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How new gTLD auctions could kill gaming for good

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2019, 15:37:52 (UTC), Domain Policy

Ever heard of a Vickrey auction? Me neither, but there’s a good possibility that it could become the way most new gTLD fights get resolved in future.

It’s one of several methods being proposed to help eliminate gaming in the next new gTLD application round that have received some support in a recently closed round of public comments.

ICANN’s New gTLD Subsequent Procedures working group (SubPro) is the volunteer effort currently writing the high-level rules governing future new gTLD applications.

Two months ago, it published a preliminary report exploring possible ways that contention sets could be resolved.

The current system, from the 2012 round, actively encourages applicants to privately resolve their sets. Usually, this entails a private auction in which the winning bid is shared evenly between the losing applicants.

This has been happening for the last five years, and a lot of money has been made.

Losing auctions can be a big money-spinner. Publicly traded portfolio registry MMX, for example, has so far made a profit of over $50 million losing private auctions, judging by its annual reports. It spent $13.5 million on application fees in 2012.

MMX is actually in the registry business, of course. But there’s a concern that its numbers will encourage gaming in future.

Companies could submit applications for scores of gTLDs they have no intention of actually operating, banking on making many multiples of their investment by losing private auctions.

Pointing no fingers, it’s very probably already happened. But what to do about it?

Who’s this Vickrey chap?

One suggestion that seems to be getting some love from diverse sections of the community is a variation of the “Vickrey auction”.

Named after the Canadian Nobel Prize-winning economist William Vickrey, it’s also called a “second price sealed bid auction”.

Basically, each applicant would secretly submit the maximum price they’d be willing to pay for the contested gTLD, and the applicant with the highest bid would pay the amount of the second-highest bid.

This method has, I believe, been used more than once in private contention resolution during the 2012 round.

But under the system suggested by SubPro, each applicant would make their single, sealed, high bid at time of application, before they know who else is gunning for the same string.

That way, contention sets could be mostly eliminated right at the start of the process, leading to time and cost efficiencies.

There’d be no need for every application in a contention set to go through full evaluation. Only the high bidder would be evaluated. If it failed evaluation, the second-highest bidder would go into evaluation, etc, until a successful applicant was found.

For losing applicants, a possible benefit of this is that they’d get much more of their application fees refunded, because they’d be skipping much of the process.

Neither would they have to bear the ambient running costs of sitting on their hands for potentially years while the ICANN process plays itself out.

It could also substantially speed up the next round. If the round has five, 10, 20 or more times as many applications as the 1,930 received in 2012, resolving contention sets at the very outset could cut literally years off processing times.

The SubPro concept also envisages that the winning bid (which is to say, the second-highest bid) would go directly into ICANN’s coffers, eliminating the incentive to game the system by losing auctions.

I must admit, there’s a lot to love about it. But it has drawbacks, and critics.

Why Vickrey may suck

SubPro itself notes that the Vickrey model it outlines would have to take into account other aspects of the new gTLD program, such as community applications, applicants seeking financial support from ICANN, and objections.

It also highlights concerns that bids submitted at the time of application constitute private business-plan information that applicants may not necessarily want ICANN staff seeing (with the revolving door, this info could quite easily end up at a competitor).

Companies and constituencies responding to the recent public comment period also have concerns.

There’s hesitance among some potential applicants about being asked to submit blind bids. There are clearly cases where an applicant would be prepared to pay more to keep a gTLD out of the hands of a competitor.

One could imagine, for example, that Coca-Cola would be ready to spend a lot more money on .cola if it knew Pepsi was also bidding, and possibly less if it were only up against Wolf Cola.

The Intellectual Property Constituency raised this concern. It said that it was open to the idea of Vickrey auctions, but that it preferred that bids should be submitted after all the applications in the contention set have been revealed, rather than at time of application:

Although there is a potential downside to this in that the parties have not put a “value” on the string in advance, the reality is that many factors come into play in assessing that “value”, certainly for a brand owner applicant and possibly for all applicants, including who the other parties are and how they have indicated they intend to use the TLD.

The Brand Registry Group and Neustar were both also against the Vickrey model outlined by SubPro, but neither explained their thinking.

The Business Constituency, which is often of a mind with the IPC, in this case differed. The BC said it agreed that bids should be submitted alongside applications, only to be unsealed in the event that there is contention. The BC said:

This Vickrey auction would also resolve contention sets very early in the application evaluation process. That saves contending applicants from spending years and significant sums during the contention resolution process, which was very difficult for small applicants.

It’s hard to gauge where current registries, which are of course also likely applicants, stand on Vickrey. The Registries Stakeholder Group is a pretty diverse bunch nowadays and it submitted a set of comments that, unhelpfully, flatly contradict each other.

“Some” RySG members believe that the current evaluation and contention process should stay in place, though they’re open to a Vickrey-style auction replacing the current ascending-clock model at the last-resort stage after all evaluations are complete.

“Other” RySG members, contrarily, wholeheartedly support the idea that bids should be submitted at the time of application and the auction processed, Vickrey-style, before evaluation.

“An application process which requires a thorough evaluation of an applicant who will not later be operating the gTLD is not an efficient process,” these “other” RySG members wrote. They added:

if contention sets are resolved after the evaluation process and not at the beginning of it, like the Vickery model suggestion, it would enable applicants who applied for multiple strings to increase the size of their future bids each time they lost an auction. Each TLD needs to be treated on its own merits with no contingencies allowed for applicants with numerous applications.

It’s not at all clear which registries fall into the “some” category and which into “other”, nor is it clear the respective size of each group.

Given the lack of substantive objections to pre-evaluation Vickrey auctions from the “some” camp, I rather suspect they’re the registries hoping to make money from private settlements in the next round.

Other ideas

Other anti-gaming ideas put forward by SubPro, which did not attract a lot of support, included:

  • A lottery. Contention sets would be settled by pulling an applicant’s name out of a hat.
  • An RFP process. This would mean comparative, merit-based evaluation, which has never been a popular idea in ICANN circles.
  • Graduated fees. Basically, applicants would pay more in application fees for each subsequent application they filed. This would disadvantage portfolio applicants, but could give smaller applicants a better shot at getting the string they want.

All of the comments filed on SubPro’s work has been fed back into the working group, where discussions about the next new gTLD round will soon enter their fourth year…

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Comments (7)

  1. Rubens Kuhl says:

    Actually, “The Gang” from the TV show you mentioned looks pretty similar to some members of this industry…

  2. John Berryhill says:

    “There are clearly cases where an applicant would be prepared to pay more to keep a gTLD out of the hands of a competitor.”

    …because awarding a contract to someone who is more motivated by the idea of preventing someone else from having it than by the idea of having it themselves, is a brilliant criterion for determining who is most fit to have it.

    It’s like the joke about the genie who grants ten times the riches of whomever the grantee is envious until he comes to the one guy in the village who says, “My neighbor has a cow, and I have none.”

    “Ah, so you want the genie to grant you ten cows?”

    “No. I want my neighbor’s cow to die.”

  3. Barry Shein says:

    The problem with a Vickery auction like this is that you’re leaving money on the table.

    For example if #1 bid $40M and #2 bids $30M why should #1 pay $30M? Why not half way, $35M? Why not $39M? etc. #1 said they would pay $40M so just make it $30M because…why?

    I haven’t researched it and most likely there are situations where this is desirable but I don’t see it in this case.

    It’s reminiscent of govt contracts which are awarded to the second lowest bidder but at least in that case there is some reasoning that the lowest bidder may be unrealistic.

    Dutch Auctions may also have their appeal for this.

    An auctioneer starts at a number believed to be more than anyone might pay ($100M?) and then works their way down quickly ($90M? $70M? $50M?) until someone says
    yes so done.

    They’re so-called because it’s the preferred auction technique in the tulip bulb market.

    • Dan says:

      My guess is that the goal of the auctions is to give the tlds away in a somewhat fair manner. Not to milk future registries for as much as possible. The money can be better used to ensure the continuity of the tld. The vickrey model ensures people dont overpay. They pay what the market value is to others.

      Which is also why the other ideas suggest a lottery for example.

    • Rubens Kuhl says:

      I think paying the #2 bid works so it becomes a single-round system. A #1 bid would require multiples rounds.

      Note that the 2012 ICANN Last Resort Auction was already paid by the #2 bid, even though having rounds…

      … the real difference is embedding the offer in the application. And it makes perfect sense to me.

  4. Dot Advice says:

    As a Sub Pro volunteer working thro the PC’s, I like this Vickrey auction method My further recommendations, with more details (that I will propose to the full group ) would be that 1.It would apply only to “open generics” . 2. Private bids are submitted AFTER the contention set list is revealed privately to its applicants. 3. ICANN’s last resort auction , where in R1 ICANN org (illegally ?) takes all proceeds would be eliminated & no longer needed. ( R1 – where $232M has been locked up/ wasted for years ) . 4 All winner proceeds would go directly to a new separate company , to be used immediately to add to / fund the Applicant Support programme for the “Global South “

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