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ICANN punts o.com auction to US watchdogs

Kevin Murphy, December 11, 2017, Domain Registries

Verisign’s proposed auction of the domain o.com might have a negative effect on competition and has been referred to US regulators.

That’s according to ICANN’s response to the .com registry’s request to release the domain, which is among the 23 single-letter domains currently reserved under the terms of its contract.

ICANN has determined that the release “might raise significant competition issues” and has therefore been referred to “to the appropriate governmental competition authority”.

It’s forwarded Verisign’s request to the US Department of Justice.

Verisign late last month asked ICANN if it could release o.com to auction as a test that could presumably lead to other single-character .com names being released in future.

The plan is for a charity auction, in which almost all the proceeds are donated to internet-related good causes.

Only the company running the auction would make any significant money; Verisign would just take its standard $7.85 annual fee.

ICANN told the company that it could find no technical reason that the release could not go ahead.

The only barrier is the fact that Verisign arguably has government-approved, cash-printing, market dominance and is therefore in a sensitive political position.

Whether its profitless plan will be enough to see the auction given the nod remains to be seen.

A certain bidder in the proposed auction would be Overstock.com, the online retailer, which has been pressuring ICANN and Verisign for the release of O.com for well over a decade and even owns trademarks covering the domain.

Disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Verisign wants to auction off O.com for charity

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2017, Domain Registries

The internet could soon gets just its fourth active single-character .com domain name, after Verisign revealed plans to auction off o.com for charity.

The company has asked ICANN to allow it to release just one of the 23 remaining one-letter .com domains, which are currently reserved under the terms of the .com registry agreement.

It’s basically a proof of concept that would lead to this contractual restriction being lifted entirely.

O.com has been picked as the guinea pig, because of “long-standing interest” in the domain, according to Verisign.

Overstock.com, the $1.8 billion-a-year US retailer, is known to have huge interest in the name.

The company acquired o.co from .CO Internet for $350,000 during the ccTLD’s 2010 relaunch, then embarked upon a disastrous rebranding campaign that ended when the company estimated it was losing 61% of its type-in traffic to o.com.

Overstock has obsessed over its unobtainable prize for over a decade and would almost certainly be involved in any auction for the domain.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Overstock pressured Verisign into requesting the release of o.com.

Despite the seven or eight figures that a single-letter .com domain could fetch, Verisign’s cut of the auction proceeds would be just $7.85, its base registry fee.

Regardless, it has a payment schedule in mind that would see the winning bidder continue to pay premium renewal fees for 25 years, eventually doubling the sale price.

The winner would pay their winning bid immediately and get a five-year registration, but then would have to pay 5% of that bid to renew the domain for years six through 25.

In other words, if the winning bid was $1 million, the annual renewal fee after the first five years would be $50,000 and the total amount paid would eventually be $2 million.

All of this money, apart from the auction provider’s cut, would go to a trust that would distribute the funds to internet-focused non-profit organizations, such as those promoting security or open protocols.

There’s also a clause that would seem to discourage domain investors from bidding. The only way to transfer the domain would be if the buyer was acquired entirely, though this could be presumably circumvented with the use of a shell company.

It’s an elaborate auction plan, befitting of the fact that one-character .com domains are super rare.

Only x.com, q.com and z.com are currently registered and it’s Verisign policy to reserve them in the unlikely event they should ever expire.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk this July reacquired x.com, the domain he used to launch PayPal in the 1990s, back from PayPal for an undisclosed sum.

Z.com was acquired by GMO Internet for $6.8 million in 2014.

Single-character domains are typically not reserved in the ICANN contracts of other gTLDs, whether pre- or post-2012, though it’s standard practice for the registry to reserve them for auction anyway.

Verisign’s reservations in .com and .net are a legacy of IANA policy, pre-ICANN and have been generally considered technically unnecessary for some years.

Still, there’s been a reluctance to simply hand Verisign, already a money-printing machine through accident of history, another windfall of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars by allowing it to sell off the names for profit. Hence the elaborate plan with the O.com trust fund.

The proposal to release O.com requires a contractual amendment, so Verisign has filed a Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf) with ICANN that is now open for public comment.

As a matter of disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Junk drop cuts .xyz in half, .top claims volume crown

The .xyz gTLD has seen its zone file halve in size, as millions of free and cheap domains were not renewed.

The former volume leader among new gTLDs started this month with a tad over 5.2 million domains in its zone.

But its July 17 zone contained 2.5 million, much less than half as many, DI analysis shows.

The precipitous decline means that Chinese-run gTLD .top, increasingly notorious as a go-to TLD for spammers, is now literally at the top of the league table, when you measure new gTLDs by zone file volume, with 2.6 million names.

The primary reason for .xyz losing so many names is of course the expiration of most of the domains that were sold for just $0.01 — or given away for free — in the first few days of June 2016, and the aggressive promotional pricing on offer for the remainder of that month.

On May 30, 2016, there were just under 2.8 million names in the .xyz zone. By July 1, 2016, that number had topped 6.2 million, an increase of 3.4 million over a single month.

That was .xyz’s peak. The zone has been in gradual decline ever since.

Domains generally take 45 days to drop, so it’s entirely possible XYZ.com will see further losses over the next month or so.

There’s nothing unusual about seeing a so-called “junk drop” a year after a TLD launches or runs a free-domains promotion. It’s been well-understood for over a decade and has been anticipated for .xyz for over a year.

But compounding its problems, the .xyz registry appears to still be banned in China, where a substantial portion of its former customer base is located.

The company disclosed over two months ago that it had a “temporary” problem that had seen its license to sell domains via Chinese registrars suspended.

The ban was related to XYZ falling out with its original “real name verification” provider, ZDNS, which was tasked with verifying the identities of Chinese registrants per local government regulations.

I’ve never been able to confirm with either party the cause of this split, but everyone else involved in the Chinese market I’ve asked has told me it related to a dispute over money.

Regardless, two months later the major Chinese registrars I checked today still appear to not be carrying .xyz names.

XYZ has meanwhile signed up with alternative Chinese RNV provider Tele-info, and just three days ago submitted the necessary paperwork (pdf) with ICANN to have the move approved as a registry service under its contract.

In that request, XYZ said the new RNV service “will allow XYZ to reenter certain domain name markets”, suggesting that it has not yet regained Chinese government approval to operate there.

Country names to finally be released in new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, May 24, 2017, Domain Policy

It looks like hundreds of domain names matching the names of countries are to finally get released from ICANN limbo.

The ICANN board last week passed a resolution calling for the organization to clear a backlog of over 60 registry requests to start selling or using country and territory names in their gTLDs.

Some of the requests date back to 2014. They’ve all been stuck in red tape while ICANN tried to make sure members of the Governmental Advisory Committee was cool with the names being released.

The result of these three years of pondering is scrappy, but will actually allow some names to hit the market this year.

The new resolution calls for ICANN to “take all steps necessary to grant ICANN approvals for the release of country and territory names at the second-level”, but only “to the extent the relevant government has indicated its approval”.

And that’s the catch.

Some governments, such as the US and UK, don’t care who registers matching names. Dozens of others want to vet each registry request on a case-by-case basis.

The wishes of each government are record in a GAC database.

The only territories to so far give a blanket waiver over their names are: Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK, the USA, Guernsey and Pitcairn.

Almost 70 other countries have said they need to be told when a registry wants to sell a domain matching their name. Ten others give carte blanche to closed dot-brands, but require notification in the case of open gTLDs.

The majority of countries in the world have yet to officially express a preference one way or the other.

Of the roughly 60 new gTLD registries to request country name releases over the last few years, the vast majority are dot-brands. The number of open gTLDs with such requests appears to be in the single figures, and the only ones with mass-market appeal appear to be .xyz and .global.

How .com became a restricted TLD

Verisign has been given approval to start restricting who can and cannot register .com and .net domain names in various countries.

Customers of Chinese registrars are the first to be affected by the change to the registry’s back-end system, which was made last year.

ICANN last week gave Verisign a “free to deploy” notice for a new “Verification Code Extension” system that enables the company to stop domains registered via selected registrars from resolving unless the registrant’s identity has been verified and the name is not on China’s banned list.

It appears to be the system Verisign deployed in order to receive its Chinese government license to operate in China.

Under Verification Code Extension, Verisign uses ICANN records to identify which registrars are based in countries that have governmental restrictions. I believe China is currently the only affected country.

Those registrars are able to register domains normally, but Verisign will prevent the names from resolving (placing them in serverHold status and keeping them out of the zone file) unless the registration is accompanied by a verification code.

These codes are distributed to the affected registrars by at least two verification service providers. Verisign, in response to DI questions, declined to name them.

Under its “free to deploy” agreement with ICANN (pdf), Verisign is unable to offer verification services itself. It must use third parties.

The company added the functionality to its .com and .net registry as an option in February 2016, according to ICANN records. It seems to have been implemented last July.

A Verisign spokesperson said the company “has implemented” the system.

The Verification Code Extension — technically, it’s an extension to the EPP protocol pretty much all registries use — was outlined in a Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf) last May, and approved by ICANN not long after.

Verisign was approved to operate in China last August in the first wave of gTLD registries to obtain government licenses.

Under Chinese regulations, domain names registered in TLDs not approved by the government may not resolve. Registrars are obliged to verify the identities of their registrants and names containing certain sensitive terms are not permitted.

Other gTLDs, including .vip, .club, .xyz .site and .shop have been granted approval over the last few months.

Some have chosen to work with registration gateway providers in China to comply with the local rules.

Apart from XYZ.com and Verisign, no registry has sought ICANN approval for their particular implementation of Chinese law.

Because Chinese influence over ICANN is a politically sensitive issue right now, it should be pointed out that the Verification Code Extension is not something that ICANN came up with in response to Chinese demands.

Rather, it’s something Verisign came up with in response to Chinese market realities. ICANN has merely rubber-stamped a service requested by Verisign.

This, in other words, is a case of China flexing market muscle, not political muscle. Verisign, like many other gTLD registries, is over-exposed to the Chinese market.

It should also be pointed out for avoidance of doubt that the Chinese restrictions do not apply to customers of non-Chinese registrars.

However, it appears that Verisign now has a mechanism baked into its .com and .net registries that would make it much easier to implement .com restrictions that other governments might choose to put into their own legislation in future.