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Next new gTLD round unlikely before 2022

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN is unlikely to accept any more new gTLD applications until a full decade has passed since the last round was open.

That’s the conclusion of some ICANN community members working on rules for the next round.

Speaking at ICANN 61 in Puerto Rico this weekend, Jeff Neuman, co-chair of the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Working group, presented a “best case” timetable for the next round.

The timetable would see the next new gTLD application window opening in the first quarter of 2021, nine years after the 2012 round.

But Neuman acknowledged that the timeline would require all parts of the ICANN community — working groups, GNSO Council, board of directors, staff — to work at their most efficient.

With that in mind, 2021 seems optimistic.

“Even if we hit the 2021 date, that’s still a decade after the launch of the last round, which is crazy,” Neuman said.

Slide

The timetable assumes the GNSO wraps up its policy development a year from now, with the ICANN board approving the policy mid-2019.

It then gives the ICANN staff about six months to publish an updated Applicant Guidebook, and assumes whatever is produced is approved within about six months, after the first pass of public comments.

It’s worth noting that the 2012 round’s AGB hit its first draft in 2008 and went through half a dozen revisions over three years before it was finalized, though one imagines there would be less wheel-reinventing required next time around.

After the board gives the AGB the final nod, the timeline assumes ICANN staff about six months to “operationalize” the program.

But one unidentified ICANN staffer, who said she was “the person that will be ultimately responsible for the implementation” of whatever the GNSO comes up with, said during this weekend’s session that she doubted this was realistic.

She said ICANN the organization would need “at least 12 months” between the ICANN board approving the AGB and the application window opening. That would push the window to late 2021.

The Subsequent Procedures policy work is of course not the only gating factor to the next round.

There’s also a potential bottleneck in work being carried out to review rights protection mechanisms, where fears of filibustering have emerged in an already fractious working group.

All things considered, I wouldn’t place any bets on an application window opening as early as 2021.

Donuts scraps 200 companies, consolidates under Binky Moon

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has consolidated all of its original portfolio of new gTLD contracts under a single LLC, scrapping almost 200 shell companies in the process.

At least 196 contracts, each of which were originally allocated to a unique LLC, have been assigned now to Binky Moon LLC.

This seems to have happened back in late November, but ICANN only added the transfers to its published list of reassignments last week.

When Donuts applied for over 300 gTLDs back in 2012, each application belonged to a different shell company. Apparently randomly generated names — such as New Sky LLC, Sand Shadow LLC and Bitter Fields LLC — were chosen for each.

This was for “tax and other purposes” that made sense when Donuts was a new company, I’m told.

Now, with Donuts by one measure the fastest-growing tech company in the world, it made more sense to “retire” the old LLCs and realize the “operational efficiencies” of consolidation, a spokesperson said.

Not all of Donuts’ contracts belong to Binky Moon. When the company acquired 2003-round .travel last month it assigned the Registry Agreement to Dog Beach LLC.

ICANNWiki fans protest funding cut

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN should continue to fund the independent ICANNWiki project, according to high-profile industry supporters.

As I first reported back in December, ICANN plans to stop giving a $100,000 annual grant to ICANNWiki, a repository of about 6,000 community-sourced articles on the people and organizations involved in the ICANN community.

While ICANNWiki does not merit an explicit mention in ICANN’s latest proposed budget, both organizations have confirmed to DI that the funding is for the chop, as ICANN attempts to rein in spending in the face of depressed revenue.

About a quarter of the 41 comments filed on the budget express support for the wiki.

Consultant Kurt Pritz, a 10-year veteran of ICANN and one of the key architects of its new gTLD program, wrote that the wiki “has been an essential part of the ICANN culture for many years… often saving ICANN meetings from terminal ennui.”

Roland LaPlante, chief marketing officer of Afilias (one of about 15 sponsors listed on ICANNWiki’s front page), wrote:

The complete withdrawal of funding from ICANN so abruptly not only threatens the viability of the project, but rather disrespectfully junks the valuable time and resources that the community has invested over the years. Ultimately the loss of ICANNWiki would be a loss to our overall sense of community.

ICANN should continue to support ICANNWiki at a reasonable level in the next fiscal year. At a minimum, please consider giving the team time to find other sources of funding.

Sandeep Ramchandani, CEO of Radix, concurred, writing:

ICANNNWiki benefits the entire ICANN community. Cutting the funding entirely would effectively halt its operations and be a disservice to the community it serves. It is in ICANN and the community’s best interest to continue funding it in an amount that works for ICANN long-term, and provide ICANNWiki sufficient time to develop a more sustainable business plan.

Simon Cousins, CEO of Chinese market localization specialist Allegravita, said:

Before ICANNWiki, there was precious little information on industry fundamentals in China, and since Allegravita has supported the pro-bono translation of ICANNWiki content into Chinese, the vital platform that is ICANNWiki has been acknowledged hundreds of times.

We do not support the immediate and full withdrawal of funding for ICANNWiki. We guardedly support incremental, annual decreases to give ICANNWiki the time necessary to generate new sponsorship income to cover their costs.

Pablo Rodriguez of .pr ccTLD operator PRTLD, host of ICANN 61 and an ICANNWiki sponsor, wrote:

We believe that they should not be cut out from the ICANN’s Budget, instead, they should be supported and embraced to continue their engaging approach and work with ICANN’s Community and as well newcomers, veterans, special programming for beginners and others in order to deliver what is ICANN and what does the organization do and so forth.

Several other commentators on ICANN’s budget asked ICANN to maintain the funding and I was unable to find any comments supporting its withdrawal.

It’s worth noting that ICANN’s $100,000 is not ICANNWiki’s only financial support. It says it receives an additional $61,000 a year from corporate sponsorship, and as a wiki much of its output is produced by volunteers.

It has been in existence for a decade, but ICANN has only been giving it money for three years.

The costs associated with running it appear to be mostly centered not on maintaining the web site but on its outreach and promotional activities, such as attending meetings and the popular caricatures and card decks it distributes.

It could be argued that ICANNWiki is pretty good value for money when compared to cost of a dedicated outreach professional (the average cost of an ICANN staffer has been estimated at $175,000+ in the latest budget).

ICANNWiki will host an “Edit-A-Thon” during the current ICANN 61 public meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Tuesday at 0900 local time.

Is ICANN still over-estimating revenue from “stagnating” gTLD industry?

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN may have slashed millions from its revenue estimate for next year, but it has not slashed deeply enough, according to registrars and others.

Industry growth is flat, and below even ICANN’s “worst case” expectations for the fiscal year starting July 1, registrars told the organization in comments filed on its FY19 budget last week.

The Registrars Stakeholder Group said that “the FY 2019 budget fails to recognize that overall industry growth is flat.”

ICANN’s budget foresees FY19 revenue of $138 million, up $3.5 million on the projected result for FY18.

“These revenue projections presume growth in the domain market that is not aligned with industry expectations,” the RrSG said, pointing to sources such as Verisign’s Domain Name Industry Brief, which calculated 1% industry growth last year.

ICANN’s predictions are based on previous performance and fail to take into account historical “one-time events”, such as the Chinese domain speculation boom of a couple years ago, that probably won’t be repeated, RrSG said.

RrSG also expects the number of accredited registrars to decrease due to industry consolidation and drop-catching registrars reducing their stables of shell accreditations.

(I’ll note here that Web.com has added half a dozen drop-catchers to its portfolio in just the last few weeks, but this goes against the grain of recent trends and may be an aberration.)

RrSG said ICANN’s budget should account for reduced or flat accreditation fee revenue (which as far as I can tell it already does).

The comment, which can be read in full here, concludes:

Taken together, these concerns represent a disconnect between ICANN funding projections, and the revenue expectations of Registrars (and presumably, gTLD Registries) from which these funds are derived. In our view, ICANN’s assessment of budgetary “risks” are too optimistic , and actual performance for FY19 will be significant lower.

For what it’s worth, the Registries Stakeholder Group had this to say about ICANN’s revenue estimates:

Reliable forecasts, characterised by their scrutiny and realism, are fundamental to put together a realistic budget and to avoid unpleasant surprises, such as the shortage ICANN is experiencing in the current fiscal year. The RySG advises ICANN to continue to conduct checks on its forecasts and to re-evaluate the methodology used to predict its income in order to prevent another funding shortfall such as that which the organization experienced in FY18.

Community calls on ICANN to cut staff spending

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN should look internally to cut costs before swinging the scythe at the volunteer community.

That’s a key theme to emerge from many comments filed by the community last week on ICANN’s fiscal 2019 budget, which sees spending on staff increase even as revenue stagnates and cuts are made in other key areas.

ICANN said in January that it would have to cut $5 million from its budget for the year beginning July 1, 2018, largely due to a massive downwards revision in how many new gTLD domains it expects the industry to process.

At the same time, the organization said it will increase its payroll by $7.3 million, up to $76.8 million, with headcount swelling to 425 by the end of the fiscal year and staff receiving on average a 2% pay rise.

In comments filed on the budget, many community members questioned whether this growth can be justified.

Among the most diplomatic objections came from the GNSO Council, which said:

In principle, the GNSO Council believes that growth of staff numbers should only occur under explicit justification and replacements due to staff attrition should always occur with tight scrutiny; especially in times of stagnate funding levels.

The Council added that it is not convinced that the proposed budget funds the policy work it needs to do over the coming year.

The Registrars Stakeholder Group noted the increased headcount with concern and said:

Given the overall industry environment where organizations are being asked to do more with less, we are not convinced these additional positions are needed… The RrSG is not yet calling for cuts to ICANN Staff, we believe the organization should strive to maintain headcount at FY17 Actual year-end levels.

The RrSG shared the GNSO Council’s concern that policy work, ICANN’s raison d’etre, may suffer under the proposed budget.

The At-Large Advisory Committee said it “does not support the direction taken in this budget”, adding:

Specifically we see an increase in staff headcount and personnel costs while services to the community have been brutally cut. ICANN’s credibility rests upon the multistakeholder model, and cuts that jeopardize that model should not be made unless there are no alternatives and without due recognition of the impact.

Staff increases may well be justified, but we must do so we a real regard to costs and benefits, and these must be effectively communicated to the community

ALAC is concerned that the budget appears to cut funding to many projects that see ICANN reach out to, and fund participation by, non-industry potential community members.

Calling for “fiscal prudence”, the Intellectual Property Constituency said it “encourages ICANN to take a hard look at personnel costs and the use of outside professional services consultants.”

The IPC is also worried that ICANN may have underestimated the costs of its contractual compliance programs.

The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group had some strong words:

The organisation’s headcount, and personnel costs, cannot continue to grow. We feel strongly that the proposal to grow headcount by 25 [Full-Time Employees] to 425 FTE in a year where revenue has stagnated cannot be justified.

With 73% of the overall budget now being spent on staff and professional services, there is an urgent need to see this spend decrease over time… there is a need to stop the growth in the size of the staff, and to review staff salaries, bonuses, and fringe benefits.

NCSG added that ICANN could perhaps reduce costs by relocating some positions from its high-cost Los Angeles headquarters to the “global south”, where the cost of living is more modest.

The ccNSO Strategic and Operational Planning Standing Committee was the only commentator, that I could find, to straight-up call for a freeze in staff pay rises. While also suggesting moving staff to less costly parts of the globe, it said:

The SOPC – as well as many other community stakeholders – seem to agree that ICANN staff are paid well enough, and sometimes even above market average. Considering the current DNS industry trends and forecasts, tougher action to further limit or even abolish the annual rise in compensation would send a strong positive signal to the community.

It’s been suggested that, when asked to find areas to cut, ICANN department heads prioritized retaining their own staff, which is why we’re seeing mainly cuts to community funding.

I’ve only summarized the comments filed by formal ICANN structures here. Other individuals and organizations filing comments in their own capacity expressed similar views.

I was unable to find a comment explicitly supporting increased staffing costs. Some groups, such as the Registries Stakeholder Group, did not address the issue directly.

While each commentator has their own reasons for wanting to protect the corner of the budget they tap into most often, it’s a rare moment when every segment of the community (commercial and non-commercial, domain industry and IP interests) seem to be on pretty much the same page on an issue.