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Groups make flawed case that .com is a cartel

Three pressure groups in the US have called on the government to strip Verisign of its .com contract, saying the company is operating as a “de facto cartel” with ICANN that has allowed its shareholders to milk the public for billions.

But their argument has a pretty significant hole in it, based on an apparent misunderstanding of how Verisign funds ICANN.

The American Economic Liberties Project, the Demand Progress Education Fund, and the Revolving Door Project have written to the Department of Justice and National Telecommunications and Information Administration to demand that they “cut off” Verisign.

The NTIA is the third party in the triumvirate with ICANN and Verisign that controls who gets to run the immensely powerful .com TLD. It’s the NTIA that gets to decide whether Verisign is able to raise its registry fees, how often and by how much.

The Obama administration froze the fee for its last six-year run, but the caps were lifted under Trump, giving Verisign four 7% increase options over the current six-year deal, all of which it has chosen to exercise.

The price of a .com registration or renewal has gone up from $7.85 in 2018 to $10.26 later this year. Verisign enjoys some of the highest profit margins of any public company in the US as a result, with much of its cashflow diverted into share buybacks.

This has to stop, and the .com contract should be open for bidders, the three groups said in their letters:

Ending this contract will force the initiation of a competitive open-bidding process, ultimately bringing down costs for those who must register a domain name. ICANN and VeriSign function as a de facto cartel and the NTIA should stop sanctioning the “incestuous legal triangle” that serves as a shield to deflect overdue antitrust scrutiny into their otherwise likely illegal collusive relationship.

While the letters raise many good points, they’re the same good points that have been raised every few years for the last quarter century. The US government response seems to depend entirely on whether the current occupant of the White House wears a blue tie or a red tie.

Where the argument is flawed is in the statement: “ICANN has a vested interest in VeriSign making as much money as possible, as VeriSign pays ICANN for each annual domain name registration.”

This is not quite correct, as ICANN’s current financial problems can attest.

In reality, while it is true that Verisign is by far the biggest contributor to ICANN’s budget, the dollar value is tied not to how much money Verisign makes, but to how many registrations and renewals it processes.

ICANN gets a quarter for every domain-year, basically, regardless of whether Verisign charges $7.85 or $10.26, so ICANN’s vested interest is in Verisign selling as many domain-years as possible, not its bottom line. If .com shrinks, so does ICANN’s budget.

And that’s exactly what has happened over the last couple of years. As Verisign’s prices have gone up, volume has started to go down, first in China and more recently in the US.

While I don’t believe the company has explicitly linked its volume decline to its price hikes, it’s said that a solution to the problem is new promotional activities later this year, so draw your own conclusions.

ICANN’s budget has taken a hit as a result. The Org said in April that it was looking at an $8 million shortfall and last month said it was laying off 7% of its staff to try to save $10 million.

The fact that it’s just canned 33 staff is pretty decent argument against the cartel claim, and I expect it to form part of ICANN’s response.

The three groups’ letters may be on more solid ground with its claim that ICANN has enjoyed a “$20 million cash bonus” that they describe as a share of Verisign’s “ill-gotten rent to maintain its market power.”

That’s a reference to the $5 million a year for five years additional payment that Verisign agreed to when it renegotiated its registry contract with ICANN in 2020.

Nominally to help fund ICANN’s DNS “security and stability” efforts, the optics of this side deal have always been terrible, the granularity of the accounting transparency has been criticized as lacking, and I’ve frequently referred to the payment as a “bung”.

But that payment is strictly bilateral and not part of Verisign’s deal with NTIA.

The NTIA arrangement has presumptive renewal of six-year terms, but NTIA can revoke it with 120 days notice. That means it will have to act before August 2 if it decides to terminate Verisign’s contract.

You can read the letters in full here.

GoDaddy price increases lead to revenue growth

GoDaddy last night reported domains revenue ahead of forecasts after it raised its prices and sold more higher-priced domains on the aftermarket.

The company’s Core Platform segment, which includes domains and hosting, reported first-quarter revenue up 4% compared to a year ago at $725 million, with domains revenue driving growth, up 7% percent to $532 million.

Domains under management was 84.6 million at the end of March 31.

“Our growth was driven by strong demand for domains in the primary and secondary market, increased pricing in the primary market and a higher average transaction value in the secondary market,” CFO Mark McCaffrey said in prepared remarks.

Aftermarket revenue was up 12% to an unspecified amount.

Including the company’s other revenue streams, GoDaddy reported net income of $401.5 million on revenue up 7% at $1.1 billion.

Verisign, the .com registry, last week reported stagnating .com growth that it blamed in part on US registrars raising their retail prices, leading to lower first-year sales and renewals.

.com still shrinking because of China

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2024, Domain Registries

Verisign’s .com gTLD shrunk by over a quarter million domains in the first quarter due to softness in China and US registrars’ pesky habit of putting up prices and the pain is likely to continue for the rest of the year, according to Verisign.

There were about 159.4 million .com domains and 13.1 million .net domains at the end of March, down a combined 270,000 from the end of 2023, Verisign said during its first-quarter earnings call on Thursday. Most of the decline appears to be in .com.

Registrations from Chinese registrars, which are about 5% of the total, were down about 360,000 in the period. Not ideal, but a lot less sharp of a drop than the 2.2 million it lost in Q4.

There were 9.5 million new registrations across both zones in the quarter, compared to 10.3 million in the year-ago period.

But CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts that competition from low-priced new gTLDs, some of which sell year one for under a dollar, is likely harming .com’s growth among cost-conscious Chinese registrants.

But he said the company is also seeing “softness” from US registrars, which he said are increasingly focused on increasing average revenue per user and putting up retail prices. This leads to fewer new registrations and renewals.

Bidzos said Verisign expects to introduce new marketing programs in the second half of the year — around the same time as the company’s base .com wholesale fee goes up from $9.59 to $10.26 — to help offset these declines.

The renewal rate for Q1 is expected to be about 74% compared to 75.5% a year ago. Bidzos said the total domain base shrinkage could be worse in Q2 due to the larger number of names coming up for renewal.

The company lowered its guidance for the year to between 0.25% growth and negative 1.75%. In February, it had guided flat, with a 1% swing in either direction.

Verisign’s top and bottom lines continue to grow during the quarter, with revenue up 5.5% at $384 million and net income up from $179 million to $194 million.

.com is shrinking but Verisign raises prices again anyway

Kevin Murphy, February 9, 2024, Domain Registries

Verisign has confirmed that it plans to exercise its fourth and final .com price-increasing power under its current registry contract, even as its domains under management continues to head south.

The company confirmed last night that it will increase the annual registration and renewal wholesale fee for a .com domain from $9.59 to $10.26 on September 1 this year. It’s the last of the four times it’s allowed to raise prices by up to 7% in its current contract with ICANN, which expires in November.

The news came as Verisign reported its fourth-quarter and full-year 2023 financial results, which were as profitable as we’ve come to expect.

But in terms of domains under management, .com and .net continued to decline, which CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts was all China’s fault. Domains managed by Chinese registrars shrank by 2.2 million in Q4, leading to an overall .com/.net shrinkage of 1.2 million names.

There were nine million new .com/.net registrations in Q4, down from 9.7 million in the same quarter in 2022.

Bidzos said the decline in China was due to factors such as stricter local regulations and a weaker economy, and said he expects those challenges to continue to hit Verisign’s numbers in 2024. He did not blamed higher prices for the drop.

Indeed, the .com zone file has been shrinking by about 1,500 domains per day on average since the start of the year. Zone numbers are usually a reliable predictor of DUM trends.

Revenue from China was down about $14.4 million, CFO George Kilguss said.

Bidzos said Verisign expects its DUM to be flat this year, with a possible 1% swing either way.

For Q4, the company reported revenue up 3% year over year at $380 million, with $265 million net income, up from $179 million a year earlier.

For the whole of 2023, revenue was up 4.8% at $1.49 billion and net income was $818 million, up from $674 million in 2022.

Domain universe grows despite .com drag

Kevin Murphy, November 16, 2023, Domain Registries

The number of registered domain names in the world grew by 2.7 million in the third quarter, despite market-leading .com shrinking, according to Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief.

There were 359.3 million domains across all TLDs at the end of September, according to the DNIB. up from 356.6 million at the end of June.

Over the same period, .com shrunk by half a million names as Verisign faces challenges from exposure to erratic demand from China.

New gTLD volumes were up by 2.1 million names to end the quarter at 30.2 million. Judging by zone files, at least half of these new names seem to be cheap, low-quality regs in the likes of .top and .cfd.

Total ccTLD names were 138.1 million at the end of the quarter, up by a million. All of the top 10 ccTLDs grew or were flat, except .uk, which lost about a hundred thousand names.

China has .com’s growth by the balls

Kevin Murphy, October 30, 2023, Domain Registries

Verisign has downgraded its expectations for .com/.net growth for the year into potentially negative territory, citing — not for the first time — low demand from China.

The registry expects its domain name base to grow at a maximum of 0.4% or shrink as much as 0.4% by the end of the year. That compares to a prediction of between 0% and 2.25% growth at the start of the year.

“Low demand from China remains the primary source of drag on the overall domain name base growth,” CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts on Thursday. “Excluding registrars based in China, both our domain name base and new registrations are up year-over-year”.

The company’s regulatory filing for Q3 shows that China revenue was down from $26.8 million to $22 million over the year. It was the only one of the four geographic reporting segments to show a shrinkage.

Verisign ended Q3 173.9 million .com/.net domains under management, down 0.1% over the year and down half a million names in the quarter.

While DUM growth may be on the decline, price hikes compensate and keep Verisign’s dollar-growth going.

The company reported year-over-year revenue growth up 5.4% at $376 million for the quarter of 2023. Net income was $188 million, up from $169 million a year ago.

Palage’s epic rant as he asks ICANN to cancel Verisign’s .net contract

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN is devolving into a trade association hiding under a thinning veneer of multistakeholderism and the domain industry is becoming a cartel.

Those are two of the conclusions reached by consultant Michael Palage, who’s been involved with ICANN since pretty much the start, in an epic Request for Reconsideration in which he asks the Org to unsign Verisign’s recently renewed .net registry contract.

ICANN’s equally intriguing response — denying, of course, Palage’s request — also raises worrying questions about how much power ICANN’s lawyers have over its board of directors.

The RfR paints a picture of a relationship where Verisign receives special privileges — such as exemptions from certain fees and obligations — in exchange for paying higher fees — contributing $55 million of ICANN’s budget — some of which is accounted for quite opaquely.

Palage claims the domain industry of being “on the precipice of becoming a cartel” due to recent consolidation, and says that is being enabled by ICANN’s failure to conduct an economic study of the market.

Verisign’s .net and .com contracts are the only registry agreements that do not oblige the registry to participate in economic studies, Palage says, reducing ICANN’s ability, per its bylaws, “to promote and sustain a competitive environment in the DNS market.”

Palage writes:

The failure of ICANN to have the contractual authority to undertake a full economic study to ensure a “competitive environment in the DNS market” undermines one of its core values. This failure is resulting in a growing consolidation within the industry which is on the precipice of becoming a cartel. ne needs to look no further than four US-based companies, Verisign, PIR, GoDaddy, and Identity Digital which currently control almost the entirety of the gTLD registry market based on domain names under management. This unchecked consolidation within the industry directly and materially impacts the ability of individual consultants to make a livelihood unless working for one of the dominant market players.

While Palage says he and other registrants are being harmed by increasing .net prices, and that an economic study would help lower them, he also asks ICANN to get Verisign to migrate to the Base Registry Agreement, which would enable Verisign to raise prices at will, without the current 10%-a-year cap.

He’s also concerned that ICANN’s volunteer community is shrinking as the domain industry becomes an increasingly dominant percentage of public meeting attendance.

Figures published by ICANN show that, at the last count, 39% of attendees were from the domain industry. ICANN stopped breaking down attendee allegiance in 2020 during the pandemic and did not resume publication of this data afterwards.

“ICANN has started down the slippery slope of becoming a trade association,” Palage writes.

While his RfR was going through the process of being considered by ICANN and its Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, Palage separately wrote to ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey to express concerns that ICANN policy-making might be risking falling foul of antitrust law.

It seems a recent meeting of the working group discussing updates to ICANN’s Transfers Policy debated whether to cap the amount registries are allowed to charge registrars for bulk transfers. Dollar amounts were discussed.

Palage suggested ICANN might want to develop a formal antitrust policy statement that could be referred to whenever ICANN policy-makers meet, in much the same way as its Expected Standards of Behavior are deployed.

If the RfR as published by ICANN lacks some coherence, it may be because ICANN’s lawyers have redacted huge chunks of text as “privileged and confidential”. That’s something that hardly ever happens in RfRs.

It seems Palage knows some things about the .net contract and Verisign’s relationship with ICANN from his term on the ICANN board, which ran from April 2003 to April 2006, a time when Verisign and ICANN were basically at war.

Because the information Palage is privy to is still considered privileged by ICANN, it was redacted not only from the published version of the RfR but also it seems from the version supplied to the BAMC for consideration.

ICANN cited this part of its bylaws to justify the redactions:

The Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee shall act on a Reconsideration Request on the basis of the public written record, including information submitted by the Requestor, by the ICANN Staff, and by any third party.

Reading between the lines, it seems most of the redactions likely refer to the Verisign v ICANN lawsuit of 2004-2005.

Fellow greybeards will recall that Verisign sued ICANN for blocking its Site Finder service, which put a wildcard in the .com zone and essentially parked and monetized all unregistered domains while destabilizing software that relied on NXDOMAIN replies.

The October 2005 settlement (pdf) forced Verisign to acknowledge ICANN as king of the internet. In exchange, it got to keep .com forever. The deal gave Verisign financial security and ICANN legitimacy and was probably the most important of ICANN’s foundational documents before the IANA transition.

So what did the board of 2005 know that’s apparently too sensitive for the board of 2023? Dunno. I asked Palage if he’d be willing to share and he politely declined.

In any event, his RfR (pdf), which among other things asked for ICANN to reopen .net contract negotiations, was dismissed summarily (pdf) by BAMC last week on the grounds that he had not sufficiently shown how he was injured by ICANN’s actions.

Verisign narrows domain growth guidance

Verisign cast a slightly more optimistic light on the potential for .com and .net growth last week, as it reported a modest improvement in first-quarter sales.

Management told analysts that it’s now expecting domain growth of between 0.5% and 2.25% for the year — a boost to the low-end but a lowering of the high-end.

In February, it had predicted growth of between 0% and 2.5%.

For Q1, the company reported domain growth of just 0.1% There were 174.8 million .com and .net domains at the end of the quarter, up by a million from the start of the year.

Verisign reported net income of $179 million, up from $158 million a year ago, on revenue that increased 5.1% at $364 million.

Worried about governments seizing .com domains? Too late

Kevin Murphy, April 20, 2023, Domain Policy

Language proposed for Verisign’s .net registry contract that some say would give governments the ability to arbitrarily seize domains is already present in the company’s .com contract.

As I reported earlier this month, the .net Registry Agreement is up for renewal and ICANN has opened up some largely uncontroversial proposed changes for public comment.

ICANN has received two comments so far, both of which refer to what one commenter called the “outrageous and dangerous” proposed changes to Verisign’s .net Registry-Registrar Agreement.

The RRA is the contract all accredited registrars must agree to when they sign up to sell domains in a given TLD. For ICANN, it’s a way to vicariously enforce policy on registrants via registrars via registries.

Unsimply put, the RA instructs Verisign to have an RRA with its registrars that tells them what rules their registrants have to agree to when they buy a domain name.

The new language causing the consternation is:

Verisign reserves the right to deny, cancel, redirect or transfer any registration or transaction, or place any domain name(s) on registry lock, hold or similar status, as it deems necessary, in its unlimited and sole discretion:

to ensure compliance with applicable law, government rules or regulations, or pursuant to any legal order or subpoena of any government, administrative or governmental authority, or court of competent jurisdiction

One commenter states “this proposed agreement would allow any government in the world to cancel, redirect or transfer to their control applicable domain names”, adding “presumably ICANN staff and Verisign would want to also apply it to other extensions like .COM as those contracts come up for renewal”.

In fact, it’s the other way around. The exact same language has been present in Verisign’s .com contract for over three years, a change to Appendix 8a (pdf) that went largely unnoticed when thousands of commenters were instead complaining about the removal of price caps and fretting about the rise of Covid-19 around the world.

For those worried about the new .net language making it into the .com contract one day — worry not! It’s already there.

.com was a drag on the industry in Q4

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2023, Domain Registries

The .com gTLD was a growth drag on domain name registrations in the fourth quarter, if the latest figures in Verisign’s Domain Name Industry Brief are to be believed.

The industry closed out 2022 with 350.4 million domains all TLDs that the DNIB tracks (which excludes Freenom’s free ccTLDs), up half a million in the quarter and 8.7 million over the year.

But that was despite Verisign’s own .com, rather than due to it. The DNIB has .com down from 160.9 million to 160.5 million. Sister TLD .net was flat at 13.2 million.

It was left to new gTLDs and ccTLDs to pick up the slack.

ccTLDs accounted for 133.1 million names, up 700,000 sequentially and 5.7 million over the year. New gTLD registrations were up 100,000 sequentially and 2.7 million over the year.

A big driver in ccTLDs was Australia’s .au, where the launch of direct second-level registrations added hundreds of thousands of domains and let the ccTLD kick .xyz out of the top 10 TLDs by volume.

But the report has a pretty big discrepancy that could throw out the ccTLDs number, I believe. For some reason the DNIB has .eu increasing by 300,000 names to 4 million in Q4, which flies in the face of the registry’s own numbers, which have it basically flat at 3.7 million.