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This latest Chinese bubble could deflate ccTLD growth

With many ccTLD operators recently reporting stagnant growth or shrinkage, one registry has performed stunningly well over the last year. Sadly, it bears the hallmarks of another speculative bubble originating in China.

Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief reported that ccTLDs, excluding the never-shrinking anomaly that is .tk, increased by 1.4 million domains in the first quarter of the year.

But it turns out about 1.2 million of those net new domains came from just one TLD: Taiwan’s .tw, operated by TWNIC.

Looking at the annual growth numbers, the DNIB reports that ccTLDs globally grew by 7.8 million names between the ends of March 2018 and March 2019.

But it also turns out that quite a lot of that — over five million names — also came from .tw.

Since August 2018, .tw has netted 5.8 million new registrations, ending May with 6.5 million names.

It’s come from basically nowhere to become the fifth-largest ccTLD by volume, or fourth if you exclude .tk, per the DNIB.

History tells us that when TLDs experience such huge, unprecedented growth spurts, it’s usually due to lowering prices or liberalizing registration policies.

In this case, it’s a bit of both. But mostly pricing.

TWNIC has made it much easier to get approved to sell .tw names if you’re already an ICANN-accredited registrar.

But it’s primarily a steep price cut that TWNIC briefly introduced last August that is behind huge uptick in sales.

Registry CEO Kenny Huang confirmed to DI that the pricing promo is behind the growth.

For about a month, registrants could obtain a one-year Latin or Chinese IDN .tw name for NTD 50 (about $1.50), a whopping 95% discount on its usual annual fee (about $30).

As a result, TWNIC added four million names in August and September, according to registry stats. The vast majority were Latin-script names.

According to China domain market experts Allegravita, and confirmed by Archive.org, one Taiwanese registrar was offering free .tw domains for a day whenever a Chinese Taipei athlete won a gold medal during the Asian Games, which ran over August and September. They wound up winning 17 golds.

Huang said that the majority of the regs came from mainland Chinese registrants.

History shows that big growth spurts like this inevitably lead to big declines a year or two later, in the “junk drop”. It’s not unusual for a registry to lose 90%+ of its free or cheap domains after the promotional first year is over.

Huang confirmed that he’s expecting .tw registrations to drop in the fourth quarter.

It seems likely that later this year we’re very likely going to see the impact of the .tw junk drop on ccTLD volumes overall, which are already perilously close to flat.

Speculative bubbles from China have in recent years contributed to wobbly performance from the new gTLD sector and even to .com itself.

Dodgy registrars could be banned from .org promotions

The worse a registrar is at tackling abuse, the more likely it is to be excluded from promotions in the .org space, according to a new policy from Public Interest Registry.

The .org registry said today that it is introducing a new “Quality Performance Index” to rate its registrars according to the quality of their registrations.

They’ll be ranked according to three criteria: abuse takedown, renewal rates, and domain usage.

Those that score above a certain threshold will be pre-qualified for promotions. The others will be encouraged to talk to their PIR rep about things they could do to get their scores up.

This kind of mechanism should in theory make it relatively easy to separate registrars into conscientious corporate citizens on the one hand and fly-by-night spam-friendly jerks on the other.

Keeping the bad guys away from the discounts could go a long way to keeping .org a relatively healthy zone.

But I expect there may be concern from the middle-ground of the registrar space, where we have well-meaning but under-resourced registrars that may find their scores wanting.

An additional concern may be that PIR said it intends to change the score threshold depending on the promotion, which appears to give it the ability to exclude registrars more or less at will.

The QPI initiative also extends to PIR’s newer, lesser-used gTLDs.

These people support scrapping .org price caps

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2019, Domain Registries

The first examples of people supporting the scrapping of price caps in .org have emerged.

ICANN’s Business Constituency and Intellectual Property Constituency have both in the last few hours filed comments on the proposed renewal of Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, which includes the controversial removal of the current 10%-a-year price caps.

The BC expresses outright support for the end of caps — the first example I’ve seen of explicit support for the move — while the IPC utterly fails to address it.

A prominent US antitrust lawyer has also weighed in to claim that approving the new provisions would not raise competition concerns.

Both the IPC and BC seem happy to accept the proposed pricing regime, given that PIR’s new contract will also include new rights protection mechanisms, such as the Uniform Rapid Suspension process.

The BC wrote in its comment to ICANN:

Given the BC’s established position that ICANN should not be a price regulator, and considering that .ORG and .INFO are adopting RPMs and other registrant provisions we favor, the BC supports broader implementation of the Base Registry Agreement, including removal of price controls

Seemingly uninterested in price caps whatsoever, the IPC wrote:

The IPC applauds Public Interest Registry and other Registry Operators that choose to implement enhanced rights protection mechanisms for third party trademark owners, and to take on enhanced responsibilities for the Registry Operator to prevent use of registrations for abusive purposes, including but not limited to violations of intellectual property rights.

From outside the ICANN community, Washington DC-based antitrust attorney David Balto, a former Federal Trade Commission official, has submitted a brief analysis in which he finds little to be concerned about from a competition perspective. He writes:

An analysis of the .org gTLD under competition would likely find that it has little market power, and thus would be unable to unreasonably raise prices. Any attempt to do so should result in users defecting to alternative gTLDs.

Users have ample protections in the form of marketplace competition and contract provisions that allow users to be notified of price increases and lock in rates for up to ten years.

These arguments stand in stark contrast to those made by many in the domainer community, such as in Andrew Allemann’s post today.

Balto says that “market power” — a legal test under US competition law — starts to kick in at about 30% market share. But .org only has about 5.5%, he wrote.

The lawyer does not identify a client affiliation in his letter.

With just a few hours left on the clock before public comments close, there have been 3,129 submitted comments, the vast majority coming from domain investors.

Some non-profit groups have also registered their objections.

ICANN urged to reject .com price increases

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

The Internet Commerce Association has asked ICANN to refuse to allow Verisign to raise its wholesale prices for .com domain names.

The domainer trade group wrote to ICANN last week to point out that just because the Trump administration has dropped the US government objection to controlled price increases, that doesn’t necessarily mean ICANN has to agree.

Verisign’s deal with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration “does not of course, compel ICANN to agree to any such increases. Any such decision regarding .com pricing
remains with ICANN” ICA general counsel Zak Muscovitch wrote.

The deal allows Verisign to increase the price of .com registrations, renewals and transfers by 7% per year in four of the next six years, leading to a compound 30% increase by the time it concludes.

The arguments put forth Muscovitch’s letter are pretty much the same as the arguments ICA made when it was lobbying NTIA to maintain the price freeze.

Namely: Verisign already makes a tonne of money from .com, it has a captive audience, it cannot claim credit for .com’s success, and .com is not constrained by competition.

“As NTIA makes clear, it is up to Verisign to request a fee increase and ICANN that may agree or disagree. ICANN should not agree. Indeed, it would be a dereliction of ICANN’s responsibilities to the ICANN community if Verisign were permitted to raise its fees when it is already very well paid for the services which it provides,” Muscovitch’s letter (pdf) concludes.

For many years ICANN has been reluctant to get involved in price regulation. It remains to be seen whether it will make an exception for .com.

Will ICANN take a bigger slice of the .com pie, or will .domainers get URS?

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Will ICANN try to get its paws on some of Verisign’s .com windfall? Or might domainers get a second slap in the face by seeing URS imposed in .com?

With Verisign set to receive hundreds of millions of extra dollars due to the imminent lifting of .com price caps, it’s been suggested that ICANN may also financially benefit from the arrangement.

In a couple of blog posts Friday, filthy domain scalper Andrew Allemann said that ICANN will likely demand higher fees from Verisign in the new .com registry agreement.

Will it though? I guess it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty by any means.

Verisign currently pays ICANN $0.25 per transaction, the same as almost all other gTLDs. Technically, there’s no reason this could not be renegotiated.

Putting aside some of the legacy gTLD contracts, I can only think of two significant cases of ICANN imposing higher fees on a registry.

The first was .xxx, which was signed in 2011. That called for ICM Registry, now part of MMX, to pay $2 per transaction, eight times the norm.

The rationale for this was that ICANN thought (or at least said it thought) that .xxx was going to be a legal and compliance minefield. It said it envisaged higher costs for overseeing the then-controversial TLD.

There was a school of thought that ICANN was just interested in opportunistically boosting its own coffers, given that ICM was due to charge over $60 per domain per year — at the time a ludicrously high amount.

But risk largely failed to materialize, and the two parties last year renegotiated the fees down to $0.25.

The second instance was .sucks, another controversial TLD. In that case, ICANN charged registry Vox Populi a $100,000 upfront fee and per-transaction fees of $1 per domain for the first 900,000 transactions, four times more than the norm.

While some saw this as a repeat of the .xxx legal arse-covering tactic, ICANN said it was actually in place to recoup a bunch of money that Vox Pop owner Momentous still owed when it let a bunch of its drop-catch registrars go out of business a couple years earlier.

While the .sucks example clearly doesn’t apply to Verisign, one could make the case that the .xxx example might.

It’s possible, I guess, that ICANN could make the case that Verisign’s newly regained ability to raise prices opens it up to litigation risk — something I reckon is certainly true — and that it needs to increase its fees to cover that risk.

It might be tempting. ICANN has a bit of a budget crunch at the moment, and a bottomless cash pit like Verisign would be an easy source of funds. A transaction fee increase of four cents would have been enough to cover the $5 million budget shortfall it had to deal with earlier this year.

On the other hand, it could be argued that ICANN demanding more money from Verisign would unlevel the playing field, inviting endless litigation from Verisign itself.

ICANN’s track record with legacy gTLDs has been to reduce, rather than increase, their transaction fees.

Pre-2012 gTLDs such as .mobi, .jobs, .cat and .travel have all seen their fees reduced to the $0.25 baseline in recent years, sometimes from as high as $2.

In each of these cases, the registries concerned had to adopt many provisions of the standard 2012 new gTLD registry agreement including, controversially, the Uniform Rapid Suspension service.

Domainers hate the URS, which gives trademark owners greater powers to take away their domains, and the Internet Commerce Association (under the previous stewardship of general counsel Phil Corwin, since hired by Verisign) unsuccessfully fought against URS being added to .mobi et al over the last several years, on the basis that eventually it could worm its way into .com.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that ICANN might reduce Verisign’s fees, but what if URS is the price the registry has to pay for its massive .com windfall?

It’s not as if Verisign has any love for domainers, despite the substantial contribution they make to its top line.

Since the NTIA deal was announced, it’s already calling them “scalpers” and driving them crazy.

ICA lost the .com price freeze fight last week, could it also be about to lose the URS fight?