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Crackdown looms for new gTLD auction gaming

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN will be urged to consider taking a stronger position against companies who apply for new gTLDs simply to lose them at auction or immediately flip them to others.

A community working group, known as SubPro and tasked with developing rules for the next new gTLD round, delivered its final Final Report this week, and the one area that failed to gain a designation of “consensus” or stronger was private auctions.

In the 2012 application round, several companies applied for large portfolios of strings that look — in hindsight at least — like efforts to game the system by forcing rivals to auctions they planned to deliberately use.

Companies such as MMX made millions losing auctions during the round, some of which was reinvested in winning auctions for other TLDs.

Applicant Nu Dot Co was notable for losing every private auction it participated in, then quickly flipping its successful .web application when Verisign stepped up with a $135 million bankroll.

While it’s difficult to know the extent to which this was all planned in advance, it proved the business model — filing spurious applications for new gTLDs you have no intention of launching — could be lucrative in future rounds.

But SubPro has put forward a slew of recommendations that, should they pass the remaining hurdles of the policy development track, could bring in substantial sanctions for those applicants and registries found to be gaming the system.

The SubPro recommendations are heavily buttressed with square parentheses, indicating disputed text, and supplemented by some minority statements from members of the working group who think that private auctions should be banned outright in future application rounds.

But the headline recommendation, numbered 35.3, is this:

Applications must be submitted with a bona fide (“good faith”) intention to operate the gTLD. Applicants must affirmatively attest to a bona fide intention to operate the gTLD clause for all applications that they submit.

Far from merely providing a check-box assertion that they’re legit, which would itself be easily gamed, applicants would also find their applications scrutinized by ICANN and its external evaluators to check for signs of a lack of bona fides.

Factors used to determine shadiness could include how many applications for contested strings are applied for, how many private auctions are lost, whether the successful applicant has not launched its gTLD within two years, and whether contracts are flipped within the first year.

SubPro discussed penalties for gaming could include the loss of registry contracts, a ban from future rounds or straight-up monetary fines. But the group did not put forward any recommendations.

SubPro couldn’t seem to come to agreement on most of this. The recommendations were determined to have “strong support but significant opposition” during the group’s recent consensus call.

One strong objection came from a somewhat diverse group of SubPro participants comprising Alan Greenberg (At-Large), Christopher Wilkinson (At-Large), Elaine Pruis (Verisign), George Sadowsky (Afilias/ISOC), Jessica Hooper (Verisign), Jim Prendergast (consultant), Jorge Cancio (Swiss government, but signed in a personal capacity) and Kathryn Kleiman (non-commercial users). They said:

The recommendations in the final report are a mix of overly complex disclosures and attestations that needlessly complicate the program to allow for private auctions. And they will not work. The only way to prevent a repeat of the activity from the 2012 round is to ban private auctions

They also claimed that allowing private auctions would putter smaller, niche and community applicants at a disadvantage, and that ICANN’s reputation would be harmed if it was seen to be overseeing gaming.

The At-Large Advisory Committee also issued a strong objection to private auctions along the same lines:

We remain concerned about attempts to “game” the application process through use of private auction and share the ICANN Board’s concerns on the consequences of shuffling of funds between private auctions. The ability for a loser to apply proceeds from one private auction to fund their other private auctions only really benefits incumbent registry operators or multiple-string applicants and clearly disadvantages single-TLD/niche applicants. We believe there should be a ban on private auctions, and that by mandating ICANN only auctions, the proceeds of ICANN auction can be directed for uses in public interest

The assumption there of course is that an ICANN “last resort” auction, in which the winning bid is funneled into ICANN’s cash pile, would be spent on stuff genuinely in the public interest, rather than frittered away on secretly settling employee lawsuits or indulging in more expensive, self-important navel-gazing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ICANN board of directors has indicated that it prefers the idea of last resort auctions to private auctions.

But SubPro has also made some recommendations that could potentially keep the price of last-resort bids down, completely redesigning the auction process compared to the 2012 round.

If the recommendations are implemented, applicants would have to submit bids towards the start of the application process, when they don’t even know who they’re bidding against.

After all the applications have been submitted, ICANN evaluators would group them all according to whether they’re identical or confusingly similar to each other, then inform each applicant in a contention set how many bidders — but not their identities — they’re up against.

Applicants would then have to submit a sealed bid stating the maximum price they’d be willing to pay for the gTLD in question. It would be only after “reveal day”, when ICANN publishes the applications themselves, that everyone would learn who they’re bidding against.

They’d then be able to engage in private resolutions (auctions could come into play at this point), but it would only be after contention resolution phases such as objections and Community Priority Evaluations were complete that applicants would find out who’d submitted the highest bid.

The winning bidder would pay the amount of the second-highest bid to ICANN.

The 400-page final report (pdf), along with the minority statements, will now be sent to the GNSO Council for approval, before it makes its way to the ICANN board.

Given how much work remains to be done on private auctions and other issues that I’ll get to in later coverage, it seems that a lot of the mechanics of how contention resolution will work will have to be devised by ICANN and the community during the Implementation Review Team and Operation Design Phase phases, along with at least one round of commentary on at least one edition of the next Applicant Guidebook.

The next round of new gTLDs has moved a step closer, but it’s still going to be well over a decade after the last application window before we see the next one.

Amazon and Google have been BEATEN by a non-profit in the fight for .kids

Kevin Murphy, August 5, 2019, Domain Registries

One of the longest-fought new gTLD contests has finally been resolved, with a not-for-profit bid beating out Google and Amazon.

Amazon last week withdrew its application for .kids, leaving Hong Kong-based DotKids Foundation the only remaining applicant.

DotKids now has a clear run at the gTLD, with only ICANN contracting and technical testing before .kids goes live in the DNS root. We could be looking at a commercial launch within a year.

It’s a surprising outcome, not only because Amazon has all the money in the world, but also because it actually has a product called the Echo Dot Kids Edition, a candy-striped, parentally-controlled version of its creepy corporate surveillance device.

The fight between the two applicants was settled privately.

While ICANN has scheduled them in for a “last resort” auction more than once, the contention set was “On Hold” due to DotKids’ repeated use of ICANN appeals processes to delay.

My understanding is that it was not an auction. I don’t know whether any money changed hands to settle the dispute. It may just be a case of DotKids beating Amazon in a war of attrition.

DotKids, much like ultimately successful .music applicant DotMusic, pulled every trick in the book to delay .kids going to auction.

It’s filed no fewer than four Requests for Reconsideration with ICANN over the last five years, challenging almost every decision the organization made about the contention set.

Last year, DotKids (which had a reduced application fee under ICANN’s applicant support program) even asked ICANN for money to help it fight Amazon and Google at auction, then filed an RfR when ICANN refused.

The company has been in a Cooperative Engagement Process — a precursor to more formal appeals — with ICANN since February.

DotKids until recently also faced competition from Google, which had applied for the singular .kid but withdrew its application last October.

DotKids Foundation is run by Edmon Chung, perhaps best-known as the founder and CEO of 2003-round gTLD .asia.

I can’t help but feel that he has grasped a poison chalice.

The two examples we have of child-friendly domains to date are .kids.us, which was introduced by point-scoring US politicians under the Bush administration and promptly discarded when (almost literally) nobody used it, and .дети, the Russian equivalent, which usually has fewer than a thousand names in its zone file.

I believe that would-be registrants are broadly wary of signing up to vague content restrictions that could prove PR disasters if inadvertently violated.

In its 2012 application, DotKids said that .kids “will have a core mandate to advocate the production and publishing of more kids friendly content online”.

But what is a “kid”? DotKids said it would adopt the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child definition as “every human under 18 years old”.

Because the parents of every five-year-old would be happy for their kid to view sites designed for 17-year-olds, right?

It’s going to be challenging to get this one right, I think.

Schilling laughing as Uniregistry beats Google to .lol

Kevin Murphy, January 6, 2015, Domain Registries

Uniregistry’s portfolio of quirky new gTLDs grew today. The company seems to have beaten Google to .lol in a private deal.

The two companies were the only ones to apply for .lol, and Google’s application was formally withdrawn today.

As usual for private contention set settlements, the winning price has not been disclosed.

Uniregistry has 18 delegated gTLDs in its stable, with five more currently uncontested applications (.lol makes six) waiting in the wings.

I like .lol as a gTLD. It’s a punchy, short, meaningful string that certainly belongs to the right of the dot.

I can see it being deployed in the near term by the incessant sewer of BuzzFeed clones that are increasingly stinking up social media, which could give increased visibility and helpful viral marketing.

Longer term, there may be a worry if in future the kidz stop using “lol” and start viewing it as something their parents say, but we’re probably a ways from that yet.

Battles for .chat, .style, .tennis, bingo and .sas over

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2014, Domain Registries

Seven new gTLD contention sets have been formally resolved with application withdrawals this morning, five of which we haven’t previously reported on.

Most appear to have been settled by private auctions, with Donuts often the victor.

The standout, however, is .sas, an unusual case of a contention set of two would-be dot-brand registries being resolved.

The business software maker SAS Institute, which applied as Research IP, has prevailed over the Scandinavian airline holding company SAS AB for the .sas gTLD.

Both applicants had applied for closed, single-registrant namespaces.

On the regular, open gTLD front, .chat has gone to Donuts after withdrawals from Top Level Spectrum, Radix and Famous Four Media.

.style has also gone to Donuts, after Uniregistry, Top Level Design, Evolving Style Registry and Minds + Machines withdrew their applications.

.tennis is another Donuts win. Applications from Famous Four, Washington Team Tennis and Tennis Australia have been withdrawn, after a failed Community bid from Tennis Australia.

Donuts, finally, beat Famous Four to .bingo.

Afilias and Top Level Spectrum have officially withdrawn their .wine applications. As we reported earlier this week, this leaves Donuts as the sole remaining applicant.

Top Level Spectrum’s bid for .sucks has also been withdrawn, confirming DI’s report from earlier this week that the controversial gTLD has been won by Vox Populi Registry.

But Donuts failed to win .online, withdrawing its application today. Only two applicants — Radix and I-Registry — remain in this once six-way contention set.

We’ll know the winner (my money’s on Radix) in a matter of days, I expect.

.now and .realestate will be restricted, but Donuts keeps .tires open

Kevin Murphy, October 7, 2014, Domain Registries

It was a battle between open and restricted registration rules this week, as three more new gTLD contention sets were resolved between applicants with opposing policies.

Donuts won .tires (open), Amazon won .now (closed) and the National Association of Realtors won .realestate (restricted).

Donuts beat Goodyear and Bridgestone — two of the biggest tire companies in the world — to .tires. Both withdrew their respective applications over the last week.

If it was an auction it was not conducted via the usual new gTLD auction houses. It seems like Donuts settled the contention privately (or maybe just got lucky).

Both tire companies had proposed single-registrant closed generic spaces. Donuts, of course, has not.

Goodyear has active dot-brand applications for .goodyear and .dunlop remaining. Bridgestone has active applications for .bridgestone and .firestone, also dot-brands.

Amazon, meanwhile, won the .now contention set over five other applicants — Starbucks HK, XYZ.com, One.com, Global Top Level and Donuts, which have all withdrawn their bids.

Amazon’s application for .now envisages a closed registry in which all the second-level domains belong to the company’s intellectual property department.

Also this week, the NAR, which already has the dot-brand .realtor under its belt, beat Donuts, Minds + Machines and Uniregistry to the complementary generic .realestate.

Unfortunately for estate agents worldwide, the NAR plans a tightly restricted .realestate zone, in which only its own members will at first be able to register, according to its application.

The application does seem to envisage a time when others will be permitted to register, however.

The organization said in a press release this week that .realestate will be more open than .realtor, but that full policies will not be released until next year.

Donuts beats trademark owner to .coach

Kevin Murphy, September 10, 2014, Domain Registries

Donuts has won the right to the new gTLD .coach, after an exact-match trademark owner withdrew its bid.

Coach Inc is a chain of clothing and accessories outlets, best known for its handbags, founded in New York in 1941.

The company owns coach.com, but withdrew its application for .coach this week, leaving Donuts unchallenged.

Coach had filed a Legal Rights Objection against Donuts, claiming .coach would infringe its trademark, but the objection panelist disagreed (pdf).

The panelist agreed instead with Donuts that “coach” has multiple meanings, and that that was “a risk that the Objector assumed when it adopted as its trademark a common dictionary word.”

Straat-backed bidder beats Donuts and Afilias to .health

Kevin Murphy, August 21, 2014, Domain Registries

DotHealth has won the four-way contention set for the controversial new gTLD .health.

Afilias and Donuts both withdrew their competing applications this week. Famous Four withdrew its application over a month ago.

DotHealth is backed by Straat Investments, the investment vehicle chaired by .CO Internet’s Juan Calle.

The new gTLD will run on a Neustar (which now owns .CO) back-end.

.health is likely to be restricted, or at least policed, to ensure fake pharmacies are scrubbed from the zone.

DotHealth is supported by, among other health groups, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) which often targets registries and registrars in its campaigns against bogus online pharmacies in the US.

The company plans to use LegitScript to monitor its namespace.

.health will compete against the unrestricted .healthcare, which has been delegated to Donuts.

All four applicants for .health faced adverse Governmental Advisory Committee advice and unsuccessful public interest objections from the Independent Objector.

Amazon and Google deal on .talk, .play, .drive and others

Google and Amazon have started making deals to settle their new gTLD contention sets.

Google won three contention sets against Amazon this week, judging by the latest withdrawals, while Amazon won two.

Amazon won .talk and .you after Google, the only other applicant, withdrew.

Neither company appears to have a “You” brand, unless you count YouTube, but the .talk settlement strongly suggests that Google Talk, the company’s instant messaging client, is on the way out.

When Google applied for .talk in 2012 it intended to give Talk users custom domains to act as a contact point, but in 2013 Google started to indicate that it will be replaced as a brand by Google Hangouts.

The withdrawal seems to suggest that the existence of a gTLD application, a relatively small investment, is not an overwhelming factor when companies consider product rebranding.

I wonder what effect a live, active TLD will have on similar decisions in future.

But Google won the two-horse races for .dev and .drive and after Amazon withdrew its applications.

Google has a product called Google Drive, while Amazon runs Amazon Cloud Drive. Both companies have developer programs, though Google’s is arguably the more substantial of the two.

Google has also won .play — Google Play is its app store — after Amazon, Radix and Star Registry’s withdrawals. Amazon does not have a Play brand.

Google has also withdrawn its application for .book, leaving six remaining applicants, including Amazon, in the contention set.

I don’t currently know whether these contention sets were settled privately or via a third-party auction.

Famous Four wins .party gTLD contest

Kevin Murphy, April 11, 2014, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media has won the .party new gTLD contention set after coming to a private agreement with the only other applicant for the string, Oriental Trading Company.

Financial details of the arrangement were not disclosed.

Oriental Trading is a supplier of party goods that intended to run the gTLD as closed, single-registrant namespace.

But Famous Four expects the open .party registry to be used for parties in the social gathering and political senses of the word.

It now has 13 uncontested applications and 44 more outstanding.

In related news, Minds + Machines today announced that it intends to take at least three of its applications — .garden, .property, and .yoga — at a private auction April 22 managed by Applicant Auction.

Donuts buys out rival .place gTLD applicant

Kevin Murphy, March 31, 2014, Domain Registries

Donuts has won the .place new gTLD contention set after paying off rival applicant 1589757 Alberta Ltd.

The deal, for an undisclosed sum, was another “cut and choose” affair, similar to deals made with Tucows last August, in which the Canadian company named its price to withdraw and Donuts chose to pay it rather than taking the money itself.

1589757 Alberta has withdrawn its application for .place already.

The deal means Donuts now has 165 new gTLDs that are either live, contracted or uncontested.

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