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Namecheap sues ICANN over .org price caps

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2024, Domain Policy

Namecheap has sued ICANN in California, asking a court to force the Org to revisit its decision to lift price caps on .org and .info domain names five years ago.

Registrar CEO Richard Kirkendall announced the suit on Twitter this afternoon:

The lawsuit follows an Independent Review Process case that Namecheap partially won in December 2022, where the panel said ICANN should hire an economist to look at whether price caps are a good idea before revisiting its decision to scrap them.

The panel found that the ICANN board of directors had shirked its duties to make the decision itself and had failed to act as transparently as its bylaws mandate.

Namecheap says that over a year after that decision was delivered, ICANN has not implemented the IRP panel’s recommendations, so now it wants the Superior Court in Los Angeles to hand down an injunction forcing ICANN to do so.

Before 2019, .org was limited to 10% price increases every year, but the cap was lifted, along with caps in .info and .biz, when ICANN renewed, standardized and updated the respective registries’ Registry Agreements.

After the decision was made to scrap .org price caps, despite huge public outrage, Namecheap rounded up its lawyers almost immediately.

The caps decision led to the ulimtately unsuccessful attempt by Ethos Capital to acquire Public Interest Registry, which runs .org.

Namecheap’s new lawsuit wants the judge to issue “an order directing ICANN to comply with the recommendations of the IRP Panel”.

That means ICANN’s board would be told to consider approaching PIR and .info registry Identity Digital to talk about reintroducing price caps, to hire the economist, and to modify its procedures to avoid any future transparency missteps.

Identity Digital keeps .org back-end deal

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2023, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry is to keep Identity Digital as its back-end registry services provider following a competitive RFP process, the organization announced today.

The deal’s highlight TLD is of course .org, with its 11 million domains, but it also includes the much smaller .charity, .foundation, .gives, .giving, .ngo, .ong, .орг, .संगठन , and .机构.

Identity Digital inherited the contract when it acquired Afilias a few years back. PIR announced the RFP back in March.

There’s no word on whether Identity Digital is taking a pay cut as a result of the competitive process, but it should become clear when non-profit PIR eventually publishes its tax returns.

Red Cross gets takedown powers over .org domains

Public Interest Registry has inked a first-of-its kind domain takedown partnership with the American Red Cross.

The deal gives the Red Cross a “trusted notifier” status, meaning it will have a special channel to report fraudulent fundraising sites with domains, which PIR can then suspend at the registry level.

It’s designed mainly to quickly tackle fraud sites that spring up to exploit people’s good will in the aftermath of natural disasters to which the Red Cross would typically respond to.

It’s particularly relevant not only due to the size of PIR’s flagship .org, but also due to its recent takeovers of gTLDs including .charity and .giving.

PIR said the partnership is only for such cases, and would not permit the Red Cross to take down criticism or satire. It also said there’s an appeals process for registrants whose names are suspended.

Trusted notifier schemes are not uncommon among the larger registries, but they typically focus on Big Copyright and organizations that fight child sexual abuse material online.

.org back-end contract up for grabs

Kevin Murphy, March 23, 2023, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry has started vetting potential registry service provider replacements for Identity Digital, ahead of a formal request for proposals later this year.

The company said this week that in order to run .org’s back-end, which would have to support almost 11 million domains, an RSP would have to hit a list of high-end criteria.

Candidates will have to have seven years experience running an RSP across multiple TLDs, with at least three registry clients, over 500,000 domains, and at least 25 ICANN-accredited registrars on its books, among other items.

That narrows the field down to probably fewer than a dozen companies. The likes of GoDaddy, CentralNic, Verisign, ZDNS, Tucows and Nominet would all presumably qualify, along with Identity Digital itself.

If a transition to a new RSP were to happen, it would be the largest TLD back-end migration in history by a considerable margin. The largest to date was the 3.1 million names that moved from Neustar (now GoDaddy) to Afilias (now Identity Digital) in 2018.

The .org migration from Verisign to PIR in 2003 was when .org was substantially smaller, at 2.7 million names.

According to PIR’s most-recent tax return, Afilias was paid $15.6 million in 2021 for registry services.

PIR said in 2021 that it expects to issue the RFP in the second half of 2023.

ICANN kicks the can on .org price cap defeat

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN has deferred action on its recent Independent Review Process defeat over price caps on .org and .info, instead referring the decision to one of its committees.

The IRP panel ruled in late December that ICANN broke its own bylaws when it approved the removal of price caps from the .org and .info registry contracts in 2019. It recommended that ICANN look into ways to restore the caps.

The ICANN board of directors at the weekend voted to ask its Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee (BAMC) to “review, consider, and evaluate” the IRP decision and recommend next steps.

The IRP was fought by the registrar Namecheap.

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.

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.

.org back-end deal will come up for re-bid, PIR says as it acquires four new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2021, Domain Registries

The industry’s most lucrative back-end registry services contract will be rebid, Public Interest Registry said today.

The deal, which sees PIR pay Afilias $18.3 million a year to run .org, according to tax records, will see a request for proposals issued in the back half of 2023, according to PIR.

Given that’s two years away, it’s strange timing for the announcement, which came at the bottom of a press release and blog post announcing that the company is acquiring four new gTLDs, three of which belong to Afilias’ new owner, Donuts.

PIR said Donuts is to transfer control of .charity, .foundation and .gives, which will be “reintroduced” to the market. .foundation currently has about 20,000 registered domains; the other two have a few thousand each.

It’s also acquiring the unlaunched gTLD .giving from a company called Giving Ltd.

All four are on-message for PIR’s not-for-profit portfolio, which also includes the barely-used .ngo and .ong for non-governmental organizations.

Those two gTLDs are getting decoupled, allowing registrants to register one without having to buy the other, PIR also said today.

The last time the PIR back-end contract came up for renewal, in 2015, Afilias was also the incumbent but increased competition — it was up against 20 rivals — meant that its slice of .org revenue was cut in half.