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Three strikes UDRP rule worries Demand Media

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2011, Domain Policy

Demand Media and the Internet Commerce Association have called for ICANN to drop the “three strikes and you’re out” ban on applying for new top-level domains.

In the current version of ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook, if you’ve lost three UDRP cases in the last four years you’re considered a cybersquatter and effectively barred from applying for a new TLD.

It’s not entirely clear, but it is quite possible that this provision may capture Demand Media and Go Daddy, which, via subsidiary companies, have lost several UDRP complaints.

In comments filed with ICANN yesterday, Demand senior vice president Jeff Eckhaus said that a simple “three strikes” benchmark does not prove a pattern of cybersquatting:

losing a few contested UDRP cases in what amounts to a tiny percentage of their total domain name portfolio certainly doesn’t seem to constitute a “pattern” as most people would define the term

by all reasonable standards, it is difficult to conclude that an entity or an individual has engaged in a history/pattern of cybersquatting when they own hundreds or thousands of domain names and have lost a few UDRP or similar proceedings.

The ICA, which represents high-volume registrants, also has a problem with the rule. Principal Phil Corwin wrote ICANN:

We continue to believe that the “three strikes” criteria is too inflexible and that applicant evaluation criteria should take into account the total size of an applicant’s domain portfolio as well as the percentage of adverse UDRP decisions rendered against them in comparison to all UDRP proceedings they have been involved with.

Demand also argues that three strikes is “extremely broad standard that we believe will unintentionally disqualify otherwise qualified applicants.”

That strikes me as quite a weak argument, which could be equally applied to any of the background checks in the Guidebook. A murder conviction will also “disqualify otherwise qualified applicants”.

I’m not sure it’s “unintentional” in either case. If you work from the assumption that ICANN expects Demand and other speculators to successfully apply for new TLDs, it is. If you assume it’s designed to make their lives more difficult, it isn’t.

But Corwin noted in his comments that ICANN can waive the ban in “exceptional circumstances”, and said he suspects this could be used to allow large registrars to pass the background checks.

In any event, as Andrew Allemann has pointed out at Domain Name Wire, the way the Guidebook is phrased there may well be a loophole that would allow Demand and others to slip through.

Go Daddy, which DNW also reports could be affected by the rule, does not appear to have filed any comments on the latest Applicant Guidebook yet.

Demand Media says Google change no big deal, yet

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2011, Domain Registrars

Demand Media has said that recent changes to Google’s search engine algorithm does not appear to have had a material impact on its business.

Google said yesterday that it has changed its code to demote “sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful”.

This was widely interpreted as being designed to hit “content farms”, which make up one of Demand’s major revenue streams. The company also owns number two domain registrar eNom.

In a blog post, published less than four hours after Google announced the change, Demand executive vice president Larry Fitzgibbon wrote:

As might be expected, a content library as diverse as ours saw some content go up and some go down in Google search results… It’s impossible to speculate how these or any changes made by Google impact any online business in the long term – but at this point in time, we haven’t seen a material net impact on our Content & Media business.

It remains to be seen if the changes will have any impact on traffic and revenue at Demand, which recently executed an IPO, but Fitzgibbon played down the company’s focus on search traffic.

Demand also measures success based on metrics such as direct navigation, repeat visits and traffic from social media, he wrote.

Google to crack down on “content farms”?

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2011, Domain Services

Bad news for domain developers? Bad news for Demand Media?

Google is to take another look at how its search engine ranks “content farms”, according to a new blog post by principal engineer Matt Cutts.

In a discussion about search quality and web spam, Cutts wrote:

As “pure webspam” has decreased over time, attention has shifted instead to “content farms,” which are sites with shallow or low-quality content. In 2010, we launched two major algorithmic changes focused on low-quality sites. Nonetheless, we hear the feedback from the web loud and clear: people are asking for even stronger action on content farms and sites that consist primarily of spammy or low-quality content.

The post does not get into any details about what hearing feedback “loud and clear” means, but it certainly suggests that Google will rethink how low-quality content sites are ranked.

This could be problematic Demand Media, which generates a lot of its revenue from “content mill” sites such as eHow, which is widely derided but ranks highly for many searches.

Demand Media is on the verge of going public.

It might also not be great news for domain investors who choose to develop their domains with low-quality content, although I suspect that kind of site would be harder to detect than a large mill.

eNom named “worst” for badware

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2011, Domain Registrars

Demand Media-owned eNom has been fingered as the worst company when it comes to hosting “badware”, according to the latest quarterly report from HostExploit.

The report puts eNom at number three in its overall league table of hosts involved (albeit generally unwittingly) in supporting malicious activity online, up from seven in the third quarter.

HostExploit conducts meta-research, looking at a number of factors (such as phishing and spam) normalizing and weighting data provided by a wide variety of sources.

eNom’s position on the list is based almost entirely on its ranking under the “badware” metric, which uses data supplied by StopBadware.org members Google, Sunbelt Software and Team Cymru.

Broken down by category, eNom scored 944 out of 1,000 in the fourth quarter, using HostExploit’s scoring system for badware. The network ranked second scored only 594.

What is badware? The report says:

Badware fundamentally disregards how users might choose to employ their own computer. Examples of such software include spyware, malware, rogues, and deceptive adware. It commonly appears in the form of free screensavers that surreptitiously generate advertisements, malicious web browser toolbars that take browsers to unexpected web pages and keylogger programs that transmit personal data to malicious third parties.

Other major domain name companies also rank in the top 50 worst hosts; 1&1, Oversee.net and Go Daddy occupy positions #35, #36 and #37. Google is at #28.

The HostExploit report appears to have been funded by the Nominet Trust.

Go Daddy-Google group targets bogus pill merchants

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2010, Domain Policy

The newly forming industry body tasked with taking down web sites selling fake pharmaceuticals plans to meet next month to develop its mission statement and charter, according to Go Daddy general counsel Christine Jones.

Jones said in an interview tonight that the group, which Go Daddy is jointly “spearheading” with Google, is likely to meet in Phoenix, Arizona in the third week of January.

As I blogged earlier today, the organization was formed following a series of meetings at the White House, which has a policy of reducing counterfeit drugs sales online.

Domain name companies including Go Daddy, eNom, Neustar and Network Solutions are joined in the currently nameless non-profit by the three major search engines and all the major payment processors.

Jones confirmed that redirecting a domain name is an action a participating registrar could take if it finds an infringing site. Go Daddy and others already do this in cases of child porn, for example.

But the group will also share information about fake pharma sites so Google, for example, would also be able to block them from search and Visa could stop payments being processed, Jones told me.

The White House meetings were organized by Victoria Espinel, the administration’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC).

So, while the group has yet to formalize its policies, I wanted to know what the prevailing opinion is on how “illegal” a site will have to be before the group will try to take it down.

Taking down a site selling sugar pills or industrial acid as HIV treatments is one thing, killing a site selling genuine medications to people without prescriptions is another, and blocking a legit pharmacy that sells drugs to Americans with prescriptions more cheaply from across the Canadian border is yet another.

Jones said: “If a pharmacy is a licensed pharmacy and is abiding by whatever the state rules are wherever they’re located, that’s not our target.”

Apparently the new organization, which will be formed as a non-profit entity, may help the companies to avoid running afoul of ECPA, the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Jones said that other companies participating in the White House meetings still have not decided whether to join the new group or not. End-of-year budgetary issues may be a factor here.

Domain registrars have come in for considerable flak over 2010 for allegedly not doing enough to counter fake pharma sites.

A Knujon report published in May, and others, eventually led to eNom in particular promising to crack down harder on rogue pharmacies.