Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

Non-coms want .org’s future carved in stone

Kevin Murphy, December 12, 2019, Domain Registries

ICANN’s non-commercial stakeholders have “demanded” changes to Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, to protect registrants for the next couple of decades.

The NCSG sent a letter to ICANN chair Maarten Botterman this week which stopped short of demanding, as others have, that ICANN reverse its decision to unfetter PIR from the 10%-a-year cap on prices increases it has previously been subject to.

Instead, it asks ICANN to strengthen the already existing notification obligations PIR has when it increases prices.

Today, if PIR wants to up its fee it has to give its registrars six months notice, and registrants are allowed to lock in the current pricing by renewing for up to 10 years.

NCSG wants to ensure registrants get the same kind of advance notification, either from PIR or its registrars, and for the lock-in period doubled to 20 years.

The group is concerned that, now that PIR seems set to become a for-profit venture following its $1.135 billion acquisition by Ethos Capital, there’s a risk the registry may attempt to exploit the registrants of its over 10 million .org domains.

I think it unlikely that ICANN, should it pay any attention at all to the letter, will agree to the 20-year renewal ask, given that the contract only runs for 10 years and that gTLD registries are forbidden from selling domains for periods of longer than a decade.

It would require adjustments with other parts of the contract, such as transaction reporting requirements, and would probably need some industry-wide tinkering with the EPP registry protocols too.

In some respects, the stance on pricing could be seen as a softening of NCSG’s previous position.

In April, it said that price caps should remain, but that they should be increased from the 10% a year level. If that view remains, the letter does not restate it.

The NCSG also wants the oft-criticized Uniform Rapid Suspension policy removed from the .org contract, on the basis that it was only ever supposed to be applied to gTLDs applied for in the 2012 round and not legacy gTLDs.

URS has been incorporated in all but one of the legacy gTLD contracts that have been renewed since 2012.

Finally, NCSG asks that ICANN essentially write the US First Amendment into the .org agreement, writing that it wants:

A strong commitment that the administration of the ORG domain will remain content-neutral; that is, the registry will not suspend or take away domains based on their publication of political, cultural, social, ethnic, religious, and personal content, even untrue, offensive, indecent, or unethical material, like that protected under the U.S. First Amendment.

The fear that a .org in commercial hands will be more susceptible to censorship pressures is something that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has also recently raised.

The basis for the NCSG’s demands are rooted in the original redelegation of .org from Verisign to PIR in early 2003, which came after a competitive bidding process that saw PIR beat 10 rival applicants, partly on the basis of its commitment to non-profit registrants.

You may recall I did a deep-dive into .org’s history last week that covered what was said by whom during that process.

NCSG writes:

The ORG situation is unique because of its origins in a competitive RFP that was specifically earmarked for noncommercial registrants. How ICANN handles this case, however, will have enormous precedential consequences for the stability of the DNS and ICANN’s own reputation and status. Changes in ownership are likely to be increasingly common going forward. Domain name users want stability and predictability in their basic infrastructure, which means that the obligations, service commitments and pricing cannot be adjusted dramatically as ownership changes.

NCSG’s letter has not yet been published by ICANN, but the Internet Governance Project’s Milton Mueller has copied its text in a blog post here.

Kamel’s deputy gets promoted at ICANN

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN has promoted Mandy (Kathryn) Carver to the position of senior VP for governmental and intergovernmental engagement, replacing her late boss, Tarek Kamel.

Carver has been with ICANN for 13 years and reported to Kamel, as a plain VP, for the last six. She’ll now report directly to the CEO.

She’s a human rights and health lawyer, with previous experience at several non-profit entities.

Kamel died in October at 57 after a long battle with poor health.

ICANN delays approval of .org acquisition

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2019, Domain Registries

Ethos Capital is going to have to wait a little longer for ICANN to sign off its acquisition of .org operator Public Interest Registry.

ICANN said today that it has asked PIR and the Internet Society, which currently owns the registry, for additional information about the proposed $1.13 billion deal.

This has the effect of delaying ICANN’s approval of the deal by up to 30 days, which could be extended by another 30 days if there’s another round of questioning.

Under PIR’s contract, ICANN gets to approve or reject any requests for transfer of control of gTLD registries. I’m not aware of any that have been rejected in the past, though hundreds have been approved.

ICANN’s CEO and chair jointly penned a blog post today, writing:

We have asked PIR to provide information related to the continuity of the operations of the .ORG registry, the nature of the proposed transaction, how the proposed new ownership structure would continue to adhere to the terms of our current agreement with PIR, and how they intend to act consistently with their promises to serve the .ORG community with more than 10 million domain name registrations.

This is perhaps an uncharacteristically assertive stance from the organization, which has so far not been seen as particularly responsive to the legions of critics that have appeared since the .org contract came up for public comment earlier this year.

The exact questions asked have not been published, and the responses may also remain sealed, due to a convention that such matters are handled privately.

PIR has already rejected ICANN’s request to publish its request for approval of the change of control.

But ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey who wrote to PIR and ISOC (pdf) yesterday to say that it is “critical” and “imperative” that PIR give permission for the correspondence to be published.

Jeffrey sneaked in a ‘gotcha’ by alluding to last week’s NTEN web conference, in which ISOC CEO Andrew Sullivan made noises about improving transparency.

The main concern with the deal is of course the fact that .org will once again become a commercial operation, having for 17 years been a non-profit that funneled hundreds of millions of .org dollars into ISOC’s coffers.

Coupled with PIR’s newfound contractual ability to raise prices indiscriminately, this has not sat well with many of the non-profits that call .org their home.

Promises from PIR and Ethos that price increases will be in line with the historical 10%-a-year cap have been met with some skepticism, and there have been calls for more transparency about Ethos’ plans.

AlpNames died months ago. Why is it still the “most-abused” registrar?

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2019, Domain Registrars

Despite going out of business, being terminated by ICANN, and losing all its domains several months ago, defunct AlpNames is still being listed as the world’s most-abused registrar by a leading spam-fighting organization.

SpamHaus currently ranks the Gibraltar-based company as #1 on its list of the “The 10 Most Abused Domain Registrars”, saying 98.7% of its domains are being used to send spam.

But AlpNames customers and regular DI readers will recall that AlpNames mysteriously went titsup in March, then got terminated by ICANN, then had its entire customer base migrated over to CentralNic in April.

So what’s this about?

SpamHaus

I asked SpamHaus earlier this week, and it turns out that Whois query throttling is to blame.

It seems SpamHaus only pings Whois to update the registrar associated with a specific domain when the domain expires, or the name servers change, or where it’s a new registration with an unknown registrar.

I gather that when CentralNic took over AlpNames’ customer base, it did so with all the original name server information intact.

So, SpamHaus’ database still associates the domains with AlpNames even though it’s been out of business for the better part of a year.

A SpamHaus spokesperson said:

This is a very unusual situation, as a huge majority of the domains that contribute to the Top 10 list in question are created, abused, and burnt quickly; meaning a change of registrar is exceptionally rare. However, in the case of these particular domains registered with AlpNames we can only assume that the sheer volume of unused domains was too high for the owner to use in one single hit.

The actual number of “AlpNames” domains rated as spammy by SpamHaus is pretty low — 1,976 of the 2,002 domains it saw were rated as “bad”.

GMO, at #4 on the list, had over 40,000 “bad” domains, but a lower percentage given the larger number of total domains seen.

Ethos promises to keep .org for many many many many years

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2019, Domain Services

Ethos Capital doesn’t plan to flip .org manager Public Interest Registry any time soon, according to its CEO.

Erik Brooks said that private equity firm Ethos, which intends to buy PIR from the Internet Society for over a billion dollars, plans to keep hold of the company for “many, many, many, many years”.

He was talking last night during a public conference call organized by NTEN, which also included the CEOs of ISOC and PIR, as well as critics from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the the National Council of Nonprofits and the Irish chapter of ISOC.

The call was set up because many believe .org’s transition back into for-profit hands, coupled with its recently gained ability to raise prices arbitrarily, means .org’s non-profit registrants are in for a hard time as Ethos profit-takes.

While Brooks and chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta made all the right noises to settle such concerns, promising to not unreasonably raise prices and to stick with PIR’s commitment to non-profits, some participants remained skeptical.

Brooks said that his vision for Ethos, which he founded earlier this year, is “fundamentally broader and more expansive than traditional investing” where “success is defined as success for all participants, success for customers, employees, vendors, the community impacted by the company”.

PIR CEO Jon Nevett said he was initially concerned about the deal — which was negotiated between ISOC and Ethos without PIR’s participation — he is now “convinced that they’re here to do the right thing”.

He said that rather than funneling all of PIR’s spare .org reg cash to ISOC as happens currently, it will now be able to invest some of it in improving .org instead.

Brooks said he understand the community concerns about price increase.

“We are absolutely committed to staying within the spirit of how PIR has operated with the price system they have operated with before,” he said. That means 10% a year on average, as Ethos has stated before.

He added that “working on some mechanisms and some ideas that will give registrants more assurance” that this is just not PR spin, and that these will be communicated publicly over the coming weeks.

The fact that ICANN lifted the previous 10% contractual price cap just a few months before the deal was sealed did not factor into Ethos’ thinking, he said.

While what Ethos is describing is all well and good, there’s no telling what a future owner of PIR would do, should Ethos sell it or float it on the public markets.

That looked like a possibility, especially given that some say that Ethos is under-paying by a considerable margin for the registry.

But Brooks, asked what Ethos’ exit runway for PIR looked like, said that the company was committed to owning the registry “for an extraordinarily long period of time… dramatically outside the normal window of somebody owning a business… many, many, many, many years”.

Ethos’ own backers — which apparently include investment vehicles linked to Mitt Romney and the late Ross Perot — are on board with this long-term plan, he said.

So, assuming Brooks is a man of his word, .org registrants only have to look forward to price increases of no more than 10% a year for some time to come, which is kinda the situation they were in at the start of the year.

But not everyone is as trusting/gullible as me.

The EFF’s Mitch Stoltz, who was on the call, later published a blog post that seemed to shift gears somewhat away from pricing concerns towards the potential for future censorship of .org domains.

“Ethos Capital has a financial incentive to engage in censorship—and, of course, in price increases,” he wrote.

He alluded to that PIR had briefly toyed with the idea of a “UDRP for copyright” a few years ago, but had backed down under community pressure, something that he doesn’t believe Ethos would necessarily do.

Asked about the censorship issue by Stotlz during the call, Brooks said he had not given the issue a great deal of consideration but that he expected PIR’s practices on this kind of thing to continue on as they are today.

#SaveDotOrg to hold public web conference tomorrow with Ethos execs

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2019, Domain Registries

The two top executives at Ethos Capital are due to confront non-profits that want to stymie its $1.13 billion acquisition of Public Interest Registry on a public call tomorrow.

The call has been put together by NTEN, a conference organizer that focuses on the use of tech by non-profits.

According to NTEN, the call will feature speakers from anti-deal Electronic Frontier Foundation, The National Council of Nonprofits, and Internet Society chapter leaders (some of whom are against the deal).

PIR boss Jon Nevett, as well as Ethos CEO Erik Brooks and chief purpose office Nora Abusitta have also agreed to attend. Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society “has been invited but has not confirmed participation”, NTEN said.

It’s going to be the first time that those in favor of the deal will face off in public against those that want it scrapped.

The acquisition is controversial because it represents the .org gTLD going into private, for-profit hands for the first time in 17 years, with previous pricing restrictions removed.

So far, over 12,000 people have signed a petition at savedotorg.org to express their dismay with the deal.

You can find details about the call here, including an email address to submit questions in advance.

The call will happen online at 2000 UTC (1200 US Pacific Time) Thursday December 5. You may have to install some software in advance, though a browser-only option seems to be available too.

As pricey .new launches, Google reveals first set of big-name users including rapper Drake

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2019, Domain Registries

Google Registry has opened up its .new gTLD for registration for the first time, but whether you get to buy one or not will depend on a team of Google judges.

The company opened up its “Limited Registration Period” on Monday, and it doing so revealed a bunch of early-adopter registrants including eBay, Bitly, Spotify, Github, Medium, Stripe and the Canadian musician Drake.

It’s not an open registration period. If you want a .new domain you’re going to need to present Google with a business case, showing how you intend to use your chosen domain.

These applications will be judged by Google in seven roughly month-long batches, the first of which ends January 5 and the last of which ends June 21 next year.

Competing applications for the same domain in the same batch will be decided in a beauty contest by Google itself. Needless to say, if you’re champing at the bit for a .new domain, you’ll be wanting to apply in as early a batch as possible.

If you’re lucky enough to get to register a domain, you’ll have 100 days to put it to its promised use, otherwise Google will suspend the name and keep your money.

Registry pricing has not been disclosed, but 101domain is listing .new names at $550 retail. You need the nod from Google before you get to buy the domain from a registrar.

Google says the pricing, which it acknowledges is “high”, is partly to pay for ongoing compliance monitoring. If you run a paid-for service in a .new domain, you’ll have to give Google a free account so it can check you’re sticking to your original plan.

It seems Google is going to be fairly strict about usage, which as I’ve previously reported is tied to “action generation or online creation flows”.

What this basically means is that when you type a live .new domain into your browser, you’ll be taken immediately to a page where you can create something, such as a text document, graphic design, auction listing, or blog post.

The only exception to this rule is when the web site needs a user to be logged in and redirects them to a login page instead. Most of the first tranche of registrants are currently doing this.

Google’s own .new domains include doc.new, which takes uses to a fresh sheet of blank paper at Google Docs.

The gTLD’s major anchors tenants have now been revealed at registry web site whats.new, and they include:

  • eBay: type sell.new into your browser address bar and you’ll be taken to a page where you can create a new auction/sales page.
  • Medium: story.new takes you to a blog post creation page.
  • Spotify: create a new music playlist at playlist.new
  • Webex: open up a web conference at webex.new or letsmeet.new.
  • Bitly: create a shortened link at link.new.
  • OVO Sound: this is a record label in the Warner Music stable, founded by Drake. It currently appears to be being used to plug two of OVO’s artists, which I think is a horrible waste of a nice domain. There’s no “content creation” that I can see, and I reckon it could be a prime candidate for deletion unless “listen to this crappy Drake song” counts as “action generation”.

There are a few more anchor tenants publicized at whats.new, but you get the idea.

.new will enter general availability next July.

Three more dot-brands fizzle out. Total now 69, dudes

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2019, Domain Registries

Three more dot-brand registries have opted to kill off their own gTLDs, bringing the total to date to 69.

The three self-terminating gTLDs, which all informed ICANN of their intentions in October and November, are: .工行 (.xn--estv75g), .nadex and .vistaprint.

The .vistaprint termination is perhaps of note, given that online printing company Vistaprint was one of the bidders in the 2016 auction of .web, due to its application for .webs being ruled confusingly similar.

It wound up paying just a dollar for that gTLD, due to the complexity of the .web contention set, but even that appears to have been a defensive move.

Since then, Vistaprint has also terminated its .vista contract, and my records show that it has been “in contracting” with ICANN for .webs since August 2016. Clearly, it’s in no rush to ever actually use the thing.

Also noteworthy, .工行 becomes only the second internationalized domain name gTLD to self-terminate, after Walmart called it quits on its pre-delegation contract for .一号店.

.工行 was owned by the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), which by many measures is the largest bank in the world. It had revenue of over $105 billion last year, so whatever factors drove its decision to dump its dot-brand, cost was not one of them.

Finally, Nadex, an online stock-trading platform, evidently couldn’t find a use for .nadex, so it’s jumped ship too.

Hundreds of dot-brands remain, collectively managing thousands of domains and web sites.

Are ISOC’s claims about .org’s history bogus?

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2019, Domain Registries

The Internet Society has started to fight back against those trying to put a stop to its $1.13 billion sale of Public Interest Registry to Ethos Capital.

Among the tactics being deployed appears to be an attempt to play down the notion that .org has always been considered as a home for non-profits run by a non-profit.

Apparently, it’s perfectly fine for .org to transition back into commercial hands, because not-for-profit ISOC was never intended as its forever home and the TLD was never intended for non-profits anyway.

Is that bullshit?

Yes and no. Mostly yes. It turns out you get a different answer depending on when you look in .org’s storied history.

ISOC, it seems, is starting in 1994, in an internet standard written by Jon Postel (who was ICANN before there was an ICANN).

A statement published by ISOC last week tries to characterize .org as a home for the “miscellaneous”, quoting from RFC 1591

I also want to address some other misconceptions about .ORG. Although .ORG has often been thought of as a “home of non-profits”, the domain was not actually defined that way. In 1994, RFC 1591 described it this way: “ORG – This domain is intended as the miscellaneous TLD for organizations that didn’t fit anywhere else. Some non-government organizations may fit here.”

It’s an accurate quote.

.org is described in other RFCs in a similar way. The earliest reference is 1984’s RFC 920 which says .org means “Organization, any other domains meeting the second level requirements.”

RFC 1032 says:

“ORG” exists as a parent to subdomains that do not clearly fall within the other top-level domains. This may include technical-support groups, professional societies, or similar organizations.

I can’t find any mention of non-profits in any of the relevant DNS RFCs.

ISOC goes on to note that .org was managed by a for-profit entity — Network Solutions, then Verisign — from 1993 until PIR took over in 2003.

Again, that’s true, but while it might have been managed by a commercial entity, NetSol was pretty clear about who .org was for.

When it went public in 1997, the company told would-be investors in its S-1 registration statement:

The most common TLDs include .com, used primarily by commercial entities, .org for nonprofit organizations, .net for network service providers, .edu for universities and .gov for United States governmental entities

That’s pretty unambiguous: the .org registry in 1997 said that .org was for non-profits.

In 2001, when ICANN inked a deal with Verisign to spin off .org into a new registry, there was no ambiguity whatsoever.

In announcing the deal, ICANN said that it would “return the .org registry to its original purpose” and .org would return to “to its originally intended function as a registry operated by and for non-profit organizations” (my emphasis).

The price ICANN paid for extracting .org from Verisign’s clutches was the very first “presumptive renewal” clause being inserted into the .com contract, which has seen Verisign reap billions with no risk of ever losing its golden goose.

The prize was so potentially lucrative that Verisign even agreed to give a $5 million endowment — no questions asked — to the successor registry, for use relaunching or promoting .org.

The only catch was that the new registry had to be a non-profit. Commercial registries — Verisign competitors such as Neustar — wouldn’t get the money.

ICANN and its community spent the remainder of 2001 and most of 2002 devising an RFP, accepting proposals from 11 would-be .org registries, and picking a winner.

The multistakeholder Domain Names Supporting Organization — roughly equivalent to today’s GNSO — was tasked with coming up with a set of principles governing who should get to run .org and how.

It came up with a report in January 2002 that stated, as its first bullet point:

The initial delegation of the .org TLD should be to a non-profit organization that is noncommercial in orientation and the initial board of which includes substantial representation of noncommercial .org registrants.

It went on to say that applicants “should be recognized non-profit entities” and to suggest a few measures to attract such entities to the bidding process.

These recommendations, which secured consensus support of the DNSO’s diverse stakeholders and a unanimous vote of the Names Council (the 2002 equivalent of the GNSO Council), nevertheless never made it into ICANN’s final RFP.

At some point during this process, ICANN decided that it would be unfair to exclude for-profit bidders, so there was no non-profit requirement in the final RFP.

As far as I can tell from the public record and my increasingly unreliable memory, it was Vint Cerf — father of the internet, creator of ISOC, then-chair of ICANN, and one of the few people currently cool with PIR being sold into commercial hands — that opened it up to for-profit bidders.

The decision was made at ICANN’s board meeting in Accra, Ghana, at ICANN 12. Back then, the board did its thinking aloud, in front of an audience, so we have a transcript.

The transcript shows that Cerf recommended that ICANN remain neutral on whether the successor registry was non-profit or for-profit. He put forward the idea that a commercial registry could quite easily create a non-profit entity in order to bid anyway, so it would be a kinda pointless restriction. The board agreed.

So in 2002, 11 entities, some of them commercial, submitted proposals to take over .org.

In ISOC’s bid, it stated that it would use the $5 million Verisign endowment “primarily to expanding outreach to non-commercial organizations on behalf of .ORG”.

ISOC/PIR took Verisign’s millions, as a non-profit, in order to pitch .org at other non-profits, in other words.

The evaluation process to pick Verisign’s successor was conducted by consultancy Gartner, a team of “academic CIOs” and ICANN’s Noncommercial Domain Name Holders’ Constituency (roughly equivalent to today’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group).

The NCDNHC was under strict instructions from ICANN management to not give consideration to whether the applicants were commercial or non-commercial, but its report (pdf) did “take notice of longstanding relationships between the bidders (whether for-profit or non-profit) and the noncommercial community available in the public record”.

It ranked the PIR bid as third of the 11 applicants, on the basis that .org money would go to support ISOC and the IETF, which NCDNHC considered “good works”.

ICANN’s preliminary and final evaluation reports were both opened for public comment, and comment from the applicants themselves, and on both occasions ISOC sought to play up its not-for-profit status. In August 2002, it said:

Overall, we believe ISOC’s experience as a not-for-profit, Internet-focused organization, combined with Afilias’ expertise as a stable and proven back end provider, enables us to fully meet all the criteria set forth by the ICANN Board.

In October 2002, it said:

We believe strongly that the voice of the non-commercial community is critical to the long-term success of .ORG. ISOC’s global membership and heritage and PIR’s non-profit status will ensure the registry remains sensitive to non-commercial concerns. Should the ICANN Board select ISOC’s proposal, PIR will execute extensive plans to ensure that this voice is heard.

ISOC’s application was of course ultimately determined to be the best of the bunch, and in October 2002 ICANN decided to award it the contract.

Then there was the small matter of the IANA redelegation. IANA is the arm of ICANN that deals with changes to the root zone. Whenever a TLD changes hands, IANA issues a report explaining how the redelegation came about.

In the case of .org, IANA echoed the previous feelings about .org’s “intended” purpose, stating:

the Internet Society is a long-established organization that is particularly knowledgeable about the needs of the organizations for which the .org top-level domain was intended. By establishing PIR as a subsidiary to serve as the successor operator of .org, the Internet Society has created a structure that can operate the .org TLD in a manner that will be sensitive to the needs of its intended users

So, does history tell us that .org is meant to be a TLD by and for non-profits?

Mostly, yes, I think it does.

Governments kill off another gTLD bid

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2019, Domain Registries

Another proposed new gTLD has been killed off by governmental intervention.

A Thailand-based company call Better Living Management Company applied for .thai back in 2012, but quickly ran into opposition from the Thai government, which thought the string too culturally sensitive.

The ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee did not object to Thailand’s objection, and issued consensus advice asking ICANN to reject the application, which it did in November 2013.

BLM filed an Independent Review Process complaint in April 2014, alleging irregularities within the GAC, but the appeal was quickly shelved.

Now, five years later, the company has finally withdrawn it application, meaning it gets most of its application fee back as a refund.

Part of the reason the application failed is likely the fact that the Thai ccTLD registry, Thai Network Information Center Foundation, already runs the internationalized domain name ccTLD .ไทย, which means “.thai” in Thai.

Other applications to be killed off by GAC advice include .islam, .halal, .gcc and one of the .africa bids.