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Registries reject lower fees for anti-abuse prowess

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2018, Domain Policy

Registries have largely rejected a proposal for them to be offered financial incentives to lower the amount of abuse in their gTLDs.

That’s despite the idea gaining broad support from governments, intellectual property interests and restricted-registration registries.

The concept of ICANN offering discounted fees to registries that proactively fight abuse was floated by the Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice Review Team (CCT) back in November.

It recommended in its draft report, among other things:

Consider directing ICANN org, in its discussions with registries, to negotiate amendments to existing Registry Agreements, or in negotiations of new Registry Agreements associated with subsequent rounds of new gTLDs to include provisions in the agreements providing incentives, including financial incentives for registries, especially open registries, to adopt proactive anti-abuse measures.

“Proactive” in this case would mean measures such as preventing known bad actors from registering domains, rather than just waiting for complaints to be filed.

Given that registries have been calling for lower ICANN fees in other instances, one might expect to see support from that constituency.

However, the Registries Stakeholder Group said in a document filed to ICANN’s public comment period on the CCT’s latest recommendations that, it “opposes” the idea of such financial incentives. It said:

The RySG supports recognizing and supporting the many [registry operators] that take steps to discourage abuse, but opposes amending the RA as recommended, to mandate or incentivize ‘proactive’ anti-abuse measures.

The RySG complained that such a system would require lots of complex work to arrive at a definition of abuse and what kinds of measures would qualify as “proactive”.

Even if such definitions could be found, and amendments to the standard RA successfully negotiated, there’s still no guarantee that bad registries would sign up for the incentives or stick to their promises, “resulting in no net improvement to the current situation”, the RySG said.

The group is also concerned that adding more anti-abuse clauses to the RA could increase registries’ risk of liability should they be sued over abuse carried out by their customers.

Not all registries agreed with the RySG position, however.

The informal Verified Top-Level Domains Consortium, which comprises the two registries behind .bank, .insurance and .pharmacy, filed comments supporting the proposal.

It said that gTLDs with vetted eligibility requirements see no abuse but have lower registration volumes and therefore pay higher ICANN fees on a per-domain basis. It said:

ICANN should help to offset these costs to create a more level playing field with high-volume unrestricted registries, i.e., to enhance competition as well as consumer trust. If ICANN made it more financially advantageous to verify eligibility, other registries may be encouraged to adopt this model. The outcome would be the elimination of abuse in these verified TLDs.

Outside of the industry itself, the Governmental Advisory Committee and IP interests such as the Intellectual Property Constituency and INTA, filed comments supporting anti-abuse incentives.

The IPC “strongly” supported the recommendation, but added that the finer details would need to be worked out to ensure that lower ICANN fees did not translate automatically to lower registration fees and therefore more abuse.

Shocking nobody, it added that “abuse” should include intellectual property infringements.

Conversely, the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group said it “strongly” opposes the recommendation, on the basis that it would push ICANN into a “content policeman” role in violation of its technical mandate:

ICANN is not a US Federal Trade Commission or an anti-fraud unit or regulatory unit of any government. Providing guidance, negotiation and worse yet, financial incentives to ICANN-contracted registries for anti-abuse measures is completely outside of our competence, goals and mandates. Such acts would bring ICANN straight into the very content issues that passionately divide countries — including speech laws, competition laws, content laws of all types. It would invalidate ICANN commitments to ourselves and the global community. It would make ICANN the policemen of the Internet, not the guardians of the infrastructure. It is a role we have sworn not to undertake; a role beyond our technical expertise; and a recommendation we must not accept.

Also opposed to incentivizing anti-abuse measures was the Messaging, Malware and Mobile Anti-Abuse Working Group (an independent entity, not an ICANN working group), which said there’s no data to support such a recommendation.

The reports provide no data that showcase what the implications of altering the economic underpinnings of a highly competitive market may entail, including inadvertent side effects such as registries that already sell low price domains being rewarded with lower ICANN fees. In fact, it may ultimately result in a race to the bottom and higher rates of domain abuse.

Instead, M3AAWG said that ICANN should concentrate is contractual compliance efforts on those registries that the data shows already have large amounts of abuse — presumably meaning the likes of .top, .gdn and the Famous Four Media stable.

ICANN itself filed a comment on the proposal, pointing out that it is not able to unilaterally impose anti-abuse measures into registry agreements.

One imagines that lowering fees at a time when its own budget is under a lot of pressure would probably not be something ICANN would be eager to implement.

These comments and more were summarized in ICANN’s report on the CCT public comment period, published yesterday. The comments themselves can be found here.

The comments feed back into the CCT review team’s work ahead of its final report, which is due to be published some time during Q1.

Under its bylaws, the CCT review is one of the things that ICANN has to complete before it opens the next round of new gTLD applications.

Donuts may make .travel names easier to buy after acquiring its first legacy gTLD

Kevin Murphy, February 14, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has added .travel to its swelling portfolio of gTLDs, under a deal with original registry Tralliance announced today.

It’s the company’s first acquisition of a legacy, pre-2012 gTLD, and the first “community” gTLD to join its stable of strings, which now stands at 239.

.travel went live in 2005, a part of ICANN’s 2003 round of “sponsored” TLD applications.

As a sponsored TLD, .travel has eligibility and authentication requirements, but executive vice president Jon Nevett told DI that Donuts will look at “tinkering with” the current process to make domains easier to buy.

The current system requires what amounts to basically a self-declaration that you belong to the travel community, he said, but you have to visit the registry’s web site to obtain an authentication code before a registrar will let you buy a .travel domain.

Given that the community captured by .travel is extremely broad — you could be somebody blogging about their vacations and qualify — it seems to be a barrier of limited usefulness.

Nevett said Donuts has no immediate plans to migrate the TLD away from the Neustar back-end upon which it currently sits.

The rest of its portfolio runs on its own in-house registry platform, and one imagines that .travel will wind up there one day.

While .travel is one of Donuts most-expensive domains — priced at $99 retail at its own Name.com registrar — Nevett said there are no plans to cut pricing as yet.

There may be discounts, he said, and possibly promotions involving bundling with other travel-related gTLDs in its portfolio.

Donuts already runs .city, .holiday, .flights, .cruises, .vacations and several other thematically synergistic name spaces.

.travel had about 18,000 domains registered at the last count, with EnCirca, Name.com, 101domain, Key-Systems and CSC Corporate as its top five registrars.

It peaked 10 years ago at just under 215,000 registrations, largely due to to speculative bulk registrations made by parties connected to the registry that were dumped a couple of years later.

It’s been at under 20,000 names for the last five years, shrinking by small amounts every year.

The price of the acquisition was not disclosed.

ICANN chief to lead talks over blocked .amazon gTLD

Kevin Murphy, February 14, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Goran Marby has been asked to help Amazon come to terms with several South American governments over its controversial bid for the .amazon gTLD.

The organization’s board of directors passed a resolution last week accepting the suggestion, which came from the Governmental Advisory Committee. The board said:

The ICANN Board accepts the GAC advice and has asked the ICANN org President and CEO to facilitate negotiations between the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization’s (ACTO) member states and the Amazon corporation

Governments, prominently Peru and Brazil, have strongly objected to .amazon on the grounds that the “Amazon” river and rain-forest region, known locally as “Amazonas” should be a protected geographic term.

Amazon’s applications for .amazon and two Asian-script translations were rejected a few years ago after the GAC sided with its South American members and filed advice objecting to the gTLDs.

A subsequent Independent Review Process panel last year found that ICANN had given far too much deference to the GAC advice, which came with little to no evidence-based justification.

The panel told ICANN to “promptly” take another look at the applications and “make an objective and independent judgment regarding whether there are, in fact, well-founded, merits-based public policy reasons for denying Amazon’s applications”.

Despite this, the .amazon application is still classified as “Will Not Proceed” on ICANN’s web site. That’s basically another way of saying “rejected” or “denied”.

Amazon the company has promised to protect key domains, such as “rainforest.amazon”, if it gets to run the gTLDs. Governments would get to help create a list of reserved, sensitive domains.

It’s also promised to actively support any future bids for .amazonas supported by the governments concerned.

.amazon would be a dot-brand, so only Amazon would be able to register names there.

Economist would sue ICANN if it publishes private emails

Kevin Murphy, February 14, 2018, Domain Policy

The Economist Intelligence Unit has threatened to sue ICANN if it publishes emails related to its evaluations of “community” gTLDs.

That’s according to a document published by ICANN this week, in which the organization refused to reveal any more information about a controversial probe into the Community Priority Evaluations the EIU conducted on its behalf.

EIU “threatened litigation” should ICANN publish emails sent between the two parties, the document states.

New gTLD applicant DotMusic, which failed its CPE for .music but years later continues to fight for the decision to be overturned, filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request with ICANN a month ago.

DIDP is ICANN’s equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act.

DotMusic’s request among many other items sought the release of over 100,000 emails, many sent between ICANN and the EIU, that ICANN had provided to FTI Consulting during FTI’s investigation into whether the CPEs were fair, consistent and absent ICANN meddling.

But in its response this week, ICANN pointed out that its contract with EIU, its “CPE Provider”, has confidentiality clauses:

ICANN organization endeavored to obtain consent from the CPE Provider to disclose certain information relating to the CPE Process Review, but the CPE Provider has not agreed to ICANN organization’s request, and has threatened litigation should ICANN organization breach its contractual confidentiality obligations. ICANN organization’s contractual commitments must be weighed against its other commitments, including transparency. The commitment to transparency does not outweigh all other commitments to require ICANN organization to breach its contract with the CPE Provider.

DotMusic’s DIDP sought the release of 19 batches of information, which it hopes would bolster its case that both the EIU’s original reviews and FTI’s subsequent investigation were flawed, but all requests were denied by ICANN on various grounds.

In more than one instance, ICANN claims attorney-client privilege under California law, as it was actually ICANN’s longstanding law firm Jones Day, rather than ICANN itself, that contracted with FTI.

The FTI report cleared ICANN of all impropriety and said the EIU’s CPE process had been consistent across each of the gTLD applications it looked at.

The full DIDP request and response can be found here.

ICANN has yet to make a decision on .music, along with .gay, .hotel, .cpa, and .merck, all of which were affected by the CPE reviews.

Full $185,000 refunds offered to risky new gTLD applicants

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN is to offer applicants for three new gTLDs identified as too risky to go live full refunds of their application fees.

Its board of directors acknowledged at its weekend retreat that it has no intention of delegating .corp, .home and .mail, and that each applicant should be able to get their entire $185,000 application fee back.

The applicants will have to withdraw their applications in order to get the refund.

Ordinarily, withdrawing an application would only qualify the applicants for a partial refund.

The ICANN board said in its resolution that it “does not intend to delegate the strings .CORP, .HOME, and .MAIL in the 2012 round of the New gTLD Program”.

It added that “the applicants were not aware before the application window that the strings .CORP, .HOME, and .MAIL would be identified as high-risk, and that the delegations of such high-risk strings would be deferred indefinitely.”

The three strings are considered risky because they already receive vast amounts of “name collision” traffic, largely from DNS queries that leak out from private networks.

There’s a concern that delegating any of them would create a big security risk in terms of confidential data leakage and stuff just generally breaking.

It’s been six years since the last new gTLD application window was open, and some applicants for the strings abandoned their bids years ago.

There are five remaining .corp applicants (and one withdrawal), five for .mail (two withdrawals) and ten for .home (one withdrawal).

The refunds will be taken from ICANN’s separate new gTLD program budget so presumably will not have an impact on its current operating budget woes.

The board noted that technically it did not have to give full refunds, under the terms of the Applicant Guidebook, but that it was doing so in the interest of “fairness”.

This may come as little comfort to applicants whose money has been tied up in limbo for the last six years.

Famous Four chair pumps $5.4 million into AlpNames to settle COO lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2018, Domain Registrars

Famous Four Media chair Iain Roache has bought out his former COO’s stake in AlpNames, its affiliated registrar, settling a lawsuit between the two men.

He’s acquired Charles Melvin’s 20% stake in the company for £3.9 million ($5.4 million), according to a press release.

A spokesperson confirmed that the deal settles a lawsuit in the companies’ home territory of Gibraltar, which we reported on in December.

Roache said in the press release that he has a plan to grow AlpNames into a “Tier 1 registrar”:

“I’ve got a 10 year strategic plan, which includes significant additional investment, to set the business up for future growth and success,” he said. “We’re going to bring the competition to the incumbents!”

AlpNames is basically the registrar arm of Famous Four, over the last few years supporting the gTLD portfolio registry’s strategy of selling domains in the sub-$1 range and racking up huge market share as a result.

But it’s on a bit of a slide, volume-wise, right now, as hundreds of thousands of junk domains are allowed to expire.

According to today’s press release, AlpNames has 794,000 gTLD domains under management. That’s a far cry from its peak of 3.1 million just under a year ago.

Seller Melvin, according to the press release, “has decided to pursue other interests outside of the domain name industry”.

It appears he left his COO job at Famous Four some time last year, and then sued Roache and CEO Geir Rasmussen (also an AlpNames investor) over a financial matter. Previous attempts to buy him out were rebuffed.

Last October, the Gibraltar court ruled that the defendants has supplied the court with “forged documents” in the form of inaccurately dated invoices between the registry and AlpNames.

The pair insisted to the court that the documents were an honest mistake and their lawyer told DI that there was no “forgery” in the usual sense of the word.

But it appears that Melvin’s split from the companies was less than friendly and the £3.9 million buyout should probably be viewed in that light.

New gTLD revenue cut by HALF in ICANN budget

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2018, Domain Policy

The new gTLD industry is performing terribly when compared to ICANN’s predictions just six months ago.

ICANN budget documents published over the weekend show that by one measure new gTLDs are doing just 51% of the business ICANN thought they would.

The new budget (pdf) shows that for the fiscal year 2018, which ends June 30, ICANN currently expects to receive $4.6 million in registry transaction fees.

These are the fees registries must pay for each new registration, renewal or transfer, when the TLD has more than 50,000 domains under management.

In a draft budget (pdf) published March 2017, its “best estimate” for these fees in FY18 was $8.9 million, almost double its newest prediction.

That prediction lasted until the approved budget (pdf) published last August.

The budget published at the weekend expects this transaction revenue to increase 31.1% to $6 million by June 30, 2019, still a long way off last year’s estimate.

At the registrar level, where registrars pay a transaction fee regardless of the size of the customer’s chosen gTLD, ICANN expects new gTLD revenue to be $3.9 million in FY18.

That’s just 52% of its March/August 2017 estimate of $7.5 million.

Looking at all reportable transactions — including the non-billable ones — ICANN’s projection for FY18 is now 21.9 million, compared to its earlier estimate of 41.7 million.

ICANN even reckons the number of new, 2012-round gTLDs actually live on the internet is going to shrink.

Its latest budget assumes 1,228 delegated TLDs by the end of June this year, which appears to be a couple light on current levels (at least according to me) and down from the 1,240 it expected a year ago.

It expects there to be 1,231 by the end of June 2019, which is even lower than it expected have in June 2017.

I suspect this is related to dot-brands cancelling their contracts, rather than retail gTLDs going dark.

Revenue from fixed registry fees for FY18 is expected to be $30.6 million, $200,00 less than previous expectations. Those numbers are for all gTLDs, old and new.

Overall, the view of new gTLDs is not pretty, when judged by what ICANN expected.

It shows that ICANN is to an extent captive to the whims of a fickle market that has in recent years been driven by penny deals and Chinese speculation.

By contrast, legacy gTLDs (.com, .info, etc) are running slightly ahead of earlier projections.

ICANN now expects legacy registry transaction fees of $48.6 million for FY18, which is $200,000 more than predicted last year.

It expects registrar transaction fees of $29.5 million, compared to its earlier forecast of $29.4 million.

This is not enough to recoup the missing new gTLD money, of course, which is why ICANN is slashing $5 million from its budget.

A new gTLD kills itself off for the second time

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2018, Domain Registries

British pharmacy chain Boots has applied to ICANN to terminate its dot-brand contract for the second time.

The company asked for its .boots Registry Agreement, signed in 2015, to be ended in December and ICANN opened the request for public comment this week.

What’s weird about the request is that Boots had already asked for self-termination last April, but that request was subsequently withdrawn by the company.

Boots seems to have changed its mind, twice, in a year.

As I noted first time around, .boots was the first example of a dot-brand that also matches a generic class of goods to chose the easy way out.

It’s quite likely the two-year freeze on re-applying for the string, should anyone want to, will be over by the time the next new gTLD application window opens.

.boots only had the contractually mandated placeholder domain nic.boots live.

Active new gTLD domains drop below 20 million

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2018, Domain Registries

The number of domain names recorded in new gTLD zone files has dipped below 20 million for the first time in 18 months.

The total crossed the milestone in the wrong direction January 1, according to DI’s records.

As of today, there are 19.8 million domains in zone files, down from a peak of 26 million in March 2017.

The count has gone down by about half a million names in the last 90 days, largely as a result of declines in .top, .xyz and .kiwi, which have each recorded six-figure losses.

It’s the first time that the zone files have showed the number of domains going below 20 million since the beginning of June 2016, when XYZ.com sold millions of .xyz domains for a penny each. Most of those names did not renew a year later.

Zone files do not record every domain that has been registered, just those with active name servers. Others may be registered but unused or on hold for various reasons.

.web closer to reality as antitrust probe ends

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2018, Domain Registries

Verisign has been given the all-clear by the US government to go ahead and run the new gTLD .web, despite competition concerns.

The Department of Justice told the company yesterday that the antitrust investigation it launched almost exactly a year ago is now “closed”.

Verisign’s secret proxy in the 2016 auction, the original .web applicant Nu Dot Co, now plans to try to execute its Registry Agreement with ICANN.

That contract would then be assigned to Verisign through the normal ICANN process.

The .com registry operator today filed this statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission:

As the Company previously disclosed, on January 18, 2017, the Company received a Civil Investigative Demand from the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) requesting certain material related to the Company becoming the registry operator for the .web gTLD. On January 9, 2018, the DOJ notified the Company that this investigation was closed. Verisign previously announced on August 1, 2016, that it had provided funds for Nu Dot Co’s successful bid for the .web gTLD and the Company anticipates that Nu Dot Co will now seek to execute the .web Registry Agreement with ICANN and thereafter assign it to Verisign upon consent from ICANN.

This basically means that Justice disagrees with anyone who thinks Verisign plans to operate .web in a way that just props up its .com market dominance, such as by burying it without a trace.

People clamoring to register .web domains may still have some time to wait, however.

Rival applicant Donuts, via subsidiary Ruby Glen, still has a pending lawsuit against ICANN in California.

Donuts had originally sued to prevent the .web auction going ahead in mid-2016, trying to force Nu Dot Co to reveal who was really pulling its strings.

After the auction, in which Verisign committed to pay ICANN a record-setting $125 million, Donuts sued to have the result overturned.

But in November 2016, a judge ruled that the no-suing covenant that all new gTLD applicants had to sign was valid, throwing out Donuts’ case.

Donuts is now appealing that ruling, however, filing its most-recent brief just a few weeks ago.

Whether that will stop ICANN from signing the .web contract and delegating it to Verisign is an open question. It managed to delegate .africa to ZA Central Registry despite the existence of an ongoing lawsuit by a competing applicant.

If history is any guide, we may see a rival applicant apply for a temporary restraining order against .web’s delegation before long.