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ICANN budget: staff bloat making a comeback

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN plans to ramp up its headcount starting next year to support the development of the new gTLD program.

Newly published budgeting documents show that average headcount is expected to rise to 406 for the year ending June 30, 2022, from 395 at the end of this June, with an even steeper increase to 448 a year later.

That’s after several years in which staffing levels have been fairly stable, even sometimes declining a little.

The main culprit is the Operational Design Phase for the next new gTLD round(s), which is expected to kick off soon.

ICANN expects to hire or assign nine people to manage the ODP before the end of June 2022, ramping that up to an average of 22 over the following year. The amount of non-ODP operational staff is expected to rise by 28 over the same period.

ICANN currently advertises 31 open positions on its web site, having added eight listings just this week.

This chart shows the expected growth:

ICANN headcount chart

At the time of the last new gTLD application round, in 2012, ICANN had 152 staffers, nine of whom were assigned to new gTLD project — and that was after the programs rules had already been developed, implemented and the application window opened and closed.

ICANN budget: no more new gTLDs before 2028

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN is not accounting for any revenue from a future round of new gTLDs in its just-published budget, which plots out the Org’s finances all the way through 2028.

The budget, which I gave a high-level summary of here, even predicts that dozens of 2012-round new gTLDs will disappear over the next six years.

The Org is predicting that there will be 1,091 gTLDs on the internet by the end of its fiscal 2027 (that is, June 30, 2028) down by 58 or 5% from July 2022.

Given that it’s only expecting to lose four gTLDs in FY23, this projection implies a speeding up of the rate at which gTLDs start cancelling their contracts or going out of business in the later part of the five-year budget.

The forecast comes with a big asterisk, however. A footnote reads:

These scenarios do not assume any further TLD delegations arising from the resumption of the New gTLD Program. While there is ongoing work and an intent to launch a subsequent round, the timing of its release remains unclear and potential impact(s) on funding indeterminate. Given this, ICANN org has deemed it prudent not to assume any prospective impacts from a subsequent round across the described scenarios.

In other words, ICANN is not yet ready to commit to a runway for the next application round, subsequent delegations and eventual revenue.

As I reported Monday, the next round is unlikely to be approved until the fourth quarter of next year at the earliest, and my view is that 2024 is the soonest the next application window could open.

I don’t think we can read too much into the fact that ICANN isn’t budgeting for any next-round impact on funding until after 2027.

If you’re pessimistic, you could infer that ICANN believes it’s at least a possibility that the next round could take that long, or not be approved at all, but the safer bet is probably that it merely lacks visibility and is acting in its usual risk-averse manner.

ICANN budget: mild optimism amid maturing industry

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN thinks the domain industry, including the new gTLD industry, is maturing and will continue to grow, in its just-published draft budget for fiscal 2023.

The Org is predicting growing transactions across the board, as well as an increase in the number of accredited registrars and a slowing decline in the number of contracted gTLDs.

ICANN is expecting funding of $152 million for FY23, which includes the $4 million bung it negotiated with Verisign as part of the deal to allow the company to raise .com prices.

That’s up from the $149.1 million is expects to receive in the current fiscal year.

As usual, the bulk of the funding comes from gTLD transaction fees — the taxes registrants pay through their registrars and registries whenever they register, renew or transfer a domain name.

Legacy gTLD transaction fees are expected to amount to $93.1 million, up 3% on a forecast of $90.1 million in the current year, while new gTLD transaction fees are expected to rise modestly from $9.5 million to $9.9 million, a 4% increase.

Transactions in legacy gTLDs are expected to be 201.2 million, versus 193.6 million in the current year.

New, post-2012 gTLDs are expected to process 25.8 million transactions, up from 24.8 million, of which 21.1 million will be billable, up from 20.3 million. New gTLDs only pay transaction fees after 50,000 domains under management.

ICANN is expecting to lose four registries in FY23 — this almost always means dot-brands that cancel their contracts — with the total declining from a June 2022 total of 1,149 to 1,145 a year later. This will have a modest impact on fixed registry fees.

But the Org is once again expecting to see an increase in the number of registrars paying fixed accreditation fees, up by 28 to 2,447 at the end of FY23.

Accompanying the budget, ICANN has published some industry trend analysis (pdf) outlining some of the assumptions behind the budget forecasts.

Basically, the document describes what regular readers already know — many domain companies benefited from pandemic-related lockdowns driving small businesses online, but overall industry volumes were driven down by low-cost new gTLDs experiencing huge junk drops.

For ICANN’s purposes, factors such as customer quality and pricing are irrelevant. A spammer registering 1,000 domains in bulk pays ICANN the same amount in fees as 1,000 small businesses building their first web sites.

The document reads:

Taken as a whole, DUMs failed to expand in the past twelve months ending in mid-2021. While this decline is at least partly attributable to lower promotional activity among some of the largest new gTLDs which could be reinitiated in the future, it nonetheless points to an industry that has shifted from a period of rapid expansion to one that is now witnessing steady maturation.

The draft ICANN budget covers the 12 months beginning July 1, 2023, and is now open for public comment before possible revisions and final approval.

ICANN domains revenue ahead of estimates again

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2021, Domain Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

ICANN now has half a billion bucks in the bank after huge pandemic profits

Kevin Murphy, September 23, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN, the non-profit organization with the limited technical mandate, now has over half a billion dollars in the bank, after the affects of the coronavirus pandemic boosted funding and slashed costs.

The Org ended June 2021 with cash and investments of $521 million, up $40 million over the preceding 12 months.

While some of this gain can be attributed to investment gains, the majority chunk comes from ICANN largely misjudging the length and impact of pandemic-related restrictions.

Expenses were $10 million lower than budget, because all three ICANN meetings during the year were held online, where they cost about half a million bucks a pop, about $3 million lower than in-person gatherings.

ICANN had budgeted for its 2021 meetings to take place face-to-face in venues around the world, but governmental travel restrictions made this impossible.

The Org saved well over half a million dollars in director expenses alone.

On the top half of the financial statement, the numbers also show a failure to predict how much the pandemic would be generally a boon, rather than a burden, to the domain name industry.

ICANN received $142 million in funding during the year, which was $12 million ahead of budget and $1 million more than it received in fiscal 2020.

Coronavirus has made ICANN $11 million richer than predicted so far this year

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN made a lot more money and spent a lot less money in the second half of 2020, compared to the predictions made in its current budget.

Funding for the six months from July 1 to December 31 (the first half of ICANN’s fiscal 2021) came in $6 million higher than expected, at $69 million, according to data released by ICANN tonight.

Over the same period, its outgoings came in at $55 million, which was $5 million less than its approved budget had anticipated, leading to a net gain of $11 million.

The reason for the variance appear to be mostly related to the unanticipated positive impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last April, when the FY21 budget was being drafted, ICANN thought the economic impact of the disease would prove a serious blow to the industry that funds it.

But the opposite turned out to be true. ICANN failed to predict that the government-enforced lockdown of large parts of the high street in many countries would see a rush by small bricks-and-mortar businesses to the interwebs.

This boosted domain growth for many companies and led to an increase in ICANN transaction taxes fees, which are paid whenever a domain is registered, renewed or transferred.

ICANN’s revenue was up across all three main segments in H1 FY21, when compared to its budget expectations.

Registry transaction fees were $2 million over budget at $27 million, and registrar transaction fees were also over by $2 million at $18 million. Registry and registrar fixed fees were also up by $1 million each, suggesting fewer companies terminated their contracts than expected.

“Funding higher than Budget driven by higher than planned transaction fees”, an ICANN slide deck (pdf) states.

On the expenses side, ICANN of course spent less cash on its meetings because it wasn’t subsidizing international flights and expensive hotels for 500-odd staff and community members.

“Lower Travel & Meetings due to travel restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic”, the slide deck states.

Travel expenses, rounded, accounted for 0% or $0 of its H1 expenditure.

When the budget was passed in June last year, ICANN still thought it was possible that the October meeting would go ahead in-person in Hamburg, so it put aside $4.2 million to pay for it.

As it turned out, the Org ended up spending $100,000 on Zoom and other audiovisual services and another $400,000 on translation and interpretation services. And that was all.

The $2.2 million it expected to pay sending staff and community members to Hamburg came in at $0.

ICANN’s adopted budget for FY21 also anticipated the March 2021 meeting would go ahead in Cancun, Mexico, but that’s already been rescheduled for Zoom, which will save it a few million more bucks this year.

The Org hasn’t yet officially relocated its planned June 2021 in-person meeting from The Hague to Zoom, but I’m fairly confident it’s going to have to.

Its $12.2 million travel budget for FY21 is probably going to come in much closer to $2 million.

ICANN predicts rosy post-pandemic domain industry — time to start panicking?

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2020, Domain Policy

Having totally misjudged the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the domain name industry and its own budget, ICANN is now forecasting a rosy (post-pandemic?) fiscal 2022.

The Org has just published its proposed budget for the 12 months beginning July 1, 2021, predicting decent growth in transactions for new and legacy gTLDs, along with a modest increase in new registrars.

It’s also predicting that international travel will be back to normal, with three full in-person public meetings going ahead as usual.

ICANN is planning to receive $144.4 million in FY22, up slightly from the $140 million it expects to receive in the current financial year.

The FY22 number is boosted by a $4 million bung from Verisign, negotiated as part of the .com contract renewal, which lifted the price freeze.

It’s predicting a 3% increase in legacy gTLD registry transaction fees to $52.8 million and a 6% increase in legacy gTLD registry transaction fees to $5.1 million.

Registrar transaction fees for legacy gTLDs is expected to be up 4% to $33.4 million, with registrar fees for new gTLDs is predicted to rise 5% to $4.2 million.

Altogether, that’s $3 million extra in transaction fees — paid whenever a domain is registered, renewed or transferred — compared to its expected FY21 performance.

But that’s offset by a $600,000 predicted decline in fixed registry fees, due to an expected loss of 15 new gTLD registries (most likely dormant dot-brands) in the period. It expects to end the year with 1,141 fee-paying registries.

ICANN expects its pool of accredited registrars to bounce back a little, adding 28 in FY22 having lost an expected 121 in FY21. It expects to end FY22 with 2,356 registrars on its books.

The proposed budget also sheds light on how ICANN expects the remainder of coronavirus-afflicted FY21 playing out.

It currently expects its top line for the year to June 30, 2021 to be $140 million, compared to the $129.3 million it predicted in the FY21 budget approved in May this year.

But that budget had been slashed in April by 8% from its original draft, published a year ago. It had planned for $140.4 million, but reduced expectations by $11.1 million due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In April, before the extent of the lockdown bump experienced by many registries and registrars became clear, ICANN said:

ICANN org funding may be impacted because the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic has the potential to impact the funding from domain name registrations and contracted parties through the end of FY20 and into the first months of FY21.

Today, it’s saying the impact from coronavirus was “less than expected” and generally forecasting “stable” and more or less business as usual in FY22.

ICANN had budgeted for $85.5 million in transaction fees from all sources in the current year, but now it expects that to come in at $92.6 million, much closer to its December 2019 estimate of $94.7 million.

It had expected to see transaction fees from new gTLDs at both registry and registrar levels to be down by a third, at $8 million, but that number’s now expected to come in at $8.9 million. Likewise, the budget predicted a legacy gTLDs dip of 2.3% to $77.5 million, rather than the $86.2 million it now thinks is heading its way.

I should probably point out for future reference that the proposed budget for FY22 was published Friday, the day before the new strain of ultra-infectious coronavirus was discovered in the UK. Who knows what the impact of that might be.

The budget is open for public comment for two months here.

ICANN made over $500k in secret lawyer payments over [REDACTED] legal dispute

Kevin Murphy, November 17, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has approved a payout of over half a million dollars to outside lawyers for work on a legal dispute it does not want you to know about.

The board of directors a week ago approved the disbursement of a “[Redacted – Privileged & Confidential]” sum to undisclosed parties in relation to “extensive activity in [Redacted – Privileged & Confidential]”.

Under ICANN policy, the fact that board approval was required means that the amount being paid is at least $500,000. The redacted resolution also authorizes additional payments up to $499,999.

ICANN isn’t providing any hints about what the payments concern, other than that it’s a legal dispute of some kind. The resolution states:

When required, ICANN must engage outside legal counsel to help prepare for and defend against all types of disputes that are brought against ICANN. When those disputes become highly contentious they often require significant involvement during a certain time period by outside counsel and that significant amount of time also results in significant fees and related expenses.

The words “related expenses” may be telling. We may not just be talking about lawyers’ fees here.

ICANN also does not state when the expenses were incurred, other than to note that the org’s budget for fiscal 2020, which ended June 30, “contemplated” the need for such payments.

So we’re talking about a legal issue that ICANN was aware of before May 2019, when the FY20 budget was approved, possibly as far back as December 2018, when earlier versions of that budget were published.

Known legal disputes that were active back then and have seen activity in the last few months include the Afilias Independent Review Process complaint about the .web auction and DotConnectAfrica’s court appeal over its .africa loss.

But both of those cases are matters of public record. ICANN even regularly publishes legal documentation on both. They’re not secret.

The only cases I’m aware of that ICANN has actively tried to keep secret involve allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment made against at least one former senior staffer. One such lawsuit was filed late February 2019.

But the hundreds of thousands doled out by ICANN last week could be related to just about anything.

ICANN’s bylaws give the board a broad brush when it comes to redacting information from published resolutions:

any actions relating to personnel or employment matters, legal matters (to the extent the Board determines it is necessary or appropriate to protect the interests of ICANN), matters that ICANN is prohibited by law or contract from disclosing publicly, and other matters that the Board determines, by a three-quarters (3/4) vote of Directors present at the meeting and voting, are not appropriate for public distribution

Usually, when ICANN redacts information, it’s related to personnel matters such as management bonuses.

Whatever it was ICANN just spent your money on, ICANN ain’t saying.

These eight companies account for more than half of ICANN’s revenue

Kevin Murphy, October 19, 2020, Domain Policy

While 3,207 companies contributed to ICANN’s $141 million of revenue in its last fiscal year, just eight of them were responsible for more than half of it, according to figures just released by ICANN.

The first two entries on the list will come as no surprise to anyone — they’re .com money-mill Verisign and runaway registrar market-leader GoDaddy, together accounting for more than $56 million of revenue.

Registries and registrars pay ICANN a mixture of fixed fees and transaction fees, so the greater the number of adds, renews and transfers, the more money gets funneled into ICANN’s coffers.

It’s perhaps interesting that this top-contributors list sees a few companies that are paying far more in fixed, per-gTLD fees than they are in transaction fees.

Binky Moon, the vehicle that holds 197 of Donuts’ 242 gTLD contracts, is the third-largest contributor at $5.2 million. But $4.9 million of that comes from the annual $25,000 fixed registry fee.

Only 14 of Binky’s gTLDs pass the 50,000-name threshold where transaction fees kick in.

It’s pretty much the same story at Google Registry, formally known as Charleston Road Registry.

Google has 46 gTLDs, so is paying about $1.1 million a year in fixed fees, but only three of them have enough regs (combined, about one million names) to pass the transaction fees threshold. Google’s total funding was almost $1.4 million.

Not quite on the list is Amazon, which has 55 mostly unlaunched gTLDs and almost zero registrations. It paid ICANN $1.3 million last year, just to sit on its portfolio of dormant strings.

The second and third-largest registrars, Namecheap and Tucows respectively, each paid about $1.7 million last year.

The only essentially single-TLD company on the list is Public Interest Registry, which runs .org. Despite having 10 million domains under management, it paid ICANN less than half of Binky’s total last year.

The anomaly, which may be temporary, is ShortDot, the company that runs .icu, .cyou and .bond. It paid ICANN $1.6 million, which would have been almost all transaction fees for .icu, which peaked at about 6.5 million names earlier this year.

Here’s the list:

[table “62” not found /]

Combined, the total is over $70.5 million.

The full spreadsheet of all 3,000+ contributors can be found over here.

Lockdown bump was worth $600,000 to ICANN, but end of Club Med saves 10x as much

Kevin Murphy, October 19, 2020, Domain Policy

The coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and the resulting bump in domain name sales caused ICANN’s revenue to come out $600,000 ahead of expectations, up 4%, the org disclosed last week.

But ICANN saved almost 10 times as much by shifting two of its fiscal year 2020 public meetings to an online-only format, due to travel and gathering restrictions.

The organization’s FY20 revenue was $141 million, up by $5 million on FY19, against a rounded projection of $140 million. ICANN’s financial years end June 30.

ICANN said it is “uncertain if these market trends will continue”.

Back in April, the organization lowered its revenue forecast for FY21 by 8%, or $11 million.

Expenses were down $11.1 million at $126 million, 8% lower that expectations and $4 million lower than the 2019 number.

That was mostly due to a $6.2 million saving from having two public meetings online-only.

ICANN typically spends $2 million per meeting funding over 500 travelers, both ICANN staff and community members, but that was down to almost nothing for the first two meetings of this year.

Pre-pandemic, ICANN expected these meetings, slated for Cancun and Kuala Lumpur, to cost $4.2 million and $3.4 million respectively, but the switch to Zoom brought them in at $1.4 million and $0.4 million.

ICANN would have occurred some pre-meeting travel expenses for the Cancun gathering, which was cancelled at the last minute, as well as cancellation fees on flights and hotels.

The org has previously stated that the switch away from face-to-face meetings could save as much as $8 million this calendar year.

The rest of the savings ICANN chalked down to lower-than-expected personnel costs, with hiring slowing during the pandemic.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the headline above, it’s a reference to a notorious 2009 WSJ article, and outrage about ICANN’s then $12 million travel budget.

Eleven years later, the FY20 travel budget was $15.7 million.