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Freenom settles $500 million Meta lawsuit and will exit domain business

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2024, Domain Registries

Facebook has claimed another domain industry scalp. Freenom said this week it has settled the cybersquatting lawsuit filed against it by Meta last year, and that it is getting out of the domain name business.

The registry/registrar said in a brief February 12 statement (pdf) that it will pay Meta an undisclosed sum and has “independently decided to exit the domain name business”.

Just how “independent” that decision was is debatable. The company lost its ICANN registrar accreditation last year and is believed to have lost its government contracts to run the ccTLDs for Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, Mali, Gabon, and possibly also Tokelau, its flagship .tk domain.

Meta had claimed in its complaint that Freenom had typosquatted its trademarks thousands of times, including domains such as faceb00k.ga. It sued for 5,000 counts under US anti-cybersquatting law, seeking $100,000 for each infringement, for a cool half-billion bucks in total.

Freenom and its network of co-defendant affiliates said in their defense that Meta had access to an abuse API that allowed it to turn off such domains, but had never used it. It also claimed many of the cited typosquats had already been shut down by the time the suit was filed.

It seems the names in question were likely those registered by abusive third-parties that were reclaimed and monetized by Freenom under its widely criticized free-domains business model, which made its TLDs some of the world’s most-abused.

But the claims on both sides evidently will not be tested at trial. The last court filing, dated late December, showed the two parties were to enter mediation, and Freenom put out the following statement this week:

Freenom today announced it has resolved the lawsuit brought by Meta Platforms, Inc. on confidential monetary and business Terms. Freenom recognizes Meta’s legitimate interest in enforcing its intellectual property rights and protecting its users from fraud and abuse.

Freenom and its related companies have also independently decided to exit the domain name business, including the operation of registries. While Freenom winds down its domain name business, Freenom will treat the Meta family of companies as a trusted notifier and will also implement a block list to address future phishing, DNS abuse, and cybersquatting.

Meta said in its Q4 Adversarial Threat Report this week that the settlement showed its approach to tackling DNS abuse is working.

Freenom’s gTLD domains have been transferred to Gandi. It’s less clear what’s happening to its ccTLD names, though social media chatter this week suggests the company has been giving registrants in affected ccTLDs nine-year renewals at no cost.

ICANN cans Freenom

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2023, Domain Registrars

Controversial free-domains company Freenom has lost its ICANN accreditation, signalling the end of its life as a gTLD registrar.

Org said that as of November 25, Freenom (aka OpenTLD) will no longer be able to sell or renew any domains.

The termination follows the company’s failure to resolve or respond to three separate breach notices, covering dozens of infractions, that Compliance sent between September and October.

Real damage to registrants was caused — many could not rescue their expired domains or transfer names to another registrar.

The company has 16,521 gTLD domains under management at the end of July, according to the most-recent registry transaction reports. They will now be moved to a more-reliable registrar under ICANN’s De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure.

Freenom may have been a small fish in the gTLD space, but it gave away tens of millions of free domains in five ccTLDs it controlled, mostly to spammers and other ne’er-do-wells.

It was recently reported that it has lost or is losing its deals with these ccTLDs, notably .tk, after their governments became aghast at how badly they were being abused.

Freenom is “essentially finished as a company”

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2023, Domain Registries

Freenom is “essentially finished as a company”.

That’s the conclusion of a truly excellent piece of reporting at the MIT Technology Review today, which takes a deep dive into the company’s ccTLD antics over the last couple of decades, particularly regarding Tokelau’s .tk domain.

The article reveals not only that all four of Freenom’s African ccTLDs have severed ties with it (we already knew about two) but that Tokelau has asked .nz operator InternetNZ to help it wrest away control of .tk, the company’s flagship.

Officials in Tokelau, a tiny Pacific island territory with extremely poor and expensive internet infrastructure, say they get very little money from Freenom and are appalled that Tokelau’s reputation has been dragged through the mud by decades of abusive .tk registrations.

Freenom’s business model is to give away domains for free and then monetize them when they expire or, more usually, are suspended for abuse. It’s seen .tk become one of the largest TLDs by volume, with at one point over 40 million names.

The company hasn’t been selling any domains in the five ccTLDs it operated since January and it seems quite likely ICANN will suspend or terminate its gTLD registrar accreditation in the coming days or weeks.

It’s also fighting a cybersquatting lawsuit filed by Facebook owner Meta earlier this year that seeks damages sufficiently large to bankrupt it.

The MIT article is long but meticulously researched and sourced and well worth your time. It’s certainly one of the best pieces of mainstream journalism about the domain industry I’ve read.

Freenom spanked for holding Olympics domain hostage

Kevin Murphy, October 17, 2023, Domain Registrars

Freenom has been hit by its third ICANN contract-breach notice in under a month, this time because the organizers of the 2024 Paris Olympics could not transfer a domain out to another registrar.

The registrar, formally OpenTLD, failed to take off the ClientTransferProhibited status from the domain club2024.tickets, preventing the registrant from transferring it, ICANN claims.

Digging through my database and Whois records, it looks like the organizing committee of Paris 2024 used Freenom to defensively register 10 .tickets domain names related to its Le Club Paris 2024 marketing initiative in July 2020.

They were the only .tickets domains Freenon has ever sold.

When they came up for renewal last year, the Paris committee instead transferred nine of them out to local registrar Gandi, where they remain. The 10th domain was not transferred for some reason.

ICANN says Freenom is in violation of the Transfer Policy by failing to unlock the domain without a good reason. Additionally, the domain doesn’t show up in Whois queries on Freenom’s web site, despite still being in the zone file.

Compliance has given the registrar until November 7 to come back into compliance or risk losing its accreditation.

Freenom is already working under two active breach notices, which ICANN said it has not yet responded to. The deadline on the earlier, September 20 notice has already passed, so ICANN could escalate any day.

Freenom gets yet another ICANN breach notice

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2023, Domain Registrars

ICANN Compliance is really up in Freenom’s face now, filing yet another contract-breach notice against its registrar arm barely a week after the last one.

The September 29 notice adds three new tickets to the 12 in the September 20 notice I wrote about last month. It’s the sixth notice OpenTLD has received since 2015.

The cases are similar to those in the previous missive. ICANN wants proof that the registrar has been complying with the Transfer Policy and the Expired Registration Recovery Policy.

It seems some Freenom customers have had difficulty transferring their names out of the company’s control, and have been unable to restore their domains after accidentally allowing them to expire.

It still also owes ICANN past-due fees, the notice reiterates.

The notice covers complaints from June and July. The company has until October 20 to comply or risk losing its accreditation. The claims in the earlier notice give it until October 11.

Freenom is the company that runs a dwindling collection of free-to-register ccTLDs, notably .tk. It has not allowed registrations on its site all year, blaming technical issues. It’s also being sued by Facebook owner Meta over alleged cybersquatting.

Freenom hit by FIFTH ICANN action after litany of screw-ups

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2023, Domain Registrars

Is time up for Freenom? After being sued by Facebook and losing its contracts to operate ccTLDs for at least two countries, now it also has ICANN Compliance to deal with.

Its registrar arm, Netherlands-based OpenTLD, has been hit with a lengthy ICANN breach notice that alleges the company failed to allow its customers to renew and/or transfer their domains, in violation of the registrar contract.

It’s the fifth time OpenTLD has been targeted by Compliance, following breach notices in 2020, 2017 and 2015 and a notice of suspension later in 2015. ICANN says this notice is for the same sorts of failures as in 2020 and 2017.

The latest notice covers a dozen separate cases, probably the largest number in a single breach notice to date. Some of them ICANN has been investigating as far back as January 2022.

The notice says that OpenTLD failed to allow some registrants of expired domains to recover their names under the Expired Registration Recovery Policy and that some registrants were not provided with the AuthInfo codes they need to transfer their domains to other registrars upon request, which registrars have to do under the Transfer Policy.

It goes on to describe a situation where the registrar habitually did not respond to Compliance’s calls, emails or faxes.

OpenTLD apparently has not filed its 2022 Compliance Certificate with ICANN either, which it was supposed to do before January 20 this year.

The company had almost 19,000 gTLD domain names under management at the end of May, down from a 2019 peak of almost 45,000, but it’s probably better known for being Freenom, the registry behind .ml, .ga, .cf, .gq and .tk.

Domains in these five ccTLDs — mostly representing West African nations suffering under military dictatorships or civil war — were offered for free and monetized by the registry upon expiration or suspension.

But Freenom has not offered new regs in these TLD since the start of the year. Its web site blames technical problems, but it’s widely believed to be a result of the cyberquatting lawsuit filed by Facebook owner Meta in late 2022.

Mali and Gabon, of .ml and .ga, have since severed ties with Freenom. It turned out .ga had seven million domains in its zone, most of which presumably belonged to the registry.

OpenTLD has until October 11 to give ICANN evidence that it followed policy with the renewals or transfers of dozens of names domains or risk losing its accreditation.

Freenom is losing another ccTLD after collecting military emails

Controversial free domains provider is reportedly losing its contract to manage Mali’s ccTLD, its second loss in as many months.

The Financial Times quoted Freenom CEO Joost Zuurbier as saying a 10-year-deal with Mali’s government to run .ml was due to expire yesterday. I reported last month that the deal looked like it was ending.

Gabon has also cancelled its contract with Freenom, saying it was bringing the country into disrepute due to the high levels of spam and abuse associated with .ga domains.

And now it seems that along with running a stable of spam-friendly ccTLDs for a decade, Freenom has also vacuumed up over a hundred thousand emails destined for the US military, which uses the highly restricted .mil TLD.

Zuurbier told the FT that he set up email accounts at navy.ml and army.ml domains shortly after taking over .ml in 2013, and quickly started receiving emails intended for American military personnel, before shutting the accounts down.

While he said nothing was marked confidential, the extensive list of documents he reportedly received, according to the FT, appears to frequently include things you wouldn’t want your enemy to read, such as medical data and financial records.

Now that .ml is reverting to Mali government control, there’s a risk this kind of information could fall into enemy hands, the FT reported. Mali is allied to Russia, which at this point in history is no friend of the US.

Zuurbier said he’s been pestering the US government and military for the last 10 years to get them to do something about the problem. The military told the FT it blocks outgoing emails to .ml domains from its own network. There’s presumably little it can do about emails sent from other domains.

Freenom got its ICANN registrar accreditation suspended in 2015 for cybersquatting its competitors. The company is also being sued for cybersquatting by Facebook owner Meta.

It’s not been possible to register new domains in any of the company’s ccTLD since last year.

Millions of domains to be deleted as Freenom loses its first TLD

Controversial free-domains registry Freenom has lost its deal with the government of Gabon after years of abuse. The government has retaken its ccTLD and will delete as many as seven million .ga domains.

That’s according to the French ccTLD registry, AFNIC (pdf), which says it has been helping migrate the TLD from Freenom to Gabonese government entity ANINF for the last year.

The technical handover will begin today and run until June 7, this coming Wednesday, according to ANINF.

AFNIC said the migration is happening due to “the failure of the company Freenom, which has managed the .ga TLD up until now, to provide the Internet community with a satisfactory service.”

ANINF said it wants to: “Put an end to abusive practices, through the will and support of the Gabonese State, which have had a negative impact on the image of the country and its influence on the Internet.”

Freenom’s business model is to allow people to register domains for free, then bring them in-house and monetize them when they expire or are suspended for abuse such as spam and phishing — something that happens rather a lot.

Security blogger Brian Krebs reported last week that abuse levels originating from ccTLD domains have plummeted since Freenom’s troubles began earlier this year.

ANINF reckons there are currently over seven million domains in .ga, and says most of those will be deleted.

That would make .ga the seventh-largest TLD overall and fourth-largest ccTLD after China, Germany and the UK. But Gabon has a population of just 2.3 million with a relatively low internet penetration of 62%.

Could it be the beginning of the end for Freenom?

Presumably most of the domains Gabon will delete are owned and currently monetized by Freenom, so it will be losing a large parking network when ANINF swings the ban hammer.

There’s also reason to believe .ga will not be the last ccTLD it loses. The tech contact in the IANA record for Mali’s .ml switched from Freenom’s Netherlands-based subsidiary to a Mali government agency back in March, suggesting a takeover is also imminent there.

Then of course there’s the lawsuit by Facebook owner Meta, filed earlier this year, which accuses Freenom of cybersquatting and seeks a ruinous amount in damages.

Freenom has not allowed anyone to register domains in any of its managed TLDs — .ml, .ga, .cf, .gq and .tk — since at least January 1 this year.

I asked Freenom to explain this a few weeks ago and the company declined to comment.

ANINF says the migration this week will cause disruptions, but says it’s been reaching out to registrars with legit registrations to minimize the turbulence for their customers.

Verisign wipes free TLDs from the world stats

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2022, Domain Registries

The number of domain names registered globally dropped by over 25 million in the first quarter, but only because Verisign has stopped tracking .tk and its free sister ccTLDs in its quarterly estimates.

The latest Domain Name Industry Brief says that 2021 ended with 341.7 million registrations across all TLDs, substantially fewer that the 367.3 million it reported at the end of the third quarter.

But this is only because Verisign has decided to no longer count the six Pacific and African ccTLDs managed by Freenom, notably .tk, which had contributed 24.7 million names to the Q3 tally.

The report says: “the .tk, .cf, .ga, .gq and .ml ccTLDs have been excluded from all applicable calculations, due to an unexplained change in estimates for the .tk zone size and lack of verification from the registry operator for these TLDs.”

It sounds rather like there’s been another weird fluctuation in .tk’s numbers that threw off the overall trend picture again, and Verisign’s basically said “to hell with it” and decided to exclude Freenom from its reports from now on.

This means the normalized numbers for Q4 2021 — ignoring Freenom in all applicable quarters — are 341.7 million, up 3.3 million or 1.0% sequentially and up 1.6 million or 0.5% year over year, the DNIB states.

The Freenom business model is to give domains away for free, mostly, in the first instance. It makes its money by retaining and monetizing domains that either expire or, frequently, which it suspends for abuse.

.tk domains never get deleted, in other words, so counting them alongside TLDs with the industry-standard business model could give a misleading impression of the global demand for domain names.

It’s not so much that counting spam domains is bad — every TLD has a spam problem to a greater or lesser extent — but the lack of deletions can create faulty assumptions.

It’s also never been clear how Verisign and its third-party researcher, ZookNic, acquires its data on Freenom TLDs. Its .tk figure would often remain static for quarters on end, suggesting the data was only sporadically available.

I also tracked .tk’s published numbers independently for many years, and the last figure I have, from March 2019, is 41.3 million. It’s never been clear to me why the Verisign/ZookNic number has always been so much lower.

Verisign has always flagged up any oddities caused by .tk in its DNIB, and every edition has contained a footnote describing Freenom’s unusual practices.

The latest DNIB (pdf) says that .com had 160 million names, up 1.2 million, and .net had 13.4 million, down about 100,000, compared to Q3.

ccTLDs overall had 127.4 million, up about 700,000, a 0.6% sequential increase.

The ccTLD number was down by 5.3 million, or 4.0%, compared to the end of 2020, but that was due to a 9.4 million-name deletion by China’s .cn, which I noted in the second quarter and which Verisign calls a “registry-implemented zone reduction”.

Ignoring China, ccTLD names were up 4.1 million or 3.8%, the DNIB says.

Verisign only breaks out the top 10 ccTLDs separately, so the removal of .tk means that Australia’s .au is now in the top 10 list in tenth place with 3.4 million at the end of Q4. It will likely move up the ranks in the first quarter due to the release of second-level names, which has sped up its growth rate.

France’s .fr, with 3.9 million names, has now entered the overall top 10 TLDs due to .tk’s removal.

New gTLDs grew by 1.2 million names or 5.1% sequentially, but were down by pretty much the same amount annually, ending 2021 with 24.7 million names.

Free domains registrar gets FOURTH breach notice

Kevin Murphy, April 21, 2020, Domain Registrars

OpenTLD, the company that offers free and at-cost domain names under the Freenom brand, has received its fourth public breach of contract notice from ICANN.

The alleged violation concerns a specific expired domain — tensportslive.net — which was until its expiration last November hosting a Pakistani cricket blog.

ICANN claims OpenTLD failed to hand over copies of expiration notices it sent to the former registrant of the name, which expired November 12, despite repeated requests.

The blogger seems to have been royally screwed over by this situation.

ICANN first started badgering OpenTLD for its records on December 23, presumably alerting the company to the fact that its customer had a problem, when the domain had expired but was still recoverable.

ICANN contacted the registrar four more times about the domain before February 1, when it dropped and was promptly snapped up by DropCatch.com.

The public breach notice (pdf) was published February 27. OpenTLD has apparently since provided ICANN with data, which is being reviewed.

But it’s the fourth time the registrar has found itself in serious trouble with ICANN.

It got a breach notice in March 2015 after failing to file compliance paperwork.

Later that year, ICANN summarily suspended its accreditation — freezing its ability to sell domains — after the Dutch company was found to have been cybersquatting rival registrars including Key-Systems and NetEarth in order to poach business away from them.

That suspension was fought in an unprecedented arbitration case, but ICANN won and suspended the accreditation again that August.

It got another breach notice in 2017 for failing to investigate Whois accuracy complaints, which ICANN refers to in its current complaint.

OpenTLD/Freenom is perhaps best known as the registry for a handful of African ccTLD and Tokelau’s .tk, which is the second-largest TLD after .com by volume of registered domains.

Its business model is to give the names away for free and then monetize them after they expire or are deleted for abuse. In the gTLD space, it says it offers domains at the wholesale cost.

According to SpamHaus, over a third of .tk domains it sees are abusive.