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New new gTLD registry in town as Rostam buys UNR

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2022, Domain Registries

UNR, the former Uniregistry, has emerged under new ownership, new leadership, and with another new name, apparently finalizing Frank Schilling’s piecemeal exit from the domain name industry.

The nine gTLD contracts remaining with UNR following its fire-sale auction 18 months ago are now owned by Internet Naming Company, which like UNR is based in Grand Cayman.

The new company, which appears to be a continuation of UNR yet promising a “clean slate”, is owned and run by Shayan Rostam, who was UNR’s chief growth officer and previously worked for XYZ.com and Intercap.

INC’s portfolio comprises .click, .country, .help, .forum, .hiv, .love, .property, .sexy, and the unlaunched .trust, which together have over 350,000 registered domains.

Registry-recommended retail pricing varies wildly between TLDs, from the .com-competitive, such as .click at $9.99, to the wallet-busting, such as .sexy at $2,999 and .forum at $1,199.

INC is also offering consulting, auction and management services for other TLDs, including dot-brands.

The emergence of INC means we now know where all 23 of the gTLDs UNR auctioned off last year ended up. XYZ.com wound up with 10, with GoDaddy, Top Level Design, Nova Registry and Dot Hip Hop all grabbing one or two each.

UNR sold its registrar business to GoDaddy and its registry back-end business to Tucows (which is supporting INC’s portfolio) last year, giving INC the ability to talk about going “back to basics”, unencumbered by any conflicts of interest.

The new company is using inaming.co for its web site. The individual TLDs’ sites still use UNR landing pages.

Universal unacceptance? ICANN lets XYZ dump languages from UNR gTLDs

Even as CEO Göran Marby was accepting an ambassadorship from the Universal Acceptance Steering Group last month, ICANN was quietly approving a registry’s plan to drop support for several languages, potentially putting dozens of domains at risk.

It seems portfolio registry XYZ.com was having problems migrating the 10 gTLDs it recently acquired in UNR’s firesale auction from the UNR back-end to long-time partner CentralNic, so it’s cutting off some language support to ease the transition.

The company told ICANN in a recent Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf) that internationalized domain names in Cyrillic, Chinese, Japanese and German were “causing issues with the [Registry System Testing] for the technical transition”.

“So, in order to move forward with the migration to CentralNic, we have no choice but to remove support for these IDNs. This will only impact fewer than 50 registrations in these TLDs,” the company told ICANN.

I asked both XYZ and CentralNic whether this means the IDN domains in question would be deleted but got no response from either.

Support for the four languages will be removed in .christmas, .guitars, .pics, .audio, .diet, .flowers, .game, .hosting, .lol, .mom according to contractual amendments that ICANN has subsequently approved.

The RSEP was published the same week ICANN signed a memorandum of understanding with .eu registry EURid, promising to collaborate on IDNs and universal acceptance.

The same week, Marby, who has stated publicly on several occasions his commitment to IDNs and UA, was named an honorary ambassador of the UASG to “help amplify the importance of UA work to enable a multilingual Internet”.

UPDATE July 24, 2022:
CentralNic CTO Gavin Brown says:

I can confirm that no domains will be deleted or suspended due to the withdrawal of these IDN tables. The RSEP request template we provided to XYZ incorrectly stated that domains would be deleted, however, neither we nor XYZ have any plans to delete or suspend any domains, and we hope to re-enable the IDN tables in the near future.

Controversial Chinese firm among two newly revealed UNR gTLD buyers

Two more former UNR top-level domains have formally changed hands following the company’s fire sale over a year ago.

The ICANN contracts governing .llp and .help have been reassigned, the former to Intercap Registry and the latter to a new-to-the-industry Seychelles-based company called Innovation service Ltd, ICANN records show.

Intercap is a relatively known quantity, already running the .inc, .dealer and .box gTLDs.

Innovation is an entirely different kettle of fish.

The company appears to be led by a Hong Kong entrepreneur named Heng Lu, best known for making millions obtaining IPv4 addresses from Afrinic, the African Regional Internet Registry, and leasing them to clients in China for a huge profit.

Heng Lu is also the founder of Cloud Innovation Ltd, another Seychelles shell. It is currently embroiled in a string of lawsuits with Afrinic, which last year tried to revoke Cloud’s membership and therefore its IPv4 space.

The case(s) of Cloud versus Afrinic are pretty convoluted and a bit off-beat for this blog, but at one point last year it led to Afrinic’s bank accounts being frozen by the Mauritius Supreme Court, putting IP address management across the whole continent at risk.

ICANN would certainly have been aware of this already when it approved the transfer of the .help gTLD to what appears to be a related company. After the Mauritius injunction, Afrinic pleaded with ICANN for financial help, which ICANN provided.

The two transfers mean we now know the identities of the buyers of 17 of the 23 gTLD contracts UNR put up for sale in April 2021. ICANN took a long time to approve the reassignments due to worries about IP rights.

.link gTLD buyer revealed

Another of UNR’s portfolio auction winners has emerged.

This time it’s .link, UNR’s low-cost volume play, and the buyer appears to be a veteran domain investor named Yonatan Belousov.

ICANN records for .link were updated today to name a Maltese company called Nova Registry, an individual named Emanuel Debono, and an email address at nova.link as contacts.

It’s not a great sign when you google a company or person and all the top hits are from the Panama Papers leaks, but of course not every use of offshore companies is shady and ICANN will have done its due diligence.

Digging deeper into the rabbit hole, corporate records show Nova is owned by another Maltese company called Vanderlay Investments, which in turn has Belousov, known in the domaining industry as Yoni and a regular guest on Domain Sherpa, as the sole owner.

The domain nova.link doesn’t resolve to a web site, but it is registered to another Maltese company called Indefinite, which has a nice collection of one-word .com domains for sale.

The new information means we now know the identities of the buyers of 15 of the 23 gTLD contracts UNR put up for sale in April 2021. XYZ, GoDaddy, Top Level Design and Dot Hip Hop all walked away with shiny pre-loved TLDs.

Dot Hip Hop slashes prices 80% in relaunch

The industry newcomer run mainly by veterans, Dot Hip Hop said today it will slash the price of .hiphop domains by 80% in an effort to reinvigorate the languishing gTLD.

That appears to mean a wholesale fee reduction from $100 to $20 a year.

The price cut will be married with a focus on registry-level marketing that the TLD didn’t really get as part of the old UNR portfolio. Chief marketing officer Scott Pruitt said in a press release:

Domain registries that have invested in marketing directly to end-users have been the most successful in the last few years, This simple strategy of end-user outreach and lower prices combined with the enormous growth of hip-hop as a worldwide cultural and economic force, make us extremely optimistic about the future of our company.

Dot Hip Hop is a partnership of startup DigitalAMN and industry stalwarts Monte Cahn, Jeff Neuman and Pruitt.

The company acquired the .hiphop ICANN contract from UNR a year ago, in a deal that took until this January to close due to ICANN delays.

.hiphop currently has fewer than 1,000 domains under management, no doubt mostly due to the formerly high prices.

The wholesale fee cut seems to be translating to retail prices around $25 at the low end, competitive with most gTLDs.

GoDaddy and XYZ sign away rights after UNR’s crypto gambit

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2022, Domain Registries

ICANN has started asking registries to formally sign away ownership rights to their gTLDs when they acquire them from other registries.

GoDaddy and XYZ.com both had to agree that they don’t “own” their newly acquired strings before ICANN would agree to transfer them from portfolio UNR, which auctioned off its 23 gTLD contracts a year ago.

GoDaddy bought .photo and .blackfriday for undisclosed sums in the auction, it emerged last week. XYZ bought 10 others and newcomer Dot Hip Hop bought .hiphop.

All three transfers were signed off March 10 (though GoDaddy’s were inexplicably not published by ICANN until last Thursday, when much of Christendom was winding down for a long weekend) and all three contain this new language:

The Parties hereby acknowledge that, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in any marketing or auction materials, documentation or communications issued by Assignor or any other agreements between the Parties or otherwise, nothing in the Registry Agreement(s) or in any other agreements between Assignor and Assignee have established or granted to Assignor any property or ownership rights or interest in or to the TLDs or the letters, words, symbols or other characters making up the TLDs’ strings and that Assignee is not being granted any property or ownership rights or interest in or to the TLDs or the letters, words, symbols or other characters making up the TLDs’ strings.

The Parties represent that they understand the scope of ICANN’s Consent, which: (A) does not grant Assignee any actual or purported property or ownership rights or interest in or two the TLDs or the letters, words, symbols or other characters making up the TLDs’s strings; (B) is solely binding and applicable to the assignment of rights and obligations pursuant to the Registry Agreement(s); (C) solely relates to the operation of the TLDs in the Domain Name System as specified in the applicable Registry Agreement(s); and (D) does not convey any rights to the letters, words or symbols making up the TLD string for use outside the Domain Name System.

The TL;DR of this? Registries don’t “own” their gTLDs, ICANN just allows them to use the strings.

The new language is in there because UNR’s auction had offered, as a bonus, ownership of matching non-fungible token “domains” on the blockchain-based alt-root Ethereum Name Service.

Alt-roots arguably present an existential threat to ICANN and a risk to the interoperability of the internet, so ICANN delayed authorization of its approvals for many months while it tried to figure out the legalities.

Dot Hip Hop, for one, has said it couldn’t care less about the Ethereum NFT, and has had it deleted.

Separately, the .ruhr contract has been transferred from regiodot to fellow German geo-TLD operator DotSaarland, a subsidiary of London-based CentralNic, which announced the acquisition in February.

This assignment agreement was signed March 31 — after GoDaddy’s and XYZ’s — and does not include the new ownership waiver language, suggesting that it’s unique to UNR’s auction winners.

However, the friction between blockchain alt-roots is likely to be an issue when the next new gTLD application round opens.

It’s being said that a great many “TLDs” are being registered on various blockchains specifically in order to interfere with matching ICANN applications, and that blockchain fans are attempting to delay the next round to give their own projects more time to take root.

GoDaddy’s two acquisitions bring the total known outcomes of UNR’s auctions to 13 out of 23 gTLDs. At least four more are being processed by ICANN, according to a now month-old statement.

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.

XYZ bought most of Uniregistry’s TLDs

Kevin Murphy, March 21, 2022, Domain Registries

XYZ.com has emerged as the winning bidder for 10 of the 17 new gTLDs that UNR, formerly Uniregistry, auctioned off last year.

The company bought .audio, .christmas, .diet, .flowers, .game, .guitars, .hosting, .lol, .mom and .pics, according to ICANN, which approved the transfer of each registry agreement today.

As previously reported, a new company called Dot Hip Hop bought .hiphop, albeit not at auction.

The contract reassignments come almost a year after the auction took place, and were delayed after ICANN got nervous about the fact that UNR had apparently sold matching Ethereum Name Service blockchain domains at the same time.

“This raised concerns because ICANN org was being asked to approve transactions that included not only the transfer of gTLD operations set out in the relevant registry agreements, but also included references and/or implications of the transfer of ownership rights in the gTLDs,” ICANN veep Russ Weinstein wrote today.

“To be clear, the registry agreements do not grant any property ownership rights in the gTLD or the letters, words, symbols, or other characters making up the gTLD string,” he added.

Six more UNR gTLD contracts remain in the approval process, but ICANN blamed this on the timing of when the assignment requests were submitted.

The UNR auction last April raised over $40 million, according to UNR.

Post-lockdown blues hit Tucows’ growth

Kevin Murphy, February 11, 2022, Domain Registrars

Tucows’ domain business was pretty much flat in the fourth quarter and full-year 2021, as the company hit the trough following the spike of the pandemic lockdown bump.

The registrar said last night that its Domain Services business saw new registrations down or flat in both wholesale and retail channels, even when compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The company said (pdf) it ended the year with 25.2 million domains under management, down from 25.4 million a year earlier. The total number of new, renewed or transferred-in domains was 17.4 million, down from 18.2 million.

For the fourth quarter, the total new, renewed or transferred-in domains was 4 million, compared to 4.3 million a year earlier.

In prepared remarks (pdf), CEO Elliot Noss said that wholesale-segment registrations were down 6% to 3.7 million in Q4 and new registrations were down 27% from 2020’s pandemic-related “outsized volumes”.

In retail, total new, renewed and transferred registrations for the quarter were just over 310,000, down 16%, he said. New registrations were down 21% year over year.

The domains business reported revenue of $61.4 million in the fourth quarter, down from $61.8 million in the year-earlier period.

Domain revenue from wholesale was down to $47.1 million from $47.5 million. Retail was down to $8.7 million from $9.2 million. EBITDA across both channels was $11.6 million, down from $12.1 million.

The renewal rates for wholesale and retail were a more-than-respectable 80% and 85% respectively.

Some of the declines can be attributed to the pandemic-related bump Tucows and other registrars experienced in 2020.

Margins had been impacted a bit by the acquisition of UNR’s back-end registry business, the integration of which Noss said has now been fully completed.

For the full company, including non-domain businesses such as mobile and fiber, revenue for the year was down 2.2% at $304.3 million and net income was down 41.7% at $3.4 million.

The company also announced it has renewed its $40 million share buyback program.

Monte Cahn revealed as third new gTLD buyer

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2022, Domain Registries

Domain investor Monte Cahn has revealed himself as the third partner in the controversial acquisition of new gTLD .hiphop from UNR.

Cahn Enterprises named itself alongside already-reported consultant Jeff Neuman of JJN Solutions and publicly traded startup Digital Asset Monetary Network (DigitalAMN) as a partner in newly formed registry vehicle Dot Hip Hop LLC.

DHH bought .hiphop privately from Frank Schilling’s UNR last April at around the same time as UNR auctioned off the other 22 gTLDs in its portfolio, exiting the registry business.

Cahn founded the registrar Moniker, aftermarket pioneer SnapNames and gTLD auction coordinator RightOfTheDot.

RightOfTheDot’s Scott Pruitt has also joined DHH to lead marketing, Cahn’s press release revealed.

The new registry plans to lower the price of .hiphip domains, which currently retail for over $150 a year, as part of an effort to get broader adoption in the hip-hop cultural community.

The company is strongly pushing digital empowerment and “financial literacy” in an “underserved” community as a public benefit of its plans for the TLD.

The problem DHH continues to face is ICANN’s ongoing blocking of the transfer of .hiphop, and the other 22 UNR TLD contracts, due to confusion about the ownership status of matching TLDs on the Ethereum Name Service, a blockchain-based alt-root.

ICANN is fearful of alternative DNS roots which, if they ever gain broad appeal, in theory could break internet interoperability as well as eroding ICANN’s own uniquely powerful and uniquely lucrative authority over the DNS.

DHH’s Neuman recently accused ICANN of foot-dragging and retaliation over the delayed transfers, which is costing the DHH partners money while their legal status is in limbo and they are unable to sell any names.

ICANN’s top brass subsequently denied these accusations, saying the Org is merely following its established (and rather convoluted) appeals procedures.

While these procedures could delay approval of .hiphop’s transfer for another few months, forcing DHH to burn more capital, ICANN said it is “considering the potential impact on the requestor as we have been requested to do”, so it may cut DHH some slack.