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Famous Four is DEAD! New registry promises spam crackdown

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLD registries is now under the control of a new company, Global Registry Services Ltd, which has promised to abandon its failed penny-domain strategy and crack down on spam.

(August 9 update: This article contains some incorrect assumptions and speculation. Please read this follow-up piece for clarifications.)

The company, which goes by the name GRS Domains, told registrars yesterday that FFM’s 16 gTLDs are now “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited, and are no longer under the management of FFM.”

DVP also owned FFM, so it’s not clear how big of a deal this restructuring is from a management point of view.

My sense is that there’s not really been a substantial change, but it’s certainly more than a simple rebranding exercise.

I’ve learned that DVP was placed into administration under the Insolvency Act back in April, with management of the TLDs handed to a PricewaterhouseCoopers administrator, more or less as I speculated in June.

The TLDs affected are: .loan, .win, .men, .bid, .stream, .review, .trade, .date, .party, .download, .science, .racing, .accountant, .faith, .webcam and .cricket.

GRS told registrars:

Moving forward there are several changes being made with regard to the overall strategy of the portfolio of gTLDs, the main one being a change to a “quality over quantity” ethos and focusing on working with our Registrar Partners to sharply reduce abuse and spam registrations.

As such, all of its current pricing promotions will end August 20 and a “much more transparent and sensible pricing strategy” will come into play.

That means a wholesale reg fee of $9.98 across the board, at least until February 2019.

GRS also plans to take a lot of its lower-priced reserved “premium” names out of the premium program altogether, and to reprice “a considerable portion” of the more expensive ones.

Finally, the company, not known to attend ICANN meetings in the past, said it plans to show up at the Barcelona meeting in October to formally relaunch itself.

Famous Four has become notorious over the last few years for its deep-discounted TLDs, which have become a haven for spammers who want to register large numbers of super-cheap, throwaway domains.

As such, its gTLDs’ volumes have been huge — many racking up hundreds of thousands of names — but their renewals poor and their reputation worse.

If GRS’ new strategy is effective, we’re almost certainly going to see the industry-wide overall number of active new gTLD domains tank over the next year or so, giving more ammunition to those who think the new gTLD program was a huge waste of effort.

It could also have an impact on ICANN’s budget — no matter how cheap FFM sold its names, it still had to pay its ICANN fees on a per-domain basis. Fewer domains equals less money in ICANN’s coffers. FFM’s registries paid over $1.6 million in ICANN fees in the organization’s fiscal 2017.

While GRS is now apparently “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited”, it’s not abundantly clear to me whether that’s the same people who’ve been running FFM for the last eight years.

DVP has not immediately responded to a request for comment today.

The DVP web site has not resolved in months. The new grs.domains site doesn’t name anyone, and the NIC sites for the gTLDs in the portfolio only identify a PwC bankruptcy accountant as the primary contact.

All the companies in question are based in tax haven Gibraltar, which isn’t particularly forthcoming about identifying company directors, partners or owners.

DVP’s directors were originally Adrian Hogg, Charles Melvin, Iain Roache, Douglas Smith, Peter Young, Joseph Garcia and a company called Domain Management II (itself chaired by Roache), according to an investor presentation (pdf) DI obtained back in 2013.

I believe Melvin at least, after a legal dispute with the others, is no longer involved.

And it appears that DVP is or was in fact in administration.

I noted back in June that the 16 gTLDs were now all being administered by PwC accountant Edgar Lavarello, and wondered aloud whether this meant FFM was bankrupt.

Today I obtained (read: paid an extortionate sum for) a Gibraltar court order dated April 23 putting DVP into administration under the Insolvency Act and appointing PwC as the administrator.

The application had been made by an investor called Christina Mattin and fellow investor Braganza, a private vehicle owned by a wealthy Scandinavian family, which was (at least last year) a 10% owner.

Other named investors the court heard from were the mysterious Liechtenstein-based Rennes Foundation, something called Northern Assets Investments Limited and Dutch multimillionaire Francis Claessens.

Overall, it smells a bit to me like DVP’s principals, having seen their previous venture put out of business by disgruntled investors, have snapped up its assets and are going to try to make a second go of running the business.

As for FFM? Well, it looks rather like we won’t be hearing that name again.

UPDATE: This article was updated several hours after it was originally posted to clarify that DVP was/is “in administration”.

My brain explodes trying to understand MMX’s new blockchain deal for .luxe

Kevin Murphy, August 3, 2018, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines has abandoned plans to launch .luxe as a gTLD for luxury goods and instead made a deal to sell it as an address for cryptocurrency wallets.

If you thought it was a silly move marketing .ws as meaning “web site” or .pw as “professional web”, you’re probably not going to like the backronym MMX has in mind for .luxe:

“Lets U Xchange Easily”.

Really.

Tenuous though that marketing angle may be, the concept behind the newly repurposed TLD is actually quite interesting and probably rises to the level of “innovation”.

MMX has inked a deal with Ethereum Name Service, an offshoot of Ethereum, an open-source blockchain project.

Ethereum is largely used as a cryptocurrency, like BitCoin, enabling people to transfer monetary value to each other using “wallet” applications, though it has other uses.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t understand how any of this blockchain stuff works.

I’ve just spent an hour on the phone with MMX CEO Toby Hall and I’m still not 100% clear how it integrates with domains and whether the .luxe value proposition is really, really cool or really, really stupid.

I’ll just tell you what I do understand.

Currently, when two Ethereum users want to transfer currency between each other, the sender needs to know the recipient’s wallet address. This is a 40-character nonsense hash that makes an IPv6 address look memorable.

It obviously would be a lot better if each user had a human-readable, memorable address, a bit like a domain name.

Ethereum developers thought so, so they created the Ethereum Name Service. ENS allowed people to use “.eth” domains, like john.eth, as a shorthand address for their wallets. I don’t know how it works, but I know .eth isn’t an official TLD in the authoritative root.

About 300,000 people acquired .eth domains via some kind of cryptographic auction process that I also don’t understand. Let’s just call it magic.

Under the deal with MMX, some 26 million Ethereum wallet owners will be able use .luxe domains, dumping their .eth names if they have them.

The names will be sold through registrars as usual, at a price Hall said will be a little bit more than .com.

Registrants will then be able to associate their domains with their 40-character wallet addresses, so they can say “Send $50 to john.luxe” and other crypto-nerds will instantly know what to do. Ethereum wallets will apparently support this at launch.

Registrars will need to do a bit of implementation work, however. Hall said there’ll be an API that allows them to associate their customers’ domains with their wallets, and to disassociate the two should the domain be transferred to somebody else.

This is not available yet, but it will be before general availability this November, he said.

What this API does is beyond my comprehension.

What I do understand is that at no point is DNS used. I thought perhaps the 40-char hash was being stored in the TXT field of a DNS record, but no, that’s not it. It’s being stored cryptographically in the blockchain. Or something. Let’s just say it’s magic, again.

The value of having a memorable address for a wallet is very clear to me, but what’s not at all clear to me is why, if DNS is not being queried at any part of the Ethereum transaction, this memorable address has to be a domain name.

You don’t need a domain name to find somebody on Twitter, or Instagram, or Grindr. You just need a user name. Why that model couldn’t apply here is beyond me.

Hall offered that people are familiar with domain names, adding that merchants could use the same .luxe domain for their web site as they use for their Ethereum wallets, which makes sense from a branding perspective.

The drawback, of course, is that you’d have to have your web site on a .luxe domain.

The launch plan for .luxe sees sunrise begin August 9, running for 60 days. Then there’ll be two weeks for .eth name holders to claim their matching .luxe names. Then an early access period. GA starts November 6.

While it should be obvious by now I don’t fully “get” what’s going on here, it strikes me as a hell of a lot more interesting way to use .luxe than its originally intended purpose as a venue for luxury goods and services.

Let’s face it, depending on pricing it would have turned out either as a haven for spammers, a barely-breaking-even also-ran, or a profitable business propped up by a couple thousand trademark owners paying five grand a year on unused defensive regs.

Donuts confirms six-figure .news buyer used a fake name

Mike Texas is in fact noted conspiracy theorist Mike Adams.

New gTLD registry Donuts confirmed with DI over the weekend that the buyer of six figures worth of “platinum” .news domain names used a fake name.

The company last week said that a company called WebSeed bought registry-reserved names including science.news, climate.news, medicine.news, health.news and pollution.news.

After a small amount of digging, I discovered that these sites were affiliated with a controversial site called Natural News, which is regularly criticized for spreading bogus, anti-science content.

I suspected that “Mike Texas”, the WebSeed CEO quoted railing against “fake news” in Donuts’ press release, was very probably a pseudonym for Natural News owner Mike Adams, who calls himself the “Health Ranger” but peddles theories often characterized as dangerous.

Yesterday, Donuts told us that, following DI’s coverage, it has managed to confirm with Texas that he is in fact Adams. The company has changed its press release accordingly.

I will note that the most compelling piece of evidence connecting Texas to Adams was a pre-GDPR Whois record.

.pharmacy TLD faces action after losing complaint over Canadian drug peddler

ICANN has hit the .pharmacy gTLD registry with a breach notice after a complaint from a Canadian web site that was refused a .pharmacy domain.

The US National Association of Boards of Pharmacy failed to operate the TLD “in a transparent manner”, contrary to the Public Interest Commitments in its registry agreement, ICANN says.

It’s only the second time, to my knowledge, that a registry has been told it has broken its contract after losing a Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Process decision.

NABP runs .pharmacy as a restricted TLD that can only be used by licensed pharmacies.

A year ago, a company called Canadawide Pharmacy Ltd, which currently uses a .org domain, applied for canadawidepharmacy.pharmacy but, last December, was rejected due to claims that it was “until recently” affiliated with unlicensed cross-border drug sellers.

The sale of medications into the US, where patients are gouged mercilessly by pharmaceuticals companies, from Canada, where common drugs are sold at a fraction of the price, is controversial, with NABP previously being accused of applying for .pharmacy for protectionist reasons.

(The price of generic Viagra on Canadawide’s web site goes as low as $2.15 per dose. In the US, you’re looking at about $66 per dose for the branded version, which doesn’t even include the price of dinner.)

Earlier this year, Canadawide filed a PICDRP, accusing .pharmacy of breaching its own contractual commitment to transparency.

And it won. The PICDRP standing panel ruled 3-0 this month (pdf) that NABP lacked transparency on three counts when it rejected Canadawide’s registration.

The registry failed to provide enough evidence linking Canadawide to unlicensed affiliates, the panel ruled. It also seemed to acknowledge that the alleged affiliates were historical.

As a result of the panel’s finding, ICANN has made a public breach notice that gives NABP until August 11 to:

Provide ICANN with corrective and preventative action(s), including implementation dates and milestones, to address the PIC Reporter’s complaint, the PIC Standing Panel’s findings and ensure that NABP will operate the TLD pharmacy in a transparent manner consistent with general principles of openness and non-discrimination by establishing, publishing and adhering to clear registration policies

None of this seems to suggest that Canadawide will definitely get its domain. If NABP has sufficient evidence to continue to deny the application, it looks like it could come into compliance by merely being transparent about this evidence.

Donuts makes six-figure .news sale to dangerous conspiracy theorist

Donuts has sold a package of “platinum” .news domains to a network of dubious news sites peddling what many describe as dangerous pseudo-scientific nonsense.

A company called WebSeed acquired science.news, food.news, health.news, medicine.news, pollution.news, cancer.news and climate.news from the registry for an undisclosed sum in the six-figure range last December, Donuts said.

It appears that the same buyer has acquired several other presumably non-platinum .news domains, including vaccines.news, nutrients.news, menshealth.news and emergencymedicine.news

The sites have already been developed, incorporating a back catalog of “news” content from other sites under the same ownership, and Donuts reckons searches for “climate news” and “science news” already return the matching domains prominently (they don’t for me, but Google can be fickle).

Unfortunately, the domains seem to have been sold to a leading purveyor of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

That’s right, climate.news now belongs to a climate change denier, vaccines.news belongs to an anti-vaxxer, and medicine.news belongs to somebody who values alternative remedies over science-based medicine.

As far as I can tell, pretty much all of the content on the network of .news domains comes from Natural News, the controversial site owned by “Health Ranger” Mike Adams.

Natural News has been fingered as an “empire of misinformation” and a leading contributor to the “fake news” crisis that has been blighting society for the last few years.

Check out climate.news today to be treated to Adams’ theory that climate change is nothing but a conspiracy peddled by the UN and the mainstream media.

Over on vaccines.news, you’ll find a scaremongering story about how the measles vaccine has killed more people than measles over the last decade.

(Gee, I wonder why measles isn’t killing anyone any more? Could it be that we have a fucking vaccine?).

On medicine.news, Adams himself writes of “PROOF that vaccines target blacks for depopulation”.

And at pollution.news, you’ll find any number of articles discussing the “chemtrails” conspiracy theory.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not scientifically literate enough to debunk most of the content on these sites, but I know quackery when I see it.

Donuts’ press release goes to suspicious pains to point out that the sites’ content is “thoroughly researched” and advertising is “limited and relevant to the sites’ content”.

In fact, the advertising seems in most if not all cases to lead back to Adams’ own stores, where he sells stuff like water purifiers, dietary supplements and alternative medicines.

The Donuts press release also quotes the founder and CEO of WebSeed, one “Mike Texas”.

Now, I have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Mr Texas is not a real person.

But.

Whois records (remember those?) show that the original registrant of science.news was one Mike Adams of WebSeed LLC, and WebSeed.com, while under privacy for some years, was originally registered to Adams’ Taiwan-based company.

It goes without saying that Donuts, as a neutral registry, is under no obligation whatsoever to police content on the domains it sells. That would be a Bad Thing.

But I can’t help but feel that .news has the potential to take a big credibility hit due to the content of these sites.

Imagine a fox, buying up all the good .henhouse domains. It’s a bit like that.

Four more dot-brands call it quits

Four more dot-brand gTLDs are to disappear after their operators decided they don’t want them any more.

These are the latest victims of the voluntary cull:

  • High-priced bling-maker Richemont, an enthusiastic new gTLD early adopter, is dumping .panerai (a watch brand) and .jlc (for Jaeger-LeCoultre, another watch brand), the sixth and seventh of its fourteen originally applied-for gTLDs to be abandoned.
  • Norwegian energy company Equinor, which changed its name from Statoil a few months ago, is getting rid of .statoil for obvious reasons. Will it bother to apply for .equinor next time around? We’ll have to wait (and wait) and see.
  • Online printing outfit Vistaprint no longer wants .vista, one of its two delegated TLDs. It still has .vistaprint, and is in contracting with ICANN for its bitterly-won .webs, which matches its Webs.com brand.

The three companies informed ICANN of their intention to scrap their registry agreements between May 14 and June 14, but ICANN only published their requests on its web site in the last few hours.

Needless to say, none of the four TLDs had any live sites beyond their contractually mandated minimum.

The number of delegated new gTLD registries to voluntarily terminate their contracts now stands at 36, all dot-brands.

Under ICANN procedures, the termination requests and ICANN’s decision not to re-delegate the strings to other registries are now open for public comment.

Plural gTLDs to be banned over confusion concerns

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Policy

Singular and plural versions of the same word are likely to be banned as coexisting gTLDs in future.

The ICANN community working group looking at rules for subsequent application rounds reckons having both versions of the same word online — something that is happening with more than 30 gTLDs currently — leads to “consumer confusion” and should not be permitted.

It’s one of the surprisingly few firm recommendations in the Initial Report on the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process, which says:

If there is an application for the singular version of a word and an application for a plural version of the same word in the same language during the same application window, these applications would be placed in a contention set, because they are confusingly similar. An application for a single/plural variation of an existing TLD would not be permitted.

It adds that the mere addition of an S should not be disqualifying; .news would not be considered the plural of .new, for example.

Interestingly, the recommendation is based on advice received from existing registries, many of which fought for singular/plural coexistence during the 2012 round and already operate many such string pairs.

According to my database, these are the 15 plural/singular English string pairs (there are more if you include other languages) currently live in the DNS root:

.careers/.career
.photo/.photos
.work/.works
.cruise/.cruises
.review/.reviews
.accountant/.accountants
.loan/.loans
.auto/.autos
.deal/.deals
.gift/.gifts
.fan/.fans
.market/.markets
.car/.cars
.coupon/.coupons
.game/.games

Some of them are being managed by the same registries; others by competitors.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the newfound consensus that these pairs are confusing represents an attempt by 2012-round registries to slam the door behind them, if for no other reason than to avoid chancers trying to extort money from them by applying for plural or singular versions of other strings they currently manage.

But at an ICANN policy level, the plurals issue was indeed a gaping hole in the 2012 round.

All such clashes were resolved by String Confusion Objections, but only if one of the applicants chose to file such an objection.

These rulings mostly came down on the side of coexistence, but sometimes did not — .kid, .pet and .web were among those placed in direct contention with plural equivalents following aberrant SCO decisions.

Digital archery ruled out for next new gTLD round

Kevin Murphy, July 10, 2018, Domain Tech

The oft-mocked “digital archery” system will not be making a return when ICANN finally starts taking more new gTLD applications.

That’s the current thinking of the ICANN community working group looking at subsequent application procedures.

Readers with long memories may recall digital archery as a hack for Californian gambling laws that ICANN org pressed for in 2012 as a way to form its 1,930 applications into an orderly queue for processing.

The idea was that applicants would fire off a bit of data to an ICANN site at a predetermined time and the applicants whose packets arrived closet to the target time, measured by the millisecond, would receive priority in the queue.

It was a bit like drop-catching, and the concept advanced to the stage where companies skilled in such things were offering digital archery services.

But after ICANN changed CEOs later that year, it turned out gambling wasn’t as illegal in California as former management thought it was. The org got itself a license to run a one-off lottery and sold tickets for $100 per application.

That’s now the preferred method for ordering the queue for the next rounds of applications, whenever those may be, according to last week’s Initial Report on the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process.

Unlike 2012, the WG is proposing that portfolio applicants should be able to swap around their priority numbers according to their commercial interests.

So, if Donuts gets priority #1 for .crappy and #4,000 for .awesome, it would be able to switch priorities to get the better string evaluated earlier.

The WG is also not convinced that internationalized domain names, which received automatic priority in 2012, should get the same preferential treatment this time around.

That’s one of several questions it poses for the community in its public comment period.

While a better place in the evaluation queue had time-to-market advantages in 2012 — Donuts’ .guru sold a tonne of domains largely due to its first-mover status — that’s probably not going to be as big a deal next time around due to domainer skepticism about new gTLDs.

New gTLD fees could be kept artificially high

Kevin Murphy, July 6, 2018, Domain Policy

More windfalls for ICANN? It’s possible that application fees for new gTLDs could be artificially propped up in order to discourage gaming.

In the newly published draft policy recommendations for the next new gTLD round, ICANN volunteers expressed support for keeping fees high “to deter speculation, warehousing of
TLDs, and mitigating against the use of TLDs for abusive or malicious purposes”.

It’s one of the ideas posed in the the Initial Report on the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process, published this week.

It recommends that ICANN continues to price its application fees on a revenue-neutral basis, but with one big exception.

The report notes that there’s support for an “application fee floor” — a minimum fee threshold that would not be crossed no matter how cheap application processing actually becomes:

there might be a case where a revenue neutral approach results in a fee that is “too low,” which could result in an excessive amount of applications (e.g., making warehousing, squatting, or otherwise potentially frivolous applications much easier to submit), reduce the sense of responsibility and value in managing a distinct and unique piece of the Internet, and diminish the seriousness of the commitment to owning a TLD.

The subgroup looking at fees was “generally supportive” of the notion of a floor, the report says.

If the fee floor were used, excess funds would have to be pumped into efforts such as “universal acceptance”, the ongoing outreach project that hopes to persuade developers to ensure their software supports all TLDs.

It could also be used to support applications from the poorer regions of the world.

I wonder how much of a deterrent to warehousing an artificially high application fee would be; deep-pocketed Google and Amazon appear to have warehoused dozens of TLDs they applied for in the 2012 round.

The application fee in 2012 was $185,000 per string, priced on a “cost recovery” basis. The idea was that ICANN shouldn’t use the fees to subsidize its regular operations and vice versa.

But with roughly one third of that amount earmarked for unexpected contingencies — basically a legal defense fund — ICANN currently has close to $100 million in unspent fees sitting idle in a dedicated bank account.

The Initial Report also discusses whether application fees should be varied based on application type, as well as posing dozens of other questions for the community on the rules for the next round of new gTLDs.

Comment here.

First-come, first-served for new gTLDs? Have your say

Kevin Murphy, July 6, 2018, Domain Policy

Should new gTLDs be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis? That’s a possibility that has not yet been ruled out by the ICANN community.

The ICANN working group currently writing policy for the next round of gTLD applications has published its first draft for public comment, and FCFS is one option still on the table.

The Initial Report on the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures Policy Development Process outlines six possible paths for the new gTLD program, and the group wants to hear your feedback.

The six options presented range from a 2012-style one-off application round, followed again by a potentially interminable series of reviews, to full-on FCFS from day one.

With neither of those extremes particularly appealing, the working group seems to be erring towards one of the four other choices.

ICANN could, for example, announce two or three more rounds, with firm dates for each perhaps separated by a year or two, followed by a long breather period.

Or it could kick of an endless series of application periods, perhaps happening at the same time every year.

Or it could conduct one or more rounds before implementing full FCFS.

The report lists many of the pros and cons of these various options.

For example, FCFS could lead to scrappy applications, gTLD warehousing, capture by ICANN insiders, and disadvantages to community applicants, but it could also reduce the cost of acquiring a gTLD by eliminating expensive auction-based contention resolution.

Conversely, the round-based structure could cause scaling problems for ICANN, could face unanticipated delays, and may not be responsive to applicants’ business needs, the report says.

The working group could not reach consensus on which model should be used, but it noted that there was no appetite for either immediate FCFS or another 2012-style effort. Its report states:

The Working Group recommends that the next introduction of new gTLDs shall be in the form of a “round.” With respect to subsequent introductions of the new gTLDs, although the Working Group does not have any consensus on a specific proposal, it does generally believe that it should be known prior to the launch of the next round either (a) the date in which the next introduction of new gTLDs will take place or (b) the specific set of criteria and/or events that must occur prior to the opening up of the subsequent process. For the purposes of providing an example, prior to the launch of the next round of new gTLDs, ICANN could state something like, “The subsequent introduction of new gTLDs after this round will occur on January 1, 2023 or nine months following the date in which 50% of the applications from the last round have completed Initial Evaluation.”

The question of how to balance rounds and, potentially, FCFS, is one of many, many questions posed in the 310-page initial report. You can comment here.

Expect more coverage of this monster from DI shortly.