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Should .com get a thick Whois?

Kevin Murphy, September 23, 2011, Domain Registries

The ICANN community has taken another baby step towards pushing VeriSign into implementing a “thick” Whois database for .com and .net domain names.

The GNSO Council yesterday voted to ask ICANN to prepare an Issue Report exploring whether to require “all incumbent gTLDs” to operate a thick Whois. Basically, that means VeriSign.

The .com and .net registries currently run on a “thin” model, whereby each accredited registrar manages their own Whois databases.

Most other gTLDs today run thick registries, as will all registries approved by ICANN under its forthcoming new gTLDs program.

The thinness of .com can cause problems during inter-registrar transfers, when gaining and losing registrars have no central authoritative database of registrant contact details to rely upon.

In fact, yesterday’s GNSO vote followed the recommendations of a working group that decided after much deliberation that a thick .com registry may help reduce bogus or contested transfers.

Trusting registrars to manage their own Whois is also a frequent source of frustration for law enforcement, trademark interests and anti-spam firms.

Failure to maintain a functional web-based or port 43 Whois interface is an often-cited problem when ICANN’s compliance department terminates rogue registrars.

Now that an Issue Report has been requested by the GNSO, the idea of a thick .com moves closer to a possible Policy Development Process, which in turn can create binding ICANN consensus policies.

There’s already a clause in VeriSign’s .com registry agreement that gives ICANN the right to demand that it creates a centralized Whois database.

Switching to a thick model would presumably not only transfer responsibility to VeriSign, but also cost and liability, which is presumably why the company seems to be resisting the move.

Don’t expect the changes to come any time soon.

Writing the Issue Report is not expected to be a priority for ICANN staff, due to their ongoing chronic resource problems, and any subsequent PDP could take years.

The alternative – for ICANN and VeriSign to come to a bilateral agreement when the .com contract comes up for renewal next year – seems unlikely given that ICANN did not make a similar requirement when .net was renegotiated earlier this year.

VeriSign to raise .com and .net prices again

VeriSign has announced price increases for .com and .net domain name registrations.

From January 15, 2012, .com registry prices will increase from $7.34 to $7.85 and .net fees will go up from $4.65 to $5.11.

That’s a 10% increase for .net and a 7% increase for .com, the maximum allowable under its registry agreements with ICANN.

As ever, registrants have six months to lock down their domains at current pricing by renewing for periods of up to 10 years.

The last time VeriSign raised prices, also by 7% and 10%, the higher prices became effective a year ago, July 2010.

VeriSign’s contract for .net was renewed last month after it was approved by the ICANN board of directors.

Its .com contract comes up for renewal next year.

VeriSign’s .net contract renewed

VeriSign has been given the nod to continue to run the .net domain registry after a vote by ICANN’s board of directors today.

The vote was 14-0, with director Bertrand De La Chappelle abstaining without explanation.

The renewal is hardly surprising – nobody thought for a second that VeriSign would fail to retain the contract – but the deal was controversial anyway, due to a Boing-Boing misunderstanding.

The contract still allows VeriSign to carry on raising prices, by up to 10% in any given year, and it still calls for ICANN to receive $0.75 per domain, which currently adds up to over $10 million a year.

The money is still ostensibly earmarked for special projects including extending ICANN’s outreach into developing nations and DNS security, and the resolution passed by the board today says:

ICANN commits to provide annual reporting on the use of these funds from .NET transaction fees.

This is presumably designed to address criticisms that it basically ignored its commitment under the 2006 .net agreement to set up two “special restricted funds” to manage .net cash, as I reported on here.

Hot topics for ICANN Singapore

Kevin Murphy, June 17, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN’s 41st public meeting kicks off in Singapore on Monday, and as usual there are a whole array of controversial topics set to be debated.

As is becoming customary, the US government has filed its eleventh-hour saber-rattling surprises, undermining ICANN’s authority before its delegates’ feet have even touched the tarmac.

Here’s a high-level overview of what’s going down.

The new gTLD program

ICANN and the Governmental Advisory Committee are meeting on Sunday to see if they can reach some kind of agreement on the stickiest parts of the Applicant Guidebook.

They will fail to do so, and ICANN’s board will be forced into discussing an unfinished Guidebook, which does not have full GAC backing, during its Monday-morning special meeting.

It’s Peter Dengate Thrush’s final meeting as chairman, and many observers believe he will push through some kind of new gTLDs resolution to act as his “legacy”, as well as to fulfill the promise he made in San Francisco of a big party in Singapore.

My guess is that the resolution will approve the program in general, lay down some kind of timetable for its launch, and acknowledge that the Guidebook needs more work before it is rubber-stamped.

I think it’s likely that the days of seemingly endless cycles of redrafting and comment are over for good, however, which will come as a relief to many.

Developing nations

A big sticking point for the GAC is the price that new gTLD applicants from developing nations will have to pay – it wants eligible, needy applicants to get a 76% discount, from $185,000 to $44,000.

The GAC has called this issue something that needs sorting out “as a matter of urgency”, but ICANN’s policy is currently a flimsy draft in desperate need of work.

The so-called JAS working group, tasked with creating the policy, currently wants governmental entities excluded from the support program, which has made the GAC, predictably, unhappy.

The JAS has proven controversial in other quarters too, particularly the GNSO Council.

Most recently, ICANN director Katim Touray, who’s from Gambia, said the Council had been “rather slow” to approve the JAS’s latest milestone report, which, he said:

might well be construed by many as an effort by the GNSO to scuttle the entire process of seeking ways and means to provide support to needy new gTLD applicants

This irked Council chair Stephane Van Gelder, who rattled off a response pointing out that the GNSO had painstakingly followed its procedures as required under the ICANN bylaws.

Watch out for friction there.

Simply, there’s no way this matter can be put to bed in Singapore, but it will be the topic of intense discussions because the new gTLD program cannot sensibly launch without it.

The IANA contract

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration wants to beef up the IANA contract to make ICANN more accountable to the NTIA and, implicitly, the GAC.

Basically, IANA is being leveraged as a way to make sure that .porn and .gay (and any other TLD not acceptable to the world’s most miserable regimes) never make it onto the internet.

If at least one person does not stand up during the public forum on Thursday to complain that ICANN is nothing more than a lackey of the United States, I’d be surprised. My money’s on Khaled Fattal.

Vertical integration

The eleventh hour surprise I referred to earlier.

The US Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, informed ICANN this week that its plan to allow gTLD registries such as VeriSign, Neustar and Afilias to own affiliated registrars was “misguided”.

I found the letter (pdf) utterly baffling. It seems to say that the DoJ would not be able to advise ICANN on competition matters, despite the fact that the letter itself contains a whole bunch of such advice.

The letter has basically scuppered VeriSign’s chances of ever buying a registrar, but I don’t think anybody thought that would happen anyway.

Neustar is likely to be the most publicly annoyed by this, given how vocally it has pursued its vertical integration plans, but I expect Afilias and others will be bugged by this development too.

The DoJ’s position is likely to be backed up by Europe, now that the NTIA’s Larry Strickling and European Commissioner Neelie Kroes are BFFs.

Cybercrime

Cybercrime is huge at the moment, what with governments arming themselves with legions of hackers and groups such as LulzSec and Anonymous knocking down sites like dominoes.

The DNS abuse forum during ICANN meetings, slated for Monday, is usually populated by pissed-off cops demanding stricter enforcement of Whois accuracy.

They’ve been getting louder during recent meetings, a trend I expect to continue until somebody listens.

This is known as “engaging”.

Geek stuff

IPv6, DNSSEC and Internationalized Domain Names, in other words. There are sessions on all three of these important topics, but they rarely gather much attention from the policy wonks.

With IPv6 and DNSSEC, we’re basically looking at problems of adoption. With IDNs, there’s impenetrably technical stuff to discuss relating to code tables and variant strings.

The DNSSEC session is usually worth a listen if you’re into that kind of thing.

The board meeting

Unusually, the board’s discussion of the Guidebook has been bounced to Monday, leading to a Friday board meeting with not very much to excite.

VeriSign will get its .net contract renewed, no doubt.

The report from the GAC-board joint working group, which may reveal how the two can work together less painfully in future, also could be interesting.

Anyway…

Enough of this blather, I’ve got a plane to catch.

What happened to ICANN’s .net millions?

Questions have been raised about how ICANN accounts for the millions of dollars it receives in fees from .net domain name registrations.

The current .net registry agreement between ICANN and VeriSign was signed in June 2005. It’s currently up for renewal.

Both the 2005 and 2011 versions of the deal call for VeriSign to pay ICANN $0.75 for every .net registration, renewal and transfer.

Unlike .com and other TLDs, the .net contract specifies three special uses for these fees (with my emphasis):

ICANN intends to apply this fee to purposes including:

(a) a special restricted fund for developing country Internet communities to enable further participation in the ICANN mission by developing country stakeholders,

(b) a special restricted fund to enhance and facilitate the security and stability of the DNS, and

(c) general operating funds to support ICANN’s mission to ensure the stable and secure operation of the DNS.

However, almost six years after the agreement was executed, it seems that these two “special restricted funds” have never actually been created.

ICANN’s senior vice president of stakeholder relations Kurt Pritz said:

To set up distinctive organizations or accounting schemes to track this would have been expensive, complex and would have served no real value. Rather — it was intended that the ICANN budget always include spending on these important areas — which it clearly does.

He said that ICANN has spent money on, for example, its Fellowships Program, which pays to fly in delegates from developing nations to its thrice-yearly policy meetings.

He added that ICANN has also paid out for security-related projects such as “signing the root zone and implementing DNSSEC, participating in cross-industry security exercises, growing the SSR organization, conducting studies for new gTLDs”.

These initiatives combined tally up to an expenditure “in excess of the amounts received” from .net, he said.

It seems that while ICANN has in fact been spending plenty of cash on the projects called for by these “special restricted funds”, the money has not been accounted for in that way.

Interestingly, when the .net contract was signed in 2005, ICANN seemed to anticipate that the developing world fund would not be used to pay for internal ICANN activities.

ICANN’s 2005-2006 budget, which was approved a month after the .net deal, reads, with my emphasis:

A portion of the fees paid by the operator of the .NET registry will become part of a special restricted fund for developing country Internet communities to enable further participation in the ICANN mission by developing country stakeholders. These monies are intended to fund outside entities as opposed to ICANN staff efforts.

That budget allocated $1.1 million to this “Developing Country Internet Community Project”, but the line item had disappeared by time the following year’s budget was prepared.

Phil Corwin from the Internet Commerce Association estimates that the $0.75 fees added up to $6.8 million in 2010 alone, and he’s wondering how the money was spent.

“We believe that ICANN should disclose to the community through a transparent accounting exactly how these restricted funds have actually been utilized in the past several years,” Corwin wrote.

He points out that the contract seems to clearly separate the two special projects from “general operating funds”, which strongly suggests they would be accounted for separately.

Given that .net fees have been lumped in with general working capital for the last six years, it seems strange that the current proposed .net registry agreement still calls for the two special restricted funds.

The oddity has come to the attention of the ICA and others recently because the new proposed .net contract would allow VeriSign for the first time to offer differential pricing to registrars in the developing world.

The agreement allows VeriSign to “provide training, technical support, marketing or incentive programs based on the unique needs of registrars located in such geographies to such registrars”, and specifically waives pricing controls for such programs.

It seems probable that this amendment was made possible due to the .net contract’s existing references to developing world projects.

Corwin said ICA has nothing against such programs, but is wary that existing .net registrants may wind up subsidizing registrants in the developing world.