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Who really uses IDNs? [Guest Post]

Stéphane Van Gelder, November 19, 2012, Domain Tech

Are Internationalised Domain Names really useful, or just a way for an ASCII-focused internet governance community to feel better about itself?

Beyond all the hoopla about ICANN’s 2009 program to enable countries to operate their own non-Latin script internet suffixes (aka the “IDN ccTLD Fast Track”), what should really matter is the Internet user.

Yes, those sitting in ICANN meeting rooms at the time, listening to the hyperbole about how the internet was now going truly global probably felt like they were feeding the hungry and bringing peace to the world. But do people actually use IDNs?

I will admit that at the time, I was dubious. Of course, saying so in ICANN circles would have been akin to wearing a “Camembert is bad” t-shirt in the streets of Paris: poor form! But still, I couldn’t help ask myself if having a single one-language system unite the world was actually such a bad thing?

“How would you like it if the Internet had been invented in China and you had to use their alphabet,” was the usual rebuke I got if I ever dared to doubt out loud. And there really is no arguing with that. If the internet was Chinese, I’d want the Mandarin version of ICANN to roll out IDNs pretty sharpish.

Nonetheless, can the usefulness of IDNs still be questioned?

Facebook in Latin

Talking to a local internet expert whilst attending last week’s excellent Domain Forum in Sofia, Bulgaria, the answer would seem to be a surprising yes.

“Why would kids in this country use IDNs,” I was told when I suggested that, surely, Bulgaria must be excited about the prospect of natural language web addresses. “What worries the authorities here is the fact that kids are using Latin scripts so much on social media sites that they don’t even know how to write in Cyrillic anymore! So even if they could use IDN web and email addresses, why would they? They want to communicate like everyone else does on Facebook.”

In truth, Bulgaria’s view may be skewed by the horrible experience it’s had with ICANN’s IDN Fast Track. The country was refused its own IDN country code due to a perceived similarity with another TLD that no-one in Bulgaria really feels is warranted. But not all potential IDN users feel they are useless. Neighbors in Russia tell of a different IDN experience.

The Russian registry saw stunning initial take-up when it opened the IDN .РФ (.RF for Russian Federation) to general consumption on November 11, 2010. Registration volumes were explosive, with almost 600,000 names registered in the first month. Strong growth continued for a year, hitting a peak of 937,913 registered names in December 2011.

No profit

But the following month, that number fell off a cliff. Total registrations dropped to 844,153 in January 2012. “Initial registrations were driven in part by speculators,” explains ccTLD .RU’s Leonid Todorov. “But when people saw they couldn’t make huge profits on the domains, they started letting them go.”

Even so, .РФ remains a real success. Although November 2012 figures show a year on year decline of 8.63%, the TLD still sports a whopping 845,037 names.

At 66%, .РФ has a slightly lower renewal rate than ASCII Russian equivalent .ru (73%), probably because of those day-one speculators, but it remains widely used. Current delegation figures (i.e. the number of domain names that are actually used for email or websites) stand at a commendable 70% and have not stopped rising since .РФ opened in 2010 with a 45% delegation rate.

The Cyrillic Russian domain sees a vast predominance of personal use, with 77% percent of domains being registered by individuals. “Russians care deeply about their national identity,” says my Bulgarian friend when I suggest that IDNs do seem to matter in some Cyrillic-using countries. “To them, Dot RF is a matter of national pride.”

National pride

So IDNs may not really be all that different from ASCII domain names, with take-up depending on perceived use or value. Europe’s IDN experience seems to confirm this, as European registry EURid’s Giovanni Seppia explained in Sofia.

He revealed that since EURid introduced IDNs on December 11, 2009, registrations reached a peak of around 70,000 (a mere fraction of the 3.7 million names currently registered in the .eu space) before dropping off quite sharply.

Why? Well .eu IDNs may not hold much potential for real use or investment value for Europeans. Although web use is possible with IDNs, software primarily designed for an ASCII-only world does not always make it easy.

Email capability would be a real boost, but so far only the Chinese seem to have enabled it for their local script domains. The Chinese registry recently announced this, without giving details on how the use of all-Chinese character email addresses has been implemented or which email clients support IDNs.

Whatever the technology, countries which combine national pride and a character set far removed from our own probably see more desire for IDNs. With two years of hindsight, Russia obviously loves its IDN. And as other countries like China bring more elaborate IDN capabilities online, demand should grow and force even this IDN skeptic to recognize the new character(s) of the internet.

This is a guest post written by Stéphane Van Gelder, strategy director for NetNames. He has served as chair of the GNSO Council and is currently a member of ICANN’s Nominating Committee.

Facebook gTLD ruled out by ICANN director vote?

Kevin Murphy, April 12, 2012, Domain Policy

While Google recently confirmed its new top-level domain plans, an ICANN director has given a big hint that rival Facebook has not applied for any new gTLDs.

Director Erika Mann, head of EU policy at Facebook in Brussels, voted on ICANN’s “digital archery” method of batching new gTLD applications at the ICANN board meeting March 28.

Because ICANN’s new conflict of interest rules require directors to recuse themselves during votes on matters affecting their own businesses, this could be taken as a pretty strong indication that Facebook is not applying for a new gTLD.

If Mann was aware of a .facebook or other Facebook gTLD bid, I think there’s a pretty strong chance she would have not have participated in the digital archery decision.

At least one director whose employer is believed to have applied for a dot-brand gTLD, IBM’s Thomas Narten, did not attend the March 28 meeting.

Sébastien Bachollet, Steve Crocker, Bertrand de La Chapelle, Ram Mohan, George Sadowsky, Bruce Tonkin, Judith Vazquez, Suzanne Woolf and Kuo-Wei Wu also did not attend.

The March 28 board meeting was the first one with new gTLD program votes that Mann has participated in since the new conflict rules were introduced in December.

The news is obviously a couple of weeks old, but I think it’s worth mentioning now in light of the fact that social networking competitor Google revealed earlier this week that it will apply for some gTLDs.

Google confirms new gTLD bids

Google will apply for several new generic top-level domains, according to a report in AdAge.

The company will apply for some dot-brands, and possibly some keywords, the report indicated.

“We plan to apply for Google’s trademarked TLDs, as well as a handful of new ones,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

AdAge speculates that .google and .youtube would be among the applications, which seems like a fair assumption.

The revelation comes despite the fact that Google engineers recently stated that there would be no guaranteed search engine optimization benefits from owning a gTLD.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if keywords representing some of Google’s services, such as .search and .blog, are also among its targets.

The total cost to Google is likely to run into millions in ICANN application fees alone.

It will also be interesting to see which registry provider — if any — Google has selected to run its back-end.

Google is one of the few companies out there that could scratch-build its own registry infrastructure without breaking a sweat.

The AdAge report also quotes Facebook and Pepsi executives saying they will not apply.

Twitter typosquatters fined £100,000

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2012, Domain Policy

Two typosquatters have been fined £100,000 ($156,000) by the UK premium rate phone services regulator.

PhonepayPlus said today that the owners of the typos wikapedia.com and twtter.com, both Dutch companies, were issued the fines for violating its Code of Practice.

R&D Media Europe and Unavalley use the now depressingly commonplace practice of tricking visitors with the promise of iPad prizes into signing up for bogus SMS services at ridiculous fees.

They’ve both been ordered to refund disgruntled customers’ fees.

PhonepayPlus has no powers to take away domain names, of course, so both typos are still active, albeit not no longer mimicking the Wikipedia or Twitter look-and-feel.

The regulator did however issue clear guidance that typosquatting is against its rules, stating:

This guidance reminds PRS [premium rate service] providers that they are responsible for all their digital promotions and, if they use marketing firms that mislead consumers through typosquatting, they will be in breach of the Code of Practice.

A Facebook attorney said last year that typos of high-traffic sites, such as facebok.com, could expect to get 250 million visits a year.

ANA finds SEO more effective than Facebook

Kevin Murphy, October 10, 2011, Domain Tech

Advertisers are “beginning to question the effectiveness” of social media marketing, but they’re still mostly sold on the benefits of search engine optimization.

That’s according to a new study from the Association of National Advertisers, the results of which have just been published.

The ANA’s survey of 92 marketers gave SEO an “effectiveness rating” of 52%, the highest rating given to any of the six categories respondents were asked to comment on.

However, that represented a decline of three percentage points from a similar survey in 2009.

Social networking sites (presumably including Facebook, although names were not named) received an effectiveness rating of 28%, up from 17% two years ago, ANA reported.

SEO and social sites were used in marketing by 88% and 89% of respondents respectively.

ANA president Bob Liodice said in a press release:

While marketers have substantially increased their use of newer media platforms over the past few years, they are beginning to question the effectiveness of some of these vehicles. The ANA survey indicates a strong willingness by marketers to integrate innovative new approaches into their marketing mix; however, this enthusiasm is tempered by concerns regarding the return-on-investment of these emerging options.

While it’s all speculation at this point, SEO improvements are often pointed to as a potential (and I stress: potential) benefit of new dot-brand or category-killer top-level domains.

The ANA is the current opponent-in-chief of ICANN’s new gTLD program.

Facebook hires ICANN director

Kevin Murphy, September 14, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN director Erika Mann has reportedly been hired to head up Facebook’s new Brussels office.

Mann started last week as one of a handful of “politically connected new talent” to join the social networking company recently, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mann was a Member of the European Parliament between 1994 and 2009, representing a German constituency.

She joined ICANN’s board of directors last December, after her appointment by the Nominating Committee. She’s currently the only female director with a vote.

Facebook is an increasingly active ICANN participant.

Its envoy, global domain name manager Susan Kawaguchi, sits on the Whois Policy Review Team, for example.

Facebok.com had 250 million hits a year

Kevin Murphy, June 22, 2011, Domain Policy

The typo domain name facebok.com was receiving an estimated 250 million visits per year, according to a Facebook attorney.

As I’ve previously reported, the domain was subject to controversy after Facebook won it in a UDRP adjudication and was subsequently sued by the cybersquatter.

“Obviously, it’s Facebook except lacking one O, and attracting a lot of traffic – 250 million was the estimate by our SEO team, 250 million hits a year,” Facebook’s Susan Kawaguchi said during a panel on UDRP here at the ICANN meeting in Singapore.

“Somebody was making a lot of money off of it,” she said.

Facebok.com bounced users to what Kawaguchi described as a “social survey scam” – a site that used Facebook’s look-and-feel to get users to sign up for expensive text message services.

After Facebook won the UDRP in September, a bogus Panama-based shell company sued Facebook and the registrar, EuroDNS, claiming to be the true owner of the domain.

The suit persuaded EuroDNS to put the transfer to Facebook on hold, and ICANN threatened to terminate the registrar’s accreditation as a result.

The situation has since been resolved, and Facebook owns the domain, but EuroDNS may find itself in trouble with the Luxembourg court.

Facebok.com given to Facebook despite “theft” claim

Kevin Murphy, May 30, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN says registrar contract trumps national court. Registrar warns of legal consequences.

The typo domain name facebok.com has finally been returned to Facebook, over eight months after it was subject to a successful cyberquatting complaint.

The domain does not currently resolve, but Whois records show it was transferred to Facebook from its previous registrant, one “Franz Bauer”, last Thursday.

The case was marked by controversy, after ICANN threatened to shut down its sponsoring registrar, EuroDNS, for failing to transfer the domain last within 10 days, as required by UDRP rules.

EuroDNS had resisted the transfer after being named in a lawsuit, in its native Luxembourg, filed by a suspicious Panama shell company going by the name Facebok.com. The plaintiff claimed the domain had been “stolen” by Bauer.

But ICANN told the registrar last week that the Registrar Accreditation Agreement only allows the registrar to defer a transfer if the original registrant – not a third party – sues.

In a letter noting that EuroDNS is “a long-standing and respected member of the ICANN community”, the ICANN compliance department said:

the only kind of documentation that will stop the registrar from implementing a panel decision ordering a transfer is evidence that the registrant/respondent has commenced a lawsuit against the complainant in a jurisdiction to which the complainant has submitted under UDRP Rules. The mere filing of a complaint by a third party does not excuse the registrar from fulfilling its obligations under the policy.

in recognition that there has been a court filing, ICANN must reiterate that failing to comply with the relevant contractual provisions of the RAA subjects EuroDNS to escalated compliance action up to and including termination of the EuroDNS accreditation.

That seems to have been sufficient clarity for EuroDNS to push through the transfer, but the registrar is not happy about the situation, which may leave it in a tricky legal position in Luxembourg.

In a reply to ICANN, EuroDNS CEO Xavier Buck suggested that the story may not be over yet:

the action you demand from EuroDNS will have tremendous consequences for our company in the pending judiciary case.

Consequently, EuroDNS reserves all rights to seek indemnification from ICANN for any damages or loss caused by the action we have been forced to take not to lose our Registrar accreditation.

The lawsuit was filed last September, just days after the UDRP case was decided, but has not yet gone to court.

Under its previous ownership, facebok.com redirected to a series of scam sites that may have proved rather lucrative.

Was Facebok.com really stolen?

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2011, Domain Policy

The domain name’s strange history raises questions.

The typo domain facebok.com is currently at the center of an unusual legal battle that has put a respected domain name registrar’s ICANN accreditation at risk.

EuroDNS, as I reported last week, has been handed an ICANN breach notice for failing to transfer the domain to Facebook, which won it in a slam-dunk UDRP complaint last September.

If it does not hand over the domain by May 11, it stands to lose its ability to sell domain names.

But the registrar says it is a defendant in a lawsuit, filed in its native Luxembourg, which has put a jurisdictional question mark over its ability to legally transfer the domain.

According to EuroDNS, the suit was filed by a company calling itself “Facebok.com Inc”, on September 24 last year, just one week after the UDRP case was decided.

This suspiciously named company alleges that the domain is its rightful property, and that it was stolen by the respondent in the UDRP case, one Franz Bauer of Munich, Germany.

The suit names Bauer, Facebook and EuroDNS as defendants.

A review of historical Whois records shows that Bauer has been associated with the domain facebok.com since August 2009, after it emerged from a few years behind a Whois privacy shield.

The address in the Whois, then and now, seems to be a hotel in Munich.

However, on September 21, 2010, a few days after WIPO informed Bauer he had lost the UDRP, the contact information in the Whois changed to a Hushmail email address and:

Company: FACEBOK.COM, INC.
Name: Facebok Domains Facebok Admininstrator
Address: IPASA Building, 3rd Floor, 41 Street Off Balboa Avenue, Bella Vista District
City: Panama City
Country: PANAMA
Postal Code: 83256

That address is shared by Panama Offshore Legal Services, a company that offers corporate formation services to individuals outside of Panama, with the promise of “global asset protection, privacy, investment diversification, tax minimization, affordability and convenience.”

Facebok.com Inc, which is suing EuroDNS, Facebook and Bauer, therefore appears to be an offshore shell company. The question is: who’s behind it?

At the time the domain’s Whois changed from Bauer to Facebok.com Inc, it was in ClientTransferProhibited status, meaning it could not be transferred to another registrar, but that the registrant was free to change his contact information at will.

By early October, the Whois record had reverted back to Bauer.

The domain facebok.com currently directs fat-fingered web surfers to a variety of affiliate scams, depending on where they live, that rely upon users completing spurious surveys and not reading the fine print when they sign up for pricey mobile phone messaging services.

With 500 million Facebook users, many of whom will be youngsters, silver surfers, or may not use ASCII as their primary script, the site is likely to be getting a fair bit of traffic.

Compete.com estimates it received roughly 4,000 to 8,000 visits per month last year. Alexa gives the site a rank of roughly 154,000. Both sites show a huge traffic spike in March.

Registrar threatened over “stolen” Facebook domain

Kevin Murphy, April 21, 2011, Domain Registrars

ICANN has threatened to terminate the domain name registrar EuroDNS for failing to transfer a typo domain lost in a UDRP case to Facebook.

But EuroDNS says it is subject to a court case in its home country, Luxembourg, which has prevented it handing over the name.

The original registrant of facebok.com lost a slam-dunk UDRP case back in September 2010. He didn’t even bother defending the case.

But over half a year later, he’s still in control of the domain, and he’s using it to recruit folk into a shady-looking (but probably legal) subscription text messaging service.

EuroDNS is the registrar of record for the domain, and like all registrars is responsible for transferring domains lost under the UDRP to the winning party, in this case Facebook.

ICANN’s compliance department – my guess is under pressure from Facebook – has therefore threatened EuroDNS with termination unless it hands over the domain in the next three weeks.

This is noteworthy because EuroDNS isn’t the kind of tiny, fringe outfit ICANN usually files compliance notices against. It’s a generally respectable business. It even shows up to ICANN meetings.

EuroDNS deputy general counsel Luc Seufer tells me that the company was fully prepared to transfer the domain – it had even sent the authorization codes to Facebook – but it found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit claiming that the domain had been “stolen”.

Somebody in Luxembourg, it seems, has sued to reclaim an obvious typo domain that’s probably going to be transferred to Facebook anyway.

“We are therefore in an incredible position where if we transfer the name before the judge’s ruling we will be accountable in our own country and if we don’t transfer the name we are in breach of the [Registrar Accreditation Agreement],” said Seufer.

The Luxembourg case has not yet made it to court, hence EuroDNS’s delay, he said. ICANN is aware of the action, and has seen the court papers, he said.

According to ICANN’s breach notice (pdf), the only way for EuroDNS to avoid its obligation under the UDRP is to show proof that the original registrant has sued Facebook to keep the domain.

But the case in question was filed by a third party claiming to be the rightful owner of the domain, not the original registrant. EuroDNS seems to be trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Seufer said the company is prepared to hand over the domain, adding:

Should we simply ignore a judiciary court case against us in our own country – that could prevent us from operating the transfer since it is was asked of the judge – because of our RAA’s obligations?

The domain in question, facebok.com, currently redirects to a series of sites asking visitors to fill in a survey to win a Mac.

Those who are duped by it are actually signing up to a text service that costs, in the UK, £4.50 ($7.40) per week.