Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

IRP panel tells ICANN to stop being so secretive, again

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN’s dismal record of adverse Independent Review Process decisions continued last week, with a panel of arbitrators telling the Org to shape up its transparency and decision-making processes.

The panel has essentially ruled that ICANN did everything it could to be a secretive as possible when it decided to remove price controls from its .org and .info registry contracts in 2019.

This violated its bylaws commitments to transparency, the IRP panel found, at the end of a legal campaign by Namecheap commenced over three years ago.

Namecheap wanted the agreements with the two registries “annulled”, but the panel did not go that far, instead merely recommending that ICANN review its decision and possibly enter talks to put the price caps back.

But the decision contains some scathing criticisms of ICANN’s practice of operating without sufficient public scrutiny.

Namecheap had argued that ICANN broke its bylaws by not only not applying its policies in a non-discriminatory manner, but also by failing to adequately consult with the community and explain its decision-making.

The registrar failed on the first count, with the IRP panel ruling that ICANN had treated registry contract renegotiations consistently over the last 10 years — basically trying to push legacy gTLDs onto the 2012-round base Registry Agreement.

But Namecheap succeeded on the second count.

The panel ruled that ICANN overused attorney-client privilege to avoid scrutiny, failed to explain why it ignored thousands of negative public comments, and let the Org make the price cap decision to avoid the transparency obligations of a board vote.

Notably, the panel unanimously found that: “ICANN appears to be overusing the attorney-client privilege to shield its internal communications and deliberations.”

As one example, senior staffers would copy in the legal team on internal communications about the price cap decision in order to trigger privilege, meaning the messages could not be disclosed in future, the decision says.

ICANN created “numerous documents” about the thinking that went in to the price cap decision, but disclosed “almost none” of them to the IRP due to its “overly aggressive” assertion of privilege, the panel says.

As another example, staffers discussed cutting back ICANN’s explanation of price caps when it opened the subject to public comment, in order to not give too much attention to what they feared was a “hot” and “sensitive” topic.

ICANN’s failure to provide an open and transparent explanation of its reasons for rejecting public comments opposing the removal of price controls was exacerbated by ICANN’s assertion of attorney-client privilege with respect to most of the documents evidencing ICANN’s deliberations…

ICANN provided a fairly detailed summary of the key concerns about removing price caps, but then failed to explain why ICANN decided to remove price caps despite those concerns. Instead, ICANN essentially repeated the explanation it gave before receiving the public comments.

The panel, which found similar criticisms in the earlier IRP of Dot Registry v ICANN, nevertheless decided against instructing ICANN to check its privilege (to coin a phrase) in future, so the Org will presumably be free to carry on being as secretive as normal in future.

Namecheap also claimed that ICANN deliberately avoided scrutiny by allowing Org to remove the price caps without a formal board of directors resolution, and the panel agreed.

The Panel finds that of the removal of price controls for .ORG, .INFO, and .BIZ was not a routine matter of “day-to-day operations,” as ICANN has asserted. The Price Cap Decision was a policy matter that required Board action.

The panel notes that prior to the renewal of .org, .info and .biz in 2019, all other legacy gTLD contracts that had been renewed — including .pro, which also removed price caps — had been subject to a board vote.

“ICANN’s action transitioning a legacy gTLD, especially one of the three original gTLDs (.ORG), pursuant to staff action without a Board resolution was unprecedented,” the panel writes.

Quite why the board never made a formal resolution on the .org contract is a bit of a mystery, even to the IRP panel, which cites lots of evidence that ICANN Org was expecting the deal to go before the board as late as May 13, 2019, a month before the anticipated board vote.

The .org contract was ultimately signed June 30, without a formal board resolution.

(Probably just a coincidence, but Ethos Capital — which went on unsuccessfully to try to acquire .org registry Public Interest Registry from ISOC later that year — was formed May 14, 2019.)

The IRP panel notes that by avoiding a formal board vote, ICANN avoided the associated transparency requirements such as a published rationale and meeting minutes.

The panel in conclusion issued a series of “recommendations” to ICANN.

It says the ICANN board should “analyze and discuss what steps to take to remedy both the specific violations found by the Panel, and to improve its overall decisionmaking process to ensure that similar violations do not occur in the future”.

The board “should consider creating and implementing a process to conduct further analysis of whether including price caps in the Registry Agreements for .ORG and .INFO is in the global public interest”

Part of that process should involve an independent expert report into whether price caps are appropriate in .info and especially .org.

If it concludes that price controls are good, ICANN should try to amend the two registry agreements to restore the caps. If it does not conduct the study, it should ask the two registries if they want to voluntarily restore them.

Finally, the panel wrote:

the Panel recommends that the Board consider revisions to ICANN’s decision-making process to reduce the risk of similar procedural violations in the future. For example, the Board could adopt guidelines for determining what decisions involve policy matters for the Board to decide, or what are the issues on which public comments should be obtained.

ICANN is on the hook to pay the panel’s fees of $841,894.76.

ICANN said in a statement that it is “is in the process of reviewing and evaluating” the decision and that the board “will consider the final declaration as soon as feasible”.

Namecheap says it won legal fight over .org price caps

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2023, Domain Registries

Namecheap claims to have won a fight against ICANN over the lifting of contractual price caps in .org and .info back in 2019.

The two parties have been battling it out for almost three years in an Independent Review Process case over ICANN’s decision to allow the .info and .org registries to increase their prices by as much as they want.

Namecheap now claims the decision has been delivered and “the IRP panel decided that ICANN had, indeed, violated its Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation and that ICANN’s decision to remove the price caps was invalid.”

The registrar also says it failed in its attempt to have a similar ruling with regrds the .biz TLD, but it’s not clear why.

Neither party has yet published the decision in full (ICANN is likely redacting it for publication as I type), and ICANN has yet to make a statement, so we only have Namecheap’s interpretation to go on.

It seems the IRP panel disagreed with ICANN that it was within its staff’s delegated powers to renegotiate the price provisions of the contracts without input from the board of directors.

Rather, there should be a open and transparent process, involving other stakeholders, for making such changes, the panel said according to Namecheap.

What the panel does not appear to have said is that the price caps can be unilaterally restored to the contracts. Rather, it seems to suggest a combination of voluntary reinstatements, expert competition reviews, and bilateral renegotiations.

The decision also seems to say that price controls are more important in .org than .info, due to its not-for-profit nature, which flies in the face of ICANN’s long-term push to standardize its contracts to the greatest extent possible.

The row over .org pricing emerged shortly before the ultimately unsuccessful takeover attempt of Public Interest Registry by for-profit private equity firm Ethos Capital was announced. Ethos had planned to raise prices, but PIR, still a non-profit owned by the Internet Society, to date has not.

Namecheap’s IRP claims related to ICANN’s handling of that acquisition attempt were thrown out in 2021.

.info was an Afilias TLD when the IRP was filed but is now Ethos-owned Identity Digital’s biggest gTLD following consolidation.

I’ll have more on this story after the full decision is made public.

Blind auditions underway for ICANN’s supreme court

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2022, Domain Policy

An ICANN volunteer committee says it is close to picking a slate of judges for what amounts to ICANN’s much-delayed “supreme court”, but it’s doing so without knowing the identities of the candidates.

The Independent Review Process Community Representatives Group said in a blog post that it expects to wrap up its work — picking at least seven members of an IRP Standing Panel — by the end of the year, though it views the deadline as “challenging”.

The group said that it’s currently reviewing applications for the posts, but with the identities of the candidates redacted, and expects to start interviewing shortly. The members wrote:

While we only see information about various applicants’ qualifications, gender and ICANN regional residency, we do not at this point know the identity of the candidates. These are data points to assist our winnowing process and our endeavor to achieve cultural, linguistic, gender and legal diversity. Diversity by geographic region is indicated in ICANN’s Bylaws.

The skill-set mandated for panelists by ICANN’s bylaws is pretty rarefied — requiring knowledge of international law, arbitration, the DNS and ICANN itself — so it seems likely that LinkedIn and Google could be useful to identity candidates, if CRG members were so inclined.

The CRG said it has a wealth of qualified candidates “a sizeable group of individuals with impressive and suitable backgrounds”, making the selection process “difficult”.

The Standing Panel is envisaged as a kind of supreme court for ICANN. Whenever somebody challenges an ICANN decision with an Independent Review Process complaint, three members of the panel would be selected to hear the case.

The idea is that IRP should become more consistent, objective and speedy, retaining more institutional knowledge, with a stable set of rotating panelists. The current system has ICANN and complainants select their panelist.

ICANN’s bylaws have been calling for the creation of a Standing Panel since April 2013, but ICANN is ICANN and the panel has been delayed by years of foot-dragging and red tape. The CRG was only created to audition candidates in February 2022.

Many IRP cases over the last near-decade have been complicated and delayed by the absence of the panel, even resulting in a lawsuit.

This is great for lawyers who bill by the hour, not so great for complainants and ICANN’s credibility as an accountable organization.

The CRG has seven members drawn from the GNSO, ALAC, ccNSO and GAC, including government representatives of Iran and Nigeria. It’s chaired by Verisign’s David McAuley.

Verisign and Afilias spar over .web delays

Kevin Murphy, June 15, 2022, Domain Policy

Afilias and Verisign are at odds over a further delay to the resolution of the .web gTLD dispute.

Afilias, aka Altanovo Domains, says its lawyers are too busy to meet ICANN’s deadline for arguments about whether either company broke the rules in the 2016 auction of .web, but Verisign thinks they have plenty of time,

ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee had set a deadline of July 15 for both applicants to submit a document explaining why they believe the other broke the rules and should have their auction bids voided.

But Afilias’ lawyers say they “have longstanding international travel and hearing commitments in June and July that cannot be rescheduled” and want an extension to July 29.

Just two weeks seems like no big deal in a contest that has been running for literally a decade, but Verisign is opposing it anyway, according to emails Afilias submitted to ICANN (pdf).

“ICANN provided the parties with a generous briefing schedule sufficient to accommodate counsel’s other commitments. For this reason, Verisign and NDC do not support Altanovo’s current request for a further extension,” a Verisign lawyer wrote.

Verisign, which won the auction via its proxy, Nu Dot Co, believes Afilias broke a communications blackout period before the auction by texting NDC to negotiate a deal. Afilias believes NDC broke the rules by not disclosing Verisign’s involvement.

The BAMC’s job, following the outcome of an Independent Review Process case last year, is to decide whether either of these claims is legit and settle who won the auction once and for all.

ICANN kicks the can on .web yet again

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2022, Domain Policy

Did Verisign cheat when it bought .web for $135 million in 2016? ICANN will make its mind up one day, but not today.

The ICANN board of directors has asked the three parties in the contested new gTLD auction for an info dump, so it can decide, presumably before the end of the year, whether to bar the top two bids for breaking the rules.

The Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee has written to Verisign, Nu Dot Co (the proxy Verisign used to hide its bid) and Afilias (aka Altanovo, the second-place bidder) to ask them to condense their last six years of claims and counter-claims into two 75-page documents.

Afilias reckons Verisign and NDC broke the rules by not disclosing that the former was secretly bankrolling the latter’s winning bid. It wants the bid invalidated, allowing Afilias to take over .web for a cheaper price.

Verisign has counter-claimed that Afilias should be disqualified for allegedly privately communicating with NDC during a pre-auction comms blackout period. It’s published screenshots of text messages it says prove this took place.

The Independent Review Process complaint against ICANN technically resulted in a win for Afilias, with the IRP panel ruling that ICANN broke its bylaws by not making a decision on Verisign’s alleged rule-breaking back in 2016.

That decision was reached in December, and ICANN has been faffing around pointedly not making a decision ever since.

Now, BAMC wants the parties to present their final pleadings in this ongoing drama.

It wants both side to “provide a comprehensive written summary of their claims and the materials supporting their claims” in order “to ensure that the BAMC is reviewing a complete picture of the parties’ positions”.

I don’t think there’s anything untoward about this — BAMC is basically just doing what the IRP panel told it to, albeit it in a roundabout way — but it is a little surprising that it thinks there isn’t enough information about their complaints in the public domain already.

As well as three years of legal filings, there are extensive transcripts of seven days of hearings that took place in 2020. ICANN will have access to the unredacted versions, too, which include details of the Verisign-NDC deal that the rest of us aren’t allowed to look at.

Maybe there’s just too much information to wade through.

Under the BAMC’s new process, the parties have until July 15 to present their cases, then another month to rebut their opponents with a further 30-page document.

Assuming the subsequent decision proceeds at ICANN Speed (which is to say, glacial) I don’t think we can reasonably expect a decision before the fourth quarter.

After 10 months, ICANN board “promptly” publishes its own minutes

Kevin Murphy, May 17, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has approved a huge batch of its own meeting minutes, covering the period from July 15 last year to March 10 this year, raising questions about its commitment to timely transparency.

The board approved the minutes of its last 14 full-board meetings in one huge batch of 14 separate resolutions at its May 12 meeting, and they’ve all now been published on the ICANN web site, along with redacted briefing papers for said meetings.

The period includes decisions on planning for the next new gTLD round and Whois reform, the legal fight with Afilias over the contested .web gTLD, and apparently divisive discussions about the timing of a post-pandemic return to face-to-face meetings.

No explanation has been given for why it’s taken so long for these documents to appear, the timing of which appears to go against ICANN’s bylaws, which state that minutes are supposed to be approved and published “promptly”:

All minutes of meetings of the Board, the Advisory Committees and Supporting Organizations (and any councils thereof) shall be approved promptly by the originating body and provided to the ICANN Secretary (“Secretary”) for posting on the Website.

ICANN almost always published its board’s resolutions within a few days of approval, and a preliminary report — which also includes the number of votes yay or nay, without naming the directors — within a couple of weeks.

The minutes, which are published only after the board rubber-stamps them, typically include a further vote breakdown and a little bit of color on how the discussion went down.

In the newly published batch, some of the documents are somewhat illuminating, while others barely nudge the dimmer switch.

For example, the preliminary report for the July 15, 2021 meeting, published 11 days later, notes that three of the 16 voting directors rebelled on a resolution about making the October annual general meeting in Seattle a virtual-only event, but the just-published minutes name those directors and flesh out some of their reasons for dissenting.

It turns out the directors had a “robust discussion”, with some arguing that it would be safe to go ahead with a “hybrid” meeting comprising both face-to-face and remote participation options.

The dissenting directors were Ron da Silva, Avri Doria, and Ihab Osman, it turns out. Osman and da Silva had voted a similar way a year earlier.

Directors could not reasonably have been expected to know about the impact the Delta variant of Covid-19 would have on world health in the latter half of the year. It had been identified and named by scientists but had yet to spread to the extent it was making headlines.

But they were aware of concerns from the Asia-Pacific members of the community, worried that a hybrid meeting in Seattle would disadvantage those unable to attend due to pandemic travel restrictions. This appears to have been raised during the discussion:

Some Board members expressed desire to see more work done to have ICANN72 as a hybrid meeting. They noted that Seattle has protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of ICANN staff and the community, and ICANN should use this opportunity to begin to return to its normal meeting standards as much as possible. Others noted that the concerns about travel inequities or restrictions for certain parts of the world should not prevent moving forward with an in-person component for ICANN72 because such inequities and restrictions exist with or without the pandemic.

The return to in-person meetings was discussed again in November, when the board decided to junk plans, secured by the dissenting directors in July, for a hybrid meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ron da Silva had left the board by this point, but the new minutes show that Doria and Osman were joined by León Sánchez in advocating for a hybrid meeting with an in-person component.

While the July minutes contains a few paragraphs summarizing discussions, the November minutes simply notes that the board “reviewed the proposed resolution and rationale to confirm that it reflects the Board’s discussion and edits”.

And that’s pretty typical for most of the documents published this week — time and again the substantive discussion appears to have either happened off-camera, during non-minuted sessions of the board at unspecified times, or was simply not minuted.

Interested in the talks leading to the approval of the new gTLDs Operational Design Phase? The minutes shed no light.

Interested in how the board reacted to ICANN losing its Independent Review Process case with Afilias about .web? The minutes merely note that the resolution was approved “after discussion”.

There’s also a glaring hole in one set of minutes, raising questions about whether these documents are a reliable record of what happened at all.

We know for a fact that on September 12 the ICANN board approved a resolution naming the new chair and vice chair of its influential Nominating Committee, only to reconvene two weeks later to scrap that decision and name a different chair instead.

But if you read the September 12 minutes, you’ll find no record of NomCom even being discussed, let alone a resolution being passed appointing a chair.

The newly published batch of documents cover several resolutions related to executive pay, but none of the minutes contain the same level of transparency as ICANN displayed in February 2021, when it revealed that three directors voted against CEO Göran Marby’s pay rise.

In terms of transparency, that now appears to fully confirmed as an isolated incident.

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.

Mutually assured destruction? Now Afilias faces .web disqualification probe

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2022, Domain Policy

Afilias’ ongoing quest to have Verisign’s winning bid for the .web gTLD thrown out may have backfired, with ICANN now launching a probe into whether Afilias’ own bid should be disqualified.

Afilias and Verisign could now BOTH be kicked out of the .web fight, delivering the coveted gTLD into the hands of the third-placed bidder for a knock-down price.

There’s even the possibility that Verisign’s winning $135 million bid could be more than cut in half, taking tens of millions out of ICANN’s coffers.

ICANN’s board of directors on Thursday said it will investigate not only whether Verisign broke new gTLD program rules by using a Nu Dot Co as proxy to bid, but also whether Afilias broke the rules when an executive texted NDC during a pre-auction comms blackout period.

It’s the first time board has resolved to take a look at the allegations against Afilias, which so far have only come up in letters and arbitration filings from Verisign and NDC.

The .web auction in 2016 resulted in a winning bid of $135 million from NDC. It quickly emerged that its bid was bankrolled by Verisign, which had not directly applied for .web.

Afilias’ applicant subsidiary (now called Altanovo Domains, but we’re sticking with “Afilias” for this story) has been trying to use Verisign’s sleight-of-hand to get the auction overturned for years, on the basis that ICANN should have forced NDC to show its cards before the auction took place.

An Independent Review Process panel last year ruled that ICANN broke its own bylaws by failing to rule on Afilias’ allegations when they were first made, and told ICANN to put .web on hold while it finally formally decides whether Verisign broke the rules or not.

What the IRP panel did NOT do was ask ICANN to rule on Verisign’s counter-allegations about Afilias violating the auction blackout period. ICANN’s decided to do that all by itself, which must piss off Afilias no end.

The board resolved last week, with my emphasis:

Resolved (2022.03.10.06), the Board hereby: (a) asks the [Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee] to review, consider and evaluate the allegations relating to the Domain Acquisition Agreement (DAA) between NDC and Verisign and the allegations relating to Afilias’ conduct during the Auction Blackout Period; (b) asks the BAMC to provide the Board with its findings and recommendations as to whether the alleged actions of NDC and/or Afilias warrant disqualification or other consequences, if any, related to any relevant .WEB application; and (c) directs ICANN org to continue refraining from contracting for or delegation of the .WEB gTLD until ICANN has made its determination regarding the .WEB application(s).

I see four possible outcomes here.

  • Nobody gets disqualified. Verisign wins .web and ICANN gets to keep its $135 million. Afilias will probably file another IRP or lawsuit.
  • Verisign gets disqualified. Afilias gets .web and ICANN probably gets paid no more than $79.1 million, which was its maximum bid before the auction became a two-horse race. Verisign will probably file an IRP or lawsuit.
  • Afilias gets disqualified. Verisign wins .web and then it has to be figured out how much it pays. I believe the high bid before the third-place bidder pulled out was around $54 million, so it could be in that ball-park. Afilias will probably file another IRP or lawsuit.
  • Both Afilias and Verisign get disqualified. The third-placed bidder — and I don’t thinks its identity has ever been made public — wins .web and pays whatever their high bid was, possibly around $54 million. Everyone sues everyone else and all the lawyers get to buy themselves a new summer home.

The other remaining applicants are Donuts, Google, Radix and Schlund. Web.com has withdrawn its application.

The people who will decide whether to disqualify anyone are the six members of the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee who are not recusing themselves due to conflicts of interest (Edmon Chung has a relationship with Afilias).

Given that the board has already ruled that it has a fiduciary duty to dip into the new gTLD auction proceeds pretty much whenever it pleases, can’t we also assume that it has a fiduciary duty to make sure that auction proceeds pool is as large as possible?

Surprising nobody, Verisign to raise .com prices again

Kevin Murphy, February 11, 2022, Domain Registries

Verisign has announced its second consecutive annual price increase for .com domain names.

The wholesale registry fee for .com names will rise from $8.39 to $8.97 on September 1 this year, an extra $0.58 for every new or renewing domain, of which there are currently over 160 million.

Verisign announced the move, which was expected, as it announced a 2021 profit of $785 million and a 65.3% operating margin.

CEO Jim Bidzos, speaking to analysts, played down the impact of the increases on .com registrants, pointing out that .com prices were frozen under the Obama administration and have only gone up once before, last year, since 2012.

“This is the second wholesale price increase for COM since January of 2012,” he said. “So, if you look back over the last 10 years, that translates into a cost increase of only 1.3% CAGR over the last ten and a half years actually.”

The current .com contract, signed off by the Trump administration and ICANN, allows for two more 7% annual price increases, excluding the just-announced one, but Bidzos would not say whether Verisign plans to exercise those options.

If it does (and it almost certainly will) it would raise the price to $10.26, where it would stay until at least October 2026, he said.

“We believe .com continues to be positioned competitively,” he said.

It’s still basically free money for Verisign, which saw strong fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 results.

The company yesterday reported revenue of $1.33 billion for 2021, up 4.9%, with net income of $785 million, down from $815 million. The operating margin was 65.3%, compared to 65.2%.

For the fourth quarter, revenue was up 6.3% to $340 million, with net income of $330 million compared to $157 million. Operating margin was 65.3%, compared to 63.9%.

For 2022, the company is guiding for revenue of between $1.42 billion and $1.44 billion, based on the price increases and predicted unit growth of between 2.5% and 4.5%. The operating margin is expected to be between 64.5% and 65.5%.

Bidzos also addressed the controversial .web gTLD, which it won at auction but has been unable to launch due to legal action pursued by rival bidder Afilias/Altanovo.

An Independent Review Process panel recently threw a decision about .web back at ICANN, which is now considering Afilias’ allegations of wrongdoing at the board level.

“ICANN looks to be moving forward with making the decision on the delegation of .web, and we will be monitoring their process,” Bidzos said. He said that Verisign has not budgeted for any revenue or costs from .web in 2022.

That’s probably wise. Afilias recently told us that it has not stopped fighting against Verisign’s .web win.