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Rumors swirl as AlpNames suffers “days” of downtime

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2019, Domain Registrars

The web site of controversial registrar AlpNames has been offline for “days”, and rumors have started to circulate that it might not just a technical problem.

At time of writing, alpnames.com resolves to a Cloudflare error page, warning that the AlpNames web server has an invalid SSL certificate. Cloudflare may also show an ugly, bare-bones cached version of the site.

This means that AlpNames customers are unable to log in to manage their domains, according to threads on Namepros and Reddit, and conversations I’ve had with some of those affected.

It’s said that customers are able to manage their domains by logging in directly to LogicBoxes, AlpNames’ registrar-in-a-box provider, but I’ve been unable to personally verify this.

AlpNames is believed to have almost 700,000 names under management, double the size it was last June but well below its peak, at the height of its deep-discounting period in 2017, of over three million.

It’s not known how many individual registrants are affected. The company tends to attract what one might charitably call “bulk-buyers”, so it will be substantially lower than the number of registered domains.

It’s also not entirely clear when the web site went down. It’s not been loading here for at least 12 hours, but the first reference to downtime on Namepros was on Sunday. Multiple other sources have told me today that it’s been unavailable “for a few days”.

A separate AlpNames-owned web site focused on marketing .icu domains to the Chinese market is still online.

But it seems a lot of AlpNames customers have been left hanging in uncertainty, unsure how or when they will be able to manage their domains.

I’ve been unable to reach any of AlpNames’ senior executives for comment on the situation today.

An email sent to CEO Iain Roache this morning, at the address he was using in December, bounced back with a “disabled account” error message. I have received no response to messages I sent to two other email addresses he is known to use.

I understand that fellow AlpNames exec Geir Rasmussen who, with Roache, was enthusiastically pitching grand plans for AlpNames as recently as October, is no longer with the company.

Chief operating officer Damon Barnard also left the company last October and ceased work as a director around the same time.

Records show the salesperson due to represent AlpNames at this week’s ICANN 64 meeting in Japan did not show up and is believed to have also left the company in January.

The company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, which are not usually particularly active anyway, have not yet addressed the downtime problem.

If it is simply a case of an expired or misconfigured SSL cert, why is it taking so long to fix, and why has there been radio silence from AlpNames?

Opponents and competitors are putting the word around that there may be a more serious problem with the company, but I’ve not seen any conclusive evidence that this is the case.

It’s possible there’s some confusion between AlpNames and Famous Four Media, the now-defunct Roache/Rasmussen venture that managed the portfolio of new gTLDs owned by Domain Venture Partners, an investment vehicle set up by Roache prior to ICANN’s 2012 gTLD application round.

DVP is no longer affiliated with AlpNames and its gTLDs are managed by a new DVP-controlled entity, GRS Domains, after an investor revolt.

The most-read stories of 2018

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2019, Domain Services

Happy 2019!

As we crawl, dark-eyed and slurring, from our festive hibernation, I thought now would be a good time to do a quick reminder of 2018, in the form of a top-10 list of the most-read stories published by DI over the last 12 months.

If not today, then when?

I’ve excluded, as usual, articles that seem to show up prominently in my traffic logs every single day simply because Google seems to think they’ve got porn in them.

Stéphane Van Gelder dies after motorcycle accident

Stéphane Van Gelder was a registrar industry pioneer and long-time ICANN community leader, and his untimely death in a vehicle accident in March came as a great shock to many. The fact that this post was the most-read of the year is not surprising. He is missed by many, and was subsequently posthumously awarded ICANN’s Multistakeholder Ethos Award.

Has the world’s biggest new gTLD registry gone bankrupt?

This speculative post from June came about after I discovered that a court-appointed administrator had taken over ownership of all TLDs in the Famous Four Media portfolio. It later turned out that FFM had in fact been removed by investors in true portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners, which created a new company, GRS Domains, to take over. The full details of this evidently bitter boardroom fight have yet to emerge.

Donuts freezes .place gTLD ahead of new geofencing rules

Perhaps a surprising entry on the list, this story detailed how Donuts had essentially taken .place off the market in preparation for a planned repurposing of the gTLD to tie into the emerging “geofencing” infrastructure. The freeze happened in May, and as far as I can tell .place is still in limbo as the technology back-end is finalized, which may account for this post’s popularity.

ICANN number two Atallah is new CEO of Donuts

Not long after Donuts was acquired by a private equity fund partly controlled by former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, I received a tip-off that his former number two, Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah, had been headhunted to be the registry’s new CEO. It was officially confirmed a few hours later, but not before the unwashed hordes (that’s you) had given the DI server something to think about. The perception of a revolving door between ICANN and industry raised eyebrows, including from the US government.

Google’s .app gTLD beats .porn to biggest sunrise yet

Google’s eagerly anticipated .app gTLD hit the market mid-year, and got off to a strong start with a sunrise period beaten only by defensive-heavy .porn. It’s very likely the strongest sunrise period of the 2012 round so far. The TLD has something like 350,000 domains under management today, which for new gTLDs is pretty much a success story.

GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

This story about GoDaddy and DomainTools fighting about whether the latter could get unmitigated access to the former’s Whois database was published in January, long before the full impact of GDPR on Whois privacy was known, and therefore now, with the benefit of hindsight, feels hopelessly naive.

How all 33 European ccTLDs are handling GDPR

Good grief, did I write a “listicle”? To mark the day GDPR came into full effect, I trawled through the web sites, news releases and policy documents of 33 European ccTLDs to see how each registry was planning to comply with the strict new privacy legislation, so you didn’t have to. The results were surprisingly diverse.

Google’s $25 million .app domain finally has a launch date

Remember how I said .app was “eagerly anticipated”? The fact that this post, merely noting the TLD’s launch timetable, hit the top 10 most-read stories for the year is perhaps proof of that.

Facebook clashes with registrars after massive private data request

Many big brands were unhappy with how ICANN and the industry turned off their unfettered Whois access following GDPR, none more so than Facebook, which has been piling pressure on ICANN to force registrars to acquiesce to its data requests. This July story revealed how it had started using a close intermediary called AppDetex to bombard registrars with over-broad disclosure requests. Registrars subsequently fought back, and AppDetex later gave me a demo of its early-stage software. The fight, no doubt, continues.

These 33 people will decide the future of Whois

Another GDPR listicle? In this July post I prepared brief bios of the volunteers selected to work on ICANN’s first Expedited Policy Development Process working group, which is challenged with coming up with a permanent policy solution to GDPR, amenable to all sections of the community. Needless to say, they’re still working on it…

That’s the top 10 most-read articles on DI in 2018. Honorable mentions go to Fight breaks out as Afilias eats Neustar’s Aussie baby, How a single Whois complaint got this registrar shitcanned and Some men at ICANN meetings really are assholes, simply because I like the headlines.

Happy new year to all DI readers. I don’t tell you this nearly regularly enough, but I really do love you all more than words could possibly describe.

Spammy .loan makes Alibaba fastest-growing and fastest-shrinking registrar in June

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2018, Domain Registrars

Chinese registrar Alibaba was both the fastest-growing and fastest-shrinking registrar in June, purely due to its dalliance with hundreds of thousands of cheap .loan domain names.

Stats compiled by DI from the latest monthly registry reports show that Alibaba’s Singapore-based registrar — which has only been active for a year — grew its domains under management by 720,669 in June, almost four times as many as second-placed NameCheap.

The huge increase was due to Alibaba’s DUM in .loan doubling in June, going from from 621,851 to 1,274,532. Another 50,000 extra domains came from .win.

Both .loan and .win are run by registry GRS Domains, the company that replaced Famous Four Media as manager of the Domain Venture Partners gTLD portfolio.

According to SpamHaus, .loan has a “badness” of just shy of 90%, based on a sample size of 45,000 observed domains. SpamHaus has .win at almost 39% bad.

GRS has promised to turn its portfolio around and cut off its deep-discounting promotions effective August 20. The June figures reflect a time when discounts were still in place.

The Singapore Alibaba had DUM of 1,771,730 at the end of June.

At the bottom end of the June league table was a second Alibaba accrediation, Beijing-based Alibaba Cloud Computing (aka HiChina or net.cn), which had a net DUM loss of 266,411, after seeing 345,268 deletes in .loan (along with 45,000 deletes in .xyz and 35,000 in .xin).

The second biggest loser was AlpNames, which is owned by the same people as Famous Four, which deleted over 114,000 names in the month. The vast majority of these names were in FFM/GRS gTLDs, including .loan.

The main, earliest Alibaba accreditation, Alibaba Cloud Computing (Beijing), which has zero exposure to new gTLDs, grew by 69,794 domains to end June as the seventh fastest-growing registrar with DUM of 7,672,594.

As of a couple weeks ago, Alibaba has a fourth ICANN accreditation, Alibaba Cloud US LLC, but that obviously does not figure into the June numbers.

Here’s the top 10 registrars for June by DUM growth:

Registrar (IANA ID)DUMTransfers InTransfers OutNet TransfersAddsDeletesChange
Alibaba.com Singapore E-commerce Private Ltd (3775)1771730230017228339416345720669
NameCheap, Inc. (1068)862443322140891613224418008253219187827
GoDaddy.com, LLC (146)59208467703796893114481131439951837153910
NameSilo, LLC (1479)1670604144276041838613653932107111151
Xin Net Technology Corporation (120)262370941275041-91415315466679102744
Google LLC (895)231378010763169190721253194944079148
Alibaba Cloud Computing (Beijing) Co., Ltd. (420)76725941907811732734622080515525869794
Network Solutions, LLC (2)708437552854143003855412243811062853712
GMO Internet, Inc. d/b/a Onamae.com (49)47051283043209195214625917494644668
TLD Registrar Solutions Ltd. (1564)12186886858-77239315232535877

And the bottom 10:

Registrar (IANA ID)DUMTransfers InTransfers OutNet TransfersAddsDeletesChange
Alibaba Cloud Computing Ltd. d/b/a HiChina (www.net.cn) (1599)446845116192891330202094509820-266411
Alpnames Limited (1857)3613027165366314273114254-112825
Chengdu West Dimension Digital Technology Co., Ltd. (1556)2270000422719452282148101269286-94937
Bizcn.com, Inc. (471)9202431203336-3216603663268-69862
eNom, LLC (48)6824378915328741-1958875665101336-52205
Domain.com, LLC (886)197492715348827-72932361958695-37594
Todaynic.com, Inc. (697)13652775154-79138527795-26771
Register.com, Inc. (9)197625412953484-21891918737626-26231
Wild West Domains, LLC (440)300078434777346-38693101546045-18883
Ascio Technologies, Inc. Danmark - Filial af Ascio technologies, Inc. USA (106)157968313143803-24891183828246-16839

You may notice that in both tables the net change column is not equal to the sum of adds and net transfers minus deletes. This is because, per ICANN contract, domains still in their five-day Add Grace Period are counted in DUM but not in adds, so many adds slip over into the following month.

I was wrong, Famous Four bosses WERE kicked out

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLDs is under new management after an investor rebellion, contrary to what I speculated earlier this week.

FFM’s former stable, which includes the likes of .men and .science, is now being managed by a company calling itself GRS Domains, but this new company has absolutely nothing to do with FFM’s former management.

That’s according to Robert Maroney, founder of Connecticut-based Engineers Gate Investments, which is a shareholder of ultimate portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners.

Maroney got in touch with DI yesterday to explain some of what has recently happened to the ownership and management of the 16 high-volume new gTLDs.

Back in June I speculated based on the quite limited available information that FFM might be bankrupt.

On Tuesday, after GRS Domains announced a relaunch and a rejection of its previous volume-heavy, spam-friendly business plan, I speculated based on slightly more information that management had repurchased the TLD assets after investors forced it into administration.

I was wrong on both counts, according to Maroney. What actually happened is more akin to an investor takeover.

Maroney said he “engineered” the ouster of FFM and its two shareholders/managers, Iain Roache and Geir Rasmussen, after Roache attempted to close down DVP.

DVP is basically a collection of private and institutional investors (brought in by Roache and others) from around the world which, based on the available evidence, have little or no connection to the domain name industry.

It’s a matter of public record that each gTLD contract is owned by a distinct Gibraltar-based shell company — dot Bid Limited owns the ICANN rights to run .bid for example — and that Domain Venture Partners owns these companies.

I’ve previously reported that Famous Four was also owned by DVP, but Maroney said that this was never the case. It was owned 80-20 by Roache and Rasmussen and contracted by DVP to manage the 16 gTLDs.

The affiliated registrar AlpNames, which has been responsible for a very large portion of registrations in the portfolio, had the same ownership structure as FFM and was never directly connected to DVP, Maroney said.

Following a court battle, GRS Domains has replaced FFM as the registry manager.

GRS is owned by DVP, and is currently being managed by court-appointed administrator Edgar Lavarello, a Gibraltar-based accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Maroney did not want to get into the detailed specifics about what caused the investor revolt, but did say that shareholders were unhappy with how FFM was managing the portfolio.

Its low-price, high-volume strategy had caused its TLDs to become the destinations of choice for spammers and other abusive registrants.

But the court case was brought after Roache attempted to break up DVP, restructure ownership of the 16 individual registries, and “escape the regulation of Gibraltar”, Maroney said.

“Roache wanted to shut down DVP in a way we considered to be unlawful,” he said.

He said DVP shareholders felt Roache’s moves were “inappropriate and unlawful”, which is what caused him to “engineer”, via fellow investor Christina Mattin, DVP being placed into administration.

I have seen no independent evidence that Roache acted or attempted to act unlawfully. The court document I’ve seen appointing Lavarello as administrator contains no finding of wrongdoing by anyone.

The upshot of all this is that the group of TLDs formerly known as Famous Four Media is now GRS Domains — Global Registry Services Ltd — and that Lavarello is currently in charge.

I imagine the company will want to find permanent management at some point, but Maroney did not want to talk about that.

In the meantime, GRS has already made moves to become more transparent and to engage more with the rest of the industry.

Maroney said, and I have independently confirmed, that he was at the ICANN meeting in Panama recently, meeting senior industry figures. Famous Four executives have not been known to attend ICANN meetings or industry events in the past.

GRS has told registrars it intends to have a formal presence at ICANN 63 in Barcelona also.

The company will shortly terminate all of its promotional pricing and introduce a flat $9.98 registry fee, which is very likely to affect its volumes and reduce spamming activity over the next year or so.

Famous Four is DEAD! New registry promises spam crackdown

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLD registries is now under the control of a new company, Global Registry Services Ltd, which has promised to abandon its failed penny-domain strategy and crack down on spam.

(August 9 update: This article contains some incorrect assumptions and speculation. Please read this follow-up piece for clarifications.)

The company, which goes by the name GRS Domains, told registrars yesterday that FFM’s 16 gTLDs are now “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited, and are no longer under the management of FFM.”

DVP also owned FFM, so it’s not clear how big of a deal this restructuring is from a management point of view.

My sense is that there’s not really been a substantial change, but it’s certainly more than a simple rebranding exercise.

I’ve learned that DVP was placed into administration under the Insolvency Act back in April, with management of the TLDs handed to a PricewaterhouseCoopers administrator, more or less as I speculated in June.

The TLDs affected are: .loan, .win, .men, .bid, .stream, .review, .trade, .date, .party, .download, .science, .racing, .accountant, .faith, .webcam and .cricket.

GRS told registrars:

Moving forward there are several changes being made with regard to the overall strategy of the portfolio of gTLDs, the main one being a change to a “quality over quantity” ethos and focusing on working with our Registrar Partners to sharply reduce abuse and spam registrations.

As such, all of its current pricing promotions will end August 20 and a “much more transparent and sensible pricing strategy” will come into play.

That means a wholesale reg fee of $9.98 across the board, at least until February 2019.

GRS also plans to take a lot of its lower-priced reserved “premium” names out of the premium program altogether, and to reprice “a considerable portion” of the more expensive ones.

Finally, the company, not known to attend ICANN meetings in the past, said it plans to show up at the Barcelona meeting in October to formally relaunch itself.

Famous Four has become notorious over the last few years for its deep-discounted TLDs, which have become a haven for spammers who want to register large numbers of super-cheap, throwaway domains.

As such, its gTLDs’ volumes have been huge — many racking up hundreds of thousands of names — but their renewals poor and their reputation worse.

If GRS’ new strategy is effective, we’re almost certainly going to see the industry-wide overall number of active new gTLD domains tank over the next year or so, giving more ammunition to those who think the new gTLD program was a huge waste of effort.

It could also have an impact on ICANN’s budget — no matter how cheap FFM sold its names, it still had to pay its ICANN fees on a per-domain basis. Fewer domains equals less money in ICANN’s coffers. FFM’s registries paid over $1.6 million in ICANN fees in the organization’s fiscal 2017.

While GRS is now apparently “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited”, it’s not abundantly clear to me whether that’s the same people who’ve been running FFM for the last eight years.

DVP has not immediately responded to a request for comment today.

The DVP web site has not resolved in months. The new grs.domains site doesn’t name anyone, and the NIC sites for the gTLDs in the portfolio only identify a PwC bankruptcy accountant as the primary contact.

All the companies in question are based in tax haven Gibraltar, which isn’t particularly forthcoming about identifying company directors, partners or owners.

DVP’s directors were originally Adrian Hogg, Charles Melvin, Iain Roache, Douglas Smith, Peter Young, Joseph Garcia and a company called Domain Management II (itself chaired by Roache), according to an investor presentation (pdf) DI obtained back in 2013.

I believe Melvin at least, after a legal dispute with the others, is no longer involved.

And it appears that DVP is or was in fact in administration.

I noted back in June that the 16 gTLDs were now all being administered by PwC accountant Edgar Lavarello, and wondered aloud whether this meant FFM was bankrupt.

Today I obtained (read: paid an extortionate sum for) a Gibraltar court order dated April 23 putting DVP into administration under the Insolvency Act and appointing PwC as the administrator.

The application had been made by an investor called Christina Mattin and fellow investor Braganza, a private vehicle owned by a wealthy Scandinavian family, which was (at least last year) a 10% owner.

Other named investors the court heard from were the mysterious Liechtenstein-based Rennes Foundation, something called Northern Assets Investments Limited and Dutch multimillionaire Francis Claessens.

Overall, it smells a bit to me like DVP’s principals, having seen their previous venture put out of business by disgruntled investors, have snapped up its assets and are going to try to make a second go of running the business.

As for FFM? Well, it looks rather like we won’t be hearing that name again.

UPDATE: This article was updated several hours after it was originally posted to clarify that DVP was/is “in administration”.