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Donuts shuts down 14 registrars, but it’s “not related to DropZone”

Kevin Murphy, October 20, 2021, Domain Registrars

Donut has let 14 of its shell registrar accreditations expire, but told DI it’s not related to its recently approve drop-catching service, DropZone.

ICANN records show that the companies, with names such as Name118 Inc and Name104 Inc, all basically mini-clones of Name.com, recently had their registrar contracts terminated.

This kind of thing happens fairly regularly with companies resizing the networks they use for catching dropping domains. Donuts still has at least half a dozen active accreditations, records show.

But the move comes just weeks after ICANN approved a controversial new Donuts service called DropZone, which would see dropping domains across Donuts’ portfolio of 250+ gTLDs being handled by a dedicated parallel registry.

DropZone would reduce the need for owning vast numbers of shell accreditations in order to effectively drop-catch, but has faced criticism from rival DropCatch because a) Donuts may charge registrars for access and b) claims that Donuts-owned registrars would have an advantage.

But Donuts says the two things are unrelated. Name.com senior product marketing manager Ethan Conley said in an email:

We did recently let 14 ICANN registrar accreditations expire. These accreditations had become an administrative headache and a point of confusion for customers. This decision was not related to DropZone, and the domain drop business has not been a core focus of Name.com for quite some time.

It’s worth noting that cancelling registrar accreditations would also have an affect on the ability to catch names in other, unaffiliated gTLDs, including .com.

Donuts’ DropZone approved despite competition fears

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2021, Domain Registries

ICANN has approved Donuts’ proposed drop-catching service, DropZone, despite concerns it could add cost to the dropping domains market.

The Org and Donuts subsidiaries representing over 200 gTLDs signed amendments September 29 that incorporate DropZone into their Registry Agreements, according to ICANN records.

The full new text in the amendments, which does a pretty good job of describing the service, is:

Dropzone Service

Registry Operator may offer the Dropzone service, which is a Registry Service that will manage the release of domain names that have reached the end of their life cycle.

The Dropzone is a separate system, parallel to the main EPP system, that will manage on a daily basis the release of domain names that have been purged for a short period of time, called the Dropzone. Any TLD-accredited registrars may use the Dropzone to register a recently-purged domain name.

On a daily basis, at the end of the Dropzone period, the Registry will execute an awarding process, which will select, per domain name, the first domain creation request submitted (first come, first serve).

What the amendment doesn’t mention are fees. The original Donuts Registry Service Evaluation Request stated in August:

In addition to the standard or premium registration prices of a given domain name, The Dropzone service can support additional application fees to be configured on a per TLD basis. Applications fees where applicable will be charged in addition to the standard registration price of a domain name.

This caused concern at TurnCommerce, the company that runs the DropCatch.com network of registrars, which told ICANN last month that DropZone was anti-competitive and could raise the price of dropping domains.

But ICANN responded that DropZone passed its competition sniff test, and would not be referred to government authorities.

Donuts has not yet publicly announced plans to launch DropZone.

A virtually identical service, that did not mention added fees in its RSEP, was previous approved for Afilias, the registry operator Donuts acquired at the start of the year.

Donuts’ drop-catching service not anti-competitive, ICANN says

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2021, Domain Registries

Donuts’ proposed DropZone service, which could see the registry start charging drop-catchers additional fees, is not anti-competitive, according to ICANN.

The service “does not raise any competition concerns”, ICANN VP Russ Weinstein said in a letter to registrar TurnCommerce, the company behind DropCatch.com.

He was responding to TurnCommerce’s concern that DropZone would allow Donuts to charge unlimited extra fees to register expiring names, while giving an advantage to its in-house registrars.

But Weinstein wrote (pdf):

The information received in the Dropzone RSEP request was thoroughly evaluated pursuant to our process, which included consideration of the matters raised in your letter. ICANN org determined that the Dropzone service as submitted by Donuts Inc. on behalf of [Donuts subsidiaries] Binky Moon, LLC and Dog Beach, LLC does not raise any competition concerns requiring ICANN org to refer either RSEP to a relevant competition authority.

DropZone would see Donuts handle its dropping names on a parallel registry system that registrars would have to obtain separate access to. Its Registry Service Evaluation Process request raises the prospect of new fees for such access.

Dropping domains might get more expensive at Donuts

Kevin Murphy, August 23, 2021, Domain Registries

Donuts is planning to change the way its registry handles dropping domains and may charge additional fees for access.

According to a service request filed with ICANN, Donuts wants to migrate its hundreds of gTLDs to the “Dropzone” system originally deployed by Afilias, which the company acquired at the end of 2020.

Instead of domains separately dropping according to their expiry time, Dropzone sees them pooled together into daily batches for a more orderly release.

Registrars are still awarded dropping domains on a first-come, first-served basis, according to when they submit their EPP create requests to the Dropzone environment, according to Donuts.

Donuts reckons this system will allow it to better manage traffic load on its registry. Presumably, registrars won’t need to send so many creates, as the drop time is synchronized for all deleting domains.

It also thinks the process will help level the playing field for registrars trying to register expired domains.

But the ICANN request (pdf) also suggests that, unlike Afilias, it might add additional fees for registrars to access Dropzone:

In addition to the standard or premium registration prices of a given domain name, The Dropzone service can support additional application fees to be configured on a per TLD basis. Applications fees where applicable will be charged in addition to the standard registration price of a domain name.

Such charges would presumably be passed on to registrants.

Afilias’ original request for Dropzone approval stated that the fee to catch a drop would be the same as a standard registration fee.

Registrars will have to reconfigure their systems to use Dropzone, which exists on a separate host.

Afilias’ 21 gTLDs have been using Dropzone since ICANN approved the service last year.

Domainers at risk as EnCirca takes over deadbeat registrar’s customer base

Customers of defunct registrar Pheenix risk losing their domains because the company was not properly escrowing its registrant data, according to the registrar taking over their domains.

EnCirca, which is taking over up to 6,000 domains previously registered with Pheenix, says the registrar’s shoddy escrow practices mean some of these domains may not be reunited with their rightful owners.

Pheenix “failed to properly escrow domain ownership information for many of the domains utilizing WHOIS proxy services”, EnCirca recently wrote, adding:

We anticipate that many domains will remain unclaimed due to bounced emails or inoperable proxy services. Locating rightful owners will be problematic since the data escrow is often devoid of any identifying ownership information.

To try to mitigate the problem, EnCirca is offering affected registrants the chance to prove ownership by filling out a form and uploading other evidence, such as Pheenix receipts or bank statements.

EnCirca added that because Pheenix disappeared still owing money to registries, the registries may be forcing renewal or restore fees that will then be passed on registrants.

If your domains were at or near expiration, restoring them could be complex and pricey or impossible.

If you’re affected, you can find information here.

Most or all Pheenix customers are likely to be domain investors. It was a drop-catcher, which once had over 500 dummy registrars in its expansive dropnet, most of which it subsequently de-accredited.

But it went AWOL last May, not responding to ICANN or paying its dues, apparently disappearing from the face of the Earth.

ICANN terminated its accreditation in May this year, and initiated a bulk transfer to EnCirca a couple weeks ago (which it only disclosed this week).

EnCirca has experience handling this kind of problem, which is presumably why ICANN gifted it the bulk transfer. In 2018 it took on the domains 49 of Pheenix’s shell registrars, which it says were suffering from the same escrow problems.

Sav.com buys FIFTY new registrars

Who said competition in the domain drop-catching space was dying?

Domain registrar Sav.com, which has been emerging as a bit of a favorite among domain investors over the last year or so, has just formed 50 new registrars with ICANN accreditation to power its drop-catching service.

ICANN records show the creation of newly accredited registrars named “Sav.com, LLC – 1” through “Sav.com, LLC – 50” in recent days, each with the same contact information.

They’re no doubt there to increase Sav’s pool of registry EPP connections, increasing the company’s chance of successfully securing dropping domains.

The company has proven popular among domainers recently due to its no-win-no-fee back-ordering service and its habit of passing on registry wholesale discounts to its customers, resulting in very low first-year pricing.

Since its launch in late 2019, it’s been using its original accreditation, purchased from NameKing.com that year, to catch names. It’s grown from around 4,000 names under management to over 400,000 in that time.

Fifty new registrars means at least an extra $200,000 a year going into ICANN’s pocket for accreditation fees. ICANN’s budget for its current fiscal year predicted its registrar base decreasing by 380 accreditations.

The emergence of this new dropnet comes just days after ICANN canned former dropcatcher Pheenix, which used to have over 500 registrars in its network.

Formerly massive drop-catcher faces ICANN probe

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2021, Domain Registrars

Pheenix, which used to operate a network of hundreds of accredited registrars, now faces potentially losing its last remaining accreditation, due to an ICANN probe.

ICANN told the US-based company in a breach notice last week that it faces additional action unless it fixes a bunch of problems related to domain transfers and Whois before May 14.

According to ICANN, for over a year Pheenix has been declining to provide data showing it is in compliance with the Expired Registration Recovery Policy and the Transfer Policy, related to dozens of domains.

Pheenix was told about at least one such disputed domain as far back as February last year, but ICANN says it’s been unresponsive to its outreach.

It’s also failed to implement an RDAP server, which ICANN has been nagging it about since October 2019. RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol, is the successor protocol to Whois.

A quick spot-check reveals that the disputed names are traffic domains once belonging to legitimate organizations, usually with inbound Wikipedia links, that were captured after the organization in question folded and its domains expired. Most were repurposed with low-quality content and advertising.

That fits in with Pheenix’s registrar business model. It was until a few years ago a huge drop-catching player, with over 500 shell accreditations it used to gain speedy access to dropping domains.

But it dumped almost 450 of these in November 2017, and another 50 the following April.

Since then, Pheenix’s primary IANA number (the coveted “888”) has been associated with fewer and fewer domains.

It had 6,930 domains under management at the end of 2020, down from a November 2017 peak of 71,592.

It hasn’t recorded any new domain adds in any gTLDs since April 2020.

According ICANN’s chronology of events, it’s sent dozens of emails, faxes and voicemails over the last year, related to multiple domain names, and it’s only received a single email in response. And that was in May 2020.

Told us so? Nominet ditches auctions plan, will charge drop-catchers higher fees instead

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet has ruled out auctioning off expired .uk domains names, after a member rebellion.

The .uk registry said last Thursday that it “will not pursue an auction model”, despite previously indicating that it was the best option for how to reform the dropping domains market.

This means the most likely model in future is going to be a huge increase in fees for registrars that aggressively engage in drop-catching.

A month ago, Nominet said that it was considering changing how it handles dropping domains, with either a system of registry-managed auctions or a system of increased fees for drop-catchers.

It appeared to many (yours truly included), based on a Nominet scoring system for each available option, that auctions were the preferred choice.

The registry originally denied that auctions were a shoo-in and now, apparently responding to critics, has ruled that option out completely.

Registry MD Eleanor Bradley wrote:

we will not pursue an auction model. While a proportion of responses from a wide range of sectors including the drop–catching market supported this approach, the prevailing view was this is not the role of the Registry.

Introducing a new approach for those that wish to drop–catch names where participants can purchase connections is the option we will pursue further.

Nominet says that some kind of change is “necessary” because currently .uk drop-catchers are sometimes in the habit of creating spurious Nominet memberships in order to increase the number of simultaneous EPP connections they can use, maximizing their chances of securing drops.

The registry calls this “collusion” and against its acceptable use policies.

In future, it seems drop-catchers will instead have to directly buy extra connections from Nominet. An annual price of £600 ($800) for a batch of six connections, up to a maximum of £6,000 for 60, has previously been floated.

Bradley said that the final details of the plan have yet to be determined.

The decision follows a consultation which received 107 comments and a member petition.

Drop auctions not a slam-dunk, says Nominet

Nominet has responded to criticism of its plans to introduce registry-level .uk drop auctions by saying it’s not about money-grabbing and is not guaranteed to even happen.

Registry MD Eleanor Bradley today blogged:

In some quarters the commentary suggests the driver for change is financial, or to make life more difficult for some business models. It is not.

As commercial gain was not our objective, we have suggested that any additional funds raised by changing the policy would be directed towards public benefit activity or used to provide specific services to registrars. Indeed, how to best spend additional funds that result from any policy change is part of the consultation.

The consultation referred to here was launched earlier this month. It suggests replacing the current drop-catching system, in which Nominet suspects some members “collude” to pool their EPP connections, with one of two new processes.

One would be a straightforward auction of desirable dropping names. The other would be to charge drop-catchers up to £6,000 a year for extra concurrent registry connections.

Bradley wrote that “the assumption in some quarters that an auction approach is our preferred option — a fait accompli –- are wide of the mark”.

As I’m one of the people who reported that auctions were Nominet’s “apparently preferred” option, I’ll note that my take was based on the company’s own consultation document, which scores auctions more highly than the alternative on a five-point scale of its own devising.

And a preferred option is not the same as a fait accompli, of course.

The consultation is open for a couple more weeks. A group of disgruntled members plan to petition the board to retain the status quo at its AGM in September.

Nominet members revolt over “deepest pockets wins” auction plans

A group of Nominet members and registrars have launched a petition to prevent Nominet from introducing registry-level auctions for dropping .uk domain names.

The petition, organized by Netistrar, reads: “We the undersigned members request that Nominet maintains equal registrar access to expired domain names on a first come first served basis.”

Nominet recently launched a policy consultation that lays out plans to essentially kill off the existing system of drop-catching expired domains and replace it with either registry auctions or a pay-to-play model asking fees of up to £6,000 a year.

The petition says that “these proposals technically and financially restrict a registrars ability to access expired domains”, noting that other ccTLDs “manage an expiry process without an expensive and centralized auction system.”

So far, 70 registrars and individuals (out of the about 3,000 Nominet members) have signed the petition, but they account for more than 400,000 .uk domains.

The petition will be presented at Nominet’s annual general meeting in September. The current policy consultation ends August 14.