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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.

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

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2023, Domain Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palage writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With mystery auction winner, .sexy prices go from $25 to $2,500

Kevin Murphy, March 28, 2022, Domain Registries

UNR is increasing the annual price of a .sexy domain from $25 to over $2,000, according to registrars.

The price increase will hit from April 30, according to registrars, but will not affect renewals on domains registered before that date.

French registrar Gandi said its retail price for a .sexy name will increase from $40 to $2,750. That’s after its mark-up. Belgian registrar Bnamed said in January prices were about to get 100 times more expensive.

The current wholesale price for .sexy is believed to be $25 a year. I’m guessing it’s going up to about $2,500, which is a price tag UNR has previously experimented with for its car-related gTLDs.

UNR CEO Frank Schilling has previously defended steep price increases for TLDs that under-perform volume-wise.

.sexy had barely 6,000 names under management at the last count, having peaked at about 28,000 in 2017.

The question is: who’s decided to increase the prices? Did .sexy actually sell when UNR tried to offload its portfolio last year, or is UNR keeping hold of it?

.sexy was among the 23 gTLD contracts UNR said it sold, mostly at auction, about a year ago. But it’s not one of the ones where the buyer has been yet disclosed.

The gTLDs UNR said it sold were: .audio, .blackfriday, .christmas, .click, .country, .diet, .flowers, .game, ,guitars, .help, .hiphop, .hiv, .hosting, .juegos, .link, .llp, .lol, .mom, .photo, .pics, .property, .sexy and .tattoo.

Of those, a new company called Dot Hip Hop bought .hiphop and XYZ.com bought .audio, .christmas, .diet, .flowers, .game, .guitars, .hosting, .lol, .mom and .pics.

ICANN has approved those 11 contract reassignments — after some difficulty — and said that there are six remaining in the approval process.

That only adds up to 17, meaning there are six more that UNR said it sold but for which it had not, as of a week ago, requested a contract transfer.

But in May last year, UNR “announced gross receipts of more than $40 million USD for its 20+ TLDs”, said there had be 17 participating bidders, and that 10 to 20 had “came away as winners, including six who will be operating TLDs for the first time”.

That leaves with at least five as-yet undisclosed winners from outside the industry, six contract transfers outstanding, and six gTLDs with an unknown status.

Neither UNR nor ICANN have been commenting on the status of pending transfers.

.autos priced waaay below its XYZ rivals

When XYZ.com tied up the automotive gTLD market by bringing .car, .cars, .auto and .autos into its portfolio last year, I speculated that a big price increase may be on the cards for .autos. I was wrong.

The registry has in fact dropped its wholesale prices by quite a lot, keeping .autos domains a fraction of the cost of their stable-brothers and competitive with .com.

XYZ said yesterday that the recommended retail price for .autos will be around $20 per year, compared to the $100 under previous owner Dominion.

The new pricing comes into effect June 14.

By contrast, .auto, .cars and .car continue to be priced at around $2,000 per year at the cheaper registrars. At others your renewal fee could be as high as $4,000.

The pricing makes .autos a much more affordable choice for the likes of smaller car dealerships and garages, as well as an option for domain investors not scared away by the risky world of new gTLDs.

Under Dominion, .autos never broke through the 500 domains under management mark. Its three siblings all have roughly 300 names in their zones, with a leaning towards corporate registrar sales.

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.

Ahead of GoDaddy acquisition, MMX to scrap premium fees on 725,000 domains

Kevin Murphy, April 12, 2021, Domain Registries

MMX plans to remove hundreds of thousands of domains from its premium list later this month, and reduce prices on a hundred thousand more.

Dubbed The Great Release, the April 23 adjustment will see 725,400 names currently reserved at premium prices released to the available pool at the usual wholesale fee for their respective gTLDs.

Another 102,000 names will keep a premium ticket, but will see their price reduced. MMX says it’s wiped $145 million from the list price of a total of 827,000 names.

The names are available in 26 of MMX’s portfolio of new gTLDs, which GoDaddy currently intends to buy for $120 million.

An MMX spokesperson said that the current pricing had been in place since 2014 and was up for review. He said:

Premium pricing is not something that had been looked at in great detail since it launched its TLDs, and MMX felt that its pricing was out of step with current market trends. MMX also saw that it had held back much of its inventory without ever releasing it, and following a large volume of enquiries over the last 12 months, MMX decided to release all reserved names to get them into the hands of users.

A searchable database of releasing names can be found here, but you’ll need to hand over your email address to access it.

Are 25x price increases on the cards as XYZ corners the cars market?

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Grab-happy registry XYZ.com has expanded its stable of strings to 22 after buying five little-used gTLDs from Dominion Registries.

It recently came into control of .autos, .motorcycles, .homes, .yachts, and .boats, CEO Daniel Negari confirmed earlier this week.

Following XYZ’s buyout of .auto, .car and .cars from former joint venture partner UNR a couple months back, it seems the company now pretty much has a lock on the English-language automotive domain market.

This raises the question, so far unanswered by the registry, about whether .autos registrants could be about to face some of the steepest price increases the new gTLD market has seen to date.

XYZ’s .auto, .car and .cars currently command among the highest base prices in the market — about $2,500 at retail for a basic, non-premium name — while .autos has been chugging along at $100 per domain per year.

It would make perfect sense for the registry to give its new acquisition a 25x price increase to align it with the rest of the automotive portfolio, but so far the company is tight-lipped on the subject.

Fortunately, the current pool of .autos registrants is quite small — a little over 400 names, about the same as .auto but a couple hundred ahead of .cars and .car — so there would not be many customers to piss off.

Indeed, three of the other TLDs XYZ just bought have what you might generously call “growth potential”.

The only one of the five gTLDs to have more than 500 domains under management is .homes, which has more than 13,000.

With XYZ’s broader channel reach and superior marketing prowess, there’s certainly upside on the horizon.

ZADNA hikes up the price of .za domains

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2020, Domain Registries

South African ccTLD registry ZADNA has upped the price of .za domains after a consultation.

Standard pricing will increase by ZAR 10 to ZAR 55 ($3.35), which works out at about a 22% increase, from April 1 next year.

There’s also a ZAR 10 increase on customers of its old, pre-EPP legacy system, where the base price is currently ZAR 130 ($7.58). That kicks in January 1.

ZADNA has been increasing the legacy pricing for years to encourage registrants onto its industry-standard EPP infrastructure.

The changes come despite receiving comments from the local internet community about affordability and the current economic conditions.

South Africa might raise, or lower, some wholesale domain fees

ZADNA, the South African ccTLD registry, has put out a call for comments on plans to adjust the wholesale price of .za domain names.

For the last nine years, it’s had a two-tier pricing system, with registrars on its EPP registry paying a lower fee than those still on its outdated bespoke technology.

Now, the registry is talking about possibly raising the price of the EPP, which has been at ZAR 45 ($2.62) for the last five years, and/or scrapping the legacy system, where prices currently stand at ZAR 130 ($7.58).

The fee for the legacy registry has been going up for years, to encourage registrars to migrate to the more modern, efficient EPP system. Today, all but 2.5% of .za domains are on the EPP system.

While ZADNA says it has not made up its mind whether to raise, lower or freeze its fees, its consultation document (pdf) seems to pitch pretty hard for increases.

The registry argues that an hike linked to the local Consumer Price Index, which it says has gone up 21% since 2015, may be called in order to track the cost of doing business.

In terms of lowering the price, ZADNA says it may help .za become more competitive, but at the expense of its ability to invest in infrastructure.

Interested parties have until June 30 to send in their comments. A decision will be made by the end of July, and any price changes will come into effect in October,

As ICANN meets to decide .org’s fate, California AG says billion-dollar deal must be rejected

Kevin Murphy, April 16, 2020, Domain Policy

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has urged ICANN to deny approval of Ethos Capital’s $1.13 billion acquisition of .org manager Public Interest Registry.

The call came in a letter (pdf) dated yesterday, just a day before ICANN’s board of directors was scheduled to meet to discuss the deal.

Becerra, who started looking into the deal in late January, wrote, right out of the gate:

I urge ICANN to reject the transfer of control over the .ORG registry to Ethos Capital. The proposed transfer raises serious concerns that cannot be overlooked.

Chief among his concerns is the fact that ICANN originally granted PIR the right to run .org largely because it was a non-profit with a committment to serve non-profits. He wrote:

If, as proposed, Ethos Capital is permitted to purchase PIR, it will no longer have the unique characteristics that ICANN valued at the time that it selected PIR as the nonprofit to be responsible for the .ORG registry. In effect, what is at stake is the transfer of the world’s second largest registry to a for-profit private equity firm that, by design, exists to profit from millions of nonprofit and non-commercial organizations

He’s also bothered about the lack of transparency about who Ethos is and what its plans are. The proposed new owners of PIR are hidden behind a complex hierarchy of dummy LLCs, and Ethos has so far refused to name its money men or to specify what additional services it might offer to boost its revenue.

Becerra also doesn’t buy the business plan, which would see PIR required to pay off a $300 million loan and, as a newly converted for-profit entity, start paying taxes.

He’s particularly scathing about the fact that ICANN approved the removal of PIR’s price caps last year despite receiving over 3,000 public comments opposing the changes and only half a dozen in favor.

“There is mounting concern that ICANN is no longer responsive to the needs of its stakeholders,” he writes.

Despite saying he “will take whatever action necessary to protect Californians and the nonprofit community”, Becerra does not specify what remedies are available to him.

But it looks like ICANN faces the risk of legal action no matter which way its board of directors votes (or voted) today.

Its current deadline to make a decision is April 20.