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Trojan TLDs to get more scrutiny

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN has proposed a new policy for its new top-level domain program that would make it harder for community-based TLDs to liberalize their registration policies after they launch.

The idea is to prevent a replay of the recent .jobs controversy, in which registry Employ Media substantially altered its business model after failing to sell enough .jobs domains.

Because the Applicant Guidebook gives “community” TLD applications an opportunity to avoid a potentially costly auction if their TLD is contested by multiple applicants, there’s a risk of gaming.

Under the current rules, a company could win a contested TLD without paying big bucks, by promising to restrict it to a narrowly defined community of registrants.

It could later attempt to change its rules via ICANN’s Registry Services Evaluation Process to broaden or limit its potential customer base, potentially harming others in the community.

I call these Trojan TLDs.

Employ Media, for example, restricted .jobs domains to the names of companies, but now has licensed thousands of geographical and vocational generic names to a partner, over the objections of major jobs search engines such as Monster.com.

Under ICANN’s proposed policies (pdf), community TLDs would still have to pass through the RSEP, but they’d also be subject to a review under the Community Priority Evaluation.

The CPE is already in the Guidebook. It will be used to score applications based on the strength of community support. To avoid an auction, you need to score 14 out of 16 points.

ICANN now suggests that the CPE criteria could also be used to evaluate what it calls a “Community gTLD Change proposal” made by a TLD registry post-launch.

The new score would be used to determine whether to accept or reject the change:

If the sum of all identified score changes for the first three CPE criteria is zero or positive, the recommendation would be to accept the proposal, regardless of any relevant opposition identified. If the sum is minus one, the recommendation would be to accept the proposal, unless there is relevant opposition from a group of non-negligible size, in which case the recommendation would be to reject the proposal. If the sum is minus two or lower, the recommendation would be to reject the proposal.

The ICANN board would be able to deviate from the CPE recommendation, as long as it stated its reasons for doing so, and the registry would have the right to appeal that decision under the existing Reconsideration Request process.

These rules would apply to all new TLDs that designate themselves as community-based, apparently regardless of whether they successfully passed the CPE during the application process.

The rules are presented as a “discussion draft”, but I don’t think they’re going to be opened to official public comment.

Coalition complains to ICANN about Universe.jobs

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2011, Domain Registries

The .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition thinks Employ Media is violating its own policies by allowing Universe.jobs to be launched, and has complained to ICANN.

Coalition chief John Bell said the group, which comprises jobs sites such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com, “filed a formal notice” with ICANN’s compliance department December 17.

That was just one week after ICANN’s board of directors, at the Cartagena meeting, passed a resolution calling for ICANN staff to “closely monitor” the registry for charter violations.

“We are confident that ICANN is taking our claims seriously and we are looking forward to a favorable decision,” Bell said.

Universe.jobs was turned on by the DirectEmployers Association last week, using hundreds of generic domains, after ICANN give the registry the all-clear to start selling non-company-name domains.

The issue is whether this independent jobs board, which is fed traffic from domains such as usa.jobs, texas.jobs and marketing.jobs, is a permissible use of .jobs domains.

The Coalition thinks it isn’t. Employ Media thinks it is.

The Coalition has also apparently complained about NativeAmerican.jobs, another employer-independent jobs site, on behalf of NativeAmericanJobs.com.

Universe.jobs launches with hundreds of premium domains

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2011, Domain Registries

The controversial Universe.jobs project has soft-launched, offering jobs listings at hundreds of premium geographic and vocational .jobs domains.

Country and state domains such as usa.jobs, gbr.jobs and texas.jobs, as well as industry domains such as firefighter.jobs and journalist.jobs are live and resolving.

If you visit, say, usa.jobs or rus.jobs, you’ll be presented with a bunch of job listings from the USA or Russia. If you visit retail.jobs, you’ll be bounced to usa.jobs/retail (at least, I was).

Even combinations, such as texas.nursing.jobs, seem to work.

I’ve no idea how many domains have been activated this way, but since all the geographics seem to be active I’m guessing it’s at least several hundred at the second-level.

The site, which is presented as a service of the DirectEmployers Association’s National Labor Exchange, currently says it’s in beta.

But the big questions now are: is this legit, and who owns the domains?

Employ Media, the .jobs registry, had to fight ICANN and mainstream commercial jobs boards in order to drop the contractual restrictions that previously limited .jobs to company names.

But some argued that, despite the relaxation of the string restrictions, employer-independent jobs sites such as Universe.jobs would still be verboten under Employ Media’s charter.

The .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition, made up of newspaper associations and boards such as Monster.com, tried to get ICANN to reconsider its decision, but failed (kinda).

While the Coalition’s Reconsideration Request was unsuccessful, ICANN did say it will start to monitor Employ Media for compliance with its charter more closely.

More interestingly, perhaps, during the ICANN investigation Employ Media abruptly dropped plans to create a “self-managed” class of domains – names registered to itself, but “used” by third parties such as DirectEmployers.

Did it make good on its promise? It’s difficult to be certain, because the Whois for the many of the domains in question seems to be broken.

I’ve been able to establish that some older domains, such as usa.jobs and nursing.jobs, currently belong to DirectEmployers, but trying to figure out who owns some of the more recently registered geographical .jobs names is an excruciating process.

The Whois link buried at the bottom of the official Employ Media web site directs you to the Whois service provided by VeriSign (which runs the back-end registry infrastructure for .jobs).

VeriSign’s tool does not return the name of the registrant, only details such as the registration date, associated name servers, and the URL of the appropriate registrar’s Whois server.

In the case of all these geo domains, the registrar appears to be NameShare. The Whois server URL given by VeriSign points to a second tool, at whois.nameshare.com, that doesn’t work.

If you try to query, for example, usa.jobs (after filling out the Captcha) you get this message:

[r3] Error Message: Unsupported TLD .jobs

If you visit the NameShare homepage, you will be able to find a third .jobs Whois tool, at whois-jobs.nameshare.com/whois/. This doesn’t seem to work properly either.

This tool will tell you that the domain usa.jobs belongs to DirectEmployers.

However, almost every other Universe.jobs-related domain that I queried returned a “not found” message, even when the domain resolves and the VeriSign tools says it’s been registered for over a month.

I’m not sure what’s going on. Some kind of technical problem, no doubt.

ICANN to tackle Trojan TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2010, Domain Registries

When failing community-based top-level domain registries attempt to change their business models, ICANN may in future have a new way of dealing with them.

That seems to be a possible result of Employ Media’s controversial .jobs liberalization plans and the subsequent Reconsideration Request, which I blogged about last week.

The .jobs reconsideration revealed that not only are Reconsideration Requests a rubbish way to appeal ICANN’s decisions, but also that the Registry Services Evaluation Process is often a rubbish way to handle major contract changes.

The RSEP was introduced back in 2005 in belated response to a couple of controversial “services” that VeriSign, testing boundaries, had planned to unilaterally introduce in the .com registry, notably Site Finder and the Waiting List Service.

But since then the process has been used as a general-purpose tool for requesting changes to registry contracts, even when it’s debatable whether the changes fit the definition of “registry services”.

For example, when .jobs launched five years ago, it was put into Employ Media’s contract that the TLD was designed for companies to register their brands and list their jobs, and that’s all.

But that model didn’t work. It’s one of the least successful TLDs out there.

So the registry decided it could make more money with general purpose jobs boards, using generic .jobs domains. But it did not necessarily want to let existing independent jobs sites take part.

For want of a better term, I’ll call this an example of a “Trojan” TLD – a registry that gets its attractive TLD string approved by ICANN after making a certain set of promises, then later decides to move the goal posts to broaden its market, potentially disenfranchising others.

I’ve no reason to believe it was a premeditated strategy in Employ Media’s case, but precedent has now been set for future TLD applicants to use “community” as a foot in the door for broader aspirations.

To take a stupid, extreme, unrealistic example, imagine that ICM Registry’s .xxx flops badly. Should the company be allowed to start selling all the good .xxx domains to churches and other anti-porn campaigners? That would be a pretty big departure from its promises.

There were similar concerns, although not nearly as loudly expressed, with regards to Telnic’s recent contract changes, which will allow it to start registering phone number domain names in .tel, despite years of promises that it would not.

Go Daddy’s policy chief Tim Ruiz objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would be “unfair to other [.tel] applicants and potential applicants to allow an sTLD to change its purpose after the fact.”

The ICANN Board Governance Committee, which handles Reconsideration Requests, acknowledged these problems in its decision on .jobs in Cartagena (pdf), concluding that it:

thinks that the Board should address the need for a process to evaluate amendments that may have the effect of changing, or seeking to change, an sTLD Charter or Stated Purpose of a sponsored, restricted or community-based TLD.

The BGC seems to be saying that the RSEP is not up to the task of dealing with community-based TLDs that later decide their business plans are not the money-spinners they had hoped and want to loosen up their agreed community restrictions.

The committee went on to say that:

Because such a process may impact gTLDs greatly and is a policy issue, the GNSO is the natural starting point for evaluating such a process. We therefore further recommend that the Board direct the CEO to create a briefing paper for the GNSO to consider on this matter, and for the GNSO to determine whether a policy development process should be commenced.

So the GNSO will soon have to decide whether new policies are needed to deal with broad contract changes at failing community TLDs.

Any new policies would, I believe, be binding on community TLDs approved under the new gTLD program as well as older sTLDs, so it will be an interesting policy track to follow.

Did .jobs win or lose in Cartagena?

Kevin Murphy, December 17, 2010, Domain Registries

Employ Media, the .jobs registry, had a victory in Cartagena last week, when the ICANN board voted not to overturn its August decision to allow .jobs to relax its registration policies.

The company will now be able to continue with its RFP process, allocate premium generic .jobs domains to its partners, auction them, and generally liberalize the namespace.

But the registry may not have got everything it wanted.

For at least a year, Employ Media, along with the DirectEmployers Association, has been pushing the idea of creating a massive free jobs board called universe.jobs.

The site would be fed traffic from thousands of premium geographic domains such as newyork.jobs, texas.jobs and canada.jobs, as well as vocational names such as nursing.jobs and sales.jobs.

Because Employ Media was previously only allowed to sell domains that corresponded to the names of companies, such as ibm.jobs and walmart.jobs, it asked ICANN to change its contract to allow these new classes of generic names to be registered.

The registry submitted a Registry Services Evaluation Process request, which was approved by the ICANN board in early August. The contract was amended shortly thereafter.

A few weeks later, a group of jobs sites including Monster.com, calling itself the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition, filed a Reconsideration Request, asking ICANN to reverse its decision.

The Coalition was concerned that the contract changes would enable universe.jobs, creating a potentially huge competitor with an unfair SEO advantage, while continuing to prohibit independent jobs sites from registering .jobs domains.

While the .jobs contract had been amended, the .Jobs Charter, which restricts those who can register .jobs domains to members of the human resources community, was not.

This potentially presented a problem for universe.jobs, as DirectEmployers may not have qualified to be a registrant under the charter.

But Employ Media’s RSEP proposal talked about creating a “self-managed class” of domains – the domains would belong to the registry but would be shared with third parties such as DirectEmployers.

That would have created an interesting precedent – registries would be able to keep hold of premium generic domain names and allow them to be “used” by only partner companies that agree to enter into revenue-sharing agreements.

But that “implementation method was withdrawn” by Employ Media after the ICANN Board Governance Committee asked about it as part of its Reconsideration Request investigation.

The BGC, while rejecting the Coalition’s request (pdf), also asked ICANN’s compliance department to keep a close eye on Employ Media, to make sure it does not overstep the bounds of its charter:

the BGC recommends that the Board direct the CEO, and General Counsel and Secretary, to ensure that ICANN’s Contractual Compliance Department closely monitor Employ Media’s compliance with its Charter

Even though its Reconsideration Request was denied, the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition counted both of these developments as a big win for its campaign, saying in a press release:

Given the Board’s commitment to aggressively monitor Employ Media’s implementation of the Phased Allocation Program, the Coalition is highly confident that ICANN will not permit Employ Media to register domain names to “independent job site operators” for purposes of operating job sites.

So does this mean that universe.jobs is dead?

Apparently not. Talk in the halls at the ICANN Cartagena meeting last week leads me to believe that the registry has figured out a way to launch the service anyway.

And DirectEmployers this Monday published a white paper (pdf), dated January 2011, which says universe.jobs will launch early next year.

DirectEmployers declined to immediately comment on its plans when I inquired this week, and the white paper sheds little light on the technicalities of the plan.

Judging from a promotion currently being run by EnCirca, a .jobs registrar, it seems that companies will only be able to list their jobs on universe.jobs if they own their own companyname.jobs domain.

EnCirca’s offer, which alludes to the .jobs sponsor, the Society for Human Resources Management, a “SHRM special“, says:

NEWS ALERT: December 13, 2010: ICANN has RE-CONFIRMED the .Jobs registry’s plan to allocate generic occupational and geographic-related .jobs domain names. Register your companyname.jobs to be part of this new initiative.

It will be interesting to see how domain allocations are ultimately handled.

While Employ Media’s request for proposals is ostensibly open, it looks a little bit like a smokescreen for its plan to hand big chunks of the .jobs namespace to the universe.jobs project.

But who will be the registrant of these domains? And will the allocations violate the .jobs charter? Will the registry carry on with its plan to create new “self-managed” class of domain names?

I think we’re going to have to wait for the new year to find out.