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China’s MySpace trainwreck sells its gTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 23, 2019, Domain Registries

A once-hot Chinese social networking company that now sells used cars instead has offloaded its gTLD.

The registry contract for .ren, the Pinyin for the Chinese “人”, meaning “people”, has been transferred from Beijing Qianxiang Wangjing Technology Development Co to ZDNS International.

The original registry is better known by the name Renren.

At the time the new gTLD was applied for in 2012, Renren was at the peak of its powers, discussed in the same breath as Facebook.

A social networking site with close to 60 million active monthly users in China, it had recently raised $800 million by floating on the New York Stock Exchange.

But it has fallen on hard times since, and the site was sold for just $20 million in cash and $40 million of stock last November.

A number of articles around the same time chart its downfall, calling it a “trainwreck”, a “digital ghost town” and, even more embarrassingly, “China’s answer to MySpace”

You get the idea.

Renren the company is still a going concern due to its now-core business of selling used cars in China, but the NYSE threatened to delist its stock a couple of weeks ago because its share price had been below $1 for more than 30 days.

Now, it seems it’s getting rid of its gTLD too.

.ren has been bought (presumably) by ZDNS International, the Hong Kong-based arm of DNS service provider ZDNS.

It’s not a dot-brand. The space is open to all-comers and is currently priced competitively with .com.

The gTLD’s fortunes tracked the site’s declining popularity. It’s been on the slide, volume-wise, for years.

It peaked at around 320,000 zone file domains in November 2016, comparable to other TLDs popular in China, but today stands at around 17,000.

It’s the second registry contract ZDNS has taken over recently. A month ago, I reported it has taken over .fans from CentralNic.

ZDNS was already providing back-end services for .ren.

Looks like .fans has a new Chinese owner

It appears that the struggling new gTLD .fans has changed ownership for the second time in a year.

According to ICANN’s web site, the .fans Registry Agreement was assigned to a company called ZDNS International on June 28.

Since August 2018, the contract had been in the hands of a CentralNic subsidiary called Fans TLD, having been originally operated by Asiamix Digital.

ZDNS International appears to be a newish Hong Kong subsidiary of major China-based DNS service provider ZDNS.

ZDNS provides DNS services for more than 20 TLDs, mostly Chinese-language, but as far as I can tell it is not the contracted party for any.

It’s also known for providing registry gateway services for non-Chinese registries that want to set up shop in the country.

CentralNic took over .fans last year after Asiamix failed to get the TLD’s sales to take off.

.fans had about 1,700 domains under management at the time, and it’s been pretty much flat ever since. I don’t think CentralNic has been promoting it.

Over the same period, singular competitor .fan, which Donuts acquired from Asiamix last year, has gone from 0 to almost 3,000 registrations.

If CentralNic, a public company, made a profit on the flip it does not appear to have been material enough to require disclosure to shareholders.

.co first ccTLD to get China approval

Repurposed Colombian ccTLD .co has obtained official government approval to operate in China, according to a consultant whose client worked on the project.

Pinky Brand blogged this week that .co is the “first” foreign ccTLD to get the nod, among the raft of gTLDs that have gone down the same route over the last couple of years.

China’s own .cn and Chinese-script equivalents are of course already approved.

Under China’s policy regime, administered by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, TLD registries have to set up a local presence and agree to Draconian takedown policies.

Non-approved TLDs are not permitted to have resolving domains, under the rules.

Most companies seeking Chinese approval tend to use a local proxy provider such as ZDNS, which seems to be the route taken by .co here.

.co is managed by Neustar via its Colombian subsidiary .CO Internet.

Junk drop cuts .xyz in half, .top claims volume crown

The .xyz gTLD has seen its zone file halve in size, as millions of free and cheap domains were not renewed.

The former volume leader among new gTLDs started this month with a tad over 5.2 million domains in its zone.

But its July 17 zone contained 2.5 million, much less than half as many, DI analysis shows.

The precipitous decline means that Chinese-run gTLD .top, increasingly notorious as a go-to TLD for spammers, is now literally at the top of the league table, when you measure new gTLDs by zone file volume, with 2.6 million names.

The primary reason for .xyz losing so many names is of course the expiration of most of the domains that were sold for just $0.01 — or given away for free — in the first few days of June 2016, and the aggressive promotional pricing on offer for the remainder of that month.

On May 30, 2016, there were just under 2.8 million names in the .xyz zone. By July 1, 2016, that number had topped 6.2 million, an increase of 3.4 million over a single month.

That was .xyz’s peak. The zone has been in gradual decline ever since.

Domains generally take 45 days to drop, so it’s entirely possible XYZ.com will see further losses over the next month or so.

There’s nothing unusual about seeing a so-called “junk drop” a year after a TLD launches or runs a free-domains promotion. It’s been well-understood for over a decade and has been anticipated for .xyz for over a year.

But compounding its problems, the .xyz registry appears to still be banned in China, where a substantial portion of its former customer base is located.

The company disclosed over two months ago that it had a “temporary” problem that had seen its license to sell domains via Chinese registrars suspended.

The ban was related to XYZ falling out with its original “real name verification” provider, ZDNS, which was tasked with verifying the identities of Chinese registrants per local government regulations.

I’ve never been able to confirm with either party the cause of this split, but everyone else involved in the Chinese market I’ve asked has told me it related to a dispute over money.

Regardless, two months later the major Chinese registrars I checked today still appear to not be carrying .xyz names.

XYZ has meanwhile signed up with alternative Chinese RNV provider Tele-info, and just three days ago submitted the necessary paperwork (pdf) with ICANN to have the move approved as a registry service under its contract.

In that request, XYZ said the new RNV service “will allow XYZ to reenter certain domain name markets”, suggesting that it has not yet regained Chinese government approval to operate there.

XYZ to put global block on domains banned in China

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2015, Domain Registries

XYZ.com plans to slap a global ban on domain names censored by the Chinese government.

Chinese words meaning things such as “human rights” and “democracy” are believed to be on the block list, which an industry source says could contain as many as 40,000 words, names and phrases.

(UPDATE: Gavin Brown, CTO of XYZ back-end CentralNic, tweeted that the list is nowhere near 40,000 names long.)

The registry seems to be planning to allow the Chinese government to censor its new gTLDs, which include .xyz, .college, .rent, .protection and .security, in every country of the world.

And it might not be the last non-Chinese registry to implement such a ban.

The surprising revelation came in a fresh Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf), filed with ICANN on Friday.

The RSEP asks ICANN to approve the use of a gateway service on the Chinese mainland, which the company says it needs in order to comply with Chinese law.

As previously reported, Chinese citizens are allowed to register domains in non-Chinese registries, but they may not activate them unless the registry complies with the law.

That law requires the registry to be located on the Chinese mainland. XYZ plans to comply by hiring local player ZDNS to proxy its EPP systems and mirror its Whois.

But the Chinese government also bans certain strings — which I gather are mostly but not exclusively in Chinese script — from being registered in domain names.

Rather than block them at the ZDNS proxy, where only Chinese users would be affected, XYZ has decided to ban them internationally.

Registrants in North America or Europe, for example, will not be able to register domains that are banned in China. XYZ said in its RSEP:

XYZ will reserve names prohibited for registration by the Chinese government at the registry level internationally, so the Gateway itself will not need to be used to block the registration of of any names. Therefore, a registrant in China will be able to register the same domain names as anyone else in the world.

It seems that XYZ plans to keep its banned domain list updated as China adds more strings to its own list, which I gather it does regularly.

Customers outside of China who have already registered banned domains will not be affected, XYZ says.

If China subsequently bans more strings, international customers who already own matching domains will also not be affected, it says.

CEO Daniel Negari told DI: “To be clear, we will not be taking action against names registered outside of China based on Chinese government requests.”

But Chinese registrants do face the prospect losing their domains, if China subsequently bans the words and XYZ receives a complaint from Chinese authorities.

“We treat requests from the Chinese government just like we treat requests from the US government or any other government,” Negari said.

“When we receive a valid government or court order to take action against a name and the government has jurisdiction over the registration, we will take action the registration,” he said.

Up to a third of the .xyz zone — about three hundred thousand names — is believed to be owned by Chinese registrants who are currently unable to actually use their names.

The company clearly has compelling business reasons to comply with Chinese law.

But is giving the Chinese government the ongoing right to ban tens of thousands of domain names internationally a step too far?

ICANN allows anyone to file public comments on RSEP requests. I expect we’ll see a few this time.

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