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.org now has no price caps, but “no specific plans” to raise prices

ICANN has rubber-stamped Public Interest Registry’s new .org contract, removing the price caps that have been in effect for the best part of two decades.

That’s despite a huge outcry against the changes, which saw the vast majority of respondents to ICANN’s public comment period condemn the removal of caps.

The new contract, signed yesterday, completely removes the section that limited PIR to a 10% annual price increase.

It also makes PIR pay the $25,000 annual ICANN fee that all the other registries have to pay. Its ICANN transaction tax remains at $0.25.

PIR, a non-profit which funnels money to the Internet Society, is now allowed to raise its wholesale registry fee by however much it likes, pretty much whenever it likes.

But PIR again insisted that it does not plan to screw over the registrants of its almost 11 million .org domains.

The company said in a statement:

Regarding the removal of price caps, we would like to underscore that Public Interest Registry is a mission driven non-profit registry and currently has no specific plans for any price changes for .ORG. Should there be a need for a sensible price increase at some point in the future, we will provide advanced notice to the public. The .ORG community is considered in every decision we make, and we are incredibly proud of the more than 15 years we have spent as a responsible steward of .ORG. PIR remains committed to acting in the best interest of the .ORG community for years to come.

That basically restates the comments it made before the contract was signed.

The current price of a .org is not public information, but PIR has told me previously that it’s under $10 a year and “at cost” registrar Cloudflare sells for $9.93 per year.

The last price increase was three years ago, reported variously as either $0.88 or $0.87.

ICANN received over 3,200 comments about the contract when it was first proposed, almost all of them opposed to the lifting of caps.

Opposition initially came from domainers alerted by an Internet Commerce Association awareness campaign, but later expanded to include general .org registrants and major non-profit organizations, as the word spread.

Notable support for the changes came from ICANN’s Business Constituency, which argued from its established position that ICANN should not be a price regulator, and from the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which caps should remain but should be raised from the 10%-a-year limit.

There’s a bit of a meme doing the rounds that ICANN has been hit by “regulatory capture” in this case, following a blog post from ReviewSignal.com blogger Kevin Ohashi last week, which sought to demonstrate how those filing comments in favor of the new contract had a vested interest in the outcome (as if the thousands of .org registrants filing opposing comments did not).

But I find the argument a bit flimsy. Nobody fingered by Ohashi had any decision-making power here.

In fact, the decision appears to have been made almost entirely by ICANN employees (its lawyers and Global Domains Division staff) “in consultation with the ICANN board of directors”.

There does not appear to have been a formal vote of the board. If there was such a vote, ICANN has broke the habit of a lifetime and not published any details of the meeting at which it took place.

After the public comment period closed, ICANN senior director for gTLD accounts and services Russ Weinstein prepared and published this comment summary (pdf), which rounds up the arguments for and against the proposed changes to the contract, then attempts to provide justification for the fait accompli.

On the price caps, Weinstein argues that standardizing .org along the lines of most of the other 1,200 gTLDs in existence fits with ICANN’s mission to enable competition in the domain name industry and “depend upon market mechanisms to promote and sustain a competitive environment”.

He also states:

Aligning with the Base gTLD Registry Agreement would also afford protections to existing registrants. The registry operator must provide six months’ notice to registrars for price changes and enable registrants to renew for up to 10 years prior to the change taking effect, thus enabling a registrant to lock in current prices for up to 10 years in advance of a pricing change.

This appears to be misleading. While it’s true that the new contract has the six-month notice period for price increases, so did the old one.

The new contract language takes several sentences to say what the old version did in one, and may remove some ambiguity, but both describe the notice period and lock-in opportunity.

If there’s a problem with how the new .org contract was signed off, it appears to be the lack of transparency.

It’s signed by GDD senior VP Cyrus Namazi, but who made the ultimate decision to sign it despite the outrage? Namazi? CEO Göran Marby? It certainly doesn’t seem to have been put before the board for a formal vote.

What kind of “consultation” between GDD and the board occurred? Is it recorded or noted anywhere? Was the board briefed about the vast number of negative comments the price cap proposal elicited?

Are public comment periods, which almost never have any impact on the end result, just a sham?

In my view, .org (along with .com and .net) are special cases among gTLDs that deserve a more thorough, broad and thoughtful consideration than the new .org contract received.

UPDATE: This article was updated at 1600 UTC to correct information related to .org’s current wholesale price.

URS comes to .mobi as ICANN offers Afilias lower fees

Kevin Murphy, December 27, 2016, Domain Registries

Afilias’ .mobi is to become the latest of the pre-2012 gTLDs to agree to adopt the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy in exchange for lower ICANN fees.

Its Registry Agreement is up for renewal, and Afilias and ICANN have come to similar terms to .jobs, .travel, .cat, .pro and .xxx.

Afilias has agreed to take on many of the provisions of the standard new gTLD RA that originally did not apply to gTLDs approved in the 2000 and 2003 rounds, including the URS.

In exchange, its fixed registry fees will go down from $50,000 a year to $25,000 a year and the original price-linked variable fee of $0.15 to $0.75 per transaction will be replaced with the industry standard $0.25.

It’s peanuts really, given that .mobi still has about 690,000 domains, but Afilias is getting other concessions too.

Notably, the ludicrous mirage that .mobi was a “Sponsored” gTLD serving a specific restricted community (users of mobile telephones, really) rather than an obvious gaming of the 2003-round application rules, looks like it’s set to evaporate.

Appendix S to the current RA is not being carried over, ICANN said, so .mobi will not become a “Community” gTLD, with all the attendant restrictions that would have entailed.

Instead, Afilias has simply agreed to the absolute basic set of Public Interest Commitments that apply to all 2012 new gTLDs. Text that would have committed the registry to abide by the promises made in its gTLD application have been removed.

But the change likely to get the most hackles up is the inclusion of URS in the proposed new contract.

URS is an anti-cybserquatting measure that enables trademark owners to shut down infringing domains, without taking ownership, more quickly and cheaply than the UDRP.

It’s obligatory for all 2012-round gTLDs, and five of the pre-2012 registries have also agreed to adopt it during their contract renewal talks with ICANN.

Most recently, ICM Registry agreed to URS in exchange for much deeper cuts in its ICANN fees in .xxx.

In recent days, ICANN published its report into the public comments on the .xxx renewal, summarizing some predictably irate feedback.

Domainer group the Internet Commerce Association, which is concerned that URS will one day be forced upon .com and .net, had a .xxx comment that seems particularly pertinent to the .mobi news:

Given the history of flimsy and self-serving justifications by [Global Domains Division] staff and the ICANN Board for similar actions taken in 2015, we are under no illusion that this comment letter will likely be successful in effecting removal of the URS and other new gTLD RA provisions from the revised .XXX RA. Nonetheless, we strenuously object to this GDD action that intrudes upon and debases ICANN’s legitimate policymaking process, and urge the GDD and Board to reconsider their positions, and to ensure that GDD staff ceases and desists from taking similar action in the context of future RA renewals and revisions until the RPM Review WG renders the community’s judgment as to whether the URS and other new gTLD RPMs should become Consensus Policy and such recommendation is reviewed by GNSO Council and the ICANN Board.

The Intellectual Property Constituency of the GNSO, conversely, broadly welcomed the addition of more rights protection mechanisms to .xxx.

The Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group, meanwhile, expressed concern that whenever ICANN negotiates a non-consensus policy into a contract it negates and discourages all the work done by the volunteer community.

You can read the summary of the .xxx comments, along with ICANN staff’s reasons for ignoring them, here (pdf).

The .mobi proposed amendments are also now open for public comment.

Any lawyers wishing to rack up a few billable hours railing against a fait accompli can do so here.

.xxx to get lower ICANN fees, accept the URS

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2016, Domain Registries

ICM Registry has negotiated lower ICANN transaction fees as part of a broad amendment to its Registry Agreement that also includes new trademark protection measures.

The company’s uniquely high $2 per-transaction fee could be reduced to the industry standard $0.25 by mid-2018.

As part of the renegotiated contract, ICM has also agreed to impose the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy on its registrants.

URS is the faster, cheaper version of UDRP that allows trademark owners to have domain names suspended in more clear-cut cases of cybersquatting.

The $2 fee was demanded by ICANN when ICM first signed its RA in 2011.

At the time, ICANN said the higher fee, which had doubled from a 2010 draft of the contract, was to “account for anticipated risks and compliance activities”.

The organization seemed to have bought into the fears that .xxx would lead to widespread misuse — something that has noticeably failed to materialize — and was expecting higher legal costs as a result.

The companion TLDs .adult, .porn and .sex, all also managed by ICM, only pay $0.25 per transaction.

The overall effects on registrants, ICANN and ICM will likely be relatively trivial.

With .xxx holding at roughly 170,000 domains and a minimal amount of inter-registrar transfer activity, ICM seems to be paying ICANN under $400,000 a year in transaction fees at the moment.

Its registry fee is usually $62, though a substantial number of domains have been sold at lower promotional pricing, so the cost to registrants is not likely to change a great deal.

The reduction to $0.25 would have to be carried out in stages, with the earliest coming this quarter, and be reliant on ICM keeping a clean sheet with regards contract compliance.

Under the deal, ICM has agreed to adopt many of the provisions of the standard Registry Agreement for 2012-round gTLDs.

One of those is the URS, which may cause consternation among domainers fearful that the rights protection mechanism may one day also find its way into the .com registry contract.

ICM has also agreed to implement its existing policies on, for example, child abuse material prevention, into the contract as Public Interest Commitments.

The RA amendment is currently open for public comment at ICANN.

Industry lays into Verisign over .com deal renewal

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2016, Domain Registries

Some of Verisign’s chickens have evidently come home to roost.

A number of companies that the registry giant has pissed off over the last couple of years have slammed the proposed renewal of its .com contract with ICANN.

Rivals including XYZ.com (sued over its .xyz advertising) and Donuts (out-maneuvered on .web) are among those to have filed comments opposing the proposed new Registry Agreement.

They’re joined by business and intellectual property interests, concerned that Verisign is being allowed to carry on without implementing any of the IP-related obligations of other gTLDs, and a dozens of domainers, spurred into action by a newsletter.

Even a child protection advocacy group has weighed in, accusing Verisign of not doing enough to prevent child abuse material being distributed.

ICANN announced last month that it plans to renew the .com contract, which is not due to expire for another two years, until 2024, to bring its term in line with Verisign’s contracts related to root zone management.

There are barely any changes in the proposed new RA — no new rights protection mechanisms, no changes to how pricing is governed, and no new anti-abuse provisions.

The ensuing public comment period, which closed on Friday, has attracted slightly more comments than your typical ICANN comment period.

That’s largely due to outrage from readers of the Domaining.com newsletter, who were urged to send comments in an article headlined “BREAKING: Verisign doubles .COM price overnight!”

That headline, for avoidance of doubt, is not accurate. I think the author was trying to confer the idea that the headline could, in his opinion, be accurate in future.

Still, it prompted a few dozen domainers to submit brief comments demanding “No .com price increases!!!”

The existing RA, which would be renewed, says this about price:

The Maximum Price for Registry Services subject to this Section 7.3 shall be as follows:

(i) from the Effective Date through 30 November 2018, US $7.85;

(ii) Registry Operator shall be entitled to increase the Maximum Price during the term of the Agreement due to the imposition of any new Consensus Policy or documented extraordinary expense resulting from an attack or threat of attack on the Security or Stability of the DNS, not to exceed the smaller of the preceding year’s Maximum Price or the highest price charged during the preceding year, multiplied by 1.07.

The proposed amendment (pdf) that would extend the contract through 2024 does not directly address price.

It does, however, contain this paragraph:

Future Amendments. The parties shall cooperate and negotiate in good faith to amend the terms of the Agreement (a) by the second anniversary of the Effective Date, to preserve and enhance the security and stability of the Internet or the TLD, and (b) as may be necessary for consistency with changes to, or the termination or expiration of, the Cooperative Agreement between Registry Operator and the Department of Commerce.

The Cooperative Agreement is the second contract in the three-way relationship between Verisign, ICANN and the US Department of Commerce that allows Verisign to run not only .com but also the DNS root zone.

It’s important because Commerce exercised its powers under the agreement in 2012 to freeze .com prices at $7.85 a year until November 2018, unless Verisign can show it no longer has “market power”, a legal term that plays into monopoly laws.

So what the proposed .com amendments mean is that, if the Cooperative Agreement changes in 2018, ICANN and Verisign are obligated to discuss amending the .com contract at that time to take account of the new terms.

If, for example, Commerce extends the price freeze, Verisign and ICANN are pretty much duty bound to write that extension into the RA too.

There’s no credible danger of prices going up before 2018, in other words, and whether they go up after that will be primarily a matter for the US administration.

The US could decide that Verisign no longer has market power then and drop the price freeze, but would be an indication of a policy change rather than a reflection of reality.

The Internet Commerce Association, which represents high-volume domainers, does not appear particularly concerned about prices going up any time soon.

It said in its comments to ICANN that it believes the new RA “will have no effect whatsoever upon the current .Com wholesale price freeze of $7.85 imposed on Verisign”.

XYZ.com, in its comments, attacked not potential future price increases, but the current price of $7.85, which it characterized as extortionate.

If .com were put out to competitive tender, XYZ would be prepared to reduce the price to $1 per name per year, CEO Daniel Negari wrote, saving .com owners over $850 million a year — more than the GDP of Rwanda.

ICANN should not passively go along with Verisign’s selfish goal of extending its unfair monopoly over the internet’s most popular top-level domain name.

Others in the industry chose to express that the proposed contract does not even attempt to normalize the rules governing .com with the rules almost all other gTLDs must abide by.

Donuts, in its comment, said that the more laissez-faire .com regime actually harms competition, writing:

It is well known that new gTLDs and now many other legacy gTLDs are heavily vested with abuse protections that .COM is not. Thus, smaller, less resource-rich competitors must manage gTLDs laden (appropriately) with additional responsibilities, while Verisign is able to operate its domains unburdened from these safeguards. This incongruence is a precise demonstration of disparate treatment, and one that actually hinders effective competition and ultimately harms consumers.

It points to numerous statistics showing that .com is by far the most-abused TLD in terms of spam, phishing, malware and cybersquatting.

The Business Constituency and Intellectual Property Constituency had similar views about standardizing rules on abuse and such. The IPC comment says:

The continued prevalence of abusive registrations in the world’s largest TLD registry is an ongoing challenge. The terms of the .com registry agreement should reflect that reality, by incorporating the most up-to-date features that will aid in the detection, prevention and remediation of abuses.

The European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online submitted a comment with a more narrow focus — child abuse material and pornography in general.

Enasco said that 41% of sites containing child abuse material use .com domains and that Verisign should at least have the same regulatory regime as 2012-round gTLDs. It added:

Verisign’s egregious disinterest in or indolence towards tackling these problems hitherto hardly warrants them being rewarded by being allowed to continue the same lamentable
regime.

I couldn’t find any comments that were in unqualified support of the .com contract renewal, but the lack of any comments from large sections of the ICANN community may indicate widespread indifference.

The full collection of comments can be found here.

Verisign to get .com for six more years, but prices to stay frozen

ICANN and Verisign have agreed to extend their .com registry contract for another six years, but there are no big changes in store for .com owners.

Verisign will now get to run the gTLD until November 30, 2024.

The contract was not due to expire until 2018, but the two parties have agreed to renew it now in order to synchronize it with Verisign’s new contract to run the root zone.

Separately, ICANN and Verisign have signed a Root Zone Maintainer Agreement, which gives Verisign the responsibility to make updates to the DNS root zone when told to do so by ICANN’s IANA department.

That’s part of the IANA transition process, which will (assuming it isn’t scuppered by US Republicans) see the US government’s role in root zone maintenance disappear later this year.

Cunningly, Verisign’s operation of the root zone is technically intermingled with its .com infrastructure, using many of the same security and redundancy features, which makes the two difficult to untangle.

There are no other substantial changes to the .com agreement.

Verisign has not agreed to take on any of the rules that applies to new gTLDs, for example.

It also means wholesale .com prices will be frozen at $7.85 for the foreseeable future.

The deal only gives Verisign the right to raise prices if it can come up with a plausible security/stability reason, which for one of the most profitable tech companies in the world seems highly unlikely.

Pricing is also regulated by Verisign’s side deal (pdf) with the US Department of Commerce, which requires government approval for any price increases until such time as .com no longer has dominant “market power”.

The .com extension is now open for public comment.

Predictably, it’s already attracted a couple of comments saying that the contract should instead be put out to tender, so a rival registry can run the show for cheaper.

That’s never, ever, ever, ever going to happen.