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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”.

New ICANN director named

Kevin Murphy, August 3, 2018, Domain Policy

A member of the root server community has been named to the ICANN board of directors.

The Nominating Committee yesterday revealed its three selections for the board, two of whom are already seated.

The new director is Tripti Sinha of the University of Maryland, where she heads the Advanced Cyber Infrastructure and Internet Global Services division, which manages the D-root server.

Sinha is currently co-chair of ICANN’s Root Server System Advisory Committee.

She will replace fellow North American George Sadowsky who, after joining the board in 2009 and being reselected twice, is term-limited and will be given his marching orders this October.

NomCom also reaffirmed current directors Lousewies van der Laan, a former Dutch politician, and Rafael “Lito” Ibarra, founder of the El Salvadorean ccTLD .sv.

New directors will take their seats at the conclusion of the ICANN 63 meeting in Barcelona in October.

NomCom’s other selections to various leadership positions at ICANN can be found here.

Fight over Whois access starts early

Kevin Murphy, August 3, 2018, Domain Policy

Starting as they mean to go on? The new ICANN working group on Whois this week saw early, if predictable, divisions on the issue of access to private data in a post-GDPR world.

The so-called Whois EPDP (for Expedited Policy Development Process) held its first teleconference on Wednesday and while not really getting around to the nitty-gritty of policy managed to quickly start squabbling about its schedule and rules of engagement.

It’s already not looking promising that blanket cross-community consensus is going to be reached in the time permitted.

The group is tasked with turning the current Temporary Specification for Whois, which was created by the ICANN board of directors, into a formal consensus policy that in principle has the support of the whole community.

Group chair Kurt Pritz laid out three targets for the group.

First up is a “triage” document, which will basically see the community decide, line by line, what it likes and does not like about the Temp Spec.

In theory, the EPDP could just rubber-stamp the whole shebang and be done with it, but that’s highly unlikely.

Second is an Initial Report, which will include the agreements reached in the triage document and the agreements reached in subsequent discussions.

That’s due in October at ICANN’s meeting in Barcelona, which is ambitious but not necessarily impossible.

The Temp Spec was written with guidance from lawyers and European data protection authorities, so there’s a limit to how far the EPDP can stray, in my view.

Thirdly, and most controversially, is an “Initial Report outlining a proposed model of a system for providing accredited access to non-public Registration Data.”

This is the proposed standardized system that will allow security and intellectual property interests, and possibly others, to see unredacted Whois data like we all could just a few months ago.

Many stakeholder groups are in favor of such a system, but the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group are decidedly not.

The NCSG, given voice principally by academic Milton Mueller, objected to the Pritz/ICANN plan to start soliciting comments on access from the EPDP group later this month, before the group has come to consensus on the so-called “gating questions”.

The gating questions are rather less thorny issues such as whether the purposes registrars collect personal data as mandated by the Temp Spec are in fact legitimate under the GDPR and what data should be transferred from registrars to their registries.

Mueller said that the gating issues represent a “crisis situation” — the EPDP group has just a few months to come to consensus on which parts of the Temp Spec it agrees with — and that discussions about access can be safely pushed back until later.

Perhaps predicting an impasse in future, he also warned Pritz not to over-sell the level of consensus the group reaches if there are still dissenting voices at the end of the process.

Mueller yesterday told the group that NCSG — there are six members on the EPDP team — will refuse to engage on the access issue until consensus had been found on the gating issues.

But NCSG faced push-back from pro-access groups including the Business Constituency, Governmental Advisory Committee and At-Large Advisory Committee.

Alan Greenberg of the ALAC said access talks are “really important” and intertwined with the gating questions. Groups may change their positions on one set of questions based on the discussions of the other, he said.

As it stands today, the group has been asked to fill out four sets of questionnaires, polling their support for various parts of the Temp Spec, over the next few weeks.

The controversial fourth questionnaire covers the access model, but ICANN staff facilitating the group have assured the NCSG these responses will be essentially sat on until the working group is ready to address them.

The group is planning twice-weekly teleconferences in its effort to get its first and second deliverables ready in time for Barcelona.

These 33 people will decide the future of Whois

Kevin Murphy, July 31, 2018, Domain Policy

The names of the people who will decide the future of global gTLD Whois policy have been revealed.

Twenty-nine of 33 open seats of the GNSO’s Expedited Policy Development Process on the Temporary Specification for gTLD Registration Data are now filled and their occupants known.

The EPDP group is tasked with, in just a few short months, coming up with a permanent replacement for ICANN’s Temporary Specification for Whois in a post-GDPR world.

While 33 might seem like a lot of people, it’s a far cry from the over 100 involved in previous Whois working groups, kept deliberately small in order to meet the EPDP’s aggressive deadlines.

As you might expect, there are some members that we can safely rely on to fight for an interpretation of GDPR weighted heavily towards privacy rights, balanced against many others who will certainly fight for “legitimate purposes” data access rights for law enforcement, security and intellectual property interests.

The makeup of the group is heavily North American, with hardly any representation from Asia or Latin America.

By my count, there are 17 members from North America, seven people based in Europe (one of whom represents the Iranian government), two Africans, and one body each from Australia, Japan, and Argentina.

Contrary to the EPDP charter, and DI’s previous coverage, there are no members of the ccNSO on the group. It also appears as if the two seats reserved for root server operators will go unfilled.

As previously reported, the group is being chaired by Kurt Pritz, who works for the .art registry operator but is best known as a former ICANN senior VP.

These are the other members, grouped by their respective factions.

Registries Stakeholder Group

Alan Woods. He’s Donuts’ senior policy and compliance manager and has been since 2014. Donuts is of course the registry with the largest portfolio of commercial, open gTLDs, running about 300 of them.

Marc Anderson. Verisign’s product manager in charge of systems including SRS and Whois. Whatever policy is ultimately handed down, he’ll be in charge of implementing it at .com and .net, among other TLDs. As the only major example of a “thin” gTLD registry operator, Verisign handles a lot less personal data than any other gTLD registry.

Kristina Rosette. She’s a lawyer with a background in IP, working for Amazon, which holds a portfolio of gTLDs most of which remain unlaunched. An example of the GNSO’s ongoing game of musical chairs, she used to be a leading voice in the Intellectual Property Constituency.

Registrars Stakeholder Group

James Bladel. Vice president of global policy at GoDaddy, which in its implementation of GDPR has erred towards publishing more data, not less. As the largest registrar, GoDaddy is a rare example of a registrar with the resources to make its implementation more granular, allowing it to differentiate between EU and non-EU customers and continue to have a value proposition for its paid-for privacy services.

Matt Serlin. Formerly with brand protection registrar MarkMonitor, he’s the founder of startup rival BrandSight. It probably goes without saying that the brand protection side of the RrSG does not necessarily have the same interests as retail registrars. GDPR does not affect big trademark-holding corporations in terms of their own Whois records (GDPR only applies to “natural persons”), but it does affect their ability to go after cybersquatters.

Emily Taylor. As well as a policy consultant and a former Nominet bigwig, she’s a director of the small UK registrar Netistrar but says “my business interests also cover intellectual property / brand protection, and non-commercial interests such as freedom of expression, privacy and human rights”. She chaired an earlier Whois Review Team, which published a report in 2012 that was ultimately basically ignored by ICANN

Intellectual Property Constituency

Alex Deacon. While recently independent, he still represents the Motion Picture Association of America, one of the biggest copyright interests out there and until April his direct employer.

Diane Plaut. Seemingly a relative newcomer to ICANN, she’s “Global General Counsel and Data Protection and Privacy Officer” for a company called Corsearch, which provides database services for trademark owners. In an April blog post, she wrote that it is “essential” that trademark owners should continue to have access to private Whois data.

Business Constituency

Margie Milam. Head of domain strategy at Facebook, which is currently lobbying ICANN to start forcing registrars to reveal private data to trademark interests, as we reported last week.

Mark Svancarek. Newly installed as “Principal Program Manager – Tech Policy / Internet Governance” at Microsoft, which has said that it thinks privacy is a “fundamental human right”. Make no mistake, however, Microsoft reckons Whois data should carry on being made available to those investigating cybercrime or intellectual property infringement, as it outlined in a recent letter to ICANN (pdf).

Internet Service and Connection Providers Constituency

Esteban Lescano. Partner at the Argentinian law firm Lescano & Etcheverry, which counts online trademark protection as one of many areas of specialization, he’s also director of the policy and legal affairs committee at trade group CABASE, the Argentine Internet Association.

Thomas Rickert. Lawyer Rickert is head of domains at German trade group eco, but perhaps more significantly his law firm is representing Tucows subsidiary EPAG in its lawsuit with ICANN, in which ICANN accuses EPAG of breaching its contract by threatening to stop collecting certain Whois data elements. He’s very much on the pro-privacy side of the debate.

Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group

Stephanie Perrin. President of her own company, Digital Discretion, she consults on privacy issues. Unambiguously on the pro-privacy side of the house.

Ayden Ferdeline. A Germany-based independent consultant, Ferdeline is, like Perrin, firmly pro-privacy.

Milton Mueller. An ICANN veteran, Mueller is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of the Internet Governance Project. About as pro-privacy as it gets.

Johan “Julf” Helsingius. Chairman of BaseN, an “internet of things” services provider, Helsingus has form when it comes to privacy protection. His Wikipedia entry is dominated by his pro-privacy activities, including a 1996 fight against the Church of Scientology, which wanted him to reveal the identities of his customers.

Amr Elsadr. Egyptian consultant Elsadr also has a track record of talking up privacy rights at ICANN.

Farzaneh Badiei. Executive director at the Internet Governance Project and researcher at Georgia Tech, Badiei, alongside colleagues Mueller and Ferdeline, has been regularly vocal about the need for privacy in Whois.

Governmental Advisory Committee

Georgios Tselentis. As the representative of the European Commission, one might reasonably expect Tselentis to be rather pro-GDPR.

Ashley Heineman. She represents the US on the GAC. The US is very strongly of the belief that Whois access should be reinstated for intellectual property and security interests.

Kavouss Arasteh. Iran’s GAC rep, we could be looking at the WG’s deadline wild card here. I’ve no idea what Iran’s position is on GDPR, but there are few topics at ICANN upon which Arasteh has not spoken strongly, and at length.

At-Large Advisory Committee

Alan Greenberg. He chairs the ALAC, which is in favor of a well-regulated accreditation program that allows law enforcement and IP interests to access Whois.

Hadia Elminiawi. Elminiawi works at the National Telecom Regulatory Authority of Egypt. She did not vote on the ALAC position paper on Whois/GDPR.

Security and Stability Advisory Committee

Benedict Addis. Formerly in UK law enforcement, Addis chairs the Registrar of Last Resort, a non-profit registrar that quarantines abusive domain names.

Ben Butler. Director of global policy at GoDaddy, focused on abuse, I wouldn’t expect his position to differ wildly from that of colleague Bladel.

Root Server System Advisory Committee

While two seats have been reserved for the RSSAC, the committee has not yet put any bodies forward to occupy them, presumably because the root server operators don’t collect personal data from registrants and don’t really have a horse in this race.

Liaisons

The ICANN board of directors has two liaisons on the WG — Chris Disspain and Leon Felipe Sanchez. The GNSO Council liaison is Rafik Dammak. There are expected to be two ICANN staff liaisons, but they have not yet been named.

The EPDP mailing list opened up yesterday and will hold its first teleconference tomorrow.

Wix.com obtains ICANN accreditation — bad news for Web.com?

Web site building tools provider Wix.com has got itself an ICANN accreditation, potentially bad news for current partner Web.com.

The Nasdaq-listed, Israel-based company popped up on the official registrar list in the last day or so with the IANA ID 3817.

That means it could before long start selling gTLD domains directly from the registries rather than going through its current business partner.

According to its domain services agreement and other online sources, Wix currently acts as a reseller for Network Solutions, a Web.com company.

Its retail prices are therefore, as you might expect, rather above the market average, pretty much in line with NetSol’s.

If it does choose to go solo, it could potentially pass on savings to its customers, or just pocket higher margins on domain sales.

While Wix says it has 110 million users, obviously it has sold nowhere near that number of domains.

Its relationship with NetSol is not lucrative enough for Web.com to count the relationship as a risk factor in its Securities and Exchange Commission filings, though Wix is listed as one of just a small handful of competitors.

If Web.com should lose Wix as a reseller, we won’t get to find out what impact that had on revenue; Web.com’s going private in a $2 billion deal.

Disclosure: I’ve had to listen to or skip through repetitive Wix ads on YouTube a dozen times a day for what seems like years, so I’m not naturally predisposed to like this company. Same goes for Grammarly. Grrrr!