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Floodgates, open! Trademark Clearinghouse now supports .com

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2020, Domain Services

The Trademark Clearinghouse has added .com to the roster of TLDs supported by its infringement notification service.

The Deloitte-managed service recently announced the change to its Ongoing Notification Service, which came into effect late last month.

The update means TMCH subscribers will receive alerts whenever a .com domain is registered that contains their trademark, helping them to decide whether to pursue enforcement actions such as UDRP.

Unlike the ICANN-mandated 90-day Trademark Claims period that accompanies the launch of each new gTLD, the registrant herself does not receive an alert of possible infringement at point of registration.

The service, which is not regulated by ICANN, is still free to companies that have their marks registered in the TMCH, which charges an extra dollar for every variation of a mark the holder wishes to monitor.

Such services have been commercially available from the likes of MarkMonitor for 20 years or more. The TMCH has been offering it for new gTLDs since they started launching at the end of 2013.

With the .com-shaped gaping hole now plugged, two things could happen.

First, clients may find a steep increase in the number of alerts they receive — .com is still the biggest-selling and in volume terms the most-abused TLD.

Second, commercial providers of similar services now find themselves competing against a free rival with an ICANN-enabled captive audience.

The upgrade comes at the tail end of the current wave of the new gTLD program. With the .gay launch out of the way and other desirable open TLDs tied up in litigation, there won’t be much call for TMCH’s core services for the next few years.

It also comes just a couple months after the .com zone file started being published on ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, but I expect that’s just a coincidence.

Verisign measures the industry’s lockdown bump

Kevin Murphy, September 2, 2020, Domain Registries

The domain name industry added a net 400,000 extra domain registrations in the second quarter, when compared to the same quarter a year ago.

That’s according to Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief, which is arguably the most comprehensive data on how domain names fared while much of the developed world was subject to coronavirus lockdown.

The second quarter of 2020 ended with 370.1 million regs across all TLDs, up by 3.3 million sequentially and 15.3 million year over year, Verisign said.

That compares to a Q2 2019 increase of 2.9 million domains.

ccTLDs appear — at least at first glance — to have performed particularly strongly, adding a net 2.6 million regs to end June at 160 million. That compared to Q2 2019 net adds of 1.9 million.

Unfortunately, those numbers include the free ccTLD .tk, which never deletes a domain, and that space saw 2.4 million adds in the quarter, dramatically damaging the optics for ccTLDs as a whole.

New gTLDs as a whole fared poorly, losing a net 600,000 names during the period, to end Q2 at 31.6 million.

Most of that dip is attributable to the fast-selling new gTLD .icu, which lost 400,000 domains during the quarter due to the effects of its first junk drop.

Verisign’s own .com was up by at 1.4 million names to 148.7 million at the end of June; .net was flat at 13.4 million.

The company sold 1.1 million more domains in Q2 2020 than it did in Q2 2019.

You can read the Q2 DNIB here (pdf).

The $135 million battle for .web could be won in weeks

Afilias is to get its day in “court” to decide the fate of the .web gTLD just 10 days from now.

The registry is due to face off with ICANN before an Independent Review Process panel in a series of virtual hearings beginning August 3.

The IRP complaint was filed late 2018 as the endgame of Afilias’ attempt to have the results of the July 2016 .web auction overturned.

You’ll recall that Verisign secretly bankrolled the winning bidder, a new gTLD investment vehicle called Nu Dot Co, to the tune of $135 million, causing rival bidders to cry foul.

If that win was vacated, Afilias could take control of .web with its second-place bid.

Afilias claims that ICANN broke its own rules by refusing to thoroughly analyze whether NDC had a secret sugar daddy, something DI first reported on two weeks before the auction.

It has put forward the entirely plausible argument that Verisign splashed out what amounts to about a month’s .com revenue on .web in order to bury it and fortify its .com mindshare monopoly against what could be its most formidable competitor.

In the IRP case to date, ICANN has been acting as transparently as you’d expect when its legal team is involved.

It first redacted all the juiciest details from the Verisign-NDC “Domain Acquisition Agreement” and the presumably damaging testimony of one of its own directors, and more recently has been fighting Afilias’ demands for document discovery.

In March, the IRP panel ruled against ICANN’s protests on almost every count, ordering the org to hand over a mountain of documentation detailing its communications with Verisign and NDC and its internal deliberations around the time of the auction.

But the ace up ICANN’s sleeve may be an allegation made by Verisign that Afilias itself is the one that broke the auction’s rules.

Verisign has produced evidence that an Afilias exec contacted his NDC counterpart five days before the auction, breaking a “blackout period” rule so serious that violators could lose their applications.

While Afilias denies the allegation, the IRP panel ruled in March that Afilias must hand over copies of all communications between itself and rival bidders over the auction period.

We’re not likely to see any of this stuff until the panel issues its final declaration, of course.

In the past, IRP panels have taken as long as six or seven months after the final hearing to deliver their verdicts, but the most-recently decided case, Amazon v ICANN, was decided in just eight or nine weeks.

Three big registries will take down opioid domains for US govt

Verisign, Public Interest Registry and Neustar (now part of GoDaddy) will suspend domain names being used to illegally sell opioids under a pilot scheme with the US government.

The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that this new “trusted notifier” program will go into effect for 120 days.

When the FDA finds a site suspected of selling opioids illegally, it will notify the registry as well as the web site’s owner and hosting provider.

The registries will then be able to decide whether to suspend the domain or not. It’s voluntary.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration will also take part in the project.

Verisign runs .com and .net, PIR runs .org and Neustar runs .us, .co and .biz.

Opioids are legal, pharmaceutical pain-killers derived from opium. They’re ridiculously addictive and account for as many drug overdose deaths in the US as heroin, but are over-prescribed by US doctors.

It’s not the first time registries have agreed to trusted notifier programs. Some new gTLD registries have deals with the movie and music industries to suspend domains involved in copyright infringement.

The announcement comes just a few weeks after ICANN rejected a deal that would have seen PIR create a community oversight body with responsibilities to monitor domain-suspension policies in .org.

Verisign says its coronavirus fee waivers have saved businesses millions

Verisign has decided to extend the temporary fee waiver it introduced in April for another two months, declaring the scheme a success so far.

On April 2, the company said it would no longer charge a fee when a registrant restores a domain in the period between expiration and deletion. Many registrars passed this on to their customers.

The stated goal of the offer was to help out registrants laid low by coronavirus.

“We estimate these restore fee waivers have already saved several million dollars for registrants of all types, including hard hit small businesses,” Verisign said in a blog post yesterday.

The service typically retails for around $80, so we’re talking about tens of thousands of domains that have been restored post-expiration for free over the space of two months.

Now, Verisign says the offer, which had been due to expire at the start of June, will end on August 1.

The company added that it will also waive the restore fees for names in .cc, .tv, .name and its four IDN gTLDs effective June 1.

Industry growth driven by new gTLD(s) in Q1

The number of domain names registered worldwide increased by 4.5 million in the first quarter, a sequential growth of 1.2%, largely due to new gTLDs and one new gTLD in particular, judging by Verisign’s latest data.

According to the company’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief, ShortDot’s .icu grew by 1.6 million domains during the quarter.

That’s more than half the growth of the new gTLDs as a whole, which grew by three million names to close March at 32.3 million.

.icu is one of those inexplicable, faddy Chinese phenomena. Its top registrar, West.cn, is currently selling them for the equivalent of $0.70 for the first year.

It’s now the eighth-largest TLD of any type, sitting on the DNIB league table between .org and .nl.

Fellow Chinese favorite .top was responsible for about 300,000 extra domains, though it’s lost most of that growth post-quarter, if zone files are any guide.

.xyz also appears to have had a decent quarter, growing by a couple hundred thousand names.

Verisign’s own .com contributed an additional 1.9 million domains, ending Q1 at 147.3 million. Baby brother .net was basically flat at 13.4 million.

The ccTLD space continued the decline of the last few quarters, coming in down 200,000 names at 157.4 million. Annually, ccTLDs were up by 600,000 names, however.

Overall, there were 366.8 million domain registrations in the world at the end of Q1, an increase of 14.9 million or 4.2% compared to the same moment last year.

Verisign expects to sell fewer domains because of coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2020, Domain Registries

Verisign doesn’t expect its domain name base to grow as fast as previously expected this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday night, it ever so slightly downgraded its guidance for the year, saying it expects domains to grow by between 2% and 3.75%, compared to a previous high-end estimate of 4%.

It’s not a lot, but given how many domains Verisign has under management it still adds up to hundreds of thousands of domains and a few million in lost potential revenue.

CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts that the updated guidance reflected a “more cautious” outlook given the “uncertainty presented by Covid-19”.

It’s encouraging news for anyone wondering how the pandemic will effect the domain industry: the market-leading registry does not expect a big impact.

Verisign’s domain base totaled 160.7 million at the end of the quarter — 147.3 million in .com and 13.4 million in .net — which equates to growth of 3.8% over Q1 2019.

The growth is coming from .com — total .net regs were down by about 400,000 year over year.

The update came during Verisign’s first-quarter earnings call, which once again showed the .com registry printing money. It even managed to report net income higher than revenue, due to some quirks in its historical tax recognition.

For the three months to March 31, the company had net income of $334 million, compared to $163 million a year earlier, on revenue that was up 2% at $313 million.

Even discounting that bottom-line tax-related boost of $168 million, profits were up. Operating income was $206 million, up 3%, and the operating margin was up from 65.4% to 66%.

Even before the perhaps inevitable price increases next year, Verisign’s still managing to grow its margins organically, demonstrating that any prices hikes will be going straight to its bottom line and its shareholders’ pockets.

The company bought back $245 million of stock during the quarter and has another $826 million tucked away for further repurchases.

ICANN declares coronavirus a “natural disaster” to protect expired domains

Registrants unable to renew their domain names when they expire may not lose them, following a decree from ICANN today.

The organization has declared the coronavirus a “natural disaster” and invoked part of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement that permits registrars to keep hold of domains that have come to the end of their post-expiration renewal period.

Under the RAA, registrars have to delete domains a maximum of 45 days after the reg period expires, unless there are “extenuating circumstances” such as an ongoing UDRP case, lawsuit or technical stability dangers.

There’s no accounting for natural disasters in the contract, but ICANN has the discretion to name any “other circumstance as approved specifically by ICANN” an extenuating circumstance. That’s what it’s done here.

It’s invoked this provision once before, following Hurricane Maria in late 2017.

ICANN said that policies to specifically protect domains in the event of natural disasters should be considered.

The new coronavirus exception applies to all registrars in all gTLDs, although implementation will vary by registrar.

The announcement follows Verisign’s announcement last week that it is waiving its registry-level restore fee for .com and .net domains until June 1.

ICANN expects “significant” budget impact from coronavirus

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2020, Domain Policy

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a “significant” impact on ICANN’s budget, according to an update from the organization.

The organization published its expectations of a $140.4 million budget for the fiscal year that begins this July last December, and opened it up for public comments.

In its summary of those comments (pdf), which had a February 25 deadline and therefore were not focused on the pandemic’s potential impact, ICANN said:

the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting significantly the entire world. ICANN expects that its activities and financial position will be significantly impacted as well. The ICANN org is working with the Board to assess and monitor the potential impact to ICANN’s funding, and planned work such as face-to-face meetings, travel, etc.

Any pandemic-related changes to the budget will be published prior to board approval, ICANN said.

So where is ICANN expecting the impact? It’s not entirely clear. I would expect to see some minor gains from slashing its travel budget in the wake of social distance rules, but it’s less obvious where a “significant” shortfall could occur.

ICANN had operational revenue — the money it gets from billing registries and registrars — of $136.8 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, its most recently reported year (pdf).

Of that total, roughly $56 million came from the market leaders in both segments, Verisign and GoDaddy, both of which have been given glowing analyst coverage since the outbreak began.

One commentator recently wrote that Verisign is “immune” from coronavirus and GoDaddy’s CFO told analysts just last week that he expects the impact of coronavirus to be “minimal” in the first quarter. That could of course change in future.

Almost half of ICANN’s revenue, some $65.7 million, comes from the top 10 registries and registrars.

So is ICANN expecting to see weakness in the long tail, the few thousand accredited registrars and gTLD registries that account for under $1 million in ICANN contributions per year? Is it expecting reduced voluntary contributions from the ccTLDs and Regional Internet Registries?

Will coronavirus cause huge numbers of small businesses to abandon their domains as they go out of business? Will it inspire large numbers of the recently unemployed and quarantined to start up web-based businesses in an attempt to put food on the table? Will it cause large portfolio owners to downsize to save costs?

All of these outcomes seem possible, but these are unprecedented times, and I couldn’t being to guess how it will play out.

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.