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Verisign and Afilias in open war over $135m .web

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2016, Domain Registries

Two of the industry’s oldest and biggest gTLD registries escalated their fight over the .web gTLD auction this week, trading blows in print and in public.

Verisign, accused by Afilias of breaking the rules when it committed $130 million to secure .web for itself, has now turned the tables on its rival.

It accuses Afilias of itself breaking the auction rules and of trying to emotionally blackmail ICANN into reversing the auction on spurious political grounds.

The .web auction was won by obscure shell-company applicant Nu Dot Co with a record-setting $135 million bid back in July.

It quickly emerged, as had been suspected for a few weeks beforehand, that Verisign was footing the bill for the NDC bid.

The plan is that NDC will transfer its .web ICANN contract to Verisign after it is awarded, assuming ICANN consents to the transfer.

Afilias has since revealed that it came second in the auction. It now wants ICANN to overturn the result of the auction, awarding .web to Afilias as runner-up instead.

The company argues that NDC broke the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook rules by refusing to disclose that it had become controlled by Verisign.

It’s now trying to frame the .web debate as ICANN’s “first test of accountability” under the new, independent, post-IANA transition regime.

Afilias director Jonathan Robinson posted on CircleID:

If ICANN permits the auction result to stand, it may not only invite further flouting of its rules, it will grant the new TLD with the highest potential to the only entity with a dominant market position. This would diminish competition and consumer choice and directly contradict ICANN’s values and Bylaws.

Given the controversy over ICANN’s independence, all eyes will be on the ICANN board to see if it is focused on doing the right thing. It’s time for the ICANN board to show resolve and to demonstrate that it is a strong, independent body acting according to the letter and spirit of its own AGB and bylaws and, perhaps most importantly of all, to actively demonstrate its commitment to act independently and in the global public interest.

Speaking at the first of ICANN’s two public forum sessions at ICANN 57 in Hyderabad, India this week, Robinson echoed that call, telling the ICANN board:

You are a credible, independent-minded, and respected board who recognized the enhanced scrutiny that goes with the post-transition environment. Indeed, this may well be the first test of your resolve in this new environment. You have the opportunity to deal with the situation by firmly applying your own rules and your own ICANN bylaw-enshrined core value to introduce and promote competition in domain names. We strongly urge you to do so.

Then, after a few months of relative quiet on the subject, Verisign and NDC this week came out swinging.

First, in a joint blog post, the companies rubbished Afilias’ attempt to bring the IANA transition into the debate. They wrote:

Afilias does a great disservice to ICANN and the entire Internet community by attempting to make this issue a referendum on ICANN by entitling its post “ICANN’s First Test of Accountability.” Afilias frames its test for ICANN’s new role as an “independent manager of the Internet’s addressing system,” by asserting that ICANN can only pass this test if it disqualifies NDC and bars Verisign from acquiring rights to the .web new gTLD. In this case, Afilias’ position is based on nothing more than deflection, smoke and cynical self-interest.

Speaking at the public forum in Hyderabad on Wednesday, Verisign senior VP Pat Kane said:

This is not a test for the board. This issue is not a test for the newly empowered community. It is a test of our ability to utilize the processes and the tools that we’ve developed over the past 20 years for dispute resolution.

Verisign instead claims that Afilias’ real motivation could be to force .web to a private auction, where it can be assured an eight-figure payday for losing.

NDC/Verisign won .web at a so-called “last resort” auction, overseen by ICANN, in which the funds raised go into a pool to be used for some yet-to-be-determined public benefit cause.

That robbed rival applicants, including Afilias, of the equal share of the proceeds they would have received had the contention set been settled via the usual private auction process.

But Verisign/NDC, in their post, claim Afilias wants to force .web back to private auction.

Afilias’ allegations of Applicant Guidebook violations by NDC are nothing more than a pretext to conduct a “private” instead of a “public” auction, or to eliminate a competitor for the .web new gTLD and capture it for less than the market price.

Verisign says that NDC was under no obligation to notify ICANN of a change of ownership or control because no change of ownership or control has occurred.

It says the two companies have an “arms-length contract” which saw Verisign pay for the auction and NDC commit to ask ICANN to transfer its .web Registry Agreement to Verisign.

It’s not unlike the deal Donuts had with Rightside, covering over a hundred gTLD applications, Verisign says.

The contract between NDC and Verisign did not assign to Verisign any rights in NDC’s application, nor did Verisign take any ownership or management interest in NDC (let alone control of it). NDC has always been and always will be the owner of its application

Not content with defending itself from allegations of wrongdoing, Verisign/NDC goes on to claim that it is instead Afilias that broke ICANN rules and therefore should have disqualified from the auction.

They allege that Afilias offered NDC a guarantee of a cash payout if it chose to go to private auction instead, and that it attempted to coerce NDC to go to private auction on July 22, which was during a “blackout period” during which bidders were forbidden from discussing bidding strategies.

During the public forum sessions at ICANN 57, ICANN directors refused to comment on statements from either side of the debate.

That’s likely because it’s a matter currently before the courts.

Fellow .web loser Donuts has already sued ICANN in California, claiming the organization failed to adequately investigate rumors that Verisign had taken over NDC.

Donuts failed to secure a restraining order preventing the .web auction from happening, but the lawsuit continues. Most recently, ICANN filed a motion attempting to have the case thrown out.

In my opinion, arguments being spouted by Verisign and Afilias both stretch credulity.

Afilias has yet to present any smoking gun showing Verisign or NDC broke the rules. Likewise, Verisign’s claim that Afilias wants to enrich itself by losing a private auction appear to be unsupported by any evidence.

Could ICANN reject Verisign’s $135m .web bid?

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2016, Domain Registries

ICANN is looking into demands for it to throw out Verisign’s covert $135 million winning bid for the highly prized .web gTLD.

ICANN last week told the judge hearing Donuts’ .web-related lawsuit that it is “currently in the process of investigating certain of the issues raised” by Donuts through its “internal accountability mechanisms”.

Donuts is suing for $22.5 million, claiming ICANN should have forced Nu Dot Co to disclose that its .web bid was being secretly bankrolled by Verisign and alleging that the .com heavyweight used NDC as cover to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

ICANN’s latest filing (pdf), made jointly with Donuts, asked for an extension to October 26 of ICANN’s deadline to file a response to Donuts’ complaint.

It was granted, the second time the deadline has been extended, but the judge warned it was also the final time.

The referenced “internal accountability mechanism” would seem to mean the Cooperative Engagement Process — a low-formality bilateral negotiation — that Donuts and fellow .web bidder Radix initiated against ICANN August 2.

The filing states that the “resolution of certain issues in controversy may be aided by allowing [ICANN] to complete its investigation of [Donuts’] allegations prior to the filing of its responsive pleading.”

In other words, Donuts is either hopeful that ICANN may be able to resolve some of its complaints in the next month, or it’s not particularly impatient about the case progressing.

Meanwhile, fellow .web applicant Afilias has demanded for the second time that ICANN hand over .web to it, as the second-highest bidder, throwing out the NDC/Verisign application.

In a September 9 letter, published last night, Afilias told ICANN to “disqualify and reject” NDC’s application, alleging at least three breaches of ICANN rules.

Afilias says that by refusing to disclose Verisign’s support for its bid, NDC broke the rules and should have its application thrown out.

The company also confirmed on the public record for what I believe is the first time that it was the second-highest bidder in the July 27 auction.

Afilias would pay somewhere between $57.5 million and $71.9 million for the gTLD, depending on what the high bid of the third-placed applicant was.

In its new letter, Afilias says NDC broke the rule from the Applicant Guidebook that does not allow applicants to “resell, assign or transfer any of applicant’s rights or obligations in connection with the application”.

It also says that NDC was obliged by the AGB to notify ICANN of “changes in financial position and changes in ownership or control”, which it did not.

It finally says that Verisign used NDC as a front during the auction, in violation of auction rules.

“In these circumstances, we submit that ICANN should disqualify NDC’s bid and offer to accept the application of Afilias, which placed the second highest exit bid,” Afilias general counsel Scott Hemphill wrote (pdf).

Hemphill told ICANN to defer from signing a Registry Agreement with NDC or Verisign, strongly implying that Afilias intends to invoke ICANN accountability mechanisms (presumably meaning the Request for Reconsideration process and/or Independent Review Process).

While Afilias and Donuts are both taking issue with the secretive nature of Verisign’s acquisition of .web, they’re not necessarily fighting the same corner.

Donuts is looking for $22.5 million because that’s roughly what it would have received if the .web contention set had been resolved via private auction and $135 million had been the winning bid.

But Afilias wants the ICANN auction outcome to stand, albeit with NDC’s top bid rejected. That would mean Donuts, Radix, and the other applicants would still receive nothing.

There’s also the question of other new gTLD applications that have prevailed at auction and been immediately transferred to third-party non-applicants.

The most notable example of this was .blog, which was won by shell company Primer Nivel with secretive backing from WordPress maker Automattic.

Donuts itself regularly wins gTLD auctions and immediately transfers its contracts to Rightside under a pre-existing agreement.

In both of those cases, the reassignment deals predated, but were not disclosed in, the respective applications.

There’s the recipe here for a messy, protracted bun fight over .web, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

Verisign confirms it did fund $135 million .web bid

Kevin Murphy, August 1, 2016, Domain Registries

Verisign has just confirmed that it was behind the winning bid in last week’s .web gTLD auction.

Nu Dot Co won the auction after 23 rounds over two days of bidding, but Verisign was thought to be the real beneficiary.

The company has now released the following statement confirming the relationship:

The Company entered into an agreement with Nu Dot Co LLC wherein the Company provided funds for Nu Dot Co’s bid for the .web TLD. We are pleased that the Nu Dot Co bid was successful.

We anticipate that Nu Dot Co will execute the .web Registry Agreement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and will then seek to assign the Registry Agreement to Verisign upon consent from ICANN.

As the most experienced and reliable registry operator, Verisign is well-positioned to widely distribute .web. Our expertise, infrastructure, and partner relationships will enable us to quickly grow .web and establish it as an additional option for registrants worldwide in the growing TLD marketplace. Our track record of over 19 years of uninterrupted availability means that businesses and individuals using .web as their online identity can be confident of being reliably found online. And these users, along with our global distribution partners, will benefit from the many new domain name choices that .web will offer.

No big surprises there. Verisign had already told investors it had a $130 million payment coming up soon.

See DI’s analysis on the auction results here.

Verisign likely $135 million winner of .web gTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 1, 2016, Domain Registries

Verisign has emerged as the likely winner of the .web gTLD auction, which closed on Thursday with a staggering $135 million winning bid.

The shell company Nu Dot Co LLC was the prevailing applicant in the auction, which ran for 23 rounds over two days.

Just hours after the auction closed, Domain Name Wire scooped that Verisign had quietly informed investors that it has committed to pay $130 million for undisclosed “contractual rights”.

In its Securities and Exchange Commission quarterly report, filed after the markets closed on Thursday, Verisign said:

Subsequent to June 30, 2016, the Company incurred a commitment to pay approximately $130.0 million for the future assignment of contractual rights, which are subject to third-party consent. The payment is expected to occur during the third quarter of 2016.

There seems to be little doubt that the payment is to be made to NDC (or one of its shell company parents) in exchange for control of the .web Registry Agreement.

The “third-party consent” is likely a reference to ICANN, which must approve RA reassignments.

We speculated on July 14 that Verisign would turn out to be NDC’s secret sugar daddy, which seems to have been correct.

Rival .web applicant Donuts had sued ICANN for an emergency temporary restraining order, claiming it had not done enough to uncover the identity of NDC’s true backers, but was rebuffed on multiple grounds by a California judge.

Donuts, and other applicants, had wanted the contention set settled privately, but NDC was the only hold-out.

Had it been settled with a private auction, and the $135 million price tag had been reached, each of the seven losing applicants would have walked away with somewhere in the region of $18.5 million in their pockets.

This draws the battle lines for some potentially interesting legal fallout.

It remains to be seen if Donuts will drop its suit against ICANN or instead add Verisign in as a defendant with new allegations.

There’s also the possibility of action from Neustar, which is currently NDC’s named back-end provider.

Assuming Verisign plans to switch .web to its own back-end, Neustar may be able to make similar claims to those leveled by Verisign against XYZ.com.

Overall, Verisign controlling .web is sad news for the new gTLD industry, in my view.

.web has been seen, over the years, as the string that is both most sufficiently generic, sufficiently catchy, sufficiently short and of sufficient semantic value to provide a real challenge to .com.

I’ve cooled on .web since I launched DI six years ago. Knowing what we now know about how many new gTLD domains actually sell, and how they have to be priced to achieve volume, I was unable to see how even a valuation of $50 million was anything other than a long-term (five years or more) ROI play.

Evidently, most of the applicants agreed. According to ICANN’s log of the auction (pdf) only two applicants — NDC and another (Google?) — submitted bids in excess of $57.5 million.

But for Verisign, .web would have been a risk in somebody else’s hands.

I don’t think the company cares about making .web a profitable TLD, it instead is chiefly concerned with being able to control the impact it has on .com’s mind-share monopoly.

Verisign makes about a billion dollars a year in revenue, with analyst-baffling operating margins around 60%, and that’s largely because it runs .com.

In 2015, its cash flow was $651 million.

So Verisign has dropped a couple of months’ cash to secure .web — chickenfeed if the real goal is .com’s continued hegemony.

In the hands of a rival new gTLD company’s marketing machine, in six months we might have been seeing (naive) headlines along the lines of “Forget .com, .web is here!”.

That won’t happen now.

I’m not privy to Verisign’s plans for .web, but its track record supporting the other TLDs it owns is not fantastic.

Did you know, or do you remember, that Verisign runs .name? I sometimes forget that too. It bought it from Global Name Registry in late 2008, at the high point of its domains under management in this chart.

.name

I don’t think I expect Verisign to completely bury .web, but I don’t think we’re going to see it aggressively promoted either.

It will never be positioned as a competitor to .com.

If .web never makes $135 million, that would be fine. Just as long as it doesn’t challenge the perception that you need a .com to be successful, Verisign’s purchase was worth the money.

.web could already be a record-breaker as auction enters day two

Kevin Murphy, July 28, 2016, Domain Sales

It seems likely that .web has already smashed through the $41.5 million record sale price for a new gTLD at ICANN auction.

The auction, which kicked off properly at 1300 UTC yesterday, seems to have ended its first day of bidding at around 2300 UTC last night without a winner.

That suggests, based on the rules and how previous auctions have played out, that we’re probably already looking at high bids over $50 million.

The previous top price for a gTLD at ICANN auction was .shop, which sold to GMO for $41.5 million earlier this year.

The signs are that .web will go for more.

Be warned, this is mostly informed guesswork. I don’t know what the current bids are.

ICANN auctions work in rounds. In each round the minimum bid is either $1 (for round one) or the previous round’s maximum bid (for all subsequent rounds).

The maximum bid in each round is set by the auctioneer, who has broad discretion, based on the action at the time.

The range between minimum and maximum bids seems to get bigger in each passing round, based on previous auction results.

According to ICANN auction rules (pdf) each bidding round lasts 20 minutes and is immediately followed by a 20-minute recess.

This schedule is somewhat flexible. It could be slowed down or sped up with the consent of all bidders.

The .web auction was due to kick off at 1300 UTC yesterday, according to court papers, though it seems probable that round-one bids were accepted the previous night.

The first day’s bidding was due to end at 2330 UTC yesterday.

So that’s over 10 hours of bidding yesterday, which works out to about 15 rounds if they stuck to the 40-minute round schedule.

When .shop sold for $41.5 million, it did so in just 14 rounds, carried out in a single day.

The final round of that auction saw an acceptable bidding range of $36.8 million to $46 million — an almost $10 million spread.

So, if we can assume that there were at least 15 rounds in the .web auction yesterday and we can assume that the auctioneer is following a similar playbook to the .shop auction, the maximum bid when the auction paused overnight was likely well over $50 million.

By the time you read this, this guesswork could be moot anyway. I expect we’ll find out later today whether those assumptions were accurate. It seems unlikely that a third day’s bidding will be required.

The applicants for .web are NDC, Radix, Donuts, Schlund, Afilias, Google and Web.com. Vistaprint’s bid for .webs is also in the auction.