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ICANN grants Verisign its price increases, of course

Kevin Murphy, March 30, 2020, Domain Registries

ICANN has given Verisign its ability to increase .com prices by up to 7% a year, despite thousands of complaints from domain owners.

The amendments give Verisign the right to raise prices in each of the last four years of its six-year duration. The current price is $7.85 a year.

Because the contract came into effect in late 2018, the first of those four years begins October 26 this year, but Verisign last week said that it has frozen the prices of all of its TLDs until 2021, due to coronavirus.

Not accounting for discounts, .com is already already worth $1.14 billion in revenue to Verisign every year, based on its end-of-2019 domains under management.

In 2019, Verisign had revenue of $1.23 billion, of which about half was pure, bottom-line, net-income profit.

In defending this shameless money-grab, ICANN played up the purported security benefits of the deal, while offering a critique of the domainers and registrars that had lobbied against it.

Göran Marby, ICANN’s CEO, said in a blog post.

I believe this decision is in the best interest of the continued security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet.

Overall, the decision to execute the .COM Registry Agreement amendment and the proposed binding Letter of Intent is of benefit to the Internet community.

The decision was explained in more detail in a eight-page analysis document (pdf) published late last week.

I’ll summarize this paper in three bullet points (my words, not ICANN’s):

  • Domainers are hypocrites.
  • The deal is good for DNS security.
  • Our hands were tied anyway.

First, while ICANN received over 9,000 comments about the proposed amendment, almost all negative, it said that publicity campaigns from domainer group the Internet Commerce Association and domainer registrar Namecheap were behind many of them.

the Internet Commerce Association (ICA) and Namecheap, are active players in the so called “aftermarket” for domain names, where domain name speculators attempt to profit by “buying low and selling high” on domain names, forcing end users to pay higher than retail prices for desirable domain names

It goes on to cite data from NameBio, which compiles lists of secondary market domain sales, to show that the average price of a resold domain is somewhere like $1,600 (median) to $2,400 (mean).

Both Namecheap and ICA supporter GoDaddy, which sells more .coms than any other registrar, have announced steep increases in their .com retail renewal fees in recent years — 20% in the case of GoDaddy — the ICANN document notes.

This apparent hypocrisy appears to be reason ICANN felt quite comfortable in disregarding many of the negative public comments it received.

Second, ICANN reckons other changes to the .com contract will benefit internet security.

Under a side deal (pdf) Verisign’s going to start giving ICANN $4 million a year, starting next January and running for five years, for what Marby calls “ICANN’s initiatives to preserve and enhance the security, stability, and resiliency of the DNS.” These include:

activities related to root server system governance, mitigation of DNS security threats, promotion and/or facilitation of Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) deployment, the mitigation of name collisions, and research into the operation of the DNS.

Note that these are without exception all areas in which ICANN already performs functions, usually paid for out of its regular operating budget.

Because it looks like to all intents and purposes like a quid pro quo, to grease the wheels of getting the contract amendments approved, Marby promised that ICANN will commit to “full transparency” as to how its new windfall will be used.

The new contract also has various new provisions that standardize technical standardization and reporting in various ways, that arguably could provide some minor streamlining benefits to internet security and stability.

But ICANN is playing up new language that requires Verisign to require its registrars to forbid their .com registrants from doing stuff like distributing malware and operating botnets. Verisign’s registrar partners will now have to include in their customer agreements:

a provision prohibiting the Registered Name Holder from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, pharming, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities, including suspension of the registration of the Registered Name;

Don’t expect this to do much to fight abuse.

It’s already a provision that applies to hundreds of other TLDs, including almost all gTLDs, and registrars typically incorporate it into their registration agreements by way of a link to the anti-abuse policy on the relevant registry’s web site.

Neither Verisign nor its registrars have any obligation to actually do anything about abusive domains under the amendments. As long as Verisign does a scan once a month and keeps a record of the total amount of abuse in .com — and this is data ICANN already has — it’s perfectly within the terms of its new contract.

Third and finally, ICANN reckons its hands were pretty much tied when it comes to the price increases. ICANN wrote:

ICANN org is not a competition authority or price regulator and ICANN has neither the remit nor expertise to serve as one. Rather, as enshrined in ICANN’s Bylaws, which were
developed through a bottom up, multistakeholder process, ICANN’s mission is to ensure the security and stability of the Internet’s unique identifier systems. Accordingly, ICANN must defer to relevant competition authorities and/or regulators, and let them determine if any conduct or behavior raises anticompetition concerns and, if so, to address such concerns, whether it be through price regulation or otherwise. As such, ICANN org has long-deferred to the DOC and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for the regulation of wholesale pricing for .COM registry services.

It was of course the DoC, under the Obama administration, that froze Verisign’s ability to raise prices and, under the Trump administration, thawed that ability in November 2018.

If you’re pissed off that the carrying cost of your portfolio is about to go up, you can blame Trump, in other words.

No .com price increases this year. Thanks, coronavirus!

Kevin Murphy, March 26, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign won’t increase prices on .com or any of its other TLDs this year.

The promise comes as part of a package of coronavirus-related measures the company announced on its blog yesterday. Verisign said:

In order to support individuals and small businesses affected by this crisis, Verisign will freeze registry prices for all of our Top-Level Domains (TLDs), including .com and .net, through the end of 2020. In addition, we will soon deploy a program, available to all retail registrars, to provide support and assistance for domain name registrants whose domain names will be expiring in the coming months.

No additional details on the proposed registrant support program were made available.

The pricing news sounds good, especially for high-volume domain owners such as domainers and trademark owners, but it should be noted that in the case of .com it amounts to a mere two-month price freeze.

Under the terms of its current agreement with ICANN, it can’t raise prices at all. The controversial proposed amendments that recently attracted about 9,000 objections, would reinstate price-raising powers.

However, assuming ICANN approves the new contract, which seems likely, Verisign would only be able to up its fees in the final four years of its six-year deal. The first of those four years begins October 20 this year.

Conceivably, it could have announced a 7% price hike for .com on October 21, but the company has now said that it will not.

Verisign also said yesterday that it’s donating an “initial” $2 million to “first responders and medical personnel in the Northern Virginia area, the United Way’s COVID-19 relief efforts, and the Semper Fi & America’s Fund”.

It is also doubling the funding available to the scheme where it matches employees’ charitable donations, which could increase (and incentivize) giving to coronavirus-related causes.

Verisign shits on domainers, again

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2020, Domain Registries

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Verisign makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from .com domain investors, and yet it’s been developing a habit in recent years of shitting on them whenever it serves its purpose.

The company’s submission to ICANN’s just-closed public comment period on the proposed new .com contract, which re-enables Verisign’s ability to increase its prices, is the latest such example.

In the letter, which is unsigned, Verisign accuses the Internet Commerce Association, as well as registrars Namecheap and Dynadot, of conducting a “deceptive” campaign to persuade .com registrants to submit comments opposing the deal.

It notes that ICA represents “speculators” — it never uses the term “investors” — as if this was some kind of closely guarded secret, and describes the practice of domaining in a way that implies that the practice is somehow “illegitimate”, like this:

More than any other group engaged in the ICANN multistakeholder process, these speculators are highly sensitive to even the smallest wholesale price changes because of the enormous portfolios of .com domain names they control.

Speculators sometimes sell these domain name registrations to other speculators, but often they pass these costs along when they sell the domain names to legitimate internet users who wish to use .com domain names to build websites. We believe this resale activity adds little value to the DNS.

It’s not wrong, but good grief! The chutzpah on this company is sometimes jaw-dropping.

It’s like a car manufacturer complaining that its billion-dollar range of off-road SUVs are mostly being used by obese city dwellers for the school run. Just take the billion dollars and stop complaining about your biggest customers!

It’s not the first time Verisign has rolled out this line of attack. Back in 2018, when price caps were being negotiated with the US government, it posted an article on CircleID accusing domainers of “exploit[ing] consumers” and “scalping”.

Verisign’s able to get away with this kind of attitude, of course, because most domainers have an almost erotically slavish devotion to .com. The company could spend all day every day emailing them disgustingly personalized “yo momma” jokes and they wouldn’t stop buying up its product by the millions.

The two sides are trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship but they can’t break up because they’re both making so much goddamn money out of it. They’re like the Clintons of the domain world, in other words.

Anyway, the gist of the company’s comment to ICANN is basically “Ignore the 9,000 other comments you’ve received, the commenters were suckered into writing them by lying registrars”.

Read it here (pdf).

As a matter of disclosure, Verisign cites the DI piece last week about covid-19.com as an example of why domainers suck. That wasn’t the intent of the article, but there you go.

9,000 people tell ICANN they don’t want .com price increases. Here’s what some of them said

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The public have spoken: they don’t want Verisign to get the right to raise .com prices again.

ICANN’s public comment period on the amended .com contract closed on Friday, with just shy of 9,000 comments which appear to be overwhelmingly against price-raising powers.

Comments

Almost 2,000 of the comments have the same subject line, “Proposed Amendment 3 to the .COM Registry Agreement”, suggesting they were generated by the Internet Commerce Association’s semi-automated outrage tool.

It’s a lot, but it’s dwarfed by seemingly non-ICA submissions, which will make the opposition to the deal harder to ignore than with last year’s .org deal, where many of the 3,000 comments were written off as “akin to spam”.

.com’s wholesale fee has been frozen at $7.85 per year since 2012, but Verisign managed to persuade the Trump administration in 2018 to allow it to return to the old policy of being able to raise prices by 7% in four out of the contract’s six years.

After a year’s negotiation, ICANN agreed to incorporate that change into its Registry Agreement with Verisign. Some commentators, including the Registrars Stakeholder Group, are now saying that ICANN should put contracts out to comment BEFORE they are negotiated.

The RrSG said of price increases:

The RrSG is concerned that the proposed price increases are without sufficient justification or an analysis of its potentially substantial impact on the DNS. ICANN has not explained how increase domain name prices are in the public interest or how this furthers the security and stability of the DNS. The price increases appear only to benefit one company, which has the right to operate .com in perpetuity (and without a competitive bidding process). This is inconsistent with ICANN’s bottom-up multi-stakeholder model.

It’s also understandably pissed off that Verisign is to get the right to own its own registrar for the first time, which could shake up the retail domain market.

While the proposed contract does not allow the hypothetical Verisign registrar to sell .com domains, the registrars think they’ve spotted a loophole:

nothing in the amendment prevents Verisign from reselling .COM domains via another registrar. In theory, Verisign could resell .COM domain names at or below cost and still profit from the wholesale .COM price

Some registrars submitted separate comments that echoed the RrSG collective view.

GoDaddy commented that there should be an economic study on the potential impact of higher pricing on competition before any increases are allowed to go into effect, adding:

GoDaddy believes that ICANN has agreed to a framework for wholesale price increases in .COM that will negatively impact current and future registrants of .COM domain names, as well as the overall domain name industry, which is disproportionately dependent and impacted by changes in .COM pricing. We are further concerned that there is no effective competition to assist in establishing what is a reasonable price for .COM.

Namecheap, which has also been vocal in fighting .org price increases, noted that .com prices could go up by as much as 70% over the next decade, due to the compound impact of annual 7% rises, adding:

The .com registry is well-established, so due to gained efficiencies, the cost of .com domain names should remain static or go down. It is not clear how much registrars will pass these price increases along to consumers, but it is likely that most of this increase will be paid for by domain name registrants.

Drop-catch specialist TurnCommerce/NameBright called for .com to be put out for competitive bidding:

There is simply no legitimate argument that competition for registry contracts—especially the largest registry contract—is bad for the domain name system or for consumers. Without the prospect of competitive pressure, Verisign has no incentive to be efficient, innovative, and effective. In the time that Verisign has operated the registry, prices have increased, we believe innovation has stalled, while Verisign’s operating costs have apparently declined.

As far as I can tell, the Registries Stakeholder Group, of which Verisign is a member, did not submit a comment. But some other constituencies did.

The Business Constituency generally supports ICANN’s somewhat hands-off approach to price regulation, but it did complain that there should have been a public consultation before the bilateral contract talks began a year ago. It wrote:

The BC has no practical objection to price increases that average just 4.5% per year for businesses who register .COM domains. Some BC members are concerned that Verisign has not provided justification for increasing .COM prices, though we are not aware of any requirement for gTLD operators to provide such justification. And while some BC members would prefer that ICANN seek competitive bids to operate existing registries, the BC has generally supported presumptive renewal performance incentives in registry agreements.

If you’re picking up hints of internal BC dissent in that comment, it’s almost certainly because BC member Zak Muscovitch is also general counsel of the ICA and was one of several contributors to its drafting.

The only other formal GNSO stakeholder group to submit a comment appears to be the Intellectual Property Constituency, but it took no position on pricing.

The At-Large Advisory Committee, which according to its web site “acts on the interests of Internet users”, sent a borderline humorous “Valentine” to the ICANN board that does not mention pricing but does congratulate ICANN on securing a $20 million Verisign bung, which is earmarked for DNS security work.

Here’s a sample of 10 public comments I clicked on randomly:

I’m writing to express disappointment and concern regarding the recent ICANN changes made to their contract with Verisign. These changes potentially create a lot of harm and unnecessary expense to customers for years to come. Please take customers into consideration before going forward with this.

Please don’t increase .com prices. As a small business owner we feel every price increase in our family business. We want to be able to keep the domain name that we have spent years building as our small business home on the web.

I’m here to tell you to stop this proposed price increase. You are being greedy. 40% price hikes with no caps in sight are ridiculous, stop it. I’m tired of getting ripped off by big secretive corporations and sleazy government agencies, and now this includes YOU!. We aren’t going to just put up with it, I, and a lot of others are here to fight! We demand to know
what you are doing with the money you propose to reap from us, aside from lining your pockets! Proveme wrong, give the internet community the clarity it deserves, and now demands!

This is a disgrace and not right.

I disagree with the changes that this amendment (3) will make to the domain registry system. I believe that this increase of fees will stifle innovation and takes the web further towards privatization and big money.

I know that I would not have taken as many opportunities or risks if prices were significantly higher and domains were a larger cost of business.

I urge you to reconsider these changes and reject this amendment.

I am writing in opposition to the proposed Verisign deal with respect to .com domains. I believe the current arrangement should be kept and strict price controls from ICANN should be preserved for .com domains. Verisign has no business exerting control or influence over ICANN, and the deal as proposed will be bad for consumers and anyone who holds a .com domain.

Please do not proceed with the proposed changes.

Please stop trying to fuck up the internet. It has been excessively adapted to suit capitalism. I think many more than just me have had enough. Stop being a shady ass business.

I do not agree with the extraordinary increase in prices for .com domains that appears to be a direct response to a bribe paid by Verisign company to the board of ICANN.

We live in perilous times, where democracy is threatened in every side by the resurgence of corruption, cronyism, and the far right.

You appear to be allowing the backbone of the internet become corrupted by greed, which would horrify the founding fathers of this essential technology.

Show some integrity and don’t give in to the basest of your natures.

I am a registrant of more .com domain names. I am against the proposed price increase to .COM domains. Verisign is merely your manager of the .COM Registry – it has no business dictating the price. ICANN is supposed to govern the domain name system in the public interest.

Thanks first for your hard work.

Please keep prices as they are and avoid this change that could have dire consequences for the entire internet as other less democratic countries will start soon offering alternative domains to .com. Furthermore, any increase will cause difficulties for us who are part of the third world.

If you’ve got more time on your hands than I have, you can peruse all 9,000 comments at your leisure over here. If you find anything good, please do drop a link in the comments.

Some poor bastard at ICANN now has the job of going through and summarizing all of them into ICANN’s official comment report, which has a March 6 deadline.

ICA will help you support .com price increases (but doesn’t want you to)

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2020, Domain Registries

The Internet Commerce Association has released a new version of its semi-automated commenting tool, making it a bit easier for domainers and others to complain to ICANN about the proposed .com price increases.

Surprisingly, the tool will also help you file a comment in support of Verisign’s 7%-a-year price-raising powers, though obviously ICA would prefer you do not.

The tool is based on the one ICA launched last year when Public Interest Registry was due to get its .org price caps lifted by ICANN, but ICA general counsel Zak Muscovitch says that it’s been refined following feedback.

It allows users to identify what kind of registrant they are (domainer, end user, or just concerned netizen) and select from several options to create pre-written comments that reflect their own views. They can also enter their own free text before hitting submit.

One of the options is “I support the proposed price increase which allows for a 31% price increase through 2024”, but I can’t imagine anyone apart from Verisign staff and shareholders checking that particular box.

The .org version of the tool caused a bit of a stir last year after ICANN’s Ombudsman compared submissions made through it to “spam”. He caught some flak for that.

Muscovitch tells DI that it’s not just domainers using the service. Some registrars are directly contacting their customers to encourage them to submit comments, he said, so the views of “the public at large” are being reflected.

At the time of publication about 350 comments have been submitted, more than half of which appear to have originated via the ICA tool.

The public comment period closes February 14.

If you don’t fancy using the ICA tool, submitting a comment directly to ICANN doesn’t appear to be particularly difficult. You simply go here, click the “Submit Comment” button, and ICANN will open up your mail client’s compose window with the appropriate address pre-populated.

Perhaps predictably, I remain skeptical that this kind of thing will have any impact on ICANN’s decision to approve a contract it spent a year negotiating.

But it can’t hurt, right? After all, the reason Verisign only gets to raise prices in four out of six years is because so many people complained about the much more expansive proposed powers back in 2006, and ICANN is still reeling from the outrage over .org…

Is the .co rebid biased toward Afilias? Yeah, kinda

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The Colombian government has come under fire for opening up the .co registry contract for rebid in a way that seems predetermined to pick Afilias as the winner, displacing its fierce rival Neustar.

As I blogged in November, Colombia thinks it might be able to secure a better registry deal, so it plans to shortly open .co up to competitive proposals.

A company called .CO Internet, acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014, has been running the ccTLD for the last decade. There are currently around 2.3 million .co domains under management, according to Colombia.

With the renewal deadline looming, the government’s technology ministry, MinTIC, published an eyebrow-raising request for proposals last month.

What’s surprising about the RFP is that some of the four main technical performance criteria listed are so stringent that probably only two companies in the industry qualify — Verisign and Afilias, and so far Verisign has not been involved in the RFP process.

The companies that have been engaging with the government to date are Afilias, Neustar/.CO, Nominet, CentralNic and Donuts.

First, MinTIC wants a registry that’s had at least two million domains under management across its portfolio continuously for two years. All five registries qualify there.

Second, it wants a registry that’s been involved in the migration of a TLD of at least one million names, either as the gaining or losing back-end.

That immediately narrows the pack to just two of the five aforementioned registries — Neustar and Afilias.

Verisign would also qualify, if it’s in the bidding, but I suspect it’s not. Taking over .co would look like a “buy it to kill it” strategy, which would be horrible optics for the Colombian government.

There have only ever been three migrations over one million names, to my knowledge: the Verisign->Afilias .org transition of 2003, the Neustar->Afilias .au move of 2018, and last year’s Afilias->Neustar .in handover.

CentralNic, Nominet and Donuts have all moved numerous TLDs between back-ends, but with much smaller per-TLD domain volumes.

Third — and here’s the kicker — the successful .co bidder will have to show that it processes on average 25 million registry transactions — defined as “billable EPP (write) transactions, as well as all EPP search (read) transactions” — per day. (All of the RFP quotes in this post have been machine-translated from Spanish by Google and run by a few generous Spanish speakers for verification.)

The RFP is not entirely clear on what exact data points it’s looking at here, but my take is that qualifying transactions include, at an absolute minimum, attempts to create a domain, renew a domain, transfer a domain and check whether a domain is registered.

The vast majority of such transactions are in the check and create functions, and I believe a great deal of that activity relates to drop-catching, where registries are flooded with add requests for just-deleted domains.

Whichever way you split it, 25 million a day is a ludicrously high number. Literally only .com, which sees 2.3 billion checks and 1.5 billion adds per month, sees that kind of action.

According to Neustar, which actually runs .co, it only sees 6.4 million transactions per day on average. The requirement to handle 25 million a day is “exaggerated, unjustified and discriminatory” against Neustar, Neustar told MinTIC.

But the RFP allows for the bidding registries to spread their 25-million-a-day quota across all of the TLDs they manage, and this MAY sneak Afilias over the line.

I say MAY in big letters because I don’t believe the numbers that Afilias (and probably other registries too) reports to ICANN every month are reliable.

If you add up the reported, qualifying EPP transactions for September in Afilias’ top four legacy gTLDs — .org, .info, .mobi and .pro — you get to over 25 million per day.

But those same records show that, for example, .mobi, .pro and .info had exactly the same number of EPP availability checks that month — 215,988,497 each.

This is clearly bad data.

I reported on this issue last May, when ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee informed ICANN that major registries were providing “not reliable” or possibly “fabricated” data about port 43 Whois queries.

Afilias, which was one of the apparent offenders, told me at the time that it was addressing the issue with ICANN, but it does not yet appear to have fully fixed its reporting to enable TLD-by-TLD breakdowns of its registry activity.

It is of course quite possible, even very likely, that Afilias has on average more than 25 million qualifying EPP transactions per day, but how’s it going to prove that to the Colombian government when the numbers it reports under contract to ICANN are clearly unreliable?

It’s a little harder to determine whether Neustar would qualify under the 25-million transaction rule, because some of its largest zones are ccTLDs — .co, .in and .us — that do not publicly report this kind of data. Its comments to the RFP suggest it would not.

Numbers aside, I’ll note that there’s very probably an inherent bias towards legacy gTLD operators like Afilias and against relative newcomers such as CentralNic if you’re counting EPP transactions. As I noted above, a lot of these transactions are coming from drop-catch activity, which is more prevalent on larger, older TLDs where there are more dropping domains that are more likely to have existing backlinks and traffic.

The fourth technical requirement in the Colombian RFP that looks a bit fishy is the requirement that the new registry must have channel relationships with at least 10 of the largest 25 registrars, as listed by a web site called domainstate.com.

I can’t say I’ve looked at domainstate.com very often, if at all, but a quick look at its numbers for September strongly suggests to me that it does not count post-2012 new gTLD registrations in its registrar league table. One registrar with almost four million domains under management doesn’t even show up on the list. This arguably could give an advantage to a registry that plays strongly in legacy gTLDs.

That said, it’s probably an academic point — I don’t think any of the bidders for the .co contract would have difficulty showing that they have 10 of the top 25 registrars on board, whichever way you calculate that league table.

Cumulatively, these four technical hurdles have led some to suggest that Afilias has somehow steered MinTIC towards creating an RFP only it could win.

Apart from what I’ve discussed here, I’ve no evidence that is the case, and Afilias has not yet responded to my request for comment today.

Luckily for the bidding registries, the Columbian RFP has not yet been finalized. Comments submitted by the bidders and others are apparently going to be taken on board, so the barriers to entry for respondents could be lowered before bids are finally accepted.

MinTIC posted an update last night that extends the period that the RFP could run, and the transition period should Neustar lose the contract. A handover, should one happen at all, could now happen as late as February next year.

Verisign pays ICANN $20 million and gets to raise .com prices again

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign is to get the right to raise the price of .com domains by 7% per year, under a new contract with ICANN.

The deal, announced this hour, will also see Verisign pay ICANN $20 million over five years, starting in 2021, “to support ICANN’s initiatives to preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS”.

According to ICANN, the pricing changes mean that the maximum price of a .com domain could go as high as $10.26 by October 2026.

Verisign getting the right to once more increase its fees — which is likely to be worth close to a billion dollars to the company’s top line over the life of the contract — was not unexpected.

Pricing has been stuck at $7.85 for years, due to a price freeze imposed by the Obama-era US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, but this policy was reversed by the Trump administration in late 2018.

The amendment to the .com registry agreement announced today essentially takes on the terms of the Trump appeasement, so Verisign gets to up .com prices by 7% in the last four years of the six-year duration of the contract.

ICANN said:

ICANN org is not a price regulator and will defer to the expertise of relevant competition authorities. As such, ICANN has long-deferred to the [US Department of Commerce] and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for the regulation of pricing for .COM registry services.

But ICANN will also financially benefit from the deal over and above what it receives from Verisign under the current .com contract.

First, the two parties have said they will sign a binding letter of intent (pdf) committing Verisign to give ICANN $4 million a year, starting one year from now, to help fund ICANN’s activities:

conducting, facilitating or supporting activities that preserve and enhance the security, stability and resiliency of the DNS, which may include, without limitation, active measures to promote and/or facilitate DNSSEC deployment, Security Threat mitigation, name collision mitigation, root server system governance and research into the operation of the DNS

That’s basically describing one of ICANN’s core missions, which is already funded to a great extent by .com fees, so quite why it’s being spun out into a separate agreement is a little bit of a mystery to me at this early stage.

Don’t be surprised if you hear the words “bung” or “quid pro quo” being slung around in the coming hours and days by ICANN critics.

The second financial benefit to ICANN comes from additional payments Verisign will have to make when it sells its ConsoliDate service.

This is the service that allows .com registrants, via their registrars, to synchronize the renewal dates of all of the domains in their portfolio, so they only have to worry about renewals on a single day of the year. It’s basically a partial-year renewal.

Under the amended .com contract, ICANN will get a piece of that action too. Verisign has agreed to pay ICANN a pro-rated fee, based on the $0.25 per-domain annual renewal fee, for the number of days any given registration is extended using ConsoliDate.

I’m afraid to say I don’t know how much money this could add to ICANN’s coffers, but another amendment to the contract means that Verisign will start to report ConsoliDate usage in its published monthly transaction reports, so we should get a pretty good idea of the $$$$ value in the second half of the year.

The amended contract — still in draft form (pdf) and open for public comment — also brings on a slew of new obligations for Verisign that bring .com more into line with other gTLDs.

There’s no Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, so domain investors and cybersquatters can breath a sigh of relief there.

But Verisign has also agreed to a new Registry-Registrar Agreement that contains substantial new provisions aimed at combating abuse, fraud and intellectual property infringement — including trademark infringement.

It has also agreed to a series of Public Interest Commitments, along the same lines as all the 2012-round new gTLDs, covering the same kinds of dodgy activities. The texts of the RRA addition and PICs are virtually identical, requiring:

a provision prohibiting the Registered Name Holder from distributing malware, abusively operating botnets, phishing, pharming, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement, fraudulent or deceptive practices, counterfeiting or otherwise engaging in activity contrary to applicable law and providing (consistent with applicable law and any related procedures) consequences for such activities, including suspension of the registration of the Registered Name;

There are also many changes related to how Verisign handles data escrow, Whois/RDAP and zone file access. It looks rather like users of ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, including yours truly, will soon have access to the humongous .com zone file on a daily basis. Yum.

The proposed amendments to the .com contract are now open for public comment here. You have until February 14. Off you go.

Non-coms want .org’s future carved in stone

Kevin Murphy, December 12, 2019, Domain Registries

ICANN’s non-commercial stakeholders have “demanded” changes to Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, to protect registrants for the next couple of decades.

The NCSG sent a letter to ICANN chair Maarten Botterman this week which stopped short of demanding, as others have, that ICANN reverse its decision to unfetter PIR from the 10%-a-year cap on prices increases it has previously been subject to.

Instead, it asks ICANN to strengthen the already existing notification obligations PIR has when it increases prices.

Today, if PIR wants to up its fee it has to give its registrars six months notice, and registrants are allowed to lock in the current pricing by renewing for up to 10 years.

NCSG wants to ensure registrants get the same kind of advance notification, either from PIR or its registrars, and for the lock-in period doubled to 20 years.

The group is concerned that, now that PIR seems set to become a for-profit venture following its $1.135 billion acquisition by Ethos Capital, there’s a risk the registry may attempt to exploit the registrants of its over 10 million .org domains.

I think it unlikely that ICANN, should it pay any attention at all to the letter, will agree to the 20-year renewal ask, given that the contract only runs for 10 years and that gTLD registries are forbidden from selling domains for periods of longer than a decade.

It would require adjustments with other parts of the contract, such as transaction reporting requirements, and would probably need some industry-wide tinkering with the EPP registry protocols too.

In some respects, the stance on pricing could be seen as a softening of NCSG’s previous position.

In April, it said that price caps should remain, but that they should be increased from the 10% a year level. If that view remains, the letter does not restate it.

The NCSG also wants the oft-criticized Uniform Rapid Suspension policy removed from the .org contract, on the basis that it was only ever supposed to be applied to gTLDs applied for in the 2012 round and not legacy gTLDs.

URS has been incorporated in all but one of the legacy gTLD contracts that have been renewed since 2012.

Finally, NCSG asks that ICANN essentially write the US First Amendment into the .org agreement, writing that it wants:

A strong commitment that the administration of the ORG domain will remain content-neutral; that is, the registry will not suspend or take away domains based on their publication of political, cultural, social, ethnic, religious, and personal content, even untrue, offensive, indecent, or unethical material, like that protected under the U.S. First Amendment.

The fear that a .org in commercial hands will be more susceptible to censorship pressures is something that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has also recently raised.

The basis for the NCSG’s demands are rooted in the original redelegation of .org from Verisign to PIR in early 2003, which came after a competitive bidding process that saw PIR beat 10 rival applicants, partly on the basis of its commitment to non-profit registrants.

You may recall I did a deep-dive into .org’s history last week that covered what was said by whom during that process.

NCSG writes:

The ORG situation is unique because of its origins in a competitive RFP that was specifically earmarked for noncommercial registrants. How ICANN handles this case, however, will have enormous precedential consequences for the stability of the DNS and ICANN’s own reputation and status. Changes in ownership are likely to be increasingly common going forward. Domain name users want stability and predictability in their basic infrastructure, which means that the obligations, service commitments and pricing cannot be adjusted dramatically as ownership changes.

NCSG’s letter has not yet been published by ICANN, but the Internet Governance Project’s Milton Mueller has copied its text in a blog post here.

Are ISOC’s claims about .org’s history bogus?

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2019, Domain Registries

The Internet Society has started to fight back against those trying to put a stop to its $1.13 billion sale of Public Interest Registry to Ethos Capital.

Among the tactics being deployed appears to be an attempt to play down the notion that .org has always been considered as a home for non-profits run by a non-profit.

Apparently, it’s perfectly fine for .org to transition back into commercial hands, because not-for-profit ISOC was never intended as its forever home and the TLD was never intended for non-profits anyway.

Is that bullshit?

Yes and no. Mostly yes. It turns out you get a different answer depending on when you look in .org’s storied history.

ISOC, it seems, is starting in 1994, in an internet standard written by Jon Postel (who was ICANN before there was an ICANN).

A statement published by ISOC last week tries to characterize .org as a home for the “miscellaneous”, quoting from RFC 1591

I also want to address some other misconceptions about .ORG. Although .ORG has often been thought of as a “home of non-profits”, the domain was not actually defined that way. In 1994, RFC 1591 described it this way: “ORG – This domain is intended as the miscellaneous TLD for organizations that didn’t fit anywhere else. Some non-government organizations may fit here.”

It’s an accurate quote.

.org is described in other RFCs in a similar way. The earliest reference is 1984’s RFC 920 which says .org means “Organization, any other domains meeting the second level requirements.”

RFC 1032 says:

“ORG” exists as a parent to subdomains that do not clearly fall within the other top-level domains. This may include technical-support groups, professional societies, or similar organizations.

I can’t find any mention of non-profits in any of the relevant DNS RFCs.

ISOC goes on to note that .org was managed by a for-profit entity — Network Solutions, then Verisign — from 1993 until PIR took over in 2003.

Again, that’s true, but while it might have been managed by a commercial entity, NetSol was pretty clear about who .org was for.

When it went public in 1997, the company told would-be investors in its S-1 registration statement:

The most common TLDs include .com, used primarily by commercial entities, .org for nonprofit organizations, .net for network service providers, .edu for universities and .gov for United States governmental entities

That’s pretty unambiguous: the .org registry in 1997 said that .org was for non-profits.

In 2001, when ICANN inked a deal with Verisign to spin off .org into a new registry, there was no ambiguity whatsoever.

In announcing the deal, ICANN said that it would “return the .org registry to its original purpose” and .org would return to “to its originally intended function as a registry operated by and for non-profit organizations” (my emphasis).

The price ICANN paid for extracting .org from Verisign’s clutches was the very first “presumptive renewal” clause being inserted into the .com contract, which has seen Verisign reap billions with no risk of ever losing its golden goose.

The prize was so potentially lucrative that Verisign even agreed to give a $5 million endowment — no questions asked — to the successor registry, for use relaunching or promoting .org.

The only catch was that the new registry had to be a non-profit. Commercial registries — Verisign competitors such as Neustar — wouldn’t get the money.

ICANN and its community spent the remainder of 2001 and most of 2002 devising an RFP, accepting proposals from 11 would-be .org registries, and picking a winner.

The multistakeholder Domain Names Supporting Organization — roughly equivalent to today’s GNSO — was tasked with coming up with a set of principles governing who should get to run .org and how.

It came up with a report in January 2002 that stated, as its first bullet point:

The initial delegation of the .org TLD should be to a non-profit organization that is noncommercial in orientation and the initial board of which includes substantial representation of noncommercial .org registrants.

It went on to say that applicants “should be recognized non-profit entities” and to suggest a few measures to attract such entities to the bidding process.

These recommendations, which secured consensus support of the DNSO’s diverse stakeholders and a unanimous vote of the Names Council (the 2002 equivalent of the GNSO Council), nevertheless never made it into ICANN’s final RFP.

At some point during this process, ICANN decided that it would be unfair to exclude for-profit bidders, so there was no non-profit requirement in the final RFP.

As far as I can tell from the public record and my increasingly unreliable memory, it was Vint Cerf — father of the internet, creator of ISOC, then-chair of ICANN, and one of the few people currently cool with PIR being sold into commercial hands — that opened it up to for-profit bidders.

The decision was made at ICANN’s board meeting in Accra, Ghana, at ICANN 12. Back then, the board did its thinking aloud, in front of an audience, so we have a transcript.

The transcript shows that Cerf recommended that ICANN remain neutral on whether the successor registry was non-profit or for-profit. He put forward the idea that a commercial registry could quite easily create a non-profit entity in order to bid anyway, so it would be a kinda pointless restriction. The board agreed.

So in 2002, 11 entities, some of them commercial, submitted proposals to take over .org.

In ISOC’s bid, it stated that it would use the $5 million Verisign endowment “primarily to expanding outreach to non-commercial organizations on behalf of .ORG”.

ISOC/PIR took Verisign’s millions, as a non-profit, in order to pitch .org at other non-profits, in other words.

The evaluation process to pick Verisign’s successor was conducted by consultancy Gartner, a team of “academic CIOs” and ICANN’s Noncommercial Domain Name Holders’ Constituency (roughly equivalent to today’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group).

The NCDNHC was under strict instructions from ICANN management to not give consideration to whether the applicants were commercial or non-commercial, but its report (pdf) did “take notice of longstanding relationships between the bidders (whether for-profit or non-profit) and the noncommercial community available in the public record”.

It ranked the PIR bid as third of the 11 applicants, on the basis that .org money would go to support ISOC and the IETF, which NCDNHC considered “good works”.

ICANN’s preliminary and final evaluation reports were both opened for public comment, and comment from the applicants themselves, and on both occasions ISOC sought to play up its not-for-profit status. In August 2002, it said:

Overall, we believe ISOC’s experience as a not-for-profit, Internet-focused organization, combined with Afilias’ expertise as a stable and proven back end provider, enables us to fully meet all the criteria set forth by the ICANN Board.

In October 2002, it said:

We believe strongly that the voice of the non-commercial community is critical to the long-term success of .ORG. ISOC’s global membership and heritage and PIR’s non-profit status will ensure the registry remains sensitive to non-commercial concerns. Should the ICANN Board select ISOC’s proposal, PIR will execute extensive plans to ensure that this voice is heard.

ISOC’s application was of course ultimately determined to be the best of the bunch, and in October 2002 ICANN decided to award it the contract.

Then there was the small matter of the IANA redelegation. IANA is the arm of ICANN that deals with changes to the root zone. Whenever a TLD changes hands, IANA issues a report explaining how the redelegation came about.

In the case of .org, IANA echoed the previous feelings about .org’s “intended” purpose, stating:

the Internet Society is a long-established organization that is particularly knowledgeable about the needs of the organizations for which the .org top-level domain was intended. By establishing PIR as a subsidiary to serve as the successor operator of .org, the Internet Society has created a structure that can operate the .org TLD in a manner that will be sensitive to the needs of its intended users

So, does history tell us that .org is meant to be a TLD by and for non-profits?

Mostly, yes, I think it does.

Verisign likely to get its billion-dollar .com pricing windfall

Kevin Murphy, October 28, 2019, Domain Registries

Verisign and ICANN appear to be on the verge of signing a new .com registry contract that could prove extremely lucrative for the legacy gTLD company.

Speaking to analysts following the announcement of Verisign’s third-quarter results late last week, CEO Jim Bidzos said talks with ICANN, which have their first anniversary this week, are “nearly complete”.

The new contract will take on the terms of the Cooperative Agreement between Verisign and the US Department of Commerce, which was amended a year ago to scrap an Obama-era price freeze.

Under the future contract, Verisign is expected to be able to raise its .com fee from its current $7.85 by 7% in four of the six years of the deal. As I wrote at the time, this could be worth close to a billion dollars.

This, for a company that already enjoys profit margins so generous that I regularly receive phone calls from perplexed analysts asking me to help explain how they get away with it.

Bidzos said on Thursday night:

let me remind you that under the 2016 amendment to our .com registry agreement with ICANN, which extended the term of the agreement, we and ICANN also agree to negotiate in good faith to do two things; first, we agree to reflect changes to the Cooperative Agreement in the com agreement, including pricing terms. Second, we agree to amend the com agreement to include terms to preserve and enhance the security and stability of the com registry or the internet.

We believe these discussions with ICANN are nearly complete. While it will be inappropriate at this time to provide more details, I can say that we were satisfied with the results so far. As noted, this is an ICANN process and we expect that before long ICANN will be publishing for public comment the documents we have been discussing.

The Cooperative Agreement also allows Verisign to launch a registrar business, just as long as that registrar does not sell .com domains.

Potentially, Verisign could get the right to launch a customer-facing registrar focused on selling .net, .org and newer gTLDs and ccTLDs.

Given we already pretty much know what the new pricing regime is going to be, the big mystery right now is why it’s taken ICANN and Verisign so long to renegotiate the contract.

One analyst asked Bidzos on Thursday whether ICANN has talked its way into getting a bigger slice of the registry fee, currently set at $0.25 per annual domain transaction.

That’s in-line with what almost all the other gTLD registries pay, and I can’t see ICANN demanding more without attracting a tonne of criticism. Verisign is already by some margin its biggest funding source.

Could ICANN have demanded that Verisign adopt the Uniform Rapid Suspension anti-cybersquatting policy, which would be guaranteed to enrage domain investors?

Whatever else is to be added to the contract, it appears to be related to that amorphous term “security and stability”, which could mean basically anything.

When ICANN and Verisign agreed to talk about new terms “to preserve and enhance the security and stability of the Internet or the TLD”, what on Earth where they talking about?

It looks like we won’t have to wait too much longer to find out.