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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.

Three-letter .com owned by hospital “hijacked”

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2019, Domain Registrars

A California hospital has seen its three-letter .com domain reportedly hijacked and transferred to a registrar in China.
Sonoma Valley Hospital, a 75-bed facility north of San Francisco, was using svh.com as its primary domain until earlier this month, when it abruptly stopped working.
The Sonoma Index-Tribune reports that the domain was “maliciously acquired”, according to a hospital spokesperson.
It does not seem to be a case of a lapsed registration.
Historical Whois records archived by DomainTools show that svh.com, which had been registered with Network Solutions, had over a year left on its registration when it was transferred to BizCN in early August.
BizCN is based in China and has around 711,000 gTLD domains under management, having shrunk by about 300,000 names over the 12 months to April.
The Sonoma newspaper speculates that the domain may have been hijacked via a phishing attack. It’s not clear whether the hospital or NetSol, part of the Web.com group, was the target.
Three-letter .com names are highly prized, usually selling for tens of thousands of dollars.
Domain investors should obviously steer clear of svh.com, which will is probably already up for sale.
Not only is there a possibility of attracting unwelcome legal attention, but there’s also the moral implications of paying somebody who would steal from a hospital.
The hospital in question has now changed its name to sonomavalleyhospital.org. This transition, which includes migrating the email addresses of all of its staff, seems to have taken several days.
Anyone sending personal medical information to the old svh.com email addresses may find that information in the wrong hands.

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.

MMX to pay $5.1 million to get out of terrible .london deal

Minds + Machines will pay its partner on .london roughly $5.1 million in order to put the catastrophic deal to bed for good.
That’s a reduction from the $7.9 million liability it had previously estimated.
The company said last week that it will pay an unspecified partner the $5.1 million “as full and final settlement for any further liability or contractual spend” after renegotiating the contract.
In April, MMX said that the deal had cost it $13.7 million since the outset.
While MMX has never publicly fingered the contract in question, which has been a pair of concrete boots for years, its deal with .london’s London & Partners is the only one that fits the bill.
The registry secured L&P, the marketing arm of the London Mayor’s office, as a client during the mayoral reign of Boris Johnson, the man set to be anointed the UK’s next prime minister this week.
It agreed to make millions of dollars in guaranteed payments over the duration of the contract, because it expected to sell a shedload of .london domains.
That never happened. The gTLD peaked at 86,000 names in March 2018 and was down to 54,000 a year later, evidently a fraction of what MMX had planned for.
The renegotiated deal — I believe at least the second time the deal has been amended — is “in principle” for now, with formal approval expected soon.
In its trading statement last week, MMX also said that the first half of the year ended with a 19% increase in regs, ending June at about 1.82 million.
It said it has “stabilised” declining billings in its acquired ICM Registry portfolio of porn-themed TLDs at $2.8 million, and that it has a “clear pathway” to growth from the four zones.
It’s hoping “further new initiatives” — likely a reference to a new trademark-blocking service — will help out in the current half.
MMX also said that it’s spending $1 million of its cash reserves on a stock buyback.

China domain smaller than expected

The Chinese national ccTLD registry has reported 2018 registration figures below what outsiders had estimated.
CNNIC said last week (in Chinese) that it ended last year with 21.24 million .cn domain names under management.
That’s quite a lot below the 22.7 million domains reported by Verisign’s Q4 Domain Name Industry Brief (pdf).
It would also slip .cn into second-place after .tk in the ccTLD rankings, and into third place overall, if the DNIB’s estimate of .tk’s 21.5 million domains is accurate.
Tokelau’s repurposed ccTLD is unusual in that the registry does not delete domains that expire or are suspended for abuse, meaning it’s often excluded from growth comparisons.
China would still be comfortably ahead of Germany’s .de, the next-largest “real” ccTLD, with 16.2 million domains.
CNNIC added that it ended 2018 with 1.72 million registered domains in .中国 (.xn--fiqs8s), which is the Chinese name for China and the country’s internationalized domain name ccTLD.
CNNC has been coy about its reg numbers for the last couple of years.
It stopped publishing monthly totals on its web site in February 2017, when it had 20.8 million .cn domains under management.

.icu joins the million-domains club in one year, but spam triples

Another new gTLD has joined the exclusive list of those to enter seven figures in terms of domains under management.
.icu, managed by ShortDot, topped one million names this week, according to COO Kevin Kopas.
It’s taken about a month for DUM to increase from 900,000 names, and if zone files are any guide half of that growth seems to have happened in the last week.
.icu domains currently sell for between $1 and $2 for the first year at the cheap end of the market, where most regs are concentrated, with renewals closer to the $10 mark.
The gTLD joins the likes of .club, .xyz, .site and .online to cross the seven-figure threshold.
When we reported on the 900,000-reg mark at the end of May, we noted that .icu had a SpamHaus “badness” rating of 6.4%, meaning that 6.4% of all the emails coming from .icu addresses that SpamHaus saw were classified as spam.
That score was roughly the same as .com, so therefore pretty respectable.
But in the meantime, .icu’s badness score has almost tripled, to 17.4%, while .com’s has stayed about the same.
Picking through the Google search results and Alexa list for .icu domains, it appears that high-quality legit web sites are few and far between.
Whether that’s a fixable symptom of .icu’s rapid growth — it’s only about 13 months post-launch — or a predictor of poor long-term potential remains to be seen.

.wang cut off with Chinese red tape

The registry behind .wang and several Chinese-language gTLDs has seen its official registry web site blocked due to Chinese regulations.
Zodiac Registry, which also runs .商城, .八卦 and .网店 (“mail”, “gossip” and “shop”), has seen zodiacregistry.com intercepted by its web host and replaced with a placeholder message explaining that the site lacks the proper government license.
Wang blocked
It seems to have happened relatively recently. Google’s cache shows results from the page resolving normally in late May.
Ironically, its host is Alibaba, which also happens to be its largest registrar partner.
There’s no suggestion that registry operations or registrants have been affected. Domain availability checks at registrars for Zodiac TLDs appear to be working as normal.
The downtime appears to be a configuration problem. Alibaba requires customers to submit their Internet Content Provider license number before it will allow their sites to resolve properly.
ICP licenses are part of China’s censorship regime, issued by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. They must be obtained by any Chinese web site that wants to operate in China.
Zodiac does in fact have such a license, which according to the MIIT web site is active on at least six other domains.
While zodiacregistry.com is the domain officially listed with IANA for the company, it also operates TLD-specific sites such as bagua.wang for the “gossip” registry. None of these have been affected by the licensing issue.
UPDATE June 12: The site is now back online as normal.

This latest Chinese bubble could deflate ccTLD growth

With many ccTLD operators recently reporting stagnant growth or shrinkage, one registry has performed stunningly well over the last year. Sadly, it bears the hallmarks of another speculative bubble originating in China.
Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief reported that ccTLDs, excluding the never-shrinking anomaly that is .tk, increased by 1.4 million domains in the first quarter of the year.
But it turns out about 1.2 million of those net new domains came from just one TLD: Taiwan’s .tw, operated by TWNIC.
Looking at the annual growth numbers, the DNIB reports that ccTLDs globally grew by 7.8 million names between the ends of March 2018 and March 2019.
But it also turns out that quite a lot of that — over five million names — also came from .tw.
Since August 2018, .tw has netted 5.8 million new registrations, ending May with 6.5 million names.
It’s come from basically nowhere to become the fifth-largest ccTLD by volume, or fourth if you exclude .tk, per the DNIB.
History tells us that when TLDs experience such huge, unprecedented growth spurts, it’s usually due to lowering prices or liberalizing registration policies.
In this case, it’s a bit of both. But mostly pricing.
TWNIC has made it much easier to get approved to sell .tw names if you’re already an ICANN-accredited registrar.
But it’s primarily a steep price cut that TWNIC briefly introduced last August that is behind huge uptick in sales.
Registry CEO Kenny Huang confirmed to DI that the pricing promo is behind the growth.
For about a month, registrants could obtain a one-year Latin or Chinese IDN .tw name for NTD 50 (about $1.50), a whopping 95% discount on its usual annual fee (about $30).
As a result, TWNIC added four million names in August and September, according to registry stats. The vast majority were Latin-script names.
According to China domain market experts Allegravita, and confirmed by Archive.org, one Taiwanese registrar was offering free .tw domains for a day whenever a Chinese Taipei athlete won a gold medal during the Asian Games, which ran over August and September. They wound up winning 17 golds.
Huang said that the majority of the regs came from mainland Chinese registrants.
History shows that big growth spurts like this inevitably lead to big declines a year or two later, in the “junk drop”. It’s not unusual for a registry to lose 90%+ of its free or cheap domains after the promotional first year is over.
Huang confirmed that he’s expecting .tw registrations to drop in the fourth quarter.
It seems likely that later this year we’re very likely going to see the impact of the .tw junk drop on ccTLD volumes overall, which are already perilously close to flat.
Speculative bubbles from China have in recent years contributed to wobbly performance from the new gTLD sector and even to .com itself.

.icu gets China nod as it tops 900,000 regs

Chinese regulators have approved .icu for sale and use in China, according to the registry.
ShortDot COO Kevin Kopas told DI today that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has approved its year-old gTLD for mainland use.
The company plans to launch .icu there formally June 12, he said.
Kopas also said that .icu has recently topped 900,000 registrations.
It’s a remarkable growth achievement for a gTLD with barely a year on the clock, given that SpamHaus stats show that its level of spam abuse is still comparable to .com.
But with prices at around $1.50 at its largest registrars and very little semantic value, one has to assume that a lot of its registrations are speculative. Its first junk drop could be brutal.
MIIT approval may help it continue its growth trend. To date, China-based registrars have recorded no .icu sales.

Dot-brand .bond has been acquired and will relaunch as a generic this July

The domain name’s Bond, dot Bond… or something.
Sorry.
ShortDot, the registry behind the .icu top-level domain, has acquired a dot-brand gTLD and plans to repurpose it as a generic.
The seller is Bond University, a newish, smallish university in Queensland, Australia, and the gTLD is .bond.
ShortDot co-founder Kevin Kopas confirmed the deal to DI tonight, and said the new owner hopes .bond will prove attractive to bail bondsmen, offerers of financial bonds and, yes, fans of the James Bond franchise.
There’s also the dictionary meaning of “bonding” with somebody in a familial, friendly or business sense.
A new Bond movie is due to come out next April, so .bond might pick up a few regs then, assuming the registry is careful not to too closely associate itself with the heavily-guarded IP.
Kopas said that the current plan is to launch a 60-day sunrise period July 9 this year. ShortDot is currently working on unbranding the TLD within its ICANN contract, to allow it to sell to an unrestricted audience.
Premium domains will be offered with premium renewal fees.
ShortDot also plans to move away from Neustar’s back-end to CentralNic.
Bond University never actually used its TLD, which would have been a single-registrant space for its own exclusive use. It’s been dormant since its 2014 delegation, with just a single placeholder domain in its zone file.
There are plenty of those. About 50 owners of unused dot-brands have chosen to terminate their ICANN contracts and simply fizzle away to nothing.
But a small handful of others have chosen to instead sell their contracts to registries that think they can make a bit of money marketing them as generic strings.
The most obvious example of this to date would be .monster, which XYZ.com recently relaunched as a quirky open generic after the jobs site Monster.com decided it didn’t need a dot-brand after all. It’s been on sale for about a month and has about 1,750 names in its zone file.
The first example, I believe, was .observer, which Top Level Spectrum acquired from the Observer newspaper in 2016. That TLD went on sale two years ago but has fewer than 1,000 domains under management today.
Kopas said that the plan is to sell .bond names for between $5 and $10 wholesale.
“Overall the goal of ShortDot is to offer domains that are affordable for end users and profitable for registrars,” he said.
It’s only the company’s second TLD. The first was .icu, which it bought from One.com (which hadn’t really used it) and relaunched in May 2018.
Since then, it’s grown extremely rapidly and is currently the eighth-largest new gTLD by zone file volume.
It had over 765,000 domains in its zone today, up from basically nothing a year ago, no doubt largely due to its incredibly low prices.
Before AlpNames died, it was selling .icu names to Chinese customers for the yuan equivalent of just $0.50.
Today, the domain is available from NameCheap and NameSilo, its two largest registrars, for about $1.50.
Remarkably, spam fighters haven’t highlighted much to be concerned about in .icu yet.
The TLD has a 6.4% “badness” rating with SpamHaus, roughly the same as the similarly sized MMX offering .vip, which is also popular in China, and lower than .com itself.
Compare to .loan, which has a bit over a million names and which SpamHaus gives a 28.7% “bad” score.
In other words, .icu seems to be doing very well, volume-wise, without yet attracting huge amounts of abuse.
It’s a neat trick, if you can pull it off. But is the success repeatable? I guess we’ll find out with .bond when it launches.