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ICANN splits $9 million new gTLD ODP into nine tracks

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN has added a little more detail to its plans for the Operational Design Phase for the next round of the new gTLD program.

VP and ODP manager Karen Lentz last night blogged that the project is being split into nine work tracks, each addressing a different aspect of the work.

She also clarified that the ODP officially kicked off January 3, meaning the deadline for completion, barring unforeseen issues, is November 3. The specific dates hadn’t been clear in previous communications.

The nine work tracks are “Project Governance”, “Policy Development and Implementation Materials”, “Operational Readiness”, “Systems and Tools”, “Vendors”, “Communications and Outreach”, “Resources, Staffing, and Logistics”, “Finance”, and “Overarching”.

Thankfully, ICANN has not created nine new acronyms to keep track of. Yet.

Pro-new-gTLD community members observing how ICANN’s first ODP, which addressed Whois reform, seemed to result in ICANN attempting to kill off community recommendations may be worried by how Lenzt described the new ODP:

The purpose of this ODP, which began on 3 January, is to inform the ICANN Board’s determination on whether the recommendations are in the best interests of ICANN and the community.

I’d be hesitant to read too much into this, but it’s one of the clearest public indications yet that subsequent application rounds are not necessarily a fait accompli — the ICANN board could still decide force the community to go back to the drawing board if it decides the current recommendations are harmful or too expensive.

I don’t think that’s a likely outcome, but the thought that it was a possibility hadn’t seriously crossed my mind until quite recently.

Lentz also refers to “the work required to prepare for the next round and subsequent rounds”, which implies ICANN is still working on the assumption that the new gTLD program will go ahead.

The ICANN board has give Org 10 months and a $9 million budget, paid out of 2012-round application fee leftovers, to complete the ODP. The output will be an Operational Design Assessment, likely to be an enormous document, that the board will consider, probably in the first half of next year, before implementation begins.

Crain named ICANN CTO

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN veteran John Crain has been named the Org’s new chief technology officer.

He’s replacing David Conrad, who he’s been subbing in for since Conrad left at the end of September.

Crain has been with ICANN for 20 years and was most recently chief security, stability, and resiliency officer.

Battle for .web “far from over”, says Afilias lawyer

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2022, Domain Registries

Altanovo Domains’ fight with Verisign and ICANN for the .web gTLD is not over, despite an adverse ruling late last month, according to a top lawyer for the company.

Altanovo, the company previously known as Afilias Domains No 3, has not thrown in the towel and left the path clear for Verisign to launch .web, Arif Ali of the law firm Dechert told DI last night.

“Bottom line: this matter is far from over and no, Verisign doesn’t ‘get to run .web after all;’ certainly if the Board does its job objectively and fairly,” he said in an email.

He said this just hours before ICANN published its latest, but by no means final, board resolution on the .web case.

Ali represented Afilias in its Independent Review Process complaint against ICANN’s decision to award .web to Verisign following a 2016 auction, which was won by a company called Nu Dot Co, secretly backed by $135 million of Verisign’s money.

Afilias technically won its IRP, with the panel ruling last May that ICANN broke its bylaws by shirking its duty to address Afilias’ claim that NDC broke new gTLD program rules. Afilias said ICANN should have forced NDC to disclose itself a Verisign pawn before the auction went ahead.

ICANN got close to signing a registry agreement for .web with NDC, despite it being an open question as to whether the auction was legit, the panel ruled. It ordered ICANN to pay Afilias its $450,000 in legal fees and $479,458 of IRP costs.

What the IRP did not do was void the Verisign/NDC bid, nor give Afilias rights to .web.

Instead, it instructed ICANN to stay the .web contract-signing until its board has formally “considered and pronounced upon the question of whether the [Verisign-NDC Domain Acquisition Agreement] complied with the New gTLD Program Rules”.

The board had held a secret, undocumented discussion about the case in November 2016 and decided to keep its mouth shut and just let the IRP play out, according to the IRP ruling, which essentially told the board to stop avoiding difficult questions and to actually make a call on the legitimacy of the Verisign play.

Before the board could do so, Afilias/Altanovo filed an unprecedented appeal with the IRP panel. Technically an “application for an additional decision and interpretation”, Afilias asked the IRP panel to definitively answer the question of whether Verisign broke the rules rather than merely passing the hot potato back to ICANN’s board.

But in a December 21 decision (pdf), the IRP panel denied Afilias’ request as “frivolous” in its entirely, writing:

The Panel has dismissed the [Afilias] Application in its entirety. In the opinion of the Panel, under the guise of seeking an additional decision, the Application is seeking reconsideration of core elements of the Final Decision. Likewise, under the guise of seeking interpretation, the Application is requesting additional declarations and advisory opinions on a number of questions, some of which had not been discussed in the proceedings leading to the Final Decision.

In such circumstances, the Panel cannot escape the conclusion that the Application is “frivolous” in the sense of it “having no sound basis (as in fact or law)”. This finding suffices to entitle the Respondent [ICANN] to the cost shifting decision it is seeking and obviates the necessity of determining whether the Application is also “abusive”.

The panel told Afilias to pay ICANN’s $236,884 legal fees and the panel’s costs of $140,335, leaving Afilias out of pocket and back to square one in terms of getting clarity on whether Verisign’s actions were kosher.

Afilias had basically accused the panel of shirking its duties and punting its decision on Verisign’s auction bid in much the same way as the panel decided that ICANN had shirked its duties and punted its decision on Verisign’s auction bid.

Nobody seems to want to make a call on whether the successful Verisign-NDC ploy to win the .web auction with a secretly bankrolled bid was legit.

On Sunday, the full ICANN board met to discuss the outcome of the IRP and — surprise surprise — it punted again, instructing a subcommittee to look more closely at the matter:

the Board asks the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee (BAMC) to review, consider, and evaluate the IRP Panel’s Final Declaration and recommendation, and to provide the Board with its findings to consider and act upon before the organization takes any further action toward the processing of the .WEB application(s).

There’s not yet a publicly announced date for the next BAMC meeting. It tends to meet as and when needed, so we might not have too long to wait.

Once the committee has made a decision, it would be referred back to the full board for a final rubber stamp, and it seems that only after that would Afilias make its next move.

Ali, in an email sent to DI just a few hours before ICANN published its Sunday board resolution last night, said:

The [IRP] Panel also made it clear that the Board can’t just punt on the matter as it did previously, but must decide it, and that its decision is subject to review by a future IRP panel.

There’s nothing preventing Afilias filing another IRP to challenge the board’s ultimate decision, should it favor Verisign. Likewise, if it favors Afilias, Verisign could use IRP to appeal.

Verisign has been pursuing a counter-claim against Afilias, albeit so far only in the court of public opinion, accusing the company of breaking ICANN’s rules by trying to secretly “rig” the .web auction during a communications blackout period.

Ali calls this a “red herring”, among other things.

In my view, whichever way ICANN’s board goes, it’s going to wind up back in an IRP.

With IRP proceedings typically measured in years, and no indication that Afilias or Verisign are ready to back down, it seems the .web saga may still have some considerable time left on the clock.

If you’re desperate to register a .web domain, don’t hold your breath.

Note: most of Afilias was acquired by Donuts a year ago, but the .web application was not part of the deal. The IRP proceedings have continued to refer to “Afilias” interchangeably with “Altanovo”, and I’m doing the same in my coverage.

BMW porn site leads to registrar getting suspended

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2022, Domain Registrars

A Hong Kong registrar has had its ICANN contract suspended after failing to transfer a cybersquatted domain to car maker BMW.

ThreadAgent.com, which has about 32,000 .com and .net domains under management, attracted the attention of ICANN compliance after a customer lost a UDRP case concerning the domain bmwgroup-identity.net.

The domain led to a site filled with porn and gambling content, and the UDRP was a slam-dunk win for BMW.

But ThreadAgent failed to transfer the domain to BMW within the 10 days required by ICANN policy, leading to Compliance reviewing the registrar for other areas of non-compliance.

A December 22 breach notice led to the registrar transferring the domain to BMW last week, but it had failed to resolve the other issues ICANN had identified, leading to a suspension notice the very next day.

ICANN wants ThreadAgent to explain why the UDRP was not processed according to the policy, and how it will be compliant in futre. It also says the company is not operating a web Whois service as required.

ICANN has told the company it will not be able to sell gTLD domains or accept inbound transfers between January 28 and April 28, and must display a notice to that effect prominently on its web site.

That second requirement may prove complicated, as ThreadAgent appears to be one of about 20 registrar accreditations belonging to XZ.com, a Chinese group based in Xiamen. It has not used the domain threadagent.com in several years, and its other accreditations, which use the same storefront, are all still unsuspended.

ICANN trying to strangle SSAD in the crib?

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN is trying to kill off or severely cripple Whois reform because it thinks the project stands to be too expensive, too time-consuming, and not fit for purpose.

That’s what many long-time community members are inferring from recent discussions with ICANN management about the Standardized System for Access and Disclosure (SSAD), a proposed method of normalizing how people request access to private, redacted Whois data.

The community has been left trying to read the tea leaves following a December 20 briefing in which ICANN staff admitted they have failed to even approximately estimate how well-used SSAD, which has been criticized by potential users as pointless, might be.

During the briefing, staff gave a broad range of implementation times and cost estimates, saying SSAD could take up to four years and $27 million to build and over $100 million a year to operate, depending on adoption.

The SSAD idea was thrown together in, by ICANN standards, super-fast time with a super-tenuous degree of eventual consensus by a cross-community Expedited Policy Development Process working group.

One of the EPDP’s three former chairs, Kurt Pritz, a former senior ICANN staffer who’s been heavily involved in community work since his departure from the Org in 2012, provided his read of the December webinar on a GNSO Council discussion this week.

“I’ve sat through a number of cost justification or cost benefit analyses in my life and got a lot of reports, and I’ve never sat through one that more clearly said ‘Don’t do this’,” Pritz said.

GNSO liaison to the Governmental Advisory Committee Jeff Neuman concurred moments later: “It seemed that we could imply from the presentation that that staff was saying ‘Don’t do it’… we should require them to put that in writing.”

“It was pretty clear from the meeting that ICANN Org does not want to build the SSAD. Many people in the community think its estimates are absurdly inflated in order to justify that conclusion,” Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project recently wrote of the same webinar.

These assessments seem fair, to the extent that ICANN appears seriously averse to implementing SSAD as the recommendations are currently written.

ICANN repeated the December 20 cost-benefit analysis in a meeting with the GAC this week, during which CEO Göran Marby described the limitations of SSAD, and how it cannot override privacy laws such as the GDPR:

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature of GDPR to limit access to data…

The SSAD is a recommended system to streamline the process of requesting data access. It cannot itself increase access to the data, as this is actually determined by the law. And so, in practice, the SSAD is expected to have little to no impact on the contracted parties’ ultimate disclosure or nondisclosure response to requests… it’s a ticketing system with added functionality.

While Marby stressed he was not criticizing the EPDP working group, that’s still a pretty damning assessment of its output.

Marby went on to reiterate that even if SSAD came into existence, people wanting private Whois data could still request it directly from registries and registrars, entirely bypassing SSAD and its potentially expensive (estimated at up to $45) per-query fees.

It seems pretty clear that ICANN staff is not enthused about SSAD in its current form and there’s a strong possibility the board of directors will concur.

So what does the policy-making community do?

There seems to be an emerging general acceptance among members of the GNSO Council that the SSAD proposals are going to have to be modified in some way in order for them to be approved by the board.

The question is whether these modifications are made preemptively, or whether the GNSO waits for more concrete feedback from Org and board before breaking out the blue pen.

Today, all the GNSO has seen is a few PowerPoint pages outlining the top-line findings of ICANN’s Operational Design Assessment, which is not due to be published in full until the board sees it next month.

Some Council members believe they should at least wait until the full report is out, and for the board to put something on the record detailing its reservations about SSAD, before any changes are made.

The next update on SSAD is an open community session, likely to cover much of the same ground as the GAC and GNSO meetings, scheduled for 1500 UTC on January 18. Details here.

The GNSO Council is then scheduled to meet January 20 for its regular monthly meeting, during which next steps will be discussed. It will also meet with the ICANN board later in the month to discuss its concerns.

ICANN trying to water down its transparency obligations

Kevin Murphy, January 13, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN? Trying to be less transparent? Surely not!

The Org has been accused by some of its community members of trying to shirk its transparency obligations with proposed changes to its Documentary Information Disclosure Policy.

The changes would give ICANN “superpowers” to deny DIDP requests, and to deny them without explanation, according to inputs to a recently closed public comment period.

The DIDP is ICANN’s equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act, allowing community members to request documentation that would not be published during the normal course of business.

It’s often used, though certainly not exclusively so, by lawyers as a form of discovery before they escalate their beefs to ICANN accountability mechanisms or litigation.

It already contains broad carve-outs that enable ICANN to refuse disclosure if it considers the requested info too sensitive for the public’s eyes. These are the Defined Conditions for Nondisclosure, and they are used frequently enough that most DIDPs don’t reveal any new information.

The proposed new DIDP broadens these nondisclosure conditions further, to the extent that some commentators believe it would allow ICANN to deny basically any request for information. New text allows ICANN to refuse a request for:

Materials, including but not limited to, trade secrets, commercial and financial information, confidential business information, and internal policies and procedures, the disclosure of which could materially harm ICANN’s financial or business interests or the commercial interests of its stakeholders who have those interests.

The Registries Stakeholder Group noted that this is “broader” than the current DIDP, while the At-Large Advisory Committee said (pdf) it “essentially grants ICANN the right to refuse any and all requests”.

ALAC wrote that “rejecting a request because it includes commercial or financial information or documents an internal policy makes a mockery of this DIDP policy”.

Jeff Reberry of drop-catch registrar TurnCommerce concurred (pdf), accusing ICANN of trying to grant itself “superpowers” and stating:

Extremely generic terms such as “confidential business information” and “commercial information” were added. Frankly, this could mean anything and everything! Thus, ICANN has now inserted a catch-all provision allowing it to disclose nothing.

Other comments noted that the proposed changes dilute ICANN’s responsibility to explain itself when it refuses to release information.

Text requiring ICANN to “provide a written statement to the requestor identifying the reasons for the denial” has been deleted from the proposed new policy.

A collection of six lawyers, all prolific DIDP users, put their names to a comment (pdf) stating that “the change results in less transparency than the current DIDP”.

The lawyers point out that requests that are denied without explanation would likely lead to confusion and consequently increased use of ICANN’s accountability mechanisms, such as Requests for Reconsideration. They wrote:

Simply stated, the Revised Policy allows ICANN to obscure its decision-making and will ultimately cause disputes between ICANN and the Internet community — the complete opposite of the “accountable and transparent” and “open and transparent processes” required by ICANN’s Bylaws.

One change that didn’t get much attention in the public comments, but which certainly leapt out to me, concerns the turnaround time for DIDP responses.

Currently, the DIDP states that ICANN “will provide a response to the DIDP request within 30 calendar days from receipt of the request.”

In practice, ICANN treats this obligation like one might treat a tax return or a college essay — it almost provides its response exactly 30 days after it receives a request, at the last possible moment.

The revised DIDP gives ICANN the new ability to extend this deadline for another 30 days, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume, given past behavior, that ICANN will try to exploit this power whenever it’s advantageous to do so:

In the event that ICANN org cannot complete its response within that 30-calendar-day time frame, ICANN org will inform the requestor by email as to when a response will be provided, which shall not be longer than an additional 30 calendar days, and explain the reasons necessary for the extension of time to respond.

The predictably Orwellian irony of all of the above proposed changes is that they come in response to a community review called the Cross-Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability Work Stream 2 (WS2), which produced recommendations designed to enhance accountability and transparency.

Whether they are adopted as-is or further revised to address community concerns is up to the ICANN board of directors, which is of course advised by the staff lawyers who drafted the proposed revisions.

ICANN staff’s summary of the seven comments submitted during the public comment period is due next week.

A decade after the last new gTLD round, Marby starts the clock on the next one

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2022, Domain Policy

The next new gTLD application is moving a step closer this month, with ICANN chief Göran Marby promising the launch of its Operational Design Phase.

But it’s still unclear whether the ODP has officially started, and many community members are angry and frustrated that the process is taking too long, some 10 years after the last application window opened.

Marby published a blog post December 20 stating “the org has advised the Board that it is beginning the ODP”, but he linked to a December 17 letter (pdf) that told the board “the org is now transitioning to launch the ODP formally as of January”.

We’re well into January now, so does that mean the ODP has officially started? It’s not clear from what ICANN has published.

It seems either ICANN doesn’t yet want to pin down an exact date for the ODP being initiated, which starts the clock on its deadline for completion, or it’s just really bad at communications.

In September, the board gave Marby $9 million and 10 months for the ODP to come up with its final output, an Operational Design Assessment.

The project is being funded from the remaining application fees from the 2012 application round, rather than ICANN’s regular operations budget.

The text of the resolution gives the deadline as “within ten months from the date of initiation, provided that there are no unforeseen matters that could affect the timeline”.

Assuming the “date of initiation” is some point this month, the ODA would be therefore due to be delivered before the end of November this year, barring “unforeseen matters”.

The document would then be considered by the ICANN board, a process likely to be measured in a handful of months, rather than weeks or days, pushing a final decision on the next round out into the first quarter of 2023.

For avoidance of doubt, that’s the decision about whether or not to even have another new gTLD round.

As a reminder, the 2012 round Applicant Guidebook envisaged a second application round beginning about a year after the first.

Naturally, many would-be applicants are incredibly frustrated that this stuff is taking so long, none more so than the Brand Registry Group, which represents companies that want to apply for dot-brand gTLDs and the consultants that want to help them do so.

Overlapping with ICANN’s December 17 letter to the board, BRG president Karen Day wrote to ICANN (pdf) to complain about the lack of progress and the constant extensions of the runway, saying:

The constant delay and lack of commitment to commencing the next round of new gTLDs is unreasonable and disrespectful to the community that has worked diligently… these delays and lack of commitments to deliver the community’s work is an increasing pattern which risks disincentivizing the volunteer community and threatens the multistakeholder model

Day asked the board to provide more clarity about the ODP’s internal milestones and possible delaying factors, and called for future work to begin in parallel with the ODP in order to shorten the overall roadmap.

It’s worth noting that the ODP may wind up raising more questions than it answers, delaying the next round still further.

It’s only the second ODP ICANN has conducted. The first, related to Whois privacy reform, ended in December (after delays) with a report that essentially shat all over the community’s policy work, predicting that it would take several years and cost tens of millions of dollars to implement for potentially very little benefit.

The board is expected to receive that first ODP’s report in February and there’s no telling what conclusions it will reach.

While Marby has publicly indicated that he’s working on the assumption that there will be another new gTLD round, the ODP gives ICANN a deal of power to frustrate and delay that eventuality, if Org is so inclined.

Monte Cahn revealed as third new gTLD buyer

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2022, Domain Registries

Domain investor Monte Cahn has revealed himself as the third partner in the controversial acquisition of new gTLD .hiphop from UNR.

Cahn Enterprises named itself alongside already-reported consultant Jeff Neuman of JJN Solutions and publicly traded startup Digital Asset Monetary Network (DigitalAMN) as a partner in newly formed registry vehicle Dot Hip Hop LLC.

DHH bought .hiphop privately from Frank Schilling’s UNR last April at around the same time as UNR auctioned off the other 22 gTLDs in its portfolio, exiting the registry business.

Cahn founded the registrar Moniker, aftermarket pioneer SnapNames and gTLD auction coordinator RightOfTheDot.

RightOfTheDot’s Scott Pruitt has also joined DHH to lead marketing, Cahn’s press release revealed.

The new registry plans to lower the price of .hiphip domains, which currently retail for over $150 a year, as part of an effort to get broader adoption in the hip-hop cultural community.

The company is strongly pushing digital empowerment and “financial literacy” in an “underserved” community as a public benefit of its plans for the TLD.

The problem DHH continues to face is ICANN’s ongoing blocking of the transfer of .hiphop, and the other 22 UNR TLD contracts, due to confusion about the ownership status of matching TLDs on the Ethereum Name Service, a blockchain-based alt-root.

ICANN is fearful of alternative DNS roots which, if they ever gain broad appeal, in theory could break internet interoperability as well as eroding ICANN’s own uniquely powerful and uniquely lucrative authority over the DNS.

DHH’s Neuman recently accused ICANN of foot-dragging and retaliation over the delayed transfers, which is costing the DHH partners money while their legal status is in limbo and they are unable to sell any names.

ICANN’s top brass subsequently denied these accusations, saying the Org is merely following its established (and rather convoluted) appeals procedures.

While these procedures could delay approval of .hiphop’s transfer for another few months, forcing DHH to burn more capital, ICANN said it is “considering the potential impact on the requestor as we have been requested to do”, so it may cut DHH some slack.

Whois reform to take four years, cost up to $107 million A YEAR, and may still be pointless

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN’s proposed post-GDPR Whois system could cost over $100 million a year to run and take up to four years to build, but the Org still has no idea whether anyone will use it.

That appears to be the emerging conclusion of ICANN’s very first Operational Design Phase, which sought to translate community recommendations for a Standardized System for Access and Disclosure (SSAD) into a practical implementation plan.

SSAD is supposed to make it easier for people like trademark owners and law enforcement to request personal information from Whois records that is currently redacted due to privacy laws such as GDPR.

The ODP, which was originally meant to conclude in September but will now formally wrap up in February, has decided so far that SSAD will take “three to four years” to design and build, costing between $20 million and $27 million.

It’s calculated the annual running costs at between $14 million and $107 million, an eye-wateringly imprecise estimate arrived at because ICANN has pretty much no idea how many people will want to use SSAD, how much they’d be prepared to pay, and how many Whois requests they will likely make.

ICANN had previously guesstimated startup costs of $9 million and ongoing annual costs around the same level.

The new cost estimates are based on the number of users being anywhere between 25,000 and three million, with the number of annual queries coming in at between 100,000 and 12 million.

And ICANN admits that the actual demand “may be lower” than even the low-end estimate.

“We haven’t been able to figure out how big the demand is,” ICANN CEO Göran Marby told the GNSO Council during a conference call last month.

“Actual demand is unknowable until well after the launch of the SSAD,” an ICANN presentation (pdf) states. The Org contacted 11 research firms to try to get a better handle on likely demand, but most turned down the work for this reason.

On pricing, the ODP decided that it would cost a few hundred bucks for requestors to get accredited into the system, and then anywhere between $0.45 and $40 for every Whois request they make.

Again, the range is so laughably broad because the likely level of demand is unknown. A smaller number of requests would lead to a higher price and vice versa.

Even if there’s an initial flurry of SSAD activity, that could decline over time, the ODP concluded. In part that’s because registries and registrars would be under no obligation to turn over records, even if requestors are paying $40 a pop for their queries.

It’s also because SSAD would not be mandatory — requestors could still approach contracted parties directly for the info they want, for low or no cost, if they think the price of SSAD is too high or accreditation requirements too onerous.

“There’ll always be a free version of this for everybody,” Marby said on the conference call.

In short, it’s a hell of a lot of money for not much functionality. There’s a better than even chance it could be a huge waste of time and money.

An added complication is that the laws that SSAD is supposed to address, mainly GDPR, are likely to change while it’s being implemented. The European Union’s NIS2 Directive stands to move the goalposts on Whois privacy substantially, and not uniformly, in the not-too-distant future, for example.

This is profoundly embarrassing for ICANN as an organization. Created in the 1990s to operate at “internet speed”, it’s now so bloated, so twisted up it its own knickers, that it’s getting lapped by the lumbering EU legislative process.

The ODP is set to submit its final report to ICANN’s board of directors in February. The board could theoretically decide that it’s not in the interest of ICANN or the public to go ahead with it.

Marby, for his part, seems to be thinking that there could be some benefit from a centralized hub for submitting Whois requests, but that it should be simpler than the current “too complex” proposal, and funded by ICANN.

My take is that ICANN is reluctant to move ahead with SSAD as it’s currently proposed, but because top-down policy-making is frowned upon its hands are tied to make the changes it would like to see.

ICANN is blocking 23 gTLD transfers over blockchain fears

ICANN is objecting to the transfer of 23 new gTLDs from UNR to an unknown number of third parties, because it’s scared that the associated non-fungible tokens may break the internet and its own authority over it.

The mystery of how UNR’s auction in April of its entire new gTLD portfolio has so far not resulted in a single ICANN Registry Agreement changing hands appears to have been solved.

It’s because UNR bundled each contract sale with a matching top-level “domain name”, in the form of an NFT, on the Ethereum Name Service, an alt-root based on the Ethereum blockchain, and ICANN is worried about what this means for both the long-term interoperability of the DNS and its own ability to act as the internet’s TLD gatekeeper.

This all emerged in an emergency Request for Reconsideration filed by a company called Dot Hip Hop, which bought .hiphop from UNR earlier in the year.

It turns out .hiphop is the TLD alluded to by Digital Asset Monetary Network, which in October became the first to out itself as a UNR buyer while not naming its gTLD. The purchase was made separately from the April auction, despite .hiphop being “mistakenly” listed as one of the lots.

It also turns out that consultant Jeff Neuman, who’s been a leading figure in the ICANN community since its inception, was behind long-time employer Neustar’s application for .biz, and is a big fan of musical theater, is chief legal officer of and a partner in DHH.

In his reconsideration request, Neuman rages against the fact that it had been over 120 days at time of writing since DHH and UNR had applied to have the .hiphop contract reassigned, but that ICANN is continuing to drag its feet despite DHH long ago passing its due diligence review (which Neuman says cost an excessive $17,000).

DigitalAMN lists DHH as a subsidiary in its recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The company is publicly listed but essentially pre-revenue, making its ability to start selling domain names rather quickly rather important.

ICANN has repeatedly delayed approval of the reassignment, provided no visibility into when approval will come, and has repeatedly asked the same questions — largely related to the NFTs — with only slight rewording, Neuman says:

ICANN Org has already communicated to DHH that it has already met all of the criteria required under the Registry Agreement. Yet still, ICANN is withholding consent based on its mere curiosity about the former owner of the .hiphop, TLD (UNR Co), and based on the questions that ICANN keeps re-asking, has presumably conjured up non-issues that: (a) have already been addressed by DHH on multiple occasions over the past 123 days, (b) are beyond the scope of ICANN’s mission, and (c) are philosophical, fictional and frankly do not exist in this matter.

The ENS NFT is a “de minimus” component of the transaction that DHH didn’t even know about until after it had already decided to buy .hiphop, the request states, and ICANN has no authority over the blockchain so the existence of an NFT is not a valid reason to deny the reassignment.

I think I also detect a race card being played here. The RfR spends a bit of time talking about how ICANN’s foot-dragging is making the Org look bad to “traditionally underserved communities where the Hip Hop culture has thrived, globally”.

Apparently referring to DigitalAMN, the RfR states:

In addition to such partner being established at the birthplace of Hip Hop (Bronx New York), by its founder who shares the same birthdate as Hip Hop (August 11th), its mission is to provide financial literacy and economic opportunities for those communities and cultures that are traditionally under-represented, under-funded and under-valued.

DigitalAMN is majority-owned and led by Ajene Watson, who is black. One of company’s stated goals is to connect early stage companies with capital from non-traditional investors (not just the “privileged few”) using non-traditional means.

The RfR goes on to say:

The most dominantly underserved, under-funded and under-valued communities, are also those that embrace and are part of the Hip Hop culture. This Partner has embraced what seemed to be an opportunity to provide domain name registration services to a culture that knows nothing of ICANN, nor the domain name industry. Now, its first impression of the ICANN community is unnecessary delay, a lack of transparency, and bureaucratic indecision—just another gatekeeper to prevent equitable access. In their eyes, they consistently see deadlines that are never met (by ICANN), a lack of information as to why their launch is being held up, and an entity (ICANN) that takes weeks/months to act on anything with no end in sight. In their view, it would appear that ICANN, as an organization, cares nothing about serving the public interest, or about the impact of its actions (or in this case inactions) on the undervalued communities this Partner aims to support.

It should be noted that 22 other unrelated UNR gTLD reassignments are also in limbo, so it’s not like ICANN has a problem in particular with hip-hop music or those who enjoy it.

ICANN, in its response to the RfR, lays all the blame with UNR for, it says, refusing to provide “fulsome and complete” answers to its questions about the NFTs. In a December 10 letter to Neuman, ICANN VP Russ Weinstein wrote:

Significant questions remain, including regarding the role and rights conveyed to the proposed assignees related to the NFTs created on the ENS. For these reasons, ICANN must continue to object to and withhold its consent to all pending Assignments proposed by UNR, including yours.

The RfR was denied by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee on a technicality. DHH had filed an “emergency” request based on ICANN’s staff inaction, but emergency requests only apply to board action or inaction.

Neuman appears to have known this in advance. It appears DHH just wanted to get something in the public record about the state of play with UNR’s gTLDs.

ICANN seems to have two problems with the NFTs, and they’re both big, existential ones.

First, ENS is essentially an alt-root, and when you have competing roots there’s the risk of TLDs colliding — two or more registries claiming authority for the same TLD — breaking the global interoperability of the internet.

Second, but related, the existence of alt-roots threatens ICANN’s authority.

ICANN has no authority over ENS or the NFT names that live on it, so for a registry to run a TLD in the both the authoritative ICANN root and the alt-root of the ENS could cause problems down the road.

While NFTs can be “owned”, gTLDs are not. UNR is merely the party ICANN has contracted with to run .hiphop. While UNR and any subsequent assignees have a presumptive right of renewal, it’s possible for ICANN to terminate the contract and hand stewardship of the gTLD to another registry. It’s not merely a hypothetical scenario.

Should that ever happen with .hiphop, ICANN wouldn’t have the authority to seize the ENS NFT, meaning the old registry could carry on running .hiphop in the ENS while the new registry runs it in the ICANN root, again breaking global DNS interoperability.

You could spin it either way — either ICANN is worried about interoperability, or it’s worried about protecting its own power. These are not mutually exclusive, and are both probably true.

One thing’s the sure, however — in roadblocking these gTLD transfers, ICANN is playing into the hands of critics and blockchain fanboys who argue for decentralized control of naming, with ICANN as their bogeyman.