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UN ruling may put .io domains at risk

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2019, Domain Policy

The future of .io domains may have been cast into doubt, following a ruling from the UN’s highest court.

The International Court of Justice this afternoon ruled (pdf) by a 13-1 majority that “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible”.

The Chagos Archipelago is a cluster of islands that the UK calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.

It was originally part of Mauritius, but was retained by the UK shortly before Mauritius gained independence in 1968, so a strategic US military base could be built on Diego Garcia, one of the islands.

The native Chagossians were all forcibly relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles over the next several years. Today, most everyone who lives there are British or American military.

But the ICJ ruled today, after decades of Mauritian outrage, that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago”.

So BIOT, if the UK government follows the ruling, may cease to exist in the not-too-distant future.

BIOT’s ccTLD is .io, which has become popular with tech startups over the last few years and has over 270,000 domains.

It’s run by London-based Internet Computer Bureau Ltd, which Afilias bought for $70 million almost two years ago.

Could it soon become a ccTLD without a territory, leaving it open to retirement and removal from the DNS root?

It’s not impossible, but I’ll freely admit that I’m getting into heavy, early speculation here.

There are a lot of moving parts to consider, and at time of writing the UK government has not even stated how it will respond to the non-binding ICJ ruling.

Should the UK abide by the ruling and wind down BIOT, its IO reservation on the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 list could then be removed by the International Standards Organisation.

That would mean .io no longer fits the ICANN criteria for being a ccTLD, leaving it subject to forced retirement.

Retired TLDs are removed from the DNS root, meaning all the second-level domains under them stop working, obviously.

It’s not entirely clear how this would happen. ICANN’s Country Code Names Supporting Organization has not finished work on its policy for the retirement of ccTLDs.

TLDs are certainly not retired overnight, without the chance of an orderly winding-down.

Judging by the current state of ccNSO discussions, it appears that ccTLDs could in future be retired with or without the consent of their registry, with a five-to-10-year clock starting from the string’s removal from the ISO 3166-1 list.

Under existing ICANN procedures, I’m aware of at least two ccTLDs that have been retired in recent years.

Timor-Leste was given .tl a few years after it rebranded from Portuguese Timor, and .tp was removed from the DNS a decade later. It took five years for .an to be retired after the Netherlands Antilles’ split into several distinct territories in 2010.

But there are also weird hangers-on, such as the Soviet Union’s .su, which has an “exceptional reservation” on the ISO list and is still active (and inexplicably popular) as a ccTLD.

As I say, I’m in heavy speculative territory when it comes to .io, but it strikes me that not many registrants will consider when buying their names that the territory their TLD represents may one day simple poof out of existence at the stroke of a pen.

Afilias declined to comment for this article.

Afilias bought .io for $70 million

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2018, Domain Registries

Did you know Afilias owns .io? I didn’t, but it paid $70 million for the popular alternative TLD 18 months ago.

A recently published financial statement in Ireland shows that the company spent $70.17 million cash — a 10x revenue multiple — for 100% of Internet Computer Bureau Ltd in April 2017.

ICB runs .io, .ac and .sh, the ccTLDs for the British Indian Ocean Territories (.io), Ascension Island (.ac), and Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan Da Cunha (.sh).

Afilias has never publicly announced the deal, and I haven’t seen it reported elsewhere, so I thought it was worth blogging up here.

At the time, the deal was characterized to registrars as a back-end contract win.

But it seems that Afilias actually purchased the back-end provider, then migrated (not as smoothly as it usually does) the TLDs over to its own infrastructure.

That would have opened up .io to all the registrars already plugged in to Afilias’ TLDs, potentially greatly increasing its reach.

But it’s probably not just the back-end Afilias has acquired.

Would a registry service provider spend 10 times annual revenue on a ccTLD back-end contractor, unless it had a damn good reason to believe that it would be able to at least recoup its investment, either through a long-term contract or some other mechanism?

It’s quite possible Afilias actually bought the .io ccTLD Manager.

The ccTLD Manager listed by ICANN in the IANA database is “IO Top Level Domain Registry”, but “c/o Sure (Diego Garcia) Limited”. That changed a week or so ago from “IO Top Level Domain Registry, Cable & Wireless”

Sure is the arm of telecommunications firm Cable & Wireless that provides internet access to remote islands in various parts of the world.

I don’t know what “IO Top Level Domain Registry” is.

Afilias tells me confidentiality arrangements are in place.

.io has proven popular as a TLD for technology startup companies that couldn’t get the .com they wanted.

Across its small portfolio, ICB was a $6.9 million business last year, but .io, with a reported 270,000 domains, must account for the large majority of that.

Due to the timing of the deal, ICB contributed $5.3 million to Afilias’ top line and was the main reason its revenue grew last year, its 2017 accounts reveal.

In 2017, Afilias saw revenue grow from $106.7 million to $113.6 million. Profit before tax was down slightly, from $38.6 million to $36 million

Again, that was due largely to ICB, which contributed $1.4 million of red ink to the bottom line.

Afilias is a private company, by the way, which is why these numbers all refer to 2017. It’s the final full year of it being based in Ireland, before its move to the US for tax reasons.

The disclosure also reveals that Afilias took a 45% stake in Dot Global, manager of the .global gTLD registry, in December 2017.

Dot Global had revenue of $1.9 million and a $320,000 loss last year, the report states.

doMEn, the Montenegro ccTLD (.me) operator in which Afilias has a 36.85% share, made a profit of $2.59 million on revenue of $7.39 million, it says. Both of those numbers were down slightly on 2016.

Afilias also says in the filing that it expects revenue to be down in 2018, due to the renegotiation of back-end contracts. I gather the contract with Public Interest Registry, which reportedly could cost about $10 million a year, is the main problem.

Given the accounts were signed off in May this year, it seems that this decline is expected despite the lucrative .au ccTLD contract, which Afilias signed at the end of 2017.

Start-ups protest “the dark side of .io”

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2015, Domain Registries

Two technology start-up companies that use .io domain name are to campaign on behalf of the exiled natives of the islands represented by the ccTLD.

As you’re no doubt aware, in recent years .io became a popular TLD among young tech firms squeezed out of .com by the lack of decent available names.

It could be understood to mean “input/output”, but the ccTLD actually represents the British Indian Ocean Territory, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean with a storied past.

It’s managed by UK-based Internet Computer Bureau, which runs several obscure overseas ccTLDs.

Over the last year or so, there’s been increasing awareness among .io registrants of BIOT’s recent history, which isn’t great.

The biggest island in the territory is Diego Garcia. In the 1960s, about 1,800 people — known as Chagossians — lived there.

But they were all forced to leave by the UK government in the early 1970s as part of a move to lease essentially the entire island to the US military.

This was at the height of the Cold War, when the US believed the islands were strategically important.

According to the UK Chagos Support Association, the exile was carried out covertly and many of those kicked off the islands were forced to live in “utmost poverty” in nearby Mauritius.

Now, Diego Garcia is populated by about 3,000 military personnel, mostly Americans, who staff the air and naval bases that were established following the Chagossians’ exile.

But the US lease is due to expire next year, so those backing the Chagossian cause reckon they’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to get the UK government to let them return.

You can read about the campaign here.

How does this all relate to domain names?

Two .io-using start-ups — Seats.io and BigBoards.io — said late last week that they have pledged their support to the cause.

In a press release, Seats.io’s “Chief Everything Officer” Ben Verbeken said the company will soon launch a web site at thedarksideof.io, “where companies can pledge to match the cost of registering their .io domain name with a donation to a Chagossian group or charity.”

.io names currently cost about $100 for the first year and about $50 a year thereafter.

Verbeken said: “When we learned about the Chagossian people’s story, we had two choices. We could give up our domain name and change the name of our business. But we would just be running away from the problem. So we decided to accept our social responsibility and actually help the Chagossian people a bit.”

The domain thedarksideof.io currently leads to a placeholder.

You can read more of the political back-story at The Guardian