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ICANN to be told to stop pussyfooting on new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2023, Domain Policy

The GNSO Council is expected to tell ICANN’s board of directors that it needs to stop lollygagging and set the wheels in motion for the next round of new gTLDs.

The Council plans to send a letter to the board ahead of its retreat this weekend, urging it to approve the GNSO’s new gTLD policy recommendations — the so-called SubPro Final Report — which turn two years old today.

There may also be some harsh critique of ICANN’s Operational Design Assessment for the program, which put an unexpectedly enormous price tag and years-long runway on the next round.

An early draft of the letter urges the board to approve the SubPro report “as soon as practicable” and “quickly” form an Implementation Review Team, which is the next stage of turning policy recommendations into systems and processes.

The ODA had provided two options for the next round. One would take five years and cost $125 million before a single application fee is collected. The second would cost about half as much and take 18 months.

The key differences were that Option 1 would see a lot of automation, with ICANN scratch-building systems for handling applications, objections, contention resolution and such, whereas Option 2 would cut some corners and rely more on manual processing.

But the GNSO, at least judging by the early draft of its letter, seems to regard this as a false dichotomy, instead proposing a third way, leaning on configurable third-party software and existing ICANN systems.

Option 1 is “overly aggressive… overly complex, time and resource intensive, and much more expensive than is necessary”, the draft letter says.

There wasn’t enough information in the ODA for the Council to figure out exactly how the two options differ, it says.

The letter is expected to tell the board that it doesn’t need to pick between the two options. Rather, it should just approve the SubPro’s recommendations and leave it to the ICANN staff and community members on the IRT to work out the details.

While the letter doesn’t come out and say it outright, the subtext I infer is that the ODA, which took a year and cost $9 million, was a waste of time and money. If the Council can’t figure out what it means, how is the board (its intended audience) supposed to?

The Council also expresses bafflement that the proposed Registry Services Providers Pre-Evaluation program, which was meant to streamline the program by accrediting RSPs in advance of the application window opening, is predicted by the ODA to be incredibly expensive and time-consuming, the exact opposite of its intended purpose.

The letter was composed by a “small team” subset of the Council and is likely to be edited over the next few days as other members weigh in. The Council is expected to discuss it at its monthly meeting tomorrow and send it to the board before it discusses the ODA on Sunday.

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New ICANN boss makes encouraging noises on new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s new interim CEO Sally Costerton addressed the community in her new role for what I believe was the first time last Thursday, in a call with the GNSO Council.

The hour-long call was meant to discuss the outcomes of the Council’s Strategic Planning Session a month ago, but it also served as a Q&A between councilors and Costerton.

The last 15 minutes are of particular interest, especially if you’re one of the people concerned about ICANN’s devolution into a “do-nothing” organization over the last several years.

At that mark, Thomas Rickert of the trade group eco addressed the issue in a lengthy comment in which he pointed out that ICANN has been moving so slowly of late that even lumbering governmental institutions such as the European Union have come to realize that it’s faster to legislate on issues such as Whois than to wait for ICANN to sort it out.

He also pointed to the community’s pain of waiting a year for the recent Operational Design Assessment for the next round of new gTLDs, and its shock that the ODA pointed to an even more-expensive round that could take five years or more to come to fruition.

“I’ve heard many in the community say that the operational design reports come up with a level of complexity and diligence that stands in the way of being efficient,” he said. “So maybe the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

ICANN should be brave, dig its heels in, and get stuff done, he remarked.

Costerton seemed to enjoy the critique, suggesting that the recording of Rickert’s comments should be circulated to other ICANN staff.

She described herself as a “pragmatist rather than an ideologue”.

“I so want to say you’re absolutely right, Thomas, I completely agree with you 100%, we should just get it done,” she said. “Good is good enough. Perfect is the enemy of the good — I like that expression, I think it very often is.”

But.

Costerton said she has to balance getting stuff done with threats from governments and the risk of being “overwhelmed by aggressive litigation”. She said that ICANN needs “a framework around us that protects us”.

Getting that balance right is the tricky bit, she indicated.

Costerton, who took her new role at the end of last year following Göran Marby’s unexpected resignation, did not tip her hand on whether she plans to apply to have the “interim” removed from her job title. It is known that she has applied at least once before.

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Verisign loses prestige .gov contract to Cloudflare

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2023, Domain Registries

Cloudflare is to take over registry services for the US government’s .gov domain, ending Verisign’s 12-year run.

It seems .gov manager CISA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, opened the contract up for bidding last August and awarded it to Cloudflare in mid-December.

The deal is worth $7.2 million, Cloudflare said in a press release on Friday, which is more than twice as much as Verisign charged when it took over the .gov back-end in 2011.

But it seems the deal includes Cloudflare providing authoritative DNS for .gov domains, something Verisign does not currently provide the TLD, in addition to managing the zone file, registry, Whois, etc.

It’s not clear who’s running the exclusive .gov registrar, but CISA appears to be building a new one.

.gov domains are only available to US federal, state, tribal and local government organizations, and there was a $400-a-year fee until April 2021, when CISA made them free to register.

There are about 8,600 .gov domains today. Not a lot, but the deal comes with bragging rights.

CISA took over .gov from the General Services Administration in March 2021 and dropped the fees a month later.

It’s not clear whether Verisign had bid for a renewed contract or simply walked away, as it did when it conceded .tv to GoDaddy last year. I’ve asked the company for comment.

The loss of .gov is obviously a drop in the ocean compared to .com, which continues to make Verisign one of world’s most-profitable companies.

While it’s an ICANN-accredited registrar, I believe this is Cloudflare’s first foray into registry services. Might we see the company as an emergent threat to the established players in the next new gTLD round? It’s certainly looking that way.

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Wanted: a gTLD to ban

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN may have failed so far to deliver a way for the world to create any more gTLDs, but it’s about to pick a string that it will resolve to never, ever delegate.

It’s going to designate an official “private use” string, designed for organizations to use behind their own firewalls, and promise that the chosen string will never make it to the DNS root.

IP lawyers and new gTLD consultants might want to keep an eye on this one.

The move comes at the prompting of the Security and Stability Advisory Committee, which called for ICANN to pick a private-use TLD in a September 2020 document (pdf).

ICANN hasn’t picked a string yet, but it has published its criteria for public comment:

1. It is a valid DNS label.
2. It is not already delegated in the root zone.
3. It is not confusingly similar to another TLD in existence.
4. It is relatively short, memorable, and meaningful.

The obvious thing to do would be to pick one of the 42 strings ICANN banned in the 2012 new gTLD round, which includes .example, .test and .invalid, or one of the three strings it subsequently decided were too risky to go in the root due to their extensive use on private networks — .corp, .mail and .home.

The SSAC notes in its document that ICANN’s two root server constellations receive about 854 million requests a day for .home — the most-used invalid TLD — presumably due to leaks from corporate networks and home routers.

But .homes (plural) is currently in use — XYZ.com manages the registry — so would .home fail the “confusingly similar” test? Given that it’s already established ICANN policy that plurals should be banned in the next round, .home could be ruled out.

ICANN’s consultation doesn’t make mention of whether gTLDs applied for in subsequent rounds would be tested for confusing similarity against this currently theoretical private-use string, but it seems likely.

Anyone considering applying for a gTLD in future will want to make sure the string ICANN picks isn’t too close to their brands or gTLD string ideas. Its eventual choice of string will also be open for public comment.

There don’t seem to be a massive amount of real-world benefits to designating a single private-use TLD string.

Nobody would be obliged to use it in their kit or on their networks, even if they know it exists, and ICANN’s track record of reaching out to the broader tech sector isn’t exactly stellar (see: universal acceptance). And even if everyone currently using a different TLD in their products were to switch to ICANN’s choice, it would presumably take many years for currently deployed gear to cycle out of usage.

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Interview: Sandeep Ramchandani on 10 years of Radix and new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2023, Domain Registries

It’s over a decade since ICANN’s last new gTLD application round, and naturally enough many companies in the industry are celebrating their 10th anniversaries too. Radix has been putting a lot of effort into promoting its own birthday, so a couple months ago I had a long chat with CEO Sandeep Ramchandani about the last decade and what the future holds.

We discussed Radix’s business model, rivalries, performance, blockchain-based alt-root gTLDs, the company’s plans for the next application round, and the TLDs he wishes the company had bought.

Measuring success

Radix is based in Dubai but has most of its 75-person headcount located in Mumbai, India. It also has satellites, mainly focused on registrar relations and marketing, in the US, South America (where it markets .uno) and Asia.

Across 10 gTLDs, it has amassed over 5.6 million registrations, according to its web site. If you exclude pre-2012 TLD .info, that’s more than Identity Digital, which has more than 20 times as many TLDs in its stable.

“Donuts went for the long tail, category-specific names,” Ramchandani said. “Our idea was to launch TLDs that had mass-market potential.”

More than half of the regs to date have been concentrated in two TLDs — .online and .site, each of which measure their volumes in seven figures. The TLD .store is approaching a million names also.

More than half of the company’s sales are coming from the US, with 20% to 30% from Europe. It’s pretty much the same mix across premium sales and basic regs, he said.

Radix has been focusing most of its marketing effort on .store, .tech and .online, but Ramchandani says he thinks .site, currently at around 1.2 million domains and the company’s second-biggest seller, has a lot of untapped potential.

“We have about six million domains right now, but I don’t think that’s the best metric, as you can easily spike volumes by selling cheap,” Ramchandani said.

“The real metric is domains that are renewing every year,” he said. “Our first year registration price is still fairly low, but we optimize it to maximize our renewals.”

There’s also the matter of live web sites, of course. Radix estimates there are over 725,000 live sites on its domains, according to its web site.

On premium renewals

If you’re a domain investor, imagine you have a portfolio of tens of thousands of domains that you price at between $100 and $10,000, and you get to sell them not once, but every single year.

That’s Radix’s “high-high” business model, where domains in premium tiers are priced for users and renew at premium prices.

Ramchandani says that between 10% and 15% of Radix’s revenue comes from premiums, but it’s growing faster than regular-price regs. So far, it’s sold about 5% to 6% of its premium inventory. Many thousands of domains remain.

But the problem with premiums is of course whether or not they will renew at all, particularly if they’ve been sold to a domain investor who failed to secure the quick flip.

Ramchandani said premium renewals have been running at about 55% for the first renew, 75% for the second and above 90% for the third. The second and third-time figures are very respectable indeed for any TLD.

Premiums are typically held by end-user registrants rather than investors, he said. Probably lower the one in 10 premiums are owned by domainers, he guessed.

“We don’t have a lot of domainer interest, because the holding cost is too high,” he said. “A lot of the best web sites we see on our TLDs are on premiums.”

On industry consolidation

One of Ramchandani’s regrets over that last decade is that Radix didn’t manage to pick up some of the gTLDs that changed hands as the industry began to consolidate.

“We could have gone a bit harder to acquire some of the larger TLDs that did sell over the last few years,” he said. He would have to loved to have gobbled up .club or .design, he said, but these were bought by deeper-pocketed GoDaddy.

He said Radix sees itself as a buyer rather than a seller “for sure”, but the problem is: “We are interested in buying, but there aren’t so many out there that are really good TLDs.”

The company is not interested in the business model of buying up a dormant dot-brand and repurposing it to mean something other than its original meaning, which other registries have tried.

Ironically, that was where Radix started out, selling Palau’s .pw ccTLD as a domain for the “professional web”, which was a hard sell.

On the next round and alt-root TLDs

The long-touted next application round has been in policy development hell at ICANN for a decade, and Ramchandani agrees that “it’s a couple years away at this point and could very well be longer than that”.

“We will participate,” he confirms, adding “we’ll have to look at which TLDs we think are worth going for.”

“I think the best ones are already on the market, but there may be a few — based on recent trends — that make really good TLDs that qualify to have the scale and global impact that we look for,” he says.

“But honestly if we end up with none I think we still think have a very, very exciting business opportunity ahead of us for the next 10 years at least with the TLDs we already have, so it’s not something we’re betting the business on,” he says.

But how big will the next round be? There were 1,930 applications in the 2012 round, and plenty of anecdotal evidence today about pent-up demand, particularly from brands. That said, many say the first round wasn’t as successful as some had anticipated, which could lower turnout.

“A lot depends on the barrier to entry,” Ramchandani says. “Last time there was an investment of $185,000 for an application so there was a decent barrier to entry, but there are talks about potentially reducing that spectacularly. If that happens, I think the floodgates will open.”

(I should note that our conversation took place before ICANN announced that applications fees will likely be closer to $250,000 in the next round.)

“Last time this process ran there was less confidence that there was a sustainable business around new gTLDS, but given how some of the domainers in that round have performed — there are a bunch of TLDs that have done substantially better than everyone’s expectations — there might a lot more coming in to fight for those in contention with us in the next round,” he said.

He’s expecting to see “really high numbers” in dollar terms when strings come up for auction, but “a dozen, max, that will be really highly contested”.

One factor that could push down applications are blockchain-based alt-roots, where the likes of Unstoppable Domains throwing its legal weight around to prevent versions its TLDs appearing in other roots.

That said, Ramchandani would not rule out applying for TLDs that exist in alt-roots.

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sex.xyz sells at $11,000 loss as premium renewal kicks in

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2023, Domain Sales

The domain sex.com was for many years the most-expensive ever sold, but the outlook might not be so bright for sex.xyz, which may be a bit of a poisoned chalice.

sex.xyz sold at Sedo for $2,150, according to a record that popped up in my feed today. Namebio lists the same price, with a sale date of December 15.

The domain appears to have been sold just one week before it came up for renewal, which would have cost the original registrant an eye-watering $13,000.

According to XYZ, the registry, it had sold in December 2021 for $13,000, and is one of the names listed as having an annual premium renewal the same as the original sale price.

sex.com sold for $13 million in 2006 and held the record for the highest publicized domain sale every, until the crypto guys started throwing their money around a few years back.

The current record is $30 million for voice.com, sold in 2019. The name nfts.com sold for $15 million last year.

Update: this post was updated to correct that it was sex.com that sold for $13 million, not xyz.com.

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IRP panel tells ICANN to stop being so secretive, again

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s dismal record of adverse Independent Review Process decisions continued last week, with a panel of arbitrators telling the Org to shape up its transparency and decision-making processes.

The panel has essentially ruled that ICANN did everything it could to be a secretive as possible when it decided to remove price controls from its .org and .info registry contracts in 2019.

This violated its bylaws commitments to transparency, the IRP panel found, at the end of a legal campaign by Namecheap commenced over three years ago.

Namecheap wanted the agreements with the two registries “annulled”, but the panel did not go that far, instead merely recommending that ICANN review its decision and possibly enter talks to put the price caps back.

But the decision contains some scathing criticisms of ICANN’s practice of operating without sufficient public scrutiny.

Namecheap had argued that ICANN broke its bylaws by not only not applying its policies in a non-discriminatory manner, but also by failing to adequately consult with the community and explain its decision-making.

The registrar failed on the first count, with the IRP panel ruling that ICANN had treated registry contract renegotiations consistently over the last 10 years — basically trying to push legacy gTLDs onto the 2012-round base Registry Agreement.

But Namecheap succeeded on the second count.

The panel ruled that ICANN overused attorney-client privilege to avoid scrutiny, failed to explain why it ignored thousands of negative public comments, and let the Org make the price cap decision to avoid the transparency obligations of a board vote.

Notably, the panel unanimously found that: “ICANN appears to be overusing the attorney-client privilege to shield its internal communications and deliberations.”

As one example, senior staffers would copy in the legal team on internal communications about the price cap decision in order to trigger privilege, meaning the messages could not be disclosed in future, the decision says.

ICANN created “numerous documents” about the thinking that went in to the price cap decision, but disclosed “almost none” of them to the IRP due to its “overly aggressive” assertion of privilege, the panel says.

As another example, staffers discussed cutting back ICANN’s explanation of price caps when it opened the subject to public comment, in order to not give too much attention to what they feared was a “hot” and “sensitive” topic.

ICANN’s failure to provide an open and transparent explanation of its reasons for rejecting public comments opposing the removal of price controls was exacerbated by ICANN’s assertion of attorney-client privilege with respect to most of the documents evidencing ICANN’s deliberations…

ICANN provided a fairly detailed summary of the key concerns about removing price caps, but then failed to explain why ICANN decided to remove price caps despite those concerns. Instead, ICANN essentially repeated the explanation it gave before receiving the public comments.

The panel, which found similar criticisms in the earlier IRP of Dot Registry v ICANN, nevertheless decided against instructing ICANN to check its privilege (to coin a phrase) in future, so the Org will presumably be free to carry on being as secretive as normal in future.

Namecheap also claimed that ICANN deliberately avoided scrutiny by allowing Org to remove the price caps without a formal board of directors resolution, and the panel agreed.

The Panel finds that of the removal of price controls for .ORG, .INFO, and .BIZ was not a routine matter of “day-to-day operations,” as ICANN has asserted. The Price Cap Decision was a policy matter that required Board action.

The panel notes that prior to the renewal of .org, .info and .biz in 2019, all other legacy gTLD contracts that had been renewed — including .pro, which also removed price caps — had been subject to a board vote.

“ICANN’s action transitioning a legacy gTLD, especially one of the three original gTLDs (.ORG), pursuant to staff action without a Board resolution was unprecedented,” the panel writes.

Quite why the board never made a formal resolution on the .org contract is a bit of a mystery, even to the IRP panel, which cites lots of evidence that ICANN Org was expecting the deal to go before the board as late as May 13, 2019, a month before the anticipated board vote.

The .org contract was ultimately signed June 30, without a formal board resolution.

(Probably just a coincidence, but Ethos Capital — which went on unsuccessfully to try to acquire .org registry Public Interest Registry from ISOC later that year — was formed May 14, 2019.)

The IRP panel notes that by avoiding a formal board vote, ICANN avoided the associated transparency requirements such as a published rationale and meeting minutes.

The panel in conclusion issued a series of “recommendations” to ICANN.

It says the ICANN board should “analyze and discuss what steps to take to remedy both the specific violations found by the Panel, and to improve its overall decisionmaking process to ensure that similar violations do not occur in the future”.

The board “should consider creating and implementing a process to conduct further analysis of whether including price caps in the Registry Agreements for .ORG and .INFO is in the global public interest”

Part of that process should involve an independent expert report into whether price caps are appropriate in .info and especially .org.

If it concludes that price controls are good, ICANN should try to amend the two registry agreements to restore the caps. If it does not conduct the study, it should ask the two registries if they want to voluntarily restore them.

Finally, the panel wrote:

the Panel recommends that the Board consider revisions to ICANN’s decision-making process to reduce the risk of similar procedural violations in the future. For example, the Board could adopt guidelines for determining what decisions involve policy matters for the Board to decide, or what are the issues on which public comments should be obtained.

ICANN is on the hook to pay the panel’s fees of $841,894.76.

ICANN said in a statement that it is “is in the process of reviewing and evaluating” the decision and that the board “will consider the final declaration as soon as feasible”.

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Nominet blew six figures vanity-publishing ex-CEO’s book

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2023, Domain Registries

Nominet spent £135,000 to publish an upcoming book by a CEO who has since been kicked out, to promote a business it has since divested, it has emerged.

Thoughts from the Big Chair: A Leader’s Guide to Digital Transformation, by Russell Haworth, is due to be published in April, after Nominet paid the hefty sum to publisher Forbes.

Haworth quit the company almost two years ago, just hours before he could be forced out in a member mutiny, but the publishing deal evidently pre-dates that chaotic period for the .uk registry by about a year.

Nominet chair Andy Green, who was installed months later as part of a broad institutional reform package, told members in late December that he was surprised to discover Haworth was going ahead with publication.

It was designed to help promote the company’s “Cyber business” in the US, but since that loss-making business has since been abandoned, the assets sold off for a dollar, the book currently has “no value to Nominet”, Green told members.

Judging by the Amazon blurb, it appears the focus of the book is now “digital leadership”, and one assumes it’s more about building the former CEO’s personal brand at Nominet’s expense.

On his LinkedIn page, Haworth said last month he decided to write the book during the Covid-19 pandemic and that it’s “written for senior execs and board members of meduim sized businesses who are looking to navigate their transformation journey, and what they should consider”.

Haworth is currently the UK CEO of Sweden-based Byggfakta Group, which makes software for the construction industry.

There’s no chance of getting the money back because there’s been no breach of contract, Green told members. Haworth owns all rights and liabilities to the book, so Nominet is not on the hook to buy “significant quantities” of it, he said.

Green added that he would be reluctant to approve such a deal had he been at the helm and was not aware of it until recently.

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New gTLDs grow in China as .cn regs slide

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2023, Domain Registries

China-based registrations of .cn domains decreased in the first half of last year, while new gTLD swelled to pick up the slack, according to the local registry’s semi-annual report.

CNNIC published the English translation of its first-half 2022 statistical report in December, showing a steep decline in .cn regs, from 20,410,139 at the end of 2021 to 17,861,269 at the end of June last year.

These appear to be registrations made by registrants based in China. Verisign’s Domain Name Industry Brief for Q2 2022 shows .cn at 20.6 million.

While .cn slumped, new gTLDs saw an uptick of almost a million names in China, from 3,615,751 domains to 4,590,705 over the six months. New gTLDs accounted for 13.6% of all China-registered domains, the CNNIC report says.

The report also shows that the number of Chinese-registered .com names dropped by about half a million, to 10,093,729 from 10,649,851, over the period.

The full report can be viewed here (pdf).

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Domainers grumble as GoDaddy cranks up commission fees

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2023, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy has “simplified” its commission structure across three secondary-market acquisitions, leading in many cases to domainers making less money in future from their sales.

The company said there will now be a standard 25% commission across its Afternic, Uniregistry and Dan aftermarkets, which will be reduced to 15% if domainers use GoDaddy’s name servers (and therefore landing pages).

The move prompted online grumbles from customers of Dan, which GoDaddy acquired last year. They’d been paying 9% commission on their sales, so they’re losing out no matter what name servers they use.

The low commissions had proven a draw for domainers prior to the acquisition, and the increase was widely expected following the acquisition last June.

It’s better news for Afternic customers, who were paying 20%. GoDaddy cherry-picked some data to suggest domainers could come out slightly ahead, depending on their mix of sales marketplaces.

The changes are effective February 1.

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