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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.

.org domains could come in seven new languages

Public Interest Registry is planning support for seven more languages in the .org gTLD.

The company has asked ICANN for permission to support seven additional internationalized domain name scripts: Croatian, Finnish, Hindi, Italian, Montenegrin, Portuguese, and Japanese.

Five of these languages use the Latin script also used in English, but have special accents or diacritics that require IDN tables to support in the DNS.

PIR submitted the request via the Registry Services Evaluation Process, where it is currently being reviewed by ICANN. Such RSEPs are usually approved without controversy.

Price caps on .org could return, panel rules

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN could be forced to reimpose price caps on .org, .biz and .info domains, an Independent Review Process panel has ruled.

The panel handling the IRP case filed by Namecheap against ICANN in February 2020 has decided to allow the registrar to continue to pursue its claims that ICANN broke its own bylaws by removing price controls from the three gTLD contracts.

Conversely, in a win for ICANN, the panel also threw out Namecheap’s demand that the IRP scrutinize ICANN’s conduct during the attempted takeover of .org’s Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital in 2019.

The split ruling (pdf) on ICANN’s motion to dismiss Namecheap’s case came March 10 and was revealed in documents recently published by ICANN. The case will now proceed on the pricing issue alone.

The three-person panel decided that the fact that ICANN ultimately decided to block Ethos’ acquisition of PIR meant that Namecheap lacked sufficient standing to pursue that element of its case.

Namecheap had argued that ICANN’s opaque processing of PIR’s change of control request created uncertainty that harmed its business, because ICANN may approve such a request in future.

But the panel said it would not prejudge such an eventuality, saying that if another change of control is approved by ICANN in future, Namecheap is welcome to file another IRP complaint at that time.

“Harm or injury flowing from possible future violations by the ICANN Board regarding change of control requests that are not presently pending and that may never occur does not confer standing,” the panel wrote.

On the pricing issue, the panel disagreed with ICANN’s argument that Namecheap has not yet been harmed by a lack of .org price caps because PIR has not yet raised its .org prices.

It said that increased prices in future are a “natural and expected consequence” of the lack of price controls, and that to force Namecheap to wait for such increases to occur before filing an IRP would leave it open to falling foul of the 12-month statute of limitations following ICANN decision-making baked into the IRP rules.

As such, it’s letting those claims go ahead. The panel wrote:

This matter will proceed to consideration of Namecheap’s request for a declaration that ICANN must annul the decision that removed price caps in the .org, .info and .biz registry agreements. The Panel will also consider Namecheap’s request for a declaration that ICANN must ensure that price caps from legacy gTLDs can only be removed following policy development process that takes due account of the interests of the Internet user and with the involvement of different stakeholders. The Panel will consider Namecheap’s request for a declaration that “registry fees… remain as low as feasible consistet with the maintenance of good quality service” within the context of removal of price caps (not in the context of regulating changes of control).

In other words, if Namecheap prevails, future price caps for pre-2012 gTLDs could be decided by the ICANN community, with an assumption that they should remain as low as possible.

That would be bad news for PIR, as well as .info registry Donuts and .biz registry GoDaddy.

But it’s important to note that the IRP panel has not ruled that ICANN has done anything wrong, nor that Namecheap is likely to win its case — the March 10 ruling purely assesses Namecheap’s standing to pursue the IRP.

The panel has also significantly extended the proposed timeline for the case being resolved. There now won’t be a final decision until 2022 at the earliest.

The panel last week delayed its final hearing in the case from August this year to January next year, according to a document published this week.

Other deadlines in the case have also been pushed backed weeks or months.

Time is running out for Net4 as ICANN questions Indian court ruling

Kevin Murphy, February 1, 2021, Domain Registrars

Struggling registrar Net 4 India has been hit with an unprecedented fourth concurrent breach-of-contract notice by ICANN, but an Indian court has ruled that ICANN should NOT terminate its accreditation.

It also turns out that Public Interest Registry wants to terminate its Registry-Registrar Agreement with Net4, after it failed to deposit about $22,000 in its account to cover renewal fees, putting 1,644 .org domains at risk.

The latest ICANN breach notice is much the same as the two delivered in December, both of which suggest that Net4 has been transferring its customers’ domains to a partner registrar, OpenProvider, without the registrants’ knowledge or consent.

They further suggest that Net4 has not enabled its customers to renew their domains or reclaim them after they’ve expired, and claim that the company has consistently refused to hand over records proving that its disputed transfers were legit.

Net4 also owes ICANN thousands in past due fees.

The company has been in quasi-judicial insolvency proceedings since 2017 over $28 million in unpaid bank loans that were acquired by a debt recovery agency called Edelweiss; its first breach notice came two years later when ICANN first learned of the case.

For some reason, ICANN did not terminate or suspend Net4’s contract back then.

With hindsight, this may have proven a bad move — during India’s first coronavirus lockdown last year, hundreds of Net4 customers started complaining about lost domains and non-existent customer service.

It was not until December last year that these complaints were escalated to the level of formal breach notices, and more threats to terminate its Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

Net4, in response, asked its insolvency court for a ruling preventing ICANN and PIR from terminating their respective agreements. It reckons it can get is house in order in the next five or six weeks.

ICANN presented what appears to be a wealth of evidence of the company’s misconduct and argued that the court has no jurisdiction over ICANN anyway, because the RAA is governed by California law and ICANN has no presence in India.

Nevertheless, the National Company Law Tribunal in New Delhi has ruled, in a virtually impenetrable word soup of a document (pdf) that reads like it was vomited up by a Victorian-era college freshman who’d just rolled up and smoked an entire legal dictionary, that ICANN and PIR should not “terminate these agreements at least until three months from hereof”.

That would stay Net4’s executive until April 25. The latest ICANN breach notice gives the company until February 19 to come back into compliance, though technically there’s nothing stopping it starting termination proceedings today based on past notices.

The orders given to ICANN and PIR are more “requests”, due to the fact that the court couldn’t decide whether its words had any jurisdictional power over either.

Rather hilariously, ICANN said in a press release late Friday:

When a registrar fails to allow registrants to renew, transfer, and manage their domain names, ICANN will not hesitate to take whatever actions are necessary, up to and including termination of the registrar, to protect registrants’ rights and interests.

These are words that ring hollow, given that it’s allowed Net4 to slide three times already and has been hesitating since June 2019.

ICANN could block Donuts from buying Afilias

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2020, Domain Registries

In what appears to be an almost unprecedented move, ICANN is to review Donuts’ proposed acquisition of rival Afilias at the highest level, raising a question mark over the industry mega-merger.

The org’s board of directors will meet Thursday to consider, among other things, “Afilias Change of Control Approval Request”.

It’s highly unusual for a change of control to be discussed at such a high level.

Every registry contract contains clauses requiring ICANN’s consent before a registry switches owners, and it has approved hundreds over the last decade. But the process is usually handled by legal staff, without board involvement.

The only time, to my memory, that the board has got involved was when it withheld consent from .org manager Public Interest Registry earlier this year.

It’s not entirely clear why Afilias has been singled out for special treatment.

It’s probably not due to its status as a legacy gTLD registry operator because of .info — when GoDaddy bought .biz operator Neustar’s registry business earlier this year, there was no such board review.

In addition, the .info contract’s change of control provisions are very similar to those in the standard new gTLD contract.

Could it be due to Donuts executives former ties to ICANN and the perception of a conflict of interest? Again, it seems unlikely.

While Donuts CEO Akram Atallah is former president of ICANN’s Global Domains Division, former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé is no longer involved with Donuts owner Abry Partners, having jumped to erstwhile PIR bidder Ethos Capital this July.

Are there competition concerns? It’s a possibility.

Afilias holds the contracts for 24 gTLDs new and legacy, but supports a couple hundred more, while Donuts is contracted for over 240.

But between them, they have barely 10 million domains under management. Donuts isn’t even the market leader in terms of new gTLD registrations.

And ICANN avoids making competition pronouncements like the plague, preferring instead to refer to national competition regulators.

Could ICANN’s interest have been perked by the fact that Afilias is the back-end provider for .org’s 10 million domains, and the proposed Donuts deal comes hot on the heels of the failed PIR acquisition? Again, it’s a possibility.

But none of the dangers ICANN identified in the .org deal — such as pricing, freedom of speech, and the change from a non-profit to for-profit corporate structure — appear to apply here.

There could be technical concerns. Atallah told DI a couple weeks ago that the plan was to ultimately migrate its managed TLDs to its Amazon cloud-based registry.

But moving its clients’ TLDs to a new back-end infrastructure would require their consent — it would be up to PIR and its overlords at the Internet Society to agree to moving .org to the cloud.

I think it’s likely that a combination of all the above factors, and maybe others, are what’s driving the Afilias acquisition to the ICANN boardroom. It will be interesting to see what the board decrees.

.org made $97 million last year

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2020, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry has published its 2019 tax returns, revealing a top line of $97.1 million.

That’s a tad under the $101.1 million it reported for 2018, presumably due to the declining number of .org domains under management.

It lost roughly 200,000 names in 2019, bottoming out at 10.4 million, though it has since recovered in 2020.

The returns also reveal that back-end provider Afilias was paid $18.3 million for its trouble, and ICANN was paid $2.6 million in fees.

The Internet Society, which owns PIR and uses it for most of its funding, was paid $67.5 million, up from the $48.7 million given in 2018.

The form also list the salary and bonuses for 20-odd staffers and directors, for the salary voyeurs among you.

ICANN dissenter explains why she wanted .org sale approved

ICANN has finally published the dissenting statement made by one of its directors following the vote to deny Ethos Capital the right to acquire Public Interest Registry from the Internet Society.

Avri Doria was one of only two directors to vote against the majority on the April 30 resolution, and the only one to file a written statement for the record, which ICANN has now published (pdf). It reads:

Briefly, I believe that the contractual conditions have been met by PIR and Ethos and that they have gone beyond these required contractual conditions to offer significant public interest commitments currently missing from the current contract.

On balance after intense study of the proposal I have come to conclusion that the Public Interest of registrants and users is better served by the PICs offered by PIR, though they could
be stronger, than by forcing PIR to remain within ISOC without any guarantees on public interest related to data usage and freedom of expression.

In exchange for ICANN approval of the deal, Ethos had promised to cap its price increases at 10% for eight years and to create a largely independent stewardship council to monitor issues related to privacy and free speech in .org.

With ICANN voting to deny the acquisition, PIR is not required to live up to those commitments, but opponents of the deal feel that its not-for-profit status under ISOC control provide stronger protections against bad behavior.

ICANN said it rejected the deal on “public interest” grounds for a variety of reasons including the lack of transparency into Ethos’ ultimate ownership, distrust that Ethos would be able to service its debt, doubt over its management in the long term, and the sheer volume of dissent from the community.

Also playing a strong role was an objection from the California attorney general, who pulled rank and informed ICANN that it should reject the deal, reminding the organization that it was subject to his oversight. This has been described as a dangerous precedent.

ICANN’s .org decision was NOT unanimous, and it was made in secret

When ICANN announced its decision to deny Public Interest Registry’s request to be acquired by Ethos Capital at the end of April, I felt a little foolish.

I’d confidently predicted just days earlier that the decision by the board would not be unanimous, but ICANN, in announcing the decision, said “the entire Board stands by this decision”.

But it turns out I was right after all. Three directors voted against the consensus and one abstained.

The dissenting votes were cast by industry policy consultant Avri Doria, Serbian internet pioneer Danko Jevtović, and former Sudanese ccTLD operator Ihab Osman.

Doria and Jevtović voted against the first resolved clause, which rejected PIR’s request. All three voted against the second resolved clause, which would have allowed PIR to file a second request.

Sarah Deutsch, a private practice lawyer, abstained from both votes, presumably because she also sits on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the civil liberties group that can, via California’s attorney general, probably be credited most with getting the transaction killed.

All three dissenters and Deutsch are Nominating Committee appointees.

According to the preliminary report of the April 30 meeting, “Doria indicated that she would be voting against the resolution and explained her views about how the public interest would be better served by ICANN granting its consent to PIR’s request.”

What her reasons were are not reflected in the record.

It also seems likely that any substantive minuting of ICANN’s decision is likely to be limited, as it appears to have been made at a different, off-the-books session at an unspecified earlier date.

The preliminary report notes the “the Board discussed and considered alternative draft resolutions for potential Board action as part of an earlier briefing”.

No such earlier meeting is listed on ICANN’s web site. The board’s previous formal meeting, two weeks earlier, had PIR’s request removed from the agenda at the last minute.

So it appears that ICANN’s board decided to reject the deal basically in secret at some point between April 17 and April 29, during a meeting of which ICANN has no obligation to publicly release the minutes.

Nice transparency loophole!

There’s always the Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, I suppose.