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I was wrong, Famous Four bosses WERE kicked out

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLDs is under new management after an investor rebellion, contrary to what I speculated earlier this week.

FFM’s former stable, which includes the likes of .men and .science, is now being managed by a company calling itself GRS Domains, but this new company has absolutely nothing to do with FFM’s former management.

That’s according to Robert Maroney, founder of Connecticut-based Engineers Gate Investments, which is a shareholder of ultimate portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners.

Maroney got in touch with DI yesterday to explain some of what has recently happened to the ownership and management of the 16 high-volume new gTLDs.

Back in June I speculated based on the quite limited available information that FFM might be bankrupt.

On Tuesday, after GRS Domains announced a relaunch and a rejection of its previous volume-heavy, spam-friendly business plan, I speculated based on slightly more information that management had repurchased the TLD assets after investors forced it into administration.

I was wrong on both counts, according to Maroney. What actually happened is more akin to an investor takeover.

Maroney said he “engineered” the ouster of FFM and its two shareholders/managers, Iain Roache and Geir Rasmussen, after Roache attempted to close down DVP.

DVP is basically a collection of private and institutional investors (brought in by Roache and others) from around the world which, based on the available evidence, have little or no connection to the domain name industry.

It’s a matter of public record that each gTLD contract is owned by a distinct Gibraltar-based shell company — dot Bid Limited owns the ICANN rights to run .bid for example — and that Domain Venture Partners owns these companies.

I’ve previously reported that Famous Four was also owned by DVP, but Maroney said that this was never the case. It was owned 80-20 by Roache and Rasmussen and contracted by DVP to manage the 16 gTLDs.

The affiliated registrar AlpNames, which has been responsible for a very large portion of registrations in the portfolio, had the same ownership structure as FFM and was never directly connected to DVP, Maroney said.

Following a court battle, GRS Domains has replaced FFM as the registry manager.

GRS is owned by DVP, and is currently being managed by court-appointed administrator Edgar Lavarello, a Gibraltar-based accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Maroney did not want to get into the detailed specifics about what caused the investor revolt, but did say that shareholders were unhappy with how FFM was managing the portfolio.

Its low-price, high-volume strategy had caused its TLDs to become the destinations of choice for spammers and other abusive registrants.

But the court case was brought after Roache attempted to break up DVP, restructure ownership of the 16 individual registries, and “escape the regulation of Gibraltar”, Maroney said.

“Roache wanted to shut down DVP in a way we considered to be unlawful,” he said.

He said DVP shareholders felt Roache’s moves were “inappropriate and unlawful”, which is what caused him to “engineer”, via fellow investor Christina Mattin, DVP being placed into administration.

I have seen no independent evidence that Roache acted or attempted to act unlawfully. The court document I’ve seen appointing Lavarello as administrator contains no finding of wrongdoing by anyone.

The upshot of all this is that the group of TLDs formerly known as Famous Four Media is now GRS Domains — Global Registry Services Ltd — and that Lavarello is currently in charge.

I imagine the company will want to find permanent management at some point, but Maroney did not want to talk about that.

In the meantime, GRS has already made moves to become more transparent and to engage more with the rest of the industry.

Maroney said, and I have independently confirmed, that he was at the ICANN meeting in Panama recently, meeting senior industry figures. Famous Four executives have not been known to attend ICANN meetings or industry events in the past.

GRS has told registrars it intends to have a formal presence at ICANN 63 in Barcelona also.

The company will shortly terminate all of its promotional pricing and introduce a flat $9.98 registry fee, which is very likely to affect its volumes and reduce spamming activity over the next year or so.

Famous Four is DEAD! New registry promises spam crackdown

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLD registries is now under the control of a new company, Global Registry Services Ltd, which has promised to abandon its failed penny-domain strategy and crack down on spam.

(August 9 update: This article contains some incorrect assumptions and speculation. Please read this follow-up piece for clarifications.)

The company, which goes by the name GRS Domains, told registrars yesterday that FFM’s 16 gTLDs are now “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited, and are no longer under the management of FFM.”

DVP also owned FFM, so it’s not clear how big of a deal this restructuring is from a management point of view.

My sense is that there’s not really been a substantial change, but it’s certainly more than a simple rebranding exercise.

I’ve learned that DVP was placed into administration under the Insolvency Act back in April, with management of the TLDs handed to a PricewaterhouseCoopers administrator, more or less as I speculated in June.

The TLDs affected are: .loan, .win, .men, .bid, .stream, .review, .trade, .date, .party, .download, .science, .racing, .accountant, .faith, .webcam and .cricket.

GRS told registrars:

Moving forward there are several changes being made with regard to the overall strategy of the portfolio of gTLDs, the main one being a change to a “quality over quantity” ethos and focusing on working with our Registrar Partners to sharply reduce abuse and spam registrations.

As such, all of its current pricing promotions will end August 20 and a “much more transparent and sensible pricing strategy” will come into play.

That means a wholesale reg fee of $9.98 across the board, at least until February 2019.

GRS also plans to take a lot of its lower-priced reserved “premium” names out of the premium program altogether, and to reprice “a considerable portion” of the more expensive ones.

Finally, the company, not known to attend ICANN meetings in the past, said it plans to show up at the Barcelona meeting in October to formally relaunch itself.

Famous Four has become notorious over the last few years for its deep-discounted TLDs, which have become a haven for spammers who want to register large numbers of super-cheap, throwaway domains.

As such, its gTLDs’ volumes have been huge — many racking up hundreds of thousands of names — but their renewals poor and their reputation worse.

If GRS’ new strategy is effective, we’re almost certainly going to see the industry-wide overall number of active new gTLD domains tank over the next year or so, giving more ammunition to those who think the new gTLD program was a huge waste of effort.

It could also have an impact on ICANN’s budget — no matter how cheap FFM sold its names, it still had to pay its ICANN fees on a per-domain basis. Fewer domains equals less money in ICANN’s coffers. FFM’s registries paid over $1.6 million in ICANN fees in the organization’s fiscal 2017.

While GRS is now apparently “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited”, it’s not abundantly clear to me whether that’s the same people who’ve been running FFM for the last eight years.

DVP has not immediately responded to a request for comment today.

The DVP web site has not resolved in months. The new grs.domains site doesn’t name anyone, and the NIC sites for the gTLDs in the portfolio only identify a PwC bankruptcy accountant as the primary contact.

All the companies in question are based in tax haven Gibraltar, which isn’t particularly forthcoming about identifying company directors, partners or owners.

DVP’s directors were originally Adrian Hogg, Charles Melvin, Iain Roache, Douglas Smith, Peter Young, Joseph Garcia and a company called Domain Management II (itself chaired by Roache), according to an investor presentation (pdf) DI obtained back in 2013.

I believe Melvin at least, after a legal dispute with the others, is no longer involved.

And it appears that DVP is or was in fact in administration.

I noted back in June that the 16 gTLDs were now all being administered by PwC accountant Edgar Lavarello, and wondered aloud whether this meant FFM was bankrupt.

Today I obtained (read: paid an extortionate sum for) a Gibraltar court order dated April 23 putting DVP into administration under the Insolvency Act and appointing PwC as the administrator.

The application had been made by an investor called Christina Mattin and fellow investor Braganza, a private vehicle owned by a wealthy Scandinavian family, which was (at least last year) a 10% owner.

Other named investors the court heard from were the mysterious Liechtenstein-based Rennes Foundation, something called Northern Assets Investments Limited and Dutch multimillionaire Francis Claessens.

Overall, it smells a bit to me like DVP’s principals, having seen their previous venture put out of business by disgruntled investors, have snapped up its assets and are going to try to make a second go of running the business.

As for FFM? Well, it looks rather like we won’t be hearing that name again.

UPDATE: This article was updated several hours after it was originally posted to clarify that DVP was/is “in administration”.

My brain explodes trying to understand MMX’s new blockchain deal for .luxe

Kevin Murphy, August 3, 2018, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines has abandoned plans to launch .luxe as a gTLD for luxury goods and instead made a deal to sell it as an address for cryptocurrency wallets.

If you thought it was a silly move marketing .ws as meaning “web site” or .pw as “professional web”, you’re probably not going to like the backronym MMX has in mind for .luxe:

“Lets U Xchange Easily”.

Really.

Tenuous though that marketing angle may be, the concept behind the newly repurposed TLD is actually quite interesting and probably rises to the level of “innovation”.

MMX has inked a deal with Ethereum Name Service, an offshoot of Ethereum, an open-source blockchain project.

Ethereum is largely used as a cryptocurrency, like BitCoin, enabling people to transfer monetary value to each other using “wallet” applications, though it has other uses.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t understand how any of this blockchain stuff works.

I’ve just spent an hour on the phone with MMX CEO Toby Hall and I’m still not 100% clear how it integrates with domains and whether the .luxe value proposition is really, really cool or really, really stupid.

I’ll just tell you what I do understand.

Currently, when two Ethereum users want to transfer currency between each other, the sender needs to know the recipient’s wallet address. This is a 40-character nonsense hash that makes an IPv6 address look memorable.

It obviously would be a lot better if each user had a human-readable, memorable address, a bit like a domain name.

Ethereum developers thought so, so they created the Ethereum Name Service. ENS allowed people to use “.eth” domains, like john.eth, as a shorthand address for their wallets. I don’t know how it works, but I know .eth isn’t an official TLD in the authoritative root.

About 300,000 people acquired .eth domains via some kind of cryptographic auction process that I also don’t understand. Let’s just call it magic.

Under the deal with MMX, some 26 million Ethereum wallet owners will be able use .luxe domains, dumping their .eth names if they have them.

The names will be sold through registrars as usual, at a price Hall said will be a little bit more than .com.

Registrants will then be able to associate their domains with their 40-character wallet addresses, so they can say “Send $50 to john.luxe” and other crypto-nerds will instantly know what to do. Ethereum wallets will apparently support this at launch.

Registrars will need to do a bit of implementation work, however. Hall said there’ll be an API that allows them to associate their customers’ domains with their wallets, and to disassociate the two should the domain be transferred to somebody else.

This is not available yet, but it will be before general availability this November, he said.

What this API does is beyond my comprehension.

What I do understand is that at no point is DNS used. I thought perhaps the 40-char hash was being stored in the TXT field of a DNS record, but no, that’s not it. It’s being stored cryptographically in the blockchain. Or something. Let’s just say it’s magic, again.

The value of having a memorable address for a wallet is very clear to me, but what’s not at all clear to me is why, if DNS is not being queried at any part of the Ethereum transaction, this memorable address has to be a domain name.

You don’t need a domain name to find somebody on Twitter, or Instagram, or Grindr. You just need a user name. Why that model couldn’t apply here is beyond me.

Hall offered that people are familiar with domain names, adding that merchants could use the same .luxe domain for their web site as they use for their Ethereum wallets, which makes sense from a branding perspective.

The drawback, of course, is that you’d have to have your web site on a .luxe domain.

The launch plan for .luxe sees sunrise begin August 9, running for 60 days. Then there’ll be two weeks for .eth name holders to claim their matching .luxe names. Then an early access period. GA starts November 6.

While it should be obvious by now I don’t fully “get” what’s going on here, it strikes me as a hell of a lot more interesting way to use .luxe than its originally intended purpose as a venue for luxury goods and services.

Let’s face it, depending on pricing it would have turned out either as a haven for spammers, a barely-breaking-even also-ran, or a profitable business propped up by a couple thousand trademark owners paying five grand a year on unused defensive regs.

Chaotic scenes as ‘Grumpies’ lose auDA board fight

Three directors of .au registry auDA managed to keep their seats on the board despite losing the “popular vote” of members late last week.

The vote happened at the conclusion of an occasionally chaotic three-hour meeting that saw former AusRegistry chief Adrian Kinderis kicked out of the room barely a minute into proceedings.

The results in each of the three votes to fire directors Suzanne Ewart, Sandra Hook and chair Chris Leptos were 57 or 58 in favor and 51 or 52 against, which would have been a narrow win for the so-called “Grumpies” who originally called for the sackings.

However, auDA rules require, Leptos said, a simple majority of both “Supply” and “Demand” classes of members, and the Supply class (ie, registrars) voted against the motions by 30 to 2 or 31 to 1.

Therefore, all three directors get to keep their jobs.

auDA noted in a statement that a greater proportion of Supply class members (the substantially smaller constituency) turned out to vote compared to Demand class, adding:

It is time now for all members to get behind the reform of auDA as demanded by the federal government.

auDA is not the plaything of a small group of self-interested parties.

It can no longer be run as a club type organisation with a small membership who wield undue influence.

A “club type organization” was pretty much what came across during the meeting, which was audio-only webcast Friday morning. ICANN, auDA ain’t.

I was left with the impression of something a bit like Nominet circa 2010 or my first ICANN meeting back in 1999. Not so much herding cats, as [RACIST JOKE ALERT] herding wallabies.

At times it felt like an ICANN Public Forum, with an infinite number of Paul Foodys lining up at the mic.

At the same time, the meeting was chaired by somebody who, despite never losing his cool, seemed set on limiting criticism from members to the greatest extent possible.

There was controversy from the very outset, with the former CEO of former .au back-end provider AusRegistry (now part of Neustar) getting kicked out in the opening minute.

Kinderis, who no longer works for Neustar and has vowed publicly to be a thorn in auDA’s side, said he was “unlawfully removed” from the meeting by venue security, at the instruction of Leptos.

Leptos disputed Kinderis’ claim that he was there as a proxy for a legit member and said he believed he had acted “entirely appropriately” in ordering his removal.

There was no suggestion of physical force being used. His exit was recorded by chief Grumpy Josh Rowe, who then posted a brief video to Twitter.

Leptos then threatened to throw out fellow Grumpy Jim Stewart, who was protesting Kinderis’ removal, before warning non-member attendees that they would not be permitted to ask questions.

Forty-five minutes later, he repeatedly threatened to kick out Stewart for live-streaming video of the meeting from his phone, having apparently received complaints from other members.

Fifteen minutes later, the threats returned after Stewart and another member attempted to engage Leptos in an argument about auDA’s member recruitment policy.

The words “take a seat Mr…” were a recurring meme throughout the meeting.

The original reasons for the call for the directors to be fired were myriad, ranging from lack of transparency to projects such as the Neustar-Afilias registry transition and auDA’s desire to start selling direct second-level .au domains.

But the bulk of the meeting was taken up with discussions, and attempted discussions, about auDA’s recent membership spike.

The Grumpies have audited the new member list — which has grown from 300-odd to 1,345 in just a few weeks — and found that the vast majority of new members are employees of just three registrars and one registry (Afilias, the new back-end).

They reckon these new members, many of whom do not live in Australia, represent an attempt by auDA leadership to capture the voting community, and that foreigners are not technically members of the “Australian internet community” that auDA is supposed to represent.

Leptos responded to such criticisms by saying that employees of Australia-focused registrars are indeed members of the Australian internet community, regardless of their country of residence.

He added that auDA is under the instruction of the Australian government to diversify its membership — he said that registrars have no board representation currently — and that the recently added members are a first step on that path.

The Grumpies had shortly before the meeting started making accusations that the membership influx amounts to “potential cartel behaviour”.

Leptos addressed this directly during the meeting, saying they had “accused the CEO of criminal conduct” and categorically denying any wrongdoing.

auDA later issued a statement saying:

This is a very serious allegation to have been made and auDA strongly disagrees that by encouraging others to join the auDA membership, or by approving membership applications which satisfy its constitutional requirements, auDA or its officers have engaged in cartel behaviour or otherwise acted improperly.

Two companies “capture” auDA

Membership votes of the Australian ccTLD registry auDA could now essentially be captured by just two companies, potentially including new back-end provider Afilias, according to data from a disgruntled former director.

According to Josh Rowe’s analysis of auDA’s newly swollen members list, 39.2% of auDA’s members are now employees of CrazyDomains owner Dreamscape Networks, after Dreamscape signed up a whopping 527 staffers.

Assuming bloc-voting, Dreamscape would need support from only one of either Afilias (with 12.4% of members) or the registrar Arq Group (formerly Melbourne IT, with 15%) to obtain a simple majority in any member vote, judging by Rowe’s figures.

His analysis, sent out to supporters and forwarded to DI this week, was based on auDA’s official member list, which includes full contact information for each member. He had to crowdfund a couple hundred bucks to obtain the list from auDA.

Rowe told ITWire that in most cases the new members listed their employer’s address as their own.

The names-only list published on auDA’s web site currently stands at 1,345 people by my count, about a thousand more than it contained just a few days ago.

Rowe’s tally chimes roughly with my previous estimate that about 150 Afilias employees had joined auDA. Rowe makes it 166.

auDA had previously publicly thanked the three aforementioned companies, along with the registrar Ventra IP, for helping with the membership drive, which auDA says will help it diversify its membership as per the instructions of the Australian government.

The new members will not have the ability to vote in the auDA extraordinary general meeting, which is due to take place at midnight UTC tonight (1000 Friday morning in Melbourne). Their memberships should be active by the time the annual general meeting rolls around in a few months, however.

Tonight’s meeting will see the 300-odd older members vote on whether to fire auDA’s three independent directors. A fourth motion, to express no confidence in CEO Cameron Boardman, was removed from the agenda by the auDA board.

auDA was forced to called the meeting after Rowe and his allies, dismayed by what they see as policy and transparency missteps, managed to rally the support of more than the threshold 5% of the member base.

That was fewer than 20 people under the smaller membership (though Rowe’s petition obtained 22 signatures). Now it would be around 67 people.

This presumably means that Rowe’s allies — the so-called “Grumpies” — have lost their ability to shake things up in the auDA boardroom in future.

However, it presumably also means that if DreamScape, Afilias or Arq wanted to cause trouble, they could strong-arm their employees into supporting whatever flag they wanted to wave.