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“Stringent” new online censorship law could affect domain companies

Kevin Murphy, April 8, 2019, Domain Policy

Blame Zuck.
The UK government is planning to introduce what it calls “stringent” new laws to tackle abusive behavior online, and there’s a chance it could wind up capturing domain name registries and registrars in its net.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport this morning published what it calls the Online Harms White Paper, an initial 12-week consultation document that could lead to legislation being drafted at a later date.
The paper calls for the creation of a new independent regulator, charged with overseeing social media companies’ efforts to reduce the availability of content such as incitements to violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, “hate crime” and even “fake news”.
It basically would increase the amount of liability that companies have for user-generated content hosted on their services, even when that content is not necessarily illegal but is nevertheless considered “harmful”.
The regulator would have to create a code of conduct for companies the legislation covers to abide by.
When the code is breached, the regulator would have the authority to issue fines — possibly comparable to the 4% of profits that can be fined under GDPR — against not only the companies themselves but also their senior management.
The paper seems to most directly address ongoing tabloid scandals related to Facebook and its ilk, such as the suicide of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old who viewed material related to self-harm on Instagram before her death.
While it does not mention domain names once, the government clearly anticipates casting a wide net. The paper states:

The scope will include companies from a range of sectors, including social media companies, public discussion forums, retailers that allow users to review products online, along with non-profit organisations, file sharing sites and cloud hosting providers.

That’s a broad enough definition such that it could even cover blogs, including this one, that allow users to post comments.
The paper also discusses asking search engines to remove sites from their indexes, and compelling ISPs to block abusive sites as a “last resort” measure.
There’s a short mental hop from ISP blocking to domain name takedowns, in my view.
The paper also discusses steps the regulator could take to ensure companies with no UK legal presence are still covered by the rules.
While the paper, as I say, does not mention the domain name industry once, subsidiary services provided by registrars, such as hosting, could be directly affected.
There’s no guarantee that the paper will become a bill. There’s already a backlash from those who believe it constitutes unacceptable censorship, comparable to regimes such as in China.
There’s also no guarantee such a bill would eventually become law. The UK government is arguably currently the weakest it has ever been, with a propped-up minority in Parliament and many MPs in open revolt over Brexit.
With talk of an early general election incessant recently, it’s also possible the government may not last long enough to bring its plans to fruition.
Still, it’s probably something the domain industry, including ICANN, should probably keep an eye on.
The full 100-page white paper can be found here (pdf) and an executive summary can be read here.

.london disaster leads to mixed 2018 for MMX

New gTLD registry MMX, aka Minds + Machines, suffered a huge net loss in 2018, largely due to its disastrous .london contract, even while its operating fundamentals improved.
For the year, MMX reported a net loss of $12.6 million, compared to a 2017 profits of $3.8 million, on revenue up 5% to $15.1 million.
The loss was almost entirely attributable to charges related to an “onerous contract” with one of its partners.
MMX has never disclosed the identity of this partner, but the only outfit that fits the profile is London & Partners, the agency with which MMX partnered to launch .london several years ago.
The registry, expecting big things from the geo-TLD, promised to pay L&P millions over the term of the contract, which expires in 2021.
But it’s been a bit of a damp squib compared to former management’s expectations, peaking at about 86,000 regs last year and shrinking ever since.
MMX says the estimated gap between the minimum revenue guarantee payable to L&P and the expected revenue is expected to bring in before 2021, is $7.2 million.
It’s recorded this as a charge on its income statement accordingly, along with another $4.2 million impairment charge related to the same contract.
The company recorded a $7.7 million accounting charge related to this contract in 2016, too.
The company says that to date it has lost about $13.7 million on the deal.
These charges, along with a few other smaller one-off expenses, were enough to push the company into the black for 2018.
But other key performance indicators showed more promise, helped along by the acquisition last year of porn-themed registry operator ICM Register, best-known for .xxx.
Notably, renewal revenue almost doubled, up 97% to $9.4 million.
Domains under management was up 37% to 1.81 million.
Operating EBITDA was $3.6 million, up 12.5%.
Looking ahead, MMX said billings for the first quarter are expected to be up 246%, due to the first impact of the ICM acquisition.
It also said it closed $500,000 of sales in .law in China in March. That would work out to over 5,000 domains, based on the retail price of about $100 a year, but those domains have yet to show up in the .law zone file, which only grew by about 200 domains last month.
MMX said it is planning to launch “a high-value defensive registration product” for corporate registrars by the third quarter.
If I had to guess, I’d say that is probably a clone of Donuts’ Domain Protected Marks List service, which offers trademark owners deep discounts when they defensively block strings across the whole Donuts gTLD portfolio.
It’s a model copied by other registries, including recently Uniregistry.

AlpNames could get PAID for abandoning its customers

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2019, Domain Registrars

So it turns out selling domain names for peanuts to spammers isn’t a viable business model. Who’d have thunk?
As you’ll have no doubt already read elsewhere, ICANN has shut down AlpNames, the deep-discounting registrar with an unenviable reputation for attracting abusive registrants.
But there’s a chance that the company might actually get paid for its customer base, under ICANN rules.
ICANN today terminated AlpNames’ contract, effective immediately, having discovered the “discontinuance of its operations”.
It’s a rare case of ICANN going straight to richly deserved termination, skipping over the breach notice phase.
The former registrar’s web site has been down for the best part of a week, resolving to a Cloudflare error message saying the AlpNames web server is missing its SSL certificate.
But it appears its customers may have been experiencing problems accessing their accounts even earlier.
Judging by ICANN’s termination notice, the organization has had just about as much luck contacting AlpNames management as DI, which is to say: none.
CEO Iain Roache appears to have simply stopped paying attention to the company, for reasons unknown, allowing it to simply fade away.
At least three members of senior staff have left the company over the last several months, with former COO Damon Barnard telling DI he was asked to leave as a cost-cutting measure as Roache attempted to relocate the company from Gibraltar to the UK.
I gather that Roache is also currently tied up in litigation related to the failure of his old registry management business, Famous Four Media, which was removed by gTLD portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners last year.
So what happens now to AlpNames customers?
Fortunately, most of them should suffer only minor inconvenience.
ICANN has initiated its De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure, which will see all of AlpNames’ domains forcibly transferred to another registrar.
This often uses the data that registrars are obliged to periodically escrow, but in this case AlpNames uses LogicBoxes as a registrar back-end, so presumably LogicBoxes still has fresh, live data.
AlpNames had 532,941 domain names across all gTLDs on its IANA tag at the last official count, at the end of November. It’s believed to be closer to 700,000 today.
In November, its top two gTLDs were .top and .gdn, which had 280,000 names between them. It had over 19,000 .com names under management
Almost 700,000 names is a big deal, making AlpNames a top 40 registrar, and would make a nice growth spurt for any number of struggling registrars.
The portfolio could be a bit of a poisoned chalice, however, containing as it likely does a great many low-quality and some possibly abusive registrations.
At least one registrar, Epik, has publicly stated its desire to take over these domains, but due to the volume of AlpNames DUM it could be a competitive bidding process between multiple registrars.
Under the ICANN rules (pdf), a “full application process” is generally favored for defunct registrars with over 1,000 domains, when the de-accredited registrar has not named a successor.
The scoring system used to pick a winner has many criteria, but it generally favors larger registrars. They have to show they have the scale to handle the extra technical and customer support load required by the transition, for example.
It also favors registrars with breadth of gTLD coverage. They have to be accredited in all the gTLDs the dead registrar was. AlpNames supported 352 gTLDs and had active domains in 270 of them, according to November’s registry reports.
Language support may be an issue too, in case for example a substantial chunk of AlpNames business came from, say, China.
All applying registrars that score above a certain threshold are considered tied, and the tie-breaker is how much they’re willing to pay for the portfolio.
Unlike gTLD auctions, ICANN does not receive the proceeds of this auction, however. According to the policy (with my emphasis):

This procedure is not intended to create a new form of revenue for ICANN. To the extent payment is received as part of a bulk transfer, ICANN will apply funds against any debt owed by the registrar to ICANN and forward the remaining funds, if any, to the de-accredited registrar.

That’s right, there’s a chance AlpNames might actually get a small windfall, despite essentially abandoning its customers.
Think about it like the government using eminent domain to buy a house it wishes to demolish to make way for a new road. Except the house’s cellar is full of kidnapped children. And it’s on fire.
Of course, this might not happen. ICANN might decide that there’s not enough time to run a full application process without risk to AlpNames’ customers and instead simply award the dead registrar’s portfolio to one of the registrars in its pre-approved pool of gaining registrars.
That choice would be partly based on ICANN judgement and partly on which registrar is next in the round-robin queue of pre-qualified registrars.
Here’s a handy diagram that shows the procedure.
Deaccred
UPDATE August 12 2020: Roache recently wrote to DI and stated the following:

Alpnames itself worked closely with ICANN for months to arrange for its exit from the Registrar business and with a number of Registrars to arrange for the transfer of the customers. Your article does not reflect the detail of what transpired and is inaccurate.

Donuts founder replaces Pitts as MMX’s premium guru

MMX has hired one of Donuts’ recently departed co-founders to market its premium domain name inventory, the company said today.
Dan Schindler, formerly Donuts’ executive VP, has been hired as a “special advisor”, tasked with “monetizing” premiums in the US and Europe.
He appears to be functionally replacing Victor Pitts, who was hired as director of premium sales two years ago. Pitts appears to have left the company in January.
MMX, which counts .vip, .law and .luxe among its stable of 32 gTLDs, expects to report premium sales for 2018 of around $2.3 million.
The company has also hired domain consultant Christa Taylor, founder and CEO of dottba, as its new chief marketing officer, a newly created position.
News of the appointments was released as MMX published another preliminary trading update ahead of its final 2018 financial results next month.
Here are some more nuggets from the announcement:

  • Total domain registrations so far in 2019 up 38% to 1.84 million compared to a year ago.
  • Billings up 129% year-on-year due to contributions from ICM Registry and a 40% increase in sales of .vip and .luxe domains in China.
  • ICM’s porn-themed domains are renewing at 91%.
  • Integration of .luxe into two more blockchain platforms — NameCoin and XAYA — is underway.

MMX expects to announce its full-year results April 3.

Scottish registry dumps the pound over Brexit fears

The .scot gTLD registry has decided to dump the British pound as its currency of choice, due to fears over Brexit.
DotScot’s back-end, CORE, told registrars this week that it will start billing in euros from March 29.
The switch is being made due to “the expected volatility in currency exchange rates between GBP and other main currencies post-Brexit”.
March 29 is currently enshrined in UK law as the date we will formally leave the European Union, though the interminable political machinations at Westminster are making it appear decreasingly unlikely that this date could be extended.
CORE said that the prices for .scot registrations, renewals and transfers will be set at €1.14 for each £1 it currently charges. That’s the average exchange rate over the last 12 months, registrars were told.
.scot is a geographic gTLD, rather than a ccTLD, which was approved in ICANN’s 2012 application round. It has about 11,000 domains under management.
Its largest registrar, 1&1 Ionos (part of Germany’s United Internet), charges £40 a year.
Only 38% of Scots voted in favor of Brexit back in 2016, the lowest of any of the UK’s four nations, with no region of Scotland voting “Leave”.
Naturally, a great many Scots believe they’re being dragged out of the EU kicking and screaming by their ignorant, English-bastard neighbors. Which strikes me as a fair point.

Huge batch of Afilias TLDs approved in China

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2019, Domain Registries

Seventeen Afilias-operated gTLDs have been approved for use in China.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced yesterday that the following Afilias-owned TLDs now have its official seal of approval: .archi, .bio, .black, .blue, .green, .lotto, .organic, .pet, .pink, .poker, .promo, .ski, .vote, .voto and .移动 (xn--6frz82g, means “mobile”),
Also approved are .asia and .网站 (.xn--5tzm5g means “website”), which to the best of my knowledge are not owned by Afilias but are quite closely managed by it.
All 17 were approved via the same Shanghai-based Afilias subsidiary, due to MIIT’s local presence requirements.
Chinese approval means Chinese registrants using Chinese registrars will be permitted to have their names resolve in China, subject to the country’s rather stringent censorship practices.
It’s the first batch of Afilias names to get the nod since April 2017, when .info, .pro and .mobi were approved.

.CLUB announces three years of price increases

Kevin Murphy, January 15, 2019, Domain Registries

.CLUB Domains is to increase its wholesale registry fees by $1.90 over the next three years.
The company announced that the increases for .club names will come on July 1 this year, next year, and in 2021.
The current price is $8.05 per domain per year. This will go up to $8.95, then $9.45, then $9.95.
They’re the first price changes .CLUB has implemented, other than discounts, since its launch in 2014.
The gTLD had almost 1.5 million names under management at the last public count, and has about 1.16 million names in its zone file today.
It saw a growth surge in the second half of 2018 due to aggressive discounting in China — with AliBaba selling new names for as little as $0.44 — which led to a corresponding increase in abuse.
.CLUB is a rare example of a private TLD operator that is fairly open about its financials.

Radix now has China approval for whole TLD stable

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2019, Domain Services

Radix’s entire portfolio of new gTLDs is now approved for sale and use in China, according to the company.

The company said today that .host, .press, .space and .website recently received the nod from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which regulates the domain name space in China.

.fun, .site, .online, .tech and .store have all previously received approval.

Across the three-million-domain portfolio, over 700,000 are registered in China, according to Radix.

It saw growth in China over over 30% in 2018 in terms of new domain adds, the company said in a press release.

CEO Sandeep Ramchandani said that Radix has partnered with local registrar Xinnet to give free domains to university students to “host their academic projects and business prototypes.”

.cloud gets the China blessing

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2018, Domain Registries

.cloud, run by Italian registry Aruba, has become the latest TLD to get the official nod to sell in China.
The blessing from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology came at the end of October and the company announced it today.
The accreditation means .cloud domains sold to residents of the Chinese mainland will now be resolvable, and subject to China’s onerous censorship rules.
It’s the first Latin-script TLD to be approved by MIIT since July.
.cloud says it currently has 155,000 domains registered to customers in 180 countries.

Incel hate site jumps to Iceland after doMEn suspends .me domain

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2018, Domain Registries

Incels.me, a web forum that hosts misogynist rants by “involuntarily celibate” men, has found a new home after .me registry doMEn suspended its domain.
The web site has reappeared, apparently unscathed, under Iceland’s .is domain, at incels.is.
doMEn said in a blog post yesterday that it had suspended incels.me at the registry level due to the owner “allowing part of its members to continuously promote violence and hate speech”.
The suspension happened October 15, and the site reappeared in .is not long after. It’s not entirely clear why doMEn chose to explain its decision over a month later. It said:

The decision to suspend the domain was made after the .ME Registry exhausted all other possibilities that could assure us that the registrant of incels.me domain and the owner of i
incels.me forum was able to remove the subject content and prevent the same or similar content from appearing on the forum again.

An “incel” is a man who has decided that he is too ugly, charmless, short, stupid or otherwise unattractive, and is therefore permanently unfuckable.
While that may provoke sympathetic thoughts, a great many of the incels frequenting sites like incels.me choose to channel their frustration into cartoonish misogyny ranging from the laughable to the extremely disturbing.
While the registry didn’t mention it, the site also has many threads that appear to encourage suicide.
doMEn seems to have turned off the domain because certain threads crossed the line from misogyny to incitement to violence against women.
The Montenegro-based company said it had been monitoring the site since May, after being told that “certain members” of the forum “might have been involved in or associated with” an attack in Toronto that killed 10 people in April, a charge the incels.is admin denies.
The second reason given — preventing content appearing in future — may be the crux here.
The site’s administrator said in a post on the new site that he had personally removed all of the threads highlighted by doMEN as being in violation of its registry policies.
He also posted a partial email thread between himself and his former registrar, China-based NiceNIC.net, in which he explains how difficult it is to monitor all the content posted by his users. He wrote on the forum:

They obviously weren’t going to give us a fair shake either way, and we’re not going to search through 1.6 MILLION posts nor do we have the technological capabilities to check to see if any of them are against their vague anti-abuse policy.

Domain registries have no place in enforcing arbitrary rules against domains that go against their ideology.

It seems from the thread that Afilias, 37%-owner of doMEn and .me back-end provider, had a hands-on role in the suspension.
Incels certainly isn’t the first controversial site to have to resort to TLD-hopping to stay alive.
The most notable example is piracy site KickAssTorrents, which bounced from ccTLD to ccTLD for years before finally being shut down by the US Feds.
The incels.is admin said he had confidence in Iceland’s registry due to “their stance as pro free-speech enforcers”.
But ISNIC is not above suspending domains when the associated sites break Icelandic law. Four years ago it took down some domains associated with ISIS.
The takedown comes not long after GoDaddy attracted attention for suspending the domain of far-right Twitter clone Gab.com, again due to claims of incitement to violence related to an act of domestic terrorism.