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Verisign boss talks .web launch, timing and pricing

Kevin Murphy, October 29, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign hasn’t fully won .web yet, but it expects to soon and is talking in general terms about what the it might look like live.

CEO Jim Bidzos yesterday told analysts that he expects the Independent Review Process panel currently considering an appeal by rival applicant Afilias to deliver its final verdict before the end of the year. No hearings are scheduled.

Afilias claims Verisign and its secret proxy, Nu Dot Co, cheated, and that ICANN broke its own rules, in the 2016 auction that saw Verisign promise to pay $135 million for .web. Verisign thinks the claims are rubbish.

Bidzos told analysts, wanting to known when they can put .web revenue into the models, that it while it’s a “bit early to speculate” when the company will launch .web, it will likely happen a “couple of quarters from delegation”.

On pricing, he noted that .web does not have the same price controls as .com and .net:

.web is, of course, different from .com and net and that it’s not a price controlled TLD… We do have flexibility with it that we don’t have with other TLDs, and premiums are available. Other sorts of options are available.

But will the company put its marketing muscle behind .web? Many people, myself included, have said that Verisign’s interest in the gTLD is more about keeping it out of its rivals hands. Bidzos said:

There certainly will be some sort of marketing launch that will occur, but I just think it’s too early to really talk about what that would look like and what the expense impact will be. But we certainly intend to market and promote .web. Our plan, our desire, as we’ve stated — and I’ll say again — is to offer our customers more choice and to make .web a very successful TLD.

His comments came as Verisign reported its third-quarter financial results.

The company reported revenue up 5.1% at $334 million and net income of $157 million compared to $171 million a year ago.

It had 172.1 million .com and .net domains in its registry at the end of the quarter, up 1.48 million sequentially and a 5.1% increase on the year-ago number.

PIR poaches new CTO from Verisign

Kevin Murphy, October 4, 2021, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry has announced the hiring of Rick Wilhelm as its new chief technology officer.

Wilhelm comes from Verisign, where he was VP of platform management. He’s also previously worked for Network Solutions and Neustar and sat on ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee.

He replaces Joe Abley, who quit for a job at Neustar in August.

Wilhelm started today, and reports to CEO Jon Nevett.

Domain industry SHRINKS again… except of course it doesn’t

Kevin Murphy, September 3, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign has published its latest Domain Name Industry Brief, once again showing growth numbers thrown off wildly by a single factor.

The second quarter closed with 367.3 million registrations across all TLDs, down by 2.8 million over the same point last year, the DNIB states.

But the entirety of that decline can be attributed to a single TLD. It’s Tokelau again!

.tk was down by 2.8 million domains compared to the year-ago quarter also. This decline was first recorded by Verisign in the fourth quarter last year, where it had a similarly depressing effect on the overall picture.

The ccTLD is operated by Dutch company Freenom, which gives away most of its domains for free, often on a monthly basis, and monetizes residual traffic whenever a name expires or is suspended for abuse.

It’s quite possible that most of its names are registry-owned, so it’s in Freenom’s discretion to keep hold of its entire inventory or periodically purge its database, which may be what happened in Q4.

It’s debatable, in other words, whether .tk’s numbers is really any reflection or guide on the rest of the domain name industry. To it’s credit, Verisign breaks out the non-.tk numbers separately.

The DNIB reports a rosier quarterly growth comparison — total internet-wide regs were up by 3.8 million names, or 1.0%.

The company’s own .com did well, growing by 2.4 million names to end June at 157 million. Even .net did better than usual, adding a net of a couple hundred thousand names, to 13.6 million.

All the top 10 ccTLDs were flat sequentially after rounding, with the exception of Brazil’s .br, which was up by 200,000 names.

Total ccTLD regs were 157.7 million, up 1.2 million sequentially but down 2.4 million year-over year. Factoring out .tk, the increases were 1.2 million and 400,000 respectively.

The second quarter of last year was a bit of a boom time for many registries due largely to the lockdown bump, which saw businesses in many countries rush to get online to survive pandemic restrictions.

Tokelau can not be blamed for the whopping 8.8 million decline in new gTLD registrations between the Junes, of course.

About six million of the plummet can be blamed on heavily discounted .icu, which saw its first junk drop begin about a year ago, and another two million seem to be attributable to .top.

Quarterly, the picture was a little brighter — Verisign says new gTLDs were up by under 100,000 compared to Q1 at 22.9 million.

.com and NameSilo fingered as “most-abused” after numbers rocket

SpamHaus has revealed the most-abused TLDs and registrars in its second-quarter report on botnets.

The data shows huge growth in abuse at Verisign’s .com and the fast-growing NameSilo, which overtook Namecheap to top the registrar list for the first time.

Botnet command-and-control domains using .com grew by 166%, from 1,549 to 4,113, during the quarter, SpamHaus said.

At number two, .xyz saw 739 C&C domains, up 114%.

In the registrar league table, NameSilo topped the list for the first time, unseating Namecheap for the first time in years.

NameSilo had 1,797 C&C domains on its books, an “enormous” 594% increase. Namecheap’s number was 955 domains, up 52%.

Botnets are one type of “DNS abuse” that even registrars agree should be acted on at the registrar level.

The most-abused lists and lots of other botnet-related data can be found here.

Domain regs dip for second quarter in a row and it’s all China’s fault

There were 363.5 million domain name registrations across all top-level domains at the end of March, down by 2.8 million names compared to the end of 2020, Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief shows.

But the losses can be attributed mostly to China, which saw plummeting .cn regs in the ccTLD world and big declines across gTLDs popular with Chinese speculators.

In .cn, regs were down a whopping four million at 20.7 million in the quarter. China has historically been subject to steep fluctuations due to local government regulations.

Overall, ccTLD registrations were down 2.4 million at 156.5 million, but that seems to be all down to China.

All the other ccTLDs in the DNIB top 10 were either flat or up slightly on Q4. The frequent wild-card .tk did not have an impact on this quarter’s numbers, staying flat.

Verisign does not break down new gTLD registrations, but zone file and transaction report data shows that the likes of .icu and .wang, which typically sell first-year regs very cheaply, were hit by material junk drops in Q1.

ShortDot’s .icu zone file shrank by 2.5 million names between January 1 and March 30. It’s still in decline in Q2, but the trajectory isn’t nearly as steep. It had 814,000 zone file names at the end of Q1.

Zodiac’s .wang was at 525,000 at the end of 2020 but had dropped to 86,000 by March 30.

.top also lost around half a million names in the first quarter.

The vast majority of regs in .icu, .top and .wang come through Chinese registrars, which often sell for under a dollar for the first year.

The DNIB reports that .com performed well as usual, up from 151.8 million reported in the Q4 report to 154.6 million, but Verisign bedfellow .net was once again flat at 13.4 million.

Afilias hints at more legal action over .web

As Verisign does everything but declare outright victory in last week’s Independent Review Process result, .web rival Afilias is now strongly hinting that its lawyers are not quite ready to retire.

John Kane, VP of Afilias (now Altanovo) said in a statement that Afilias is prepared to “take all actions necessary to protect our rights in this matter”.

This matter is of course the contested 2015 auction for the new gTLD .web, which was won by Nu Dot Co with $135 million of Verisign’s money.

Afilias thinks the winning bid should be voided because Verisign’s involvement had been kept a secret. The IRP panel stopped short of doing that, instead forcing ICANN’s board of directors to make a decision.

The earliest they’re likely to do this is at ICANN 71 later this month.

But with one IRP down, Afilias is now reminding ICANN that the board’s ultimate decision will also be “subject to review by an IRP Panel.”

So if ICANN decides to award .web to Verisign, Afilias could challenge it with another IRP, adding another two years to the go-live runway and another couple million dollars to the lawyers’ petty cash jar.

None of which should overly bother Verisign, of course, if one subscribes to the notion that its interest in .web is not in owning it but rather in preventing its competitors from owning it and aggressively marketing it against .com.

But Verisign also put out a statement reviewing the IRP panel’s decision last week, reiterating that it believes Afilias should be banned from the .web contest and banned from making any further complaints about Verisign’s bid.

While Afilias spent its press release focusing on trashing ICANN, Verisign instead focused its blog post on trashing Afilias.

According to Verisign, Afilias is no longer competent to run a registry (having sold those assets to Donuts) and is just looking for a payday by losing a private auction.

“Afilias no longer operates a registry business, and has neither the platform, organization, nor necessary consents from ICANN, to support one,” Verisign claims.

Afilias could of course outsource its would-be .web registry, as is fairly standard industry practice, either to Donuts or any other back-end operator.

.web ruling hands Afilias a chance, Verisign a problem, and ICANN its own ass on a plate

Kevin Murphy, May 26, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN has lost yet another Independent Review Process case, and been handed a huge legal bill, after being found to have violated its own rules on transparency and fairness.

The decision in Afilias v ICANN has failed to definitively resolve the issue of whether the auction of the .web gTLD in 2016, won by a shell applicant called Nu Dot Co backed by $135 million of Verisign’s money, was legit.

ICANN’s now urging NDC, Afilias and other members of the .web contention set to resolve their beefs privately, which could lead to big-money pay-days for the losing auction bidders at Verisign’s expense.

For ICANN board and staff, the unanimous, three-person IRP panel decision is pretty damning, with the ruling saying the org “violated its commitment to make decisions by applying documented policies objectively and fairly”.

It finds that ICANN’s board shirked its duty to consider the propriety of the Verisign/NDC bid, allowing ICANN staff to get perilously close to signing a registry contract with an applicant that they knew may well have been in violation of the new gTLD program rules.

Despite being named the prevailing party, it’s not even close to a full win for Afilias.

The company had wanted the IRP panel to void the NDC/Verisign winning bid and award .web to itself, the second-highest bidder. But the panel did not do that, referring the decision instead back to ICANN.

As the loser, ICANN has been hit with a $1,198,493 bill to cover the cost of the case, which includes Afilias’ share of $479,458, along with another $450,000 to cover Afilas’ legal fees connected to an earlier emergency IRP request that ICANN “abusively” forced Afilias into.

The case came about due to a dispute about the .web auction, which was run by ICANN in July 2016.

Six of the seven .web applicants had been keen for the contention set to be settled privately, in an auction that would have seen the winning bid distributed evenly among the losing bidders.

But NDC, an application vehicle not known to be particularly well-funded, held out for a “last resort” auction, in which the winning bid would be deposited directly into ICANN’s coffers.

This raised suspicions that NDC had a secret sugar daddy, likely Verisign, that was covertly bankrolling its bid.

It was not known until after NDC won, with a $135 million bid, that these suspicions were correct. NDC and Verisign had a “Domain Acquisition Agreement” or DAA that would see NDC transfer its .web contract to Verisign in exchange for the money needed to win the auction (and presumably other considerations, though almost all references to the terms of the DAA have been redacted by ICANN throughout the IRP).

Afilias and fellow .web applicant Donuts both approached ICANN before and after the auction, complaining that the NDC/Verisign bid was bogus, in violation of program rules requiring applicants to notify ICANN if there’s any change of control of their applications, including agreements to transfer the gTLD post-contracting.

ICANN has never decided at the board level whether these claims have merit, the IRP panel found.

The board did hold a secret, off-the-books discussion about the complaints at its retreat November 3, 2016, and concluded, without any type of formal vote, that it should just keep its mouth shut, because Afilias and Donuts had already set the ball rolling on the accountability mechanisms that would ultimately lead to the IRP.

More than half the board was in attendance at this meeting, and discussions were led by ICANN’s top two lawyers, but the fact that it had even taken place was not disclosed until June last year, well over three and a half years after the fact.

Despite the fact that the board had made a conscious, if informal, choice not to decide whether the NDC/Verisign bid was legit, ICANN staff nevertheless went ahead and started contracting with NDC in June 2018, taking the .web contention set off its “on-hold” status.

Talks progressed to the point where, on June 14, ICANN had sent the .web contract to NDC, which immediately returned a signed copy, and all that remained was for ICANN to counter-sign the document for it to become binding.

ICANN VP Christine Willett approved the countersigning, but four days later Afilias initiated the Cooperative Engagement Process accountability mechanism, the contract was ripped up, and the contention set was placed back on hold.

“Thus, clearly, a registry agreement with NDC for .WEB could have been executed by ICANN’s Staff and come into force without the Board having pronounced on the propriety of the DAA under the Guidebook and Auction Rules,” the IRP panel wrote.

This disconnect between the board and the legal staff is at the core of the panel’s criticism of ICANN.

The board had decided that Afilias’ claim that NDC had violated new gTLD program rules was worthy of consideration and had informally agreed to defer making a decision, but the staff had nevertheless gone ahead with contracting with a potentially bogus applicant, the panel found.

In the opinion of the Panel, there is an inherent contradiction between proceeding with the delegation of .WEB to NDC, as the Respondent [ICANN] was prepared to do in June 2018, and recognizing that issues raised in connection with NDC’s arrangements with Verisign are serious, deserving of the Respondent’s consideration, and remain to be addressed by the Respondent and its Board, as was determined by the Board in November 2016. A necessary implication of the Respondent’s decision to proceed with the delegation of .WEB to NDC in June 2018 was some implicit finding that NDC was not in breach of the New gTLD Program Rules and, by way of consequence, the implicit rejection of the Claimant’s [Afilias’] allegations of non-compliance with the Guidebook and Auction Rules. This is difficult to reconcile with the submission that “ICANN has taken no position onw hether NDC violated the Guidebook”.

The upshot of the panel’s ruling is to throw the issue back to ICANN, requiring the board to decide once and for all whether Verisign’s auction gambit was kosher.

If you’ll excuse the crude metaphor, ICANN’s board has been told to shit or get off the pot:

The evidence in the present case shows that the Respondent, to this day, while acknowledging that the questions raised as to the propriety of NDC’s and Verisign’s conduct are legitimate, serious, and deserving of its careful attention, has nevertheless failed to address them. Moreover, the Respondent has adopted contradictory positions, including in these proceedings, that at least in appearance undermine the impartiality of its processes.

[The panel r]ecommends that the Respondent stay any and all action or decision that would further the delegation of the .WEB gTLD until such time as the Respondent’s Board has considered the opinion of the Panel in this Final Decision, and, in particular (a) considered and pronounced upon the question of whether the DAA complied with the New gTLD Program Rules following the Claimant’s complaints that it violated the Guidebook and Auction Rules and, as the case may be, (b) determined whether by reason of any violation of the Guidebook and Auction Rules, NDC’s application for .WEB should be rejected and its bids at the auction disqualified;

At the same time as the decision was published last night — shortly after midnight UTC and therefore helpfully too late to make it into today’s edition of ICANN’s godawful new email subscriptions feature — ICANN issued a statement on the outcome.

“In its Final Declaration, the IRP panel ruled that the ICANN Board, and not an IRP panel, should decide which applicant should become the registry operator for .WEB,” CEO Göran Marby said.

“The ICANN Board will consider the Final Declaration as soon as feasible, within the timeframe prescribed in the Bylaws, and remains hopeful that the relevant .WEB applicants will continue to seek alternatives to resolve the dispute between them raised during the IRP,” the statement concludes.

That should be of concern to Verisign, as any non-ICANN resolution of the .web battle is inevitably going to involve Verisign money flowing to its competitors.

But my first instinct strikes me that this a is a low-probability outcome.

It seems to me much more likely at first glance that ICANN will rule the NDC/Verisign ploy legitimate and proceed to contracting again.

For it to declare that using a front organization to bid for a gTLD is against the rules would raise questions about other applications that employed more or less the same tactic, such as Automattic’s successful bid, via an intermediary, for .blog, and possibly the 100-ish applications Donuts and Rightside cooperated on.

The ICANN bylaws say the board has to consider the IRP’s findings at its next meeting, for which there’s currently no published date, where feasible.

I should note that, while Donuts acquired Afilias last December, the deal did not include its .web application, which is why both the panel’s decision and this article refer to “Afilias” throughout.

Verisign hopeful after decision reached in .web gTLD case

Kevin Murphy, May 25, 2021, Domain Policy

The fate of .web has been decided, over 20 years after it was first applied for, and Verisign thinks it might emerge triumphant.

The company said last night that the ICANN Independent Review Panel handling the case of Afilias v ICANN reached a decision May 20 and delivered it to Verisign the following day.

Verisign says the panel “dismissed Afilias’ claims for relief seeking to invalidate the .web auction and to award the .web TLD to Afilias, concluding that such issues were beyond its jurisdiction.”

Sounds good for Verisign so far. Afilias wanted its $135 million bid for .web, submitted via an intermediary called Nu Dot Co, thrown out due to claims that ICANN violated its own bylaws by not sufficiently vetting the bidder.

But Verisign goes on to say “the panel’s ruling recommends that ICANN’s Board of Directors consider the objections made about the .web auction and then make a decision on the delegation of .web”.

It adds that the panel found that ICANN violated its fairness and transparency commitments:

With respect to ICANN, the ruling finds that certain actions and/or inaction by ICANN in response to Afilias’ objections violated aspects of ICANN’s bylaws related to transparency and fairness. These findings are particular to ICANN’s actions and not conduct by Verisign. Verisign anticipates that ICANN’s Board will review the panel’s ruling and proceed consistent with the panel’s recommendation to consider the objections and make a decision on the delegation of .web.

Based on Verisign’s statements, it seems that ICANN lost, but Afilias didn’t win.

The revelation was buried in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on an unrelated financial matter last night. Hat tip to @jintlaw for spotting and tweeting about it.

It’s the most eagerly anticipated IRP ruling since 2011’s .xxx case, but in stark contrast to Rod “let’s draft this tweet” Beckstrom-era ICANN, where the decision was posted in a matter of hours, the 2021 org has not yet posted the panel’s findings or made a public statement acknowledging the ruling.

Verisign says it intends to “vigorously pursue” .web, but “can provide no assurance” as to which way the ICANN board of directors will swing.

.gov TLD quietly changes hands

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2021, Domain Registries

The .gov TLD used exclusively by governmental entities in the US has quietly changed managers.

On Friday, the IANA records for .gov changed from the General Services Administration to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

It was not unexpected. CISA announced the move in March.

But it’s less clear how the change request was handled. The ICANN board of directors certainly didn’t have a formal vote on the matter. IANA has not released a redelegation report as it would with a ccTLD.

CISA intends to make .gov domains more widely available to agencies at the federal, state, city and tribal level, and reduce the price to free or almost free.

Verisign currently manages the technical aspects of the domain, for $400 per domain per year.

Verisign expects huge domain growth in 2021

Kevin Murphy, April 22, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign tonight significantly upgraded its estimate of how many .com and .net domains it expects to sell this year, citing an improving economy and increased growth in online commerce.

CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts that it’s now expecting its domain base to increase by 4% to 5.5% this year. Three months ago, it had cautiously predicted growth would be between 2.5% and 4.5%.

That’s a minimum of 6.6 million net new domains this year.

The upgrade was inspired by its first-quarter performance, in which .com and .net base grew by 4.6% when compared to Q1 2020, to 168 million names.

That was an increase of 2.8 million names during the quarter, which compares to 1.83 million net new domains in Q1 2020 and 1.46 million in Q4 2020. A pretty damn good showing, in other words.

For Q1, Verisign tonight reported net income of $150 million, down from $334 million in Q1 last year, when it experienced a one-off tax benefit.

Revenue was up 3.6% on last year at $324 million.