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Afilias hints at more legal action over .web

As Verisign does everything but declare outright victory in last week’s Independent Review Process result, .web rival Afilias is now strongly hinting that its lawyers are not quite ready to retire.

John Kane, VP of Afilias (now Altanovo) said in a statement that Afilias is prepared to “take all actions necessary to protect our rights in this matter”.

This matter is of course the contested 2015 auction for the new gTLD .web, which was won by Nu Dot Co with $135 million of Verisign’s money.

Afilias thinks the winning bid should be voided because Verisign’s involvement had been kept a secret. The IRP panel stopped short of doing that, instead forcing ICANN’s board of directors to make a decision.

The earliest they’re likely to do this is at ICANN 71 later this month.

But with one IRP down, Afilias is now reminding ICANN that the board’s ultimate decision will also be “subject to review by an IRP Panel.”

So if ICANN decides to award .web to Verisign, Afilias could challenge it with another IRP, adding another two years to the go-live runway and another couple million dollars to the lawyers’ petty cash jar.

None of which should overly bother Verisign, of course, if one subscribes to the notion that its interest in .web is not in owning it but rather in preventing its competitors from owning it and aggressively marketing it against .com.

But Verisign also put out a statement reviewing the IRP panel’s decision last week, reiterating that it believes Afilias should be banned from the .web contest and banned from making any further complaints about Verisign’s bid.

While Afilias spent its press release focusing on trashing ICANN, Verisign instead focused its blog post on trashing Afilias.

According to Verisign, Afilias is no longer competent to run a registry (having sold those assets to Donuts) and is just looking for a payday by losing a private auction.

“Afilias no longer operates a registry business, and has neither the platform, organization, nor necessary consents from ICANN, to support one,” Verisign claims.

Afilias could of course outsource its would-be .web registry, as is fairly standard industry practice, either to Donuts or any other back-end operator.

Verisign hopeful after decision reached in .web gTLD case

Kevin Murphy, May 25, 2021, Domain Policy

The fate of .web has been decided, over 20 years after it was first applied for, and Verisign thinks it might emerge triumphant.

The company said last night that the ICANN Independent Review Panel handling the case of Afilias v ICANN reached a decision May 20 and delivered it to Verisign the following day.

Verisign says the panel “dismissed Afilias’ claims for relief seeking to invalidate the .web auction and to award the .web TLD to Afilias, concluding that such issues were beyond its jurisdiction.”

Sounds good for Verisign so far. Afilias wanted its $135 million bid for .web, submitted via an intermediary called Nu Dot Co, thrown out due to claims that ICANN violated its own bylaws by not sufficiently vetting the bidder.

But Verisign goes on to say “the panel’s ruling recommends that ICANN’s Board of Directors consider the objections made about the .web auction and then make a decision on the delegation of .web”.

It adds that the panel found that ICANN violated its fairness and transparency commitments:

With respect to ICANN, the ruling finds that certain actions and/or inaction by ICANN in response to Afilias’ objections violated aspects of ICANN’s bylaws related to transparency and fairness. These findings are particular to ICANN’s actions and not conduct by Verisign. Verisign anticipates that ICANN’s Board will review the panel’s ruling and proceed consistent with the panel’s recommendation to consider the objections and make a decision on the delegation of .web.

Based on Verisign’s statements, it seems that ICANN lost, but Afilias didn’t win.

The revelation was buried in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on an unrelated financial matter last night. Hat tip to @jintlaw for spotting and tweeting about it.

It’s the most eagerly anticipated IRP ruling since 2011’s .xxx case, but in stark contrast to Rod “let’s draft this tweet” Beckstrom-era ICANN, where the decision was posted in a matter of hours, the 2021 org has not yet posted the panel’s findings or made a public statement acknowledging the ruling.

Verisign says it intends to “vigorously pursue” .web, but “can provide no assurance” as to which way the ICANN board of directors will swing.

ICANN to auction off first failed new gTLD

ICANN is planning to auction off .wed, the first new gTLD from the 2012 application round to fail.

The TLD has been running on Nominet’s Emergency Back-End Registry Operator platform since late 2017, when former registry Atgron suffered a critical failure — apparently planned — of its registry services.

After some lawyering, Atgron finally lost its registry contract last October.

Now, ICANN has confirmed that .wed will be the subject of an open Request For Proposals, to find a successor registry operator.

It’s the first time it’s had to roll out its Registry Transition Process mechanism. All previous gTLD terminations were single-registrant dot-brands that were simply quietly removed from the DNS root.

The RFP will basically amount to an auction. Registries will have to pass the usual technical and financial background checks, but ultimately the winner will be selected based on how much they’re willing to pay.

In ICANNese: “The RFP process will identify the highest economic proposal and utilize it as the deciding factor to proceed to evaluation.”

But the money will not stuff ICANN’s overflowing coffers. After it’s covered the costs of running the RFP, any remaining cash will go to Atgron. There’s a non-zero chance the company could make more money by failing than it ever did selling domain names.

It currently has 39 domains under management, the same 39 it’s had since Nominet took over as EBERO, and the successor registry will be expected to grandfather these names. Only 32 of the names appear to be genuine end-user registrations.

Atgron’s business model, which was almost antithetical to the entire business model for domain names, is to blame for its failure.

The company tried to sell domains to marrying couples for $50 a year, on the understanding that the renewal fee after the first two years would be $30,000.

Atgron wanted to actively discourage renewals, in order to free up space for other couples with the same names.

Unsurprisingly, registrars didn’t dig that business model, and only one signed up.

Fortunately, whichever registry takes over from Atgron will be under no obligation to also take over its business model.

ICANN said it expects to publish its RFP “in the coming months” and pick a winner before the end of the year.

$40 million UNR auction brings fresh blood to domain industry

Six entities are entering the domain registry business for the first time following UNR’s auction last month, which saw over 20 new gTLDs sold off for a total of over $40 million, according to UNR.

While playing its cards close to its chest and revealing the auction results in rather general terms, UNR disclosed last week that there were 17 bidders at the three-day event, which ran in late April.

It said “between 10 and 20 bidders came away as winners”, which I assume we have to interpret as “between 10 and 17”.

Anyone predicting a bulk purchase by a rival portfolio registry was dead wrong, it appears.

UNR said that, while it will not disclose their identities, “established registries, investment firms, blockchain companies, and high net-worth individuals” were among the winners.

None of the ICANN Registry Agreements have yet changed hands, according to ICANN records.

While existing registries and investment firms (presumably the kind of private equity interests that have shown high levels of interest in the domain industry in recent years) will come as no surprise as buyers, blockchain companies and high net-worth individuals will perhaps raise more eyebrows.

ICANN won’t, to the best of my knowledge, sign an RA with an individual, so we’ll no doubt be seeing a corporate vehicle or two established to take over contracts on behalf of those buyers.

The idea of a blockchain company taking over a TLD in the internet’s official root zone is particularly interesting.

The closest we’ve had to that scenario to date is MMX’s experiments integrating .luxe into the Ethereum blockchain, which has been described as genuinely innovative.

But most forays by blockchain outfits into “domain names” have been strictly alt-root moves, such as Unstoppable Domains’ use of .crypto addresses, which do not use the ICANN root and instead require browser plug-ins to function.

These kinds of services usually have their ability to avoid centralized oversight and control as a USP, which makes an attempt from this sector to suck on the ICANN teat especially intriguing.

And which of UNR’s TLDs would be most suited to blockchain applications? .link? .click? .lol?

UNR has not broken down how much was paid for each TLD, and we’ll likely never know, but the $40 million top-line is far above the $11.65 million minimum opening bids it had established for the no-reserve auction.

But it still works out as under $2 million on average across each of the 23 gTLDs on offer, many of which had been on the market for six or seven years, begging the question of whether UNR CEO Frank Schilling’s big bet on new gTLDs back in 2012 was ultimately a success.

Schilling said in a press release: “All UNR shareholders should be exceptionally pleased with the final outcome of this first-of-its-kind event. We are deeply satisfied to have seen so much new interest and blood enter the arena.”

The TLDs auctioned were: .audio, .blackfriday, .christmas, .click, .country, .diet, .flowers, .game, ,guitars, .help, .hiphop, .hiv, .hosting, .juegos, .link, .llp, .lol, .mom, .photo, .pics, .property, .sexy and .tattoo.

DI will of course reveal the winners over time as their ICANN contracts are updated to reflect the new operators.

UNR cuts $5.2 million from price of new gTLD portfolio

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2021, Domain Registries

UNR has reduced the opening bids on almost all of the gTLDs it plans to auction off later in the week, to the tune of a whopping $5.2 million.

According to the minimum opening bids listed on the auction web site today, the job lot of 23 TLD contracts could go for as little as $11.65 million, if there’s no competitive bidding whatsoever.

That’s compared to the $16.87 million total when the TLDs were first announced for auction back in January.

It’s a no-reserve auction of UNR’s entire portfolio of gTLDs that runs from Wednesday to Friday this week.

Some gTLDs, such as .hiv and .juegos, have no minimum bids.

The only TLD to receive a price increase since January is .llp, which had a $0 listing back then but is now listed at $200,000. There’s been no change in .llp’s fortunes since then — it’s still unlaunched.

The music-themed .country, which had no list price in January, now has a $300,000 tag.

The biggest discount comes on .link, once listed with a $3 million opener, now reduced to $2 million.

Nine of the gTLDs are now priced at below the original ICANN application fee of $186,000.

Here’s a table comparing the January minimum bid to today’s pricing.

TLDJanuary PricePrice TodayPrice Difference
TOTAL$16,870,000$11,650,000-$5,220,000
.audio$500,000$400,000-$100,000
.blackfriday$350,000$125,000-$225,000
.christmas$350,000$125,000-$225,000
.click$1,000,000$700,000-$300,000
.country$300,000$300,000
.diet$500,000$175,000-$325,000
,flowers$500,000$175,000-$325,000
.game$3,500,000$2,800,000-$700,000
,guitars$250,000$75,000-$175,000
.help$1,300,000$850,000-$450,000
.hiphop$250,000$100,000-$150,000
.hiv$0$0$0
.hosting$1,000,000$500,000-$500,000
.juegos$0$0$0
.link$3,000,000$2,000,000-$1,000,000
.llp$0$200,000$200,000
.lol$500,000$450,000-$50,000
.mom$500,000$350,000-$150,000
.photo$1,300,000$900,000-$400,000
.pics$500,000$325,000-$175,000
.property$850,000$500,000-$350,000
.sexy$570,000$450,000-$120,000
.tattoo$150,000$150,000$0

UNR, which sold off its registrar and secondary market businesses to GoDaddy and its stakes in three car-themed gTLDs to XYZ.com last year, plans to remodel itself as a back-end operator post-auction.

UPDATE: According to UNR, the January prices were preliminary and published accidentally, and no changes have been made since late January or early February.

Decision on $135 million .web auction expected in weeks

Kevin Murphy, April 22, 2021, Domain Registries

ICANN, Verisign, Donuts, and the other applicants for .web will find out who gets to control the fiercely contested gTLD by the first week of June at the latest, according to Verisign’s CEO.

Jim Bidzos told analysts tonight that the Independent Review Process panel currently handling a complaint filed by Afilias declared its case closed April 7, and said that a decision will come within 60 days.

Afilias, now owned by Donuts, came second in an ICANN “auction of last resort” in which a Verisign-backed company called Nu Dot Co agreed to pay $135 million for the coveted string.

Afilias wants the auction declared invalid because ICANN, it claims, did not sufficiently pursue allegations that NDC was being secretly bankrolled by Verisign, which it says broke ICANN bylaws and new gTLD application rules.

This is denied by ICANN, as well as NDC and Verisign, which have filed legal documents with the IRP panel despite not being parties.

Afilias and others suspect that Verisign wants .web in order to bury it, keeping what could be a strong .com competitor weak, which Verisign also denies.

The IRP panel held a seven-day virtual hearing last August, but has continued to receive briefs from ICANN and Afilias since then.

Verisign says it needs .web because .com is running out of names

Kevin Murphy, April 14, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign’s affinity for cognitive dissonance has emerged yet again — it’s now claiming that it needs to be awarded the .web gTLD because it’s running out of .com domains to sell.

In legal documents released by ICANN yesterday, Verisign’s lawyers say: “The undisputed evidence is that Verisign needs a TLD like .WEB for growth given the decreased name availability in .COM”.

The admission/claim/lie (delete according to preference) came in a joint post-hearing filing by Verisign and Nu Dot Co, the .web applicant to which Verisign loaned $135 million to bid for the gTLD on its behalf at a record-breaking ICANN auction in 2016.

Afilias, now owned by Donuts, was the second-highest bidder and since November 2018 has been trying to get the auction result cancelled via ICANN’s quasi-judicial Independent Review Process.

The IRP’s final hearing was held over seven days last June, and we’ve been waiting with baited breath for a ruling ever since.

At some point over the last 48 hours, ICANN published three sets of post-hearing arguments — one from itself, one from complainant Afilias and an amicus (non-party, friend of the court) filing from Verisign/NDC.

The Verisign filing (pdf) attempts to rubbish Afilias’ claims across the board, but its rebuttal of the argument that it only wants .web in order to bury it and protect .com’s dominance is particularly interesting:

Verisign Has Every Incentive To Grow .WEB Aggressively. Afilias’ Amended IRP Request asserts without evidence that Verisign seeks to acquire .WEB in order to eliminate a potential competitor for .COM and that Afilias would make a better operator of .WEB. Afilias presented no evidence to support this claim prior to the IRP, and none was presented at the hearing. In fact, the evidence before this Panel refutes Afilias’ claims. The undisputed evidence is that Verisign needs a TLD like .WEB for growth given the decreased name availability in .COM. Even Afilias’ own experts concede that the .COM TLD now has limited name availability. Moreover, the undisputed evidence establishes that Verisign is well-positioned to maximize .WEB’s potential, while Afilias’ recent track record suggests that it would be a less effective operator of .WEB.

In June last year, Verisign had submitted to the IRP panel:

Verisign needs a new TLD like .WEB for growth. Verisign’s growth rate has declined in recent years, largely due to many names in .COM already having been taken and increased competition from new gTLDs and ccTLDs that have superior name availability.

Even Afilias’ own experts concede that the .COM name space effectively is taken. Numerous other industry participants have noted that most of the “good” names in .COM already are taken.

While Verisign had a applied for a few non-English transliterations of .com in the 2012 new gTLD application round, it had avoided getting involved with potential competitors to .com.

But, according to its brief, in 2014 it had just sold off the remainder of its non-domain businesses and, realizing its growth now needed to come from a pure domains strategy, tasked VP Paul Livesay with figuring out how it could worm its way back into the new gTLD program.

Many of the details of Livesay’s research and decision making have been redacted by ICANN (purportedly at Verisign’s request), but it seems he came to the conclusion that the best way to benefit from the program long after the application window closed would be to secretly financially back NDC’s participation in the .web auction, with the provision that the .web contract would be transferred to Verisign should it win.

Quite apart from its regular postings touting .com availability over the last few years, the same year that Verisign was coming to the conclusion that .com was becoming saturated and it needed new growth opportunities in other TLDs, it sued XYZ.com for false advertising for having the gall to suggest that it was hard to find available .com domains. It lost.

Because Verisign apparently enjoys nothing more than holding two diametrically opposed positions simultaneously, its October amicus filing also claims that .web isn’t nearly as awesome as Afilias and others claim.

On the same page that it insists that .web is needed to drive growth, Verisign poo-poos the notion that .web could be a significant competitor to .com, relying on an “expert report” commissioned by Verisign and compiled by University of Chicago economist Kevin Murphy.

(Murphy’s report is redacted in its entirety (pdf) by ICANN, but his 1,119 pages of unredacted exhibits (pdf) prominently include screenshots from this blog, so I feel the need to point out that he’s a different Kevin Murphy — he’s not me, and I’d never even heard of the dude until this morning. On a personal level, the fact that I’m apparently not even the best Kevin Murphy when it comes to the .web story that I’ve been covering for the last two decades is, as you might imagine, as depressing to me as it is presumably amusing to you.)

While his report is redacted, reading around the edges it appears that Murphy reckons .web will not be an exceptional competitor to .com.

Verisign’s October filing states:

.WEB’s Valuation Shows It is Not Particularly Competitively Significant. The Murphy Report models multiple economic scenarios to assess Afilias’ claim that the $135 million price paid for .WEB at the public auction shows that .WEB will be a substantial competitor. None of these scenarios indicate that .WEB is likely to gain a significant market share. Instead, each scenario shows that .WEB is likely to have no more than a 2–3% market share.

Because of the redactions, it’s not clear what market Murphy was referring to, but a 3% market share of the current universe of domain names across all TLDs works out to over 10 million domains. In other words, .web could be a top-five gTLD, up alongside the likes of .org.

But elsewhere in its IRP filings, Verisign cites Murphy to support its argument that .web will have “registrations in the low single digit millions”. That would still be enough to make it one of the best-selling new gTLDs.

This relatively low expected turnout of course begs the question of why Verisign needs .web to grow. It added 4 million net new names across .com and .net last year alone, with .net pretty static, according to its financial filings.

I’m no Kevin Murphy, but here’s a table I’ve thrown together showing Verisign’s domain growth over the last decade.

EOYTotal .com/.net domains (millions)
2010105.2
2011113.8
2012121.1
2013127.2
2014130.6
2015139.8
2016142.2
2017146.4
2018153
2019158.8
2020165.2

Its revenue has consistently grown year over year, from $681 million in 2010 to $1.27 billion in 2020. It’s considered one of the most profitable companies in the world, and its share price has tripled since 2011.

And that was without .web.

Correction: UNR’s trademark block service

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2021, Domain Registries

The registry or registries that buy UNR’s portfolio of new gTLDs at its firesale auction next month will be obliged to honor domains blocked by subscribers to its UniEPS brand protection service.

That’s contrary to what I reported yesterday, which was pretty much the opposite. I apologize for the error.

I asked UNR CEO Frank Schilling for comment about the post-auction UniEPS service, but did not receive a reply. Today, I learned that Schilling had in fact sent a lengthy reply, but it wound up in my email spam folder. Apparently my emails to him also wound up in his spam folder. The filtering gods clearly do not approve of our relationship.

According to Schilling, bidders for each of the 23 auctioned TLDs have been told “blocked names have to remain blocked, banned, or reserved after acquisition, even if they do not participate in our blocking service”.

Registrars were told:

Should an auction winner elect to withdraw the Asset(s) from UNR’s blocking services, the blocked domains will have to remain blocked, reserved, or banned in the acquired Registries until the expiry dates below. This is no different than a new owner honoring prepaid domains under management with expiry dates in the future. Once a block expires, the associated domains can be released for any registrant to purchase (fees from future registrations will be paid to the new owner).

Schilling also said that UNR is forgoing revenue from UniEPS auto-renews after March 15 until the gTLDs change hands. The new owners will be able to cancel these free renewals, he said.

The new owners will be able to continue to use UniEPS if the gTLDs remain on its registry platform. They could also choose to migrate them to their own blocking service, should they have one.

UniEPS, like other products on the market, blocks trademarks and variants such as IDN homographs from registration. It works out cheaper than defensively registering domains, but the domains cannot be used.

UNR, the former Uniregistry, will auction all of its 23 gTLD contracts April 28, as the company refocuses on back-end registry services.

Donuts boss discusses shock Afilias deal

Kevin Murphy, November 20, 2020, Domain Registries

Afilias is to spin off its registrar business and also its contested application for the .web gTLD, following its acquisition by Donuts, according to Donuts CEO Akram Atallah.

Speaking to DI last night, Atallah explained a little about how the deal, which creates a registry with about 450 strings under management, came about.

Rather than a straightforward bilateral negotiation, is seems like Afilias was shopping itself around for a buyer. Several companies were invited to bid, and Donuts won. Atallah said he does not know how many, or which, bidders Donuts was competing against.

Afilias was making over $100 million a year in revenue last time its accounts were published in 2017, but its largest gTLDs are in decline and it took a big hit when Public Interest Registry renegotiated its back-end contract for .org in 2018.

The acquisition, the value of which has not been disclosed, does not include Afilias’ registrar or mobile businesses, which Atallah said will be spun off.

He also revealed that the deal does not include Afilias’ .web gTLD application, which came second in an ICANN auction won by a Verisign-backed bidder a few years back.

Afilias is currently waiting for the results of an Independent Review Process case that seeks to overturn the winning $135 million bid and award the potentially lucrative gTLD to Afilias. The case was heard in August and a decision is surely not many months away.

What the deal does include are all of Afilias’ registry assets, including its owned gTLDs and its back-end service provider contracts.

I asked Atallah what the plans are for migrating or integrating the two registry platforms. While Afilias runs its own data centers, Donuts migrated its registry to Amazon’s AWS cloud service earlier this year.

“We have to make sure whatever we do is as painless as possible to our registrar channel and partners,” he said. “We believe that at least on the new gTLDs that they have it will probably be easier for us to move them to our back-end, which is on the cloud already… We’ll probably do that fairly quickly.”

“But remember they have other registries and ccTLDs that don’t own that they run on their back-end, so there’ll be business issues and negotiations there to see what we can do there,” he added.

While he’s not expecting anyone to notice any big changes immediately, Atallah said that over time features such as the companies’ different EPP commands will be merged, and that valued-added services will start to cross-pollinate.

“All of the features we have on our TLDs will migrate to their TLDs and vice versa,” he said.

That means things like the Domain Protected Marks List, a defensive registration service for trademark owners, will start to show up in Afilias gTLDs before long, he said.

I asked about the possibility of layoffs, something that is no doubt worrying staff at both companies right now and seems quite possible given the move to the cloud, but Atallah said it was too early to say. Nothing will change until the deal closes at the end of the year, he said.

“Once we actually close, we’ll sit down with the management of the Afilias registry team and look at all the different assets that we have and try to pick the best in class in technology and services,” he said.

Having seen some mutterings about competition concerns, I put that question to Atallah. He laughed it away, pointing out that, even combined with Afilias, Donuts will have fewer than 15 million domains under management.

Rival dot-brand bidders in settlement talks, seek auction delay

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2019, Domain Registries

Two companies called Merck have managed to delay an ICANN auction for the .merck dot-brand top-level domain.

The two companies applied for .merck in 2012 and have spent the last almost eight years conducting a battle for the string using various ICANN conflict and appeals mechanisms.

Earlier this year, ICANN placed the two applications into a “last resort” auction, the proceeds of which would flow into ICANN’s own coffers.

Scheduled for July, it would have been the first time competing brands had fought for the same gTLD at ICANN auction.

But the two Mercks sought and received multiple extensions to the auction date, telling ICANN that they were in private settlement talks, until ICANN seemingly got bored and denied their last extension request.

The auction was set to go ahead in late October, but the two applicants managed to get another delay anyway by filing a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, asking that the refusal to extend be overturned.

While the request is likely to be rejected, the mere fact of its filing means both applications continue to be in “On Hold” status while the request is processed, buying the companies at least a month of extra time to come to their own less-expensive resolution.

The two companies are US-based Merck Registry Holdings, Inc. and its former parent, Germany-based Merck KGaA. The German company is over 350 years old and split from its American subsidiary when it was seized by the US government during World War I. They’re both in the chemicals business.