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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.

Verisign and Afilias testing Whois killer

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2017, Domain Tech

Verisign and Afilias have become the first two gTLD registries to start publicly testing a replacement for Whois.

Both companies have this week started piloting implementations of RDAP, the Registration Data Access Protocol, which is expected to usurp the decades-old Whois protocol before long.

Both pilots are in their very early stages and designed for a technical audience, so don’t expect your socks to be blown off.

The Verisign pilot offers a web-based, URL-based or command-line interface for querying registration records.

The output, by design, is in JSON format. This makes it easier for software to parse but it’s not currently very easy on the human eye.

To make it slightly more legible, you can install a JSON formatter browser extension, which are freely available for Chrome.

Afilias’ pilot is similar but does not currently have a friendly web interface.

Both pilots have rudimentary support for searching using wildcards, albeit with truncated result sets.

The two new pilots only currently cover Verisign’s .com and .net registries and Afilias’ .info.

While two other companies have notified ICANN that they intend to run RDAP pilots, these are the first two to go live.

It’s pretty much inevitable at this point that RDAP is going to replace Whois relatively soon.

Not only has ICANN has been practically champing at the bit to get RDAP compliance into its registry/registrar contracts, but it seems like the protocol could simplify the process of complying with incoming European Union privacy legislation.

RDAP helps standardize access control, meaning certain data fields might be restricted to certain classes of user. Cops and IP enforcers could get access to more Whois data than the average blogger or domainer, in other words.

As it happens, it’s highly possible that this kind of stratified Whois is something that will be legally mandated by the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect next May.

Verisign confirms first price increase under new .net contract

Verisign is to increase the wholesale price of an annual .net domain registration by 10%, the company confirmed yesterday.

It’s the first in an expected series of six annual 10% price hikes permitted under its recently renewed registry agreement with ICANN.

The annual price of a .net registration, renewal, or transfer will go up from $8.20 to $9.02, effective February 1, 2018

If all six options are exercised, the price of a .net would be $15.27 by the time the current contract expires, including the $0.75 ICANN fee. It would be $14.52 without the ICANN fee.

The increase was confirmed by CEO Jim Bidzos as Verisign reported its second-quarter earnings yesterday.

For the quarter, Verisign saw net income go up to $123 million from $113 million a year ago, on revenue that was up 0.7% at $289 million.

It now has cash of $1.8 billion, up $11 million on a year ago.

It ended the quarter with 144.3 million .com and .net names in its registry, up 0.8% on last year and 0.68 million sequentially.

.net price increases approved

Verisign has been given the right to continue to raise the wholesale price of .net domains.

It now seems likely the price charged to registrars will top $15 by 2023.

ICANN’s board of directors at the weekend approved the renewal of the .net Registry Agreement, which gives Verisign the right increase its prices by 10% per year for the six years of the contract.

Assuming the company exercises all six options — and there’s no reason to assume it will not — the price of a .net would be $15.27 by the time the contract expires, $0.75 of which would be paid to ICANN in fees.

There was some negative public comment (pdf) about the increases, largely from domainers and those representing domainers, but the ICANN board saw nothing to persuade it to change the terms of the contract.

In notes appended to its resolution, the board stated:

the Board understands that the current price cap provisions in Verisign’s Registry Agreements, including in the .NET Registry Agreement, evolved historically to address various market factors in cooperation with constituencies beyond ICANN including the Department of Commerce. During the negotiations for the renewal, Verisign did not request to alter the pricing cap provisions, the parties did not negotiate these provisions and the provisions remain changed from the previous agreement. The historical 10% price cap was arguably included to allow the Registry Operator to increase prices to account for inflation and increased costs/investments and to take into account other market forces but were not dictated solely by ICANN.

(I assume the word “changed” in that quote should have read “unchanged”.)

Unlike contract renewals for other pre-2012 gTLDs, the .net contract does not include any of the new gTLD program’s rights protection mechanisms, such as the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

ICANN explained this disparity by saying these mechanisms are not consensus policies and that it has no right to impose them on legacy gTLD registry operators.

Forget emojis, you can buy Egyptian hieroglyph .com domains

Call them the Emojis of the Ancient World.

Egyptian hieroglyphs were once the cutting edge of written communication, and it turns out Verisign lets you register .com domains using them.

Internationalized domain names expert Andre Schapp discovered a couple months ago that the Unicode code points for the ancient script have been approved in 16 Verisign gTLDs, and apparently no others.

This means that domains such as hieroglyph should resolve.

Unfortunately, DI’s database does not support these characters, so I’m having to use images.

But at least one domain investor seems have snapped up a few dozen single-pictograph Egyptian hieroglyph names about a month ago, and his page has clickable links.

Whether you see the hieroglyph or the Punycode, prefixed “xn--“, seems to depend on your browser configuration.

Ancient Egyptian is apparently not the only dead script that Verisign supports.

According to IANA, you can also get .com domains in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, which went out of fashion in the second century CE, as well Phoenician, the world’s oldest known script.

Then there’s Imperial Aramaic, Meitei, Kharosthi, ‘Phags-pa, Sylheti Nagari and goodness knows how many other extinct writing systems.

It seems .com has been approved for 237 IDN scripts, in total. Let it not be said that Verisign does not offer domainers ample opportunity to spunk their cash on gibberish.

No Klingon, though.

About that $3,800 emoji domain sale…

Kevin Murphy, June 5, 2017, Domain Tech

The debate over the age of the emoji domain name ☮.com may have been settled. It probably is as old as it was claimed to be.

You may recall that last week I blogged about the €3,400 ($3,816) sale of the domain to an end user. It wasn’t a big sale or a big story, but it’s so rare to see an emoji name sell I thought it was worth a few paragraphs.

It had been claimed, and I reported, that the name was 16 years old, having been registered in April 2001.

Later that day, ICANN principle technologist Paul Hoffman, who was co-author of the IDNA2003 standard that governed how non-ASCII domains were represented in the DNS, questioned whether the name could possibly be that old.

Under IDNA2003, IDNs are encoded with the “xn--” prefix. While applications may render ☮.com as the “peace” symbol, in the DNS it is in fact xn--v4h.com.

Hoffman told me that the prefix had been picked more or less at random in March 2003, so there was no way a speculator could have known in April 2001 how to register a domain that would have no meaning for another two years.

In addition, the Punycode standard that converts non-Latin characters to ASCII was not finalized until 2003 either.

It seemed more likely that the creation date in the Whois record was incorrect, so I updated the original blog post with the new information.

That kicked off a bit of a debate in the comments about scenarios in which the creation date was correct. Some commenters wondered whether the original buyer had registered many domains with different prefixes with the hope of getting lucky.

What none of us considered was that the domain itself changed between 2001 and 2003. Given new information Hoffman supplied over the weekend, that now strikes me as the most plausible scenario.

What most of us had forgotten was that Verisign launched an IDN registration test-bed all the way back in December 2000 (archive.org link).

That roll-out, controversial at the time, encoded the domains with Punycode predecessor RACE and used the bq– prefix.

However, after the IDNA2003 and Punycode standards were published in 2003, Verisign then converted all of the existing IDN .com domains over to the two new standards. Names beginning bq– were changed to xn--, and the encoding of the subsequent characters was changed.

So ☮.com very probably was registered in 2001, but in ASCII it was a completely different domain name back then.

We seem to have a rare(ish) case here of the creation date in the Whois being “right” but the domain name itself being “wrong”.

There may be as many as half a million .com domains with similar issues in their Whois.

I hope this clears up any confusion.