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Is Verisign .web applicant’s secret sugar daddy?

The fiercely contested .web gTLD is being forced into a last-resort auction and some people seem to think a major registry player is behind it.

Two .web applicants — Radix (pdf) and Schlund (pdf) — this week wrote to ICANN to demand that the .web auction, currently planned for July 27, be postponed.

They said the sale should be delayed to give applicants time “to investigate whether there has been a change of leadership and/or control” at rival applicant Nu Dot Co LLC.

Nu Dot Co is a new gTLD investment vehicle headed up by Juan Diego Calle, who launched and ran .CO Internet until it was sold to Neustar a couple of years ago.

I gather that some applicants believe that Nu Dot Co’s .web application is now being bankrolled by a larger company with deeper pockets.

The two names I’ve heard bandied around, talking to industry sources this week, are Verisign and Neustar.

Nobody I’ve talked to has a shred of direct evidence either company is involved and Calle declined to comment.

So is this paranoia or not?

There are a few reasons these suspicions may have come about.

First, the recent revelation that successful .blog applicant Primer Nivel, a no-name Panama entity with a Colombian connection, was actually secretly being bankrolled by WordPress, has opened eyes to the possibility of proxy bidders.

It was only after the .blog contention set was irreversibly settled that the .blog contract changed hands and the truth become known.

Some applicants may have pushed the price up beyond the $19 million winning bid — making the rewards of losing the private auction that much higher — had they known they were bidding against a richer, more motivated opponent.

Second, sources say the .web contention set had been heading to a private auction — in which all losing applicants get a share of the winning bid — but Nu Dot Co decided to back out at the last minute.

Under ICANN rules, if competing applicants are not able to privately resolve their contention set, an ICANN last-resort auction must ensue.

Third, this effective vetoing of the private auction does not appear to fit in with Nu Dot Co’s strategy to date.

It applied for 13 gTLDs in total. Nine of those have already gone to auctions that Nu Dot Co ultimately lost (usually reaping the rewards of losing).

The other four are either still awaiting auction or, in the case of .corp, have been essentially rejected for technical reasons.

It usually only makes sense to go to an ICANN last-resort auction — where the proceeds all go to ICANN — if you plan on winning or if you want to make sure your competitors do not get a financial windfall from a private auction.

Nu Dot Co isn’t actually an operational registry, so it doesn’t strictly have competitors.

That suggests to some that its backer is an operational registry with a disdain for new gTLD rivals. Verisign, in other words.

Others think Neustar, given the fact that its non-domains business is on the verge of imploding and its previous acquisition of .CO Internet from Calle.

I have no evidence either company is involved. I’m just explaining the thought process here.

According to its application, two entities own more than 15% of Nu Dot Co. Both — Domain Marketing Holdings, LLC and NUCO LP, LLC — are Delaware shell corporations set up via an agent in March 2012, shortly before the new gTLD application filing deadline.

Many in the industry are expecting .web to go for more than the $41.5 million GMO paid for .shop. Others talk down the price, saying “web” lacks the cultural impact it once had.

But it seems we will all find out later this month.

Responding to the letters from Schlund and Radix, ICANN yesterday said that it had no plans to postpone the July 27 last-resort auction.

All seven applicants had to submit a postponement form by June 12 if they wanted a delay, ICANN informed them in a letter (pdf), and they missed that deadline.

They now have until July 20 to either resolve the contention privately or put down their deposits, ICANN said.

The applicants for .web, aside from Nu Dot Co, are Google, Donuts, Radix, Schlund, Web.com and Afilias.

Due to a string confusion ruling, .webs applicant Vistaprint will also be in the auction.

CentralNic doing okay out of new gTLDs

Local former rival Minds + Machines may be struggling to turn a profit, but CentralNic seems to be doing quite well out of this new gTLD malarkey.

But not as well as you might expect. Large growth at its clients does not appear to have translated to a whole lot more revenue for CentralNic itself.

The company yesterday reported 2015 profit before tax of £1.45 million ($2.13 million), compared to £520,000 in 2014, on revenue up 71% at £10.39 million ($15.28 million).

While it may be best known nowadays as a back-end registry provider, its revenue is now fairly evenly split over its three reporting segments.

CentralNic runs the back-end registry for volume gTLDs including .xyz and Radix’s .site, .online, .website, and .space.

The company calls this “wholesale domain sales”, and it brought in £3.12 million last year, compared to £2.82 million in 2014.

You might think that the volume success of .xyz, which added about a million names in 2015, might have translated into a bigger boost, but it didn’t.

Its registrar business, which it got into through the acquisitions of Internet.bs and Instra, brought in £3.4 million, compared to £1.55 million in 2014.

Its third segment, “Enterprise including Premium Domain Name Sales” saw revenue of £3.85 million, compared to $1.69 million.

The enterprise business, which also included two software licenses and revenue from dot-brand clients, is easily the most profitable segment, with a 67% EBITDA margin. For wholesale, it’s 44%.

The £3.8 million of enterprise revenue included £3.22 million premium name sales, of which over £3 million came from a single buyer.

It’s not clear whether this was a single domain deal or a package of premiums, but it represents the most volatile element of CentralNic’s revenue.

Update (May 30) — This article originally misidentified “Company A” and “Company B” in CentralNic’s accounts as registry clients. In fact, according to CEO Ben Crawford, they’re registrar channel partners.

Radix joins the Hollywood content police

Radix has become the second major gTLD registry to announce a content policing deal with the movie industry.

It today said it has signed an agreement with the Motion Picture Association of America similar to the one Donuts announced in February.

Like Donuts, Radix will treat the MPAA as a “trusted notifier” for the purposes of taking down “large-scale pirate websites”.

Radix said the deal “imposes strict standards for such referrals, including that they be accompanied by evidence of clear and pervasive copyright infringement, and a representation that the MPAA has first attempted to contact the registrar and hosting provider for resolution.”

Donuts described its notifier program in this document (pdf). Radix said its arrangement is “similar”.

The Donuts-MPAA deal proved somewhat controversial.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation invoked the slippery slope argument, saying of it:

The danger in agreements like this is that they could become a blanket policy that Internet users cannot avoid. If what’s past is prologue, expect to see MPAA and other groups of powerful media companies touting the Donuts agreement as a new norm, and using it to push ICANN and governments towards making all domain name registries disable access to an entire website on a mere accusation of infringement.

The EFF said these kinds of deals could ultimately lead to legal freedom of speech being curtailed online.

We’re not quite there yet — right now we have two gTLD registries (albeit covering over 200 gTLDs) and one trusted notifier — but I expect more similar deals in future, branching out into different industries such as music and pharamaceuticals.

The deals stem in part from the Domain Name Association’s Healthy Domains Initiative, which aims to avoid ICANN/government regulation by creating voluntary best practices for the industry.

The advantage of a voluntary arrangement is that there’s no risk of a terminal sanction — such as losing your registry contract — if you fail to live up to its terms.

Radix’s portfolio includes .website, .space, .online and .tech. It’s also a .music and .web applicant.

WordPress reveals IT bought .blog for $19 million

WordPress.com owner Automattic has outed itself as the bankroll behind the winner of the .blog auction and the new owner of the forthcoming new gTLD.

Founder Matt Mullenweg also revealed that the company paid around $19 million for the domain at private auction in February 2015, about $1 million more than the amount DI estimated at the time.

Until now, the winning .blog applicant, which fought off competition from eight competitors including Google, M+M, Radix and Donuts, was only known as Primer Nivel.

Primer Nivel is a Panamanian company previously described to DI as an investment vehicle with links to Colombian registrar My.co.

To the best of my knowledge, Automattic’s involvement with the bid has never even been hinted at, but Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg said in a blog post last night that it has been involved since well before the auction took place.

It’s now public that Automattic is the company behind Knock Knock Whois There LLC, the registry for the new .blog TLD. (And a great pun.) We wanted to stay stealth while in the bidding process and afterward in order not to draw too much attention, but nonetheless the cost of the .blog auction got up there (people are estimating around $20M).

An earlier version of the blog post put the price at “about $19m”, as captured by Google.

ICANN approved the reassignment of the .blog contract from Primer Nivel to Knock Knock WHOIS There on April 29.

In the original Primer Nivel application, only My.co CEO Gerardo Aristizabal and VP of business development Carlos Neira were listed as shareholders of 15% or more of the company in its answer to question 11 of the application form.

ICANN processed a change request to the question 11 answer in March 2014, but did not publish the result of the change. It may merely have been a change of personal contact information.

One has to wonder whether, had WordPress’ involvement in Primer Nivel been public, the .blog auction could have fetched even more.

One might imagine that Google, which competes with WordPress with its Blogger service, would have viewed .blog as more threatening in a rival’s hands.

But Primer Nivel and now Automattic/KKWT appear to have no intention to make .blog a WordPress-exclusive gTLD. The original application stated that it would be open to all, and ICANN has since banned so-called “closed generics”.

The registry has already opened a web site at kkwt.domains, which is currently pitching the product to accredited registrars.

It says it plans to go to general availability and “activate” 250,000 .blog domains before the end of the year.

Automattic obtained an ICANN registrar accreditation back in October 2010 but to date has not sold a single domain via that accreditation.

It offers WordPress.com hosting customers domain registrations, but I believe it does so as a GoDaddy reseller.

.blog is currently in “transition to delegation” and it’s probably only a matter of days before it is delegated to the internet.

Mullenweg blogged that the sunrise period is expected to start in August, with and October landrush.

Pricing is expected to be in line with current industry standards, including premium tiers.

The gTLD has always been one of my favorites, and having WordPress backing it will almost certainly make it more successful than if the registry were an independent third party, possibly raising the profile of new gTLDs as a whole.

Afilias takes over .hotel, sidelines Krischenowski over hacking claims

Afilias has sought to distance itself from DotBerlin CEO Dirk Krischenowski, due to ongoing claims that he improperly accessed secret data on rival .hotel applicants.

The company revealed in a recent letter to ICANN that it has bought out Krischenowski’s 48.8% stake in successful .hotel applicant Hotel Top Level Domain Sarl and that Afilias will become the sole shareholder of HTLD.

The move is linked to claims that Krischenowski exploited a glitch in ICANN’s new gTLD applicants’ portal to access confidential financial and technical information belonging to rival .hotel applicants.

These competing applicants have ganged up to demand that HTLD should lose its rights to .hotel, which it obtained by winning a controversial Community Priority Evaluation.

Afilias chairman Philipp Grabensee, now “sole managing director” of HTLD, wrote ICANN last month (pdf) to explain the nature of the HTLD’s relationship with Krischenowski and deny that HTLD had benefited from the alleged data compromise.

He said that, at the time of the incidents, Krischenowski was the 50% owner and managing director of a German company that in turn was a 48.8% owner of HTLD. He was also an HTLD consultant, though Grabensee played down that role.

He was responding to a March ICANN letter (pdf) which claimed that Krischenowski’s portal credentials were used at least eight times to access confidential data on .hotel bids. It said:

It appears that Mr Krischenowski accessed and downloaded, at minimum, the financial projections for Despegar’s applications for .HOTEL, .HOTEIS and .HOTELES, and the technical overview for Despegar’s applications for .HOTEIS and .HOTEL. Mr Krischenowski appears to have specifically searched for terms and question types related to financial or technical portions of the application.

Krischenowski has denied any wrongdoing and told DI last month that he simply used the portal assuming it was functioning as intended.

Grabensee said in his letter that any data Krischenowski may have obtained was not given to HTLD, and that his alleged actions were not done with HTLD’s knowledge or consent.

He added that obtaining the data would not have helped HTLD’s application anyway, given that the incident took place after HTLD had already submitted its application. HTLD did not substantially alter its application after the incident, he said.

HTLD’s rival .hotel applicants do not seem to have alleged that HTLD won the contention set due to the confidential data.

Rather, they’ve said via their lawyer that HTLD should be disqualified on the grounds that new gTLD program rules disqualify people who have been convicted of computer crime.

Even that’s a bit tenuous, however, given that Krischenowski has not been convicted of, or even charged with, a computer crime.

The other .hotel applicants are Travel Reservations, Famous Four Media, Radix, Minds + Machines, Donuts and Fegistry.

ICANN is now pressing HTLD for more specific information about Krischenowski’s relationship with HTLD at specific times over the last few years, in a letter (pdf) published last night, so it appears that its overdue investigation is not yet complete.