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ICANN is blocking 23 gTLD transfers over blockchain fears

ICANN is objecting to the transfer of 23 new gTLDs from UNR to an unknown number of third parties, because it’s scared that the associated non-fungible tokens may break the internet and its own authority over it.

The mystery of how UNR’s auction in April of its entire new gTLD portfolio has so far not resulted in a single ICANN Registry Agreement changing hands appears to have been solved.

It’s because UNR bundled each contract sale with a matching top-level “domain name”, in the form of an NFT, on the Ethereum Name Service, an alt-root based on the Ethereum blockchain, and ICANN is worried about what this means for both the long-term interoperability of the DNS and its own ability to act as the internet’s TLD gatekeeper.

This all emerged in an emergency Request for Reconsideration filed by a company called Dot Hip Hop, which bought .hiphop from UNR earlier in the year.

It turns out .hiphop is the TLD alluded to by Digital Asset Monetary Network, which in October became the first to out itself as a UNR buyer while not naming its gTLD. The purchase was made separately from the April auction, despite .hiphop being “mistakenly” listed as one of the lots.

It also turns out that consultant Jeff Neuman, who’s been a leading figure in the ICANN community since its inception, was behind long-time employer Neustar’s application for .biz, and is a big fan of musical theater, is chief legal officer of and a partner in DHH.

In his reconsideration request, Neuman rages against the fact that it had been over 120 days at time of writing since DHH and UNR had applied to have the .hiphop contract reassigned, but that ICANN is continuing to drag its feet despite DHH long ago passing its due diligence review (which Neuman says cost an excessive $17,000).

DigitalAMN lists DHH as a subsidiary in its recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The company is publicly listed but essentially pre-revenue, making its ability to start selling domain names rather quickly rather important.

ICANN has repeatedly delayed approval of the reassignment, provided no visibility into when approval will come, and has repeatedly asked the same questions — largely related to the NFTs — with only slight rewording, Neuman says:

ICANN Org has already communicated to DHH that it has already met all of the criteria required under the Registry Agreement. Yet still, ICANN is withholding consent based on its mere curiosity about the former owner of the .hiphop, TLD (UNR Co), and based on the questions that ICANN keeps re-asking, has presumably conjured up non-issues that: (a) have already been addressed by DHH on multiple occasions over the past 123 days, (b) are beyond the scope of ICANN’s mission, and (c) are philosophical, fictional and frankly do not exist in this matter.

The ENS NFT is a “de minimus” component of the transaction that DHH didn’t even know about until after it had already decided to buy .hiphop, the request states, and ICANN has no authority over the blockchain so the existence of an NFT is not a valid reason to deny the reassignment.

I think I also detect a race card being played here. The RfR spends a bit of time talking about how ICANN’s foot-dragging is making the Org look bad to “traditionally underserved communities where the Hip Hop culture has thrived, globally”.

Apparently referring to DigitalAMN, the RfR states:

In addition to such partner being established at the birthplace of Hip Hop (Bronx New York), by its founder who shares the same birthdate as Hip Hop (August 11th), its mission is to provide financial literacy and economic opportunities for those communities and cultures that are traditionally under-represented, under-funded and under-valued.

DigitalAMN is majority-owned and led by Ajene Watson, who is black. One of company’s stated goals is to connect early stage companies with capital from non-traditional investors (not just the “privileged few”) using non-traditional means.

The RfR goes on to say:

The most dominantly underserved, under-funded and under-valued communities, are also those that embrace and are part of the Hip Hop culture. This Partner has embraced what seemed to be an opportunity to provide domain name registration services to a culture that knows nothing of ICANN, nor the domain name industry. Now, its first impression of the ICANN community is unnecessary delay, a lack of transparency, and bureaucratic indecision—just another gatekeeper to prevent equitable access. In their eyes, they consistently see deadlines that are never met (by ICANN), a lack of information as to why their launch is being held up, and an entity (ICANN) that takes weeks/months to act on anything with no end in sight. In their view, it would appear that ICANN, as an organization, cares nothing about serving the public interest, or about the impact of its actions (or in this case inactions) on the undervalued communities this Partner aims to support.

It should be noted that 22 other unrelated UNR gTLD reassignments are also in limbo, so it’s not like ICANN has a problem in particular with hip-hop music or those who enjoy it.

ICANN, in its response to the RfR, lays all the blame with UNR for, it says, refusing to provide “fulsome and complete” answers to its questions about the NFTs. In a December 10 letter to Neuman, ICANN VP Russ Weinstein wrote:

Significant questions remain, including regarding the role and rights conveyed to the proposed assignees related to the NFTs created on the ENS. For these reasons, ICANN must continue to object to and withhold its consent to all pending Assignments proposed by UNR, including yours.

The RfR was denied by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee on a technicality. DHH had filed an “emergency” request based on ICANN’s staff inaction, but emergency requests only apply to board action or inaction.

Neuman appears to have known this in advance. It appears DHH just wanted to get something in the public record about the state of play with UNR’s gTLDs.

ICANN seems to have two problems with the NFTs, and they’re both big, existential ones.

First, ENS is essentially an alt-root, and when you have competing roots there’s the risk of TLDs colliding — two or more registries claiming authority for the same TLD — breaking the global interoperability of the internet.

Second, but related, the existence of alt-roots threatens ICANN’s authority.

ICANN has no authority over ENS or the NFT names that live on it, so for a registry to run a TLD in the both the authoritative ICANN root and the alt-root of the ENS could cause problems down the road.

While NFTs can be “owned”, gTLDs are not. UNR is merely the party ICANN has contracted with to run .hiphop. While UNR and any subsequent assignees have a presumptive right of renewal, it’s possible for ICANN to terminate the contract and hand stewardship of the gTLD to another registry. It’s not merely a hypothetical scenario.

Should that ever happen with .hiphop, ICANN wouldn’t have the authority to seize the ENS NFT, meaning the old registry could carry on running .hiphop in the ENS while the new registry runs it in the ICANN root, again breaking global DNS interoperability.

You could spin it either way — either ICANN is worried about interoperability, or it’s worried about protecting its own power. These are not mutually exclusive, and are both probably true.

One thing’s the sure, however — in roadblocking these gTLD transfers, ICANN is playing into the hands of critics and blockchain fanboys who argue for decentralized control of naming, with ICANN as their bogeyman.

Tucows buys UNR’s registry business as Schilling bows out

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2021, Domain Registries

Tucows has acquired UNR’s registry business, the latest in the piecemeal sale of the old Uniregistry by founder Frank Schilling.

The Canadian registrar said it is taking on the technology platform as well as 10 UNR staffers.

Not many details of the deal, not even the purchase price, have been revealed.

“While I am slowly getting out of the industry, it’s important to me to know that my businesses are being left in the best hands,” Schilling said in a brief Tucows press release.

The deal gives Tucows a registry component to match rival GoDaddy, which acquired Neustar’s registry business last year, and makes the company the latest to throw itself into the vertically integrated domain space.

GoDaddy acquired Uniregistry’s registrar business last year also.

The UNR registry was originally Internet Systems Consortium’s but was acquired by UNR towards the beginning of the current new gTLD cycle.

It’s not currently clear which TLDs, if any, continue to run on the UNR platform. The company auctioned off 20 gTLDs in May, making $40 million, but did not disclose the buyers and none of the ICANN contracts have yet changed hands.

Certain ICANN approvals are needed before the deal closes, Tucows said.

Neither company answered DI’s questions about which TLDs are making the move, but Tucows VP Dave Woroch told us:

We are purchasing their registry platform and technology/intellectual property. In addition to servicing a number of registry operators, this platform will be applicable or beneficial to our broader registrar business, and we are looking at how we can implement some of that technology into our registrar platform. Along with this purchase of the registry platform, we have the unique opportunity to bring on a very experienced team of software engineers with specific expertise, and that will benefit our domain business at a time when it has been particularly challenging to add talent…

Tucows will be actively marketing itself as a backend registry provider, both for gTLDs and ccTLDs, and if there is another round of new gTLDs, we would fully expect to participate there as well.

Could .trust be the next big crypto TLD?

UNR has some big plans for .trust, a gTLD that mysteriously was omitted from its big fire-sale auction last month.

When UNR auctioned 23 of its gTLD portfolio, raising over $40 million over a three-day event, it escaped pretty much everyone’s notice — including mine — that .trust was not among those up for sale.

UNR, the former Uniregistry, acquired the TLD from NCC Group last November. It had been owned before NCC by Deutsche Post.

While it’s technically live, it’s never sold a domain.

It had been expected to launch as a vanilla gTLD around about now, but it seem plans have changed.

Registrars have been told to expect something “innovative” instead, and UNR tells me it has big plans it’s not ready to talk about yet.

My hunch? Crypto.

This is pure speculation based on nothing more than the string being closely associated with the kind of cryptocurrency slash blockchain slash non-fungible token malarkey the interwebs is going barmy for at the moment.

While UNR has not disclosed the identities of its auction winners, it has said at least one buyer is from the blockchain world.

Given UNR’s evident boredom with basic, workaday gTLDs, we’d have to expect its single retained top-level domain to do something a bit special, right?

UNR cuts $5.2 million from price of new gTLD portfolio

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2021, Domain Registries

UNR has reduced the opening bids on almost all of the gTLDs it plans to auction off later in the week, to the tune of a whopping $5.2 million.

According to the minimum opening bids listed on the auction web site today, the job lot of 23 TLD contracts could go for as little as $11.65 million, if there’s no competitive bidding whatsoever.

That’s compared to the $16.87 million total when the TLDs were first announced for auction back in January.

It’s a no-reserve auction of UNR’s entire portfolio of gTLDs that runs from Wednesday to Friday this week.

Some gTLDs, such as .hiv and .juegos, have no minimum bids.

The only TLD to receive a price increase since January is .llp, which had a $0 listing back then but is now listed at $200,000. There’s been no change in .llp’s fortunes since then — it’s still unlaunched.

The music-themed .country, which had no list price in January, now has a $300,000 tag.

The biggest discount comes on .link, once listed with a $3 million opener, now reduced to $2 million.

Nine of the gTLDs are now priced at below the original ICANN application fee of $186,000.

Here’s a table comparing the January minimum bid to today’s pricing.

[table “66” not found /]

UNR, which sold off its registrar and secondary market businesses to GoDaddy and its stakes in three car-themed gTLDs to XYZ.com last year, plans to remodel itself as a back-end operator post-auction.

UPDATE: According to UNR, the January prices were preliminary and published accidentally, and no changes have been made since late January or early February.

Correction: UNR’s trademark block service

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2021, Domain Registries

The registry or registries that buy UNR’s portfolio of new gTLDs at its firesale auction next month will be obliged to honor domains blocked by subscribers to its UniEPS brand protection service.

That’s contrary to what I reported yesterday, which was pretty much the opposite. I apologize for the error.

I asked UNR CEO Frank Schilling for comment about the post-auction UniEPS service, but did not receive a reply. Today, I learned that Schilling had in fact sent a lengthy reply, but it wound up in my email spam folder. Apparently my emails to him also wound up in his spam folder. The filtering gods clearly do not approve of our relationship.

According to Schilling, bidders for each of the 23 auctioned TLDs have been told “blocked names have to remain blocked, banned, or reserved after acquisition, even if they do not participate in our blocking service”.

Registrars were told:

Should an auction winner elect to withdraw the Asset(s) from UNR’s blocking services, the blocked domains will have to remain blocked, reserved, or banned in the acquired Registries until the expiry dates below. This is no different than a new owner honoring prepaid domains under management with expiry dates in the future. Once a block expires, the associated domains can be released for any registrant to purchase (fees from future registrations will be paid to the new owner).

Schilling also said that UNR is forgoing revenue from UniEPS auto-renews after March 15 until the gTLDs change hands. The new owners will be able to cancel these free renewals, he said.

The new owners will be able to continue to use UniEPS if the gTLDs remain on its registry platform. They could also choose to migrate them to their own blocking service, should they have one.

UniEPS, like other products on the market, blocks trademarks and variants such as IDN homographs from registration. It works out cheaper than defensively registering domains, but the domains cannot be used.

UNR, the former Uniregistry, will auction all of its 23 gTLD contracts April 28, as the company refocuses on back-end registry services.

UNR getting out of the registry business with $17 million no-reserve auctions on 23 new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2021, Domain Registries

UNR, the former Uniregistry, plans to auction off its portfolio of 23 new gTLD contracts in April.

The company, owned by domain investor Frank Schilling, said on a new web site at auction.link:

In a move to completely dedicate the company and its resources to its backend registry and IP rights protection services, UNR has announced that 23 of its Top Level Domain assets will be sold in no-reserve auctions on April 28, 2021.

The TLDs will be sold individually, rather than as a package.

While they’re all no-reserve auctions, the published starting prices add up to $16,870,000. Some have minimum bids of zero, some are less than the price UNR paid ICANN for its application fee back in 2012.

Here’s a list of the TLDs, along with their starting prices.

[table “63” not found /]

The prices appear to be based on the reg fee and volume of existing registrations, which range wildly from around 300 for .hiv to 159,000 for .link. The .country gTLD, aimed at country music makers and fans, currently has no starting bid listed.

The most-likely buyers of these gTLDs would be the rapidly dwindling list of fellow portfolio registries, such as Donuts and Radix.

While UNR’s exit from the registry business may be surprising — Schilling was a big fan of new gTLDs and Uniregistry applied for 54 of them, investing $69 million — it’s merely the latest stage of the business being dismantled.

Uniregistry sold its registrar and secondary market businesses to GoDaddy last year, and later sold its stake in three car-related gTLDs to business partner XYZ.com.

UNR said the April auctions will be managed over one day by Innovative Auctions, which is pretty much the de facto standard player in new gTLD auctions.

While the company says the auctions are open to “businesses and individuals”, I’m pretty sure ICANN rules forbid a gTLD being owned by individuals.

The company now plans to focus on being a pure-play back-end registry services provider, with a focus on dot-brand gTLDs, where it will continue to compete with the likes of GoDaddy, CentralNic, Donuts and Verisign.

Something weird’s going on at .sucks

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Ever heard of a domainer or cybersquatter putting their freshly-registered domains up for sale at cost?

Me neither, but that’s what seems to be going on at .sucks right now.

The sudden appearance of many hundreds of .sucks domains — many of them matching very famous trademarks — at Sedo and Uniregistry comes as the registry unveils plans to open up a secondary marketplace of its own.

.sucks registry Vox Populi, a part of the Momentous group of companies, wants to open its own marketplace, according to a letter it recently sent to ICANN.

The registry told ICANN it plans to launch a service “whereby a Registrant of a .sucks domain name can list their domain for resale with the Registry”, saying it will “allow our Registrars to show the domain as available for purchase by third parties at the price set by the current Registrant.”

It’s taking a somewhat confrontational approach from the outset, telling ICANN that it does not believe the service would constitute a “registry service” that would require ICANN’s approval under the Registry Service Evaluation Process.

It points to the fact that registrants can already list their .sucks names on existing marketplaces such as Sedo as proof that it’s not a “product or service that only a registry operator is capable of providing, by reason of its designation as the registry operator” requiring the RSEP.

This interpretation strikes me as open to debate, but I’m not going to get into that here.

What’s more interesting is that the vast majority of the domains listed on these competing platforms appear to have been registered relatively recently, in bulk, all via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, and quite possibly by the same registrant.

What’s weird is that the majority of the .sucks names listed at Sedo have a buy-now price of $199. Some are priced higher. Some priced at $199 at Sedo are priced at $599 at Uniregistry.

$199 is the absolute cheapest you can buy a .sucks domain name anywhere. It’s Rebel’s retail price, and I believe it’s also Vox Pop’s wholesale price. Even the cheapest unaffiliated registrars slap a $50 markup on the registry fee.

The domains started being listed on the aftermarkets after a sharp spike in .sucks sales back in June, where my data shows that over 2,000 names were registered, via Rebel, in the space of about 24 hours.

The .sucks zone file has been growing ever since, swelling from 7,347 — where volume had been flattish and under 8,000 names for years — to 11,255 since June 16, the date of the first spike.

Almost every .sucks listing I spot-checked on Sedo has three things in common: the $199 price-tag, a recent registration date, and a seller who signed up for the service in 2020 submitting their home territory as Turks and Caicos.

Turks and Caicos, which is also where Rebel is legally based, is a British island territory in the Caribbean with fewer than 38,000 inhabitants. It’s often used for offshore company registrations.

Whois records for the domains I checked with June reg dates use Momentous privacy service Privacy Hero, while other more-recent regs list the registrant as Honey Salt Ltd, a company apparently also based in Turks and Caicos.

So what we seem to have here is a registrant willing to invest half a million dollars or more in .sucks domain names, a great many matching famous brands, and then list them for resale at the exact same price he paid for them.

Why would a cybersquatter pay $199 for jackdaniels.sucks or dolceandgabbana.sucks or unitedinternetmedia.sucks and then put them up for sale for $199? It makes no sense to me.

And it comes at a time when Vox Pop is trying to persuade ICANN that there’s a thriving aftermarket for .sucks domains.

I put all these observations to the CEOs of Momentous and the registry earlier today, and Vox Pop chief John Berard got back to us to say:

With regard to those 2,000 registered names, that was most welcome. I don’t know much more than that about Honey Salt… I am certainly not going to speculate on their plans.

That they are in the Turks and Caicos is interesting, for sure. But you know as well as I that the Caribbean is a hotbed of domain name innovation and investment.

He later added: “Yes, take it to the bank that VPR [Vox Populi Registry] is not behind the registrations.”

On the issue of the registry’s own secondary market plans, Berard said:

we are trying to catch up to others in the domain name industry who first saw the customer value of fostering a secondary market. I think we may be the first registry to do it, but we, i am sorry to say, weren’t the first to market.

If I receive more information or commentary on this weirdness I shall provide updates accordingly.

To show new focus on registry, Uniregistry dumps “registry” from its brand. Um…

Uniregistry (or possibly “Uni Registry” or just “Uni”) has announced that it is changing its branding yet again.

UNR logoThe company now wishes to be known as UNR, which stands for Uni Naming & Registry, according to a press release today.

The change is related of course to the acquisition of several former Uniregistry business units — namely the registrar, the portfolio and the marketplace — by GoDaddy. That was announced in February but appears to have just closed.

UNR said it is “singularly focused on registry expansion”. It manages 20-odd of its own gTLDs and offers registry back-end services to others.

Its old web site, uniregistry.com, now displays GoDaddy branding — “Uni, a GoDaddy brand” — and functions as a retail registrar.

UNR is now using unr.link and unr.com, according to the press release. Both, for me, resolve to uniregistry.link — .link is one of the gTLDs UNR runs under ICANN contract.

So, Uniregistry is now a registrar in the GoDaddy stable and UNR is the registry. Or something. Got it? Good.

The latest industry C-suite musical chairs

There have been several top-level hires at big new gTLD players in the last week.
Donuts has announced it has appointed Mina Neuberg as chief marketing officer. Neuberg appears to be a newcomer to the domain industry, having most recently worked at a learning software company called Revolution Math. It’s the first time has had a named top marketing exec on its web site since VP Judith McGarry left a year ago.
Her appointment follows February’s announcement that Donuts hired Randy Haas as chief financial officer. He was previously CFO of Rhapsody/Napster, the online music company.
Meanwhile, Shayan Rostam has moved from Intercap Holdings, the registry for .inc, .dealer and .box, where he was chief registry officer, to portfolio registry Uniregistry, where he will be chief growth officer, a newly created position.
And DNW is reporting that new gTLD registry MMX has made two new C-level hires, both coming from Uniregistry: Vaughn Lilely has been recruited as chief growth officer while Ben Anderson is coming in as chief operating officer.

Uniregistry offers dating-inspired buy-now domains

Kevin Murphy, June 20, 2019, Domain Sales

Uniregistry has come up with a novel way to flog its clients’ domains, inspired by a dating web site.
It has published a list of 60 domains where a final price had already been negotiated by its brokers and agreed by both sides but the sale had for whatever reason not been completed.
The total value of the list appears to be $433,800.
VP of sales Jeffrey Gabriel blogged that the listed prices won’t come down, but that the sellers may decide not to sell at the stated price after all.
All the sales will go through the usual Uniregistry landing-page offer system.
Andrew Allemann has already bought one.
It appears to be a one-off (or occasional) proposition, rather than a new formal, developed, automated buy-it-now service.
I imagine it will be more popular among buyers — who don’t have to muck about too much negotiating a price — than sellers.
Smart sellers, from what I can tell, tend to base their price to a large extent on how rich they think the buyer is.
Gabriel said he’s calling this hook-up service “Missed Connections”, named after the section of Craigslist where people who make meaningful eye contact on public transport can post classifieds in an attempt to make contact with their near-miss.
I once told my girlfriend I loved her for the first time via Missed Connections. True story. Of course, that was back in San Francisco in the mid-noughties, a time and place in history when almost every meaningful transaction or life experience was carried out via Craigslist.
Nowadays, I hear it’s mainly just prostitutes.