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New gTLDs continue growth trend, but can it last?

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2018, Domain Registries

New gTLDs continued to bounce back following a year-long slump in registration volumes, according to Verisign data.

The company’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief, covering the third quarter, shows new gTLDs growing from 21.8 million names to 23.4 million names, a 1.6 million name increase.

New gTLDs also saw a 1.6 million-name sequential increase in the second quarter, which reversed five quarters of declines.

The sector has yet to surpass its peak of 25.6 million, which it reached in the fourth quarter of 2016.

It think it will take some time to get there, and that we’ll may well see a decline in next couple quarters.

The mid-point of the third quarter marked the end of deep discounting across the former Famous Four Media (now GRS Domains) portfolio (.men, .science, .loan, etc), but the expected downward pressure on volumes wasn’t greatly felt by the end of the period.

With GRS’s portfolio generally on the decline so far in Q4, we might expect it to have a tempering effect on gains elsewhere when the next DNIB is published.

Verisign’s data showed also that ccTLDs shrunk for the first time in a couple years, down by half a million names to 149.3 million. Both .uk and .de suffered six-figure losses.

Its own .net was flat at 14.1 million, showing no signs of recovery after several quarters of shrinkage, while .com increased by two million names to finish September with 137.6 under management.

No .web until 2021 after Afilias files ICANN appeal

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2018, Domain Registries

Afilias has taken ICANN to arbitration to prevent .web being delegated to Verisign.

The company, which came second in the $135 million auction that Verisign won in 2016, filed Independent Review Process documents in late November.

The upshot of the filing is that .web, considered by many the best potential competitor for .com — Afilias describes it as “crown jewels of the New gTLD Program” — is very probably not going to hit the market for at least a couple more years.

Afilias says in in its filing that:

ICANN is enabling VeriSign to acquire the .WEB gTLD, the next closest competitor to VeriSign’s monopoly, and in so doing has eviscerated one of the central pillars of the New gTLD Program: to introduce and promote competition in the Internet namespace in order to break VeriSign’s monopoly

Its beef is that Verisign acquired the rights to .web by hiding behind a third-party proxy, Nu Dot Co, the shell corporation linked to the co-founders of .CO Internet that appears to have been set up in 2012 purely to make money by losing new gTLD auctions.

Afilias says NDC broke the rules of the new gTLD program by failing to notify ICANN that it had made an agreement with Verisign to sign over its rights to .web in advance of the auction.

The company says that NDC’s “obligation to immediately assign .WEB to VeriSign fundamentally changed the nature of NDC’s application” and that ICANN and the other .web applicants should have been told.

NDC’s application had stated that .web was going to compete with .com, and Verisign’s acquisition of the contract would make that claim false, Afilias says.

This means ICANN broke its bylaws commitment to apply its policies, “neutrally, objectively, and fairly”, Afilias claims.

Allowing Verisign to acquire its most significant potential competitor also breaks ICANN’s commitment to introduce competition to the gTLD market, the company reckons.

It will be up to a three-person panel of retired judges to decide whether these claims holds water.

The IRP filing was not unexpected. I noted that it seemed likely after a court threw out a Donuts lawsuit against ICANN which attempted to overturn the auction result for pretty much the same reasons.

The judge in that case ruled that new gTLD applicants’ covenant not to sue ICANN was valid, largely because alternatives such as IRP are available.

ICANN has a recent track record of performing poorly under IRP scrutiny, but this case is by no means a slam-dunk for Afilias.

ICANN could argue that the .web case was not unique, for starters.

The .blog contention set was won by an affiliate of WordPress maker Automattic under almost identical circumstances earlier in 2016, with Colombian-linked applicant Primer Nivel paying $19 million at private auction, secretly bankrolled by WordPress.

Nobody complained about that outcome, probably because it was a private auction so all the other .blog applicants got an even split of the winning bid.

Afilias wants the .web IRP panel to declare NDC’s bid invalid and award .web to Afilias at its final bid price.

For those champing at the bit to register .web domains, and there are some, the filing means they’ve likely got another couple years to wait.

I’ve never known an IRP to take under a year to complete, from filing to final declaration. We’re likely looking at something closer to 18 months.

Even after the declaration, we’d be looking at more months for ICANN’s board to figure out how to implement the decision, and more months still for the implementation itself.

Barring further appeals, I’d say it’s very unlikely .web will start being sold until 2021 at the very earliest, assuming the winning registry is actually motivated to bring it to market as quickly as possible.

The IRP is no skin off Verisign’s nose, of course. Its acquisition of .web was, in my opinion, more about restricting competition than expanding its revenue streams, so a delay simply plays into its hands.

Amazon countries fighting back against .amazon gTLD

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2018, Domain Policy

When ICANN’s board of directors voted in late October to let Amazon have its controversial .amazon gTLD, it was not entirely clear what governments in the Amazon region of South America thought about it.

Now, it is: they’re pissed.

The governments of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization have cancelled planned peace talks with the retailer and ICANN boss Goran Marby and have filed an appeal against the board’s decision.

It even seems that the negotiations — aimed at obtaining ACTO’s blessing by stuffing the .amazon registry agreement with cultural safeguards and augmenting it with financial sweeteners — may be dead before they even started.

The rapid deterioration of the relationship between ACTO and ICANN plays out in a series of letters between Marby and ACTO secretary general Jacqueline Mendoza, published last week by ICANN.

After the board’s October 25 resolution, which gave .amazon a pardon from its longstanding “Will Not Proceed” death sentence, it took just 10 days for ACTO to file a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, asking the board to rethink its resolution.

In a cover letter to the November 5 request, Mendoza said that ACTO was still happy to have Marby facilitate talks between the governments and Amazon, “to develop a mutually acceptable solution for the delegation” of .amazon.

Amazon is said to have offered concessions such as the protection of culturally sensitive names, along with $5 million worth of free Kindles, in order to get ACTO to back down.

But the governments had yet to see any proposal from Amazon for them to consider, Mendoza wrote a month ago.

At some point Marby then agreed to meet with the ACTO governments — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela — in Bolivia on November 29.

He froze their reconsideration request pending this meeting, according to his November 20 letter (pdf), which also bulletted out the sequence of events that led to the ICANN resolution.

It seems ICANN has been working rather closely with, and had been hearing encouraging noises from, Brazil’s Governmental Advisory Committee representative, over the last 12 months. Indeed, it seems it was Brazil that said the reconsideration should be put on hold, pending the November 29 meeting.

But on November 22, Mendoza cancelled the summit (pdf), taking a hard line against the unfreezing of the applications.

Four days later, she told Marby and ICANN chair Cherine Chalaby that ICANN should be dealing with ACTO, not its individual members.

She said that a “positive reaction” to the reconsideration request and the request for the board resolution to be “cancelled” are “indispensable pre-requisites for such a meeting to take place”.

The short version: ICANN jumped the gun when it unfroze the .amazon gTLD applications, at least in ACTO’s view.

ACTO didn’t even receive Amazon’s latest proposal until November 23, the day after the talks were cancelled, according to ICANN.

And, judging by the latest missive in this infuriating thread, ICANN may have thrown in the towel already.

Marby informed GAC chair Manal Ismail (pdf) last Wednesday that the “facilitation process” ICANN had resolved to lead “has been unsuccessful” and “has not been able to reach its desired conclusion.”

While he added ICANN remains “open to assist and facilitate this matter, should it be considered useful”, there’s otherwise an air of finality about the choice of language in his letter.

As for the reconsideration request (pdf), it seems to be still active, so there’s a chance for the board to change its mind about .amazon’s status.

It will be interesting to see whether the request will be approved by the board for the sake of political expediency.

Reconsideration requests are almost unfailingly tossed out for failing to reach the threshold of providing the board with information it was not aware of at the time of its contested resolution.

In this case, ACTO claims that the board was wrongly informed that the ACTO members had seen and liked Amazon’s latest proposal, presumably because ICANN had been feeling positive vibes from Brazil.

It’s not impossible that the board might agree this is true, put .amazon back on ice, and try again at the “facilitation” route.

But should it? Part of me wonders why the hell ICANN resources — that is, registrants’ money — should be diverted to pay for ICANN to act as an unpaid lobbyist for one of the world’s wealthiest companies, which can’t seem to actually put a proposal on the table in a timely fashion, or for eight national governments who don’t seem to be even talking to each other on an issue they claim is of the utmost importance.

.cloud gets the China blessing

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2018, Domain Registries

.cloud, run by Italian registry Aruba, has become the latest TLD to get the official nod to sell in China.

The blessing from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology came at the end of October and the company announced it today.

The accreditation means .cloud domains sold to residents of the Chinese mainland will now be resolvable, and subject to China’s onerous censorship rules.

It’s the first Latin-script TLD to be approved by MIIT since July.

.cloud says it currently has 155,000 domains registered to customers in 180 countries.

Donuts backs away from .spa fight

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has finally admitted defeat in its long-running fight to run the .spa gTLD, withdrawing its application and leaving rival Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council the victor.

ASWPC, run from Hong Kong by .asia’s Edmon Chung, has now entered into contracting with ICANN.

The company had won a Community Priority Evaluation back in 2015, with a passing score of 14 out of 16, which Donuts has been challenging ever since.

Donuts and ICANN were in a so-called Cooperative Engagement Process, a form of informal arbitration designed to stave off a more expensive Independent Review Process fight, from January 2016 until this month.

This meant ASWPC has been sitting twiddling its thumbs, unable to sign its contract or launch its TLD, for the better part of three years.

It’s not clear why Donuts decided not to go to a full-blown IRP. The company declined to comment for this article.

As a community applicant, the company had the backing of hundreds of spas worldwide.

It also had the backing of the Belgian government, which was important because spas are (little-known fact alert!) named after the tiny Belgian town of Spa.

It is believed that ASWPC promised up to 25% of its profits to Spa in order to gain this backing, but only from domains registered by Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgish, French or German registrants.

Hebrew .com off to a slow start

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

The Hebrew transliteration of .com has only sold a couple hundred domains since it went into general availability.

Verisign took the new gTLD קום. (Hebrew is a right-to-left script, so the dot comes after the string) to market November 5, when it had about 3,200 domains in its zone file. It now stands around the 3,400 mark.

The pre-GA domains are a combination of a few hundred sunrise regs and a few thousand exact-match .coms that were grandfathered in during a special registration period.

It’s not a stellar performance out of the gates, but Hebrew is not a widely-spoken language and most of its speakers are also very familiar with the Latin script.

There are between seven and nine million Hebrew speakers in the world, according to Wikipedia. It doesn’t make the top 100 languages in the world.

The ccTLD for Israel, where most of these speakers live, reports that it currently has 246,795 .il domains under management. That’s a middling amount when compared to similarly sized countries such as Serbia (about 100,000 names) and Switzerland (over 2 million).

Verisign’s original application for this transliteration had to be corrected, from קום. to קוֹם. If you can tell the difference, you have better eyesight than me.

In the root, the gTLD is Punycoded as .xn--9dbq2a.

Bad.monster? Two more gTLDs have been acquired

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2018, Domain Registries

Two more new gTLDs have changed hands, DI has learned.

XYZ.com has picked up former dot-brand .monster from recruitment web site Monster.com, while newbie registry Intercap Holdings has acquired .dealer from Dealer.com.

Both ICANN contracts were reassigned last month.

Neither acquiring company has announced their purchases or published their launch plans yet.

That said, XYZ has already registered a few intriguing domains: bad.monster, good.monster, my.monster and go.monster.

It appears that go.monster — slogan: “It’s Alive!” — will be the registry’s launch site. It’s the only one I could get to resolve.

It’s the second example I can think of of a dot-brand gTLD being acquired by a registry that intends to run it as a generic.

In 2016, Top Level Spectrum acquired .observer from the newspaper of the same name.

Most dot-brands that don’t want their TLDs any more choose to retire them. That number is up to 45 now.

.dealer wasn’t technically a dot-brand — it had no Spec 13 in its contract — but its 2012 application certainly made it look like a dot-brand, with most of the domains reserved for Dealer.com and its affiliates. It looked defensive.

Shayam Rostam, chief registry officer of ICH, told me the plan for .dealer is to primarily target car dealers (also its former owner’s market) but that it will be unrestricted and open to all comers.

Intercap wants to get its January launch of .inc out of the way before turning its attention to .dealer, so we’re probably looking at mid-late 2019 for a launch, Rostam said.

It also needs to do some housekeeping such as moving the TLD to Uniregistry’s back-end.

What do y’all think about these TLDs? Could .monster be the next .guru? Could .dealer find a home in the burgeoning legal cannabis market? Comment below!

First non-brand gTLD to go dark

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2018, Domain Registries

The number of new gTLDs to voluntarily terminate their ICANN contracts has hit 45, with the first non-brand calling it quits.

It’s a geo-gTLD, .doha, which was meant to represent the Qatari capital of Doha.

There were no registered domains. Despite being delegated in March 2015, it never launched.

The registry was the country’s Communications Regulatory Authority, which also runs local ccTLD .qa.

No reason was given for the request — registries are allowed to terminate their contracts for any reason, with notice.

The registry’s web site hasn’t been updated in some time, so perhaps resources are an issue.

Given Doha is a protected geographic term, it’s unlikely to return in future unless the government changes its mind in future application rounds.

Dot-brand gTLDs to go the same way since I last reported the number include .blanco, .spiegel, .bond, .epost, .active and .zippo.

Two controversial new gTLDs launching in January

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2018, Domain Registries

Five years after the first batch of new gTLDs hit the market, registries continue to drip-feed them into the internet.

At least two more are due to launch on January 16 — .dev and .inc.

.dev is the latest of Google’s portfolio to be released, aimed at the software developer market.

It proved controversial briefly when it first was added to the DNS in 2014, causing headaches for some developers who were already using .dev domains on their private networks.

Four years is plenty of time for all of these collisions to have been cleaned up, however, so I can’t imagine many problems emerging when people start buying these names.

.dev starts a one-month sunrise January 16, sells at early access prices from February 19 to 28 before going to regular-price general availability.

Google has already launched one of its own products, web.dev, a testing tool for web developers, on a .dev domain.

Launching with a pretty much identical phased launch plan is .inc, from new market entrant Intercap Holdings, a Caymans-based subsidiary of a Toronto firm founded by .tv founder Jason Chapnik and managed by .xyz alumnus Shayan Rostam.

Intercap bought the .inc contract from Edmon Chong’s GTLD Limited earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. GTLD Ltd is believed to have paid in excess of $15 million for the TLD at auction.

.inc has proved controversial in the past, attracting criticism from states attorneys general in the US, which backed another bidder.

It may prove controversial in future, too. I have a hunch it’s going to attract more than its fair share of cybersquatters and will probably do quite well out of defensive registration fees.

Kirikos lawyers up after ICANN etiquette fight

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2018, Domain Policy

Domain investor George Kirikos has hired lawyers to send nastygrams to ICANN after a fight over the rules of etiquette on a working group mailing list.

Kirikos claims there’s a “campaign of intimidation” against him by fellow volunteers who do not agree with his opinions and forthright tone, but that he “has not done anything wrong”.

In response, ICANN CEO Goran Marby this evening revealed that he has assigned his general counsel and new deputy, John Jeffrey, to the case.

Even by ICANN standards, it’s a textbook case of a) manufacturing mountains out of molehills, and b) how it can become almost impossible to communicate like sensible human beings when everyone’s tangled in red tape.

The dispute started back in May, when Kirikos got into a fight with IP lawyer Greg Shatan on the mailing list of the Rights Protection Mechanisms working group.

Both men are volunteers on the group, which seeks to refine ICANN policy protecting trademark owners in gTLDs.

The argument was about the content of a World Intellectual Property Organization web page listing instances of UDRP cases being challenged in court.

Kirikos took a strident tone, to which Shatan took exception.

Shatan then reported Kirikos to the working group’s co-chairs, claiming a breach of the Expected Standards of Behavior — the informal code of conduct designed to prevent every ICANN discussion turning into a flame war and/or bare-knuckle alley fight.

Under GNSO PDP rules, working group volunteers have to agree to abide by the ESB. Group chairs have the ability to kick participants who repeatedly offend.

At this point, the sensible thing to do would have been for Shatan and Kirikos to hug it out and move on.

But this is ICANN.

What actually happened was a pointless procedural back-and-forth between Kirikos, Shatan, and working group chairs Phil Corwin of Verisign and Brian Beckham of WIPO, which resulted in Kirikos hiring two lawyers — Andrew Bernstein of Torys and regular ICANN participant Robin Gross of IP Justice.

It’s believed to be the first time a WG participant has hired counsel over a mailing list argument.

Far too boring to recount here, Corwin’s timeline of events can be found from page 24 of this transcript (pdf) of remarks delivered here in Barcelona during ICANN 63, while the Bernstein/Kirikos timeline can be found here (pdf).

The rub of it is that Kirikos reckons both Corwin and Beckham are biased against him — Beckham because Kirikos voted against his chairship, Corwin because of a similar dispute in a related working group earlier this year — and that the ESB is unenforceable anyway.

According to Bernstein: “Mr. Kirikos has strong concerns that whatever process ICANN purports to operate with respect to Mr. Shatan’s complaint, it will not be fairly or neutrally adjudicated.”

He added that Kirikos had said that “due to the precise language of Section 3.4 of the Working Group Guidelines, Mr. Shatan lacked a basis to initiate any complaint”.

That language allows complaints to be filed if the ESB is “abused”. According to Corwin’s account, Kirikos — well-known as a detail-oriented ICANN critic — reckons the correct term should be “violated”, which rendered the ESB “null and void and unenforceable” in this instance.

Bernstein has since added that the ICANN board of directors never intended the ESB to be anything but voluntary.

The sum of this appears to be that the dispute has had a chilling effect on the RPM working group’s ability to get anything done, consuming much of its co-chairs’ time.

Kirikos lawyering up seems to have compounded this effect.

Now, as ICANN 63 drew to a close this evening, CEO Marby said in a brief prepared statement that the WG’s work has “more or less stalled for the last several months” and that he’s assigned general counsel John Jeffrey to “look into the issues surrounding this matter”.

ICANN “takes the issue very seriously”, he said.

As well it might. The Kirikos/Shatan incident may have been blown waaaaay out of proportion, but at its core is a serious question about civil discourse in ICANN policy-making.

Personally, I hold out hope it’s not too late for everyone to hug it out and move on.

But this is ICANN.