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ICANN slashes staff and domain prices could rise

Kevin Murphy, May 30, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN has laid off 33 people, about 7% of its 485 staff, and has raised the specter of increased domain name prices, as it struggles to balance its budget.

The job losses are effective today and come “across all functional areas and regions”, acting CEO Sally Costerton wrote.

The Org said this evening that it made the decision to lose the employees as part of a broader cost-cutting effort that it hopes will help close a $10 million hole in its budget. At the end of April, it had said it was looking for $8 million in savings.

Costerton said ICANN will also look at reducing travel expenses and doing more work from its cheaper regional offices, as well as finding other efficiencies.

But it is also “evaluating ICANN’s fee structure to ensure it scales realistically with inflation”, Costeron wrote.

This will be of great interest to domain registrants, particularly those on a tight budget or with large portfolios, as any increases in the transaction fees ICANN charges registries and registrars will inevitably be passed on to their customers.

Registrars currently add a $0.18 per-domain-per-year ICANN fee at their checkouts, and registries pay $0.25 for every add-year, renew-year and transfer. The fees have not changed in at least the 15 years I’ve been writing this blog.

For ICANN community members and the domain name industry, the cuts will selfishly beg the questions of which services ICANN provides could suffer as a result, and whether it means delays to already overdue projects such as the new gTLD program.

The budget shortfall has arisen due to inflation and sluggish domain sales from the likes of Verisign, ICANN’s biggest funding source. Verisign’s outlook for the year is pretty bearish, with a low estimate of a 1.75% decline in domains under management.

I believe it’s the first time ICANN has been forced into a mass layoff, having reliably swollen its ranks almost every year until quite recently.

Travel expenses push ICANN into the red again

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN is spending millions of dollars more than expected in its current financial year, which it blames mainly on inflation pushing up the price of flights and hotels.

The latest quarterly financial report, for the nine months to March 31, shows ICANN operations spent $112 million in the period, which was $6 million more than it had budgeted for. Funding was $113 million, $3 million more than expected, leading to a total deficit of $3 million.

ICANN said the costs were “driven by higher than planned costs for ICANN78, ICANN 79, community programs, and support of meetings other than ICANN Public meetings… primarily due to inflationary increases to travel and venue costs”.

ICANN 79, which took place in Puerto Rico in March, cost $600,000 more than budget. This was due to higher flight and hotel prices and more sessions than had been planned. ICANN said in February that October’s meeting in Hamburg had come in $900,000 over budget.

Funding for the nine months came in ahead of budget largely due to better-than-expected registrar fees, most likely related to drop-catching registrar Gname’s decision to buy 150 more registrar accreditations last December.

The report, which covers the third quarter of ICANN’s fiscal 2024, also breaks out how much some of the Org’s important projects have cost.

The Grant Program, which launched at the end of the quarter, has cost almost $1.4 million in development and operating expenses since July 2022, about $18,000 over budget. That’s obviously a big chunk of the $10 million ICANN intends to hand out this year, but nothing compared to the auction proceeds fund that the grants come from — that was up $9 million to $226 million since last July based on investment gains.

The Registration Data Request Service, which launched last November, has cost just shy of $2 million to develop and run since December 2022. Compare this to the $100 million a year ICANN had predicted before the ambitions of the original proposed project were massively scaled back.

Overall, ICANN’s financial position is still incredibly healthy. Its total funds under management was up $11 million to $529 million over the nine months due to investment gains.

ICANN to slash costs as Verisign’s magic money tree dries up

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN is looking for $8 million of cost savings, $3 million more than it expected a quarter ago, amid gloomy predictions about the domain industry’s likely performance this year.

The Org last week told community members that it’s having to revise its expected revenue down by $3 million to $145 million after it became clear domain sales won’t be as good as previously thought. The new budget is due to be approved by the board this coming weekend.

“ICANN faces an inflation of its costs and also happens to face a lack of inflation of its funding,” CFO Xavier Calvez said on one of two conference calls explaining the changes.

ICANN’s bean counters are now predicting a 4% decline in transaction fees from legacy gTLDs — a line item mostly comprising .com — for ICANN’s fiscal 2025, which begins this July. Back in December, when the first draft of the budget was published, the prediction was for 0% growth.

The grim numbers match Verisign’s own growth story for the rest of the calendar year. Company bosses last week predicted .com/.net to grow at between 0.25% and negative 1.75%, a downwards revision on its guidance in February.

Talking to Verisign and other registries and registrars and looking at the monthly transaction data they file is the main way ICANN formulates its budget predictions.

“We gauged very strong expectations of a contraction in domain name registrations,” ICANN programs director Mukesh Chulani said.

Meanwhile, ICANN estimates transaction fees for new gTLDs will increase 7% in FY25, obviously from a much lower base then legacy, compared to the December estimate of 2% growth.

ICANN was already expecting its funding to miss its spending requirements by $5 million, but that figure is now $8 million. But rather than run ops at a loss, ICANN has instead put this number on a line labelled “Cost Savings Initiatives” in order to present a balanced bottom line.

Where these cost savings might come from doesn’t seem to have been figured out yet, and there’s some community worry that services might be affected by cuts.

There was some talk of finding efficiencies in the travel budget or with contractors, but those budgets are $13 million and $24 million respectively, so any cuts there could be swingeing.

By far the largest expenditure line item is staff, which costs $90 million. But there’s been no change to the expected number of ICANN full-timers in the budget, so layoffs don’t seem to be on the cards just yet.

ICANN spends $5 million more than planned in first fiscal half

Kevin Murphy, February 21, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN published its second fiscal quarter financials yesterday, revealing a roughly $5 million overspend in the second half of 2023.

The Org spent $72 million of its $74 million revenue in the six months to December 31, more than the $67 million spend it had budgeted for.

ICANN said the overspend came mainly in its Community and Engagement reporting segment, with the $4 million excess “driven by higher than planned costs for ICANN78, community programs, and meetings support”.

The same report shows that ICANN 78, which took place in Hamburg last October, cost about $900,000 more than expected largely because it spent more on air fares and had to put on more sessions than it originally expected.

It also spent about $100,000 on its 25th anniversary celebration, a line item that had not appeared in its budget. Because who can predict an anniversary, right?

Hamburg was the most-expensive meeting since the pandemic ended, costing about $5.4 million and attracting over 2,500 attendees. The Kuala Lumpur meeting a year earlier had cost $4.7 million.

ICANN’s revenue was described as “flat”, but a breakdown shows a roughly $1 million (rounded) shortfall in both registry and registrar transaction fees compared to the budget. This is likely linked to shrinkages in Verisign’s .com sales over the period.

ICANN predicts flattish 2025 for domain industry

Kevin Murphy, December 13, 2023, Domain Policy

The gTLD domain industry will be pretty much flat in terms of sales next year, according to the predictions in ICANN’s latest budget.

The bean counters reckon the Org will make $89 million from transactions in legacy gTLDs (mainly .com) in its fiscal 2025, up from the $88.9 million it expects to make in fiscal 2024, which ends next June 30.

Meanwhile, it expects transactions in new gTLDs to bring in $10.1 million, up from the $9.9 million it expects in FY24.

Both of the updated FY24 estimates are actually a bit ahead of ICANN’s current budget, written in April and approved in May, which predicted $87.1 million from legacy and $9.2 million from new.

ICANN expects to lose 22 registries (presumably unused dot-brands, of which there are still plenty, with a couple hundred contracts up for renewal in 2025) and gain 40 new registrars.

This will lead to revenue from registry fixed fees to dip to $27.6 million from a predicted $28.1 million, and registrar fixed fees going up from $10.4 million from a predicted $10.1 million.

The FY24 registrar numbers are a little healthier than ICANN predicted back in April, when it expected 2,447 accredited registrars at the end of the financial year versus the 2,575 it’s expecting now. Gname’s decision to buy 150 new accreditations will have played a big role in moving this number up. ICANN expects 2,615 registrars at the end of FY25.

But ICANN is losing registries faster than it predicted back in April. Then, it had expected to end FY24 with 1,127 registries; now it thinks it will have 1,118. It expects that to drop to 1,089 by the end of June 2025.

Overall, ICANN is budgeting for funding of $148 million and the same level of expenses in FY25, the same as FY24.

After Verisign’s sluggish year, ICANN misses funding goal by $2 million

Kevin Murphy, October 4, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s fiscal 2023 revenue came in $2 million light when compared to its budget, the annual report published today shows.

The Org blamed lower-than-expected transaction fees for the shortfall, suggesting the domain industry wasn’t quite as buoyant as its accountants had hoped.

Funding for the year came in at $150 million against a budgeted target of $152 million.

The period covered is July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023, a period in which Verisign — ICANN’s biggest contributor by some margin — repeatedly lowered its revenue estimates from .com and .net sales.

This is not a coincidence. The two outfits’ fates are intertwined. Verisign funded ICANN to the tune of $49.7 million from its legacy gTLD business in FY23, up only slightly from $49.5 million in FY22.

Overall, ICANN said that its revenue from registry transactions was $60 million versus its budget estimate of $62 million, and that registrar transactions revenue was $39 million versus its $41 million estimate.

Other registrar fees and registry fixed fees seem to have come in a bit ahead of budget, and rounding accounts for the fact that the numbers don’t make prima facie sense.

ICANN said its expenses for the year came in $10 million lower than expected, at $142 million, due to lower professional services and personnel costs. Its travel expenses were $2 million more than expected, it seems due to the Washington DC meeting being more expensive than planned.

Industry outlook gloomy for next year, predicts ICANN

Kevin Murphy, December 16, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN is forecasting a downturn of the domain industry’s fortunes over the coming year according to its draft fiscal 2024 budget, published today.

The Org’s beancounters are budgeting for slumps in both legacy and new gTLD transactions, along with declines in the number of contracted registries and registrars.

Global economic conditions, such as the post-Covid recessions and high inflation being experienced by many nations, are blamed for the poor outlook.

Overall, ICANN expects to have a couple million bucks less to play with in FY24, which runs from July 2023 to June 2024.

It’s planning to receive $145.3 million, down from the $147.7 million it expects to receive in the current fiscal year, which is only half-way through.

Most of ICANN’s money comes from transaction fees on legacy gTLDs — mainly Verisign’s .com — and that’s where it’s predicting a 1% decline, from $88.3 million to $87.1 million, or 185.8 million transactions compared to 187.9 million.

ICANN receives transaction fees on every domain added, renewed or transferred between registrars.

Verisign has been lowering its financial outlook all year, as .com shrinks. Fewer .com renewals means less money for ICANN.

ICANN also thinks new gTLD sales are going down, from 25.7 transactions in the current year to 24.2 million in FY24, taking about $600,000 from ICANN’s top line.

The number of contracted registries is also predicted to decline by 19, from 1,146 to 1,127 by the end of the year, while the number of registrars is expected to increase from 2,447 to 2,452.

Other funding sources, such as ccTLD contributions and sponsorships, are expected to remain unchanged.

The draft budget is open for public comment and could well change before it is finally approved, which usually comes in May or June.

ICANN finished year $24 million ahead but loses $29 million on the markets

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN came out of fiscal 2022 $24 million ahead of its budget due to lower travel expenses and greater domain sales than expected, but blew $29 million on poor investments, according to financial results published today.

The Org ended June having received $150 million, mostly from registries and registrars, which was $5 million more than it had budgeted for.

Fixed, variable and transaction-based fees accounted for most of the difference. Registrars sold more domains than ICANN predicted, and fewer registries and registrars cancelled their contracts.

Verisign of course was the biggest contributor, accounting for over a third of revenue — $49 million for .com/.net fees alone. On the registrar side, GoDaddy contributed over $11.2 million.

GoDaddy’s contribution is actually a little higher than all the 131 participating ccTLDs’ voluntary donations combined, which came in at $11 million.

Expenses were $125 million, against a budget of $143 million. That was mostly due to the fact that two of its three meetings were held entirely online, so ICANN didn’t have to pay its staff and volunteers’ travel expenses.

It spent $3 million on meetings in the year, against a $10 million budget.

When the budget was passed in May 2021, ICANN had expected all three meetings to take place in person, with international travel “unrestricted” despite the pandemic.

Expenses were also affected by a lower-than-expected headcount. Average headcount was down by three on FY21 at 389, compared to the 405 predicted by the budget.

Despite the over-performance at the operating level, ICANN’s balance sheet actually declined compared to a year earlier.

It had funds under management of $505.5 million compared to $520 million, having lost $29 million due to “investment declines in the Reserve Fund due to volatility in the financial markets”. Its portfolio is still $9 million ahead compared to five years ago, however.

Belgium slashes its ICANN funding in “mission creep” protest

Kevin Murphy, August 12, 2022, Domain Policy

DNS Belgium has cut its contribution to ICANN’s budget by two thirds, in protest at ICANN’s “mission creep” and its handling of GDPR.

The Belgian ccTLD registry informed ICANN CFO Xavier Calvez that it will only pay $25,000 this fiscal year, compared to the $75,000 it usually pays.

Registry general manager Philip Du Bois wrote (pdf) that “during recent years there has been a shift in focus which is not in the benefit of ccTLD’s”.

ICANN has become a large corporate structure with a tendency to suffer from “mission creep”… At the same time ICANN seems to fail in dealing in an appropriate way with important issues such as GDPR/privacy. It goes beyond our comprehension that ICANN and its officers don’t feel any reluctancy to “advise” European institutions and national governmental bodies to embrace “standards developed by the multi-stakeholder structures on international level” while at the same time it is obvious that ICANN itself has not yet mastered the implementation of important European legislation.

Based in the heart of the EU, DNS Belgium was a strong proponent of Whois privacy many years before the GDPR came into effect in 2018.

Calvez, in his reply (pdf), acknowledges that ccTLD contributions are voluntary, but seems to insinuate (call me a cynic) that the criticisms are hollow and that the registry might simply be trying to reduce its costs during an economic downturn:

We do appreciate any amount of contribution, and also that the ability for any ccTLD to contribute varies over time, including based on economic circumstances. We do understand that the reduction of DNS Belgium’s contribution from US$75,000 to US$25,000 represents a significant and meaningful reduction of costs for DNS Belgium.

DNS Belgium seems to be doing okay, based on its latest annual financial report. It’s not a huge company, but registrations and revenue have been growing at a slow and steady rate for the last several years.

All ccTLD contributions to ICANN are voluntary, but there are suggested donations based on how many domains a registry has under management, ranging from the $225,000 paid by the likes of the UK registry to the $500 paid by the likes of Pitcairn.

DNS Belgium, which manages about 1.7 million names, falls into the third-highest band, with a $75,000 suggested contribution.

ICANN is budgeting for funding of $152 million in its current FY23.

Fewer domain companies closing down than expected

Registries and registrars are not shutting up shop as fast as ICANN expected, according to CEO Göran Marby.

According to his latest report (pdf) to his board, the number of accredited registrars and contracted registries is substantially ahead of what had been predicted in the current budget, meaning over a million bucks more than expected in ICANN’s coffers.

There were 1,172 gTLD registries at the end of February, according to the report. That’s 25 more than ICANN had expected.

Typically, the only registries that willingly give up their contracts are dot-brands that have never used their TLD and decide to bow out, but we haven’t seen one of those since last September, the longest break in terminations in years.

Marby also reported that there were 2,510 accredited registrars on February 28, a whopping 168 more than the budget planned for.

This was no doubt helped by drop-catchers such as Singaporean registrar Gname, which has created dozens of new shell accreditations in recent months.

Marby reported that this all mean $1.3 million extra revenue, accounting for fixed fees in both segments and registrar application fees.

Overall, ICANN was $16.5 million ahead of budget at the end of February, due to the extra income from fixed fees, a bigger contribution from .com, and lower-than-expected expenses of $12.3 million.