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Registrars say Amazon is “closing” open gTLD

Kevin Murphy, April 25, 2016, Domain Registries

A group comprising some of the largest domain registrars has claimed Amazon is attempting to close off a new gTLD that it previously indicated would be unrestricted.

The 12-strong group, which includes Go Daddy, Network Solutions and Tucows, also claims that the company’s proposal for a “Registration Authentication Platform” is anti-competitive.

The complaints follow Amazon’s filing of a Registry Services Evaluation Process request with ICANN in March.

The RSEP speaks in broad terms about rejigging the conventional domain registration path so that all .moi sales are funneled through Amazon’s registry site, where registrants will have their eligibility verified and then be offered a set of add-on “technology tools” before being bounced back to their chosen registrar.

Amazon hasn’t said who will be eligible to register .moi domains, nor has it explained what technology tools it plans to offer. I expect the tools will include things such as hosting and security, where many registrars currently make money.

Unsurprisingly, many registrars are not happy about these vague proposals.

In a comment (pdf) to the RSEP filed yesterday, they said:

Ultimately, the use of pre-registration verification and “optional” value added services will negatively impact competition. By tying both practices in a TLD, a TLD Operator can create a “captive audience” via the pre-registration verification and then offering optional services. This will effectively bypass the existing registration and purchase process, putting TLD Operator in a privileged position. The TLD is set up to capture customers earned via the Registrars marketing efforts to promote its own tools and services.

It’s not unusual for “sponsored” or “restricted” gTLDs to implement registry-side verification, they admitted, but said that .moi is meant to be “open”.

They wrote:

While this practice is not explicitly prohibited under gTLDs, we believe that post-delegation inclusion of these practices should only be allowed in compelling circumstances because they are, in effect, retroactively “closing” what was applied for and approved to be operated as an open, generic TLD.

Amazon’s application for .moi, like all of its new gTLD applications, is not entirely clear on what the company’s plans are. There’s vague talk about eligibility, but no details and nothing substantial to suggest a tightly restricted zone.

The signatories to the registrar comment represent the majority of registered domain names. They are: Astutium, Blacknight Internet Solutions, Domain.com, EuroDNS, GoDaddy.com, OpenproviderNetEarth One, Key-Systems, Netistrar, Network Solutions, Nordreg, Realtime Register, Tucows Domains.

One registrar, Com Laude, whose sister company Valideus handles Amazon’s gTLD applications, wrote a comment (pdf) expressing the opposite view.

Com Laude says that it’s not unusual for registries to require registry-side verification. It points to .bank, .pharmacy and .travel as examples.

The company also claims that the 12 registrars are in essence complaining about the idea of vertical integration — where registries and registrars are under common ownership — which is already in place at companies such as Uniregistry and Rightside.

Com Laude’s Jeff Neuman wrote:

We do not believe that it is unacceptable for a company like Amazon to do what these other companies have been doing for some time. To apply different standards to Amazon Registry than it does for each of the other vertically integrated entities would single them out for disparate treatment – especially when there is no factual basis to believe that Amazon Registry has not adhered to its vertical integration-related obligations under the Registry Agreement.

What’s going on here, I suspect, is a bit of a proxy war.

Neither Amazon nor the registrars care a great deal about .moi, I think. The gTLD is merely a canary for Amazon’s 30-odd yet-to-be-launched gTLDs. The company has the rights to potentially more attractive strings, including .book, .song and .tunes.

Amazon originally wanted to make these strings “closed generics”, or what ICANN calls “exclusive access” gTLDs, where only Amazon could register names.

It has since disavowed such plans, but still hasn’t said who will be able to register names in its portfolio or how they will prove eligibility.

.moi was not originally identified as a closed generic by ICANN, but it could represent a model for what Amazon plans to do with the rest of its stable.

Amazon plotting registrar workaround?

Amazon has given an early hint at how it may manage its new gTLD registries.

The company seems to be planning to make its own web site the place to go to for its new gTLD domains, relegating registrars to secondary players in the sales path.

It also seems to be planning to up-sell registrants with services, possibly including hosting, before they even get to the registrar’s storefront.

Amazon has filed a Registry Services Evaluation Process request with ICANN, relating to its gTLD .moi (French for “.me”) covering a “Registration Authentication Platform”.

.moi isn’t a brand, but Amazon says it plans to verify registrant “eligibility” before allowing a registration to take place.

To date, it has not revealed what the eligibility requirements for .moi are.

Its RSEP filing says that it intends to offer registrants a suite of optional add-on “technology tools or applications” at the point of verification.

Crucially, that’s before they get bounced to their registrar of choice to actually register the name.

Amazon is basically putting its up-sell pitch into the sales path before registrars get to do the same.

The RSEP explains it like this:

After the customer selects the Technology Tools of interest and/or ancillary products or services (if any), the customer will select its registrar of choice from among the complete list of .MOI-accredited registrars and be directed to that registrar’s site to permit that registrar to collect the required registrant information for the domain name registration, and to submit payment for the selected .MOI domain name. Upon completion of these steps, the registrar, through the normal EPP processes, shall transmit the required registration information to the Registry and the .MOI domain name shall be registered. A customer that first visits a .MOI-accredited registrar’s website will be directed to the Registry’s .MOI website to undergo the process noted above. After pre-registration policy verification, those customers will be transitioned back to the originating registrar’s site.

The RSEP does not explain what the “technology tools” are, but I’d be very surprised if they did not include for example web hosting, a staple higher-margin registrar product.

It’s not entirely clear what, if any, consultations Amazon has had with registrars regarding its proposals. The RSEP language is evasive:

Amazon Registry reached out to several registrars to have general discussions about their experience with pre-registration policy verification and how that experience (including customer experience) could be improved. Any consultations that may have occurred regarding the Technology Tools and the ancillary products and services would have occurred subject to a Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement and cannot be disclosed.

Currently, the RSEP only covers .moi. Amazon would have to file additional RSEPs if it wanted the new service applied to its 32-TLD-strong portfolio, which includes the likes of .book, .song and .tunes.

ICANN has already made a preliminary determination that the RSEP “does not raise significant competition, security or stability issues”.

As usual, there’s a public comment period, which ends April 14.