Verisign has emerged as the likely winner of the .web gTLD auction, which closed on Thursday with a staggering $135 million winning bid.
The shell company Nu Dot Co LLC was the prevailing applicant in the auction, which ran for 23 rounds over two days.
Just hours after the auction closed, Domain Name Wire scooped that Verisign had quietly informed investors that it has committed to pay $130 million for undisclosed “contractual rights”.
In its Securities and Exchange Commission quarterly report, filed after the markets closed on Thursday, Verisign said:
Subsequent to June 30, 2016, the Company incurred a commitment to pay approximately $130.0 million for the future assignment of contractual rights, which are subject to third-party consent. The payment is expected to occur during the third quarter of 2016.
There seems to be little doubt that the payment is to be made to NDC (or one of its shell company parents) in exchange for control of the .web Registry Agreement.
The “third-party consent” is likely a reference to ICANN, which must approve RA reassignments.
We speculated on July 14 that Verisign would turn out to be NDC’s secret sugar daddy, which seems to have been correct.
Rival .web applicant Donuts had sued ICANN for an emergency temporary restraining order, claiming it had not done enough to uncover the identity of NDC’s true backers, but was rebuffed on multiple grounds by a California judge.
Donuts, and other applicants, had wanted the contention set settled privately, but NDC was the only hold-out.
Had it been settled with a private auction, and the $135 million price tag had been reached, each of the seven losing applicants would have walked away with somewhere in the region of $18.5 million in their pockets.
This draws the battle lines for some potentially interesting legal fallout.
It remains to be seen if Donuts will drop its suit against ICANN or instead add Verisign in as a defendant with new allegations.
There’s also the possibility of action from Neustar, which is currently NDC’s named back-end provider.
Assuming Verisign plans to switch .web to its own back-end, Neustar may be able to make similar claims to those leveled by Verisign against XYZ.com.
Overall, Verisign controlling .web is sad news for the new gTLD industry, in my view.
.web has been seen, over the years, as the string that is both most sufficiently generic, sufficiently catchy, sufficiently short and of sufficient semantic value to provide a real challenge to .com.
I’ve cooled on .web since I launched DI six years ago. Knowing what we now know about how many new gTLD domains actually sell, and how they have to be priced to achieve volume, I was unable to see how even a valuation of $50 million was anything other than a long-term (five years or more) ROI play.
Evidently, most of the applicants agreed. According to ICANN’s log of the auction (pdf) only two applicants — NDC and another (Google?) — submitted bids in excess of $57.5 million.
But for Verisign, .web would have been a risk in somebody else’s hands.
I don’t think the company cares about making .web a profitable TLD, it instead is chiefly concerned with being able to control the impact it has on .com’s mind-share monopoly.
Verisign makes about a billion dollars a year in revenue, with analyst-baffling operating margins around 60%, and that’s largely because it runs .com.
In 2015, its cash flow was $651 million.
So Verisign has dropped a couple of months’ cash to secure .web — chickenfeed if the real goal is .com’s continued hegemony.
In the hands of a rival new gTLD company’s marketing machine, in six months we might have been seeing (naive) headlines along the lines of “Forget .com, .web is here!”.
That won’t happen now.
I’m not privy to Verisign’s plans for .web, but its track record supporting the other TLDs it owns is not fantastic.
Did you know, or do you remember, that Verisign runs .name? I sometimes forget that too. It bought it from Global Name Registry in late 2008, at the high point of its domains under management in this chart.
I don’t think I expect Verisign to completely bury .web, but I don’t think we’re going to see it aggressively promoted either.
It will never be positioned as a competitor to .com.
If .web never makes $135 million, that would be fine. Just as long as it doesn’t challenge the perception that you need a .com to be successful, Verisign’s purchase was worth the money.