As the debate about the sale by the Internet Society of .org registry PIR to a private equity company passionately continues, one reason put forward to defend the deal doesn’t appear to have been given much attention: it seems ISOC doesn’t have much confidence in the longevity of the domain name industry.
Reducing ISOC’s exposure to a single revenue source has been expressed as a pro for the deal by several supporters, but was perhaps best stated by Vint Cerf — ISOC founder, former ICANN chair, and Google’s chief internet evangelist — on an ISOC mailing list posting last week. Cerf wrote:
The domain name business started in 1992. There is not assurance that it will go one indefinitely — something new will likely come along. It would be good for ISOC to be able to continue its work without specific dependence on a single TLD’s commercial viability.
It’s perhaps not a particularly controversial statement. Nothing lasts forever. Everything dies. Whether it’s climate-related human extinction, a robot uprising, the zombie apocalypse, or the inevitable heat death of the universe, something’s definitely going to kill off DNS eventually.
I expect Cerf was more probably referring to a new technology that will come along to replace the need for domains altogether.
But is it a pressing reason to flog Public Interest Registry in 2019?
Maybe. It’s no secret that volume growth across the domain market is not great. Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief showed most growth in the second quarter driven by anomalies.
Even .org itself is struggling. Look at this chart, that tracks .org domains under management in the last few years.
You’ll see that DUM peaked at 11.4 million names in early 2016. That was after a couple of anomalous spikes that I speculate were related to pricing promotions or marketing campaigns.
It only took a few years for the gTLD to shed these gains.
Before the spikes, .org was at 10.6 million DUM. By July this year, it was at 10.5 million. Not pictured, the just-published transaction reports for August show the loss of about 30,000 more domains, bringing the TLD to its lowest level since October 2014.
Roughly speaking, for every domain it loses, PIR’s top line shrinks by a little under $10. A million domains lost is $10 million in lost revenue.
And this is a period in which PIR did not increase its prices, despite being permitted to do so by 10% per year.
Some amount of recent shrinkage could be accounted for by PIR’s “Quality Performance Index”, which seeks to reduce abusive .org registrations. But that’s only been in place since this June.
So, ISOC and Cerf perhaps have a right to be pessimistic.
And if the decline in volumes continues, it is perhaps inevitable that PIR’s new owner will have to increase prices just to keep revenues from going down in line with DUM.