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GRS has lost three million domains since Famous Four died

The old Famous Four Media gTLD portfolio has shrunk by roughly 60% since old management were kicked out.

At the same time, the new registry is selling less than one percent of the domains it used to add each month.

The 16 TLDs, now managed by GRS Domains, have a total of approximately 2 million domains in their zone files today, compared to about 5 million at the end of August 2018.

Last August was when GRS, which seems to have taken over the portfolio about a year ago, announced that it was introducing “much more transparent and sensible pricing strategy” of $9.98 per domain per year across the board.

Its 16 TLDs include the likes of .loan, .win and .bid. Many had been offered in the sub-$1 range, largely via former affiliate AlpNames, attracting huge volumes of registrations but low renewals and a lot of spammers.

I compared the zone file counts at the end of August 2018 to yesterday’s numbers, rounding to the nearest thousand, and came up with this:

TLDThenNowChangeChange (%)
TOTAL5,092,0002,010,000-3,082,000-60.53
accountant64,00022,000-42,000-65.63
bid318,000104,000-214,000-67.30
cricket26,0008,000-18,000-69.23
date155,00061,000-94,000-60.65
download146,00046,000-100,000-68.49
faith62,00021,000-41,000-66.13
loan2,200,000990,000-1,210,000-55.00
men421,000144,000-277,000-65.80
party122,00044,000-78,000-63.93
racing81,00033,000-48,000-59.26
review260,00060,000-200,000-76.92
science95,00039,000-56,000-58.95
stream319,000130,000-189,000-59.25
trade182,00068,000-114,000-62.64
webcam60,00027,000-33,000-55.00
win581,000213,000-368,000-63.34

Don’t think for a second that the correction is over. The story of the old FFM portfolio’s decline will roll for many more months. Each TLD is still seeing monthly deletes in the thousands.

The number of new regs across the portfolio every month has dropped off a cliff — a big cliff with jagged rocks and sharks circling at the bottom — since the August price changes.

Whereas in January 2018 the 16 gTLDs saw a combined total of over 400,000 adds, by January 2019 this had dropped to fewer than 1,700, a 99.59% decline.

TLDAdds Jan 18Adds Jan 19ChangeChange (%)
TOTAL400,6921,645-399,047-99.59
accountant6,58222-6,560-99.67
bid2225871-22,187-99.68
cricket3,35713-3,344-99.61
date11,27823-11,255-99.80
download12,83030-12,800-99.77
faith4,44031-4,409-99.30
loan20649936-206,463-99.98
men23,98853-23,935-99.78
party16,862143-16,719-99.15
racing4,27135-4,236-99.18
review16,95649-16,907-99.71
science9,501101-9,400-98.94
stream19,655101-19,554-99.49
trade12,300123-12,177-99.00
webcam5,54127-5,514-99.51
win24,374787-23,587-96.77

In each case, the drop-off in adds started in August last year. Each TLD went almost immediately from thousands of new regs per month, to under 100.

I compared Januaries because January 2019 is the date of the most-recent registry transaction data. January 2018 was not an atypically strong month for sales for any of the TLDs; for many, it was on the slow side.

Famous Four was replaced by GRS about a year ago after investors in Domain Venture Partners, the ultimate owner of the portfolio, fell out with FFM management.

The registrar AlpNames, which was responsible for a huge share of FFM’s sales and was managed by the same people, has also since gone out of business.

Four presidents slam .amazon decision

Kevin Murphy, May 28, 2019, Domain Policy

The leaders of four of the eight governments of the Amazon region of South America have formally condemned ICANN’s decision to move ahead with the .amazon gTLD.

In a joint statement over the weekend, the presidents of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, said they have agreed to “to join efforts to protect the interests of our countries related to geographical or cultural names and the right to cultural identity of indigenous peoples”.

These four countries comprise the Andean Community, an economic cooperation group covering the nations through which the Andes pass, which has just concluded a summit on a broad range of issues.

The presidents said they have “deep concerns” about ICANN’s decision to proceed towards delegating .amazon to Amazon the company, over the objections of the eight-nation Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization.

ICANN is “setting a serious precedent by prioritizing private commercial interests over public policy considerations of the States, such as the rights of indigenous peoples and the preservation of the Amazon in favor of humanity and against global warming”, they said (via Google Translate).

ACTO had been prepared to agree to Amazon running .amazon, but it wanted effective veto power on the TLD’s policy-setting committee and a number of other concessions that Amazon thought would interfere with its commercial interests.

As it stands, Amazon has offered to block thousands of culturally sensitive domains and to give the ACTO nations a minority voice in its policy-making activities.

ICANN will soon open these proposed commitments to public comment, and will likely decide to put .amazon into the root not too long thereafter.

Hold your horses! The last wave of comments on .amazon hasn’t started yet

ICANN has yet to open the final (?) public comment period on Amazon’s .amazon gTLD applications, but it’s been receiving comments anyway.

As I blogged at the weekend, ICANN has now given all but final approval to .amazon, and the last hurdle is 30 days of public comments, on Amazon’s proposed Public Interest Commitments.

I noted at the time that the ability to comment had not yet opened, or that it was well hidden.

Over the last 24 hours or so, ICANN has nevertheless received about 15 comments about .amazon on its old new gTLD application comment system.

They’re all negative, urging ICANN to prioritize the rights of the Amazon region of South America over Amazon’s corporate IP rights.

Go here and search for the string “amazon” to locate and read them.

But according to ICANN, the 30 days of comment has not yet kicked off.

A spokesperson told DI last night that the .amazon applications are still being processed and that the PICs have not yet been formally published.

It’s not yet clear whether the new gTLD application comment system will be used, or whether ICANN will use the email-based system it uses by default for comment periods.

I expect ICANN will make a formal announcement when comments do open. Either way, I’ll blog about it here when the time comes.

Amazon’s proposed PICs were published as part of a letter to ICANN (pdf) last month.

Given the timing, it seems ICANN only has a few days to open the comment period if it wants to have any hope of approving .amazon during ICANN 65, which runs in Marrakech from June 24 to 27.

.gay picks the absolutely perfect launch date

Top Level Design has announced the launch date for its forthcoming .gay gTLD, and the timing couldn’t be more symbolic.

It’s picked October 11 as the date for general availability, which also happens to be National Coming Out Day in the US.

National Coming Out Day, which has been observed by gay rights organizations since 1987, is meant to celebrate LBGTQ people “coming out of the closet” and publicly acknowledging their sexual identity.

It happens on the same date every year to commemorate a 1987 civil rights march in Washington, DC.

According to Wikipedia, the event is also celebrated in Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the UK.

Leading up to its GA launch, Top Level Design plans to kick off its sunrise period in August.

Given that .gay has not yet been delegated, and has not filed its startup plan with ICANN, I imagine there’s some flexibility to the launch timetable.

The registry has recently been brainstorming ideas about how to promote positive content and reduce the inevitable abuse in its new TLD.

Dot-brand .bond has been acquired and will relaunch as a generic this July

The domain name’s Bond, dot Bond… or something.

Sorry.

ShortDot, the registry behind the .icu top-level domain, has acquired a dot-brand gTLD and plans to repurpose it as a generic.

The seller is Bond University, a newish, smallish university in Queensland, Australia, and the gTLD is .bond.

ShortDot co-founder Kevin Kopas confirmed the deal to DI tonight, and said the new owner hopes .bond will prove attractive to bail bondsmen, offerers of financial bonds and, yes, fans of the James Bond franchise.

There’s also the dictionary meaning of “bonding” with somebody in a familial, friendly or business sense.

A new Bond movie is due to come out next April, so .bond might pick up a few regs then, assuming the registry is careful not to too closely associate itself with the heavily-guarded IP.

Kopas said that the current plan is to launch a 60-day sunrise period July 9 this year. ShortDot is currently working on unbranding the TLD within its ICANN contract, to allow it to sell to an unrestricted audience.

Premium domains will be offered with premium renewal fees.

ShortDot also plans to move away from Neustar’s back-end to CentralNic.

Bond University never actually used its TLD, which would have been a single-registrant space for its own exclusive use. It’s been dormant since its 2014 delegation, with just a single placeholder domain in its zone file.

There are plenty of those. About 50 owners of unused dot-brands have chosen to terminate their ICANN contracts and simply fizzle away to nothing.

But a small handful of others have chosen to instead sell their contracts to registries that think they can make a bit of money marketing them as generic strings.

The most obvious example of this to date would be .monster, which XYZ.com recently relaunched as a quirky open generic after the jobs site Monster.com decided it didn’t need a dot-brand after all. It’s been on sale for about a month and has about 1,750 names in its zone file.

The first example, I believe, was .observer, which Top Level Spectrum acquired from the Observer newspaper in 2016. That TLD went on sale two years ago but has fewer than 1,000 domains under management today.

Kopas said that the plan is to sell .bond names for between $5 and $10 wholesale.

“Overall the goal of ShortDot is to offer domains that are affordable for end users and profitable for registrars,” he said.

It’s only the company’s second TLD. The first was .icu, which it bought from One.com (which hadn’t really used it) and relaunched in May 2018.

Since then, it’s grown extremely rapidly and is currently the eighth-largest new gTLD by zone file volume.

It had over 765,000 domains in its zone today, up from basically nothing a year ago, no doubt largely due to its incredibly low prices.

Before AlpNames died, it was selling .icu names to Chinese customers for the yuan equivalent of just $0.50.

Today, the domain is available from NameCheap and NameSilo, its two largest registrars, for about $1.50.

Remarkably, spam fighters haven’t highlighted much to be concerned about in .icu yet.

The TLD has a 6.4% “badness” rating with SpamHaus, roughly the same as the similarly sized MMX offering .vip, which is also popular in China, and lower than .com itself.

Compare to .loan, which has a bit over a million names and which SpamHaus gives a 28.7% “bad” score.

In other words, .icu seems to be doing very well, volume-wise, without yet attracting huge amounts of abuse.

It’s a neat trick, if you can pull it off. But is the success repeatable? I guess we’ll find out with .bond when it launches.

CENTR: domain growth now slowest EVER

The number of registered domain names in the world is growing at its slowest rate ever, according to CENTR.

Its latest CENTRstats Global TLD Report, covering the first quarter of 2019, shows median domain growth of 3.4% year-over-year, a “record low”.

That stat peaked at 29.8% in the third quarter of 2015, according to the report. That was when the first significant wave of new gTLDs were hitting the market.

The 3.4% figure is the median growth rate across the top 500 TLDs CENTR tracks.

The group tracks 1,486 TLDs in total, a little under the 1,531 currently in the root, ignoring TLDs that are too small or have unreliable data.

The report says that growth rates are similar across ccTLDs and gTLDs, though gTLDs seem to be faring slightly better.

The median growth rate of the top 300 gTLDs was 4.1%.

For ccTLDs, the percentage growth varied between regions, from 1.4% in the Americas to 6.3% in the still much smaller African markets.

CENTR estimates that there were 351 million registered domains at the end of the quarter.

ICANN redacts the secrets of Verisign’s .web deal

Afilias thinks it has found the smoking gun in its fight to wrestle .web out of the hands of rival Verisign, but for now the details are still a closely guarded secret.

The company recently filed an amended complaint in its Independent Review Process case against ICANN, after it managed to get a hold of the deal that Verisign struck with Nu Dot Co, the company that spent $135 million of Verisign’s money to win .web at auction in 2016.

The Domain Acquisition Agreement, which apparently set out the terms under which NDC would bid for .web on Verisign’s behalf, was revealed during disclosure in December.

But in publishing the amended complaint (pdf) (which seems to have happened in the last week or two), ICANN has whited out all references to the contents of this document.

Afilias claims that the DAA proves that NDC broke the rules of the new gTLD program by refusing to disclose to ICANN that it had essentially become a Verisign proxy:

It claims that ICANN should therefore have disqualified NDC from the .web auction.

Based on the terms of the DAA, it is evident that NDC violated the New gTLD Program Rules. ICANN, however, has refused to disqualify NDC from the .WEB contention set, or to disqualify NDC’s bids in the .WEB Auction.

Afilias came second in the 2016 auction, bidding $135 million. NDC/Verisign won with a $142 million bid, committing it to pay the amount Afilias was willing to pay.

While Verisign has said that it plans to market .web, Afilias believes that Verisign’s primary motivation at the auction was to essentially kill off what could have been .com’s biggest competitor. It says in its amended complaint:

ICANN has eviscerated one of the central pillars of the New gTLD Program and one of ICANN’s founding principles: to introduce and promote competition in the Internet namespace in order to break VeriSign’s monopoly

Whether the DAA reveals anything we do not already know is an open question, but Afilias reckons ICANN’s prior failure to disclose its contents represents a failure of its commitment to transparency.

Reading between the lines, it seems Afilias is claiming that ICANN got hold of the DAA some time before it was given to Afilias in discovery last December, but that ICANN “had refused to provide the DAA (or even confirm its existence)”.

By redacting its contents now, ICANN is helplessly playing into the narrative that it’s trying to cover something up.

But ICANN is probably not to blame for the redactions. It was ICANN holding the axe, yes, but it was Verisign that demanded the cuts.

ICANN said in its basis for redactions document (pdf) that it “has an affirmative obligation to redact the information designated as confidential by the third party(ies) unless and until said third party authorizes the public disclosure of such information.”

Afilias has also managed to put George Sadowsky, who for the best part of the last decade until his October departure was one of ICANN’s most independent-minded directors, on the payroll.

In his testimony (pdf), he apparently reveals some details of the ICANN boards private discussions about the .web case.

Guess what? That’s all redacted too, unilaterally this time, by ICANN.

Amazon wins! ICANN on verge of approving .amazon despite government outrage

Amazon has one foot over the finish line in its seemingly endless battle for the .amazon gTLD.

ICANN last week nudged its application along to probably its final hurdle and gave the strongest indication yet that the controversial dot-brand will soon be delegated in the root.

Amazon has essentially won, beating off objections from the eight South American nations of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization.

In a May 15 resolution, published late Friday, the ICANN board of directors resolved that there is “no public policy reason for why the .AMAZON applications should not be allowed to proceed”.

It now plans to approve the application for .amazon, along with the Chinese and Japanese translations, after Amazon’s “Public Interest Commitments” — enforceable voluntary commitments that would be incorporated into its registry contract — have been subject to 30-day public comment period.

These PICs would require Amazon to give each of the eight nations, and ACTO itself, one domain name under .amazon that they could use to provide non-commercial information about the region whose name the company shares.

Amazon would also have to block up to 1,500 culturally sensitive terms in each of the TLDs, so that nobody could use them.

There’d be a steering committee comprising Amazon and the ACTO members, which would get to decide which domains are blocked. Amazon would have the ultimate veto, but ACTO states could appeal by filing PIC Dispute Resolution Procedure complaint with ICANN.

The text of Amazon’s proposed PICs can be found in an April 17 letter to ICANN (pdf).

As far as I can tell, the public comment period has not yet been opened. If it has, it’s so well-hidden on the ICANN web site that even my voodoo powers have been ineffective in unearthing it.

It seems likely that it will attract comment from ACTO and its members, along with others with an interest in protecting the Amazon region.

Whether their comments will be enough to make ICANN change its mind about eventually delegating .amazon seems highly unlikely.

Amazon, in my view, has basically won at this point.

The victory comes over seven years after the original application was filed.

Amazon fought off a Community Objection from the Independent Objector in 2013, but its applications were rejected by ICANN after receiving consensus advice from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The GAC reached consensus against Amazon only after the United States, which had been protecting what is one of its largest technology companies’ interests, caved to pressure from the rest of the committee.

But Amazon filed an Independent Review Process complaint, which in July 2017 came back in the company’s favor. The IRP panel ruled that the GAC’s advice had been flimsy and baseless, and that ICANN should un-reject the .amazon applications.

Since then, it’s been a fight between Amazon and ACTO, with ICANN trapped in the middle.

As far as ICANN is concerned, the GAC had only advised it to “facilitate” a resolution between the two parties. It does not appear to believe it was under an obligation to assure that both parties were happy with the outcome.

ACTO had wanted much stronger protections from Amazon including majority control of the policy steering committee and, hilariously, a button on every single .amazon web page linking to an ACTO site promoting the Amazon region.

The company rejected those requests, and instead put its own unilateral proposal to ICANN.

Following ICANN’s approval, it’s now very possible that Amazon could start using .amazon this year.

However, given the usual speed at which the company launches its delegated gTLDs, some time in the 2030s is just as likely.

Defunct Famous Four ordered to hand $1.5 million back to investors

Former domain registry manager Famous Four Media has been ordered to return money to investors that was being used as insurance against its portfolio of gTLDs going out of business.

In an April 18 ruling (pdf) from Gibraltar’s Supreme Court, FFM and its CEO Iain Roache are told that original investors Domain Venture Partners are the true owners what looks to be about $1.5 million being used to back letters of credit in ICANN’s name.

It’s a very complicated ruling, reflecting the complex structure of the FFM/DVP relationship. It wants for clarity in some areas, and is probably best suited to interpretation by a forensic accountant.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.

Basically, back in 2011 businessman Iain Roache recruited a bunch of international investors to join him in funding applications for 60 new gTLDs. The investment vehicle was and is called Domain Venture Partners.

Each application had an associated “bid vehicle”, essentially a Gibraltar-based shell company with names along the lines of Dot Science Ltd or Dot Accountant Ltd.

Those of the vehicles that were successful in their applications continue to be the official registry sponsors for 16 active gTLDs. They’re all owned by DVP.

Famous Four was a separate company, owned 80:20 by Roache and business partner Geir Rasmussen, hired by DVP to manage the business of actually selling domains.

For many years, myself and pretty much everybody else covering the domain name industry referred to FFM as if it was the owner of the TLDs, more or less interchangeably with DVP.

In fact, FFM was just a DVP contractor and behind the scenes DVP was growing increasingly unhappy with how the domains were being managed, DVP investor Robert Maroney told DI last August.

For about a year now, FFM has been in liquidation. DVP kicked it out of the registry management business and replaced it with a new company that it controls called GRS Domains, managed by a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant called Edgar Lavarello.

Thirteen of the DVP bid vehicles sued Famous Four to claim ownership of, among other things, the money backing the so-called “Continuing Operations Instruments” that ICANN demanded from each new gTLD applicant.

The COI, usually a letter of credit from a big bank, were used to give ICANN the confidence that new gTLD domain registrants would not be affected by dodgy registries going out of business and their domains immediately going dark. The money would fund ongoing technical operations for a few years, giving registrants time to find a new home for their web sites.

In this case, Famous Four’s liquidator refused to agree that the money backing the COIs was rightfully DVP’s.

What seems to have happened is that in mid-2016 the DVP letters of credit were hastily switched from Credit Suisse to Barclays, after Credit Suisse closed down its Gibraltar branch.

There was a period in which both sets of LoCs were active, in order to remain compliant with ICANN’s rule that there must be an active COI at all times.

The original Credit Suisse LoCs had been funded by DVP, but the Barclays LoCs were funded by FFM, or quite possibly Roache himself, to the tune of about $1.5 million.

FFM was then repaid by the return of the money backing the Credit Suisse LoCs, when those LoCs were closed, according to Chief Justice Anthony Dudley’s ruling.

After the switch of banks, the LoCs were no longer in the names of the DVP bid vehicles; they belonged to FFM. The money DVP put up to originally secure the COIs was now in FFM’s control.

Dudley now seems to have ruled that FFM now owes DVP this money back, and that the liquidator, Grant Jones of Simmons Gainsford, was wrong to withhold it.

In fact, the judge has some quite stern words for Jones, saying that he was “wholly inappropriate” when he temporarily turned over his responsibilities as liquidator to Roache and his law firm. Dudley wrote:

It may be that it arises as a consequence of the Liquidator having limited funds with which to engage in litigation. But whatever the reason, the position adopted by the liquidator of FFM in these proceedings has been unusual and certainly capable of being construed as running counter to the fundamental principle of objectivity required of a Liquidator, now codified in the Insolvency Practitioner Regulations 2014. Rather than formulate his own view (or as urged by me at a preliminary hearing seek his own independent legal advice) by letter dated 1 March 2019 GJ sought to abrogate his responsibility and authorised IR and JSF to act on behalf of FFM

That aside, the main piece of evidence that appears to have caused Dudley to side with DVP was a set of emails from Famous Four chief legal officer Oliver Smith to DVP investors that were sent at the time the LoCs were switching banks.

Smith confirmed in one of these emails that FFM was basically just acting as a conduit for DVPs bid vehicles, which by that point were operational registries.

The judge noted that the Smith email that confirmed this was submitted in evidence by Lavarello and Maroney only after Roache had submitted the rest of the thread, excluding this email, in his own evidence.

Dudley ruled that the DVP companies should get what they asked for, namely the funds associated with the LoCs. It’s not entirely clear from his ruling how much this is, but by my reading it’s around the $1.5 million mark.

The liquidation, which is ongoing, is to the best of my knowledge unrelated to the still unexplained demise of AlpNames, the registrar and close FFM partner also owned by Roache and Rasmussen.

Finally, a disclaimer.

Because I’ve already had one spurious legal threat related to my ongoing coverage of Famous Four’s demise, and don’t really need the arseache of any more, I’m going to state unequivocally for the record that I’m not alleging any wrongdoing by anyone.

If I’ve got anything wrong, as always I will gladly issue a correction. Just ask, and show your working. No need to sic the lawyers on me.

You can read the judge’s decision (pdf) and decide for yourself what’s been going on.

ICANN to host first-ever high-stakes dot-brand auction

Kevin Murphy, May 7, 2019, Domain Sales

Two companies that own trademark rights to the same brand are to fight it out at an ICANN auction for the first time.

Germany-based Merck Group will fight it out for .merck with American rival Merck & Co at an auction scheduled to take place July 17.

Because it’s an ICANN “last-resort” auction, the value of the winning bid will be disclosed and all the money will flow to ICANN.

It will be the first ICANN gTLD auction for three years, when a Verisign proxy agreed to pay $135 million for .web.

The two Mercks could still avoid the ICANN auction by resolving their contention set privately.

The German Merck is a chemicals company founded in 1668 (not a typo) and the US Merck was founded as its subsidiary in the late 19th century.

That division was seized by the US government during World War I and subsequently became independent.

The German company uses merckgroup.com as its primary domain today. The US firm, which with 2018 revenue of over $42 billion is by far the larger company, uses merck.com.

Both companies applied for .merck as “community” applicants and went through the Community Priority Evaluation process.

Neither company scored enough points to avoid an auction, but the German company had the edge in terms of points scored.

Both applications then found themselves frozen while ICANN reviewed whether its CPE process was fair. That’s the same process that tied up the likes of .gay and .music for so many years.

While the July auction will be the first all-brand ICANN auction, at least one trademark owner has had to go to auction before.

Vistaprint, which owns a trademark on the term “webs” was forced to participate in the .web auction after a String Confusion Objection loss, but due to the technicalities of the process only had to pay $1 for .webs.