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China could block GoDaddy’s $120 million MMX swoop

GoDaddy’s proposed $120 million acquisition of essentially all the meaningful assets of portfolio gTLD player MMX will be subject to Chinese government approval, it emerged this morning.

Following GoDaddy’s bare-bones press release announcing the deal last night, this morning MMX added a whole bunch of flesh, including a list of closing conditions, in its statement to shareholders.

GoDaddy is proposing to buy essentially MMX’s entire operating business — the 28 gTLD registry agreements with ICANN, including the four porn-related strings belonging to subsidiary ICM Registry.

Not only do MMX shareholders have to approve the deal — and holders of 64% of the shares have already promised they will — but ICANN approval will be required for the registry contracts to be reassigned.

This may prove a hurdle or delay if third parties raise competition concerns, but ICANN’s pretty opaque approval process generally doesn’t frown too much on industry consolidation.

Another known unknown is China.

MMX told shareholders that it needs: “Approval of Chinese authorities for the change of control of MMX China (including change of control in respect of relevant licenses held by MMX China permitting it to distribute TLDs in China).”

The reason for this is quite straightforward: in volume terms, quite a lot of MMX’s business has been in China in recent years. Popular sellers such as .vip, with over 800,000 names today, have been driven primarily by Chinese investors.

A local presence (in this case MMX China) and approval from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is required to legally sell a TLD to Chinese registrants via Chinese registrars.

I’ve no particular reason to believe MIIT will withhold its approval for MMX China to move into GoDaddy’s ownership, but a failure to get the nod from China appears to be a deal-breaker.

MMX’s statement to the markets this morning also provided some clarity on what exactly it is that GoDaddy is proposing to buy.

The gTLDs to be acquired are: .vip,.nrw, .casa, .vodka, .xxx, .fit, .miami, .fishing, .porn, .beer, .surf, .boston, .adult, .yoga, .garden, .abogado, .work, .fashion, .horse, .rodeo, .sex, .wedding, .luxe, .dds, .law, .bayern, .cooking, and .country.

It seems that when Tony Farrow took over as MMX CEO last year, after his predecessor left due to an accounting snafu, he had the portfolio audited and came to the conclusion that it could expect only pretty crappy growth over the coming years.

It had banked on selling expensive defensive trademark blocks in its four porn-themed gTLDs to big brands to make up the shortfall, but then GoDaddy approached in December brandishing its rather large checkbook.

MMX reckons the deal values the company at a 92% premium over its closing share price Tuesday, and 87% and 78% premiums over its 20-day and 90-day average selling price.

.bayern, .nrw and the four porn gTLDs belong to subsidiaries that GoDaddy will acquire outright, but GoDaddy is not proposing to buy MMX itself.

Rather, MMX will likely stay alive and publicly traded long enough to redistribute its cash windfall to investors and sell or wind down about a dozen non-operating subsidiaries.

It has a transition services agreement to manage certain business functions of the registry until January next year, which sounds a bit like what fellow GoDaddy acquisition .CLUB Domains explained to me last night.

After that, London’s Alternative Investment Market rules will treat MMX as a “cash shell”, and it will either have to acquire an operating business from somewhere or make itself the subject of a reverse takeover by a company looking for a quick way to the public markets.

.CLUB CEO on selling to GoDaddy, Clubhouse, and .club’s “twerking moment”

.CLUB Domains CEO Colin Campbell says he’s planning to continue to promote the .club gTLD long after its acquisition by GoDaddy Registry, announced earlier today, closes.

The deal was one of several announced last night by GoDaddy, the highlight being the $120 million purchase of MMX’s portfolio of 28 gTLD contracts.

While the price of the .club deal was not disclosed, Campbell confirmed that it’s a contract reassignment rather than a purchase of the company. He’s not expecting any ICANN regulatory friction, pointing out that .club is relatively small fry in the grand scheme of things.

But .club is arguably one of the success stories of the new gTLD program.

It currently stands at over a million domains under management, recently boosted by the launch of the third-party audio conferencing app Clubhouse, which has driven demand.

“I think Clubhouse was the twerking moment for .club,” Campbell said. “It’s the moment everyone realized — holy shit this is the best domain on the market to start a community, to start a club.”

“Our volume of premium domains went up 700% in January,” he said. “We exploded.”

I understand a “twerking moment” to be a nodal point in a business’s performance so sensational that one feels obliged to stand up at one’s desk and “twerk“. I’d rather not think about it too much, to be honest.

Campbell said the volume decline .club was experiencing prior to Clubhouse launching — its zone file shrank by 200,000 names in 2020 — is misleading as a metric of measuring growth.

“We’ve always been growing,” he said. “What we’ve been doing the last few years is raising prices for the first year, so our quality of registrations is higher now than it’s ever been. Volume’s a joke… what we’re talking about is real registrations, real users. It’s all about usage.”

He was ambivalent on whether the GoDaddy deal would have happened without the Clubhouse boost.

“.club was growing very fast with real usage,” he said. “Clubhouse had nothing to do with this — in my opinion — but who knows, you’d have to ask GoDaddy.”

It seems .CLUB Domains the company will wind up eventually, but Campbell said it will continue to promote the TLD even after the deal closes in a few months.

“I will never stop supporting .club, this is part of my DNA,” Campbell said. Pressed, he said that the company will continue to operate until at least the end of the year.

But why sell his baby? Campbell said “.club was never for sale”, so it appears GoDaddy reached out to .CLUB first. But Campbell sees GoDaddy as a safe pair of hands.

“The people that run GoDaddy Registry are Nicolai [Bezsonoff], and Lori Anne [Wardi], who were the co-founders of .co and they’ve done a good job of promoting .co and I really believe that can promote .club in a similar way,” Campbell said.

GoDaddy buys 30 new gTLDs for over $120 million

GoDaddy Registry has just announced it is acquiring 28 new gTLDs from rival MMX, along with the TLDs .club and .design.

The MMX deal is worth at least $120 million; the value of the other two deals was not disclosed.

GoDaddy is also taking over the back-ends for .rugby and .basketball, which had been contracted to MMX, and said it has won the back-end deal for the dot-brand, .ally.

It’s the most significant pieces of registry consolidation since Donuts and Afilias hooked up in December.

GoDaddy Registry will wind up being the contract holder or back-end for over 240 TLDs, with over 14 million domains under management, the company said.

It’s not entirely clear which gTLDs GoDaddy is acquiring right now, but it appears to be all of those listed on the MMX web site.

It’s currently listed by IANA as the sponsor for 21 gTLDs: .cooking, .fishing, .horse, .miami, .rodeo, .vodka, .beer, .luxe, .surf, .nrw, .work, .budapest, .casa, .abogado, .wedding, .yoga, .fashion, .garden, .fit, .vip and .dds.

MMX subsidiary ICM Registry runs .xxx, .porn, .adult and .sex, not an easy fit with the family-friendly image GoDaddy has attempted to cultivate in recent years.

MMX also manages geographic gTLDs .boston, .london and .bayern on behalf of their respective local governments.

The company hinted in January that it was considering selling off some of its under-performing registries, after a crappy 2020 that saw it forced to restate revenues, lay off staff and can its top executives.

MMX, which is publicly traded in London, has yet to make a statement on the deal but we should no doubt expect something in the morning before the markets open.

The deal appears to be bad news for Nominet, which runs the back-end for most MMX gTLDs. GoDaddy will very likely migrate them over to its own platform eventually.

MMX aside, GoDaddy is also buying .club from .CLUB Domains, according to its press release.

.CLUB is a bit of a rarity — a single-string new gTLD registry that done really rather well for itself without tarnishing its brand by becoming synonymous with cheap domains and spam.

.design, the other GoDaddy acquisition today, is run by Top Level Design, which also runs .ink, .wiki and .gay.

.design has over 120,000 domains in its zone file today, while .club has over 1 million. Both have been on a growth trajectory recently.

GoDaddy also said as part of the same announcement that it has signed Ally Financial’s dot-brand business for .ally, but as Ally was already a client of Neustar (which GoDaddy owns) I’m not entirely sure what it’s getting excited about.

XYZ adds .tickets to its gTLD stable

XYZ.com has taken over the ICANN registry agreement for the gTLD .tickets, according to records.

It looks to be the registry’s 23rd TLD, the latest of XYZ’s acquisitions of unused or floundering new gTLDs.

In the case of .tickets, it’s picking up a low-volume, high-price TLD with some rather onerous registration restrictions.

The TLD was originally set up by UK-based Accent Media to provide a space where people going to music, theater and sporting events, for examples, could buy tickets in the assurance that the sellers were legit.

Would-be .tickets registrants have a five-day waiting period before their domains go live, while the registry manually verifies their identities from paper records such as passports or driving licenses.

That high-friction reg process is one reason the shelf price for a .tickets domain is well over $500 a year.

It’s also a reason why very few .tickets domains have been sold. The registry peaked at fewer than 1,200 names in its zone file in 2018 and has been on the decline ever since.

It had 769 names in its zone at the end of March this year.

Registry reports show that the majority of its names are registered via brand-protection registrars and are likely unused. Searches for active .tickets sites return fewer than 100 results.

XYZ might be able to turn this around by smoothing out the reg friction and lowering the price.

But even just 1,000 names at $500 a year could be considered a nice little earner as part of a portfolio with low overheads from economies of scale. XYZ already runs even higher-priced, lower-volume zones such as .cars and .auto.

EFF rages as Ethos closes Donuts buy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation thinks the acquisition of Donuts by “secretive” private equity group Ethos Capital represents a risk to free speech.

The deal, which sees Ethos buy a controlling stake from fellow PE firm Abry Partners, closed earlier this week, having apparently received no official objection from ICANN.

But the EFF now wants ICANN to force Donuts to change its gTLD registry contracts to make it harder for the company to engage in what it calls “censorship-for-profit”.

The group’s senior staff attorney, Mitch Stoltz, raised the issued at the Public Forum session of last week’s ICANN 70 virtual public meeting, and expanded upon his thinking in a blog post this week. He wrote:

Donuts already has questionable practices when it comes to safeguarding its users’ speech rights. Its contracts with ICANN contain unusual provisions that give Donuts an unreviewable and effectively unlimited right to suspend domain names—causing websites and other internet services to disappear.

He pointed to Donuts’ trusted notifier program with the Motion Picture Association, which streamlines the takedown of domains used for pirating movies, as an example of a registry’s power to censor.

Donuts runs gTLDs including ones with social benefit meanings that the EFF is particularly concerned about, such as .charity, .community, .fund, .healthcare, .news, and .university.

Stoltz also makes reference to the Domain Protected Marks List, a Donuts service that enables trademark owners to block their marks, and variants, across its entire portfolio of 240+ gTLDs.

In effect, this lets trademark holders “own” words and prevent others from using them as domain names, even in top-level domains that have nothing to do with the products or services for which a trademark is used. It’s a legal entitlement that isn’t part of any country’s trademark law, and it was considered and rejected by ICANN’s multistakeholder policy-making community.

The DPML is not unique to Donuts. Competitors such as UNR and MMX have similar services on the market for their gTLDs.

When Stoltz raised the EFF’s concerns at last week’s ICANN meeting, CEO Göran Marby basically shrugged them off, saying he didn’t understand why one PE firm buying an asset off another PE firm was such a big deal.

I have to say I agree with him.

Ethos came under a lot of scrutiny last year when it tried to buy .org manager Public Interest Registry, turning it into a for-profit entity, generating cash for Ethos’ still-undisclosed backers.

(This week, Ethos disclosed in a press release that its investors include massive hedge funds The Baupost Group and Neuberger Berman “among others”, which appears to be the first time these names have been mentioned in connection with the company).

But a pretty good case could be made that .org is a unique case, that has had a non-profit motive baked into its DNA for decades. That does not apply to Donuts, which was a profit-making venture from the outset.

It’s not entirely clear why the EFF is suddenly concerned that Donuts will start exercise its contractual right-to-suspend more frequently under Ethos than under Abry. Stoltz wrote:

As we learned last year during the fight for .ORG, Ethos expects to deliver high returns to its investors while preserving its ability to change the rules for domain name registrants, potentially in harmful ways. Ethos refused meaningful dialogue with domain name users, instead proposing an illusion of public oversight and promoting it with a slick public relations campaign. And private equity investors have a sordid record of buying up vital institutions like hospitals, burdening them with debt, and leaving them financially shaky or even insolvent.

Even with the acquisition passing through ICANN easily, the EFF wants Donuts to change its contracts to make it more difficult for the company to suspend domain names on a whim.

I believe the language causing the controversy comes from anti-abuse policies in the Public Interest Commitments found in almost all Donuts’ contracts with ICANN, which state in part:

Registry Operator reserves the right, at its sole discretion and at any time and without limitation, to deny, suspend, cancel, or transfer any registration or transaction, or place any domain name(s) on registry lock, hold, or similar status as it determines necessary for any of the following reasons:

a. to protect the integrity and stability of the registry;

b. to comply with any applicable laws, government rules or requirements, requests of law enforcement, or any dispute resolution process;

c. to comply with the terms of this Registry Agreement and the Registry Operator’s Anti-Abuse Policy;

d. registrant fails to keep Whois information accurate and up-to-date;

d. domain name use violates the Registry Operator’s acceptable use policies, or a third party’s rights or acceptable use policies, including but not limited to the infringement of any copyright or trademark; or

e. as needed during resolution of a dispute.

As a voluntary PIC, this language is unique to Donuts, though other registries have similar provisions in their registry agreements.

ShortDot bought another gTLD. Guess what .sbs stands for now?

Kevin Murphy, March 29, 2021, Domain Registries

Growing new gTLD portfolio registry ShortDot has acquired another unwanted dot-brand, .sbs, which it intends to repurpose as an open, generic TLD.

.sbs was originally owned by SBS, for Special Broadcasting Service, an Australian public-service broadcaster. But the company never used it.

Now, while launch plans are still in development, ShortDot intends to relaunch .sbs to mean something entirely different, much as it recently did with .cfd.

“.sbs will be branded as shorthand for ‘Side by Side’, perfect for social causes, charitable organizations and other philanthropic initiatives,” ShortDot COO Kevin Kopas told us.

That does not appear to be a meaning of the acronym in common usage.

ShortDot is currently two weeks away from general availability for its next most-recent acquisition, .cfd, which originally stood for the financial term “contracts for difference” but is now being marketed as “clothing and fashion design”.

The company, best known for high-volume .icu, which has sold and lost over five million registrations over the last two years, now has five gTLDs in its stable, including unused dot-brand .bond and .cyou.

Donuts adds another TLD to its stable as Richemont finally bows out of new gTLD program

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2021, Domain Registries

Luxury goods maker Richemont, an early and strong proponent of the new gTLD concept, has got rid of the final string of the 14 it originally applied for.

According to ICANN records, the registry agreement for .watches was officially transferred to Afilias at the end of December, one day before it was in turn acquired by Donuts.

The domain nic.watches current resolves to a placeholder bearing the Afilias branding.

Richemont, the company behind luxury brands such as Cartier and Piaget, now has no TLDs left.

It had applied for nine dot-brands, along with five generic dictionary terms that it at first intended to maintain as single-registrant spaces, before that use case was banned by ICANN.

At the start of the decade, the company was an enthusiastic endorser of new gTLDs, even sending speakers to conferences to promote the concept.

Richemont was also the first registrant of second-level domains in third-party new gTLDs, when it registered Arabic versions of some of its famous brands in December 2013.

But its enthusiasm waned gradually over the last eight years.

Its dot-brands were discarded in tranches, either during the application process or after contracting. Donuts beat it to .jewelry at auction, and it terminated its contracts for Chinese versions of .jewelry and .watches last year.

There’s not much money in internationalized domain names, so now it seems likely these Chinese IDNs were shopped around but failed to find a buyer.

.watches, however, is right in Donuts’ wheelhouse, a niche generic English string related to a specific product or service.

Last month, I reported that Donuts had acquired .markets, .forex, .broker and .trading from Boston Ivy as it exited the new gTLD game, while letting the less-attractive .spreadbetting die on the vine.

CentralNic buys German monetization firm for up to $13 million

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2021, Domain Services

CentralNic today continued is diversification outside of its core domain business by acquiring Berlin-based monetization firm Wando.

The company said it will pay €5.4 million ($6.5 million) up front and up to €5.4 million more depending on performance through Q3 2022.

CentralNic said Wando makes €4.9 million ($5.6 million) in revenue a year, over half of which already comes through its partnership with CentalNic.

Donuts acquires four more gTLDs, but allows one to be scrapped

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2021, Domain Registries

Donuts has acquired a portfolio of four finance-related new gTLDs, according to a source familiar with the matter, but is allowing a fifth string to fall onto the scrap heap of history.

I’m told Donuts will soon take over the ICANN contracts for .markets, .forex, .broker and .trading, which were all part of the Boston Ivy stable.

But its appears that Boston Ivy couldn’t find a buyer for .spreadbetting, which describes a complex form of gambling used in sports and financial markets, and has filed with ICANN to instead terminate its Registry Agreement.

You’ll recall that earlier this month I reported that ShortDot has acquired .cfd from Boston Ivy and plans to market it as “clothing and fashion design”, rather than its originally intended purpose of “contracts for difference”.

Both .spreadbetting and .cfd were unlaunched — both represent controversial forms of financial instrument — but the ones Donuts is acquiring already have a small number of registrations and active sites.

.markets, .forex, .trading and .broker have fewer than 4,000 registered names between them and appear to retail for between $17 and $50 per year.

I’ve lost track of precisely how many gTLD contracts Donuts currently controls, what with its recent acquisitions, but I’m pretty sure it’s pushing 300.

As for Boston Ivy, it’s game over as far as being a gTLD registry is concerned. Its only other string was .nadex, and it terminated that over a year ago.

Registrar giant created as Web.com merged with Endurance

Kevin Murphy, February 11, 2021, Domain Registrars

Clearlake Capital Group, which has taken Endurance International private and recently took a big stake in Web.com, has merged the two registrar stables to create a new company it’s calling Newfold Digital.

By my reckoning, Newfold has probably become the second-largest registrar group by domains under management, with around 16.5 million gTLD names across just its best-known half-dozen brands, leapfrogging Namecheap and Tucows in the registrar league table.

That number’s probably a big understatement. It doesn’t capture ccTLDs and does not take into account that the company now has hundreds of active ICANN accredited registrars, largely due to Web.com’s drop-catching business.

Its best-known registrar brands are Register.com, Network Solutions, Domain.com, BuyDomains, BigRock, PublicDomainRegistry and CrazyDomains. Its BlueHost and HostGator brands are both pretty big deals in web hosting.

Clearlake says Newfold has 6.7 million customers worldwide.

The privatization of Endurance, which sees it delisted from the Nasdaq stock exchange, was announced in November and cost Clearlake $3 billion. The value of its Web.com stake, which it acquired last month, was not disclosed.

Siris Capital, which bought Web.com in 2018, continues to have a stake.

Newfold will be led by two Web.com execs — CEO Sharon Rowlands and CFO Christina Clohecy.

The deal follows Web.com’s unsuccessful attempt to buy Webcentral last year.

There’s no word on (presumably inevitable) layoffs as the two companies come together.