Companies hoping to resolve their new gTLD contention sets via private auction are about to get a rude awakening: according to the US Department of Justice, they might be illegal.
Portfolio applicant Uniregistry, the company founded by domainer Frank Schilling, said today that the DoJ has told it that:
arrangements by which private parties agree to resolve gTLD string contentions solely to avoid a public auction present antitrust issues.
The company contacted the department last October to get a “business review” decision, basically asking the DoJ for an assurance that it would not be prosecuted if it participated in a private auction.
The DoJ refused to give that assurance.
Uniregistry counsel Bret Fausett told DI that private auctions might be seen as “bid rigging”, an illegal practice in which competitors fix the awarding of contracts.
Schilling said that Uniregistry asked the DoJ for its advice because “we don’t want to go to jail”.
According to the company:
On March 18, 2013, Uniregistry was informed that the Department of Justice has declined to issue a business review of various private gTLD contention resolution mechanisms. In making its decision, the Department emphasized that no private party, including ICANN, has the authority to grant to any other party exemptions to, or immunity from, the antitrust laws. The decision means that the Department of Justice reserves its right to prosecute and/or seek civil penalties from persons or companies that participate in anti-competitive schemes in violation of applicable antitrust laws.
New gTLD applicants are now being advised to consult their own lawyers before participating in a private auction.
The news will come as a huge blow to companies such as Right Of The Dot and Cramton Associates, which have been at the forefront of pushing the private auction concept to applicants.
It’s also going to be a massive blow to any company that had banked on getting a pay-off to withdraw their applications following a private auction.
The benefit of private auctions — over the ICANN-managed auctions of last resort — is that the losing applicants get a share of the winning applicant’s winning bid.
In an ICANN auction, all the money goes to ICANN, which has promised to use to money to fund worthy causes.
Uniregistry has issued a press release on its talks with the DoJ here (pdf).