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ICANN probing Donuts and Tucows over anti-Jewish web site

Kevin Murphy, November 16, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN is investigating Tucows and Donuts over a web site that hosts antisemitic, white supremacist content.

CEO Goran Marby said in a letter published this week that he has referred a complaint about the web site judas.watch to ICANN’s Compliance department.

The web site in question says it is dedicated to documenting “anti-White traitors, agitators and subversives & highlighting Jewish influence.” It appears to be half database, half blog.

Its method of “highlighting Jewish influence” is possibly the most disturbing part — the site tags people it believes are Jewish with a yellow Star of David, mimicking the way the Nazis identified Jews during the Holocaust.

The site is quite liberal in how it applies these stars, going so far as to label UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been fighting off his own allegations of antisemitism for years, as Jewish.

Over 1,600 people and organizations are currently listed. Posts there also seem keen to highlight its subjects’ sexual orientation.

As far as I can tell, there are no direct calls to violence on the site, and the level of what you might call “hate speech” is pretty mild. It publishes the social media handles of its subjects, but I could not find any physical addresses or phone numbers.

The complaint to ICANN (pdf) came from WerteInitiative (“Values Initiative”), which appears to be a small, relatively new Jewish civil society group based in Germany.

WerteInitiative said judas.watch “poses a direct threat to the named persons with unforeseeable consequences for them, and especially so for the identified Jews”.

“We want this site banned from the Internet and ask for your help in doing so: can you help us to find out who behind this page is, so we can get it banned in Germany?” the letter concludes.

The domain has been behind Whois privacy since it was registered in 2014, so the registrant’s name was not public even prior to GDPR.

Marby, in response (pdf), says the complaint “raises a serious issue”.

While he goes to some lengths to explain that ICANN does not have the authority, contractual or otherwise, to demand the suspension of any domain name, he said he has nevertheless referred the complaint to Compliance.

Compliance has already reached out to the organization for more information, Marby said.

He also encouraged WerteInitiative to talk to .watch registry Donuts and judas.watch registrar eNom (owned by Tucows), as well as the hosting company, to see if that could help resolve the issue.

While ICANN is always adamant that it does not venture into content regulation, it strikes me that this exchange shows just what a tightrope it walks.

It comes against the backdrop of controversy over the suspension by GoDaddy of the domain Gab.com, a Twitter clone largely hosting far-right voices that have been banned from other social media platforms.

Namecheap to bring millions of domains in-house next week

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2018, Domain Registrars

Namecheap is finally bringing its customer base over to its own ICANN accreditation.

The registrar will next week accept transfer of an estimated 3.2 million .com and .net domains from Enom, following a court ruling forcing Enom owner Tucows to let go of the names.

The migration will happen from January 8 to January 12, Namecheap said in a blog post today.

Namecheap is one of the largest registrars in the industry, but historically it mostly acted as an Enom reseller. Every domain it sold showed up in official reports as an Enom sale.

While it’s been using its own ICANN accreditation to sell gTLD names since around 2015 — and has around four million names on its own credentials — it still had a substantial portion of its customer base on the Enom ticker.

After the two companies’ arrangement came to an end, and Enom was acquired by Tucows, Namecheap decided to also consolidate its .com/.net names under its own accreditation.

After Tucows balked at a bulk transfer, Namecheap sued, and a court ruled in December that Tucows must consent to the transfer.

Now, Namecheap says all .com and .net names registered before January 2017 or transferred in before November 2017 will be migrated.

There may be some downtime as the transition goes through, the company warned.

Tucows revenue rockets after Enom buy

Kevin Murphy, August 10, 2017, Domain Registrars

Tucows saw its revenue from domain names more than double in the second quarter, following the acquisition of rival Enom.

The company this week reported domain services revenue for the three months ending June 30 of $62.8 million, compared to $28.4 million a year ago.

That was part of overall growth of 78%, with revenue rising from $47.2 million in 2016 to $84.2 million this year.

Net income for the quarter was up 29% at $5.2 million.

Enom, which Tucows bought from Rightside for $76.7 million earlier this year, now accounts for a little under half of Tucows’ wholesale domains business, the larger portion going through its OpenSRS channel.

Sales from Tucows’ premium portfolio rose to $968,000 from $885,000 a year ago.

Its retail business, Hover, did $7.6 million of revenue, up from $3.6 million.

Activist investor says eNom was sold too cheap

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2017, Domain Registries

J Carlo Cannell, the activist investor who has been circling Rightside for the last year or so, was unimpressed with the company’s recent sale of eNom to Tucows.

In a letter published as a Securities and Exchange Commission filing last week, Cannell announced that he has started up a support group for fellow “concerned” investors.

In the distinctly loveless Valentine’s Day missive, Cannell called for Rightside to be acquired, go private or issue a big dividend to investors, and said he intends to campaign to have the board of directors replaced.

On the eNom sale, Cannell wrote that the $76.7 million deal “marks a step in the right direction” for the company, but that he was “not satisfied” with the price or the $4 million legal fees accrued. He wrote:

Conversations with management suggest that the Company took only two months to evaluate and close the transaction. Perhaps if they had been more patient and diligent, shareholders would have enjoyed more than the 0.5x 2016 revenues which they received in this “shotgun sale”.

This price was a fraction of Tucows’ own valuation of 2.6x 2016 estimated revenue. For the two trading sessions following the eNom transaction, NAME traded up 10% while TCX was up 32%, suggesting that investors believe it was a better deal for TCX shareholders than NAME shareholders.

The deal was described at the time by Tucows’ CEO Elliot Noss as an “individual opportunistic transaction”.

Noss later told analysts that the eNom business was floundering, “a flat, potentially even slightly negative-growth business”.

Cannell said last week he has formed Save NAME Group, named after Rightside’s ticker symbol, as a means to exert pressure on the board.

He said it is currently “difficult to justify” the company remaining publicly listed, and that the “sale of the entire company” or a “special and substantial dividend” could help appease shareholders.

He said Rightside agreed last August to let him name a new director, but has dragged its feet approving his suggestion, adding:

SNG intends to become more active and vocal in its efforts to force change at NAME. SNG has compiled a slate of qualified candidates. The names and identity of these candidates shall be disclosed periodically together with other neutral and reliable facts to support the contention of SNG that some or all of the board of NAME needs to be replaced.

Cannell, who owns about 9% of Rightside, first emerged as a critic of the company a year ago.

At that time, he called for the company to ditch its “garbage” new gTLD registries in favor of a focus on its higher-margin eNom business.

He was supported by Uniregistry CEO Frank Schilling, then also a Rightside investor in addition to a competitor.

Tucows says eNom may be shrinking as Melbourne IT drives 2016 growth

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2017, Domain Registrars

Tucows yesterday reported an 11% increase in revenue for 2016, driven partly by an acquisition, but warned that its more recent acquisition, eNom, may be shrinking.

The company reported revenue for 2016 of $189.8 million, up from $171 million in 2015. Net income was up 41% at $16 million.

For the fourth quarter, revenue was up 9% year-on-year at $48.8 million. Net income was down 9% at $2.8 million.

In a conference call, executives linked some of the growth to the April 2016 acquisition of Melbourne IT’s reseller business, which added 1.6 million domains to Tucows’ DUM.

While Tucows also operates its Ting mobile phone service, the majority of its revenue still comes from domains and related services.

In the fourth quarter, revenue was $30 million for this segment. Of that, $23.1 million came from domains sold via its wholesale network and $3.8 million came from Hover, its retail channel.

CEO Elliot Noss noted that the acquisition of the eNom wholesale registrar business from Rightside last month made Tucows easily the second-largest registrar after GoDaddy, but made eNom sound like a neglected business.

“The eNom business is a flat, potentially even slightly negative-growth business in terms of gross margin dollars,” he told analysts.

eNom’s channel skews more towards European and North American web hosting companies, which are a growth challenge, he said. He added:

We acquired a mature retail business and associated customers which for the past few years has been more about maintaining and servicing eNom’s existing customers as opposed to growth. It has not been actively promoted and as a result has a flat to declining trajectory. It’s something we don’t intend to change in the short-term, but as we look under the hood and get a better sense of the platform as we will with all of the operations, the long-term plan might be different.

The acquisition was “overwhelmingly about generating scale and realizing cost efficiencies”, Noss said.

Tucows paid $83.5 million for eNom, which has about $155 million in annual revenue and is expected to generate about $20 million in EBITDA per year after efficiencies are realized.

Rightside sells eNom to Tucows for $83.5m

Kevin Murphy, January 23, 2017, Domain Registrars

Tucows is to become “the second largest registrar in the world” by acquiring eNom from Rightside, paying $83.5 million.

The deal will give Tucows another 14.5 million domains under management and 28,000 resellers, giving it a total of 29 million DUM and 40,000 resellers.

That DUM number, which appears to include ccTLDs, makes Tucows the undisputed volume leader in the reseller world and the second-largest registrar overall.

GoDaddy, the DUM leader, had about 55 million domains just in gTLDs at the last count.

Tucows CEO Elliot Noss told analysts that the deal, along with the April 2016 acquisition of Melbourne IT’s reseller business, were “individual opportunistic transactions”.

He said that Tucows will take its time integrating the two companies, but expects to realize cost savings (presumably read: job losses as duplicate administrative positions are eliminated) over 24 months.

The reseller APIs will not change, and Tucows will not migrate names over to its own existing ICANN accreditations. This could help with reseller retention.

For Rightside, the company said the spin-off will allow it to focus on vertical integration between its gTLD registry business and its consumer-facing registrar, Name.com.

Rightside had come in for a certain amount of high-profile investor criticism for its dogged focus on new gTLDs at the expense of its eNom and Name.com businesses.

Activist investor J Carlo Cannell, supported by fellow investor and Uniregistry CEO Frank Schilling, a year ago accused Rightside of putting too much emphasis on “garbage” new gTLDs instead of its more profitable registrar businesses.

Since then, Rightside has rebuffed separate offers for some or all of its gTLDs by rivals Donuts and XYZ.com.

Last June, it also announced plans to modernize eNom, which Cannell and others had accused of looking stale compared to its competitors.

RightSide cuts super-premium fees in half, drops premium renewals

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2017, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry RightSide has slashed the minimum price of its so-called “Platinum” tier premium domains and dropped renewal fees for these domains down to an affordable level.

The price changes come as part of two new marketing initiatives designed to start shifting more of its 14,000-strong portfolio of super-premiums through brokers and registrar partners.

The minimum first-year price of a Platinum-tier name has been reduced immediately from $50,000 to $25,000.

In addition, these domains will no longer renew every year at the same price. Instead, RightSide has reduced renewals to a more affordable $30.

“We weren’t selling them,” RightSide senior VP of sales and premiums Matt Overman told DI. “There is not a market for $50,000-a-year domain purchases.”

Now, “we feel comfortable enough with amount money we’re going to make up-front”, Overman said.

However, premium renewals are not being abandoned entirely; non-Platinum premium names will still have their original higher annual renewal fees, he said.

RightSide has sold some Platinum names in the five and six-figure range, but the number is quite small compared to overall size of the portfolio.

But Overman said that “none of them sold with a $50,000 renewal”. The highest renewal fee negotiated to date was $5,000, he said.

Before yesterday’s announcements, RightSide’s Platinum names were available on third-party registrars with buy-it-now fees that automatically applied the premium renewal fees.

However, it seems that the vast majority if not all of these sales came via the company’s in-house registrars such as Name.com and eNom, where there was a more flexible “make an offer” button.

Under a new Platinum Edge product, RightSide hopes to bring this functionality to its registrar partners.

It has made all 14,000 affected names registry-reserved as a result, Overman said. They were previously available in the general pool of unclaimed names and available to registrars via EPP.

Each affected name now has a minimum “access fee” of $25,000 (going up to $200,000 depending on name) that registrars must pay to release it.

They’re able to either negotiate a sale with a markup they can keep, or sell at “cost” (that is, the access fee) and claim a 10% commission, Overman said.

A separate Platinum Brokerage service has also been introduced, aimed at getting more professional domain brokers involved in the sales channel.

Brokers will be able to “reserve” up to five RightSide Platinum names for a broker-exclusivity period of 60 days, during which they’re expected to try to negotiate deals with potential buyers.

While no other brokers will be able to sell those names during those 60 days, registrars will still be able to sell those reserved names.

Overman said that if a registrar sells a name during the period it is under exclusivity with a participating broker, that broker will still get a commission from RightSide regardless of whether they were involved in the sale.

“We won’t give that name to any other broker, but if it sells through a registrar they still get their 10%,” he said. The registrar also gets its 10%.

This of course is open to gaming — brokers could reserve names and just twiddle their thumbs for 60 days, hoping to get a commission for no work — but the broker program is expected to be fairly tightly managed and those exploiting the system could be kicked out.

RightSide will be making the case for the two Platinum-branded offerings at the upcoming NamesCon conference in Las Vegas, where it also expects to name its first brokerage partners.

NameCheap stops selling .xyz domains

Kevin Murphy, October 11, 2016, Domain Registrars

NameCheap may have sold over a million .xyz domains, but apparently it will sell no more than that.

The registrar confirmed to DI this evening that it is no longer taking .xyz registrations. It declined to explain why.

It has also stopped selling .college and .rent domains — two other gTLDs owned by XYZ.com. Other new gTLDs are not affected.

It’s reportedly not accepting inbound transfers either, though existing domains can be renewed.

The switch-off happened at the end of last month, a NameCheap representative said.

That’s just one month after the registrar celebrated its one millionth .xyz registration, which XYZ.com commemorated with a blog post bigging up NameCheap’s user-customers.

The move is peculiar indeed. NameCheap is the third highest-volume .xyz registrar, behind West.cn and Uniregistry, responsible for about 15% of .xyz’s domains under management.

It’s also NameCheap’s biggest direct-selling gTLD by a considerable margin.

NameCheap is well-known as primarily an eNom reseller — it accounts for 28% of eNom’s domains under management and 18% of its revenue, largely from .com sales.

But with new gTLDs it has started selling domains on its own IANA ticker, meaning a direct connection to the registry and more gross profit for itself.

According to June’s registry reports, the million .xyz names accounted for roughly two thirds of NameCheap’s total DUM (not counting names sold via eNom).

The closet rival in its portfolio is .online, which provided the registrar with about 81,000 DUM.

The registrar added about 350,000 .xyz domains in June, a month in which it briefly offered them at $0.02 each.

At that time, the company reported technical issues that led to a 12-24 hour backlog of registrations to process, though its blog post announcing the problem appears to have since been deleted.

NameCheap has declined to comment on the reason for the surprise move, and XYZ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The fact that all of XYZ.com’s TLDs have been cut off suggests some kind of dispute between the two companies, but the fact that renewals can still be processed would suggest that NameCheap has not lost its .xyz accreditation.

More info if I get it…

GoDaddy spearheads Domain Connect spec

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2016, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has published a new specification designed to make it easier for domain owners to quickly set up web sites using third-party site-building tools.

Its new Domain Connect Initiative is tailored for customers who do not know how to configure a DNS record and do not care to learn,according to Charles Beadnall, senior VP of domains.

While signing up for a participating site-building service, Shopify for example, customers currently have to either figure out how to manually reconfigure their DNS or get GoDaddy’s customer support to talk them through it.

GoDaddy currently receives tens of thousands of customer support calls every year related to these scenarios, Beadnall said.

But using Domain Connect, instead they will be able to simply enter their domain name with Shopify and, after authenticating with their registrar (via OAUTH), their domain’s DNS will be automatically configured to point to their new site.

This saves the customer’s time and GoDaddy’s money.

Under the hood, it works using a series of templates, authored by the service providers, which instruct the registrar or DNS provider in how to set up the domain to use the service, Beadnall said.

Due to the high risk of malicious exploitation, it’s not completely frictionless. Service provider templates must be manually pre-approved and white-listed by registrars, Beadnall said.

As the system does not involve domain registration or transfer it’s not really within ICANN’s policy wheelhouse, so the spec has instead been published via the IETF.

It has already been embraced by leading rival registrars eNom, Name.com and United Domains, as well as toolmakers including Microsoft, Shopify and Wix.

The announcement of Domain Connect was made a couple of weeks ago while I was off sick.

More information and documentation can be found on the Domain Connect web site.

Web.com acquires dozens of registrars from Rightside

Kevin Murphy, May 11, 2016, Domain Services

Web.com has acquired dozens of registrars from rival/partner Rightside, seemingly to boost the success rate of its SnapNames domain drop-catching business.

I’ve established that at least 44 registrars once managed by Rightside/eNom have moved to the Web.com stable in recent weeks, and that might not even be the half of it.

All of the registrars in question are shell companies used exclusively to register pre-ordered names as they are deleted by registries, usually Verisign.

The more registrars you have, the more EPP connections you have to the Verisign registry and the better your chance at catching a domain.

Web.com runs SnapNames, and is in a 50-50 partnership with Rightside on rival drop-catcher NameJet.

The two compete primarily with NameBright’s DropCatch.com, which obtained hundreds of fresh ICANN accreditations last year, bringing its total pool to over 750.

Web.com has fewer than 400 accreditations right now. Rightside has even fewer.

It’s usually quicker to buy a registrar than to obtain a new accreditation from ICANN.

If Web.com finds itself in need of more accreditations in order to compete, and Rightside is happy to let them go, it could be possible to infer that SnapNames is doing rather better in terms of customer acquisition than NameJet.

But the two services recently announced a partnership under which names grabbed by either network would be placed in an auction in which customers of either site could participate.

This would have the effect of increasing the number of caught names going to auction due to there being multiple bidders, and thus the eventual sales prices.