Donuts is backing a private auction model designed and managed by Cramton Associates as its preferred solution for resolving its 158 new gTLD contention sets.
The proposals, spelled out by auction design expert Peter Cramton during private sessions with new gTLD applicants, caused a bit of a buzz — not all of it positive — at the ICANN meeting in Toronto last week.
But Donuts co-founder Jon Nevett told DI today that Cramton has addressed rivals’ concerns and that Donuts wants to handle as many of its contention sets as possible via private auction.
The idea is that private auctions will be faster and cheaper for applicants than the process set out by ICANN as the “last resort” method for resolving contention sets.
In the ICANN model, all of the proceeds of the auction would go to ICANN, to be distributed to worthy causes at a later date. But with a private auction, the winning bidder pays the losers.
This makes it more attractive to applicants, according to Donuts.
“The cost of losing an ICANN auction is greater than the cost of losing a private auction,” Nevett said. “If you lose an ICANN auction you get nothing, zero, you lose your asset.”
But with private auctions, “it doesn’t hurt as much to lose, so the theory is the second-place guys won’t stretch as much,” he said.
Cramton is a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. A long-time auction specialist, he’s been involved in designing processes for selling off wireless spectrum around the world.
For new gTLDs, Cramton proposes an “ascending clock” auction. At each stage, the price is increased by the auctioneer and the bidders/sellers can either commit to pay that amount or drop out.
The last man standing wins the gTLD, paying the amount that the second-highest bidder was willing to pay.
The money would be divided equally between all the losing applicants. According to Cramton, the advantage over proportional distribution is that it does not encourage applicants to over-bid, keeping costs down.
Cramton’s original plan, which left some applicants scratching their heads last week, was to run the auctions in the first quarter of 2013, before ICANN announces the results of Initial Evaluation.
That would mean that losing bidders would get a 70% refund of their ICANN application fee, which may be an attractive percentage in the case of low-value strings.
But it also means that an applicant could win an auction and later discover its application has been rejected. The other applicants would have withdrawn, so the gTLD would just disappear into the ether.
Judging by a series of videos shot last week and published on Cramton’s YouTube account, many applicants are in favor of running the auctions after IE results have been announced.
Another complaint expressed by Donuts’ competitors last week is Cramton’s “all or nothing” approach, in which Donuts’ rivals would have to commit to use the auctions for their entire portfolio of applications.
According to Nevett, that idea is no longer on the table.
“In the beginning he was discussing that it would have to be all your TLDs or none, and I think a lot of applicants told him that was unacceptable, so he changed his view,” he said.
The idea now is that the auctions would proceed on a TLD-by-TLD basis.
Given that winning bidders are giving money to their competitors, another concern is the ordering of the auctions. You don’t necessarily want to give your rivals a big wedge of cash they can use to out-bid you on the next lot.
The preferred solution here appears to be a simultaneous auction, with all the participating contention sets being resolved at the same time.
There was also a deal of suspicion in Toronto about whether Cramton would be biased towards Donuts, given that Donuts is responsible for finding Peter Cramton and introducing him to the gTLD program.
But Nevett said that Donuts has not contracted with Cramton. Peter Cramton showed up in Toronto on his own dime and has not required an up-front payment from Donuts, Nevett said.
“Every applicant has a veto on whether to participate, and it won’t happen unless every applicant wants to do it,” Nevett said. “Our incentive is to have an auction provider who is attractive to every applicant.”
“Our goal is to get as many applicants to participate in a private auction, so we need the auction to be designed in a way that is simple, fair and inclusive,” he said.
But there’s no denying that Donuts has a greater incentive than most to have a consolidated auction. By its own admission, it’s an eight-person operation without the manpower to negotiate 158 contention sets.
Cramton’s materials from last week’s Toronto sessions can be found at applicantauction.com or here.