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In major snub, Verisign refuses to let ICANN audit .net

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2013, Domain Registries

Verisign has delivered a significant blow to ICANN’s authority by refusing to take part in its contractual compliance audit program.
The snub runs a risk of scuppering ICANN’s plans to make compliance a cornerstone of its new management’s strategy.
In a letter to ICANN’s compliance department this week, Verisign senior vice president Pat Kane said that the company has no obligation to submit to an audit of .net under its ICANN contract.
Kane wrote:

Verisign has no contractual obligations under its .net Registry Agreement with ICANN to comply with the proposed audit. Absent such express contractual obligations, Verisign will not submit itself to an audit by or at the direction of ICANN of its books and records.

The company is basically refusing to take part in ICANN’s Contractual Compliance Audit Program, a proactive three-year plan to make sure all gTLD registries and accredited registrars are sticking to their contracts.
For registries, the plan calls for ICANN to look at things like compliance with Whois, zone file access, data escrow, monthly reporting, and other policies outlined in the registry agreements.
Verisign isn’t necessarily admitting that it thinks it would not pass the .net audit, but it is sending a strong signal that it believes ICANN’s authority over it has limits.
In the program’s FAQ, ICANN admits that it does not have explicit audit rights over all contracted parties, stating:

What’s the basis for including all contracted parties, when the ‘Right to Audit’ clause isn’t present in 2001 RAA and Registry Agreements?
One of ICANN’s responsibilities is to conduct audits of its agreements in order to ensure that all contracted parties are in compliance with those agreements.

If Verisign is refusing to participate, other registries may decide they don’t want to cooperate either. That wouldn’t look good for ICANN, which has made compliance a key strategic priority.
When Fadi Chehade started as CEO last September, one of his first moves was to promote compliance boss Maguy Serad to vice president, reporting directly to him.
He told DI that he would be “bringing a lot more weight and a lot more independent management from my office to the compliance function”.
At his inaugural address to the community in Prague last June, he spoke of how he planned to bring IBM-style contract management prowess to ICANN.
Compliance is also a frequently raised concern of the Governmental Advisory Committee (though generally geared toward rogue registrars rather than registries).

Surprise! Verisign to increase .net fees

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2012, Domain Registries

Verisign has just announced that it will increase its .net registry fee by 10% next year.
The changes, which will become effective July 1, 2013, see the charge for a one-year registration increase from $5.11 to $5.62.
The increase, which is permitted under Verisign’s contract with ICANN, was inevitable given the fact that the company has just lost the right to increase .com prices.
US Department of Commerce intervention in .com means that prices there are frozen for the next six years, so Verisign can be relied upon to seize every alternative growth opportunity available to it.
The last time .net’s fee was increased was January 2012, when it went up by 10% to the current $5.11.

Verisign’s IDN gTLDs “could increase phishing” say Asian registries

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2012, Domain Policy

It’s a bad day for Verisign.
As the company pins its growth hopes partially on its applications for IDN gTLDs — in the wake of losing its price-raising powers over .com — ccTLD registries from Asia-Pacific have raised serious concerns about its bids.
The Asia Pacific Top Level Domain Association says that many of its members reckon the proposed IDN transliterations of .com “could give rise to an increased risk of phishing and other malicious abuses”.
Verisign has applied for a dozen transliterations of .com and .net in scripts such as Hebrew, Cyrillic and Arabic. The strings themselves are meaningless, but they sound like “com” and “net”.
It’s for this reason that APTLD reckons they could cause problems. In an October 1 letter to ICANN, published today, the organization said:

In addition to the potential for user confusion, some [Working Group] members also noted that the creation of transliterated TLDs, without the development of adequate registration and eligibility polices and procedures, could give rise to an increased risk of phishing and other malicious abuses of the new spaces.

The WG notes that this potential problem manifests itself at the second level, and is not unique to tranlisterated TLDs, but would argue that the very nature of these TLDs, and their close similarity to existing TLDs, makes them particularly high-risk targets.

The letter does not single out Verisign, and does not represent a consensus APTLD view.
There are also worries among APTLD members about the application for .thai in Latin script, which could clash with Thailand’s IDN ccTLD, and various translations of “.site”.
APTLD notes that the new gTLD evaluation process only contains checks for visual similarity between TLDs.
The only way to block an application based on phonetic confusion is to file a String Confusion Objection, but the only entity eligible to object to Verisign’s applications is Verisign itself.

Winners and losers in the new .com pricing regime

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2012, Domain Registries

Today’s shock news that Verisign will be subject to a .com price freeze for the next six years will have broad implications.
The US Department of Commerce has told the company it will have to continue to sell .coms at $7.85 wholesale until 2018, barring exceptional circumstances.
Here’s my initial take on the winners and losers of this new arrangement.
Domain investors
Volume .com registrants are of course the big winners here. A couple of dollars a year for a single .com is pretty insignificant, but when you own tens or hundreds of thousands of names…
Mike Berkens of Most Wanted Domains calculated that he’s saved $170,000 $400,000 over the lifetime of the new .com deal, and he reckons fellow domainer Mike Mann will have saved closer to $800,000 $2 million.
Brand owners
The other big constituency of volume registrants are the brand owners who spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year maintaining defensive registrations — mostly in .com — that they don’t need.
Microsoft, for example, owns over 91,000 domain names, according to DomainTools. I’d hazard a guess that most of those are defensive and that most are in .com.
Registries
There’s potentially trouble on the horizon for new gTLD applicants and existing registry operators. Verisign is looking for new ways to grow, and it’s identified its patent portfolio as an under-exploited revenue stream.
The company says it has over 200 patents either granted or pending, so its pool of potential licensees could be quite large.
Its US portfolio includes patents such as 7,774,432, “Registering and using multilingual domain names”, which appear to be quite broad.
Verisign also owns a bunch of patents related to its security business, so companies in that field may also be targeted.
Registrars
Verisign’s registrars will no longer have to pass their cost increases on to consumers every year.
While this may help with renewal rates, it also means registrars won’t be able to sneak in their own margin increases whenever Verisign ups its annual fees.
IDN buyers
Another area Verisign plans to grow is in internationalized domain names, where it’s applied to ICANN for about a dozen non-Latin variants of .com and .net.
Those registry deals, assuming they’re approved by ICANN, will not be governed by the .com pricing restrictions. Now that Verisign’s growth is getting squeezed, we might expect higher prices for IDN .com variants.
ICANN
ICANN may have suffered a small reputational hit today, with Commerce demonstrating it has the balls to do what ICANN failed to do six years ago, but money-wise it’s doing okay.
The new .com contract changes the way Verisign pays ICANN fees, and Commerce does not appear to have made any changes to that structure. ICANN still stands to get about $8 million a year more from the deal.
The Department of Commerce
Unless you’re a Verisign shareholder, Commerce comes out of this deal looking pretty good. It played hard-ball and seems to have won a lot of credibility points as a result.

Verisign loses right to increase .com prices

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2012, Domain Registries

Verisign has sensationally lost the right to increase .com prices under a new deal struck with the US Department of Commerce.
In a statement to the markets just now, the company announced that the .com contract approved by ICANN earlier this year has now also been approved by Commerce, but with no more price increases:

Verisign’s current pricing of $7.85 per domain name registration will continue for the six-year term of the Agreement. Second, Verisign no longer has the right to four price increases of up to seven percent over the six-year term.

The company will only be able to increase prices with prior Commerce approval in response to “extraordinary” circumstances such as a security problem, or when the competitive landscape changes.
For example, if .com loses its “market power”, pricing restrictions could be lifted entirely, subject to Commerce approval.
Similarly, if ICANN approves a Consensus Policy that changes Verisign’s cost structure, the company could apply for price-increasing powers.
The deal is a huge blow for Verisign’s shareholders, wiping tens — potentially hundreds — of millions of dollars from the company’s top line over the coming six years.
Its share price is sure to nose-dive today. It’s already trading down 15% before the New York markets open.
It’s also an embarrassment to ICANN, which seems to have demonstrated that it’s less capable of looking after the interests of registrants than the US government.
That said, the new contract appears to have kept ICANN’s new fee structure, meaning the organization will be about $8 million a year richer than before.
In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Verisign said the new pricing provisions came in Amendment 32 to its Cooperative Agreement with Commerce:

Amendment 32 provides that the Maximum Price (as defined in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement) of a .com domain name shall not exceed $7.85 for the term of the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, except that the Company is entitled to increase the Maximum Price of a .com domain name due to the imposition of any new Consensus Policy or documented extraordinary expense resulting from an attack or threat of attack on the Security or Stability of the DNS as described in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, provided that the Company may not exercise such right unless the DOC provides prior written approval that the exercise of such right will serve the public interest, such approval not to be unreasonably withheld. Amendment 32 further provides that the Company shall be entitled at any time during the term of the 2012 . com Registry Agreement to seek to remove the pricing restrictions contained in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement if the Company demonstrates to the DOC that market conditions no longer warrant pricing restrictions in the 2012 .com Registry Agreement, as determined by the DOC. Amendment 32 also provides that the DOC’s approval of the 2012 .com Registry Agreement is not intended to confer federal antitrust immunity on the Company with respect to the 2012 .com Registry Agreement and extends the term of the Cooperative Agreement through November 30, 2018.

On a conference call with analysts, Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos said that the deal was in the best interests of the company. It still gives the company the presumptive right for renewal, he said.
Growth, he said, will come in future from an expansion of its .com installed base, new IDN gTLD variants, and providing back-end registry services to other new gTLDs.
“We’re still a growth company,” he said.
“We have a patent portfolio we haven’t really exploited,” he said, referring to about 200 patents granted and pending. “We think there’s a revenue opportunity there.”
Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at Commerce, said in a statement:

Consumers will benefit from Verisign’s removal of the automatic price increases. At the same time, the agreement protects the security and stability of the Internet by allowing Verisign to take cost-based price increases where justified.

The full Amendment 32 is posted here.

ICANN, Verisign and NTIA “ready for 100 new gTLDs per week”

Kevin Murphy, November 8, 2012, Domain Tech

The three main entities responsible for managing the domain name system’s root zone have confirmed that they’re ready to add 100 or more new gTLDs to the internet every week.
In a statement, (pdf), ICANN, Verisign and the US National Telecommunications & Information Administration jointly said:

Based on current staffing levels and enhancements that are currently underway to the [Root Zone Management] system, the Root Zone Partners are able to process at least 100 new TLDs per week and will commit the necessary resources to meet all root zone management volume increases associated with the new gTLD program.

The letter was sent in response to a request from ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee, which asked in July whether ICANN, Verisign and the NTIA were ready for the new gTLD load.
The three-party Root Zone Management procedure used to add TLDs or update existing ones is getting more automation, which is expected to streamline the process.

Verisign defends .com price increases

Kevin Murphy, November 2, 2012, Domain Registries

Verisign has assured investors that it is confident its .com registry agreement is not in jeopardy, after seeing its stock plummet due to uncertainties over the deal.
In a statement yesterday, the company also defended the planned continuation of its price-raising powers.
It emerged last week that the US Department of Commerce is looking into the pricing arrangements of the new .com deal, which ICANN approved back in June.
Commerce has the right — in consultation with the Department of Justice and others — to approve or reject the contract based on its security/stability and pricing terms.
Whatever happens, it’s virtually unthinkable that Verisign will lose the contract. The company said:

While the review process with the Commerce Department may extend beyond Nov. 30, 2012, it could also be concluded by Nov. 30, 2012. In either case, Verisign expects to continue to run the .com registry.

It also said that its ability to increase prices by 7% in four of the six years of the contract is in fact in the public interest, saying in a lengthy statement:

The .com registry has an unequaled record of achievement, with full availability of DNS resolution in .com for more than 15 consecutive years. The economic activity supported by the .com registry is significant by any measure in an environment where the consequences of a failure of even a very short duration or degradation of the Domain Name System (DNS) resolution service, due to either a cyber attack or failure of hardware, software, or personnel, would have significant economic and non-economic impacts to the global economy.
The level of security and stability offered by Verisign is only possible with investments in overcapacity and redundancy, network security, intellectual property (IP) and in human capital: The engineers and employees at Verisign who operate the .com registry and ensure its security and stability. The pricing terms of the .com Registry Agreement enable Verisign to make these investments, develop the necessary IP, know-how and purpose-built systems, respond to new threats to stability as they emerge, and recruit and retain the specialized talent necessary to maintain our network, including dozens of globally distributed constellation sites and data centers in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In essence, Verisign is saying that the security and stability record — which Commerce evidently has already reviewed to its satisfaction — are inextricably linked to its ability to raise prices.
The company’s share price fell 18% in the aftermath of last week’s news, but recovered slightly yesterday — gaining about 11% — after the statement was released.

US probing Verisign price hikes, .com contract may be extended

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2012, Domain Registries

The US Departments of Commerce and Justice are investigating the price increase provisions of Verisign’s .com registry agreement.
Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos disclosed the “review” on a conference call with financial analysts tonight.
It is likely that it will last beyond November 30 2012, the date the current .com agreement expires, he said.
“There’s a possibility it will not be complete by November 30,” he said.
A special six-month extension is likely to be triggered, he said.
“The status of our ability to operate .com is not an issue here,” he said.
He declined to comment on questions related to the likelihood that the company would be forced to change its pricing plans.
Verisign has spent $3.9 million in legal and other fees related to the US review, it emerged during the call.
ICANN approved the contract, which gives Verisign the right to increase its .com registry fees by 7% in four of the next six years, in June.
ICANN will see an extra $8 million in revenue from Verisign as a result.
Due to the special nature of .com, Justice and Commerce approval is required before the contract can be renewed. Verisign had previously expected that to come before November 30.
Verisign shares are trading down 14% in after-hours trading following the news.

ARI expands its DNS business

Kevin Murphy, October 22, 2012, Domain Services

ARI Registry Services officially announced its aggressive targeting of the DNS services market at an event in Toronto last week.
The company says it is the named DNS provider in over 450 new gTLD applications, giving it a substantial foot in the door should they be approved by ICANN.
That’s almost three times as many applications as ARI is involved with as registry provider.
“To our competitors, we are coming for you,” a tired and emotional ARI CEO Adrian Kinderis said during the launch event at a club in Toronto last Tuesday, which DI attended.
“Bring it on,” equally tired and emotional executives from larger competitors were heard to mutter in the audience.
ARI seems to be targeting just TLD operators to begin with, while competitors such as Verisign, Neustar and Afilias also offer managed DNS to enterprises.
ARI already runs the DNS for Australia’s .au.

Soon Verisign could sell .com domains direct

Kevin Murphy, October 22, 2012, Domain Registries

With little fanfare, ICANN last week formally approved new rules that could allow incumbent registry operators to own registrars that sell domains in their own gTLDs.
The policy would give the likes of Verisign, Neustar and Afilias the right to become affiliated with registrars that sell .com, .biz and .info names respectively.
These registries would have to sign up to the standard new gTLD registry agreement first, or submit to contract renegotiation in order to drop their current cross-ownership bans.
In either case, they would become bound by the new registry Code of Conduct, preventing them from offering preferential terms to their affiliated registrars.
The new rule came into effect following the ICANN board meeting on Thursday, at which this resolution was passed.
ICANN had already dropped cross-ownership restrictions for new gTLD registry operators, but held back from bringing in the same rules for incumbents due to concerns from competition authorities.
After exchanges of letters with the European Commission and US Department of Commerce, these concerns appear to have dried up, however. ICANN said in its resolution:

it appears that there is no longer any reason against extending the approved process to existing registry operators for their own TLDs.
This action will be an advantage for the ICANN community, as it will provide the opportunity for treating all registry operators equally with respect to cross-ownership restrictions.

Registries would have their requests for contract changes referred to competition authorities for comment before ICANN would approve them.
Based on previous comments, Verisign might have a struggle with respect to .com but the other incumbents might have an easier time renegotiating their deals.
Neustar has been particularly outspoken in its desire to get rid of the contractual language preventing it owning a .biz registrar, so we might see that company first to get into talks.
Both .biz and .info contracts are up for renewal before the end of the year.