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NTIA alarmed as Verisign hints that it will not delegate new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, August 5, 2013, Domain Tech

Verisign has escalated its war against competition by telling its government masters that it is not ready to add new gTLDs to the DNS root, raising eyebrows at NTIA.

The company told the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration in late May that the lack of uniform monitoring across the 13 root servers means it would put internet security and stability at risk to start delegating new gTLDs now.

In response, the NTIA told Verisign that its recent position on DNS security is “troubling”. It demanded confirmation that Verisign is not planning to block new gTLDs from being delegated.

The letters (pdf and pdf) were published by ICANN over the weekend, over two months after the first was sent.

Verisign senior VP Pat Kane wrote in the May letter:

we strongly believe certain issues have not been addressed and must be addressed before any root zone managers, including Verisign, are ready to implement the new gTLD Program.

We want to be clearly on record as reporting out this critical information to NTIA unequivocally as we believe a complete assessment of the critical issues remain unaddressed which left unremediated could jeopardize the security and stability of the DNS.

we strongly recommend that the previous advice related to this topic be implemented and the capability for root server system monitoring, instrumentation, and management capabilities be developed and operationalized prior to beginning delegations.

Kane’s concerns were first outlined by Verisign in its March 2013 open letter to ICANN, which also expressed serious worries about issues such as internal name collisions.

Verisign is so far the only root server operator to publicly express concerns about the lacking of coordinated monitoring, and many people believe that the company is simply desperately trying to delay competition for its $800 million .com business for as long as possible.

These people note that in early November 2012, Verisign signed a joint letter with ICANN and NTIA that said:

the Root Zone Partners are able to process at least 100 new TLDs per week and will commit the necessary resources to meet all root zone management volume increases associated with the new gTLD program

That letter was signed before NTIA stripped Verisign of its right to increase .com prices every year, depriving it of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of additional revenue.

Some say that Verisign is raising spurious security concerns now purely because it’s worried about its bottom line.

NTIA is beginning to sound like one of these critics. In its response to the May 30 letter, sent by NTIA and published by ICANN on Saturday, deputy associate administrator Vernita Harris wrote:

NTIA and VeriSign have historically had a strong working relationship, but inconsistencies in VeriSign’s position in recent months are troubling… NTIA fully expects VeriSign to process change requests when it receives an authorization to delegate a new gTLD. So that there will be no doubt on this point, please provide me a written confirmation no later than August 16, 2013 that VeriSign will process change requests for the new gTLD program when authorized to delegate a new gTLD.

Harris said that a system is already in place that would allow the emergency rollback of the root zone, basically ‘un-delegating’ any gTLD that proves to cause a security or stability problem.

This would be “sufficient for the delegation of new gTLDs”, she wrote.

Could Verisign block new gTLDs?

It’s worth a reminder at this point that ICANN’s power over the DNS root is something of a facade.

Verisign, as operator of the master A root server, holds the technical keys to the kingdom. Under its NTIA contract, it only processes changes to the root — such as adding a TLD — when NTIA tells it to.

NTIA in practice merely passes on the recommendations of IANA, the department within ICANN that has the power to ask for changes to the root zone, also under contract with NTIA.

Verisign or NTIA in theory could refuse to delegate new gTLDs — recall that when .xxx was heading to the root the European Union asked NTIA to delay the delegation.

In practice, it seems unlikely that either party would stand in the way of new gTLDs at the root, but the Verisign rhetoric in recent months suggests that it is in no mood to play nicely.

To refuse to delegate gTLDs out of commercial best interests would be seen as irresponsible, however, and would likely put its role as custodian of the root at risk.

That said, if Verisign turns out to be the lone voice of sanity when it comes to DNS security, it is ICANN and NTIA that will ultimately look like they’re the irresponsible parties.

What’s next?

Verisign now has until August 16 to confirm that it will not make trouble. I expect it to do so under protest.

According to the NTIA, ICANN’s Root Server Stability Advisory Committee is currently working on two documents — RSSAC001 and RSSAC002 — that will outline “the parameters of the basis of an early warning system” that will address Verisign’s concerns about root server management.

These documents are likely to be published within weeks, according to the NTIA letter.

Meanwhile, we’re also waiting for the publication of Interisle Consulting’s independent report into the internal name collision issue, which is expected to recommend that gTLDs such as .corp and .home are put on hold. I’m expecting this to be published any day now.

Clean sweep for gTLD applicants as 91 pass

Kevin Murphy, August 2, 2013, Domain Registries

Ninety-one new gTLD applications passed Initial Evaluation this week, as ICANN enters the final month of results.

There were no failures to report. The following strings, with links to the relevant applicant on DI PRO, achieved passing scores:

.staples .gmo .hot .organic .degree .quebec .ricoh .guardian .hiphop .llp .ram .ieee .kpmg .obi .game .style .blackfriday .vlaanderen .tennis .baseball .afl .android .restaurant .sca .llc .rich .porn .gay .data .ink .nec .mzansimagic .moto .map .gap .zero .aarp .football .loans .schwarz .flsmidth .box .cloud .expert .stream .store .tunes .shopping .gmx .scot .tmall .dentist .live .app .tools .hair .ggee .bing .loans .video .golf .free .exposed .world .kerrylogisitics .llc .broker .coupons .eco .news .video .store .flights .comsec .inc .app .tours .abarth .edeka .locker .star .events .page .rent .financialaid .family .services .studio .honda .buy .click

There are now 1,377, passing applications and just 14 that are headed to Extended Evaluation.

With just 438 remaining in IE, ICANN remains on track to clean up the bulk of the process by the end of August as promised.

I expect there will be stragglers that do not receive their results until after the initial timeline is over, however, due to delays answering clarifying questions and such.

That’s all folks, no more LRO news

Kevin Murphy, August 2, 2013, Domain Policy

The results of Legal Rights Objections against new gTLD applications are no longer news.

That’s the decision handed down by the editor here at DI’s Global World International Headquarters today.

“Hey, Keith,” she barked from her ermine-carpeted corner office. “This LRO stuff is getting a bit old, don’t you think?”

“My name’s Kevin,” I said.

“Whatever,” she said. “LRO is now dog-bites-man. I decree it thus. No more of it, understand? Write more about Go Daddy girls.”

She has a point (she’s a great editor and I love her dearly).

The Legal Rights Objection has, I think, said pretty much everything it’s going to say in this new gTLD application round. I’m feeling pretty confident we can predict that all outstanding LROs will fail.

This prediction is based largely on the fact that the 69 LROs filed in this round all pretty much fall into three categories.

  • Front-running. These are the cases where the objector is an applicant that secured a trademark on its chosen gTLD string, usually with the dot, just in order to game the LRO process. These have all been rejected so far. I thought Constantine Roussos’ .music objection was the only one with a sliver of a chance; now that it’s been rejected I think the chances of any outstanding objections of this type prevailing are zero.
  • Brand v Brand. The objector may or may not be an applicant too, but both it and the respondent both own legit trademarks on the string in question. WIPO’s LRO panelists have made it clear, most recently yesterday in Merck v Merck (pdf) and Merck v Merck (pdf), that having a famous brand does not give you the right to block somebody else from owning a matching famous brand as a gTLD.
  • Generic trademarks. Cases where an owner of a legit brand that matches a dictionary word files an objection against an applicant for the same string that proposes to use it in its generic sense. See Express v Donuts, for example. Panelists have found that unless there’s some nefarious intent by the applicant, the mandatory second-level rights protection mechanisms new gTLD registries must abide by are sufficient to protect trademark rights. As I don’t believe any applicants have a nefarious intent, I don’t believe any of these LROs will succeed.

In short, the LRO may be one of many deterrents to top-level cybersquatting, but has proven itself an essentially useless cash sink if you want to prevent the use of a trademark at the top level.

The impact of this, I believe, will be to give new gTLD consultants another excellent reason to push defensive gTLD applications on big brands in future new gTLD rounds.

Whether it will inspire unsavory types to apply for generic terms in future, in order to extort money from matching brands, will depend to a large extent on whether applicants in this round wind up making lucrative deals with the brands they’re competing against.

In any event, it seems certain that the LRO-to-application ratio will be far lower in future rounds.

DI will of course continue to peruse each new LRO as it is published and will report on any genuinely interesting developments, but we will not cover each decision as a matter of course.

Decisions are published by WIPO daily here and email notifications are sent along with WIPO’s daily UDRP newsletter.

Information about Go Daddy girls can, from now on, be found here.

ICANN to crack down on UDRP “cyberflight”

Kevin Murphy, August 2, 2013, Domain Registrars

ICANN has moved closer to cracking down on cybersquatters who try to flip their domains when they discover they’ve been hit with a UDRP complaint.

Under recommendations approved by the GNSO Council yesterday, registrars would be bound by a much stricter set of UDRP-related domain locking rules in future.

So-called “cyberflight” — where squatters transfer their domains to a new registrar or registrants — appears to be a relatively infrequent problem, but when it does happen it causes big headaches for UDRP providers and trademark owners.

A survey of UDRP providers carried out as part of the GNSO’s policy development process discovered that the vast majority of registrars already lock domains hit by UDRP.

The problem is, they said, that locking practices are not uniform. Some registrars take well over a week to lock domains, and what the “lock” entails differs by registrar.

The recommendations of the GNSO’s Final Report on the Locking of a Domain Name Subject to UDRP Proceedings Policy Development Process, adopted by the Council yesterday, seek to standardize the process.

After being told about a complaint against one of its domains, the registrar in future would have a maximum of two business days to put a lock — preventing any changes in registrant or registrar — in place.

The lock would remain until the UDRP was resolved, but there would be various safeguards in place to enable complainants and respondents to settle their differences outside of the UDRP.

The lock would not prevent registrars or proxy/privacy services revealing the true identity of the registrant — that wouldn’t count as a change of registrant.

To prevent registrants abusing the two-day window to sell their domains or switch registrars, they would not be told about the existence of the UDRP until the domain had been locked.

The UDRP rules currently require the complainant to send a copy of their complaint to the domain owner at the same time it is filed with the UDRP provider.

But the GNSO has now recommended getting rid of this rule, stating: “as a best practice, complainants need not inform respondents that a complaint has been filed to avoid cyberflight.”

The registrant would be informed later by the UDRP provider instead.

Registrars would be prohibited from tipping off the registrant until the lock was in place.

The July 2013 recommendations (pdf) came out of a working group that was formed in April 2012, in response to policy ideas floated in 2011.

The GNSO’s resolution calls for ICANN staff to work with members of the working group on an implementation plan, which would eventually be put to the ICANN board for approval.

Once through the board, the new policy would become binding on all ICANN-accredited registrars.

New gTLD revenue projections revealed in leaked Famous Four presentation

Kevin Murphy, August 1, 2013, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media expects to make an average of almost $30 million revenue in year one from each of the new gTLDs it secures.

That’s according to a PowerPoint presentation (pdf), written for potential investors, that was provided by an anonymous source (I suspect not a fan of the company) to DI this week.

According to the presentation, “potential year 1 revenues for an average Registry” could amount to $28.4 million, the vast majority of which would come from sunrise, landrush and premium domain sales.

The presentation, dated June 2013, was prepared by Domain Venture Partners, the immediate parent of the 60 shell companies that Famous Four is using to apply for its 60 gTLDs.

The company was unable to provide an executive to discuss this story until August 14.

But according to the PowerPoint, the Domain Venture Partners II fund is an investment vehicle set up to “bridge the gap” in Famous Four’s funding requirements:

Domain Venture Partners II shall provide a unique structured regulated investment opportunity to participate in the new gTLD programme to provide secured fixed annual returns along with additional venture type returns at a time in the process where most of the major risks have been removed.

DVP is looking to raise up to $400 million, having raised £48.3 million ($73.2 million) in 2011 via the Domain Venture Partners I fund, it says. The current round opened in March and is expected to close in November.

Famous Four has applied for 60 gTLDs — mostly highly sought-after strings such as .poker, .music, .shop, .search and .buy — 10 of which were initially uncontested.

According to the presentation, landrush period auctions would account for about a third of year-one revenue in each gTLD: $9.7 million. That’s based on selling 45,697 domains for an average price of $213.34.

Revenue from trademark owners is the second-largest chunk. An average sunrise period could raise $6.9 million, assuming 39,679 domains at an average of $173.5 each, according to the PowerPoint.

Sales of regular domains during the first first year of general availability could raise $4.1 million, based on 225,759 registrations at $18.47 apiece, the presentation says.

Here’s the full slide, one of 33 in the deck:

Domain Venture Partners II presentation

The presentation says that the projections are “based on historical data points established by the existing operational gTLD Registries”, adding:

The figures are averages and therefore would represent projections for a standard gTLD Registry. Potential year 1 revenues for specific Registries may be below or above this average.

Some of the numbers strike me as optimistic. While the likes of .asia and .mobi may have seen these registration volumes due to the novelty and scarcity of new gTLD namespaces, my feeling is that those days are over.

The new gTLD program is likely to see scores of overlapping sunrise and landrush periods; it’s difficult to see registries benefiting from the same focus and excitement as their predecessors.

There’s a limited amount of domainer capital to spread around landrush sales and trademark owners are likely to be much more selective about where they defensively register their brands in a world of 1,300 gTLDs.

That said, Famous Four has applied for some of the nicest strings in the round so I may be wrong.

An appendix to the presentation discussing the first DVP funding round says that while Famous Four hopes to sign contracts for 30 new gTLDs, it has only secured 32% of the money it is looking for.

Securing investment appears to have been tough due in part to the complexity of the ICANN process and investors’ lack of familiarity with it, which looks like risk. It also says:

The costs associated with applications in the new gTLD have increased, the financial strength of most applicants has been reduced and the knowledge barrier to entry is too high to interest large standard venture investors.

Famous Four’s business model is based around consolidation and keeping costs down, according to the pitch. For the most part, this is due to the economies of scale of running a large number of TLDs.

With Neustar as its back-end provider, Famous Four says it has found the “lowest fees in the industry”.

But the model also involves keeping tax to a minimum. Famous Four is based in Gibraltar, where it says it will pay no tax on domain sales:

FFM is operating in a fiscal environment that has multiple advantages over others in the industry. Domain names sales are treated as royalty income which is currently zero rated in Gibraltar. This would result in an instant bottom line gain.

There’s a strong suggestion in the presentation that DVPII is not limiting its ambitions to the new gTLDs it has applied for.

It also seems to discuss acquiring other applicants and ccTLD rights, then bringing them into the Famous Four fold, but the plan was not completely clear to me and executives were unavailable for clarification.