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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.

Donuts denied! .web auction to go ahead today

A California judge had denied Donuts’ eleventh-hour attempt to delay today’s .web gTLD auction.

In a ruling late yesterday, Judge Percy Anderson rejected the company’s request for an emergency temporary restraining order preventing ICANN from selling off the premium gTLD.

This means the auction is pretty much certain to go ahead starting at 1300 UTC — that’s 6am local time for ICANN — today.

Donuts had sought the TRO because it claims ICANN failed in its duty to investigate whether rival bidder Nu Dot Co is now backed by a new big-money controlling party.

Its ultimate goal appears to have been to somehow force .web to private settlement, where all the unsuccessful applicants could get a multi-million dollar pay-off.

Anderson dismissed the request for a multitude of largely technical legal reasons surrounding the timing of Donuts’ request.

He said that, had ICANN not already filed its opposition to the TRO, he would have ruled against Donuts simply for failure to formally serve ICANN in a timely fashion.

But on the merits, he ruled that there was not a strong likelihood of Donuts winning a full trial, due to the statements of two NDC executives, who swore on oath there had been no change to the company’s ownership or management.

Anderson wrote (pdf):

Based on the strength of ICANN’s evidence submitted in opposition to the Application for TRO, and the weakness of Plaintiff’s efforts to enforce vague terms contained in the ICANN bylaws and Applicant Guidebook, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to establish that it is likely to succeed on the merits, raise serious issues, or show that the balance of hardships tips sharply in its favor on its breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and negligence claims. Moreover, because the results of the auction could be unwound, Plaintiff has not met its burden to establish that it will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of the preliminary injunctive relief it seeks. The Court additionally concludes that the public interest does not favor the postponement of the auction.

He did give Donuts leave to amend its request, but given that the auction is due to start today before California office/court hours, that courtesy seems moot.

It’s likely that by the end of the day we will know how much the .web, and possibly .webs, domains fetched. We’re certainly looking at eight figures for .web, in my view.

Some have guessed prices in the ballpark of $50 million, based on the $41.5 million paid for .shop earlier this year.

It seems at least seven of the eight applicants in the auction will be bidding blind, strategically speaking.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that NDC does indeed have one or more secret sugar daddies supporting its bid, insulated from public view by NDC’s corporate structure.

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

ICANN currently has over $100 million in a bank account, segregated from its operating funds, from previous last-resort auctions.