLDs that did not report identical data.

An Afilias spokesperson told DI: “Afilias has submitted data to ICANN that addresses the anomaly and the update should be posted shortly.”

SSAC’s second beef is that one particular operator may have reported numbers that “were altered or synthesized”. SSAC said in its letter:

In a given month, the number of reported WHOIS queries for each of the operator’s TLDs is different. While some of the TLDs are much larger than others, the WHOIS query totals for them are close to each other. Further statistical analysis on the number of WHOIS queries per TLD revealed that an abnormal distribution. For one month of data for one of the registries, the WHOIS query counts per TLD differed from the mean by about +/- 1%, nearly linearly. This appeared to be highly unusual, especially with TLDs that have different usage patterns and domain counts. There is a chance that the numbers were altered or synthesized.

I think SSAC could be either referring here to Donuts or Verisign

Looking again at December’s data, all but one of Donuts’ gTLDs reported port 43 queries between 99.3% and 100.7% of the mean average of 458,658,327 queries.

Is it plausible that .gripe, with 1,200 registrations, is getting almost as much Whois traffic as .live, with 343,000? Seems unlikely.

Donuts has yet to provide DI with its comments on the SSAC letter. I’ll update this post and tweet the link if I receive any new information.

All of the gTLDs Verisign manages on behalf of dot-brand clients, and some of its own non-.com gTLDs, exhibit the same pattern as Donuts in terms of all queries falling within +/- 1% of the mean, which is around 431 million per month.

So, as I put to Verisign, .realtor (~40k regs) purportedly has roughly the same number of port 43 queries as .comsec (which hasn’t launched).

Verisign explained this by saying that almost all of the port 43 queries it reports come from its own systems. A spokesperson told DI:

The .realtor and .comsec query responses are almost all responses to our own monitoring tools. After explaining to SSAC how Verisign continuously monitors its systems and services (which may be active in tens or even hundreds of locations at any given time) we are confident that the accuracy of the data Verisign reports is not in question. The reporting requirement calls for all query responses to be counted and does not draw a distinction between responses to monitoring and non-monitoring queries. If ICANN would prefer that all registries distinguish between the two, then it is up to ICANN to discuss that with registry operators.

It appears from the reported numbers that Verisign polls its own Whois servers more than 160 times per second. Donuts’ numbers are even larger.

I would guess, based on the huge volumes of queries being reported by other registries, that this is common (but not universal) practice.

SSAC said that it approves of the practice of monitoring port 43 responses, but it does not think that registries should aggregate their own internal queries with those that come from real Whois consumers when reporting traffic to ICANN.

Either way, it thinks that all registries should calculate their totals in the same way, to make apples-to-apples comparisons possible.

Afilias’ spokesperson said: “Afilias agrees that everyone should report the data the same way.”

As far as ICANN goes, its standard registry contract is open to interpretation. It doesn’t really say why registries are expected to collect and supply this data, merely that they are obliged to do so.

The contracts do not specify whether registries are supposed to report these numbers to show off the load their servers are bearing, or to quantify demand for Whois services.

SSAC thinks it should be the latter.

You may be thinking that the fact that it’s taken a decade or more for anyone to notice that the data is basically useless means that it’s probably not all that important.

But SSAC thinks the poor data quality interferes with research on important policy and practical issues.

It’s rendered SSAC’s attempt to figure out whether GDPR and ICANN’s Temp Spec have had an effect on Whois queries pretty much futile, for example.

The meaningful research in question also includes work leading to the replacement of Whois with RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol.

Finally, there’s the looming possibility that ICANN may before long start acting as a clearinghouse for access to unredacted Whois records. If it has no idea how often Whois is actually used, that’s going to make planning its infrastructure very difficult, which in turn could lead to downtime.

Rasmussen told DI: “Our impression is that all involved want to get the numbers right, but there are inconsistent approaches to reporting between registry operators that lead to data that cannot be utilized for meaningful research.”

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.

.CLUB to let brands block “trillions” of domains for $2,000

.CLUB Domains has launched a service for trademark owners that will enable them to block an essentially infinite number of potential cybersquats for a $2,000 payment every three years.

But the restrictions in place to avoid false positives mean that some of the world’s most recognizable brands would not be eligible to use it.

The service is called Trademark Sentry. In February, .CLUB asked ICANN for approval to launch it under the name Unlimited Name Blocking Service.

It’s cast by the registry roughly as a kind of clone of Donuts’ five-year-old Domain Protected Marks List, which enables brands to block their marks across Donuts’ entire portfolio of 242 gTLDs for far less than they would pay defensively registering 242 domains individually.

But while Donuts has a massive stable of TLDs, .CLUB is a one-horse town, so what’s going on?

Based on promotional materials .CLUB sent me, it appears that Trademark Sentry is primarily a way to reduce not defensive registration costs but rather UDRP costs.

Instead of blocking a single trademarked string across a broad portfolio of TLDs — for example google.ninja, google.bike, google.guru, google.charity… — the .CLUB service allows brands to block any domain that contains that string in a single TLD.

For example, Google could pay .CLUB $2,000, and for the next three years it would be impossible for anyone to register any .club domain that contained the substring “google”.

Any potential cybersquatter who went to a registrar and tried to register domains such as “mygooglesearch.club” or “googlefootball.club” or “bestgoogle.club” or “xreegtegooglefwrreed.club” would be told by the registrar that the domain was unavailable.

It would be blocked at the registry level, because it contained the blocked string “google”.

Customers will be able to add typos to the blocklist for a 50% discount.

To the best of my knowledge, this is not a service currently offered by any other gTLD registry.

It’s precisely the kind of thing that the IP lobby at ICANN was crying out for — albeit without the obligation to pay for it — prior to the 2012 application round.

.CLUB reckons it’s a money-saver for brand owners who find themselves filing lots of UDRP complaints.

UDRP complaints cost at least $1,500, just for the filing fees with outfits such as WIPO. They can cost many hundreds more in lawyers fees.

Basically, if you expect your brand will be hit by at least one UDRP in .club in the next three years, $2,000 might look like a decent investment.

.club domains have been subject to 279 UDRP complaints over the last five years, according to UDRPSearch.com.

But .CLUB has put in place a number of restrictions that are likely to seriously restrict its potential customer base.

First, the trademark will have to be “fanciful”. The registry says:

To qualify for Unlimited Name Blocking a trademark must be fanciful as defined by the USPTO and meet the .CLUB Registry’s additional requirements and subject to the .CLUB Registry’s discretion. Marks that are not fanciful but when combined with another word become sufficiently unique may be allowed.

“Apple” would not be permitted, but “AppleComputer” might be.

.CLUB told me that any trademark that, if blocked, would prevent non-infringing uses of the string would also not qualify for the service.

If you look at a UDRP-happy brand like Lego, which has already filed several complaints about alleged cybersquats in .club, it would certainly not qualify. Too many words end in “le” and begin with “go” for .CLUB to block every domain containing “lego”.

Similarly, Facebook would likely not qualify because one can imagine non-infringing uses such as facetofacebookmakers.club. Twitter is a dictionary word, as is Coke. Pepsi is a substring of dyspepsia. Amazon is primarily a geographic term. McDonald’s is derived from a common surname, as are Cartier and Heinz.

For at least half of the famous brands that pop into my head, I can think of a reason they will probably not be allowed to use this service.

.CLUB also won’t allow trademarks shorter than five characters.

Still, for those brands that do qualify, and do have an aggressive UDRP-based enforcement policy, the service seems to be priced at a point where an ROI case can be made.

Like Donuts’ DPML domains, anything blocked under Trademark Sentry is not going to show up in zone files, so we’re not going to have any objective data with which to monitor its success.

Donuts acquires its 242nd gTLD

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2019, Domain Registrars

Donuts, the registry with the largest stable of new gTLDs, has added its 242nd string to its bow.

The company seems to have acquired .contact from, nominally at least, smaller portfolio rival Top Level Spectrum.

The ICANN contract for the gTLD was transferred to one of Donuts’ subsidiaries a couple weeks ago.

According to TLS CEO Jay Westerdal, while TLS was the signatory of the contract the “economic owner” of the TLD was Whitepages.com, an online directory services provider, which paid for the original uncontested .contact application.

Whitepages.com doesn’t appear in the application, the registry agreement, or the IANA records. I was unaware of the connection until today.

Despite being in the root since December 2015, .contact never actually launched. Donuts has not yet filed its launch dates with ICANN either, but it’s usually fairly speedy about pumping out strings.