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Forty weddings and a funeral? .wed is dead but may come up for auction

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Registries

.wed has become the first commercial, open, non-branded new gTLD to have its registry contract unilaterally terminated by ICANN, and it could soon be looking for a new home.

ICANN terminated the contract with US-based Atgron last week, almost three years after imposing emergency measures to protect registrants after the company’s business model failed miserably.

The company wanted to provide a space for engaged couples to promote their weddings for about $50 a year, but its business model was based around basically forcing registrants to abandon their names by charging a $30,000 renewal fee after year two.

Unsurprisingly, it attracted few registrants — about 300 at its 2016 peak — and only one registrar.

By the time the end of 2017 rolled around, it was languishing at 39 domains (for the purposes of a whimsical headline, let’s round it up to 40) and its agreement with its back-end registry operator was on the verge of expiring.

In the hope of keeping its customers’ domains working, Atgron turned off its Whois for a week, attracting the attention of ICANN and triggering a criterion for transitioning to an Emergency Back-End Registry Operator.

It’s been on an EBERO, in this case Nominet, since December 2017, with all domains essentially frozen.

In the meanwhile, it’s been fighting against contract termination with ICANN, first in mediation and then in arbitration.

Last month, the arbitrator ruled that Atgron was in breach for failure to pay its ICANN fees, and ICANN terminated the registry agreement October 5.

.wed is certainly not the first new gTLD to get terminated by ICANN — there’s been about a dozen to date — but it is the first to be a non-dot-brand.

This means ICANN will get to test its Registry Transition Process for the first time.

When a dot-brand dies, ICANN just removes it from the root and lets it stay dead on the grounds that there’s no plausible successor and no registrants will suffer.

In this case, we’re talking about an open, non-branded gTLD with a generic string that could potentially rack up many thousands of registrations.

There’d be no obligation for a future operator to take on the silly business model.

The Registry Transition Process will go one of two ways.

If Atgron has already picked a successor registry, ICANN will conduct a series of evaluations that look like they would be a piece of cake for any existing gTLD portfolio owner to pass.

But if Atgron has no heir apparent, it goes to an RFP which basically amounts to an auction, with the company prepared to pay Atgron the most money becoming the company’s presumed preferred successor.

With Atgron still owing ICANN money — presumably hundreds of thousands of dollars — in past-due fees, I’ve little doubt what ICANN’s preferred outcome would be.

For Atgron, there’s the distinct possibility that it could make more money from crashing .wed into the ground than it ever did by actually selling domains.

.wed is not a bad string — it’s short, meaningful, and has a niche of potential registrants already forced to overpay for almost everything else — and I’m fairly confident it could easily find a new home at an existing registry.

Nominet shuts down “hostile” discussion forum

Kevin Murphy, September 23, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet has angered members by unilaterally shutting down a discussion forum that has been for many years the main place for discussions about .uk policy.

The forum, which Nominet hosted on its web site, went dark abruptly during the company’s annual general meeting yesterday.

Speaking to members tuning in to the live webcast, CEO Russell Haworth said that the forum was “dominated by a handful of posters, and has increasingly become aggressive and hostile, not least towards our staff”.

And then it was gone.

Haworth said he expected criticism over the move, which was “fine”, adding that posters have plenty of other venues to air their grievances.

He also suggested periodic Zoom calls to communicate with members.

The decision to close the forum is being greeted poorly by affected members (presumably the ones who most actively used it) on social media and seen as a way for power to be further consolidated among Nominet’s biggest revenue-generators.

Nominet recently came in for criticism for its efforts to grab a slice of the drop-catching pie by charging registrars an extra £600 a year (now, members note, up to £1,000) for additional EPP tunnels.

It also recently admitted privately to members that it last year miscalculated how many votes members they should get in directorship elections, but insisted the error did not have an effect on the outcome of the most recent poll.

The move is not entirely without precedent. Those of you with as many grey hairs as me may recall the old Domain-Policy mailing list, once the central hub for community discussions, going dark back in 2001.

But Verisign, which hosted the list and its archives, explained that move as a measure to reduce redundancy, rather than straight-up admitting that it was a PR move to silence its legion of critics.

Told us so? Nominet ditches auctions plan, will charge drop-catchers higher fees instead

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet has ruled out auctioning off expired .uk domains names, after a member rebellion.

The .uk registry said last Thursday that it “will not pursue an auction model”, despite previously indicating that it was the best option for how to reform the dropping domains market.

This means the most likely model in future is going to be a huge increase in fees for registrars that aggressively engage in drop-catching.

A month ago, Nominet said that it was considering changing how it handles dropping domains, with either a system of registry-managed auctions or a system of increased fees for drop-catchers.

It appeared to many (yours truly included), based on a Nominet scoring system for each available option, that auctions were the preferred choice.

The registry originally denied that auctions were a shoo-in and now, apparently responding to critics, has ruled that option out completely.

Registry MD Eleanor Bradley wrote:

we will not pursue an auction model. While a proportion of responses from a wide range of sectors including the drop–catching market supported this approach, the prevailing view was this is not the role of the Registry.

Introducing a new approach for those that wish to drop–catch names where participants can purchase connections is the option we will pursue further.

Nominet says that some kind of change is “necessary” because currently .uk drop-catchers are sometimes in the habit of creating spurious Nominet memberships in order to increase the number of simultaneous EPP connections they can use, maximizing their chances of securing drops.

The registry calls this “collusion” and against its acceptable use policies.

In future, it seems drop-catchers will instead have to directly buy extra connections from Nominet. An annual price of £600 ($800) for a batch of six connections, up to a maximum of £6,000 for 60, has previously been floated.

Bradley said that the final details of the plan have yet to be determined.

The decision follows a consultation which received 107 comments and a member petition.

It’s a CONSPIRACY! Canadian registrant “sues” pretty much everybody

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2020, Domain Policy

Canadian domain registrant and noted industry troll Graham Schreiber has sued, or at least claims to have sued, just about every notable figure in the ICANN community.

A document purporting to be a lawsuit is being circulated today among some of the dozens of named defendants, which include several people who’ve not been involved with ICANN for many years.

It names 27 volunteers from ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency, 21 current and former senior executives of registries and registrars, several members of the US and UK governments, an FBI agent, an unnamed “White House Conspirator”, as well as lawyers for LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, ICANN, Google and the UK Intellectual Property Office.

It’s my job to tell you in simple terms what the alleged lawsuit alleges, but I’m afraid I’m at an utter loss with this one. It reads like the fever dream of a conspiracy theorist that would make the average Qanon believer appear the model of reason and clarity.

Schreiber variously refers to his defendants as “Kingpins” involved in a “Cartel” or “Conspiracy”, the factual details of which he never quite gets to.

Here’s a representative sample paragraph, unedited:

If and when, the “Defensive Registrations” obliged by ICANN’s R[r]egistry & R[r]egistrar “Stakeholders” = “Kingpins” and specifically CentralNic [ weren’t purchased ] assailants would strike; and Infringe, Dilute, Blur and Pass-Off as our online business, individually with identical and confusingly similar domain name, faking to be appointed or an authorized agent of the primary Registrant, in a country’s entrepreneurs Intellectual Property may or may not have been protectable at Common Law Trademark, under Madrid Protocol Rules, as it / they fulfilled the obligations of local National laws, to become a Registered Trademark, as I secured in the USA with USPTO, after the CIPO did their work.

At one point, he admits to trolling the defendants on social media since 2012, and points to their failure to sue him as evidence of a conspiracy:

I’ve made statements via those Social Media resources which would, if they were untrue, subject me to a singular lawsuit or multiple lawsuits from the Defendants listed, for: Defamation, Slander and Libel.

As yet, these well taunted Defendants have all conspired together, in collective silence, anticipating that their grandeur and my insignificance would, maintain safe passage, for them to continue.

As the vast majority of the Defendants are well schooled, powerful U.S. Attorneys, it’s my expectation that the Court oblige them to address the charges here stated, or collectively for their defence, they must File a lawsuit with this Court, charging me for what could be [ but aren’t ] remarks constituting Defamation, Slander & Libel against them, which again, I’ve posted on some of the Defendants own clients, Social Media Platforms

Schreiber was once a regular fixture in DI’s comments section too. Thankfully, we’ve not heard from him in years.

The root cause of the “lawsuit” appears to be an old beef Schreiber has with CentralNic.

He says he owns what he calls a “common law trademark” on the term “Landcruise” and he once used the matching .com domain to operate a motor-home rental business.

At some point in 2011, he became aware that a British registrant had registered landcruise.co.uk and landcruise.uk.com.

At the time, CentralNic was primarily in the business of selling domains at the third level in pseudo-gTLDs such as uk.com, gb.com and us.com.

Schreiber tried and failed (twice) to get the .uk domain transferred under Nominet’s Dispute Resolution Service, and then he took his beef to the courts.

In 2012, he sued CentralNic, ICANN, Verisign, eNom, and Network Solutions in a complaint that barely made much more sense than the “lawsuit” being circulated today.

That case was thrown out of court in 2013.

I expect the same fate to befall the current lawsuit, if indeed it has even been filed in a court.

Schreiber wants $5 million from every defendant.

If you want to check whether you’re one of them, read the PDF “complaint” here.

Drop auctions not a slam-dunk, says Nominet

Nominet has responded to criticism of its plans to introduce registry-level .uk drop auctions by saying it’s not about money-grabbing and is not guaranteed to even happen.

Registry MD Eleanor Bradley today blogged:

In some quarters the commentary suggests the driver for change is financial, or to make life more difficult for some business models. It is not.

As commercial gain was not our objective, we have suggested that any additional funds raised by changing the policy would be directed towards public benefit activity or used to provide specific services to registrars. Indeed, how to best spend additional funds that result from any policy change is part of the consultation.

The consultation referred to here was launched earlier this month. It suggests replacing the current drop-catching system, in which Nominet suspects some members “collude” to pool their EPP connections, with one of two new processes.

One would be a straightforward auction of desirable dropping names. The other would be to charge drop-catchers up to £6,000 a year for extra concurrent registry connections.

Bradley wrote that “the assumption in some quarters that an auction approach is our preferred option — a fait accompli –- are wide of the mark”.

As I’m one of the people who reported that auctions were Nominet’s “apparently preferred” option, I’ll note that my take was based on the company’s own consultation document, which scores auctions more highly than the alternative on a five-point scale of its own devising.

And a preferred option is not the same as a fait accompli, of course.

The consultation is open for a couple more weeks. A group of disgruntled members plan to petition the board to retain the status quo at its AGM in September.

Nominet members revolt over “deepest pockets wins” auction plans

A group of Nominet members and registrars have launched a petition to prevent Nominet from introducing registry-level auctions for dropping .uk domain names.

The petition, organized by Netistrar, reads: “We the undersigned members request that Nominet maintains equal registrar access to expired domain names on a first come first served basis.”

Nominet recently launched a policy consultation that lays out plans to essentially kill off the existing system of drop-catching expired domains and replace it with either registry auctions or a pay-to-play model asking fees of up to £6,000 a year.

The petition says that “these proposals technically and financially restrict a registrars ability to access expired domains”, noting that other ccTLDs “manage an expiry process without an expensive and centralized auction system.”

So far, 70 registrars and individuals (out of the about 3,000 Nominet members) have signed the petition, but they account for more than 400,000 .uk domains.

The petition will be presented at Nominet’s annual general meeting in September. The current policy consultation ends August 14.

Nominet wants to kill off the .uk drop-catching market

Nominet has revealed a sweeping set of policy proposals that would totally revamp how expired domains are deleted and could essentially kill off drop-catching in the .uk domains market.

The company is thinking about auctioning off expired domains at the registry level, or charging drop-catchers up to £6,000 ($7,500) a year to carry on more or less as normal.

Currently, expired .uk domains are deleted at an undisclosed time each day, leading drop-catch registrars to spam the registry back-end with availability checks on the best names.

Upon finding a desired domain has dropped, they then attempt to register it immediately by spamming EPP create commands.

About 0.7% of the domains deleted each year, about 12,000 of the 1.76 million names dropped in 2018, are re-registered within a second of release, Nominet says.

The system as it stands bothers the registry due to the technical load it creates and the fact that it means the most desirable names are snapped up by small number of domainers for resale.

It also does not like the fact the current system encourages collusion between Nominet members and the creation of dummy memberships by drop-catchers.

So it’s proposing two main options for rejiggering the economics.

The first and apparently preferred solution would be for Nominet to auction off the names, rather than deleting them. It would look a lot like auctions often seen in newly launching TLDs.

The second option is to charge drop-catchers extra fees for a greater number of simultaneous EPP connections.

Currently, each registrar gets six. Under the proposal, called “Economically controlled access to expiring domains”, they’d be able to buy additional batches of six for £600 a pop, up to a maximum of 10 batches or £6,000.

Regardless of which option is chosen, Nominet also wants to make drop times more predictable, by publishing a daily drop-list available to all.

Nominet knows there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be accused of profiteering, and says in the paper:

If either of the options proposed are implemented, we envisage that any profits derived from the auction or economically controlled access models will be directed towards public benefit activity and/or ringfenced to provide specific services to registrars e.g. a training fund. However, we are also seeking ideas on how any profits would be best spent to benefit the .UK namespace in this consultation.

The consultation can be found here. Interested parties have until August 14 to submit comments.

Namecheap and others banning coronavirus domains

Kevin Murphy, March 26, 2020, Domain Registrars

Anyone wanting to buy a coronavirus-related domain for scamming purposes won’t be able to do it via Namecheap, which has preemptively banned keyword domains on its storefront.

For the last several days, the registrar has rejiggered its web site to prevent customers adding domains containing certain keywords — such as “coronavirus” or “covid” or “vaccine” — to their shopping carts.

The company said today that customers wishing to register such domains for legitimate purposes can continue to do so by calling up Namecheap customer service and having the name registered manually.

CEO Richard Kirkendall said in an email to customers that Namecheap is also “actively working with authorities to both proactively prevent, and take down, any fraudulent or abusive domains or websites related to COVID19”.

A GoDaddy spokesperson told DI this week that it has also taken down domains when alerted to their usage as coronavirus scams.

Meanwhile, .uk registry Nominet said that it has added keywords such as “coronavirus” and “covid” to its Domain Watch initiative, the same semi-automated system it uses to flag and suspend phishing and “rape” domains preemptively at point of registration. Nominet said:

Those that look suspicious — based on our algorithm and then a manual check — are suspended until we see evidence of good intentions from the registrants.

So far, we have suspended over 180 domains while we conduct this extra due diligence. A small proportion responded to our satisfaction and had their domain names reactivated. It’s highly likely that those who did not respond were intending to use their domains to manipulate a public in need of information.

Another domain company taking action is aftermarket site Dan.com, which today said on Twitter that it will remove all coronavirus related domains from its marketplace.

Namecheap is also offering some customers payment flexibility when it comes to some products — largely non-domain products such as hosting — if they can convince customer service reps of their coronavirus-related financial hardship.

“I urge you not to abuse this offer, please allow it to be used by those who need it most, who are otherwise unable to pay,” Kirkendall wrote.

Verisign, the .com registry, yesterday hinted that it will be offering its registrars some similar flexibility, which one assumes could be passed on to registrants.

Nominet to intercept dangerous coronavirus domains

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet, the .uk registry, will start providing informational landing pages when it suspends domains for criminal behavior including coronavirus-related scams.

The company already suspends tens of thousands of domains every year at the request of law enforcement agencies.

The vast majority are related to intellectual property infringement such as counterfitting and piracy. A substantially smaller number are suspended due to the sale of fake pharmaceuticals.

Rather than Nominet suspending these domains, stopping them resolving, they will now instead resolve to landing pages “providing consumer advice and education”.

It’s similar to how the FBI handles domains it has seized during criminal investigations in the US, but Nominet says it’s the first example in the world of such a program being rolled out by a registry.

The first LEAs taking part in the program are the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency and the City of London’s Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit.

While Nominet pitched the news as coronavirus-related, the timing appears to be coincidental.

The company first announced its landing page plan last October, when it was opened to public consultation.

A MHRA spokesperson said in a Nominet press release that suspended domains will redirect to its “#fakemeds website”, which currently has a great deal to say about penis pills but nothing at all to say about coronavirus.

Is the .co rebid biased toward Afilias? Yeah, kinda

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The Colombian government has come under fire for opening up the .co registry contract for rebid in a way that seems predetermined to pick Afilias as the winner, displacing its fierce rival Neustar.

As I blogged in November, Colombia thinks it might be able to secure a better registry deal, so it plans to shortly open .co up to competitive proposals.

A company called .CO Internet, acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014, has been running the ccTLD for the last decade. There are currently around 2.3 million .co domains under management, according to Colombia.

With the renewal deadline looming, the government’s technology ministry, MinTIC, published an eyebrow-raising request for proposals last month.

What’s surprising about the RFP is that some of the four main technical performance criteria listed are so stringent that probably only two companies in the industry qualify — Verisign and Afilias, and so far Verisign has not been involved in the RFP process.

The companies that have been engaging with the government to date are Afilias, Neustar/.CO, Nominet, CentralNic and Donuts.

First, MinTIC wants a registry that’s had at least two million domains under management across its portfolio continuously for two years. All five registries qualify there.

Second, it wants a registry that’s been involved in the migration of a TLD of at least one million names, either as the gaining or losing back-end.

That immediately narrows the pack to just two of the five aforementioned registries — Neustar and Afilias.

Verisign would also qualify, if it’s in the bidding, but I suspect it’s not. Taking over .co would look like a “buy it to kill it” strategy, which would be horrible optics for the Colombian government.

There have only ever been three migrations over one million names, to my knowledge: the Verisign->Afilias .org transition of 2003, the Neustar->Afilias .au move of 2018, and last year’s Afilias->Neustar .in handover.

CentralNic, Nominet and Donuts have all moved numerous TLDs between back-ends, but with much smaller per-TLD domain volumes.

Third — and here’s the kicker — the successful .co bidder will have to show that it processes on average 25 million registry transactions — defined as “billable EPP (write) transactions, as well as all EPP search (read) transactions” — per day. (All of the RFP quotes in this post have been machine-translated from Spanish by Google and run by a few generous Spanish speakers for verification.)

The RFP is not entirely clear on what exact data points it’s looking at here, but my take is that qualifying transactions include, at an absolute minimum, attempts to create a domain, renew a domain, transfer a domain and check whether a domain is registered.

The vast majority of such transactions are in the check and create functions, and I believe a great deal of that activity relates to drop-catching, where registries are flooded with add requests for just-deleted domains.

Whichever way you split it, 25 million a day is a ludicrously high number. Literally only .com, which sees 2.3 billion checks and 1.5 billion adds per month, sees that kind of action.

According to Neustar, which actually runs .co, it only sees 6.4 million transactions per day on average. The requirement to handle 25 million a day is “exaggerated, unjustified and discriminatory” against Neustar, Neustar told MinTIC.

But the RFP allows for the bidding registries to spread their 25-million-a-day quota across all of the TLDs they manage, and this MAY sneak Afilias over the line.

I say MAY in big letters because I don’t believe the numbers that Afilias (and probably other registries too) reports to ICANN every month are reliable.

If you add up the reported, qualifying EPP transactions for September in Afilias’ top four legacy gTLDs — .org, .info, .mobi and .pro — you get to over 25 million per day.

But those same records show that, for example, .mobi, .pro and .info had exactly the same number of EPP availability checks that month — 215,988,497 each.

This is clearly bad data.

I reported on this issue last May, when ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee informed ICANN that major registries were providing “not reliable” or possibly “fabricated” data about port 43 Whois queries.

Afilias, which was one of the apparent offenders, told me at the time that it was addressing the issue with ICANN, but it does not yet appear to have fully fixed its reporting to enable TLD-by-TLD breakdowns of its registry activity.

It is of course quite possible, even very likely, that Afilias has on average more than 25 million qualifying EPP transactions per day, but how’s it going to prove that to the Colombian government when the numbers it reports under contract to ICANN are clearly unreliable?

It’s a little harder to determine whether Neustar would qualify under the 25-million transaction rule, because some of its largest zones are ccTLDs — .co, .in and .us — that do not publicly report this kind of data. Its comments to the RFP suggest it would not.

Numbers aside, I’ll note that there’s very probably an inherent bias towards legacy gTLD operators like Afilias and against relative newcomers such as CentralNic if you’re counting EPP transactions. As I noted above, a lot of these transactions are coming from drop-catch activity, which is more prevalent on larger, older TLDs where there are more dropping domains that are more likely to have existing backlinks and traffic.

The fourth technical requirement in the Colombian RFP that looks a bit fishy is the requirement that the new registry must have channel relationships with at least 10 of the largest 25 registrars, as listed by a web site called domainstate.com.

I can’t say I’ve looked at domainstate.com very often, if at all, but a quick look at its numbers for September strongly suggests to me that it does not count post-2012 new gTLD registrations in its registrar league table. One registrar with almost four million domains under management doesn’t even show up on the list. This arguably could give an advantage to a registry that plays strongly in legacy gTLDs.

That said, it’s probably an academic point — I don’t think any of the bidders for the .co contract would have difficulty showing that they have 10 of the top 25 registrars on board, whichever way you calculate that league table.

Cumulatively, these four technical hurdles have led some to suggest that Afilias has somehow steered MinTIC towards creating an RFP only it could win.

Apart from what I’ve discussed here, I’ve no evidence that is the case, and Afilias has not yet responded to my request for comment today.

Luckily for the bidding registries, the Columbian RFP has not yet been finalized. Comments submitted by the bidders and others are apparently going to be taken on board, so the barriers to entry for respondents could be lowered before bids are finally accepted.

MinTIC posted an update last night that extends the period that the RFP could run, and the transition period should Neustar lose the contract. A handover, should one happen at all, could now happen as late as February next year.