US antitrust authorities are investigating Verisign over its anticipated operation of the .web gTLD.
The probe was disclosed by company CEO Jim Bidzos in yesterday’s fourth-quarter earnings call. He said:
On January 18, 2017, the company received a Civil Investigative Demand from the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice, requesting certain information related to Verisign’s potential operations of the .web TLD. The CID is not directed at Verisign’s existing registry agreements.
He did not comment further, beyond describing it as “kind of like a subpoena”.
Verisign acquired the rights to run .web at an ICANN last-resort auction last July, agreeing to pay $135 million.
Rather than applying for the gTLD itself, it secretly bankrolled shell company Nu Dot Co, which intends to transfer its .web contract to Verisign after it is signed.
ICANN is being sued by rival applicant Donuts, which claims NDC should have been banned from the auction. Afilias, the auction runner up, is also challenging the outcome.
But this new DoJ investigation, if we take Bidzos’ words at face value, appears to focus on what Verisign plans to do with .web once it is live.
It’s the view of many that .web would be the new gTLD best positioned as an alternative to .com, which makes Verisign hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
It’s my view that it would make perfect sense for Verisign to flush the $135 million and bury .web, rather than have a viable competitor on the market.
Verisign has repeatedly said that intends to “grow and widely distribute .web”, words Bidzos repeated last night.
The investigation is likely into whether Verisign wants to actually raise .web, or strangle it in its crib.
It seems the investigation was launched in the dying days of the Obama administration, so the recent changing of the guard at Justice — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was confirmed by Congress just two days ago — may have an impact on how it plays out.
Some of Verisign’s chickens have evidently come home to roost.
A number of companies that the registry giant has pissed off over the last couple of years have slammed the proposed renewal of its .com contract with ICANN.
Rivals including XYZ.com (sued over its .xyz advertising) and Donuts (out-maneuvered on .web) are among those to have filed comments opposing the proposed new Registry Agreement.
They’re joined by business and intellectual property interests, concerned that Verisign is being allowed to carry on without implementing any of the IP-related obligations of other gTLDs, and a dozens of domainers, spurred into action by a newsletter.
Even a child protection advocacy group has weighed in, accusing Verisign of not doing enough to prevent child abuse material being distributed.
ICANN announced last month that it plans to renew the .com contract, which is not due to expire for another two years, until 2024, to bring its term in line with Verisign’s contracts related to root zone management.
There are barely any changes in the proposed new RA — no new rights protection mechanisms, no changes to how pricing is governed, and no new anti-abuse provisions.
The ensuing public comment period, which closed on Friday, has attracted slightly more comments than your typical ICANN comment period.
That’s largely due to outrage from readers of the Domaining.com newsletter, who were urged to send comments in an article headlined “BREAKING: Verisign doubles .COM price overnight!”
That headline, for avoidance of doubt, is not accurate. I think the author was trying to confer the idea that the headline could, in his opinion, be accurate in future.
Still, it prompted a few dozen domainers to submit brief comments demanding “No .com price increases!!!”
The existing RA, which would be renewed, says this about price:
The Maximum Price for Registry Services subject to this Section 7.3 shall be as follows:
(i) from the Effective Date through 30 November 2018, US $7.85;
(ii) Registry Operator shall be entitled to increase the Maximum Price during the term of the Agreement due to the imposition of any new Consensus Policy or documented extraordinary expense resulting from an attack or threat of attack on the Security or Stability of the DNS, not to exceed the smaller of the preceding year’s Maximum Price or the highest price charged during the preceding year, multiplied by 1.07.
The proposed amendment (pdf) that would extend the contract through 2024 does not directly address price.
It does, however, contain this paragraph:
Future Amendments. The parties shall cooperate and negotiate in good faith to amend the terms of the Agreement (a) by the second anniversary of the Effective Date, to preserve and enhance the security and stability of the Internet or the TLD, and (b) as may be necessary for consistency with changes to, or the termination or expiration of, the Cooperative Agreement between Registry Operator and the Department of Commerce.
The Cooperative Agreement is the second contract in the three-way relationship between Verisign, ICANN and the US Department of Commerce that allows Verisign to run not only .com but also the DNS root zone.
It’s important because Commerce exercised its powers under the agreement in 2012 to freeze .com prices at $7.85 a year until November 2018, unless Verisign can show it no longer has “market power”, a legal term that plays into monopoly laws.
So what the proposed .com amendments mean is that, if the Cooperative Agreement changes in 2018, ICANN and Verisign are obligated to discuss amending the .com contract at that time to take account of the new terms.
If, for example, Commerce extends the price freeze, Verisign and ICANN are pretty much duty bound to write that extension into the RA too.
There’s no credible danger of prices going up before 2018, in other words, and whether they go up after that will be primarily a matter for the US administration.
The US could decide that Verisign no longer has market power then and drop the price freeze, but would be an indication of a policy change rather than a reflection of reality.
The Internet Commerce Association, which represents high-volume domainers, does not appear particularly concerned about prices going up any time soon.
It said in its comments to ICANN that it believes the new RA “will have no effect whatsoever upon the current .Com wholesale price freeze of $7.85 imposed on Verisign”.
XYZ.com, in its comments, attacked not potential future price increases, but the current price of $7.85, which it characterized as extortionate.
If .com were put out to competitive tender, XYZ would be prepared to reduce the price to $1 per name per year, CEO Daniel Negari wrote, saving .com owners over $850 million a year — more than the GDP of Rwanda.
ICANN should not passively go along with Verisign’s selfish goal of extending its unfair monopoly over the internet’s most popular top-level domain name.
Others in the industry chose to express that the proposed contract does not even attempt to normalize the rules governing .com with the rules almost all other gTLDs must abide by.
Donuts, in its comment, said that the more laissez-faire .com regime actually harms competition, writing:
It is well known that new gTLDs and now many other legacy gTLDs are heavily vested with abuse protections that .COM is not. Thus, smaller, less resource-rich competitors must manage gTLDs laden (appropriately) with additional responsibilities, while Verisign is able to operate its domains unburdened from these safeguards. This incongruence is a precise demonstration of disparate treatment, and one that actually hinders effective competition and ultimately harms consumers.
It points to numerous statistics showing that .com is by far the most-abused TLD in terms of spam, phishing, malware and cybersquatting.
The Business Constituency and Intellectual Property Constituency had similar views about standardizing rules on abuse and such. The IPC comment says:
The continued prevalence of abusive registrations in the world’s largest TLD registry is an ongoing challenge. The terms of the .com registry agreement should reflect that reality, by incorporating the most up-to-date features that will aid in the detection, prevention and remediation of abuses.
The European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online submitted a comment with a more narrow focus — child abuse material and pornography in general.
Enasco said that 41% of sites containing child abuse material use .com domains and that Verisign should at least have the same regulatory regime as 2012-round gTLDs. It added:
Verisign’s egregious disinterest in or indolence towards tackling these problems hitherto hardly warrants them being rewarded by being allowed to continue the same lamentable
I couldn’t find any comments that were in unqualified support of the .com contract renewal, but the lack of any comments from large sections of the ICANN community may indicate widespread indifference.
The full collection of comments can be found here.
ICANN has beaten off a lawsuit from alternate root provider name.space for a second time, with a US appeals court ruling that the new gTLD program was not an illegal conspiracy.
name.space sued ICANN in 2012, claiming that the program broke competition laws and that “conflicted” ICANN directors conspired with the industry in an “attack” on its business model.
The company runs an alternate DNS root containing hundreds of TLDs that hardly anyone knows about, cares about, or has access to.
Almost 200 of the strings in its system had matching applications in the 2012 new gTLD round; many have since been delegated.
The company’s complaint asked for an injunction against all 189 matching TLDs.
But a court ruled against it in 2013, saying that name.space had failed to make a case for breaches of antitrust law.
Last week, an appeals court upheld that ruling, saying that the company had basically failed to cross the legal threshold from simply making wild allegations to showing evidence of an illegal conspiracy.
“We cannot… infer an anticompetitive agreement when factual allegations ‘just as easily suggest rational, legal business behavior.’,” the court ruled, citing precedent.
“Here, ICANN’s decision-making was fully consistent with its agreement with the DOC [US Department of Commerce] to operate the DNS and the Root,” it wrote. “In transferring control to ICANN, the DOC specifically required it to coordinate the introduction of new TLDs onto the Root. This is exactly what ICANN did in the 2012 Application Round”.
“The 2012 rules and procedures were facially neutral, and there are no allegations that the selection process was rigged,” the panel ruled.
The court further ruled that ICANN is not a competitor in the markets for domain names as registry, registrar or defensive registration services, therefore it could not be subject to antitrust claims for those markets.
A few other claims against ICANN were also dismissed.
In short, it’s a pretty decisive victory for ICANN. General counsel John Jeffrey said in a statement that ICANN is “pleased” to have won.
All the major documents in the case, including the latest opinion, can be downloaded here.
While the lawsuit has been making its way through the courts, the .space gTLD has actually been delegated and the domain name.space is owned by its new registry, Radix.
There’s some salt in the wounds.
Right Of The Dot, one of the companies hoping to offer contention set resolution services to new gTLD applicants, has published a legal opinion arguing that auctions are not inherently illegal.
The document was issued in response to Uniregistry’s claim that the US Department of Justice has refused to give auctions a green light under antitrust law.
ROTD hired the law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, including a partner with DoJ experience, to draft the statement.
It’s aimed at lawyers, primarily, but the gist of it is that simply participating in an auction is not illegal in and of itself — participants would have to collude in some other way too.
The finding of an antitrust violation necessarily would depend on a showing that the private auction unreasonably restrained interstate trade or commerce.
The question comes down to the conduct of the parties to an auction, be it a private auction or an ICANN Last Resort Auction.
If the parties to an auction, engage in collusion such as price fixing and/or bid rigging, it constitute per se violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.
It’s not the auction provider that creates a violation it’s the action of the parties to an auction and those actions can take place in an ICANN Last Resort auction.
In other words, there’s no difference between an ICANN-run auction, in which ICANN gets paid, and a private auction in which the participants and the auctioneer get paid, according to these lawyers.
Uniregistry’s argument as I understand it, on the other hand, is that simply participating in an action that could constitute illegal collusion, because ICANN ends up out of pocket.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
I think the only person who could answer that, in light of the DoJ’s refusal to intervene, would be a judge. We’re unlikely to get an answer unless somebody sues somebody.
Alternate root player Name.Space has sued ICANN for trademark infringement and anti-competitive behavior, saying “insiders” have conspired to keep it out of the new gTLD program.
If successful, the suit would prevent dozens of new gTLD applicants from having their applications approved.
The lawsuit, filed in California this week, follows a warning the company fired at ICANN this March.
While only ICANN is named as a defendant, the suit alleges that the new gTLD program was crafted by and is dominated by “ICANN insiders” and “industry titans”.
It wants an injunction preventing ICANN delegating any of the 189 gTLD strings that it claims it has rights to.
It also fingers several current and former ICANN directors, including current and former chairs Steve Crocker and Peter Dengate Thrush, over their alleged conflicts of interest.
Name.Space has been operating 482 diverse TLDs — such as .news, .sucks, and .mail — in a lightly used alternate root system since 1996.
Most people can’t access these zones and are unaware that they exist.
The company applied to have 118 of these strings added to the root in ICANN’s “proof of concept” gTLD expansion in 2000, when the application fee was $50,000, but was unsuccessful.
Now, the company claims the new gTLD program is “an attack on name.space’s business model and a mean by which to create and maintain market power in the TLD markets”.
The complaint (pdf) states:
Rather than adopting a procedure to account for the pending 2000 Application and facilitate the expansion of TLD providers in the DNS, ICANN has adopted a procedure so complex and expensive that it once again effectively prohibited newcomers from competing. It instead has permitted participation solely by ICANN insiders and industry titans.
If it had applied for all 118 again in this year’s round, it would have cost almost $22 million (though it would have qualified for an $83,000 discount on a single bid).
Name.Space is asking for damages and an injunction preventing ICANN from approving 189 gTLDs that match those it currently operates in its alternate root.
The full list of affected applications is attached to the complaint.