Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

Rules for registry-registrar mergers proposed

ICANN has revealed how it intends to enable incumbent domain name registries to also become registrars, ending a decade of cross-ownership restrictions.

The industry shake-up could allow companies such as VeriSign, Neustar and Afilias to become accredited registrars in their own top-level domains later this year.

Hypothetically, before long you could be able to go directly to VeriSign for your .com domains, to Afilias and Public Interest Registry for .info and .org, or to Neustar for .biz.

The changes could potentially also kick off a wave of consolidation in the industry, with registry operators buying previously independent registrars.

ICANN’s proposed process is straightforward, requiring just a few amendments to the registries’ existing contracts, but it could also call for governmental competition reviews.

Registries will have to agree to abide by a Code of Conduct substantially the same as the one binding on wannabe registries applying later this year under the new gTLD program.

The Code is designed to stop registries giving their affiliated registrars unfair advantages, such as lower prices or preferential access to data, over other ICANN-accredited registrars.

Registries would also have the option to adopt the registry contract from the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook wholesale, although I expect in practice this is unlikely to happen.

ICANN would be able to refer vertical integration requests to national competition authorities if it determined that cross-ownership could cause “significant competition issues”.

VeriSign would be the most likely to be hit by such a review, but it’s also the only registry that does not appear to have been particularly hamstrung over the years by the forced separation rules.

The proposed process for registries to request the contract changes has been posted to the ICANN web site and is now open for public comment.

.CO to accredit 20 more registrars

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2011, Domain Registries

.CO Internet is looking for more registrars to start selling .co domain names.

The company has just released a request for proposals, saying it plans to accredit up to 20 new registrars over the next 12 months.

.CO’s registrar channel was limited by its agreement with the Colombian government to 10 registrars in its first year of business – the government had originally wanted only three, to limit gaming – but that restriction no longer applies.

While there are only 10 .co registrars currently, a few of them operate reseller channels or gateways that have enabled unaccredited registrars to also sell the domains, albeit on non-optimal terms.

According to the RFP, .CO is particularly interested in registrars that are willing to promote the .co TLD by either bringing it to new markets or making it the subject of special marketing campaigns.

While .co operates outside of ICANN control, the company is sticking to its policy of only accepting ICANN-accredited registrars into its channel.

Also, only registrars that are already accredited to sell .biz domains (as well as .com and .net) will be able to offer .co, presumably due to the fact that Neustar is the registry provider for both.

This effectively excludes about 115 registrars, many of which are shell or legacy accreditations used for drop-catching.

There are certain unspecified “special considerations” that apply to corporate-focused registrars, according to the RFP, presumably because they tend to be rather low-volume and generally focused on defensive registrations.

Registries could become registrars by summer

Kevin Murphy, April 24, 2011, Domain Registries

The big incumbent top-level domain registry operators could apply to also become registrars as early as June this year, according to a just-passed ICANN resolution.

Last November, ICANN decided to dump its longstanding policy of generally not allowing TLD registries to also own and operate registrars.

While the rule was designed primarily for TLDs won under the new gTLD program, it will also retroactively apply to operators of existing gTLDs.

Neustar (.biz) has already publicly stated its intention to vertically integrate, and is keen for ICANN to lift its current 15% registrar ownership restriction before the new gTLD program kicks off.

According to a resolution passed by ICANN’s board of directors on Thursday, Neustar is not the only registry operator to make such a request.

The board last week…

RESOLVED (2011.04.21.13), the Board directs the CEO to develop a process for existing gTLD registry operators to transition to the new form of Registry Agreement or to request amendments to their registry agreements to remove the cross-ownership restrictions. This process would be available to existing operators upon Board approval of the new gTLD Program.

ICANN currently plans to approve the gTLD program June 20 at its meeting in Singapore.

That gives CEO Rod Beckstrom and his team just two months to come up with a process for allowing the likes of VeriSign, Neustar and Afilias to either amend their contracts or move to the standard contract outlined in the new TLD program’s Applicant Guidebook.

I see a potential source of tension here.

The registry agreement template in the Guidebook has been described by some as an “adhesion contract” due to its heavy balance in ICANN’s favor.

Existing registries will very likely prefer to simply delete the cross-ownership restrictions in their current contracts and incorporate the new proposed Code of Conduct rules.

On the other hand, some have suggested that registries should be obliged to adopt the new Guidebook agreement in full, rather than amend their existing deals, in the interests of equitable treatment.

Registrars still signed up to ICANN’s 2001 Registrar Accreditation Agreement only get the option to upgrade wholesale to the 2009 agreement, it has been noted.

Neustar wants to be a registrar ASAP

Kevin Murphy, March 10, 2011, Domain Registries

Neustar, registry manager for the .biz and .us top-level domains, has put the wheels in motion to acquire an ICANN registrar accreditation as soon as possible.

It’s the first major gTLD operator to formally request permission to “vertically integrate” since ICANN announced last November that it was prepared to lift the ownership caps that have previously kept registries and registrars quite strictly separated.

Neustar’s .biz contract currently forbids it from owning more than 15% of an ICANN registrar.

In a letter to ICANN sent this afternoon, Neustar vice president of law and policy Jeff Neuman said the company wants this provision deleted:

We are asking for this language now to allow Neustar to compete fairly for new gTLDs on the same terms and conditions as registrars entering the new gTLD registry market.

It is critical to resolve this issue immediately to ensure that Neustar is able to compete on a level playing field with the new entrants into the marketplace and to promote the efficiencies and innovation for consumers as advocated by the ICANN Board.

ICANN shocked the industry last year when its board of directors decided to allow registries and registrars to own each other.

The decision meant that niche community and brand TLDs will be able to sell direct to registrants, without having to secure the support of reluctant big-name registrars.

It also meant that existing gTLD operators will be able to own registrars for the first time.

As a caveat, designed to protect consumers from gaming registries, ICANN proposed a Code of Conduct designed to limit the cross-pollination of data that could be abused.

Similarly, the Code calls for registries to treat all approved registrars equally, regardless of ownership stakes, to avoid competition concerns.

Neuman wrote that Neustar is prepared to have language along the lines of the current draft Code of Conduct, but “no more restrictive”, incorporated into the .biz registry contract.

Other incumbent gTLD registry operators, notably VeriSign and Afilias, are bound by similar contractual restrictions and will presumably also pursue their options along the same lines in future.

Neustar wins .gay contract

Kevin Murphy, February 9, 2011, Domain Registries

Neustrar has signed a deal to provide back-end registry services to DotGay LLC, one of the companies hoping to apply for .gay as a new top-level domain.

There are currently two companies planning to apply for .gay that I’m aware of. The other, the Dot Gay Alliance, has chosen Minds + Machines as its back-end partner.

The positioning is quite interesting. Scott Seitz, CEO of DotGay, played up the need for more security and stability in a TLD that may find itself the target of homophobic cyber-attacks.

In a press release due out tomorrow, Seitz says:

While security is always a concern for any gTLD, the GLBT community is at a higher risk of discrimination, making system integrity a critical component in the selection of a registry partner.

Neustar, which runs .biz and several other TLDs, has more experience running high-traffic registries than M+M. However, this fact will likely not be relevant to which company wins .gay.

Under the ICANN new TLDs program, applicants have to prove themselves capable of running a registry, but contested TLD applicants are not compared against each other based on technical prowess.

It’s much more likely that the two (or more) .gay applications will live or die based on community support or, failing that, how much money they are prepared to pay at auction.

The .gay TLD is likely to also be a flashpoint for controversy due to ongoing debates about governments’ ability to block TLDs based on “morality and public order” objections.

Recent mainstream media coverage has focused on .gay as a likely test case for governmental veto powers.

Incumbents get the nod for new TLD apps

Kevin Murphy, December 27, 2010, Domain Registries

Domain name registries such as Neustar, VeriSign and Afilias will be able to become registrars under ICANN’s new top-level domains program, ICANN has confirmed.

In November, ICANN’s board voted to allow new TLD registries to also own registrars, so they will be able to sell domains in their TLD direct to registrants, changing a decade-long stance.

Late last week, in reply (pdf) to a request for clarification from Neustar policy veep Jeff Neuman, new gTLD program architect Kurt Pritz wrote:

if and when ICANN launches the new gTLD program, Neustar will be entitled to serve as both a registry and registrar for new gTLDs subject to any conditions that may be necessary and appropriate to address the particular circumstances of the existing .BIZ registry agreement, and subject to any limitations and restrictions set forth in the final Applicant Guidebook.

That doesn’t appear to say anything unexpected. ICANN had already made it pretty clear that the new vertical integration rules would be extended to incumbent gTLD registries in due course.

(However, you may like to note Pritz’s use of the words “if and when”, if you think that’s important.)

Neustar’s registry agreement currently forbids it not only from acting as a .biz registrar, but also from acquiring control of greater than 15% of any ICANN-accredited registrar (whether or not its sells .biz domains).

That part of the contract will presumably need to be changed before Neustar applies for official registrar accreditation or attempts to acquire a large stake in an existing registrar.

VeriSign and Afilias, the other two big incumbent gTLD registries, have similar clauses in their contracts.

Go Daddy-Google group targets bogus pill merchants

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2010, Domain Policy

The newly forming industry body tasked with taking down web sites selling fake pharmaceuticals plans to meet next month to develop its mission statement and charter, according to Go Daddy general counsel Christine Jones.

Jones said in an interview tonight that the group, which Go Daddy is jointly “spearheading” with Google, is likely to meet in Phoenix, Arizona in the third week of January.

As I blogged earlier today, the organization was formed following a series of meetings at the White House, which has a policy of reducing counterfeit drugs sales online.

Domain name companies including Go Daddy, eNom, Neustar and Network Solutions are joined in the currently nameless non-profit by the three major search engines and all the major payment processors.

Jones confirmed that redirecting a domain name is an action a participating registrar could take if it finds an infringing site. Go Daddy and others already do this in cases of child porn, for example.

But the group will also share information about fake pharma sites so Google, for example, would also be able to block them from search and Visa could stop payments being processed, Jones told me.

The White House meetings were organized by Victoria Espinel, the administration’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC).

So, while the group has yet to formalize its policies, I wanted to know what the prevailing opinion is on how “illegal” a site will have to be before the group will try to take it down.

Taking down a site selling sugar pills or industrial acid as HIV treatments is one thing, killing a site selling genuine medications to people without prescriptions is another, and blocking a legit pharmacy that sells drugs to Americans with prescriptions more cheaply from across the Canadian border is yet another.

Jones said: “If a pharmacy is a licensed pharmacy and is abiding by whatever the state rules are wherever they’re located, that’s not our target.”

Apparently the new organization, which will be formed as a non-profit entity, may help the companies to avoid running afoul of ECPA, the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Jones said that other companies participating in the White House meetings still have not decided whether to join the new group or not. End-of-year budgetary issues may be a factor here.

Domain registrars have come in for considerable flak over 2010 for allegedly not doing enough to counter fake pharma sites.

A Knujon report published in May, and others, eventually led to eNom in particular promising to crack down harder on rogue pharmacies.

Go Daddy proposes fake pharma site shutdown body

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2010, Domain Policy

A cross-industry body that will make it easier for web sites selling fake drugs to be shut down is forming in the US, led by Google and Go Daddy.

The idea for the currently nameless organization was announced yesterday following a series of meetings between the internet industry and White House officials.

The group will “start taking voluntary action against illegal Internet pharmacies” which will include stopping payment processing and shutting down web sites.

The domain name business is represented by the three biggest US registrars – Go Daddy, eNom and Network Solutions – as well as Neustar (.biz, .us, etc) on the registry side.

Surprisingly, VeriSign (.com) does not appear to be involved currently.

Other members include the major credit card companies – American Express, Visa and Mastercard – as well as PayPal and search engines Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

According to a statement provided by Neustar:

GoDaddy and Google took the lead on proposing the formation of a private sector 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that would be dedicated to promoting information sharing, education, and more efficient law enforcement of rogue internet pharmacies.

It’s early days, so there are no specifics as yet as to how the organization will function, such as under what circumstances it will take down sites.

There’s no specific mention of domain names being turned off or seized, although reading between the lines that may be part of the plan.

There’s substantial debate in the US as to what kinds of pharmaceuticals sites constitute a risk to health and consumer protection.

While many sites do sell worthless or potentially harmful medications, others are overseas companies selling genuine pharma cheaply to Americans, who often pay a stiff premium for their drugs.

The organization will do more than just shut down sites, however.

It also proposes an expansion to white lists of genuine pharmacies such as the National Association of Boards of Pharmacies’ Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS).

And it will promote consumer education about the “dangers” of shopping for drugs online, as well as sharing information to stop the genuine bad guys “forum shopping” for places to host their sites.

This is what the statement says about enforcement:

The organization’s members agree to share information with law enforcement about unlawful Internet pharmacies where appropriate, accept information about Internet pharmacies operating illegally, and take voluntary enforcement action (stop payment, shut down the site, etc.) where appropriate.

While taking down sites that are selling genuinely harmful pills is undoubtedly a Good Thing, I suspect it is unlikely to go down well in that sector of the internet community concerned with the US government’s increasing role in removing content from the internet.

Afilias to raise .info prices

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2010, Domain Registries

Afilias has notified ICANN that it plans to raise the maximum annual registration fee for a .info domain next year.

The new price, which will come into effect July 1, 2011, will be $7.42. It’s been $6.75 since November 2008, although the registry often offers deep discounts on new registrations.

Afilias’ contract with ICANN allows it to raise prices by up to 10%, which it appears to be doing in this case.

At least two other other gTLDs have already said they plan to up their maximum prices next year.

NeuStar’s .biz fee will rise by $0.45 to $7.30 in April. PIR’s .org will start costing registrars a maximum of $7.21 at the same time.

Happy 10th birthday new TLDs!

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2010, Domain Registries

With all the excitement about ICANN’s weekend publication of the new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook, it’s easy to forget that “new” TLDs have been around for a decade.

Tomorrow, November 16, is the 10th anniversary of the ICANN meeting at which the first wave of new gTLDs, seven in total, were approved.

The recording of the 2000 Marina Del Rey meeting may look a little odd to any relative newcomers to ICANN.

The open board meeting at which the successful new registries were selected took well over six hours, with the directors essentially making up their selection policies on the spot, in the spotlight.

It was a far cry from the public rubber-stamping exercises you’re more likely to witness nowadays.

Take this exchange from the November 2000 meeting, which seems particularly relevant in light of last week’s news about registry/registrar vertical integration.

About an hour into the meeting, chairman Esther Dyson tackled the VI idea head on, embracing it:

the notion of a registry with a single registrar might be offensive on its own, but in a competitive world I don’t see any problem with it and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand

To which director Vint Cerf, Dyson’s eventual successor, responded, “not wishing to be combative”:

The choices that we make do set some precedents. One of the things I’m concerned about is the protection of users who register in these various top-level domains… If you have exactly one registrar per registry, the failure of either the registrar or the registry is a serious matter those who people who registered there. Having the ability to support multiple registrars, the demonstrated ability to support multiple registrars, gives some protection for those who are registering in that domain.

Odd to think that this ad-hoc decision took ten years to reverse.

It was a rather tense event.

The audience, packed with TLD applicants, had already pitched their bids earlier in the week, but during the board meeting itself they were obliged to remain silent, unable to even correct or clarify the misapprehensions of the directors and staff.

As a rookie reporter in the audience, the big news for me that day was the competition between the three registries that had applied to run “.web” as a generic TLD.

Afilias and NeuStar both had bids in, but they were competing with Image Online Design, a company that had been running .web in an alternate root for a number of years.

Cerf looked like he was going to back the IOD bid for a while, due to his “sympathy for pioneers”, but other board members were not as enthusiastic.

I was sitting immediately behind company CEO Christopher Ambler at the time, and the tension was palpable. It got more tense when the discussion turned to whether to grant .web to Afilias instead.

Afilias was ultimately granted .info, largely due to IOD’s existing claim on .web. NeuStar’s application was not approved, but its joint-venture bid for .biz was of course successful.

This was the meat of the resolution:

RESOLVED [00.89], the Board selects the following proposals for negotiations toward appropriate agreements between ICANN and the registry operator or sponsoring organization, or both: JVTeam (.biz), Afilias (.info), Global Name Registry (.name), RegistryPro (.pro), Museum Domain Management Association (.museum), Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (.aero), Cooperative League of the USA dba National Cooperative Business Association (.coop);

If any of this nostalgia sounds interesting, and you want to watch seven hours of heavily pixelated wonks talking about “putting TLDs into nested baskets”, you can find the video (.rm format, that’s how old it is) of the MDR board meeting buried in an open directory here.