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Donuts rolls the dice with $22.5 million .web lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2016, Domain Registries

Donuts is demanding ICANN pay up the $22.5 million it reckons it is owed from the auction of the .web gTLD, which sold late last month for $135 million.

The company yesterday amended its existing California lawsuit against ICANN to allege that Verisign tried to avoid regulatory scrutiny by secretly bankrolling successful bidder Nu Dot Co.

The updated complaint (pdf) reads:

VeriSign’s apparent acquisition of NDC’s application rights was an attempt to avoid allegations of anti-competitive conduct and antitrust violations in applying to operate the .WEB gTLD, which is widely viewed by industry analysts as the strongest competitor to the .COM and .NET gTLDs.

Donuts wants a minimum of $22.5 million, which is roughly what each of the six losing .web applicants would have received if the contention set had been resolved via private auction.

(I previously reported that number as $18.5 million, because I accidentally counted .webs applicant Vistaprint as losing .webs applicant, when in fact it won .webs, paying $1.)

The company’s claims are still based around the allegation that ICANN breached its duties by failing to root out Verisign as the puppet-master.

The complaint alleges breach of contract, negligence, unfair competition and other claims. It says:

ICANN allowed a third party to make an eleventh-hour end run around the application process to the detriment of Plaintiff, the other legitimate applicants for the .WEB gTLD and the Internet community at large.

ICANN intentionally failed to abide by its obligations to conduct a full and open investigation into NDC’s admission because it was in ICANN’s interest that the .WEB contention set be resolved by way of an ICANN auction.

The irony here is that Ruby Glen LLC, the Donuts company that applied for .web, is subject to an arrangement not dissimilar to NDC’s with Verisign.

Ruby Glen is owned by Covered TLD LLC, in turn a wholly-owned Donuts subsidiary.

It’s well-known that fellow portfolio registry Rightside has rights to acquire Covered TLD’s over 100 applied-for strings, but this is not disclosed in its .web application.

ICANN will no doubt make use of this fact when it files its answer to the complaint.

Verisign itself has not been added as a defendant, but much of the new text in the complaint focuses on its now-confirmed involvement with NDC. The suit reads:

Had VeriSign’s apparent acquisition of NDC’s application rights been fully disclosed to ICANN by NDC… the relationship would have also triggered heightened scrutiny of VeriSign’s Registry Agreements with ICANN for .COM and .NET, as well as its Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Commerce.

The fact that Verisign is allowed to collect over half a billion dollars cash every year as a result of its state-endorsed monopoly is a longstanding cause of embarrassment for the Department of Commerce.

It has taken an interest in regulating Verisign’s .com contract in the past — it’s the only reason Verisign has not been able to raise .com prices in the last few years.

But the US government is not a party to the .web contract (unlike .com, where it has a special relationship with Verisign) and is not involved in the new gTLD program’s management or policies.

The complaint also makes reference to a completely unrelated Independent Review Process declaration from last week, which slammed ICANN for its lack of accountability and transparency.

Donuts faces the additional problem that, like all new gTLD applicants, it signed a covenant not to sue ICANN when it applied for its new gTLDs.

A judge in the DotConnectAfrica v ICANN can has allowed that lawsuit to proceed, regardless, but it may prove a stumbling block for Donuts.

It all looks a bit flimsy to me, but I’ve learned not to second-guess American judges so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

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.

Donuts .web claims “discredited”, ICANN tells court

Donuts’ attempt to delay tomorrow’s .web gTLD auction is based on a now “discredited” reading of a single email from rival bidder Nu Dot Co, ICANN told a California court yesterday.

Supporting ICANN’s opposition to Donuts’ motion for a temporary restraining order, two top NDC executives also swore under penalty of perjury that the company is not under new ownership or management.

The filings were made in response to Donuts’ lawsuit, filed Friday, which seeks over $10 million damages and a TRO against the .web auction.

Donuts believes that NDC has been taken over by an as-yet unknown third party with a vested interest in keeping the auction proceeds out of the hands of its competitors by forcing an ICANN-run last-resort auction.

Its belief is based on a June 7 email from NDC CFO Jose Rasco that alludes to COO Nicolai Bezsonoff no longer being with the company and makes reference to unspecified “powers that be” that are now in charge of the company.

By not disclosing the alleged change of control to ICANN, NDC broke Application Guidebook rules, Donuts claims.

But according to ICANN and NDC, this is all nonsense. ICANN told the court:

three separate ICANN bodies – ICANN’s staff, ICANN’s Ombudsman, and ICANN’s Board – have already looked into the alleged change in Nu Dotco’s ownership or management. All three found no credible evidence that any such change had occurred within Nu Dotco, and therefore nothing supported a delay of the Auction. Plaintiff’s TRO application, filed nearly three months after the Auction was scheduled and just two business days before bidding is set to officially begin, relies solely on a strained, and now completely discredited, interpretation of the Nu Dotco CFO’s June 7 email. However, the evidence accompanying this opposition – sworn declarations from ICANN and Nu Dotco executives – confirms that Nu Dotco has not made any change in its ownership or management, much less a “disqualifying” change that should derail the Auction processes already under way or the official start of bidding.

Rasco and Nicolai Bezsonoff both swear in accompanying declarations that the managers and members (ie owners) of NDC have not changed since the original 2012 application.

NDC, according to its .web application, is owned by two Delaware shell companies — Domain Marketing Holdings, LLC and NUCO LP, LLC — both of which appear to have been created in order to provide a layer of separation between NDC and its actual investors.

Rasco and Bezsonoff say that these two companies remain the only owners of NDC requiring their identities to be disclosed to ICANN.

There’s no comment in either declaration about whether either of those two companies has undergone a change in control.

What we seem to have here, amusingly, is NDC using exactly the same legal tricks as Donuts to hide the ultimate beneficiaries of its gTLD applications.

Donuts, you may recall, applied for 307 new gTLDs via 307 distinct shell LLCs with randomly generated names. Not only that, but each of those LLCs is owned by one of two other shell companies — 201 belonged to Dozen Donuts LLC, 106 belonged to Covered TLD LLC.

Donuts never formally disclosed in its ICANN applications (or, to my recollection, publicly confirmed) that business partner Rightside had the right to buy any of the Covered TLD strings — including .web, it seems — a right Rightside has exercised many times since.

Rightside basically got the same layer of identity insulation that whoever’s pulling the strings at NDC is getting now.

That irony is not pointed out in ICANN’s latest court filing, which can be read here (pdf). The Rasco and Bezsonoff declarations can be read here and here.

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

Unless Donuts gets its TRO, the auction will begin at 1400 UTC tomorrow and we could find out how much .web sold for later that day.

Donuts files $10 million lawsuit to stop .web auction

Donuts has sued ICANN in an attempt to block the auction of the .web gTLD this Wednesday.

The gTLD portfolio registry filed a lawsuit in California on Friday, seeking over $10 million in damages and a temporary restraining order to stop the auction going ahead.

The complaint alleges breach of contract, negligence and unfair competition and seeks a court declaration that the covenant not to sue signed by all new gTLD applicants is unenforceable.

According to Donuts, ICANN breached its duties by not fully investigating the allegation that rival .web applicant Nu Dot Co has undergone a change of control and has a new, wealthier owner.

NDC is the only applicant in the eight-strong .web/.webs contention set that refuses to resolve the contest privately.

A private auction would enrich all losing applicants to the tune of many millions of dollars.

By forcing a “last resort” ICANN auction, NDC has ensured that ICANN will be the only party to benefit from the auction proceeds.

Last-resort auction funds are placed in a separate ICANN account, currently worth over $100 million, which will be spent according to a currently undecided policy created by the ICANN community.

But Donuts’ complaint strongly implies that ICANN is forcing the auction to go ahead because it stands to benefit financially.

Donuts repeats the allegation from its recent joint Request for Reconsideration with Radix that NDC should be forced to disclose to ICANN, via a gTLD application change, the names of its alleged new directors.

It cites again a redacted email from NDC director Jose Ignacio Rasco which talks about fellow listed director Nicolai Bezsonoff no longer being involved with the application but that “several” new directors were.

It adds a quote about Rasco talking about “powers that be”, which Donuts takes to mean he is answering to someone else.

NDC is not listed in the lawsuit, which focuses on ICANN’s obligations under the new gTLD program application contract.

Donuts alleges, for example, that ICANN has a duty to fully investigate whether NDC has indeed changed directors.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee said last week that ICANN staff had talked to and emailed Rasco about the allegations. Donuts says it should have at least talked to Bezsonoff too.

Donuts also claims that ICANN is not allowed to go ahead with a last-resort auction while there are still outstanding “accountability mechanisms” — including the RfR, which has not yet been formally closed out by the full ICANN board.

The lawsuit also reveals that Donuts simultaneously filed a complaint using ICANN’s less legally formal Independent Review Process, though documentation for that is not yet available.

ICANN’s most recent statement on .web, which just confirms that the .web auction will go ahead this coming Wednesday, was also posted on Friday. It’s not clear if that was posted before or after ICANN became aware of the lawsuit.

All new gTLD applicants had to agree not to sue ICANN when they applied, but Donuts argues that this is unfair and unenforceable.

DotConnectAfrica has had some success with this argument, though Donuts does not cite that case in its own complaint.

There’s been some speculation about the motives of Donuts and others in trying to delay the auction.

The lawsuit will not force NDC into a private auction, but it might buy Donuts and the other applicants more time to consider their strategies.

I’m getting into speculative territory here, but if NDC’s strategy is to win the .web auction as a Trojan horse for its alleged new owner, perhaps revealing the identity of that new owner would make it less likely to insist on a last-resort auction.

If NDC’s alleged new owner has a time-sensitive need for the revenue .web could bring (which could be the case if, for example, the owner was Neustar) perhaps the prospect of a long lawsuit and IRP case could make it more likely to accept a private auction.

If the alleged new owner was revealed to be Verisign — a company more likely than most to acquire .web simply in order to bury it — perhaps that revelation could spur remaining applicants into pooling their resources to defeat it.

It it was a big tech firm from outside the domain industry, perhaps that would strengthen Google’s resolve to win the auction.

That’s all just me talking off the top of my head, of course.

I have no idea whether or not NDC even has new backers, though its behavior in avoiding private auction goes against character and certainly raises eyebrows.

The Donuts complaint, filed as its subsidiary Ruby Glen LLC, can be read here (pdf).

.web auction to go ahead after ICANN denies Donuts/Radix appeal

The new gTLD .web seems set to go to auction next week after ICANN rejected an 11th-hour delay attempt by two applicants.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee said yesterday that there is no evidence that applicant Nu Dot Co has been taken over by a deep-pocketed third party.

The BGC therefore rejected Donuts’ and Radix’s joint attempt to have the July 27 “last resort” auction delayed.

Donuts and Radix had argued in a Request for Reconsideration earlier this week that Nu Dot Co has changed its board of directors since first applying for .web, which would oblige it to change the application.

Its failure to do so meant they auction should be delayed, they said.

They based their beliefs on an email from NDC director Jose Ignacio Rasco, in which he said one originally listed director was no longer involved with the application but that “several others” were.

There’s speculation in the contention set that a legacy gTLD operator such as Verisign or Neustar might now be in control of NDC.

But the BGC said ICANN had already “diligently” investigated these claims:

in response to the Requesters’ allegations, ICANN did diligently investigate the claims regarding potential changes to Nu Dot’s leadership and/or ownership. Indeed, on several occasions, ICANN staff communicated with the primary contact for Nu Dot both through emails and a phone conversation to determine whether there had been any changes to the Nu Dot organization that would require an application change request. On each occasion, Nu Dot confirmed that no such changes had occurred, and ICANN is entitled to rely upon those representations.

ICANN staff had asked Rasco via email and then telephone whether there had been any changes to NDC’s leadership or control, and he said there had not.

He is quoted by he BGC as saying:

[n]either the ownership nor the control of Nu Dotco, LLC has changed since we filed our application. The Managers designated pursuant to the company’s LLC operating agreement (the LLC equivalent of a corporate Board) have not changed. And there have been no changes to the membership of the LLC either.

The RfR has therefore been thrown out.

Unless further legal action is taken, the auction is still scheduled for July 27. The deadline for all eight applicants (seven for .web and one for .webs) to post deposits with ICANN passed on Wednesday.

As it’s a last resort auction, all funds raised will go into an ICANN pot, the purpose of which has yet to be determined. The winning bid will also be publicly disclosed.

Had the contention set been settled privately, all losing applicants would have made millions of dollars of profit from their applications and the price would have remained a secret.

NDC is the only applicant refusing to go to private auction.

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

The RfR decision can he read here (pdf).