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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.

XYZ weighs into Epik controversy with .monster fundraising domain

Kevin Murphy, March 21, 2019, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry XYZ.com has set up a domain to help raise money for victims of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand last week.

The domain is give.monster. It redirects to a page on Givealittle.co.nz, a Kiwi crowdfunding site, that has so far raised almost NZD 7.8 million ($5.3 million) for the victims of the attack, which killed 50 and injured many more last Friday.

Given the amount of coverage in the New Zealand press, it appears that the fundraising page is legit.

The domain is obviously a reference to Epik.com CEO Rob Monster, who has come in for criticism this week for hosting and sharing the terrorist’s video of the attack, and then suggesting it might be a hoax, as I blogged earlier today.

XYZ is able to create this domain because it is the registry for .monster, a gTLD it acquired last year that is currently slap-bang in the middle of its early access launch period.

Whois records show that the domain was created a little over an hour ago and belongs to XYZ.com LLC.

I learned about it through this comment on DI:

We are sorry to see this in our industry… Please visit http://www.Give.Monster and donate to support victims of the horrific Christchurch shootings. Thank you for your support.

XYZ.com is the registry for .xyz, .college, .rent and other gTLDs. .monster previously belonged to recruitment web site Monster.com.

After NZ shooting, Epik has a Monster PR problem

Kevin Murphy, March 21, 2019, Domain Registrars

Domain name registrar Epik.com has come under fire from prominent domain investors and others after CEO Rob Monster suggested that video of the recent mosque shootings in New Zealand, which he hosted on an Epik service and shared on social media, was a hoax.

Domainer-bloggers including Shane Cultra, Konstantinos Zournas, and DNPlaybook.com have questioned Monster’s decision, and one of his own senior staffers, former DomainNameWire contributor Joseph Peterson, took to a domainer forum to in parts criticize and defend his boss.

Cultra was particularly harsh in his criticism this week, calling for domainers to move their domains out of Epik and for his friend, Epik director Braden Pollock, to remove himself from the board.

He wrote: “I would like to think that any respectable domain investor remove their domains from Epik… Rob Monster’s agenda has no place in our industry”.

DNPlaybook wrote that Monster has become “Facilitator of Hate and Promoter of Conspiracies”.

Other domainers have written that they have removed, or will remove, their domains from Epik, though Monster wrote earlier this week that the impact on its business so far has been minimal.

Epik is an ICANN-accredited registrar with about 400,000 gTLD names under management at the last count. It’s almost doubled in size over the last two years.

The company and its CEO have been subject to criticism for months over their decision to provide services to web sites that enable the promotion of far-right ideologies such as white supremacism and Nazism.

But the latest row kicked off on March 15, when Monster used his personal Twitter account to share a link to the self-shot, first-person video of one of the terrorist attacks at a mosque in Christchurch.

Fifty people, all Muslims attending Friday prayers or in the vicinity of the mosques, were killed by the same person during the attacks.

The first attack was live-streamed on Facebook from a head-mounted camera. Apparently viewed live by fewer than 200 people, copies were nevertheless widely circulated on social media and elsewhere.

The copy of the video linked to by Monster was hosted by Epik-owned privacy services provider Anonymize.com, on an “effectively uncensorable” file-sharing service the company is currently developing.

In a subsequent tweet, Monster threw doubt upon whether the footage was real, writing: “Shell casings simply vanish into thin air. Etc. It looks like low budget CGI”.

Anyone with a grain of common sense who has seen the video will tell you that Monster is clearly talking absolute bollocks here. It’s not a fake.

Monster’s Twitter account has since been deleted. According to Peterson, Epik’s director of operations, Monster deleted it himself. Reading between the lines, it appears he was pressured to do so by his staff, including Peterson.

Monster has not yet deleted — and is in fact still actively using — his @epik account on Gab.com, the Twitter clone often used by far-right activists who have been banned from or choose not to use Twitter due to their views.

A March 15 post on Gab by Monster links to a copy of the Christchurch killer’s rambling “manifesto”, again hosted on anonymize.com. This link is still live, but I’ve redacted it in the screen-cap below, which shows Monster effectively using the manifesto to promote the forthcoming Anonymize service.

Monster on Gab

I’ve been unable to confirm whether Epik is still hosting the video of the attack, though there are reports that it was taken down a matter of hours after posting. (UPDATE 1816 UTC: the video is in fact still live on the Anonymize service).

Epik and Monster drew attention last November when Monster publicly offered to become the registrar for Gab.com, after the domain was suspended by GoDaddy.

Monster at the time said the move was to protect freedom of speech online.

Epik again attracted attention last month when it acquired BitMitigate, a denial-of-service protection startup which has been providing services to unapologetic Nazi propaganda site The Daily Stormer since August 2017, when Cloudflare told the site to GTFO.

It’s also taken on the domain business of video hosting site BitChute, which is often used as a refuge for political vloggers (including some on the far right) who have been demonetized or banned by YouTube.

For these reasons, in January Epik attracted the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-racist group based in the US. The SPLC wrote that “Epik is cornering the market on websites where hate speech is thriving”.

The post, and other news reports, strongly hint that Monster’s own political views might be more aligned with those of his customers than he cares to admit.

Monster naturally rebuts these suggestions, calling the SPLC post “highly defamatory and inaccurate”. In one of his most recent posts on Namepros, before his staff asked him to back away from the public square for a while, he wrote:

As for those members of the domain community who have taken the opportunity this week to rebuke me for allowing free speech to continue on the Internet, please know that I am neither seeking publicity or controversy. I am of sound mind. I am not a Nazi, an anti-semite, a homophobe, a misogynist, a bigot, or a racist. I believe love and understanding will overcome hate and divisiveness.

The future of the domain industry is being determined in 2019. Censorship, WHOIS privacy, sinkholing, DDoS, deplatforming, demonetization, unpersoning, are all symptoms of the disease which is a relentless desire by the few to dictate the narratives and choices to be consumed by the many.

Peterson has also denied that his boss harbors secret extremist views, in a series of lengthy, nuanced posts (starting here) on Namepros this week.

He writes that Monster has a “weird conspiratorial streak” and a natural inclination to believe in “false flag” conspiracy theories. He doubts the official story on 9/11 and believes the moon landings were faked, Peterson said. Monster is also a “Bible-believing Christian”, according to his Gab profile.

Peterson also writes that a significant portion of Epik’s employees, including some in important roles, are Muslims. He writes that he was “appalled” by Monster’s decision to post the video, but added:

But to infer that he did this because he hates muslims and condones murder is not just simplistic; it is LUDICROUS. One person murders 30+ muslims. The other person hires them and works with them closely on a daily basis. To equate these 2 is simply wrong. Whatever the reasons Rob felt it necessary to re-publish a link to content others had decided to censor, hatred of muslims was NOT the reason.

He goes on to say:

I object to Epik — the team I work with and the customers we look after — being portrayed falsely as some epicenter of “hate speech” or the alt right. We are not. We are a domain registrar and marketplace with a wide range of services. We are a company whose boss has taken controversial (and in some ways courageous) steps to protect free speech. Unfortunately, that same boss has stepped on that message with some very bad PR moves. When Rob does that, it irritates me to the point of exasperation. And I tell him so.

According to Peterson, Monster and his wife came under attack last year with a leafleting campaign in his local neighborhood, denouncing him as a Nazi.

He suspects this kind of behavior may have caused his boss to “double-down” on exactly the same kinds of activities that invited the controversy in the first place.

Whatever the reason, Epik certainly has got a PR problem on its hands right now.

I doubt this is the last we’ll hear of it.

AlpNames could get PAID for abandoning its customers

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2019, Domain Registrars

So it turns out selling domain names for peanuts to spammers isn’t a viable business model. Who’d have thunk?

As you’ll have no doubt already read elsewhere, ICANN has shut down AlpNames, the deep-discounting registrar with an unenviable reputation for attracting abusive registrants.

But there’s a chance that the company might actually get paid for its customer base, under ICANN rules.

ICANN today terminated AlpNames’ contract, effective immediately, having discovered the “discontinuance of its operations”.

It’s a rare case of ICANN going straight to richly deserved termination, skipping over the breach notice phase.

The former registrar’s web site has been down for the best part of a week, resolving to a Cloudflare error message saying the AlpNames web server is missing its SSL certificate.

But it appears its customers may have been experiencing problems accessing their accounts even earlier.

Judging by ICANN’s termination notice, the organization has had just about as much luck contacting AlpNames management as DI, which is to say: none.

CEO Iain Roache appears to have simply stopped paying attention to the company, for reasons unknown, allowing it to simply fade away.

At least three members of senior staff have left the company over the last several months, with former COO Damon Barnard telling DI he was asked to leave as a cost-cutting measure as Roache attempted to relocate the company from Gibraltar to the UK.

I gather that Roache is also currently tied up in litigation related to the failure of his old registry management business, Famous Four Media, which was removed by gTLD portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners last year.

So what happens now to AlpNames customers?

Fortunately, most of them should suffer only minor inconvenience.

ICANN has initiated its De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure, which will see all of AlpNames’ domains forcibly transferred to another registrar.

This often uses the data that registrars are obliged to periodically escrow, but in this case AlpNames uses LogicBoxes as a registrar back-end, so presumably LogicBoxes still has fresh, live data.

AlpNames had 532,941 domain names across all gTLDs on its IANA tag at the last official count, at the end of November. It’s believed to be closer to 700,000 today.

In November, its top two gTLDs were .top and .gdn, which had 280,000 names between them. It had over 19,000 .com names under management

Almost 700,000 names is a big deal, making AlpNames a top 40 registrar, and would make a nice growth spurt for any number of struggling registrars.

The portfolio could be a bit of a poisoned chalice, however, containing as it likely does a great many low-quality and some possibly abusive registrations.

At least one registrar, Epik, has publicly stated its desire to take over these domains, but due to the volume of AlpNames DUM it could be a competitive bidding process between multiple registrars.

Under the ICANN rules (pdf), a “full application process” is generally favored for defunct registrars with over 1,000 domains, when the de-accredited registrar has not named a successor.

The scoring system used to pick a winner has many criteria, but it generally favors larger registrars. They have to show they have the scale to handle the extra technical and customer support load required by the transition, for example.

It also favors registrars with breadth of gTLD coverage. They have to be accredited in all the gTLDs the dead registrar was. AlpNames supported 352 gTLDs and had active domains in 270 of them, according to November’s registry reports.

Language support may be an issue too, in case for example a substantial chunk of AlpNames business came from, say, China.

All applying registrars that score above a certain threshold are considered tied, and the tie-breaker is how much they’re willing to pay for the portfolio.

Unlike gTLD auctions, ICANN does not receive the proceeds of this auction, however. According to the policy (with my emphasis):

This procedure is not intended to create a new form of revenue for ICANN. To the extent payment is received as part of a bulk transfer, ICANN will apply funds against any debt owed by the registrar to ICANN and forward the remaining funds, if any, to the de-accredited registrar.

That’s right, there’s a chance AlpNames might actually get a small windfall, despite essentially abandoning its customers.

Think about it like the government using eminent domain to buy a house it wishes to demolish to make way for a new road. Except the house’s cellar is full of kidnapped children. And it’s on fire.

Of course, this might not happen. ICANN might decide that there’s not enough time to run a full application process without risk to AlpNames’ customers and instead simply award the dead registrar’s portfolio to one of the registrars in its pre-approved pool of gaining registrars.

That choice would be partly based on ICANN judgement and partly on which registrar is next in the round-robin queue of pre-qualified registrars.

Here’s a handy diagram that shows the procedure.

Deaccred

Uniregistry calls for domain Bill of Rights as Schilling says Gab.com was not booted

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2018, Domain Services

Uniregistry has called for a “Domain Bill of Rights” to protect free speech in a world were domain takedowns can be used to de-platform controversial speakers.

Meanwhile, CEO Frank Schilling has told DI that the company did not expel the right-wing social network Gab.com from Uniregistry’s platform, and would have allowed it to stay.

In a press release this week, Uniregistry COO Kanchan Mhatre said that while the company rejects “hatred and bigotry”, free speech is an “inalienable” human right.

The company called for the new agreement “to guarantee every domain name owner a formal ‘due process’ when being faced with accusations and demands for censorship”.

Schilling said that Uniregistry’s idea for a Domain Bill of Rights is still in the early stages. It has sketched out 10 draft bullet points but is not ready to publish them yet.

The press release was issued to coincide with Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for a “Contract for the Web”, a set of broad principles governing rights and responsibilities online.

But it also coincided with the ongoing controversy over Gab.com, the microblogging platform favored by right-wing voices, including many white supremacists, that have been kicked off Twitter.

The guy who murdered 11 people at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh last month used Gab, a back-breaking straw which prompted GoDaddy to inform the network it intended to suspend its domain unless it was immediately moved to another registrar.

It’s not the first time GoDaddy has shut down the far right for breaching its terms of service. Last year, it took the same action against a neo-Nazi site.

The Gab.com domain briefly wound up at Uniregistry, before Epik CEO Rob Monster stated publicly that he would offer Gab a home. Gab took him up on his offer, and transferred away from Uniregistry.

Uniregistry’s Schilling confirmed that “We did not ask gab.com to leave our platform… they were welcome to stay subject to law”.

Monster said in a blog post largely praising Gab and founder Andrew Torba that “De-Platforming is Digital Censorship”. He noted that for Gab, “there is a duty to monitor and lightly curate, keeping content within the bounds of the law”.

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