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Domain universe grew 1% in Q1

There was a 1% increase in domain names under management worldwide in the first quarter, compared to Q4 2022 and Q1 2022, according to Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief.

The period ended with 354 million names across all TLDs, according to the report, an increase of 3.5 million, the report says.

ccTLDs did most of the heavy lifting, up by 2.6 million names or 2% sequentially to 135.7 million at the end of the first quarter. The growth figures correct for an error in the Q4 report.

Verisign has its own .com recovering, having dipped last year, now up by 1.1 million names sequentially to 161.6 million. Sister TLD .net was flat on 13.2 million.

New gTLDs dipped by 200,000 names to 27.3 million, a 0.6% decrease quarter-over-quarter, but were up by 900,000 or 3.6% compared to a year earlier, the DNIB states.

Everyone hates Verisign’s new .net deal

Kevin Murphy, May 26, 2023, Domain Policy

The public has commented: Verisign’s .net registry contract should not be renewed in its currently proposed form.

ICANN’s public comment period for the renewal closed yesterday and attracted 57 submissions, most of which either complained about Verisign being allowed to raise its prices or expressed fears about domains being seized by governments.

The proposed contract retains the current pricing structure, in which Verisign is allowed to raise the price of a .net domain by 10% a year. They currently cost $9.92, meaning they could reach $17.57 by the time the contract ends.

The Internet Commerce Association, some of its supporters, Namecheap, the Registrars Stakeholder Group, the Cross-Community Working Party on ICANN and Human Rights (CCWP-HR), and TurnCommerce all oppose the price increases.

The RrSG said the price provisions “are without sufficient justification or an analysis of its potentially substantial impact on the DNS”.

These commenters and others who did not directly oppose the increases, including the At-Large Advisory Committee and consultant Michael Palage, called for ICANN to conduct an economic analysis of the domain name market.

The Business Constituency was the only commenter to openly support the increases, though its comment noted that it is opposed in principle to ICANN capping prices at all.

The Intellectual Property Constituency did not express a view on pricing, but called for greater transparency into the side-deal that sees ICANN get an extra $4 million a year for unspecified security-related work. ICANN has never revealed publicly how this money is spent.

In terms of the number of submissions, the biggest concern people seem to have is that the proposed contract contains language obliging Verisign to take down domains to comply with “applicable law, government rules or regulations, or pursuant to any legal order or subpoena of any government, administrative or governmental authority, or court of competent jurisdiction”.

This language is already in the .com contract, but before ICANN clarified this on April 26 several concerned registrants had made comments opposing its inclusion.

Notably, the founder of the controversial troll forum kiwifarms.net, which has been kicked out of registrars after being linked to suicides, submitted his own “ICANN should be destroyed” comment.

Several commenters also noted that the definition of “security and stability” in the .net contract differs to the Base Registry Agreement that almost all other registries have signed in such a way that it is feared that Verisign would not have to abide by future ICANN Consensus Policies under certain circumstances.

As several commenters note, the usual protocol following an ICANN public comment period is for ICANN to issue a summary report, pay lip service to having “considered” the input, and then make absolutely no changes at all.

This time, some commenters held out some hope that ICANN’s new, surprisingly sprightly and accommodating leadership may have a different approach.

The comments can be read here.

.web delay likely after Verisign rival files ICANN appeal

Kevin Murphy, May 18, 2023, Domain Policy

The .web gTLD appears unlikely to see the light of day any time soon, after the Afilias spin-off that came second to Verisign in the $135 million auction in 2016 kicked off another appeals process.

Altanovo, which is made up of bits of Afilias left over when Identity Digital acquired the company, has asked ICANN to enter a Cooperative Engagement Process, according to ICANN’s records.

The CEP is a form of mediation companies can force ICANN into when they have beef. It’s designed to avoid the relative expense of a full-on Independent Review Process. They usually result in an IRP anyway.

Altanovo made its request the same day ICANN announced that its board of directors had decided to take .web off hold and resume registry contract negotiations with Verisign, following Altanovo’s original, unsuccessful IRP.

Verisign yesterday said the move amounted to an “abuse of process” and “baseless procedural maneuvering”, likely to lead to “delay for delay’s sake”.

IRPs typically last years and cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars in panel fees, not counting each party’s lawyer fees.

Altanovo believes that Verisign broke ICANN’s new gTLD program rules when it bid for .web via a secret intermediary. Verisign has countered that its rival, then Afilias, broke the rules by trying to negotiate a private deal during the auction’s “black out” period.

Verisign “pleased” at ICANN’s .web call

Verisign said it is “pleased” that ICANN has decided it should be awarded the .web gTLD, but hinted that it might not launch this year.

“We now look forward to NDC’s execution of the .web Registry Agreement and submission to ICANN of the request for assignment of the .web Registry Agreement to Verisign,” the company said in a statement this afternoon.

It follows the news this morning that ICANN’s board of directors decided that the company did not break any rules when it won the auction for .web via a secret intermediary company, Nu Dot Co.

Verisign reiterated that its current financial guidance for the year does not include any impact from .web.

Verisign narrows domain growth guidance

Verisign cast a slightly more optimistic light on the potential for .com and .net growth last week, as it reported a modest improvement in first-quarter sales.

Management told analysts that it’s now expecting domain growth of between 0.5% and 2.25% for the year — a boost to the low-end but a lowering of the high-end.

In February, it had predicted growth of between 0% and 2.5%.

For Q1, the company reported domain growth of just 0.1% There were 174.8 million .com and .net domains at the end of the quarter, up by a million from the start of the year.

Verisign reported net income of $179 million, up from $158 million a year ago, on revenue that increased 5.1% at $364 million.

Worried about governments seizing .com domains? Too late

Kevin Murphy, April 20, 2023, Domain Policy

Language proposed for Verisign’s .net registry contract that some say would give governments the ability to arbitrarily seize domains is already present in the company’s .com contract.

As I reported earlier this month, the .net Registry Agreement is up for renewal and ICANN has opened up some largely uncontroversial proposed changes for public comment.

ICANN has received two comments so far, both of which refer to what one commenter called the “outrageous and dangerous” proposed changes to Verisign’s .net Registry-Registrar Agreement.

The RRA is the contract all accredited registrars must agree to when they sign up to sell domains in a given TLD. For ICANN, it’s a way to vicariously enforce policy on registrants via registrars via registries.

Unsimply put, the RA instructs Verisign to have an RRA with its registrars that tells them what rules their registrants have to agree to when they buy a domain name.

The new language causing the consternation is:

Verisign reserves the right to deny, cancel, redirect or transfer any registration or transaction, or place any domain name(s) on registry lock, hold or similar status, as it deems necessary, in its unlimited and sole discretion:

to ensure compliance with applicable law, government rules or regulations, or pursuant to any legal order or subpoena of any government, administrative or governmental authority, or court of competent jurisdiction

One commenter states “this proposed agreement would allow any government in the world to cancel, redirect or transfer to their control applicable domain names”, adding “presumably ICANN staff and Verisign would want to also apply it to other extensions like .COM as those contracts come up for renewal”.

In fact, it’s the other way around. The exact same language has been present in Verisign’s .com contract for over three years, a change to Appendix 8a (pdf) that went largely unnoticed when thousands of commenters were instead complaining about the removal of price caps and fretting about the rise of Covid-19 around the world.

For those worried about the new .net language making it into the .com contract one day — worry not! It’s already there.

Verisign’s .net contract up for public comment

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2023, Domain Registries

ICANN intends to renew Verisign’s contract to run the .net gTLD and has opened the revised deal for public comment.

At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be anything massively controversial about the proposed changes, so we probably shouldn’t expect the same kind of outrage similar contract renewals have solicited in the past.

A great deal of the changes relate to the sunsetting of the Whois protocol and its replacement with the functionally similar RDAP, something set to become part of all gTLD contracts, legacy and new, soon.

The only money-related change of note is the agreement that Verisign will pay pro-rated portions of the $0.75 annual ICANN transaction fee when it sells its Consolidate service, which allows registrants to synchronize their expiry dates for convenience.

That provision is already in the .com contract, and Verisign has agreed to back-date the payments to May 1, 2020, around about the same time the .com contract was signed.

The controversial side-deal under which Verisign agreed to pay ICANN $4 million a year for five years is also being amended, but the duration and amount of money do not appear to be changing.

The new Registry Agreement also includes Public Interest Commitments for the first time. Verisign has agreed to two PICs common to all new gTLD RAs governing prohibitions on abusive behaviors.

The deal would extend Verisign’s oversight for six years, to June 30, 2029. It’s open for public comment until May 25.

.com was a drag on the industry in Q4

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2023, Domain Registries

The .com gTLD was a growth drag on domain name registrations in the fourth quarter, if the latest figures in Verisign’s Domain Name Industry Brief are to be believed.

The industry closed out 2022 with 350.4 million domains all TLDs that the DNIB tracks (which excludes Freenom’s free ccTLDs), up half a million in the quarter and 8.7 million over the year.

But that was despite Verisign’s own .com, rather than due to it. The DNIB has .com down from 160.9 million to 160.5 million. Sister TLD .net was flat at 13.2 million.

It was left to new gTLDs and ccTLDs to pick up the slack.

ccTLDs accounted for 133.1 million names, up 700,000 sequentially and 5.7 million over the year. New gTLD registrations were up 100,000 sequentially and 2.7 million over the year.

A big driver in ccTLDs was Australia’s .au, where the launch of direct second-level registrations added hundreds of thousands of domains and let the ccTLD kick .xyz out of the top 10 TLDs by volume.

But the report has a pretty big discrepancy that could throw out the ccTLDs number, I believe. For some reason the DNIB has .eu increasing by 300,000 names to 4 million in Q4, which flies in the face of the registry’s own numbers, which have it basically flat at 3.7 million.

Verisign looking at ChatGPT-like name-spinner

Kevin Murphy, February 13, 2023, Domain Registries

Verisign is “looking closely” at overnight AI chatbot sensation ChatGPT to see if its technology can be incorporated into its name-spinner tool, NameStudio.

CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts last week: “ChatGPT and NameStudio will actually help you find a similar and equally good or maybe even better name and we’re looking closely at ChatGPT to see about using its capabilities to enhance what NameStudio does.”

He dismissed suggestions such AI tools might negatively impact domain names, comparing it to misplaced concerns about voice assistants (presumably meaning the likes of Alexa and Siri).

Last month, I blogged about a new name-spinner web site using the same AI technology as ChatGPT to come up with name suggestions and speculated that this will likely become the industry standard before too long.

.com shrinks again, but prices to go up again

Kevin Murphy, February 13, 2023, Domain Registries

Verisign plans to increase .com prices again this year, as its latest quarterly results show its top line and margins swelling despite renewals and overall domains under management shrinking.

The company ended 2022 with 173.8 million .com and .net regs in the domain name base, only up 0.2% from the start of the year. Only a quarter ago, it had predicted growth of between 0.25% and 1%.

A year ago, it had predicted that metric to grow between 2.5% and 4.5%, but it reduced its outlook every quarter and eventually missed even its barrel-bottom estimate. The two TLDs shrank by about 400,000 names in Q4.

For 2023, the company expects domain growth of between no growth at all and 2.5%.

The poor performance in volume terms came about as result of post-pandemic effects and China volatility, CEO Jim Bidzos told analysts. He did not blame the last few years of price increases for the dip.

The preliminary renewal rate for Q4 was 73.2% compared to 74.8% in the same quarter of 2021, but new regs were down across the two TLDs also — 9.7 million compared to 10.6 million over the same periods.

But of course domains under management alone is a poor way to measure Verisign’s cash-printing machine.

The company reported 2022 net income of $674 million which was down from $785 million a year earlier when it had benefited from a one off tax-related boost of $165.5 million.

Annual revenue was up 7.3% at $1.42 billion, a touch ahead of the 7% .com price increase it imposed during the year. Operating margin for 2022 was 66.2%, up from 65.3%.

For the quarter, net income was $179 million compared to $330 million (with the aforementioned tax benefit) on revenue that was up 8.5% at $369 million. Margin was 66.5% compared to 65.3% for Q4 2021.

The company said .com prices will go up again in September 1, from $8.97 to $9.59 per year.