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It's all about domains… with Barbara Povše from CENTR

The diversity in the DNS ecosystem is also the result of different cultures. This is particularly true for ccTLDs. Fasten your seatbelt, we will take you on a trip across Europe to discover what we love most: domains!


Interview: Barbara Povše CENTR .si registry

Country code top-level domains are essential elements of the DNS. They were specially designed for a particular country, sovereign state or autonomous territory based on the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2. ccTLDs are particularly popular in Europe, where they are widely and successfully used.

With the aim to promote and participate in the development of European ccTLDs, CENTR (Council of European National Top-Level Domain Registries) coordinates ccTLD registries and collaborates with them to reach high standards. As the Chairwoman of CENTR's Board of Directors and Head of .si Registry, the registry for the Slovanian country code TLD, Barbara Povše is a true expert and a renowned name in the domain industry. With an academic background in mathematics, she started her career with the Academic and Research Network of Slovenia (ARNES) in 1994. Within this public institute, she has become the head of the Slovenian ccTLD.

We welcome Barbara to “It’s all about domains”, our interview series with experts from the domain industry. Today, she will help us shed light on the multi-faceted and vibrant ccTLD scene in Europe.

Why are ccTLDs still so popular in Europe?

It is true that European ccTLDs generally have a larger market share compared to gTLDs. There are many reasons for this. These are the main ones:

  • Having a local address and identity is important to customers.
  • European ccTLDs pay a lot of attention to the safety and security of operations.
  • National legislation governs our business and protects domain name holders.
  • Local registrars offer registration in national languages.
  • Disputes are easily solved.

ccTLDs are our national online identity, so most customers prefer to use a local ccTLD for their online address and as a trademark for their business. Boosted by the pandemic and the need of businesses to be online, in 2020 the domain name growth rate for European ccTLDs was significantly higher than in previous years.

But European ccTLD operators are keeping an eye to the first renewal cycle for domain registrations in 2020. There is a high likelihood that registrants will let their domain expire after the first year. Making predictions during this unique period is challenging, but we remain optimistic, especially since the demand for new domain registrations increased in the first quarter of 2021. CENTR data also shows the average parking and error rates among ccTLDs to be significantly lower than equivalent rates among the top 100 gTLDs. This is significant as the usage (or its lack) of domain names strongly impacts the retention of domains.

A multi-year domain registration gives you precisely the long-term perspective your business needs. And it comes with significant advantages.    

How are prices developing for ccTLDs? Are the national registries moving differently?

According to CENTR statistics, the prices have been mainly stable for the last couple of years. The median buy price of European ccTLDs is 10 EUR, with a renewal price of 14 EUR. Prices vary a bit according to the ccTLD, but there are no significant differences. Some registries occasionally offer promotional prices for registrations. Still, often the renewal rate of discounted domain names is much lower, which means that this does not have the desired positive long-term impact on domain name growth.

CENTR creates a quarterly Global TLD report. How do you manage to collect and sample data from so many registries?

The CENTRstats dashboards provide an impressive amount of information on domain name growth, registrar pricing, member surveys on different topics that help CENTR members plan our operations, compare each other to other ccTLDs, and in general prepare for the future, effectively acting as a crystal ball.

CENTR currently counts 53 full and nine associate members. Together, they are responsible for over 80% of all registered domains worldwide. Each CENTR member provides statistical data for our respective registries, and CENTR also uses additional sources to gather data. The primary sources for ccTLD data are CENTR members, APNIC (Asian-Pacific ccTLD organization), Net Knowledge, and Zooknic. gTLD data comes from ICANN and direct zone downloads with gTLD operators.

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How is it possible that there is no standard governance model for ccTLD registries as one of the most visible operators of the DNS?

Given the different legal frameworks, local customs, and differences in local public policies, no single governance model would fit in more than a few ccTLDs. ccTLDs develop their policies following the needs of their respective local internet communities. Also, registration models differ depending on the situation in the country: some use registrars, others offer direct registration to the domain name holders.

The company structure of ccTLD managers reflects this aspect. In Latin America, registries are often academic institutions, while in Europe, the most common model is a not-for-profit institution, and in the Asia-Pacific region, they prefer government-based models. Each model has strengths and weaknesses, but every ccTLD registry's mission is to provide their national TLD's stable, secure, uninterrupted, and reliable operation.

Although different, ccTLD registries are closely connected: they work together in regional organizations (CENTR in Europe, LACTLD for Latin America, etc.) and cooperate globally within ICANN's ccNSO (Country Code Names Supporting Organisation). We exchange information, share ideas and learn from each others' successes and failures.

All in all, I like to say that the diversity of the DNS ecosystem is not a bug but rather a feature.

What is DNS security and how can technology help protect a domain? Klaus Darilion (nic.at) replies to our questions to learn more about how to keep safe what we are most fond of: domains!

Are there any EU policies that all ccTLD registries have to comply with at least?

As discussed before, ccTLDs operate under their own local legal framework but this national legislation is, of course, shaped by EU regulations. Some new EU regulatory developments will substantially impact European ccTLDs' operations and the DNS ecosystem in general. Most notable is the proposal for a Directive on measures for a high common level of cybersecurity across the Union, repealing Directive (EU) 2016/1148 (known as the "NIS2 proposal") and the proposal for the Digital Services Act (the "DSA").

With all European ccTLDs on board, CENTR carefully monitors the EU regulatory developments that are important for our TLDs. CENTR strives to be the voice of the DNS community at the EU level. For those interested in the development of internet-related EU legislation, I would warmly recommend reading CENTR's comments on the NIS2 and DSA proposals.

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What have been the most noticeable changes and facts in recent years in the European ccTLD scene?

One is the growing regulatory pressure on ccTLD registries, which impacts our day-to-day business enormously. In the recent past, the primary role of ccTLD operators was purely technical: We were responsible for operating and maintaining the technical DNS infrastructure for our top-level domain.

This has changed, and there is now an increased focus on tackling abusive and illegal content online. ccTLD registries are committed to contributing to a comprehensive and effective approach against illegal online content – but we are limited in our role and function as operators of the technical DNS infrastructure. ccTLDs only hold information enabling users to navigate the internet and not store, transmit or enhance any content online.

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Furthermore, in recent years ccTLDs have been listed as "operators of essential services", as enshrined in Annex II of the NIS Directive concerning measures for a high common level of security of network and information systems across the Union. They are considered to be "essential entities" according to the Proposal for a NIS2 Directive.
In addition to this, according to the DSA Proposal, ccTLDs are considered intermediaries with an entirely new set of responsibilities linked to online content. Still, the liability exemptions are unclear, and the definition of illegal content is vague.

In this context, the changing legal framework is bringing a lot of uncertainty to ccTLDs' operations. EU legal authorities are not approaching illegal and harmful online content in "unison" to make a musical analogy. In both proposals mentioned above, we are facing a lot of uncertainty and even contradictions. A few years ago, the average ccTLD registry employee was a technical DNS "guru". Lately, we have been increasingly employing information security specialists and lawyers.

Has COVID-19 had an impact on the operation of .si?

COVID-19 has had an impact on the whole world, and .si is no exception. What I could say for .si is probably also true for most European ccTLDs.

We were lucky. The flourishing of online businesses resulted in a higher demand for domain names. But of course, we also had to face the new COVID-19 reality that has impacted ccTLDs internally and internationally. We have been trying to keep high morale and team spirit in our respective organizations while meeting online only. The onboarding of new staff has been challenging. A lot of effort has been put into ensuring that our operations functions, which became even more critical, remained stable, secure, and uninterrupted.

Networking with other ccTLDs is of extreme importance for us. There is only one ccTLD per country, which is why talking to other ccTLDs is essential. We used to meet each other regularly at CENTR workshops, and we met non-European registries at ICANN meetings. We are lucky to still be able to meet online, but this cannot completely replace all the individual chats or the informal problem-solving that typically happens on the sidelines of these in-person meetings.

Looking back, I believe we will come out of this much stronger. We have learned a lot while being forced to make changes to our businesses and communication processes. It is already clear that we won't go back to where we were before the pandemic. We have to keep what was good and incorporate it into the new "normal".

ccTLDs will face many challenges and changes in the future, but that is what makes it even more interesting to be the manager of one of them and currently be the chair of the CENTR Board of Directors.