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Why DigitalTown bought 10,000+ .CITY domains – and why it matters

Over the last couple of weeks, more than 10,000 .CITY domains were registered by a single registrant called at Epik registrar. This is actually the other major company besides Epik where I serve as CEO. As DigitalTown does have some relevance to the domain industry, in this post I will outline what DigitalTown is doing.

What is DigitalTown

DigitalTown is a public Company (OTC: DGTW). I joined DigitalTown as CEO in May 2015, initially as a turnaround CEO but since signed on for longer. DigitalTown is building a global smart city platform. If you are not familiar with the term “Smart City”, you will be seeing a lot more of that term in the future. Technologies like Uber and AirBnb are beginning to exemplify some of the early characteristics of a smart city.  While these niche applications are compelling solutions to specific problems, they are just scratching the surface.

Looking ahead, a genuine Smart City will make transacting locally a seamless and frictionless experience, whether it is with a local merchant or whether it is with the local government. To this end, the DigitalTown platform is designed from the ground up to be operated in collaboration with local civic leaders as stakeholders, partners and even administrators.  The DigitalTown platform relies heavily on smart phone applications but also embraces the future of a “Smart Web” that will be more intuitive and easy to use.

Why build on .CITY domains

The focus of DigitalTown is to empower thriving local economies, typically organized around cities as the local governing entity that has both resources and personnel who are empowered to guide the local economy towards greater well-being of the community.  Each city will typically have its own character and “brand” identity. For many cities, this brand has never been formally defined by city management. Yet, nevertheless, each city through the process of time is developing a brand as a result of the personalities, businesses, competencies, and public services that are associated with that city or town.  As such, it also follows that a city website should reside on its own branded domain. The .CITY TLD, operated by Donuts, is a perfect domain extension for hosting multi-stakeholder city sites. DigitalTown’s mission is to now bring these .CITY domains and the DigitalTown cloud-hosted content management platform to the cities that can use these city brands effectively.  As for why not build on .TOWN, because towns often become cities, whereas cities very rarely become towns.

The need for Architecture and Design in the new Smart Web

As many registry operators are aware, one of the topics that I have been spending a great deal of time on in recent months, is navigating the topic of how the new domain extensions could be become part of an intuitive navigation framework for a “Smart Web”.  In response, a number of registries have embraced this notion of a strategic approach, aligning with DigitalTown in a formal way.  For example, DigitalTown will roll out a network of approximately 30,000 .MENU sites this year to power a network of local restaurant directories, as well as power a .MENU branded solution for online restaurant management. In the process, we expect .MENU has a compelling opportunity to emerge as a de facto standard for direct navigation in local communities for dining information.  Other registries have taken a more tactical approach, e.g. making blocks of domains available in bulk for development.  However, all registries with whom I have spoken agree with the fundamental premise that the web needs to become more intuitive. It needs to become Smart.   To this end, DigitalTown will be championing a network of “Short cuts” or “Life hacks” that will allow consumers that use web browsers in order to directly navigate to exactly what they are seeking.

The importance of Single Sign-On

The concept of Single Sign-on for the web is certainly not a new one.  I first began working on Single Sign-on solutions back in 2007 through a project called Federated Identity, concurrent with a vast rollout of a network of sites called Product Portals.  The premise of single sign-on is as valid now as it was then, i.e. the need for portable identity and portable reputation for being able to effectively navigate across a federated network of sites so that users do not need to register each time at some niche website. DigitalTown is working to provide a flexible framework that can power a secure online wallet, that is tied to the personal smart phone.

Will DigitalTown be Global?

DigitalTown is a global platform.  The Board of DigitalTown is committed to the vision of enabling participants to “See the World through Local Eyes”. Although the test markets for DigitalTown (Sibley County, MN and Leavenworth, WA) have been in the US, DigitalTown will establish regional presence in strategic hubs around the world, starting with Dubai later this year following a recent strategic investment by a Qatar-based industrialist.  While .CITY –and english language keyword TLDs in general — may not be ideal for every market, English remains the shared language of most of the developed world and will likely remain such for the foreseeable future.  That being said, the user interfaces can and will be localized. Moreover, real-time translation technology for text-based messaging has matured to the point that it becomes highly practical to connect persons of different nationalities, languages, cultures and religions in real-time.

DigitalTown is a shared vision for the Future of the Web

The near-term outlook for domain investors is mixed.  In fact, if stakeholders in the domain economy are not proactive, a large portion of domain economy is at risk of being supplanted by search engines (Google, etc), niche sites (e.g. AirBNB, Expedia, Tripadvisor in the travel category), and by a fast growing universe of clever and secure mobile applications.  In retrospect, I believe ICANN did the domain economy a very great disservice in handing out registries to private operators who in almost all cases had no TLD-specific business plan that would (1) make that TLD useful to end-users, and (2) make the internet as a whole more powerful.  Nevertheless, these domains are now in private hands. Those private stakeholders now have an opportunity to be intelligent stewards.  As such, I invite registries and registrants to be thinking about how to become aligned around a shared architecture that begins to make the web Smart.  This is no different than a group of landowners, agreeing to conventions on area codes, postal codes and street numbering. The result is faster development with less chaos.

A word about Epik to Domain Investors

Epik was never built to be the biggest registrar. Rather it was built to be the best, as well as to participate in the governance dialog related to the future of domains.  Over the coming year, you will see accelerated innovation coming from Epik, including the introduction of mobile services and support for resellers who wish to take advantage of our advance domain name management platform using their own brand identity. We view domain investors as stakeholders and partners in the curation of the Internet. And while DigitalTown did take out many .CITY domains in the last couple of weeks, there are still some fantastic deals to be had in the .CITY registry  Pricing through Epik is as low as $3.50 for the first year.  Contact Epik Support for more information about how to get partner pricing for .CITY domains.

Check out Epik’s new look!

One of the most important things that drives a company is having access to demanding, sophisticated customers who are willing to share their ideas on how to make a better system.  Epik is extremely blessed in this department.  We have also earned a reputation for being responsive to input and suggestions.  The result has been a rapid series of continuous improvements to accommodate the requests.

The one downside of this responsive approach is that over time, your interface becomes a bit cluttered — a pattern that I sometimes refer to as a “Yard Sale” or a “Christmas Tree”.  As such, from time to time, we need to redesign the user experience.  I am pleased to announce that today we have made one of our biggest user interface upgrades to date. Our design team, led by Ala Dadan, has nailed it.

Our main goal with the new Interface upgrade is to make it easier for you to manage your domains, whether its a single domain or hundreds of domains, you can now manage your domains easily with straight forward tools.


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Impressions from ICANN 51

Greetings from Los Angeles where I have spent the last few days at the ICANN 51 conference. While much of the content is the stuff of policy wonks, I found it time well spent. As the CEO of an ICANN-accredited registrar, I believe it is important to be active in the dialog around the future of the naming system and to develop direct relationships with the stakeholders and decision-makers from around the world.  I greatly appreciate that ICANN hosts these meetings.

The US Government is all-in with ICANN — but does that really matter?

The headline event of ICANN 51 was arguably the formal statement by US Commerce Secretary, Penny Pritzker, that the US will hand over formal stewardship of the Internet to “global multi-stakeholder communities”.

While some US stakeholders may be appalled by this policy of apparent abdication by the US of hegemony over the Internet,  I believe there is more to this move than meets the eye.  The US policy-makers like a free and open Internet.  Some might say that a free and open Internet is the ultimate global platform for public influence and, in the extreme case, subversion. A study of the history of US intelligence apparatus reveals that the US is the most advanced country when it comes to monitoring global telecommunications, e.g. via ECHELON/PRISM infrastructure.  The Internet is a battleground where the US is, and will be for the foreseeable future, the best equipped.  As such, it makes sense that the US will support a public policy which leads to a continued free and open Internet with minimal censorship.

Fadi Chehade is a professional

The conference opened with the multimedia-enhanced musings of ICANN Chairman Stephen Crocker and was followed by the keynote by Commerce Secretary Pritzker. Immediately thereafter, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade took the stage.  Fadi’s presentation laid out a well thought-out vision and strategic plan that balances top-down strategies with bottom-up consensus building. Fadi comes across as a focused technocrat who is amply capable of navigating the requisite technical, commercial and public policy circles that are central to his role.

Fadi has already presided over the massive gTLD rollout, which despite delays has gone off without a significant hitch.  Another area that deserves highlighting is the enforcement of compliance, particularly among the 2013 RAA signatories.  While the periodic audits and ad hoc inquiries from ICANN’s compliance team can at times be a nuisance to the registrars, the compliance enforcement efforts serve an important function, namely to bring the registrars to a unified standard of operating competency.

Consistent with Fadi’s consensus-building leadership style, during ICANN 51 Fadi announced the rollout of a new quarterly live conference call with stakeholders to review progress against plan and to invite input from the growing number of stakeholders.  While the addition of these conference calls may seem like overkill, keep in mind that ICANN has to contend with public and private stakeholders from around the world while protecting the interests of registrants and consumers that do not even know ICANN exists, and must do this in an environment where technology is in a constant state of flux.

ICANN is very flush with cash and this is not necessarily a good thing

The new gTLD rollout was a windfall for ICANN, which now has a warchest of approaching $400 million in cash and investments.  The current headcount of approximately 300 is projected to now hold steady. However, even at 300 persons, the organization is now large enough to have multiple layers of management distributed across multiple locations.  In my personal experience as Founder and CEO of Global Market Insite, a business that grew 100% per year for 7 years to 300 persons, it was the time between employee 200 and employee 300 when the greatest cultural risks emerged. This is the point in time when a 3rd (and sometimes a 4th) layer of management is added and when the CEO no longer knows every team member, and no longer presides over every hiring decision.

Domain Tasting needs to come back into the industry

As some of our customers know, Epik has developed some capability in the area of domain tasting, i.e. the practice of registering domains and then deleting the majority of them within the 5 day delete window. Earlier this year, domain tasting capability was made accessible to approved customers.  One major challenge of providing domain tasting services is that the registries are now enforcing a maximum delete rate of 10%, meaning that any significant volume of domain tasting quickly translates into onerous penalties for the sponsoring registrar.  While at ICANN 51, I had the opportunity to sit down individually with Pat Kane of Verisign and Akram Attalah, President of Global Domains of ICANN to more deeply understand the respective positions on the subject of Domain Tasting.  In short, the registries want tasting.  It is ICANN, presumably serving as a fiduciary, that is holding domain tasting back.  Mr. Attalah questioned the benefit of domain tasting, implying that it mainly benefits speculators rather than long term operators. I respectfully disagree with ICANN on the matter of domain tasting. The draconian policy now in effect is a disservice to the industry.  I look forward to a continued constructive dialog with the registrar stakeholder GNSO on this topic, in the months leading up to ICANN 52 in Marrakech, and will be initiating a formal Policy Development Process (PDP) to revisit the topic of Domain Tasting. The binary decision to kill tasting was arguably the appropriate reflex response to stop egregious abuses at the time.  However, the time has come to find middle ground.

Stewardship of WHOIS  is setting up to be a strategic area of importance

One of the topics at ICANN 51 was the emerging discussion of centralizing WHOIS.  The initial steps being taken by ICANN in the area of WHOIS are harmless and indeed useful, e.g. the launch of an ICANN-managed WHOIS search tool.  While further work on WHOIS centralization appears to be preliminary, these projects have a tendency to take on a life of their own once staffed and funded.  A significant change to the WHOIS framework has now gotten additional ICANN air cover by voluminous analysis by an Expert Working Group. During the meeting with Mr. Attalah of ICANN, I took the opportunity to state my position on the WHOIS centralization topic, namely that I am not in favor of a globally centralized WHOIS model and will advocate against it.  For accredited registrars that are in compliance with their RAA, they must have control over the WHOIS record as they are singularly accountable to the registrant to safeguard the record of ownership of the domain, regardless of whether the WHOIS information displayed is public or is a privacy proxy authorized by the registrant. The authoritative WHOIS record should continue to come from the WHOIS server of the accredited registrar. In other words, WHOIS, just as DNS, should remain federated not centralized.  There are WHOIS data quality standards.  These standards can and should be strictly enforced through the established compliance and enforcement processes.  The existing solution is not broken.

Many thanks to the ICANN team for putting on ICANN 51. Safe travels home for the participants from around the world.