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Oh, the irony! Banned anti-Islam activist shows up on “Turkish” new gTLD domain

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2019, Domain Policy

Tommy Robinson, who has been banned from most major social media platforms due to his anti-Islam “hate speech”, is now conducting business via a domain name that some believe rightfully belongs to the Muslim-majority nation of Turkey.

The registration could add fuel to the fight between ICANN and its governmental advisers over whether certain domains should be blocked or restricted.

Robinson, the nom de guerre of the man born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the far-right English Defence League and known primarily for stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK for the last decade.

He’s currently, controversially, an adviser to the UK Independence Party. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, also a thoroughly unpleasant bloke, considers Robinson so far to the right he quit the party in response to the appointment.

Over the last year, Robinson has been banned from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and had his YouTube account placed under serious restrictions. This month, he was also banned from SnapChat, and the EDL he used to lead was among a handful of far-right groups banned from Facebook.

Since his personal Facebook page went dark in February, he’s been promoting his new web site as the primary destination for his supporters.

It features news about his activities — mainly his ongoing fights against social media platforms and an overturned contempt of court conviction in the UK — as well as summaries of basically any sufficiently divisive anti-Islam, anti-immigration, or pro-Brexit stories his writers come across.

The domain he’s using is tr.news, a new gTLD domain in a Donuts-owned registry. It was registered in December via GoDaddy.

Given it’s a two-character domain, it will have been registry-reserved and would have commanded a premium price. Other two-character .news domains are currently available on GoDaddy for between $200 and $10,000 for the first year.

It will come as no surprise at all for you to learn that the domain was transferred out of GoDaddy, which occasionally kicks out customers with distasteful views, to Epik, now de facto home of those with far-right views, a couple of weeks after the web site launched.

The irony of the choice of domain is that many governments would claim that tr.news — indeed any two-character domain, in any gTLD, which matches any country-code — rightfully belongs to Turkey, a nation of about 80 million nominal Muslims.

TR is the ISO 3166-1 two-character code for Turkey, and until a couple of years ago new gTLD registries were banned from selling any of these ccTLD-match two-letter domains, due to complaints from ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

Many governments, including the UK and US, couldn’t care less who registers their matching domain. Others, such as France, Italy and Israel, want bans on specific domains such as it.pizza and il.army. Other countries have asked for blanket bans on their ccTLD-match being used at all, in any gTLD.

When new gTLDs initially launched in 2012, all ccTLD matches were banned by ICANN contract. In 2014, ICANN introduced a cumbersome government-approval system under which governments had to be consulted before their matches were released for registration.

Since December 2016, the policy (pdf) has been that registries can release any two-letter domains, subject to a provision that they not be used by registrants to falsely imply an affiliation with the country or registry with the matching ccTLD.

Robinson is certainly not making such an implication. I imagine he’d be as surprised as his readers to learn that his new domain has a Turkish connection. It’s likely the only people who noticed are ICANN nerds and the Turkish themselves.

Would the Turkish people look at tr.news and assume, from the domain alone, that it had some connection to Turkey? I think many would, though I have no idea whether they would assume it was endorsed by the government or the ccTLD registry.

Would Turkey — a government whose censorship regime makes Robinson’s social media plight look like unbounded liberalism — be happy to learn the domain matching its country code is being used primarily to deliver divisive content about the coreligionists of the vast majority of its citizens? Probably not.

But under current ICANN policy it does not appear there’s much that can be done about it. If Robinson is not attempting to pass himself of as an affiliate of the Turkish government or ccTLD registry, there’s no avenue for complaint.

However, after taking the cuffs off registries with its December 2016 pronouncement, allowing them to sell two-letter domains with barely any restrictions, ICANN has faced continued complaints from the GAC — complaints that have yet to be resolved.

The GAC has been telling ICANN for the last two years that some of its members believe the decision to release two-character names went against previous GAC advice, and ICANN has been patiently explaining the process it went through to arrive at the current policy, which included taking GAC advice and government comments into account.

In what appears to be a kind of peace offering, ICANN recently told the GAC (pdf) that it is developing an online tool that “will provide awareness of the registration of two-character domains and allow for governments to report concerns”.

The GAC, in its most-recent communique, told ICANN its members would test the tool and report back at the public meeting in Montreal this November.

The tool was not available in December, when tr.news was registered, so it’s not clear whether Turkey will have received a formal notification that its ccTLD-match domain is now registered, live, and being used to whip up mistrust of Muslims.

Update April 30: ICANN informs me that the tool has been available since February, but that it does not push notifications to governments. Rather, governments can search to see if their two-letter codes have been registered in which gTLDs.

.london disaster leads to mixed 2018 for MMX

New gTLD registry MMX, aka Minds + Machines, suffered a huge net loss in 2018, largely due to its disastrous .london contract, even while its operating fundamentals improved.

For the year, MMX reported a net loss of $12.6 million, compared to a 2017 profits of $3.8 million, on revenue up 5% to $15.1 million.

The loss was almost entirely attributable to charges related to an “onerous contract” with one of its partners.

MMX has never disclosed the identity of this partner, but the only outfit that fits the profile is London & Partners, the agency with which MMX partnered to launch .london several years ago.

The registry, expecting big things from the geo-TLD, promised to pay L&P millions over the term of the contract, which expires in 2021.

But it’s been a bit of a damp squib compared to former management’s expectations, peaking at about 86,000 regs last year and shrinking ever since.

MMX says the estimated gap between the minimum revenue guarantee payable to L&P and the expected revenue is expected to bring in before 2021, is $7.2 million.

It’s recorded this as a charge on its income statement accordingly, along with another $4.2 million impairment charge related to the same contract.

The company recorded a $7.7 million accounting charge related to this contract in 2016, too.

The company says that to date it has lost about $13.7 million on the deal.

These charges, along with a few other smaller one-off expenses, were enough to push the company into the black for 2018.

But other key performance indicators showed more promise, helped along by the acquisition last year of porn-themed registry operator ICM Register, best-known for .xxx.

Notably, renewal revenue almost doubled, up 97% to $9.4 million.

Domains under management was up 37% to 1.81 million.

Operating EBITDA was $3.6 million, up 12.5%.

Looking ahead, MMX said billings for the first quarter are expected to be up 246%, due to the first impact of the ICM acquisition.

It also said it closed $500,000 of sales in .law in China in March. That would work out to over 5,000 domains, based on the retail price of about $100 a year, but those domains have yet to show up in the .law zone file, which only grew by about 200 domains last month.

MMX said it is planning to launch “a high-value defensive registration product” for corporate registrars by the third quarter.

If I had to guess, I’d say that is probably a clone of Donuts’ Domain Protected Marks List service, which offers trademark owners deep discounts when they defensively block strings across the whole Donuts gTLD portfolio.

It’s a model copied by other registries, including recently Uniregistry.

Donuts raises prices on most TLDs by up to 9%

Portfolio registry Donuts is to jack up prices on most of its 241 gTLDs by up to 9% later this year.

Base-rate price increases of between 6% and 9% will his 220 TLDs, while 16 will remain at their current pricing.

The increases, which do not affect registry-reserved “premium” domains, will likely mean an increase of a few dollars in most cases.

(UPDATE: Donuts says the average price increase is about $1.75.)

Five gTLDs will see their prices reduced. Donuts said .group will see a 35% price reduction. It currently sells for about $30 a year at GoDaddy.

The prices were announced to registrars yesterday and, due to ICANN rules, will not come into effect until October 1.

Registrants are able to lock in their current pricing for up to 10 years by renewing before that deadline.

Nevett headhunts top execs from three rivals

Public Interest Registry has filled out its executive team by poaching senior staff from rivals Afilias, Donuts and Neustar.

Judy Song-Marshall of Neustar has joined as chief of staff, Joe Abley of Afilias is the new chief technology officer and Anand Vora has joined from Donuts as VP of business affairs.

They’re the first senior level appointments to be announced since Donuts co-founder Jon Nevett was appointed CEO three months ago.

PIR, the non-profit which runs .org and related gTLDs, has also let it be known that it’s looking for a chief financial officer. The job ad can be found here.

Donuts founder replaces Pitts as MMX’s premium guru

MMX has hired one of Donuts’ recently departed co-founders to market its premium domain name inventory, the company said today.

Dan Schindler, formerly Donuts’ executive VP, has been hired as a “special advisor”, tasked with “monetizing” premiums in the US and Europe.

He appears to be functionally replacing Victor Pitts, who was hired as director of premium sales two years ago. Pitts appears to have left the company in January.

MMX, which counts .vip, .law and .luxe among its stable of 32 gTLDs, expects to report premium sales for 2018 of around $2.3 million.

The company has also hired domain consultant Christa Taylor, founder and CEO of dottba, as its new chief marketing officer, a newly created position.

News of the appointments was released as MMX published another preliminary trading update ahead of its final 2018 financial results next month.

Here are some more nuggets from the announcement:

  • Total domain registrations so far in 2019 up 38% to 1.84 million compared to a year ago.
  • Billings up 129% year-on-year due to contributions from ICM Registry and a 40% increase in sales of .vip and .luxe domains in China.
  • ICM’s porn-themed domains are renewing at 91%.
  • Integration of .luxe into two more blockchain platforms — NameCoin and XAYA — is underway.

MMX expects to announce its full-year results April 3.