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Donuts not pursuing new gTLD joint ventures

Following the news that Uniregistry and Top Level Domain Holdings are to work together on the .country new gTLD, larger portfolio applicant Donuts has said it’s not interested in similar arrangements.

While not entirely ruling out joint ventures along the lines of the .country tie-up, company VP of communications Mason Cole told DI that Donuts’ strategy is to completely own each of the new gTLDs it has applied for.

“We aren’t categorically ruling anything out, but any kind of proposal would have to be very compelling,” he said. “Our strategy from the beginning has been, and still is, to secure the strings we applied for and manage them ourselves.”

While TLDH and Uniregistry seem open to such partnerships, Donuts’ stance appears to reduce the likelihood of three-way joint ventures on the four applications for which the three companies are the only applicants.

Donuts is also in two-horse races on an additional 58 strings.

The company, which is believed to have raised $100 million to $150 million in venture capital funding, is a strong supporter of private auctions to settle contention sets.

It originally brought the auctioneer Cramton Associates, which runs ApplicantAuction.com. into the ICANN process.

Cramton, according to a blog post this week, expects to run a mock auction May 23 and start auctions proper five days later.

ICANN does not expect to finish delivering the results of Initial Evaluation until August, so it seems possible some applicants may participate before they know if they’ve passed.

Lawyer asks: how the hell did Demand Media pass the new gTLD cybersquatting test?

Kevin Murphy, April 18, 2013, Domain Registries

A lawyer apparently representing a rival new gTLD applicant has questioned ICANN’s background screening processes after Demand Media managed to get a pass despite its history of cybersquatting.

Jeffrey Stoler, now with the law firm Holland & Knight, last July said ICANN should ban Demand Media and its partner Donuts from applying for new gTLDs under the rules of the program.

This month, he’s written to ICANN, the GAC and the US government to express “alarm” that both companies have managed to pass their background checks. Stoler wrote:

This alarm arises from the overwhelming evidence, as referenced below, that: (a) Donuts is a “front” for Demand Media, Inc. (“Demand Media”), and (b) Demand Media’s status as precisely the kind of proven cybersquatter that ICANN’s rules were designed to weed-out of the gTLD application process.

How ICANN’s background screening panel could — in the teeth of that evidence — approve the continued participation of Donuts in the new gTLD program (the “Donuts Decision”) requires justification. This letter formally requests that ICANN, pursuant to its obligations of accountability and transparency, provide an explanation of how, and on what basis, the Donuts Decision was made.

Both Donuts and Demand Media responded with anger and disdain.

CEO Paul Stahura told ICANN that Donuts has discovered that Stoler, who has still not disclosed which client he’s representing in this matter, is actually on the payroll of a rival.

Donuts suspected his client was a competing applicant seeking to gain commercial advantage, and we have since confirmed this in fact is the case.

Not only do the letters intentionally misrepresent facts, they are a preposterous, extra-­procedural tactic that is a regrettable waste of time and community resources.

David Panos, director of Demand’s applying subsidiary, United TLD Holdco, was similarly dismissive:

Clearly, Mr. Stoler’s client has a substantial commercial interest in the new gTLD program and is seeking to eliminate its competition by mischaracterizing the relationships of other competing applicants and by restating factually inaccurate statements

What’s notable from both the Stahura and Panos letters is that neither company actually addresses Stoler’s allegations directly, resorting instead to mainly fudging and ad hominem arguments.

Stoler probably is seeking a competitive advantage for his mystery client, and his claims about Donuts being a “front” for Demand do come across as a bit of a stretch even for a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean that all of his arguments are wrong.

ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook for the new gTLD program is pretty clear: if you’ve had more than three adverse UDRP decisions, with at least one in the last four years, you’re “automatically disqualified” from the program.

Demand Media, as Stoler alleges and the public record supports, has lost about three dozen UDRP cases through subsidiaries such as Demand Domains, the most recent of which was in 2011.

So how did Demand pass its ICANN background screening?

The Guidebook does say “exceptional circumstances” are enough to get an applicant off the hook, but it’s hard to see how that would apply to Demand’s over 30 UDRP losses.

And Demand doesn’t want to talk about it.

None of its responses to ICANN that have been published to date even attempt to say why Stoler is wrong, and the company declined to comment when we asked for clarification today.

Donuts, which is using Demand as its back-end registry and has given the company the right to acquire interests in over 100 of its new gTLDs (should they be approved) didn’t want to comment either.

Which, some might say, plays right into Stoler’s hands.

If there’s a simple, straightforward explanation for why the background screening rules apparently didn’t apply to Demand Media, is it unreasonable to ask what that explanation is?

Donuts “almost doubles” $100m funding for new gTLD auctions

Somebody thinks new gTLDs will be a money-spinner.

Portfolio applicant Donuts, which is involved in 307 applications, has just announced a second funding round, greatly increasing its new gTLD contention set war-chest.

(UPDATE: This article originally stated, erroneously, that the funding was to the tune of $100 million. The exact amount has not actually been disclosed. Apologies for the error.)

It follows a $100 million funding round last year.

While the new amount was not disclosed, the deal “almost doubled” its funding, according to a press release, strongly suggesting it’s of a similar amount.

Existing investor Generation Partners and new investor Columbia Partners Private Capital were both involved in the round.

The company announced its first $100 million investment last year.

CEO Paul Stahura said the money was earmarked for new gTLD contention sets, many of which will be resolved at auction, and that “Donuts has further access to additional capital should the need arise”.

In a press release, he said:

We intended from the beginning to secure the gTLDs for which we applied. We enjoy tremendous support from our stockholders and lenders. This was an oversubscribed round that nearly doubles our capacity to compete. Our investors believe as strongly as we do that new gTLDs will bring relevance and specificity to registrants who have few usable choices today for Internet identities. This additional capital supports that belief, and we intend to deploy it to bring new gTLDs to market.

Pritz resurfaces with consulting gigs for Donuts and Architelos

Kevin Murphy, April 6, 2013, Domain Services

Former ICANN chief strategy officer and new gTLDs head honcho Kurt Pritz is doing a spot of industry work, following the expiration of his post-resignation consulting gig with ICANN.

Pritz, we understand, has developed consulting relationships with new gTLD portfolio applicant Donuts and consulting firm Architelos while he looks for a more permanent position.

As you may recall, he quit ICANN last November after disclosing a personal conflict of interest.

While there are no rules preventing ICANN staff going into the domain industry, Pritz’s is prohibited from sharing confidential information he learned while at ICANN, we’re told.

Given his background, we understand he’ll be focusing mainly on policy-related work at both companies.

Did Uniregistry over-sell the auction antitrust risk?

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2013, Domain Registries

Uniregistry’s revelation that it believes private auctions to resolve new gTLD contention sets may be illegal — based on its talks with the US Department of Justice — has caused widespread angst.

Following yesterday’s news, some commentators — some interested — questioned the company’s motive for revealing that Justice had declined to give private auctions a clean bill of health under antitrust law.

Others wondered whether Justice had been given the full facts, whether it had understood the new gTLD program, and whether Uniregistry had accurately reported Justice’s advice.

Given that yesterday’s piece was straight news, I figured it might be good to delve a little deeper into the situation and, yes, indulge in some quite shameless speculation.

What is it that Uniregistry is saying?

Here’s the argument, as I understand it.

“Bid-rigging” is illegal in many countries, including ICANN’s native US, where the Department of Justice prosecutes it fairly often, securing billions of dollars in damages and sometimes criminal sentences.

More often than not, it seems, the prosecutions are related to government contracts, where agencies are looking for a company to carry out a job of work for the lowest possible price.

Bid-rigging emerges when contractors decide among themselves who is going to win the contract. If two contracts are up for grabs, two companies may agree to submit separate high-ball bids so that they can guarantee getting one contract each.

This, of course, inflates the price the government agency pays for the work. There’s no true competition, so prices are artificially high, harming the tax-payer. That’s why it’s illegal.

The ICANN new gTLD program is a bit different, of course.

First, ICANN isn’t a government agency. While it has quasi-governmental powers, it’s a private corporation. Second, it’s looking for high bids, not low bids. Third, it doesn’t care if it doesn’t see any money.

There can be little doubt that private auctions technically harm ICANN, because the winning bidder’s money would be divided up between applicants rather than flowing into ICANN’s coffers.

Uniregistry seems to believe that a new gTLD applicant signing a private auction agreement — basically, competitors agreeing to pay or be paid to decide who wins a contract — that takes money out of ICANN’s pocket could be considered illegal collusion.

But ICANN has stated regularly that it prefers applicants to work out their contention sets privately, explicitly endorsing private auctions and/or applicant buy-outs.

ICANN, it seems, doesn’t care if it is harmed.

According to Uniregistry, however, that doesn’t matter. Its view, following its conversations with Justice, is that what ICANN says is completely irrelevant: the law’s the law.

As the company said yesterday:

the Department emphasized that no private party, including ICANN, has the authority to grant to any other party exemptions to, or immunity from, the antitrust laws. The decision means that the Department of Justice reserves its right to prosecute and/or seek civil penalties from persons or companies that participate in anti-competitive schemes in violation of applicable antitrust laws.

In other words, just because it’s very unlikely that ICANN would start filing antitrust suits against new gTLD applicants, the DoJ could feasibly decide to do so anyway.

Why would it do so? Well, consider that the thing ICANN is auctioning is a spot in the DNS root server, and the root server is ultimately controlled by the US Department of Commerce…

ICANN may not care about the money, but the thing it is selling off “belongs” to the United States government.

That’s the argument as I understand it, anyway.

Isn’t this all a bit self-serving?

Uniregistry’s press release and DI’s blog post yesterday were met with disappointment (to put it mildly) among some new gTLD applicants, auction providers and others.

They noted that Uniregistry had no documentary evidence to back up information it attributed to Justice. Some accused DI of reporting Uniregistry’s statement without sufficient skepticism.

It seems to be true that the company has not been a big fan of private auctions since the concept was first floated.

Uniregistry has applied for 54 new gTLDs, the majority of which are contested. Its main competitors are Donuts, with 37 contention sets, and Top Level Domain Holdings, with 21.

Who wins these contention sets depends on who has the most money and how much they’re prepared to pay.

Unlike Donuts, Uniregistry hasn’t gone to deep-pocketed venture capital firms. It’s reportedly funded to the tune of $60 million out of CEO Frank Schilling’s own pocket.

And unlike TLDH, which is listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market, Uniregistry doesn’t have access to the public markets to raise money. It seems to be better-funded, however.

Donuts raised $100 million to fund its new gTLD ambitions. It’s more than Schilling claims to have put into Uniregistry, but Donuts has spent much more on application fees.

Donuts is involved in 307 applications, many more than Uniregistry’s 54.

The money remaining for auctions is also spread much thinner with Donuts. It’s also in 158 contention sets, more than three times as many as than Uniregistry’s 45.

Private auctions arguably benefit Donuts because, depending on the auction model, it could reinvest the money it raises by losing an auction into a future auction. Its VC money would last longer.

The same logic applies to all applicants, but it becomes more of a pressing issue if you’re on a tight budget or have a large number of applications.

Uniregistry may have calculated that it stands a better chance of winning more contention sets against Donuts and TLDH if its competitors don’t get the chance to stuff their war chests.

Of course, Uniregistry could have simply refused to participate in private auctions in order to force an ICANN auction in its own contention sets. All new gTLD applicants have that power.

But by publicizing its antitrust concerns too, it may have also torpedoed private auctions for some contention sets that it’s not involved in.

That could limit the amount of money flowing from losing auctions to its competitors.

Another theory that has been put forwards is that Uniregistry went public with its Justice conversations — over-selling the risk, perhaps — in order to give its competitors’ investors jitters.

That might potentially reduce the capital available to them at auction, keeping auction prices down.

So did Uniregistry stand to benefit from playing up the risk of antitrust actions against new gTLD applicants? Probably.

Does it mean that its interpretation of its Department of Justice conversations is not completely accurate? Ask a lawyer.