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New TLD guidebook bans domain front-running

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s newly published Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domain operators contains a draft Code of Conduct for registries that, among other things, bans “front-running”.

The code, which I think is probably going to be one of the most talked-about parts of the AGB in the run-up to ICANN’s Cartagena meeting next month, is designed to address problems that could arise when registrars are allowed to run registries and vice versa.

Front-running is the name given to a scenario in which registrars use insider information – their customers’ domain availability lookups – to determine which high-value domains to register to themselves.

While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that such practices have occurred in the past, a study carried out last year by researcher Ben Edelman found no evidence that it still goes on.

Front-running was however held up as one reason why registrars and registries should not be allowed to vertically integrate, so the AGB’s code of conduct explicitly bans it.

It also bans registries accessing data generated by affiliated registrars, or from buying any domains for its own use, unless they’re needed for the management of the TLD.

Integrated registries will have to keep separate accounts for their registrar arms, and there will have to be a technological Chinese wall stopping registry and registrar data from cross-pollinating.

Registries will also have to submit a self-audit to ICANN, certifying their compliance with the code of conduct, before January 20 every year.

The code is currently a six-point plan, which, given the past “ingenuity” of domain name companies, may prove a little on the light side.

There’s lots more discussion to be had on this count, no doubt.

Another reason why Go Daddy might not become a registry

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2010, Domain Registrars

Domain name registries and registrars will soon be able to own each other, but there are plenty of good reasons why many of them, including the largest, may not.

George Kirikos and Mike Berkens are asking very interesting questions today, based on earlier investigative reporting by DomainNameWire, about whether Go Daddy would or should be barred from owning a registry on cybersquatting grounds.

But that’s not the only reason why Go Daddy may have problems applying for a new top-level domain.

I reported back in March, when only my mother was reading this blog, that Go Daddy may have gotten too big to be allowed into the registry market.

If you think Go Daddy wants to apply to ICANN to manage a new TLD registry or two, ask yourself: why did Go Daddy spend most of the year opposing vertical integration?

I have no inside knowledge into this, but I have a theory.

In 2008, CRA International produced an economic study for ICANN that, broadly speaking, recommended the relaxation of the rules separating registries and registrars.

In December that year, less than two years ago, Go Daddy filed its very much pro-VI comments on the study:

Go Daddy has and continues to be an advocate for eliminating the existing limits on registry/registrar cross-ownership.

The arguments that have been presented in favor of maintaining the status quo simply do not hold water. Current and past examples of cross-ownership already serve as test cases that demonstrate cross-ownership can and does work, and it can be successfully monitored.

Over the course of the next 12 months, the company’s official position on VI mellowed, and by this year it had made a 180-degree turn on the issue.

Its comments to the VI working group, filed in April 2010, say:

Go Daddy’s position on the vertical integration (VI) issue has changed over time. When VI discussions first began our position was very much to the left (if left is full, unqualified VI), but it has moved steadily to the right (if right is maintaining the so-called status quo). At this point, we are nearly fully on the right.

The company cited concerns about security, stability and consumer protection as the reasons for its shift. While I’ve no doubt that’s part of the story, I doubt it paints a full picture.

The decision may also have something to do with another economic study, produced for ICANN in February this year, this time by economics experts Steven Salop and Joshua Wright. It was published in March.

This study, crucially I think, suggested that where cross-ownership was to take place and the larger of the two companies had market power, that the deal should be referred to government competition regulators. Salop & Wright said:

We recommend that ICANN choose a market share threshold in the 40-60% range (the market share measured would be that of the acquiring company). The lower end is the market share at which U.S. competition authorities begin to be concerned about market power.

Guess which is the only registrar that falls into this market share window?

In January this year, Go Daddy put out a press release, when it registered its 40 millionth domain, which claimed:

Go Daddy now holds a near 50 percent market share of all active new domains registered in the world and is more than three times the size of its closest competitor.

Correlation does not equal causation, of course, so there’s no reason the second economic study and Go Daddy’s policy U-turn are necessarily linked, but I’d be surprised if the market power issue did not play a role.

The newly published Applicant Guidebook appears to have taken on board a key Salop & Wright recommendation, one that may be relevant:

ICANN-accredited registrars are eligible to apply for a gTLD… ICANN reserves the right to refer any application to the appropriate competition authority relative to any cross-ownership issues.

It seems to me that Go Daddy may be one of the few companies such a provision applies to. The company may find it has a harder time applying to become a registry than its competitors.

In the interests of sanity, I should point of that the AGB has been out for less than 48 hours, and that anything written about its possible consequences at this point is pure speculation.

Could vertical integration kill registrar parking?

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2010, Domain Registries

Will ICANN’s decision to allow registrars and registries to own each other help reduce the practice of registrars parking unused or expiring domain names?

A reading of the new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook in light of the recent “vertical integration” ruling it incorporates certainly raises this kind of question.

The AGB includes a policy called the Trademark Post-Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure, or PDDRP, which allows trademark owners to seek remedies against cybersquatting registries.

The policy is quite clear that registries cannot be held accountable for cybersquatting by third parties in their TLD, unless they have, for example, actively encouraged the squatters.

But another example of infringement is given thus:

where a registry operator has a pattern or practice of acting as the registrant or beneficial user of infringing registrations, to monetize and profit in bad faith.

Now, this wouldn’t be a cause for concern in the current vertically separated market.

Most registries are only generally able to register domain names in their own TLD by going through an accredited registrar. Proving bad faith intent in that situation would be trivial.

But what of an integrated registry/registrar that also automatically parks recently registered or expiring domains in order to profit from pay-per-click advertising?

This is common practice nowadays. It’s been used to prove a registrant’s bad faith during many recent UDRP proceedings and one registrar is even being sued by Verizon for doing it.

Would a registrar parking an expired, trademark-infringing domain constitute it acting as a “beneficial user” of the domain “to monetize and profit in bad faith”?

Text added to the PDDRP section of the AGB in its most recent revision strongly suggests that “the registrar did it” would not be a defence for a vertically integrated company:

For purposes of these standards, “registry operator” shall include entities directly or indirectly controlling, controlled by or under common control with a registry operator

The PDDRP allows complainants to seek remedies such as injunctions, as well as the suspension of new registrations in a TLD and, exceptionally, the full revocation of their registry contract.

With that in mind, would an integrated registry/registrar want to risk any practice that puts their TLD at risk?

What does ICANN say about terrorism?

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2010, Domain Registries

While it’s true that ICANN has excised specific references to terrorism from its new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook, don’t expect any such groups to be awarded TLDs.

As I reported in September, the AGB no longer contains the explicit mention of “terrorism”, which had caused complaints to be filed by a few members of the community.

But it does contain text that makes it abundantly clear that any group or nation the US considers a supporter of terrorism will have an extremely hard time finding approval.

Under a new section entitled “Legal Compliance”, ICANN notes that it “must comply with all U.S. Laws, rules, and regulations” including the sanctions program overseen by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control.

OFAC administers a List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons. If you’re on the SDN list, American companies cannot do business with you without a license.

While ICANN has applied for exemption licenses in the past, in order to be able to deal with organizations in US-unfriendly nations (on ccTLD matters, presumably), the AGB now states:

ICANN generally will not seek a license to provide goods or services to an individual or entity on the SDN List. In the past, when ICANN has been requested to provide services to individuals or entities that are not SDNs, but are residents of sanctioned countries, ICANN has sought and been granted licenses as required. In any given case, however, OFAC could decide not to issue a requested license.

If you’ve never seen this list before, it can be downloaded here. It’s currently 475 pages long, and while it’s certainly a globally inclusive document, parts of it do read like the Baghdad phone book.

(Interestingly, many of the listed a.k.a’s are actually domain names)

Anybody who wanted ICANN to replace the amorphous term “terrorism” with something a little more specific have had their wishes granted.

No more hypothetical debate is required about whether Hamas, for example, is a terrorist group or a movement of freedom fighters. It’s in the book, so it’s probably not getting a TLD.

Insurance TLD draws interest

Kevin Murphy, November 12, 2010, Domain Registries

An initiative to create a top-level domain for the insurance industry appears to be attracting support in German-speaking countries.

dotVersicherung plans to apply for .versicherung (.insurance) in the first round of new TLD applications next summer, according to its web site.

The domain would be reserved for insurance companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Judging by its web site, which is one of the more comprehensive I’ve seen from a new TLD initiative, it has picked up a fair bit of interest from insurance companies already.

The organization reckons it will cost about 2 million euros to launch the TLD, and it currently appears to be inviting investors to get involved.

It disputes the idea that .versicherung is too long for a TLD, saying that there are already 25,000 domains in .de that contain the term at the second level and that most visitors will use search engines, rather than type-in, to find web sites.

It looks like the organization has been around several months, and is currently doing a publicity tour of its target nations. It also looks like Dirk Krischenowski, CEO of dotBERLIN, is involved in an advisory capacity.

I’m getting this information via Google Translate, by the way, so it may not be 100% reliable.

Hat tip to Jean Guillon, who’s been turning the ability to spot new TLD initiatives into a fine art recently.