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Are 25x price increases on the cards as XYZ corners the cars market?

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Grab-happy registry XYZ.com has expanded its stable of strings to 22 after buying five little-used gTLDs from Dominion Registries.

It recently came into control of .autos, .motorcycles, .homes, .yachts, and .boats, CEO Daniel Negari confirmed earlier this week.

Following XYZ’s buyout of .auto, .car and .cars from former joint venture partner UNR a couple months back, it seems the company now pretty much has a lock on the English-language automotive domain market.

This raises the question, so far unanswered by the registry, about whether .autos registrants could be about to face some of the steepest price increases the new gTLD market has seen to date.

XYZ’s .auto, .car and .cars currently command among the highest base prices in the market — about $2,500 at retail for a basic, non-premium name — while .autos has been chugging along at $100 per domain per year.

It would make perfect sense for the registry to give its new acquisition a 25x price increase to align it with the rest of the automotive portfolio, but so far the company is tight-lipped on the subject.

Fortunately, the current pool of .autos registrants is quite small — a little over 400 names, about the same as .auto but a couple hundred ahead of .cars and .car — so there would not be many customers to piss off.

Indeed, three of the other TLDs XYZ just bought have what you might generously call “growth potential”.

The only one of the five gTLDs to have more than 500 domains under management is .homes, which has more than 13,000.

With XYZ’s broader channel reach and superior marketing prowess, there’s certainly upside on the horizon.

ZADNA hikes up the price of .za domains

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2020, Domain Registries

South African ccTLD registry ZADNA has upped the price of .za domains after a consultation.

Standard pricing will increase by ZAR 10 to ZAR 55 ($3.35), which works out at about a 22% increase, from April 1 next year.

There’s also a ZAR 10 increase on customers of its old, pre-EPP legacy system, where the base price is currently ZAR 130 ($7.58). That kicks in January 1.

ZADNA has been increasing the legacy pricing for years to encourage registrants onto its industry-standard EPP infrastructure.

The changes come despite receiving comments from the local internet community about affordability and the current economic conditions.

South Africa might raise, or lower, some wholesale domain fees

ZADNA, the South African ccTLD registry, has put out a call for comments on plans to adjust the wholesale price of .za domain names.

For the last nine years, it’s had a two-tier pricing system, with registrars on its EPP registry paying a lower fee than those still on its outdated bespoke technology.

Now, the registry is talking about possibly raising the price of the EPP, which has been at ZAR 45 ($2.62) for the last five years, and/or scrapping the legacy system, where prices currently stand at ZAR 130 ($7.58).

The fee for the legacy registry has been going up for years, to encourage registrars to migrate to the more modern, efficient EPP system. Today, all but 2.5% of .za domains are on the EPP system.

While ZADNA says it has not made up its mind whether to raise, lower or freeze its fees, its consultation document (pdf) seems to pitch pretty hard for increases.

The registry argues that an hike linked to the local Consumer Price Index, which it says has gone up 21% since 2015, may be called in order to track the cost of doing business.

In terms of lowering the price, ZADNA says it may help .za become more competitive, but at the expense of its ability to invest in infrastructure.

Interested parties have until June 30 to send in their comments. A decision will be made by the end of July, and any price changes will come into effect in October,

As ICANN meets to decide .org’s fate, California AG says billion-dollar deal must be rejected

Kevin Murphy, April 16, 2020, Domain Policy

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has urged ICANN to deny approval of Ethos Capital’s $1.13 billion acquisition of .org manager Public Interest Registry.

The call came in a letter (pdf) dated yesterday, just a day before ICANN’s board of directors was scheduled to meet to discuss the deal.

Becerra, who started looking into the deal in late January, wrote, right out of the gate:

I urge ICANN to reject the transfer of control over the .ORG registry to Ethos Capital. The proposed transfer raises serious concerns that cannot be overlooked.

Chief among his concerns is the fact that ICANN originally granted PIR the right to run .org largely because it was a non-profit with a committment to serve non-profits. He wrote:

If, as proposed, Ethos Capital is permitted to purchase PIR, it will no longer have the unique characteristics that ICANN valued at the time that it selected PIR as the nonprofit to be responsible for the .ORG registry. In effect, what is at stake is the transfer of the world’s second largest registry to a for-profit private equity firm that, by design, exists to profit from millions of nonprofit and non-commercial organizations

He’s also bothered about the lack of transparency about who Ethos is and what its plans are. The proposed new owners of PIR are hidden behind a complex hierarchy of dummy LLCs, and Ethos has so far refused to name its money men or to specify what additional services it might offer to boost its revenue.

Becerra also doesn’t buy the business plan, which would see PIR required to pay off a $300 million loan and, as a newly converted for-profit entity, start paying taxes.

He’s particularly scathing about the fact that ICANN approved the removal of PIR’s price caps last year despite receiving over 3,000 public comments opposing the changes and only half a dozen in favor.

“There is mounting concern that ICANN is no longer responsive to the needs of its stakeholders,” he writes.

Despite saying he “will take whatever action necessary to protect Californians and the nonprofit community”, Becerra does not specify what remedies are available to him.

But it looks like ICANN faces the risk of legal action no matter which way its board of directors votes (or voted) today.

Its current deadline to make a decision is April 20.

Ethos clarifies .org price rises, promises to reveal number of censored domains

Public Interest Registry and would-be owner Ethos Capital have slightly revised the set of promises they hope to keep if ICANN approves the $1.13 billion acquisition.

Notably, in updating their proposed Public Interest Commitments (pdf), they’ve set out in plain dollar terms for the first time the maximum annual price PIR would charge for a .org domain over the coming seven years.

Applicable Maximum FeeTime Period
$9.93June 30, 2019 to June 29, 2020
$10.92June 30, 2020 to June 29, 2021
$12.02June 30, 2021 to June 29, 2022
$13.22June 30, 2022 to June 29, 2023
$14.54June 30, 2023 to June 29, 2024
$15.99June 30, 2024 to June 29, 2025
$17.59June 30, 2025 to June 29, 2026
$19.35June 30, 2026 to June 29, 2027

Previous versions of the PICs just included a formula and invited the reader to do the math(s).

The two companies are proposing to scrap price caps altogether after June 2027.

If ICANN rejects the deal, under its current contract PIR would be free to raise its prices willy-nilly from day one, though some believe it would be less likely to do so under its current ownership by the non-profit Internet Society.

The new PICs also include a nod to those who believe that PIR would become less sensitive to issues like free speech and censorship — perhaps because China may lean on Ethos’ shadowy billionaire backers. The document now states:

Registry Operator will produce and publish annually a report… This report will also include a transparency report setting forth the number of .ORG domain name registrations that have been suspended or terminated by Registry Operator during the preceding year under Registry Operator’s Anti-Abuse Policy or pursuant to court order.

A few other tweaks clarify the launch date and composition of its proposed Stewardship Council, a body made up of expert outsiders that would offer policy guidance and have a veto on issues such as changes to .org censorship and privacy policy.

The PICs now ban family members of people working for PIR from sitting on the council, and clarify that it would have to be up and running six months after the acquisition closes.

Because .org is not a gTLD applied for in 2012, the PICs do not appear to be open for public comment, but post-acquisition changes to the document would be.

ICANN currently plans to approve or deny the acquisition request by April 20, just 11 days from now.

ICANN grants Verisign its price increases, of course

Kevin Murphy, March 30, 2020, Domain Registries

ICANN has given Verisign its ability to increase .com prices by up to 7% a year, despite thousands of complaints from domain owners.

The amendments give Verisign the right to raise prices in each of the last four years of its six-year duration. The current price is $7.85 a year.

Because the contract came into effect in late 2018, the first of those four years begins October 26 this year, but Verisign last week said that it has frozen the prices of all of its TLDs until 2021, due to coronavirus.

Not accounting for discounts, .com is already already worth $1.14 billion in revenue to Verisign every year, based on its end-of-2019 domains under management.

In 2019, Verisign had revenue of $1.23 billion, of which about half was pure, bottom-line, net-income profit.

In defending this shameless money-grab, ICANN played up the purported security benefits of the deal, while offering a critique of the domainers and registrars that had lobbied against it.

Göran Marby, ICANN’s CEO, said in a blog post.

I believe this decision is in the best interest of the continued security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet.

Overall, the decision to execute the .COM Registry Agreement amendment and the proposed binding Letter of Intent is of benefit to the Internet community.

The decision was explained in more detail in a eight-page analysis document (pdf) published late last week.

I’ll summarize this paper in three bullet points (my words, not ICANN’s):

  • Domainers are hypocrites.
  • The deal is good for DNS security.
  • Our hands were tied anyway.

First, while ICANN received over 9,000 comments about the proposed amendment, almost all negative, it said that publicity campaigns from domainer group the Internet Commerce Association and domainer registrar Namecheap were behind many of them.

the Internet Commerce Association (ICA) and Namecheap, are active players in the so called “aftermarket” for domain names, where domain name speculators attempt to profit by “buying low and selling high” on domain names, forcing end users to pay higher than retail prices for desirable domain names

It goes on to cite data from NameBio, which compiles lists of secondary market domain sales, to show that the average price of a resold domain is somewhere like $1,600 (median) to $2,400 (mean).

Both Namecheap and ICA supporter GoDaddy, which sells more .coms than any other registrar, have announced steep increases in their .com retail renewal fees in recent years — 20% in the case of GoDaddy — the ICANN document notes.

This apparent hypocrisy appears to be reason ICANN felt quite comfortable in disregarding many of the negative public comments it received.

Second, ICANN reckons other changes to the .com contract will benefit internet security.

Under a side deal (pdf) Verisign’s going to start giving ICANN $4 million a year, starting next January and running for five years, for what Marby calls “ICANN’s initiatives to preserve and enhance the security, stability, and resiliency of the DNS.” These include:

activities related to root server system governance, mitigation of DNS security threats, promotion and/or facilitation of Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) deployment, the mitigation of name collisions, and research into the operation of the DNS.

Note that these are without exception all areas in which ICANN already performs functions, usually paid for out of its regular operating budget.

Because it looks like to all intents and purposes like a quid pro quo, to grease the wheels of getting the contract amendments approved, Marby promised that ICANN will commit to “full transparency” as to how its new windfall will be used.

The new contract also has various new provisions that standardize technical standardization and reporting in various ways, that arguably could provide some minor streamlining benefits to internet security and stability.

But ICANN is playing up new language that requires Verisign to require its registrars to forbid their .com registrants from doing stuff like distributing malware and operating botnets. Verisign’s registrar partners will now have to include in their customer agreements:

a provision prohibiting the Registered Name Holder from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, pharming, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities, including suspension of the registration of the Registered Name;

Don’t expect this to do much to fight abuse.

It’s already a provision that applies to hundreds of other TLDs, including almost all gTLDs, and registrars typically incorporate it into their registration agreements by way of a link to the anti-abuse policy on the relevant registry’s web site.

Neither Verisign nor its registrars have any obligation to actually do anything about abusive domains under the amendments. As long as Verisign does a scan once a month and keeps a record of the total amount of abuse in .com — and this is data ICANN already has — it’s perfectly within the terms of its new contract.

Third and finally, ICANN reckons its hands were pretty much tied when it comes to the price increases. ICANN wrote:

ICANN org is not a competition authority or price regulator and ICANN has neither the remit nor expertise to serve as one. Rather, as enshrined in ICANN’s Bylaws, which were
developed through a bottom up, multistakeholder process, ICANN’s mission is to ensure the security and stability of the Internet’s unique identifier systems. Accordingly, ICANN must defer to relevant competition authorities and/or regulators, and let them determine if any conduct or behavior raises anticompetition concerns and, if so, to address such concerns, whether it be through price regulation or otherwise. As such, ICANN org has long-deferred to the DOC and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for the regulation of wholesale pricing for .COM registry services.

It was of course the DoC, under the Obama administration, that froze Verisign’s ability to raise prices and, under the Trump administration, thawed that ability in November 2018.

If you’re pissed off that the carrying cost of your portfolio is about to go up, you can blame Trump, in other words.

No .com price increases this year. Thanks, coronavirus!

Kevin Murphy, March 26, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign won’t increase prices on .com or any of its other TLDs this year.

The promise comes as part of a package of coronavirus-related measures the company announced on its blog yesterday. Verisign said:

In order to support individuals and small businesses affected by this crisis, Verisign will freeze registry prices for all of our Top-Level Domains (TLDs), including .com and .net, through the end of 2020. In addition, we will soon deploy a program, available to all retail registrars, to provide support and assistance for domain name registrants whose domain names will be expiring in the coming months.

No additional details on the proposed registrant support program were made available.

The pricing news sounds good, especially for high-volume domain owners such as domainers and trademark owners, but it should be noted that in the case of .com it amounts to a mere two-month price freeze.

Under the terms of its current agreement with ICANN, it can’t raise prices at all. The controversial proposed amendments that recently attracted about 9,000 objections, would reinstate price-raising powers.

However, assuming ICANN approves the new contract, which seems likely, Verisign would only be able to up its fees in the final four years of its six-year deal. The first of those four years begins October 20 this year.

Conceivably, it could have announced a 7% price hike for .com on October 21, but the company has now said that it will not.

Verisign also said yesterday that it’s donating an “initial” $2 million to “first responders and medical personnel in the Northern Virginia area, the United Way’s COVID-19 relief efforts, and the Semper Fi & America’s Fund”.

It is also doubling the funding available to the scheme where it matches employees’ charitable donations, which could increase (and incentivize) giving to coronavirus-related causes.

US senators tell ICANN to reject .org deal

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2020, Domain Registries

Five US senators have called on ICANN to not approve the acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital.

The senators — all Democrats — said in a March 18 letter published today that the proposed $1.13 billion deal is “against the public interest”.

The surprisingly detailed nine-page letter (pdf) was signed by Ron Wyden, Richard Blumenthal, Elizabeth Warren and Anna Eshoo, following up from a similar letter sent in January. The new letter also has Ed Markey as a signatory. They write:

We were concerned that the sale would be contrary to ICANN’s commitment to the public benefit, that it might undermine the reliability of .ORG websites, and that Ethos is unlikely to be a responsible steward of the .ORG registry. New information we have obtained in the last two months, including statements made by ISOC, PIR, and Ethos, has validated these concerns. Accordingly, we write to reiterate our view that ICANN should block the proposed change of control of the .ORG registry.

Chief among their concerns is the lack of transparency about who is actually bankrolling the deal. Ethos has confirmed it will be partially funded by loans, but the identities of its actual owners have not been confirmed.

It’s been said that two of the backers are investment firms linked to high-profile Republicans — Senator Mitt Romney and the late Ross Perot.

The senators are also worried that the business plan Ethos has publicly laid out may not be realistic, suggesting that PIR will be forced to rip off customers in order to recoup the cost of the acquisition.

They go on to say that Ethos’ promise to only increase prices by 10% per year, enforceable via a Public Interest Commitment in its ICANN contract, is “weak”, particularly given that the commitment would automatically expire seven years from now.

They’re also not buying the notion that PIR’s proposed Stewardship Council, made up of outside .org stakeholders, would have enough power to guide registry policy, calling the council “toothless”.

ICANN is of course under no obligation to take its lead from a handful of legislators, but it’s yet another voice stacked against a deal that already had very little support.

ICANN has until April 20 to make a decision about the change of control.

Could .org debate bring back the glory days of ICANN public forums?

Kevin Murphy, March 5, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is going to devote 90 minutes to discussing the controversial acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital on Monday, and the sparks could fly.

It’s actually going to be the first formal session of the abridged, online-only ICANN 67 meeting, which had been due to take place in Cancun but will now be carried out fully online. The customary opening ceremony has been scrapped.

Seventy minutes will be devoted to taking questions and comments from the “room”. ICANN 67 is sticking to Cancun’s time zone and the .org session starts at 1400 UTC, which would have been 0900 at the venue.

ICANN warned that the sessions is devoted to the process ICANN is using to approve, or not, the acquisition, and that it “cannot address questions and comments that relate to the ISOC, PIR, Ethos Capital, or other parties involved in the proposed transfer”.

The deal is controversial largely because critics believe Ethos, as a private equity company, is much more likely to start to rip off .org registrars with price hikes than not-for-profit ISOC. But Ethos has offered to bake conditions into its contract that limit it to 10% increases per year on average.

Given the vast amount of interest in the .org deal from outside the usual ICANN community, we could see the kind of robust debate that was common in the ICANN public forum sessions during the birth throes of the new gTLD program, but which has been sadly lacking in recent years.

Newcomers wishing to get involved might like to first familiarize themselves with ICANN’s Expected Standards of Behavior. Anyone dropping the F-bomb or calling the deal “gay”, as happened during the recent .com comment period, will very likely be kicked and banned. Just imagine you’re talking to Titania McGrath and you should be okay.

Ethos volunteers for .org pricing handcuffs

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2020, Domain Registries

Ethos Capital has volunteered to have price caps written back into Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, should ICANN approve its $1.1 billion proposed acquisition.

The private equity firm said Friday that it has offered to agree to a new, enforceable Public Interest Commitment that bakes its right to increase prices into the contract under a strict formula that goes like this:

Applicable Maximum Fee = $9.93 x (1.10n)

The $9.93 is the current wholesale price of a annual .org registration. The “n” refers to the number of full years the current .org registry agreement has been in play, starting June 30, 2019.

In other words, it’s a 10%-per-year increase on average, but PIR could skip a year here and there and be eligible for a bigger price increase the following year.

For example, PIR could up the fee by 10% or $0.99 to $10.92 this coming June if it wanted, but if it decided to wait a year (perhaps for public relations reasons) if could increase the price to $12.13 in June 2021, an increase of $2.20 or roughly 22%.

It could wait five years before the first price increase, and up it from $9.93 to $16.53, a 66% increase, in year six.

While price increases are of course unpopular and will remain so, the formula does answer the criticism posed on DI and elsewhere that Ethos’ previous public statements on pricing would allow PIR to front-load its fee hikes, potentially almost doubling the price in year one.

But the caps have a built-in expiry date. They only run for eight years. So by the middle of 2027, when PIR could already be charging $18.73, the registry would be free to raise prices by however much it pleases.

It’s a better deal for registrants than what they’d been facing before, which was a vague commitment to stick to PIR’s old habit of not raising prices by more than 10% a year, but it’s not perfect and it won’t sate those who are opposed to increased fees in principle.

On the upside, a PIC is arguably an even more powerful way to keep PIR in line after the acquisition. Whereas other parts of the contract are only enforceable by ICANN, a Public Interest Commitment could theoretically be enforced via the PIC Dispute Resolution Procedure by any .org registrant with the resources to lawyer up. Losing a PICDRP triggers ICANN Compliance into action, which could mean PIR losing its contract.

The PIC also addresses the concern, which always struck me as a bit of a red herring, that .org could become a more censorial regime under for-profit ownership.

Ethos says it will create a new seven-person .ORG Stewardship Council, made up of field experts in human rights, non-profits and such, which will have the right to advise PIR on proposed changes to PIR policy related to censorship and the use of private user/registrant data.

The Council would be made up initially of five members hand-picked by PIR. Another two, and all subsequent appointments, would be jointly nominated and approved by PIR and the Council. They’d serve terms of three years.

The proposed PIC, the proposed Council charter and Ethos’ announcement can all be found here.

Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it’s worth noting that the proposal comes after ICANN had started playing hard-ball with PIR, Ethos and the Internet Society (PIR’s current owner).

In fact, I was just putting the finishing touches to an opinion piece entitled “I’m beginning to think ICANN might block the .org deal” when the Ethos statement dropped.

In that now-spiked piece, I referred to two letters ICANN recently sent to PIR/ISOC and their lawyers, which bluntly asserted ICANN’s right to reject the acquisition for basically any reason, and speculated that the deal may not be a fait accompli after all.

In the first (pdf), Jones Day lawyer Jeffrey LeVee tells his counterpart at PIR’s law firm in no uncertain terms that ICANN is free to reject the change of control on grounds such as the “public interest” and the interests of the “.org community”.

Proskauer lawyer Lauren Boglivi had told ICANN (pdf) that its powers under the .org contract were limited to approve or reject the acquisition based only on technical concerns such as security, stability and reliability. LeVee wrote:

This is wrong. The parties’ contracts authorize ICANN to evaluate the reasonableness of the proposed change of control under the totality of circumstances, including the impact on the public interest and the interest of the .ORG community.

Now, the cynic in me saw nothing but a couple of posturing lawyers trying to rack up billable hours, but part of me wondered why ICANN would go to the trouble of defending its powers to reject the deal if it did not think there was a possibility of actually doing so.

The second letter (pdf) was sent by ICANN’s new chair, Maarten Bottermann, to his ISOC counterpart Gonzalo Camarillo.

The letter demonstrates that the ICANN board of directors is actually taking ownership of this issue, rather than delegating it to ICANN’s executive and legal teams, in large part due to the pressure exerted on it by the ICANN community and governments. Botterman wrote:

It is not often that such a contractual issue raises up to a Board-level concern, but as you might appreciate, PIR’s request is one of the most unique that ICANN has received.

He noted that the controversy over the deal had even made ICANN the target of a “governmental inquiry”, which is either a reference to the California attorney general’s probe or to a letter (pdf) received from the French foreign office, demanding answers about the transaction.

It’s notable from Botterman’s letter that ICANN has started digging into the deep history of PIR’s ownership of .org, much as I did last December, to determine whether the commitments it made to the non-profit community back in 2002 still hold up under a return to for-profit ownership.

Given these turns of events, I was entertaining the possibility that ICANN was readying itself to reject the deal.

But, given Ethos’ newly proposed binding commitments, I think the pendulum has swung back in favor of the acquisition eventually getting the nod.

I reserve the right to change my mind yet again as matters unfold.