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ICANN punts o.com auction to US watchdogs

Kevin Murphy, December 11, 2017, Domain Registries

Verisign’s proposed auction of the domain o.com might have a negative effect on competition and has been referred to US regulators.

That’s according to ICANN’s response to the .com registry’s request to release the domain, which is among the 23 single-letter domains currently reserved under the terms of its contract.

ICANN has determined that the release “might raise significant competition issues” and has therefore been referred to “to the appropriate governmental competition authority”.

It’s forwarded Verisign’s request to the US Department of Justice.

Verisign late last month asked ICANN if it could release o.com to auction as a test that could presumably lead to other single-character .com names being released in future.

The plan is for a charity auction, in which almost all the proceeds are donated to internet-related good causes.

Only the company running the auction would make any significant money; Verisign would just take its standard $7.85 annual fee.

ICANN told the company that it could find no technical reason that the release could not go ahead.

The only barrier is the fact that Verisign arguably has government-approved, cash-printing, market dominance and is therefore in a sensitive political position.

Whether its profitless plan will be enough to see the auction given the nod remains to be seen.

A certain bidder in the proposed auction would be Overstock.com, the online retailer, which has been pressuring ICANN and Verisign for the release of O.com for well over a decade and even owns trademarks covering the domain.

Disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Verisign wants to auction off O.com for charity

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2017, Domain Registries

The internet could soon gets just its fourth active single-character .com domain name, after Verisign revealed plans to auction off o.com for charity.

The company has asked ICANN to allow it to release just one of the 23 remaining one-letter .com domains, which are currently reserved under the terms of the .com registry agreement.

It’s basically a proof of concept that would lead to this contractual restriction being lifted entirely.

O.com has been picked as the guinea pig, because of “long-standing interest” in the domain, according to Verisign.

Overstock.com, the $1.8 billion-a-year US retailer, is known to have huge interest in the name.

The company acquired o.co from .CO Internet for $350,000 during the ccTLD’s 2010 relaunch, then embarked upon a disastrous rebranding campaign that ended when the company estimated it was losing 61% of its type-in traffic to o.com.

Overstock has obsessed over its unobtainable prize for over a decade and would almost certainly be involved in any auction for the domain.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Overstock pressured Verisign into requesting the release of o.com.

Despite the seven or eight figures that a single-letter .com domain could fetch, Verisign’s cut of the auction proceeds would be just $7.85, its base registry fee.

Regardless, it has a payment schedule in mind that would see the winning bidder continue to pay premium renewal fees for 25 years, eventually doubling the sale price.

The winner would pay their winning bid immediately and get a five-year registration, but then would have to pay 5% of that bid to renew the domain for years six through 25.

In other words, if the winning bid was $1 million, the annual renewal fee after the first five years would be $50,000 and the total amount paid would eventually be $2 million.

All of this money, apart from the auction provider’s cut, would go to a trust that would distribute the funds to internet-focused non-profit organizations, such as those promoting security or open protocols.

There’s also a clause that would seem to discourage domain investors from bidding. The only way to transfer the domain would be if the buyer was acquired entirely, though this could be presumably circumvented with the use of a shell company.

It’s an elaborate auction plan, befitting of the fact that one-character .com domains are super rare.

Only x.com, q.com and z.com are currently registered and it’s Verisign policy to reserve them in the unlikely event they should ever expire.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk this July reacquired x.com, the domain he used to launch PayPal in the 1990s, back from PayPal for an undisclosed sum.

Z.com was acquired by GMO Internet for $6.8 million in 2014.

Single-character domains are typically not reserved in the ICANN contracts of other gTLDs, whether pre- or post-2012, though it’s standard practice for the registry to reserve them for auction anyway.

Verisign’s reservations in .com and .net are a legacy of IANA policy, pre-ICANN and have been generally considered technically unnecessary for some years.

Still, there’s been a reluctance to simply hand Verisign, already a money-printing machine through accident of history, another windfall of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars by allowing it to sell off the names for profit. Hence the elaborate plan with the O.com trust fund.

The proposal to release O.com requires a contractual amendment, so Verisign has filed a Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf) with ICANN that is now open for public comment.

As a matter of disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Verisign launches name-spinner tool for if you really, really need a .com

Kevin Murphy, November 20, 2017, Domain Registries

Verisign has launched a new name-spinning tool, designed to help new businesses find relevant domain names in Verisign-managed TLDs.

It’s called NameStudio. Verisign said:

NameStudio can deliver relevant .com and .net domain name suggestions based on popular keywords, trending news topics and semantic relevance. Pulling from multiple and diverse data sources, the service can identify the context of a word, break search terms apart into logical combinations and quickly return results. It can also distinguish personal names from other keywords and use machine-learning algorithms that get smarter over time.

The machine-learning component may come in handy, based on my non-scientific, purely subjective messing around at the weekend.

I searched for “london pubs”, a subject close to my heart. Naturally enough, londonpubs.com is not available, but the suggestions were not what you’d call helpful.

NameStudio

As you can see, the closest match to London it could find was “Falkirk”, a town 400 miles away in Scotland. The column is filled with the names of British towns and cities, so the tool clearly knows what London is, even if its suggestions are not particularly useful for a London-oriented web site.

The closest match to “pubs” was “cichlids”, which Google reliably informs me is a type of fish. “ComicCon” (a famous trademark), “barbarians” and a bunch of sports, dog breeds and so on feature highly on its list of suggestions.

NameStudio obviously does not know what a “pub” is, but it’s not a particularly common word in most of Verisign’s native USA, so I tried “london bars” instead. The results there were a little more encouraging.

Again, Falkirk topped the list of London alternatives, a list that this time also prominently included the names of Australian cities.

On the “bars” column, suggestions such as “parties”, “stags” and “nights” suggests that NameStudio has a notion what I’m looking for, but the top suggestion is still “birthdays”.

I should note that the service also suggests prefixes such as “my” and “free” and suffixes such as “online” or “inc”, so if you have your heart set on a .com domain you’ll probably be able to find something containing your chosen keywords.

The domains alllondonpubs.com and alllondonbars.com were probably the best available alternatives I could find. For my hypothetical London-based pub directory/blog web site, they’re not terrible choices.

I also searched NameStudio for “domain blog”, another subject close to my heart.

The top three suggestions in the “domain” column were “pagerank”, “websites” and “query”. Potentially relevant. Certainly some are in the right ball-park. Let’s ignore that “pagerank” is a Google trademark that nobody really talks about much any more.

The top suggestions to replace “blog” were “infographic”, “snippets” and “rumor”. Again, right ball-park, but my best bet still appears to be adding a prefix or suffix to my original keywords.

I tried a few more super-premium one-word keywords too.

The best suggestion for “vodka” was “dogvodka.com”. For “attorney”, it was “funattorney.com”. For “insurance”, there were literally no available suggestions.

Currently — and to be fair the tool just launched last week — you’re probably better off looking at other name suggestion tools.

NameStudio does not appear to currently suggest domains that are listed for sale on the aftermarket. I expect that’s a feature addition that could come in future.

But possibly the main problem with the tool appears to be that it currently only looks for available names in .com, .net, .tv or .cc.

Repeating my “london pubs” search with GoDaddy and DomainsBot, which each support hundreds more TLDs, produced arguably superior results.

NameStudio

They’re only superior, of course, if you consider your chosen keywords, and the brevity of your domain, more important than your choice of TLD. For some people, a .com at the end of the domain will always be the primary consideration, and perhaps those people are Verisign’s target market.

Corwin joins Verisign

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2017, Domain Policy

Phil Corwin, the face of the Internet Commerce Association for over a decade, today quit to join Verisign’s legal team.

He’s now “policy counsel” at the .com giant, he said in a statement emailed to industry bloggers.

He’s also closed down the consulting company Virtualaw, resigned from ICANN’s Business Constituency and from his BC seat on the GNSO Council.

But he said he would continue as co-chair of two ICANN working groups — one looking at rights protection for intergovernmental organizations (which is kinda winding down anyway) and the other on general rights protection measures.

“I have no further statement at this time and shall not respond to questions,” Corwin concluded his email.

He’s been with ICA, which represents the interests of big domain investors, for 11 years.

As well as being an ICANN working group volunteer, he’s produced innumerable public comments and op-eds fighting for the interests of ICA members.

One of his major focuses over the years has been UDRP, which ICA believes should be more balanced towards registrant rights.

He’s also fought a losing battle against ICANN “imposing” the Uniform Rapid Suspension process on pre-2012 gTLDs, due to the fear that it one day may be forced upon Verisign’s .com and .net, where most domain investment is tied up.

ICANN terminates 450 drop-catch registrars

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2017, Domain Registrars

Almost 450 registrars have lost their ICANN accreditations in recent days, fulfilling predictions of a downturn in the domain name drop-catch market.

By my reckoning, 448 registrars have been terminated in the last week, all of them apparently shells operated by Pheenix, one of the big three drop-catching firms.

Basically, Pheenix has dumped about 90% of its portfolio of accreditations, about 300 of which are less than a year old.

It also means ICANN has lost about 15% of its fee-paying registrars.

Pheenix has saved itself at least $1.2 million in ICANN’s fixed accreditation fees, not including the variable and transaction-based fees.

It has about 50 registrars left in its stable.

The terminated registrars are all either numbered LLCs — “Everest [1-100] LLC” for example — or named after random historical or fictional characters or magic swords.

The move is not unexpected. ICANN predicted it would lose 750 registrars when it compiled its fiscal 2018 budget.

VP Cyrus Namazi said back in July that the drop-catching market is not big enough to support the many hundreds of shell registrars that Pheenix, along with rivals SnapNames/Namejet and DropCatch.com, have created over the last few years.

The downturn, Namazi said back then, is material to ICANN’s budget. I estimated at the time that roughly two thirds of ICANN’s accredited registrar base belonged to the three main drop-catch firms.

Another theory doing the rounds, after Domain Name Wire spotted a Verisign patent filing covering a system for detecting and mitigating “registrar collusion” in the space, is that Verisign is due to shake up the .com drop-catch market with some kind of centralized service.

ICANN reckoned it would start losing registrars in October at a rate of about 250 per quarter, which seems to be playing out as predicted, so the purge has likely only just begun.