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ICANN adds another six months to Whois reform roadmap

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN says that its preparatory work for possible Whois reforms will take another six months.

The Operational Design Phase for the System for Standardized Access and Disclosure will now conclude “by the end of February 2022”, ICANN said this week.

That’s after the Org missed its original September deadline after six months of work.

ICANN program manager Diana Middleton said at ICANN 72 last week that ODP had been delayed by various factors including surveys taking longer than expected and throwing up more questions than they answered.

A survey of Governmental Advisory Committee members due September 17 was extended until the end of October.

But she added that ICANN intends to throw its first draft of the output — an Operational Design Assessment — at its technical writers by the end of the month, with a document going before the board of directors in early February.

SSAD is the proposed system that would funnel requests for private Whois data through ICANN, with a new veneer of red tape for those wishing to access such data.

The ODP is ICANN’s brand-new process for deciding how it could be implemented, how much it would cost, and indeed whether it’s worthwhile implementing it at all.

It’s also being used to prepare for the next round of new gTLDs, with a 13-month initial deadline.

The longer the current ODP runs, the greater the cost to the eventual SSAD user.

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ICANN domains revenue ahead of estimates again

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN made a few million dollars more than expected in the third calendar quarter, according to its latest financials.

Overall revenue for the three months ended September 30, ICANN’s first fiscal quarter, was $38 million, ahead of the budgeted $35 million and the $36 million in the year-ago quarter.

Expenses were $27 million against a $32 million budget, due again to the lack of travel because of the pandemic. ICANN meetings are costing around $500,000 a pop right now, mostly spent on interpreters and translation, a few million bucks less that it normally spends.

The Org was running at an excess (profit) of $10 million for the quarter, compared to a $3 million budget.

ICANN said (pdf) that registry and registrar transaction fees, a good indicator of sales in the domain name industry, came in at $15 million and $10 million respectively, both $1 million better than the budget.

Other registrar fees, which includes fixed accreditation fees, were also $1 million over budget, at $4 million, perhaps due to the fact that not as many registrars de-accredited as expected.

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GoDaddy says it turned around Neustar, and .biz numbers seem to confirm that

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy is pleased with how its new registry division is doing, with CEO Aman Bhutani claiming last night that it’s managed to turn around the fortunes of Neustar, which became part of GoDaddy Registry a year ago.

Reporting a strong third quarter of domains revenue growth, Bhutani highlighted the secondary market and the registry as drivers. In prepared remarks, he said:

On Registry, we are continuing to prove our ability to acquire, integrate, and accelerate. A great example is the cohort performance within GoDaddy Registry. When we acquired Neustar’s registry assets in Q3 last year, its new cohorts were shrinking, with new unit registrations down 4% year over year. We are now one year into the acquisition, and we’re pleased to report that within that first year, we have been able to accelerate new business significantly. We are now seeing new unit registrations increase nearly 20% year over year — all organically.

If you’re wondering what a “cohort” is, it appears to refer to GoDaddy’s way of, for analysis purposes, slicing up its customers, how much they spend and how profitable they are, into tranches according to the years in which they became customers.

So GoDaddy’s saying here that Neustar’s number of new customers was going down, and it was selling 4% fewer new domains, at the time of the acquisition last year, but that that trend has now been reversed, with new regs up 20%.

The numbers are not really possible to verify. Neustar’s main three TLDs for volume purposes were .us, .co and .biz, and of those only .biz is contractually obliged to publish its zone file and registry numbers.

But look at .biz!

.biz zone graph

That’s .biz’s daily zone file numbers for the last two years, with the August 2020 acquisition highlighted by a subtle arrow. It’s only added about 50,000 net names since the deal, but it’s reversing an otherwise negative trend.

Monthly transaction reports show .biz had been on a general downward, if spiky, line since its early 2014 peak of 2.7 million names. It’s now at about 1.4 million.

When asked how the company achieved such a feat, Bhutani credited “execution” and left it at that. Perhaps this means something to financial analysts.

When asked by an analyst whether GoDaddy was giving its own TLDs preferential treatment, promoting its owned strings on the registrar in order to better compete with .com at the registry, Bhutani denied such frowned-upon behavior:

We don’t do that. All TLDs work on our registrar side in terms of their merit. It’s about value to the customer — whatever works best irrespective of whether we own the registry side or not. That’s what we’ll sell in front of the customer.

The company reported domains revenue up 17% at $453.2 million for the third quarter, with overall revenue up 14% at $964 million compared to year-ago numbers. Net income was up to $97.7 million from $65.1 million a year ago.

GoDaddy expects domains revenue to grow in the low double digits percent-wise in the current quarter.

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If you guessed Facebook’s “Meta” rebrand, you’re probably still a cybersquatter

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2021, Domain Policy

Guessing that Facebook was about to rebrand its corporate parent “Meta” and registering some domain names before the name was officially announced does not mean you’re not a cybersquatter.

Donuts this week reported that its top-trending keyword across its portfolio of hundreds of TLDs was “meta” in October. The word was a new entry on its monthly league table.

We’re almost certainly going to see the same thing when Verisign next reports its monthly .com keyword trends.

The sudden interest in the term comes due to Facebook’s October 28 announcement that it was calling its company Meta as part of a new focus on “metaverse” initiatives.

The announcement was heavily trailed following an October 19 scoop in The Verge, with lots of speculation about what the name change could be.

Many guessed correctly, no doubt leading to the surge in related domain name registrations.

Unfortunately for these registrants, Facebook is one of the most aggressive enforcers of its trademark out there, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that Meta-related UDRP cases will start to appear before long.

While Facebook’s “Meta” trademark was only applied for in the US on October 28, the same date as the branding announcement, the company is still on pretty safe ground, according to UDRP precedent, regardless of whether the domain was registered before Facebook officially announced the switch.

WIPO guidelines dating back to 2005 make it clear that panelist can find that a domain was registered in bad faith. The latest version of the guidelines, from 2017, read:

in certain limited circumstances where the facts of the case establish that the respondent’s intent in registering the domain name was to unfairly capitalize on the complainant’s nascent (typically as yet unregistered) trademark rights, panels have been prepared to find that the respondent has acted in bad faith.

Such scenarios include registration of a domain name: (i) shortly before or after announcement of a corporate merger, (ii) further to the respondent’s insider knowledge (e.g., a former employee), (iii) further to significant media attention (e.g., in connection with a product launch or prominent event), or (iv) following the complainant’s filing of a trademark application.

Precedent for this cited by WIPO dates back to 2002.

So, if you’re somebody who registered a “meta” name after October 19, the lawyers have had your number for the better part of two decades, and Facebook has a pretty good case against you. If your name contains strings such as “login” or similar, Facebook’s case for bad faith is even stronger.

Of course, “meta” is a dictionary word, and “metaverse” is a term Facebook stole from science fiction author Neal Stephenson, so there are likely thousands of non-infringing domains, dating back decades, containing the string.

That doesn’t mean Facebook won’t sic the lawyers on them anyway, but at least they’ll have a defense.

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Almost 300,000 UK .eu regs disappeared because of Brexit

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2021, Domain Registries

UK-registered .eu domains dropped by about 43,000 in the third quarter, as the full impact of Brexit kicked in.

There were 3,714 domains registered from the UK at the end of the third quarter, according to EURid’s latest statistics.

This compares to 46,523 at the end of the second quarter, 150,024 a month before Brexit at the end of 2019, and 294,436 at the end of the second quarter 2016, just before the Brexit referendum.

UK-based residents that hold EU or EEA citizenship can still own .eu domains, and these are counted as a subset of the 16,676 “Eligibility based on citizenship” domains EURid started reporting this year.

Other .eu names previously owned in the UK will have been transferred to EU-based entities.

EURid said that at the end of September it had 3,705,728 .eu, .ею and .ευ domains in total, down quarterly from 3,731,298 and up from 3,576,302 a year earlier.

The total is still substantially down on the pre-Brexit quarterly peak of 3,907,406, at the end of 2014.

The fastest-growing territory was Latvia, at 6.8%, but that’s from a pretty low base and not really enough to counterbalance the UK losses.

The UK-registered names were given Withdrawn status at the end of June and the former registrants have until the end of the year to request reinstatement directly from EURid, before the names are batch-released back into the available pool.

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Whois rule changes that nobody likes get approved anyway

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2021, Domain Services

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization Council has approved a handful of changes to Whois policy, despite the fact that pretty much nobody was fully on-board with the proposals and how they were made.

The new recommendations call for a new field in Whois records to flag up whether the registrant is a private individual, whose privacy is protected by law, or a legal entity like a company, which have no privacy rights.

But the field will be optional, with no obligation for registries or registrars to use it in their Whois services, which has angered intellectual property interests, governments and others.

The working group that came up with the recommendations also declined to find that Whois records should come with an anonymized registrant email address as standard. This absence of change was also adopted by the Council, causing more disappointment.

In short, nothing much is happening to Whois records for the foreseeable future as a result of these policy changes.

But the process to arrive at this conclusion has highlighted not just the deep divisions in the ICANN community but also, some argue, deficiencies in the ICANN process itself.

The Expedited Policy Development Process working group that has since 2018 been looking at the interaction between Whois and privacy protection law, primarily the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, had been asked two final questions earlier this year, to wrap up its long-running work.

First, should registrars and registries be forced to distinguish between legal and natural persons when deciding what data to publish in Whois?

Second, should there be a registrant-based or registration-based anonymized email published in Whois to help people contact domain owners and/or correlate ownership across records?

The answer on both counts was that it’s up to the registry or registrar to decide.

On legal versus natural, the EPDP decided that ICANN should work with the technical community to create a new field in the Whois standard (RDAP), but that there should be no obligation for the industry to use it.

On anonymized email addresses, the working group recommendations were even hand-wavier — they merely refer the industry to some legal advice on how to implement such a system in a GDPR-compliant way.

While this phase of the EPDP’s work was super-fast by ICANN standards (taking about nine months) and piss-weak with its output, it nevertheless attracted a whole lot of dissent.

While its tasks appeared straightforward to outsiders, it nevertheless appears to have inherited the simmering tensions and entrenched positions of earlier phases and turned out to be one of the most divisive and fractious working groups in the modern ICANN period.

Almost every group involved in the work submitted a minority statement expressing either their displeasure with the outcome, or with the process used to arrive at it, or both. Even some of the largely positive statements reek of sarcasm and resentment.

EPDP chair Keith Drazek went to the extent of saying that the minority statements should be read as part and parcel of the group’s Final Report, saying “some groups felt that the work did not go as far as needed, or did not include sufficient detail, while other groups felt that certain recommendations were not appropriate or necessary”.

This Final Report constitutes a compromise that is the maximum that could be achieved by the group at this time under our currently allocated time and scope, and it should not be read as delivering results that were fully satisfactory to everyone.

The appears to be an understatement.

The Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency were both the angriest, as you might expect. They wanted to be able to get more data on legal persons, and to be able to reverse-engineer domain portfolios using anonymous registrant-baed email addresses, and they won’t be able to do either.

The Governmental Advisory Committee and Security and Stability Advisory Committee both expressed positions in line with the IPC/BC, dismayed that no enforceable contract language will emerge from this process.

Councilor Marie Pattullo of the BC said during the GNSO Council vote last Wednesday that the work “exceeds what is necessary to protect registrant data” and that the EPDP failed to “preserve the WHOIS database to the greatest extent possible”.

The “optional differentiation between legal and natural persons is inadequate”, she said, resulting in “a significant number of records being needlessly redacted or otherwise being made unavailable”. The approved policies contain “no real policy and places no enforceable obligations on contracted parties”, she said.

IPC councilor John McElwaine called the EPDP “unfinished work” because the working group failed to reach a consensus on the legal/natural question. The IPC minority statement had said:

Requiring ICANN to coordinate the technical community in the creation of a data element which contracted parties are free to ignore altogether falls far short of “resolving” the legal vs. natural issue. And failing to require differentiation of personal and non-personal data fails to meet the overarching goal of the EPDP to “preserve the WHOIS database to the greatest extent possible” while complying with privacy law.

But McElwaine conceded that “a minority of IPC members did favor these outputs as being minor, incremental changes that are better than nothing”.

The BC and IPC both voted against the proposals, but that was not enough to kill them. They would have needed support from at least one councilor on the the other side of the GNSO’s Non-Contracted Parties House, the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, and that hand was not raised.

While the NCSG voted “aye”, and seemed generally fine with the outcome, it wasn’t happy with the process, and had some stern words for its opponents. It said in its minority statement:

The process for this EPDP has been unnecessarily long and painful, however, and does not reflect an appreciation for ICANN’s responsibility to comply with data protection law but rather the difficulty in getting many stakeholders to embrace the concept of respect for registrants’ rights…

With respect to the precise issues addressed in this report, we have stressed throughout this EPDP, and in a previous PDP on privacy proxy services, that the distinction between legal and natural is not a useful distinction to make, when deciding about the need to protect data in the RDS. It was, as we have reiterated many times, the wrong question to ask, because many workers employed by a legal person or company have privacy rights with respect to the disclosure of their personal information and contact data. The legal person does not have privacy rights, but people do.

While welcoming the result, the Registrars Stakeholder Group had similar concerns about the process, accusing its opponents of trying to impose additional legal risks on contracted parties. Its minority statement says:

it is disappointing that achieving this result was the product of significant struggle. Throughout the work on this Phase, the WG revisited issues repeatedly without adding anything substantially new to the discussion, and discussed topics which were out of scope. Perhaps most importantly, the WG was on many occasions uninterested in or unconcerned with the legal and financial risks that some proposed obligations would create for contracted parties in varying jurisdictions or of differing business models, or the risks to registrants themselves.

The Registries Stakeholder Group drilled down even more on the “out of scope” issue, saying the recommendation to create a new legal vs natural field in Whois went beyond what the working group had been tasked with.

They disagreed with, and indeed challenged, Drazek’s decision that the discussion was in-scope, but reluctantly went ahead and voted on the proposals in Council in order to finally draw a line under the whole issue.

The question of whether the legal vs natural question has been in fact been resolved seems to be an ongoing point of conflict, with the RySG, RrSG and NCSG saying it’s finally time to put the matter to bed and the IPC and BC insisting that consensus has not yet been reached.

The RySG wrote that it is “well past time to consider the issue closed” and that the EPDP had produced a “valuable and acceptable outcome”, adding:

The RySG is concerned that some have suggested this issue is not resolved. This question has been discussed in three separate phases of the EPDP and the result each time has been that Contracted Parties may differentiate but are not required to do so. This clearly demonstrates that this matter has been addressed appropriately and consistently. A perception that this work is somehow unresolved could be detrimental to the ICANN community and seen as undermining the effectiveness of the multistakeholder model.

Conversely, the BC said the report “represents an unfortunate failure of the multistakeholder process” adding that “we believe the record should state that consensus opinion did not and still does not exist”.

The IPC noted “a troubling trend in multistakeholder policy development”, saying in a clear swipe at the contracted parties that “little success is possible when some stakeholders are only willing to act exclusively in their own interests with little regard for compromise in the interest of the greater good.”

So, depending on who you believe, either the multistakeholder process is captured and controlled by intransigent contracted parties, or it’s unduly influenced by those who want to go ultra vires to interfere with the business of selling domains in order to violate registrant privacy.

And in either case the multistakeholder model is at risk — either “agree to disagree” counts as a consensus position, or it’s an invitation for an infinite series of future policy debates.

Business as usual at the GNSO, in other words.

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ICANN 72 has lowest turnout since records began

Kevin Murphy, November 1, 2021, Domain Policy

Last week’s public ICANN meeting saw the fewest attendees since the Org started compiling and publishing statistics over five years ago.

According to a new blog post from meetings veep Nick Tomasso, there were 1,305 attendees at ICANN 72, which was the sixth consecutive public meeting to take place on Zoom due to the pandemic.

That’s smaller than the 1,330 who showed up virtually for the mid-year meeting, which typically have fewer attendees than the end-of-year AGM.

In fact, it’s the lowest number of documented attendees since ICANN first started regularly publishing the stats, with ICANN 55 in March 2016. That meeting was in Morocco, was hit by fears of terrorism, and still managed 2,273 attendees.

Even the 2017 meeting in Johannesburg, a long-haul flight for most ICANNers, attracted more people.

Last week’s meeting took place on Seattle time. This was fine for ICANN’s west coast staff, but meant sessions kicked off towards the end of business hours in Europe and in the middle of the night in east Asia.

But Tomasso reports that 22.1% of “real time” attendees were from Asia-Pac, with 20.8% coming from Europe. North Americans accounted for 35% of participants.

Participating in ICANN 72 was free, only requiring an account on ICANN’s web site. But there were no free flights or hotels, and the only thing in the virtual schwag bag was an origami fish or something.

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CSC (not that one) scraps its dot-brand

Kevin Murphy, November 1, 2021, Domain Registries

A company formerly known as CSC has terminated its dot-brand gTLD contract four years after discontinuing the company name.

Computer Sciences Corporation, now known as DXC Technology, has told ICANN it no longer wishes to operate .csc, saying:

This gTLD was secured right before the merger of Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services merged to form DXC Technology. Consequently, the gTLD has never been used and shutting it down will have no effect on internal or external stakeholders.

The CSC-HP merger and name changed happened in 2017.

At one point, nic.csc bore a notice saying it was the “registry for the .dxc top-level domain”, which was a cool trick given .dxc doesn’t exist and has never existed.

This CSC is different from the corporate registrar of the same abbreviation, where the CSC stands for Corporation Service Company. There’s a reasonable chance that this CSC will be able to apply for .csc in the next application round.

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Verisign boss talks .web launch, timing and pricing

Kevin Murphy, October 29, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign hasn’t fully won .web yet, but it expects to soon and is talking in general terms about what the it might look like live.

CEO Jim Bidzos yesterday told analysts that he expects the Independent Review Process panel currently considering an appeal by rival applicant Afilias to deliver its final verdict before the end of the year. No hearings are scheduled.

Afilias claims Verisign and its secret proxy, Nu Dot Co, cheated, and that ICANN broke its own rules, in the 2016 auction that saw Verisign promise to pay $135 million for .web. Verisign thinks the claims are rubbish.

Bidzos told analysts, wanting to known when they can put .web revenue into the models, that it while it’s a “bit early to speculate” when the company will launch .web, it will likely happen a “couple of quarters from delegation”.

On pricing, he noted that .web does not have the same price controls as .com and .net:

.web is, of course, different from .com and net and that it’s not a price controlled TLD… We do have flexibility with it that we don’t have with other TLDs, and premiums are available. Other sorts of options are available.

But will the company put its marketing muscle behind .web? Many people, myself included, have said that Verisign’s interest in the gTLD is more about keeping it out of its rivals hands. Bidzos said:

There certainly will be some sort of marketing launch that will occur, but I just think it’s too early to really talk about what that would look like and what the expense impact will be. But we certainly intend to market and promote .web. Our plan, our desire, as we’ve stated — and I’ll say again — is to offer our customers more choice and to make .web a very successful TLD.

His comments came as Verisign reported its third-quarter financial results.

The company reported revenue up 5.1% at $334 million and net income of $157 million compared to $171 million a year ago.

It had 172.1 million .com and .net domains in its registry at the end of the quarter, up 1.48 million sequentially and a 5.1% increase on the year-ago number.

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First UNR gTLD buyer outs itself

Kevin Murphy, October 28, 2021, Domain Registries

A company from outside the domain industry with no revenue last year and doubts about its survival has announced itself as the buyer of one of UNR’s gTLDs, which were sold off earlier this year.

Digital Asset Monetary Network Inc issued a press release stating that it has “acquired a TLD”. It didn’t name the TLD, or the seller, but gave enough information for us to narrow it down to UNR:

The gTLD acquired by DigitalAMN was originally slated to be part of an auction recently conducted by a large retail registry and was mistakenly listed with the registry’s available inventory for auction. However, the Company and its domain industry partners were able to secure this digital asset completely outside of that auction.

UNR had listed these 23 gTLDs for sale at the April 28 auction: .audio, .blackfriday, .christmas, .click, .country, .diet, .flowers, .game, guitars, .help, .hiphop, .hiv, .hosting, .juegos, .link, .llp, .lol, .mom, .photo, .pics, .property, .sexy and .tattoo.

It’s not clear which of these was “mistakenly listed” and bought separately by DigitalAMN. When UNR announced the closure of the auction, it only said that it had sold “20+” of the names in its portfolio, though the company later confirmed to DI that all 23 had been sold.

The identities of the buyers, which may number as many as 17, have not yet been revealed. All 23 contracts appear to be still subject to ICANN’s regulatory scrutiny, even six months after the auction.

In a press release today, DigitalAMN CEO Ajene Watson said:

We believe this venture continues to support our ethos and mantra. Especially given the name of this gTLD, what it may represent culturally to a multi-billion-dollar global marketplace, and the anticipated financial literacy initiatives that could potentially be born from it.

Which strings does “financial literacy initiatives” suggest? .llp? .property? Your guess is as good as mine.

The press release states that DigitalAMN has two domain industry partners in its new venture. Again, they’re not named, but we can probably assume one’s a back-end registry provider.

DigitalAMN is listed on the over-the-counter markets in the US. It reported $145,000 of consulting revenue in the six months to June 30, but was burning cash and said it needed another $2 million to survive the next 12 months.

It calls itself a Public Accelerator Incubator (PAI) company, which appears to be a term of its own invention. It says it “operates an ecosystem that fosters growth opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to build their businesses”.

This seems to mean it tries to get start-ups investment through means such as crowdfunding and access to capital markets through “mini-IPOs” made possible through the US JOBS Act of 2012.

The company is possibly one of the “blockchain companies” that UNR referred to when it announced the auction results back in May.

DigitalAMN says it intends to introduce “new value-added services, leveraging the newest technologies incorporated in digital wallets and crypto currencies” to its new gTLD.

It’s going to be interesting to see what the company has in mind.

UPDATE: this article was updated November 5, 2021, to remove an inaccurate reference to the company’s Bitcoin position.

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