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Four big developments in the .org pricing scandal

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2019, Domain Registries

The renewal of Public Interest Registry’s .org contract and its subsequent acquisition by Ethos Capital is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of newsworthy developments, so I thought I’d bundle up the most important into a single article.

First, ICANN has thrown out the appeal filed by Namecheap and provided a (kinda) explanation of how the recent contract renewal came about.

The board of directors voted to reject Namecheap’s Request for Reconsideration on Thursday, as I reported last week, but the decision was not published until last night.

Namecheap had demanded ICANN reverse its decision to remove the 10%-a-year cap on price increases previously in the .org contract, enabling PIR to unilaterally raise its prices by however much it wants.

It said that ICANN had “ignored” the more then 3,000 people and organizations that had submitted comments opposing the lifting of caps.

But the board said:

ICANN org’s Core Values do not require it to accede to each request or demand made in public comments or otherwise asserted through ICANN’s various communication channels. ICANN org ultimately determined that ICANN’s Mission was best served by replacing price caps in the .ORG/.INFO Renewed RAs with other pricing protections to promote competition in the registration of domain names, afford the same “protections to existing registrants” that are afforded to registrants of other TLDs, and treat registry operators equitably.

The board also decided to describe, in a roundabout kinda way, how it conducts renewal talks with pre-2012 legacy gTLDs, explaining that ICANN “prefers” to move these registries to the 2012 contract, but that it cannot force them over. The resolution states:

All registry agreements include a presumptive right of renewal clause. This clause provides a registry operator the right to renew the agreement at its expiration provided the registry operator is in good standing (e.g., the registry operator does not have any uncured breaches), and subject to the terms of their presumptive renewal clauses.

In the course of engaging with a legacy registry operator on renewing its agreement, ICANN org prefers to and proposes that the registry operator adopts the new form of registry agreement that is used by new gTLDs as the starting point for the negotiations. This new form includes several enhancements that benefit the domain name ecosystem such as better safeguards in dealing with domain name infrastructure abuse, emergency backend support, as well as adoption of new bilaterally negotiated provisions that ICANN org and the gTLD Registries Stakeholder Group conduct from time to time for updates to the form agreement, and adoption of new services (e.g., RDAP) and procedures.

Although ICANN org proposes the new form of registry agreement as a starting place for the renewal, because of the registry operator’s presumptive right of renewal ICANN org is not in a position to mandate the new form as a condition of renewal. If a registry operator states a strong preference for maintaining its existing legacy agreement form, ICANN org would accommodate such a position, and has done so in at least one such instance.

I believe the gTLD referred to in the last sentence is Verisign’s .net, which renewed in 2017 without substantially transitioning to the 2012-round contract.

On the acquisition, the board notes:

the Board acknowledges (and the Requestor points out in its Rebuttal) the recently announced acquisition of PIR, the current .ORG registry operator, and the results of that transaction is something that ICANN organization will be evaluating as part of its normal process in such circumstances.

That appears to be a nod to the fact that ICANN has the power to reject changes of control under exceptional circumstances, per the .org contract.

Despite the wholly predictable rejection of Namecheap’s RfR, appeals against the contract’s new terms may not be over.

For some reason I have yet to ascertain, the very similar RfR filed around the same time by the Electronic Frontier Foundation was not considered, despite being on the agenda for last Thursday’s board meeting.

Additionally, I hear Namecheap has applied for Cooperative Engagement Process status, meaning it is contemplating filing an Independent Review Process appeal.

Second, Ethos Capital, PIR’s new owner, launched a web site in which it attempts to calm many of the concerns, criticisms and conspiracy theories leveled its way since the acquisition was announced.

Found at keypointsabout.org, the site tries to clarify the timing and motivation of the deal.

On timing, Ethos says:

Ethos Capital first approached the Internet Society in September 2019, well after PIR’s contract renewal with ICANN had finished… PIR was not for sale at the time the price caps were lifted on .ORG. The removal of .ORG’s price restrictions earlier this year was not unique to .ORG and was in no way motivated by a desire to sell PIR.

The .org contract was signed at the end of July, so while Ethos may well have been lusting after PIR before the renewal, it apparently did not run towards it with its trousers around its ankles until at least a month later.

On its pricing intentions, Ethos says:

The current price of a .ORG domain name is approximately $10 per year. Our plan is to live within the spirit of historic practice when it comes to pricing, which means, potentially, annual price increases of up to 10 percent on average — which today would equate to approximately $1 per year.

This sounds rather specific, but it’s vague enough to give PIR leeway to, say, introduce a 100% increase immediately and then freeze prices until it averages out at 10% per year. I don’t think the company will do something so extreme, but it would technically be possible the way it’s described here.

On the connections to Abry Partners and former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, Ethos says that while founder and CEO Erik Brooks is a 20-year veteran of Abry (which also owns Donuts) “Abry Partners is not involved in this transaction.”

It adds, however, that Chehade’s company, Chehade & Company, where Ethos chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta-Ouri has worked “is an adviser to Ethos”.

What this means, at the very least, is that the new owner of .org allowed an outside contractor to register the domain matching its name in the very gTLD it runs, which most domain veterans will recognize as a rookie mistake.

Ethos goes on to list VidMob Inc, Whistle Sports Inc, Adhark Inc and LiquidX Inc as other companies Ethos has invested in, perhaps rubbishing the hypothesis (which I, admittedly, have publicly floated) that Ethos was a vehicle created by Abry purely to buy up PIR.

Third, Ethos may be funded by “billionaire Republicans”.

.eco registry founder Jacob Malthouse, who’s trying to rouse up support for the #SaveDotOrg campaign, dug up an email apparently sent by ISOC CEO Andrew Sullivan to a members mailing list in the wake of the acquisition announcement, which names some of the backers of the deal.

They are: Perot Holdings, FMR LLC and Solamere Capital.

What they have in common is that they’re all — at least according to Malthouse’s since-amended original post — founded/owned/affiliated with prominent billionaire US Republicans. I’m not sure I’d fully agree with that characterization.

Perot was founded by Ross Perot, who stood for US president as an independent a few times but spent the last couple of decades of his life (which ended in July) as a Republican. I’d say his political affiliation died with him.

FMR, or Fidelity Investments, is run by Abigail Johnson, who inherited the role from her father and grandfather. While she’s made donations to Republicans including local senator, Mitt Romney, she also gave Hillary Clinton a tonne of cash to support her 2016 presidential election run, so I’m not sure I’d necessarily characterize her as die-hard GOP.

Romney himself was involved in the founding of Solamere Capital, the third apparent Ethos investor, but according to its web site he stepped down at the start of this year, long before Ethos was even founded, in order to re-join the US Senate.

I’m not sure what the big deal about these connections is anyway, unless you’re of the (often not unreasonable) belief that you don’t get to be a billionaire Republican without being just a little bit Evil.

Fourth, a bunch of non-profits are campaigning to get the deal scrapped.

The #SaveDotOrg campaign now has its matching .org address and web site, savedotorg.org.

It appears to have been set up by the EFF, but its supporters also include the non-profits American Alliance of Museums, American Society of Association Executives, Aspiration, Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc., Creative Commons, Crisis Text Line, Demand Progress Education Fund, DoSomething.org, European Climate Foundation, Free Software Foundation, Girl Scouts of the USA, Independent Sector, Internet Archive, Meals on Wheels America, National Council of Nonprofits, National Human Services Assembly, NTEN, Palante Technology Cooperative, Public Knowledge, R Street Institute, TechSoup, VolunteerMatch, Volunteers of America, Wikimedia Foundation, YMCA of the USA and YWCA USA.

The letter (pdf) states:

Non-governmental organizations all over the world rely on the .ORG top-level domain. Decisions affecting .ORG must be made with the consultation of the NGO community, overseen by a trusted community leader. If the Internet Society (ISOC) can no longer be that leader, it should work with the NGO community and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to find an appropriate replacement.

It claims that the new .org contract gives PIR powers to “do significant harm” to non-profits, should they be abused.

The campaign has had a little traction on social media and so far has over 8,000 signatures.

Petition launched to fight .org deal

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2019, Domain Registries

A petition has been opened on Change.org calling for the acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital.

The petition calls on ICANN, the Internet Society and PIR to “suspend” the sale “pending an open, transparent and multi-stakeholder public process about the future of .ORG.”

It was started by Jacob Malthouse, who worked at ICANN over a decade ago but is perhaps better known more recently as a founder and co-CEO of Big Room, the .eco gTLD registry. He appears to have left that company in August.

He blogged last week expressing his dismay with the news of the acquisition.

“This is a very sad day for the progressive movement. We need infrastructure like this and we need it to stay run by and for nonprofits, where it can be managed in a transparent and accountable fashion,” he wrote.

Almost two days in, the petition has attracted a piddling 32 signatures. That’s about 1% of the number of people who chose to email ICANN to protest .org price increases earlier this year, voices that ICANN nevertheless found unpersuasive.

The acquisition, for an undisclosed sum believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars at the least, was announced last week.

ICANN board meets to consider PIR acquisition TODAY

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors will gather today to consider whether the acquisition of Public Interest Registry by a private equity company means that it should reverse its own decision to allow PIR to raise .org prices arbitrarily.

Don’t get too excited. It looks like it’s largely a process formality that won’t lead to any big reversals, at least in the short term.

But I’ve also learned that the controversy could ultimately be heading to an Independent Review Process case, the final form of appeal under ICANN rules.

The board is due to meet today with just two named agenda items: Reconsideration Request 19-2 and Reconsideration Request 19-3.

Those are the appeals filed by the registrar Namecheap in July and rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation in August.

Namecheap and EFF respectively wanted ICANN to reverse its decisions to remove PIR’s 10%-a-year price-raising caps and to oblige the registry to enforce the Uniform Rapid Suspension anti-cybersquatting policy.

Both parties now claim that the sale by the Internet Society of PIR to private equity firm Ethos Capital, announced last week, casts new light on the .org contract renewal.

The deal means PIR will change from being a non-profit to being a commercial venture, though PIR says it will stick to its founding principles of supporting the non-profit community.

I reported a couple of weeks ago that the board had thrown out both RfRs, but it turns out that was not technically correct.

The full ICANN board did in fact consider both appeals, but it was doing so in only a “preliminary” fashion, according to an ICANN spokesperson. ICANN told me:

On 3 November the Board considered “proposed determinations” for both reconsideration request 19-2 and 19-3. In essence, the Board was taking up the Board Accountability Mechanism Committee (BAMC) role, as the BAMC had not been able to reach quorum in early November due to certain recusals by BAMC members.

Once the Board adopted the proposed determinations (in lieu of the BAMC issuing a recommendation to the Board) the parties that submitted the reconsideration requests had 15 days to submit a rebuttal, for the Board’s full consideration of the matter, which is now on the agenda.

Normally, RfRs are considered first by the four-person BAMC, but in this case three of the members — Sarah Deutsch, Nigel Roberts, and Becky Burr — recused themselves out of the fear of appearing to present conflicts of interest.

The committee obviously failed to hit a quorum, so the full board took over its remit to give the RfRs their first pass.

The board decided that there had been no oversights or wrongdoing. Reconsideration always presents a high bar for requestors. The .org contract was negotiated, commented on, approved, and signed completely in compliance with ICANN’s governing rules, the board decided.

But the ICANN bylaws allow for a 15-day period following a BAMC recommendation during which rejected RfR appellants can submit a rebuttal.

And, guess what, both of them did just that, and both rebuttals raise the PIR acquisition as a key reason ICANN should think again about the .org contract changes.

The acquisition was announced a week ago, and it appears to have come as much of a surprise to ICANN as to everyone else. It’s a new fact that the ICANN board has not previously taken into account when considering the two RfRs, which could prove important.

Namecheap reckons that the deal means that PIR is now almost certain to raise .org prices. New gTLD registry Donuts was bough by Ethos affiliate Abry Partners last year, and this year set about raising prices across the large majority of its 200-odd gTLDs. Namecheap wrote in its rebuttal:

Within months of be acquired by Abry Partners, it raised prices in 2019 for 220 out of its 241 TLDs. Any statements by PIR now to not raise prices unreasonably are just words, and without price caps, there is no way that .org registrants are not used a source to generate revenue for acquisitions or to pay dividends to its shareholders.

It also said:

The timing and the nature of this entire process is suspicious, and in a well-regulated industry, would draw significant scrutiny from regulators. For ICANN not to scrutinize this transaction closely in a completely transparent and accountable fashion (including public disclosure of pertinent information regarding the nature, cost, the terms of any debt associated with the acquisition, timeline of all parties involved, and the principals involved) would demonstrate that ICANN org and the ICANN Board do not function as a trusted or reliable internet steward.

Namecheap also takes issue with the fact that ICANN’s ruling on its RfR (pdf) draws heavily on a 2009 economic analysis by Professor Dennis Carlton, which concluded that price caps were unnecessary in the new gTLD program.

The registrar trashes this analysis as being based on more opinion than fact, and says it is based on outdated market data.

Meanwhile, the EFF’s rebuttal makes the acquisition one of four reasons why it thinks ICANN should reverse course. It said;

ICANN must carefully reexamine the .ORG Registry Agreement in light of this news. Without the oversight and participation of the nonprofit community, measures that give the registry authority to institute new [Rights Protection Mechanisms] or make other major policy changes invite management decisions that conflict with the needs of the .ORG community.

Quite often, RfRs are declined by ICANN because the requestor does not present any new information that the board has not already considered. But in this case, the fact of the PIR acquisition is empirically new information, as it’s only week-old news.

Will this help Namecheap and the EFF with their cause? The board will certainly have to consider this new information, but I still think it’s unlikely that it will change its mind.

But I’ve also learned that Namecheap has filed with ICANN to trigger a Cooperative Engagement Process procedure.

The CEP is an often-lengthy bilateral process where ICANN and an aggrieved party attempt to resolve their differences in closed-door talks.

When CEP fails, it often leads to an Independent Review Process complaint, when both sides lawyer up and three retired judges are roped in to adjudicate. These typically cost both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

CEP and IRP cases are usually measured in years rather than months, so the PIR acquisition could be under scrutiny for a long time to come.

XYZ buys dormant gTLD from “pyramid scheme” operator

Kevin Murphy, November 19, 2019, Domain Registries

XYZ.com has bought another unused dot-brand to add to its portfolio.

It’s taken over the contract for .quest from original registry Quest ION Ltd, a subsidiary of a Hong Kong-based multi-level marketing company called QNet, according to ICANN records.

The gTLD will become the 13th that XYZ has a stake in, and the second dormant dot-brand that it’s acquired, after .monster.

.quest has been delegated for a few years, but its owner had no live domains beyond the mandatory NIC site.

I have to say I was unfamiliar with the company until today, but QNet’s Wikipedia page makes it sound sufficiently dodgy that I’m surprised nobody raised questions about its suitability to be a registry during the ICANN application process.

Its multi-level marketing business model has been described as a “pyramid scheme” or “Ponzi scheme” by various governments and has seen QNet hit by serious legal challenges in many countries on at least four continents.

Loads of its executives, including at least one listed on the gTLD application, have been arrested over the years.

But I guess that’s water under the bridge now, because XYZ has taken control of .quest.

There’s no word yet on a launch date.

I attempt to answer ICA’s questions about the “terrible blunder” .org acquisition

Kevin Murphy, November 19, 2019, Domain Policy

The Internet Commerce Association launched a withering attack on ICANN late last week, accusing the organization of a “terrible blunder” by lifting pricing restrictions on .org domain names.

As by now you’re no doubt aware, .org manager Public Interest Registry was acquired last week by a private equity firm with ties to ICANN’s former CEO, in a deal likely to have delivered hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, to former owner the Internet Society.

The deal means PIR is now almost certain to exercise its newfound right to raise its prices arbitrarily, adding tens of millions to its annual top line at the expense of .org registrants.

While such a price increase is likely to have little impact on most registrants — an annual increase of even 100% would only add about $10 to the per-domain cost — it would certainly prove onerous to many of the high-volume domain investors ICA represents.

So ICA chief Zak Muscovitch whipped off a letter to ICANN (pdf) on Friday, demanding that ICANN use its contractual powers to terminate PIR’s registry agreement and put .org out for open tender. He wrote:

If you were led to believe that removing price caps on .Org domain names was a sound approach because the registry would remain in the hands of a nonprofit foundation, you have clearly been misled. If you were led to believe that despite being the effective owner of the .org registry, you were somehow forced to let your service providers tell you how much they can charge, instead of the other way around, you have been led astray. If you have been told that .Org does not have market power within the nonprofit sector, you have been led astray. If you have been told that competition from other gTLDs will constrain .org prices, you have been led astray.

I think the letter has about as much chance of working as an ice sculptor in hell, but Muscovitch does include a list of seven questions for ICANN that I’m going to attempt to answer to the best of my ability here.

First, he asks:

Were you aware whether ISOC was in talks to sell the registry when you approved the removal of the price caps?

I put the same question to PIR CEO Jon Nevett last week, and he told me: “I don’t know when the talks started with ISOC and the buyer, but neither ICANN nor PIR knew about it when finalizing the .ORG [Registry Agreement].”

I’ve no particular reason to believe he’s lying.

If ISOC was in such talks at that time, why was this material fact not disclosed to you by the registry operator, prior to you approving the renewal agreement?

The acquisition talks between ISOC and Ethos Capital certainly could have been going on prior to the .org contract being signed, which happened June 30 this year.

The main piece of evidence here is that Fadi Chehadé of private equity firm and presumed Ethos affiliate Abry Partners registered the domain ethoscapital.org on May 7, according to Whois records. A company of the same name was formed in Delaware a week later.

Given that Ethos appears to be an Abry vehicle set up purely to acquire PIR, it seems likely that talks were already underway at this point.

The domain ethoscapital.com, which Ethos is currently using as its primary, seems to have been acquired on the secondary market around August. The acquisition was announced November 13.

To Muscovitch’s question, though, I return to Nevett’s line that PIR knew nothing about the acquisition talks before the RA was finalized.

The RA was finalized and opened to public comment in March.

It’s quite possible Ethos and ISOC entered talks in the three months after the deal had been finalized but before it had been signed.

When did you first learn of the negotiations to sell the .Org registry?

An excellent question I’ve also posed but as yet have no answer to.

Did you base your decision to approve the removal of price caps, at least in part, on the expectation or belief that the registry would continue to be operated by a nonprofit organization with a public commitment to maintaining a stable pricing environment, instead of on behalf of a private equity firm whose objective is to maximize profits for its funders?

Cheekily, I’m going to take ICANN at its word and say the answer is “yes”.

One of the controversies concerning the .org renewal was that ICANN seemingly ignored thousands of comments calling for the retention of price caps.

This, ICANN has denied, saying that it “reviewed and evaluated” every comment.

Among the very few comments that weren’t outright condemnations of the decision to remove price caps were two nuanced, arguably ambivalent, analyses from two influential ICANN structures — the At-Large Advisory Committee and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group.

ALAC’s eight-page comment (pdf) was very much of the “on the one hand…” variety, but it paid special attention to ISOC’s public interest works when putting forward the view that uncapped pricing might be a good thing, noting (and quoting itself):

a significant portion of .ORG registration fees “are returned to serve the Internet community [through] redistribution of .org funds into the community by the Internet Society, to support Internet development.”… ISOC’s goals and priorities, while far broader than At-Large (and even ICANN), parallel those of At-Large and the interests of end-users. Many At-Large Structures are also ISOC Chapters, further demonstrating the commonality of interests.

NCSG, meanwhile, said in its comments (pdf) that price caps should remain, but increased from the 10%-per-year level. It acknowledged that some .org money flows into funding NCSG.

So there’s two influential groups, both with organizational and/or funding ties to ISOC, saying price increases may be a good thing because ISOC acts in the public interest.

And ICANN said it read and absorbed all the comments, so I’m cheekily going to say that yes, ICANN at least in part renewed the .org contract in the belief that PIR would continue to be a non-profit and act in the public interest.

Had you been aware of the planned sale of the .Org registry to a private equity firm, would you have treated the renewal of the .Org registry agreement and the removal of price caps as worthy of robust discussion and a vote by the Board, such that perhaps the terms of the agreement would have been modified?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say hell, no. ICANN doesn’t want to be a pricing regulator, regardless of the registry operator, in my view. It’s only the US government that’s preventing it lifting price restrictions on .com, I reckon.

What involvement did your former CEO, Mr. Chehade and your former SVP, Ms. Abusitta-Ouri, have in the decision to employ the base gTLD registry agreement for legacy TLDs during their tenure, if any?

In Chehadé’s case, the answer is fairly clear. Even if he did not have a hands-on role in the decision to cajole legacy gTLD registries toward the 2012 agreement, it all happened on his watch so he bears ultimate responsibility.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that most of the legacy gTLD agreements that migrated over to the new gTLD agreement’s standard language happened not only while Chehadé was at the helm, but also after he’d already accepted his new job at Abry.

He announced his early resignation in May 2015, telling the AFP at the time that he already had a job lined up in the commercial sector, but he declined to give specifics.

He’d probably made his mind up to quit some time before the announcement. He registered the domain name chehade.company, which he now uses for his investment vehicle Chehadé & Company, in the April.

He revealed he was joining Abry as senior advisor on digital strategy in August that year, but didn’t actually leave until March 2016.

During that interim, lame-duck period ICANN negotiated and signed (all in October 2015) renewals for 2003-round gTLDs .pro, .cat and .travel, all of which incorporated 2012 contract language related to, for example, the Uniform Rapid Suspension process.

Three months before Chehadé’s resignation announcement, ICANN signed a very similar deal with .jobs, the first time it had incorporated 2012 language into a legacy gTLD contract.

These contracts were all signed for ICANN not by Chehadé but by his long-time buddy, frequent co-worker and then-president of the Global Domains Division, Akram Atallah (who is now CEO of Donuts, which is owned by Abry).

Since Chehadé’s departure, ICANN has also taken the same contract renewal stance with TLDs including .xxx, .mobi, .museum and .aero.

By 2016 it had become standard operating practice at ICANN to nudge registries towards the 2012-round contract, as Atallah explained to then-ICA lead Phil Corwin at ICANN’s Hyderabad meeting in November 2016. Atallah stated (pdf):

So basically the negotiations are — the registries come and ask for something, and we tell them please adopt the new gTLD contract. And if they push back on it and they say they don’t want something, we can’t force them to take it. It’s a negotiation between two parties. And I think it’s within the remit of the corporation to negotiate its contracts. If the policy comes back and says that the URS is not something that we want to have as a policy, of course, we would support that.

As regards Nora Abusitta-Ouri, Ethos’s “chief purpose officer”, her former job title of “senior VP for development and public responsibility programs” suggests she had little to no involvement in gTLD contractual issues.

While her LinkedIn profile doesn’t mention it, she appears to have become chief engagement officer at Chehadé & Company after her stint at ICANN ended in July 2016.

What restrictions do you have in place with respect to cooling-off periods for former executives?

Fuck all, clearly.

Selling off PIR, did ISOC just throw .org registrants under a bus?

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2019, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry is to lose its not-for-profit status, dramatically increasing the chances of .org price increases, under an acquisition deal announced this evening.

The Internet Society is selling PIR to a brand-new private investment firm called Ethos Capital Investors, which is run by two people with ties to the domain industry.

PIR CEO Jon Nevett told DI today that the company is no longer a non-profit following the transaction, and that ISOC will no longer receive a slice of every .org registration fee.

There’s a lot to unpick here.

The biggest concern is arguably that the deal substantially increases risk for .org registrants.

PIR was recently, and very controversially, granted the right to raise its prices from $9.93 per year to whatever-the-hell-it-wants per year, due to a renegotiation of its ICANN contract that scrapped its longstanding 10%-per-year price increase caps.

Many domain investors and non-profits called for the caps to remain. Uncontrolled pricing could lead to smaller charities, for example, being priced out of their decades-held domains, it was claimed.

But PIR repeatedly assured concerned registrants that it was “a mission driven non-profit registry and currently has no specific plans for any price changes”.

That tune has changed, if only a little, today. Nevett told us:

Our goal has always been to make .ORG accessible and reasonably priced — and that will continue under our new ownership. PIR has made reasonable decisions on price in the past, and we will uphold this spirit going forward. We would never make dramatic price increases as we know it would harm our registrants, as well as our registrars.

PIR also says it plans to establish an advisory council and fund to ensure its founding principles are upheld, and to apply for “B Corporation” certification.

B Corp is a private program run by a non-profit called B Lab that certifies companies that meet certain social, environmental and transparency standards, but it has no legal recognition in, for example, the US tax code.

Nevett told us today that he does not know how long ISOC was negotiating the sale, but that neither PIR nor ICANN knew of it during their contract talks.

We know very little about the new owner. Its web site, which appears to have been created very recently, merely provides bios of its two principals.

These are founder and CEO Erik Brooks, who this year quit the private equity firm Abry Partners after 20 years.

Abry, you may recall, is the company that hired former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade in 2016 and gobbled up new gTLD registry Donuts in September last year.

His second is Nora Abusitta-Ouri, named as “chief purpose officer”, who’s apparently tasked with overseeing the moral “ethos” of the company’s investments.

Abusitta-Ouri is a former ICANN staffer who most recently held the role of senior VP for development and public responsibility programs until her 2016 departure. She’s also executive director of the Digital Ethos Foundation.

In short, based on what little information is publicly available, it appears that Ethos was set up purely for the purpose of acquiring PIR. It’s not at all clear where the money to fund the deal is coming from.

The acquisition price has not been disclosed, but given that PIR was grossing over $90 million a year at the last count, I doubt Brooks and Abusitta-Ouri are paying out of their own pockets.

Whoever’s backing this is going to want a return, and the best way to quickly soup up PIR’s growth would be to take advantage of its newfound ability to raise .org prices arbitrarily.

More than half of PIR’s revenue before today — close to $50 million a year — was handed directly to ISOC, to fund its capacity-building and education projects worldwide.

That’s all over now, which begs the question of how it will continue to fund itself in future. My guess is that, now that it has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, and is talking about an “endowment”, it’s going to stash its windfall in high-interest accounts and live off that income.

Meanwhile, whatever assurances .org registrants had that PIR was going to remain a non-profit concern have been utterly trashed.

UPDATE: Thanks to domain lawyer John Berryhill for pointing out in the comments that the domain name ethoscapital.org was registered by Abry’s Fadi Chehadé on May 7 this year. Additionally, a commenter on Domain Name Wire tonight noted that a company called Ethos Capital LLC was formed in Delaware on May 14, a day after ICANN published its summary of the .org contract renewal’s public comment period.

Rival dot-brand bidders in settlement talks, seek auction delay

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2019, Domain Registries

Two companies called Merck have managed to delay an ICANN auction for the .merck dot-brand top-level domain.

The two companies applied for .merck in 2012 and have spent the last almost eight years conducting a battle for the string using various ICANN conflict and appeals mechanisms.

Earlier this year, ICANN placed the two applications into a “last resort” auction, the proceeds of which would flow into ICANN’s own coffers.

Scheduled for July, it would have been the first time competing brands had fought for the same gTLD at ICANN auction.

But the two Mercks sought and received multiple extensions to the auction date, telling ICANN that they were in private settlement talks, until ICANN seemingly got bored and denied their last extension request.

The auction was set to go ahead in late October, but the two applicants managed to get another delay anyway by filing a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, asking that the refusal to extend be overturned.

While the request is likely to be rejected, the mere fact of its filing means both applications continue to be in “On Hold” status while the request is processed, buying the companies at least a month of extra time to come to their own less-expensive resolution.

The two companies are US-based Merck Registry Holdings, Inc. and its former parent, Germany-based Merck KGaA. The German company is over 350 years old and split from its American subsidiary when it was seized by the US government during World War I. They’re both in the chemicals business.

ICANN going back to Puerto Rico for a third time

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN has selected Puerto Rico for its ICANN 73 public meeting.

The meeting is slated to be held at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan from March 5 to March 10, 2022.

That’s the same venue ICANN visited in March last year, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which caused extensive damage and loss of life on the island. Indeed, the convention center had just months earlier been used as a command and control center for the recovery effort.

San Juan will become just the third city that ICANN has visited three times. It’s been to Singapore four times and its home city of Los Angeles (if you include Marina Del Rey) six times.

Puerto Rico had also been scheduled as the venue for ICANN 57 in 2016, but the meeting was moved to India instead, because of the Zika virus that was causing international concern at the time.

In 2020, meetings are to be held in Cancún, Kuala Lumpur and Hamburg, in that order. In 2021, ICANN’s going to Cancún (again), The Hague and Seattle.

DI Leaders Roundtable #2 — Should we kill off “Whois”?

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2019, Domain Tech

Should we stop using the word “Whois” to describe registration data lookup services?

That’s the question I posed for the second DI Leaders Roundtable.

I’m sure you’re all very well aware that the Registration Data Access Protocol (RDAP) is the imminent replacement for the Whois protocol, as the technical method by which domain registrant contact information is stored, transmitted and displayed.

ICANN also regularly refers to Registration Data Directory Services (RDDS) as a protocol-independent blanket term covering the concept of looking up Whois or RDAP data.

You may also recall that ICANN, which is ostensibly a technical body, appears to bedeprecating the word “Whois” in favor of “Lookup” on its own web-based query service.

ICANN has a track record of introducing new acronyms to describe already well-understood functions. The IANA has technically been called “Public Technical Identifiers” for years, but does anyone actually call it “PTI”? No, everyone still talks about “IANA”.

So I wanted to know:

Should we continue to call it “Whois” after the technical transition to RDAP is complete? Will you continue to refer to “Whois”? Should we change to a different word or acronym? Should the industry standardardize its language one way or the other?

There seems to be a general consensus that “Whois” ain’t going anywhere.

The responses, in no particular order.

Jothan Frakes, Executive Director, Domain Name Association

Mugshot

The term WHOIS won’t quickly leave the zeitgeist due to the decades of its use as a description of the lookup process. Lookup is somewhat confusing, as there is DNS Query lookup that works across the resolution system, and WHOIS Lookup that works to find registrant info via the registration system. As far as the term “Lookup” as the label for the new normal that is poised to replace WHOIS? It is better than the acronym “RDDS”. The general public probably would not assume that RDDS is a way to find out about a domain owner or registration information, because it sounds like it involves dentistry (DDS) if one is not following the ICANN world as close as insiders. Despite the evolutionary path the basic function seems to be on, it is likely that WHOIS continues to be what the nickname for the lookup process called, regardless of the support technology layers below it not literally being WHOIS.

Frank Schilling, CEO, Uniregistry

Mugshot

WHOIS IS DEAD, LONG LIVE WHOIS.

The echo of “Whois” will live long after Whois is dead and gone. The very nature of its replacement word “Lookup” ensures that the information hungry public will expect more fulsome data than ICANN intends the word to provide. There will continue to be services who try to engineer a Whois hack and provide accurate underlying data for paying customers. Whois is going to outlive all of us. Even those who diet, exercise, and eat organic food.

Dave Piscitello, Partner, Interisle Consulting Group

MugshotJust as most of the world isn’t familiar with new TLDs, most have no appreciation for the differences between Whois and RDAP. The term “Whois” is convenient, memorable, and embedded. It also represents a service to most users, not a protocol, so if we do “standardize” we should use “RDS”. While we sort out the disastrous effects of ICANN’s Temp Spec policy on both investigators and victims of DNS abuse, most parties involved with educating policy makers and legislators should continue to use Whois for consistency’s sake.

Christa Taylor, CMO, MMX

MugshotAs the old adage goes, “Don’t fix what’s not broken.” While “Whois” may have lost some of its luster due to GDPR I prefer to retain the term — it’s simple, representative of the information it provides and avoids adding any confusion especially for people outside of ICANN. Employing standardized language is, of course, logical and after twenty years of using “Whois” it is the accepted term both inside and outside the industry.

Sandeep Ramchamdani, CEO, Radix Registry

MugshotFirst up, the transition to the RDAP system is much needed given the fundamental flaws of Whois.

It would help in placing some guardrails around customers’ privacy while still providing agencies such as law enforcement authenticated access that they need to do their work.

Whois is a major cause of spam and in the age where privacy is top currency, public, unauthenticated availability of personal data is unacceptable.

It should also smooth out inter-registrar transfers and lower customer frustration while moving out to a different service provider.

When it comes to its name, calling it “RDAP” or “Lookup” would be a branding error. It would cause some confusion and for those not intimately involved in the industry, who may find it hard to discover the new system.

In my mind, keeping the original nomenclature “Whois”, while making it clear that it’s a newer avatar of the same solution would be the way to go.

Can’t think of a better term than “Whois 2.0”.

Very easy to understand that it’s a newer, more advanced iteration of the same product.

Michele Neylon, CEO, Blacknight

Mugshot

Whois was originally a simple little protocol that allowed network operators to contact each other to address technical issues. It predates the usage of domain names or the “web”.

When domains were introduced the same concept was simply transposed over to the new identifiers.

However over the past 20 plus years the way that people viewed Whois has morphed dramatically. The first time I spoke at an ICANN meeting 12 years ago was on the subject of Whois!

Now the term is used both to talk about the technical protocol, which is being replaced in the gTLD space and the data that it is used to store and possibly display. We talk about “Thin Whois”, “Thick Whois” and so many other services and issues linked back to it.

Whois as a protocol is far from perfect, which is why replacing the technical side of it makes a lot of sense.

So with the world slowly moving towards a new technical method for processing domain registration data then maybe we should come up with another word for it. However I’m not sure if there’s much to be gained by doing that.

We are all used to the floppy disk icon to save a document, even if floppy disks are no longer used. With the term “Whois” being part of people’s vocabulary for the nearly a quarter of a century. it’d be pretty hard to find a simple replacement and have people adopt it widely. Sure, in the more technical conversations it makes sense to use more accurate terms like “RDAP”, but the average punter just wants to be able to use a term that they can understand.

Those of us who work with domains and internet technology in our day jobs might care about the “correct” terminology, but we’re in a minority. We all get excited when the mainstream media picks up on a story involving domain names or the DNS and even gets half of it right! If we conjure up some new term that we think is accurate it’ll take years before anyone outside our bubble is comfortable with it. So I don’t think we should.

We should simply accept that “Whois” is a term used to refer to domain registration data no matter what technology under the hood is used to handle it.

Rick Schwartz, domain investor

MugshotHate to give the same basic answer to two questions in a row, but who cares?

Really!! Who cares? Nobody!

This is inside baseball that doesn’t affect anyone on the entire planet except for a handful of domain investors and ICANN etc.

Call it whatever you like just make sure it’s public info.

Former NTIA chief Redl now working for Amazon

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2019, Domain Policy

David Redl, the former head of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration has joined Amazon as an internet governance advisor, I’ve learned.

I don’t know whether he’s taken a full-time job or is a contractor, but he’s been spotted palling around with Amazon folk at ICANN 66 in Montreal and knowledgeable sources tell me he’s definitely on the payroll.

Redl was assistant secretary at the NTIA until May, when he was reportedly asked to resign over a wireless spectrum issue unrelated to the domain names after just 18 months on the job.

His private sector career prior to NTIA was in the wireless space. I don’t believe he’s ever been employed in the domain industry before.

NTIA is of course the US agency responsible for participating in all matters ICANN, including the ongoing fight over Amazon’s application for the .amazon brand gTLD.

The proposed dot-brand has been in limbo for many years due to the objections of the eight nations of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, which claims cultural rights to the string.

ACTO nations on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee want ICANN to force Amazon back to the negotiating table, to give them more power over the TLD after it launches.

But the NTIA rep on the GAC indicated at the weekend that the US would block any GAC calls for .amazon to be delayed any longer.

As I type these words, the GAC is debating precisely what it should say to ICANN regarding .amazon in its Montreal communique, using competing draft texts submitted by the US and European Commission, and it’s not looking great for ACTO.

As I blogged earlier in the week, another NTIA official, former GAC rep Ashley Heineman, has accepted a job at GoDaddy.

UPDATE: As a commenter points out, Redl last year criticized the revolving door between ICANN and the domain name industry, shortly after Akram Atallah joined Donuts.