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ICANN says higher domain prices may be in the public interest

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN is trying to get an arbitration case covering the removal of price caps in .org, .biz and .info thrown out because it is registrants, not registrars, that are left shouldering the burden of higher prices.

The argument came in January filings, published this week, in the two-year-old Independent Review Process case being pursued by Namecheap, which is trying to get price caps reinstated on the three gTLDs.

ICANN’s lawyers are saying that the case should be thrown out because Namecheap lacks standing — IRP claimants have to show they are being harmed or are likely to be harmed by ICANN’s actions.

According to ICANN, Namecheap is not being harmed by uncapped domain prices, only its customers are, so the case should be dismissed.

Drawing heavily on an analysis commissioned by ICANN from economist Dennis Carlton, ICANN’s latest IRP submission (pdf) reads:

rational economic theory predicts that if wholesale registry prices increased, Namecheap would pass on any price increases to its customers. Namecheap is one of nearly 2,500 ICANN-accredited registrars that offer domain names to registrants, and one of hundreds of ICANN-accredited registrars that offer domain names specifically in .BIZ, .INFO, and .ORG. Namecheap thus competes against many other registrars that have exactly the same access to same registries, such as .BIZ, .INFO, and .ORG,as does Namecheap, which all pay the same wholesale price for these registry input…

Given the hundreds of registrar competitors (each facing the same registry prices from the .BIZ, .INFO, and .ORG registry operators), economic theory predicts that Namecheap and other such registrars do not have significant market power. Without market power, registrars like Namecheap do not earn supra-competitive margins and cannot absorb higher input costs. As a result, economic theory, as well as common sense, predicts that Namecheap and other competing registrars must pass on higher registry wholesale prices by raising prices to registrants, with little or no resulting harm to Namecheap.

The filing goes on the suggest that higher prices might actually be in the public interest, because ICANN lacks the expertise to set price caps at an appropriate level.

the likely harms of price regulation in these three gTLDs outweigh the likely benefits of price controls. ICANN lacks the expertise to set optimal prices. Without such expertise, the danger is that ICANN could set the wrong price — one that impairs efficient market outcomes — which would ultimately harm registrants rather than protect them…

In short, Namecheap cannot demonstrate that the public interest required ICANN to maintain price control provisions in the .BIZ, .INFO, and .ORG Registry Agreements, especially given that the majority of evidence they cite either pertains to a drastically different DNS or pertains to potential harm to registrants, not registrars.

Interestingly, in almost the same breath, the filing argues that the price of .com domains, which is capped per Verisign’s agreements with ICANN and the US government, acts as an effective deterrent to runaway price increases in other gTLDs.

With its popularity, and relatively-low, regulated price, .COM acts as a check on any registry, including .BIZ, .INFO, and .ORG, that seeks to increase prices above competitive levels.

So, regulating .com prices is good because it indirectly acts as a restraint on other registries’ prices, but regulating those other registries’ prices is bad because ICANN lacks the expertise to regulate prices.

And anyway, it’s only the registrants who get harmed if prices go up.

Got it?

.org price caps: ICANN chair denies “secret” meetings

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN chair Maarten Botterman has denied that the board of directors approved the removal of price caps in .org, .biz and .info in “secret” meetings in 2019.

In written testimony (pdf) recently filed as part of Namecheap’s two-year-old Independent Review Process proceeding, Botterman scoffed at the idea that ICANN secretly gave the nod to the removal of price caps in 2019:

I understand that Namecheap is claiming that the Board acted in secret when deciding to go forward with the 2019 Registry Agreements. Nothing about the Board’s conduct occurred in secret. The Board did not convene a “secret” annual, regular, or special Board meeting and did not make any “secret” formal decisions or “secret” resolutions. Instead, the Board was briefed by ICANN staff regarding contract renewals that were well within their delegated authority to negotiate and execute.

Namecheap is claiming in its IRP that ICANN broke its bylaws when it renewed the .org, .info and .biz contracts without the historical price caps that all three had in place for the better part of 20 years.

It wants those decisions annulled, potentially enabling the reinstatement of the caps.

Part of its case is that ICANN failed in its transparency obligations, with Namecheap saying that the decision to remove caps was “entirely opaque” and made with “no analysis whatsoever”.

The .info, .org and .biz contracts were renewed without the ICANN board making a formal resolution or discussing them during a session that was being recorded and minuted.

Botterman, along with declarations from with fellow director Becky Burr and VP Russ Weinstein and outside lawyers’ filings, says that the extent of the board’s involvement was two briefings that occurred at workshops in January and June 2019.

ICANN staff explained to the board why it intended to go ahead with signing the cap-free contracts, and the board “saw no reason to intervene”, Botterman wrote. Staff have delegated authority to deal with contract stuff, he said.

Now, it could be argued that these meetings were not “secret” as such — ICANN board workshops are a standard event, happening in the few days leading up to each of ICANN’s thrice-yearly public meetings.

ICANN’s chair (then Cherine Chalaby) even blogs about them, posting a rough agenda beforehand and a summary of discussions a few weeks later.

In the case of the January 2019 pre-workshop post, there’s no mention whatsoever of any contract renewals. Nor is there in the post-workshop summary.

The June 2019 post-workshop post fails to mention the fact that the board had essentially given the nod to the lifting of caps at that meeting.

The pre-workshop post makes a passing, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to “Göran will update the Board on the renewal of some registry agreements”, which substantially played down what was actually going on.

At that time, ICANN was well-aware that there was huge public interest in at least the .org renewal, where over 3,300 comments had been submitted, mostly objecting to the removal of price caps.

It’s possible that the first time ICANN disclosed that the discussions had even taken place was when a spokesperson told me how the .org decision was made, in July that year.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder why ICANN pretty much skimmed over the whole issue in its public disclosures, even though it was the hottest topic in town at the time.

Even now, Botterman and Burr are both invoking attorney-client privilege to limit their testimony about what happened at these two workshops.

You don’t have to think anything untoward was going on to ask whether this is all paints a picture of ICANN acting “to the maximum extent feasible in an open and transparent manner”, as its bylaws requires.

Botterman says in his declaration:

The Bylaws are clear that ICANN must “operate to the maximum extent feasible in an open and transparent manner.” But I have never understood this Bylaws provision to require that every time the Board needs to get work done, or every time the Board receives a briefing from ICANN staff on a specific topic, it must do so in public or at a annual, regular or special Board meeting. Nor would such a requirement be feasible.

GoDaddy Registry to raise some TLD prices, lower others

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2022, Domain Registries

GoDaddy Registry is to raise the base price of three of its recent acquired gTLDs and lower the price on three others.

The company is telling registrars that the prices of .biz, .club and .design domains are going up later this year, while the prices of .luxe, .abogado and .case are going down.

For .biz, which GoDaddy took over when it acquired Neustar’s registry business in 2020, the price will increase by $0.87 to $13.50.

While .biz hasn’t been price-regulated by ICANN since 2019, the new rise is lower than the annual 10% it was allowed to impose under its previous, price-capped contracts. It’s around 7% this year, roughly in line with .com’s capped increase. It will mean the price of a .biz has gone up by over 70% in the last decade.

For .club, which GoDaddy acquired last year, registrations, renewals and transfers are going up by a dollar to $10.95, the fourth consecutive year in which .club fees have increased.

It’s in the ball-park of what previous owner .CLUB Domains was already doing — .club launched in 2014 with a $8.05 fee, but that went up to $8.95 in 2019, then $9.45 in 2020, then $9.95 last year.

.club has about a million domains under management at the moment. If that level holds, it’s an extra million bucks a year to GoDaddy, which frankly will barely register on the company’s now billion-dollars-a-quarter income statement.

For lower-volume .design, another one of the 2021 acquisitions, the price is going up by $2 to $35.

All of these price changes go into effect September 1 this year, giving registrants over six months to lock-in their pricing for up to 10 years by committing to a multi-year renewal before the changes kick in.

Registrars in most cases pass on registry price increases to their customers, but they don’t have the same six-month notification obligations as registries.

For three other GoDaddy Registry TLDs, prices are coming down in the same timeframe, so registrants may wish to see if the savings are passed on in future by registrars.

.luxe prices are going down from $15 a year to $12, .abogado is going down from $25 to $20 and .casa is going down from $7.50 to $6. The latter two mean “lawyer” and “home” respectively in Spanish.

GoDaddy isn’t currently altering the regular price of the TLDs it acquired from MMX, but it is bumping the restore fee for expired domains by $10 to $40, bringing them into line with .com.

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.

Price caps on .org could return, panel rules

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN could be forced to reimpose price caps on .org, .biz and .info domains, an Independent Review Process panel has ruled.

The panel handling the IRP case filed by Namecheap against ICANN in February 2020 has decided to allow the registrar to continue to pursue its claims that ICANN broke its own bylaws by removing price controls from the three gTLD contracts.

Conversely, in a win for ICANN, the panel also threw out Namecheap’s demand that the IRP scrutinize ICANN’s conduct during the attempted takeover of .org’s Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital in 2019.

The split ruling (pdf) on ICANN’s motion to dismiss Namecheap’s case came March 10 and was revealed in documents recently published by ICANN. The case will now proceed on the pricing issue alone.

The three-person panel decided that the fact that ICANN ultimately decided to block Ethos’ acquisition of PIR meant that Namecheap lacked sufficient standing to pursue that element of its case.

Namecheap had argued that ICANN’s opaque processing of PIR’s change of control request created uncertainty that harmed its business, because ICANN may approve such a request in future.

But the panel said it would not prejudge such an eventuality, saying that if another change of control is approved by ICANN in future, Namecheap is welcome to file another IRP complaint at that time.

“Harm or injury flowing from possible future violations by the ICANN Board regarding change of control requests that are not presently pending and that may never occur does not confer standing,” the panel wrote.

On the pricing issue, the panel disagreed with ICANN’s argument that Namecheap has not yet been harmed by a lack of .org price caps because PIR has not yet raised its .org prices.

It said that increased prices in future are a “natural and expected consequence” of the lack of price controls, and that to force Namecheap to wait for such increases to occur before filing an IRP would leave it open to falling foul of the 12-month statute of limitations following ICANN decision-making baked into the IRP rules.

As such, it’s letting those claims go ahead. The panel wrote:

This matter will proceed to consideration of Namecheap’s request for a declaration that ICANN must annul the decision that removed price caps in the .org, .info and .biz registry agreements. The Panel will also consider Namecheap’s request for a declaration that ICANN must ensure that price caps from legacy gTLDs can only be removed following policy development process that takes due account of the interests of the Internet user and with the involvement of different stakeholders. The Panel will consider Namecheap’s request for a declaration that “registry fees… remain as low as feasible consistet with the maintenance of good quality service” within the context of removal of price caps (not in the context of regulating changes of control).

In other words, if Namecheap prevails, future price caps for pre-2012 gTLDs could be decided by the ICANN community, with an assumption that they should remain as low as possible.

That would be bad news for PIR, as well as .info registry Donuts and .biz registry GoDaddy.

But it’s important to note that the IRP panel has not ruled that ICANN has done anything wrong, nor that Namecheap is likely to win its case — the March 10 ruling purely assesses Namecheap’s standing to pursue the IRP.

The panel has also significantly extended the proposed timeline for the case being resolved. There now won’t be a final decision until 2022 at the earliest.

The panel last week delayed its final hearing in the case from August this year to January next year, according to a document published this week.

Other deadlines in the case have also been pushed backed weeks or months.

End of the road for Neustar as GoDaddy U-turns again and buys out its registry biz

GoDaddy has changed its mind about the registry side of the industry yet again, and has acquired the business of Neustar, one of the largest and oldest registries.

The deal will see GoDaddy purchase, for an undisclosed sum, all of Neustar’s registry assets, amounting to 215 TLDs and about 12 million domains.

It means the gTLD .biz is now under the new GoDaddy Registry umbrella, as are the contracts to run the ccTLDs .us, .in, and .co, 130 dot-brand gTLDs and 70 open gTLDs.

Neustar’s registry staff are also being taken on.

“We’re bringing the whole team aboard. One of the things we’re very excited about is bringing the team aboard,” Andrew Low Ah Kee, GoDaddy’s chief operating officer, told DI today.

He added that, due to coronavirus job insecurities wracking many minds right now, GoDaddy has promised its entire workforce that there will be no layoffs in the second quarter.

Nicolai Bezsonoff, currently senior VP of Neustar’s registry business, will run the new unit. He said for him the opportunity for “innovation” was at the heart of the deal.

“We’ve always been one step removed from the customer, so it can be hard to understand what customer wants to do,” he said. “This gives us huge customer insight into what customers want and how they want to use domains.”

Pressed for hypothetical examples of innovation, Bezsonoff floated ideas about selling domains for partial-year periods, or doing more to crack down on DNS abuse.

The deal is an example of “vertical integration”, which has been controversial due to the potential risk of a dominant registry playing favorites with its in-house registrar, or vice versa.

While registries such as Donuts, CentralNic and until recently Uniregistry vertically integrated with little complaint, the industry is currently nervous about Verisign’s newfound ability under its ICANN contract to own and run a registrar.

Because GoDaddy is the Verisign — the runaway market leader — of the registrar side of the industry, one might expect this deal (expected to close this quarter) to get more scrutiny than most.

But the company says it’s going to “strictly adhere to a governance model that maintains independence between the GoDaddy registry and registrar businesses”.

Low Ah Kee said that this means the registry and registrar “won’t share any information that gives or appears to given any unfair advantage” to the GoDaddy registrar, that their business performance will be assessed separately, and that they’ll be audited to make sure they’re not breaking this separation.

If GoDaddy appears to be preemptively expecting criticism, there’s a good reason why: the proposed acquisition of .org manager PIR by private equity group Ethos Capital has caused huge upset in recent months, and there are some parallels here.

First, like .org, pricing restrictions were lifted in Neustar’s .biz under a contract renewal with ICANN last year. It fell under the radar a little as .biz is substantially smaller, not a legacy gTLD as such, and not widely used.

Like the .org deal, the transfer of control of .biz will also be subject to ICANN’s approval before GoDaddy and Neustar can seal the deal.

Could we be looking at another big public fight over a gTLD acquisition?

But unlike Ethos with .org, GoDaddy says it has no intention of raising prices with .biz.

“We will not be raising prices, in fact we will look into reducing prices for some TLDs,” Bezsonoff said.

One TLD where one assumes prices won’t be going down is .co, where Neustar has just had its margins massively slashed by the Colombian government.

The acquisition was announced just days after the Colombian government announced that it has renewed its contract with Neustar to run .co for another five years, but under financial terms hugely more favorable to itself.

Whereas the initial 10-year term saw the government being paid 6% to 7% of the .co take, that number has soared to 81%, making .co — arguably Neustar’s registry crown jewel — a substantially less-attractive TLD to manage.

One assumes that the acquisition price would have fluctuated wildly based on the outcome of the .co renegotiation, but the GoDaddy/Neustar execs I talked to today didn’t want to talk about terms.

GoDaddy’s history with the registry side of the business has been changeable.

As far as ICANN contract is concerned, it is already a registry because it owns the .godaddy dot-brand. But that’s currently unused, with the registry functions outsourced to — cough — Neustar’s arch-rival Afilias.

Given Neustar’s religious devotion to the dot-brand concept, and the weirdness of using one of your primary competitors for a key function, one might expect both of those situations to change.

GoDaddy did also apply for .casa and .home back in 2012, but changed its mind and abandoned both bids fairly early in the process.

The sudden excitement about the registry business today begs the question of why GoDaddy didn’t buy Uniregistry’s registry business at the same time as it bought its secondary market and registrar earlier this year, but apparently it was not for sale.

Following the acquisition, Neustar is keeping its DNS resolution services and GoDaddy will continue to use them, so Neustar is not entirely out of the domain game, but it looks like the end of the road for Neustar as a brand I regularly report on.

The registry started life in 2000 as “NeuLevel”, a joint-venture between Neustar and Aussie registrar Melbourne IT formed to apply to ICANN for new gTLDs. It wanted .web, but got .biz, which now has about 1.7 million names under management, down from a 2014 peak of 2.7 million.

Neustar ditches .biz for .neustar

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2017, Domain Registries

Registry operator Neustar has migrated all of its web sites to its .neustar gTLD, abandoning its original home at .biz.
The company announced today that its main site can now be found at home.neustar. Its old neustar.biz already redirects to the dot-brand domain.
It’s also using domains such as marketing.neustar, security.neustar and risk.neustar to market its various services.
Neustar has been using its dot-brand extensively for years, adding at least 10 new sites this year, but today marks the formal blanket switch away from its old .biz branding.
The gTLD has over 600 names in its zone file, of which about 15 resolved to active .neustar web sites according to the last scan I did. There’s probably more today.
It must have been a bit of a Sophie’s Choice for the company.
Neustar has been using its own .biz ever since it went live with the gTLD over 15 years ago, a case of eating its own dog food when few others would, but it now clearly sees a tastier future in its dot-brand business.
The company acts as the back-end for almost 200 dot-brands already — about a third of those that went live from the 2012 gTLD application round — and seems to be laying the groundwork for a big push in the next round (expected at some point after 2020).
The rebrand should give Neustar some first-hand experience of the challenges current and future clients could face when switching to a dot-brand gTLD.

Huge registrar shake-up coming to .biz and .info

Afilias and Neustar will be soon able to sell .biz and .info domains direct, and may have to shut down registrars that refuse to sign up to the new 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement.
Those are two of the biggest changes proposed to the companies’ ICANN contracts, drafts of which were published this morning six months after their last registry agreements expired.
The new .biz and .info deals would allow both companies to vertically integrate — that is, own a controlling position in a registrar that sells domains in their respective gTLDs.
This would remove unwanted friction from their sales and marketing efforts, but would mean both registries would start competing with their own registrar channel in the retail market.
That’s currently not allowed in almost all gTLD contracts, but is expected to become commonplace in the era of new gTLDs, which have no such ownership restrictions.
These new vertical integration clauses were not unexpected; it’s been envisaged for a couple of years that the restrictions would be dropped in legacy gTLDs.
What is surprising are newly proposed clauses that would oblige Neustar and Afilias to terminate accredited registrars’ access to their TLDs if they don’t sign up to the 2013 RAA.
Under the process set out in the contracts, when registrars representing 67% of the domains in each given TLD have signed up to the 2013 RAA, all the other registrars would have between 270 and 330 days to also sign up to it or lose their ability to access the .biz/.info registries.
That would mean no selling new names and no accepting inbound transfers — a growth death sentence in the affected TLDs.
In the case of .info, in which Go Daddy has a 45% market share, it would only take the top four registrars to sign up to the 2013 RAA before the clock started ticking for the others.
However, this 67% rule would only kick in for Afilias and Neustar if Public Interest Registry and Verisign also voluntarily agree to the same rules for their .org, .com and .net gTLDs.
It’s a pretty aggressive move by ICANN to push the 2013 RAA onto registrars via its contracts with registries, but not the first.
In the separately proposed base New gTLD Registry Agreement, expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, registrars can only sell new gTLD domains if they’re on the 2013 RAA.
Other changes to the .biz and .info contracts include giving the registries the ability to block certain domains from registration to deal with security threats. Registries have been doing this since Conficker, but now they’ll be explicitly allowed to under their contracts.
They’ll also now be subject to the same emergency back-end transition provisions as new gTLDs, in the event of a catastrophic failure.
Both companies will also get to keep their ability to raise registry fees by 10% a year.
Presumably, given that the US Department of Commerce is not party to the .biz and .info deals, neither registry will get the same nasty surprise that Verisign got last year when Commerce froze its prices.
Both proposed contracts are now open for public comment at ICANN, here and here.
The previous contracts actually expired last December but were extended for six months due to ICANN’s focus on new gTLDs and the fact that it wanted to bring both agreements closer to the new gTLD contract.

.info and .biz prices to go up

Kevin Murphy, February 28, 2013, Domain Registries

Afilias and Neustar have separately announced increased to the registry fees for .info and .biz domain names.
Afilias yesterday said the maximum wholesale price for a .info domain would increase to $8.16 effective September 1, a 10% increase on the current rate of $7.42 per year.
The last 10% hike, which the company is allowed to take under its ICANN registry agreement, came in July 2011.
Neustar last week also said it was taking its permitted 10% increase.
The maximum registry fee for .biz will go up to $8.63, also starting September 1. It last increased its prices in February 2012.

.info and .biz contracts extended after expiring

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2013, Domain Registries

Afilias and Neustar have had their key gTLD registry contracts temporarily extended after they expired on New Year’s Eve.
The .info and .biz agreements, which were both signed with ICANN in 2006, both ended on December 31 2012.
Both deals, of course, have a presumption of renewal. They’ve been extended for six months while renewal terms are finalized.
I understand that the delay in getting new contracts negotiated and approved is due largely to all the other stuff going on at ICANN right now.
(New gTLD applicants planning to negotiate a non-standard contract with ICANN, take note.)
According to ICANN, drafts of the the next versions of the .info and .biz contracts will be posted for public comment this month.
I’d expect to see some of the same minor technical and legal changes made as those that were made to Verisign’s .net contract, which was renegotiated in 2011.
It’s going to be interesting to see whether .info and .biz will keep the same rights to increase registry fees, in light of the US Department of Commerce’s move to freeze .com prices.
However, .com is a special case and Commerce does not have a built-in right to examine .biz and .info contracts.