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CEO lost millions on Manhattan apartment deal just days before AlpNames went dark

The CEO of AlpNames lost his $2.1 million deposit on a $10.6 million Manhattan apartment just days before his company went belly-up earlier this year, DI can reveal.

ApartmentsA New York District Court judge in February found in favor of property developer Highline Associates, which had sued Iain Roache for his deposit after he failed to pay the balance of the luxury residence’s purchase price in 2017.

The ruling appears to have been published February 25 this year. By March 7, just 10 days later, ICANN had already started compliance proceedings against AlpNames.

The timing could just be a coincidence. Or it might not.

According to Judge Robert Sweet (in what appears to be one of his final decisions before his death at 96 in March this year), Roache agreed in December 2015 to buy a condo, parking space and storage unit at 520 West 28th St, a then under-development luxury apartment complex designed by award-winning architect Zaha Hadid, in Manhattan’s fashionable Chelsea district.

The purchase price of the one-bedroom apartment was an eye-watering $9.8 million. Another $770,000 for the parking space and storage unit brought the total agreed price to $10,565,000. Roache plunked $2,113,000 of that into escrow as a deposit.

At that time, AlpNames, majority-owned by Roache, was quite a young company.

It was on the cusp of selling its millionth domain, and had got to that milestone in just over a year in business. Earlier in 2015, it had been bragging about how it was second only to GoDaddy in terms of new gTLD domains sold.

Famous Four Media, the new gTLD registry that Roache also led (also no longer a going concern), had already launched 10 of its eventual 16 TLDs. In total, the portfolio had roughly 1.5 million domains under management. It was one of the leaders, volume-wise, of the new gTLD industry.

When the apartment was finally ready to move into, in June 2017, Highline approached Roach to close the deal.

According to the court’s findings, Roache declined to immediately pay and seems to have given the developer the runaround for several months, requesting and receiving multiple extensions to the closing date.

It wasn’t until early 2018 that Highline, apparently determining that it was never going to see the money, terminated the contract and attempted to take ownership of the $2.1 million deposit.

But Roache’s lawyers instructed the escrow agent not to release the funds without a court order. Obligingly, Highline sued in February 2018.

During the case, Roache argued among other things that he had been verbally duped into signing the purchase agreement, but the judge wasn’t buying it.

He noted that Roache is a “sophisticated businessman” who had hired an experienced New York real estate lawyer to advise him on the purchase.

He also noted that the contract specifically said that the buyer is buying based on the contents of the agreement and specifically not any prior verbal representations (nice clause for all those bullshit-happy real estate agents out there, I reckon).

The judge finally decided that Highline, and not Roache, was rightfully owed the $2.1 million deposit.

It wasn’t long after the ruling that AlpNames customers started experiencing issues.

I first reported that the web site was offline, and had been offline for at least a few days, on March 12 this year. A NamePros thread first mentioned the downtime March 10.

It later emerged (pdf) that ICANN had already started calling AlpNames on March 7, after receiving complaints from AlpNames’ customers that the site was down.

On March 15, after receiving no response from Roache, ICANN made the decision to immediately terminate its Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

A couple of weeks later, CentralNic took over AlpNames’ customer base and around 600,000 domain names, under ICANN’s De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure.

That’s the timeline of events.

Am I saying that there was a causal link between Roache’s real estate deal going south and AlpNames going AWOL within a couple of weeks? Nope. I don’t have any evidence for that.

Am I saying it’s possible? Yup. The timing sure does look fishy, doesn’t it?

New gTLDs slip again in Q1

The number of domains registered in new gTLDs slipped again in the first quarter, but it was not as bad as it could have been.

Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief, out today, reports that new gTLD domains dropped by 800,000 sequentially to end March at a round 23.0 million.

It could have been worse.

New gTLD regs in Q1 were actually up compared to the same period last year, by 2.8 million.

That’s despite the fact that GRS Domains, the old Famous Four portfolio, has lost about three million domains since last August.

Verisign’s own .com was up sequentially by two million domains and at 141 million, up by 7.1 million compared to Q1 2018. But .net’s decline continued. It was down from 14 million in December to 13.8 million in March.

Here’s a chart (click to enlarge) that may help visualize the respective growth of new gTLDs and .com over the last three years. The Y axes are in the millions of domains.

.com v new gs

New gTLDs have shrunk sequentially in six of the last 12 quarters, while .com has grown in all but two.

The ccTLD world, despite the woes reported by many European registries, was the strongest growth segment. It was up by 2.5 million sequentially and 10 million compared to a year ago to finish the period with 156.8 million.

But once you factor out .tk, the free TLD that does not delete expired or abusive names, ccTLDs were up by 1.4 million sequentially and 7.8 million on last year.

GRS has lost three million domains since Famous Four died

The old Famous Four Media gTLD portfolio has shrunk by roughly 60% since old management were kicked out.

At the same time, the new registry is selling less than one percent of the domains it used to add each month.

The 16 TLDs, now managed by GRS Domains, have a total of approximately 2 million domains in their zone files today, compared to about 5 million at the end of August 2018.

Last August was when GRS, which seems to have taken over the portfolio about a year ago, announced that it was introducing “much more transparent and sensible pricing strategy” of $9.98 per domain per year across the board.

Its 16 TLDs include the likes of .loan, .win and .bid. Many had been offered in the sub-$1 range, largely via former affiliate AlpNames, attracting huge volumes of registrations but low renewals and a lot of spammers.

I compared the zone file counts at the end of August 2018 to yesterday’s numbers, rounding to the nearest thousand, and came up with this:

TLDThenNowChangeChange (%)
TOTAL5,092,0002,010,000-3,082,000-60.53
accountant64,00022,000-42,000-65.63
bid318,000104,000-214,000-67.30
cricket26,0008,000-18,000-69.23
date155,00061,000-94,000-60.65
download146,00046,000-100,000-68.49
faith62,00021,000-41,000-66.13
loan2,200,000990,000-1,210,000-55.00
men421,000144,000-277,000-65.80
party122,00044,000-78,000-63.93
racing81,00033,000-48,000-59.26
review260,00060,000-200,000-76.92
science95,00039,000-56,000-58.95
stream319,000130,000-189,000-59.25
trade182,00068,000-114,000-62.64
webcam60,00027,000-33,000-55.00
win581,000213,000-368,000-63.34

Don’t think for a second that the correction is over. The story of the old FFM portfolio’s decline will roll for many more months. Each TLD is still seeing monthly deletes in the thousands.

The number of new regs across the portfolio every month has dropped off a cliff — a big cliff with jagged rocks and sharks circling at the bottom — since the August price changes.

Whereas in January 2018 the 16 gTLDs saw a combined total of over 400,000 adds, by January 2019 this had dropped to fewer than 1,700, a 99.59% decline.

TLDAdds Jan 18Adds Jan 19ChangeChange (%)
TOTAL400,6921,645-399,047-99.59
accountant6,58222-6,560-99.67
bid2225871-22,187-99.68
cricket3,35713-3,344-99.61
date11,27823-11,255-99.80
download12,83030-12,800-99.77
faith4,44031-4,409-99.30
loan20649936-206,463-99.98
men23,98853-23,935-99.78
party16,862143-16,719-99.15
racing4,27135-4,236-99.18
review16,95649-16,907-99.71
science9,501101-9,400-98.94
stream19,655101-19,554-99.49
trade12,300123-12,177-99.00
webcam5,54127-5,514-99.51
win24,374787-23,587-96.77

In each case, the drop-off in adds started in August last year. Each TLD went almost immediately from thousands of new regs per month, to under 100.

I compared Januaries because January 2019 is the date of the most-recent registry transaction data. January 2018 was not an atypically strong month for sales for any of the TLDs; for many, it was on the slow side.

Famous Four was replaced by GRS about a year ago after investors in Domain Venture Partners, the ultimate owner of the portfolio, fell out with FFM management.

The registrar AlpNames, which was responsible for a huge share of FFM’s sales and was managed by the same people, has also since gone out of business.

Defunct Famous Four ordered to hand $1.5 million back to investors

Former domain registry manager Famous Four Media has been ordered to return money to investors that was being used as insurance against its portfolio of gTLDs going out of business.

In an April 18 ruling (pdf) from Gibraltar’s Supreme Court, FFM and its CEO Iain Roache are told that original investors Domain Venture Partners are the true owners what looks to be about $1.5 million being used to back letters of credit in ICANN’s name.

It’s a very complicated ruling, reflecting the complex structure of the FFM/DVP relationship. It wants for clarity in some areas, and is probably best suited to interpretation by a forensic accountant.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.

Basically, back in 2011 businessman Iain Roache recruited a bunch of international investors to join him in funding applications for 60 new gTLDs. The investment vehicle was and is called Domain Venture Partners.

Each application had an associated “bid vehicle”, essentially a Gibraltar-based shell company with names along the lines of Dot Science Ltd or Dot Accountant Ltd.

Those of the vehicles that were successful in their applications continue to be the official registry sponsors for 16 active gTLDs. They’re all owned by DVP.

Famous Four was a separate company, owned 80:20 by Roache and business partner Geir Rasmussen, hired by DVP to manage the business of actually selling domains.

For many years, myself and pretty much everybody else covering the domain name industry referred to FFM as if it was the owner of the TLDs, more or less interchangeably with DVP.

In fact, FFM was just a DVP contractor and behind the scenes DVP was growing increasingly unhappy with how the domains were being managed, DVP investor Robert Maroney told DI last August.

For about a year now, FFM has been in liquidation. DVP kicked it out of the registry management business and replaced it with a new company that it controls called GRS Domains, managed by a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant called Edgar Lavarello.

Thirteen of the DVP bid vehicles sued Famous Four to claim ownership of, among other things, the money backing the so-called “Continuing Operations Instruments” that ICANN demanded from each new gTLD applicant.

The COI, usually a letter of credit from a big bank, were used to give ICANN the confidence that new gTLD domain registrants would not be affected by dodgy registries going out of business and their domains immediately going dark. The money would fund ongoing technical operations for a few years, giving registrants time to find a new home for their web sites.

In this case, Famous Four’s liquidator refused to agree that the money backing the COIs was rightfully DVP’s.

What seems to have happened is that in mid-2016 the DVP letters of credit were hastily switched from Credit Suisse to Barclays, after Credit Suisse closed down its Gibraltar branch.

There was a period in which both sets of LoCs were active, in order to remain compliant with ICANN’s rule that there must be an active COI at all times.

The original Credit Suisse LoCs had been funded by DVP, but the Barclays LoCs were funded by FFM, or quite possibly Roache himself, to the tune of about $1.5 million.

FFM was then repaid by the return of the money backing the Credit Suisse LoCs, when those LoCs were closed, according to Chief Justice Anthony Dudley’s ruling.

After the switch of banks, the LoCs were no longer in the names of the DVP bid vehicles; they belonged to FFM. The money DVP put up to originally secure the COIs was now in FFM’s control.

Dudley now seems to have ruled that FFM now owes DVP this money back, and that the liquidator, Grant Jones of Simmons Gainsford, was wrong to withhold it.

In fact, the judge has some quite stern words for Jones, saying that he was “wholly inappropriate” when he temporarily turned over his responsibilities as liquidator to Roache and his law firm. Dudley wrote:

It may be that it arises as a consequence of the Liquidator having limited funds with which to engage in litigation. But whatever the reason, the position adopted by the liquidator of FFM in these proceedings has been unusual and certainly capable of being construed as running counter to the fundamental principle of objectivity required of a Liquidator, now codified in the Insolvency Practitioner Regulations 2014. Rather than formulate his own view (or as urged by me at a preliminary hearing seek his own independent legal advice) by letter dated 1 March 2019 GJ sought to abrogate his responsibility and authorised IR and JSF to act on behalf of FFM

That aside, the main piece of evidence that appears to have caused Dudley to side with DVP was a set of emails from Famous Four chief legal officer Oliver Smith to DVP investors that were sent at the time the LoCs were switching banks.

Smith confirmed in one of these emails that FFM was basically just acting as a conduit for DVPs bid vehicles, which by that point were operational registries.

The judge noted that the Smith email that confirmed this was submitted in evidence by Lavarello and Maroney only after Roache had submitted the rest of the thread, excluding this email, in his own evidence.

Dudley ruled that the DVP companies should get what they asked for, namely the funds associated with the LoCs. It’s not entirely clear from his ruling how much this is, but by my reading it’s around the $1.5 million mark.

The liquidation, which is ongoing, is to the best of my knowledge unrelated to the still unexplained demise of AlpNames, the registrar and close FFM partner also owned by Roache and Rasmussen.

Finally, a disclaimer.

Because I’ve already had one spurious legal threat related to my ongoing coverage of Famous Four’s demise, and don’t really need the arseache of any more, I’m going to state unequivocally for the record that I’m not alleging any wrongdoing by anyone.

If I’ve got anything wrong, as always I will gladly issue a correction. Just ask, and show your working. No need to sic the lawyers on me.

You can read the judge’s decision (pdf) and decide for yourself what’s been going on.

Rumors swirl as AlpNames suffers “days” of downtime

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2019, Domain Registrars

The web site of controversial registrar AlpNames has been offline for “days”, and rumors have started to circulate that it might not just a technical problem.

At time of writing, alpnames.com resolves to a Cloudflare error page, warning that the AlpNames web server has an invalid SSL certificate. Cloudflare may also show an ugly, bare-bones cached version of the site.

This means that AlpNames customers are unable to log in to manage their domains, according to threads on Namepros and Reddit, and conversations I’ve had with some of those affected.

It’s said that customers are able to manage their domains by logging in directly to LogicBoxes, AlpNames’ registrar-in-a-box provider, but I’ve been unable to personally verify this.

AlpNames is believed to have almost 700,000 names under management, double the size it was last June but well below its peak, at the height of its deep-discounting period in 2017, of over three million.

It’s not known how many individual registrants are affected. The company tends to attract what one might charitably call “bulk-buyers”, so it will be substantially lower than the number of registered domains.

It’s also not entirely clear when the web site went down. It’s not been loading here for at least 12 hours, but the first reference to downtime on Namepros was on Sunday. Multiple other sources have told me today that it’s been unavailable “for a few days”.

A separate AlpNames-owned web site focused on marketing .icu domains to the Chinese market is still online.

But it seems a lot of AlpNames customers have been left hanging in uncertainty, unsure how or when they will be able to manage their domains.

I’ve been unable to reach any of AlpNames’ senior executives for comment on the situation today.

An email sent to CEO Iain Roache this morning, at the address he was using in December, bounced back with a “disabled account” error message. I have received no response to messages I sent to two other email addresses he is known to use.

I understand that fellow AlpNames exec Geir Rasmussen who, with Roache, was enthusiastically pitching grand plans for AlpNames as recently as October, is no longer with the company.

Chief operating officer Damon Barnard also left the company last October and ceased work as a director around the same time.

Records show the salesperson due to represent AlpNames at this week’s ICANN 64 meeting in Japan did not show up and is believed to have also left the company in January.

The company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, which are not usually particularly active anyway, have not yet addressed the downtime problem.

If it is simply a case of an expired or misconfigured SSL cert, why is it taking so long to fix, and why has there been radio silence from AlpNames?

Opponents and competitors are putting the word around that there may be a more serious problem with the company, but I’ve not seen any conclusive evidence that this is the case.

It’s possible there’s some confusion between AlpNames and Famous Four Media, the now-defunct Roache/Rasmussen venture that managed the portfolio of new gTLDs owned by Domain Venture Partners, an investment vehicle set up by Roache prior to ICANN’s 2012 gTLD application round.

DVP is no longer affiliated with AlpNames and its gTLDs are managed by a new DVP-controlled entity, GRS Domains, after an investor revolt.

The most-read stories of 2018

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2019, Domain Services

Happy 2019!

As we crawl, dark-eyed and slurring, from our festive hibernation, I thought now would be a good time to do a quick reminder of 2018, in the form of a top-10 list of the most-read stories published by DI over the last 12 months.

If not today, then when?

I’ve excluded, as usual, articles that seem to show up prominently in my traffic logs every single day simply because Google seems to think they’ve got porn in them.

Stéphane Van Gelder dies after motorcycle accident

Stéphane Van Gelder was a registrar industry pioneer and long-time ICANN community leader, and his untimely death in a vehicle accident in March came as a great shock to many. The fact that this post was the most-read of the year is not surprising. He is missed by many, and was subsequently posthumously awarded ICANN’s Multistakeholder Ethos Award.

Has the world’s biggest new gTLD registry gone bankrupt?

This speculative post from June came about after I discovered that a court-appointed administrator had taken over ownership of all TLDs in the Famous Four Media portfolio. It later turned out that FFM had in fact been removed by investors in true portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners, which created a new company, GRS Domains, to take over. The full details of this evidently bitter boardroom fight have yet to emerge.

Donuts freezes .place gTLD ahead of new geofencing rules

Perhaps a surprising entry on the list, this story detailed how Donuts had essentially taken .place off the market in preparation for a planned repurposing of the gTLD to tie into the emerging “geofencing” infrastructure. The freeze happened in May, and as far as I can tell .place is still in limbo as the technology back-end is finalized, which may account for this post’s popularity.

ICANN number two Atallah is new CEO of Donuts

Not long after Donuts was acquired by a private equity fund partly controlled by former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, I received a tip-off that his former number two, Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah, had been headhunted to be the registry’s new CEO. It was officially confirmed a few hours later, but not before the unwashed hordes (that’s you) had given the DI server something to think about. The perception of a revolving door between ICANN and industry raised eyebrows, including from the US government.

Google’s .app gTLD beats .porn to biggest sunrise yet

Google’s eagerly anticipated .app gTLD hit the market mid-year, and got off to a strong start with a sunrise period beaten only by defensive-heavy .porn. It’s very likely the strongest sunrise period of the 2012 round so far. The TLD has something like 350,000 domains under management today, which for new gTLDs is pretty much a success story.

GoDaddy and DomainTools scrap over Whois access

This story about GoDaddy and DomainTools fighting about whether the latter could get unmitigated access to the former’s Whois database was published in January, long before the full impact of GDPR on Whois privacy was known, and therefore now, with the benefit of hindsight, feels hopelessly naive.

How all 33 European ccTLDs are handling GDPR

Good grief, did I write a “listicle”? To mark the day GDPR came into full effect, I trawled through the web sites, news releases and policy documents of 33 European ccTLDs to see how each registry was planning to comply with the strict new privacy legislation, so you didn’t have to. The results were surprisingly diverse.

Google’s $25 million .app domain finally has a launch date

Remember how I said .app was “eagerly anticipated”? The fact that this post, merely noting the TLD’s launch timetable, hit the top 10 most-read stories for the year is perhaps proof of that.

Facebook clashes with registrars after massive private data request

Many big brands were unhappy with how ICANN and the industry turned off their unfettered Whois access following GDPR, none more so than Facebook, which has been piling pressure on ICANN to force registrars to acquiesce to its data requests. This July story revealed how it had started using a close intermediary called AppDetex to bombard registrars with over-broad disclosure requests. Registrars subsequently fought back, and AppDetex later gave me a demo of its early-stage software. The fight, no doubt, continues.

These 33 people will decide the future of Whois

Another GDPR listicle? In this July post I prepared brief bios of the volunteers selected to work on ICANN’s first Expedited Policy Development Process working group, which is challenged with coming up with a permanent policy solution to GDPR, amenable to all sections of the community. Needless to say, they’re still working on it…

That’s the top 10 most-read articles on DI in 2018. Honorable mentions go to Fight breaks out as Afilias eats Neustar’s Aussie baby, How a single Whois complaint got this registrar shitcanned and Some men at ICANN meetings really are assholes, simply because I like the headlines.

Happy new year to all DI readers. I don’t tell you this nearly regularly enough, but I really do love you all more than words could possibly describe.

Spammy .loan makes Alibaba fastest-growing and fastest-shrinking registrar in June

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2018, Domain Registrars

Chinese registrar Alibaba was both the fastest-growing and fastest-shrinking registrar in June, purely due to its dalliance with hundreds of thousands of cheap .loan domain names.

Stats compiled by DI from the latest monthly registry reports show that Alibaba’s Singapore-based registrar — which has only been active for a year — grew its domains under management by 720,669 in June, almost four times as many as second-placed NameCheap.

The huge increase was due to Alibaba’s DUM in .loan doubling in June, going from from 621,851 to 1,274,532. Another 50,000 extra domains came from .win.

Both .loan and .win are run by registry GRS Domains, the company that replaced Famous Four Media as manager of the Domain Venture Partners gTLD portfolio.

According to SpamHaus, .loan has a “badness” of just shy of 90%, based on a sample size of 45,000 observed domains. SpamHaus has .win at almost 39% bad.

GRS has promised to turn its portfolio around and cut off its deep-discounting promotions effective August 20. The June figures reflect a time when discounts were still in place.

The Singapore Alibaba had DUM of 1,771,730 at the end of June.

At the bottom end of the June league table was a second Alibaba accrediation, Beijing-based Alibaba Cloud Computing (aka HiChina or net.cn), which had a net DUM loss of 266,411, after seeing 345,268 deletes in .loan (along with 45,000 deletes in .xyz and 35,000 in .xin).

The second biggest loser was AlpNames, which is owned by the same people as Famous Four, which deleted over 114,000 names in the month. The vast majority of these names were in FFM/GRS gTLDs, including .loan.

The main, earliest Alibaba accreditation, Alibaba Cloud Computing (Beijing), which has zero exposure to new gTLDs, grew by 69,794 domains to end June as the seventh fastest-growing registrar with DUM of 7,672,594.

As of a couple weeks ago, Alibaba has a fourth ICANN accreditation, Alibaba Cloud US LLC, but that obviously does not figure into the June numbers.

Here’s the top 10 registrars for June by DUM growth:

Registrar (IANA ID)DUMTransfers InTransfers OutNet TransfersAddsDeletesChange
Alibaba.com Singapore E-commerce Private Ltd (3775)1771730230017228339416345720669
NameCheap, Inc. (1068)862443322140891613224418008253219187827
GoDaddy.com, LLC (146)59208467703796893114481131439951837153910
NameSilo, LLC (1479)1670604144276041838613653932107111151
Xin Net Technology Corporation (120)262370941275041-91415315466679102744
Google LLC (895)231378010763169190721253194944079148
Alibaba Cloud Computing (Beijing) Co., Ltd. (420)76725941907811732734622080515525869794
Network Solutions, LLC (2)708437552854143003855412243811062853712
GMO Internet, Inc. d/b/a Onamae.com (49)47051283043209195214625917494644668
TLD Registrar Solutions Ltd. (1564)12186886858-77239315232535877

And the bottom 10:

Registrar (IANA ID)DUMTransfers InTransfers OutNet TransfersAddsDeletesChange
Alibaba Cloud Computing Ltd. d/b/a HiChina (www.net.cn) (1599)446845116192891330202094509820-266411
Alpnames Limited (1857)3613027165366314273114254-112825
Chengdu West Dimension Digital Technology Co., Ltd. (1556)2270000422719452282148101269286-94937
Bizcn.com, Inc. (471)9202431203336-3216603663268-69862
eNom, LLC (48)6824378915328741-1958875665101336-52205
Domain.com, LLC (886)197492715348827-72932361958695-37594
Todaynic.com, Inc. (697)13652775154-79138527795-26771
Register.com, Inc. (9)197625412953484-21891918737626-26231
Wild West Domains, LLC (440)300078434777346-38693101546045-18883
Ascio Technologies, Inc. Danmark - Filial af Ascio technologies, Inc. USA (106)157968313143803-24891183828246-16839

You may notice that in both tables the net change column is not equal to the sum of adds and net transfers minus deletes. This is because, per ICANN contract, domains still in their five-day Add Grace Period are counted in DUM but not in adds, so many adds slip over into the following month.

I was wrong, Famous Four bosses WERE kicked out

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLDs is under new management after an investor rebellion, contrary to what I speculated earlier this week.

FFM’s former stable, which includes the likes of .men and .science, is now being managed by a company calling itself GRS Domains, but this new company has absolutely nothing to do with FFM’s former management.

That’s according to Robert Maroney, founder of Connecticut-based Engineers Gate Investments, which is a shareholder of ultimate portfolio owner Domain Venture Partners.

Maroney got in touch with DI yesterday to explain some of what has recently happened to the ownership and management of the 16 high-volume new gTLDs.

Back in June I speculated based on the quite limited available information that FFM might be bankrupt.

On Tuesday, after GRS Domains announced a relaunch and a rejection of its previous volume-heavy, spam-friendly business plan, I speculated based on slightly more information that management had repurchased the TLD assets after investors forced it into administration.

I was wrong on both counts, according to Maroney. What actually happened is more akin to an investor takeover.

Maroney said he “engineered” the ouster of FFM and its two shareholders/managers, Iain Roache and Geir Rasmussen, after Roache attempted to close down DVP.

DVP is basically a collection of private and institutional investors (brought in by Roache and others) from around the world which, based on the available evidence, have little or no connection to the domain name industry.

It’s a matter of public record that each gTLD contract is owned by a distinct Gibraltar-based shell company — dot Bid Limited owns the ICANN rights to run .bid for example — and that Domain Venture Partners owns these companies.

I’ve previously reported that Famous Four was also owned by DVP, but Maroney said that this was never the case. It was owned 80-20 by Roache and Rasmussen and contracted by DVP to manage the 16 gTLDs.

The affiliated registrar AlpNames, which has been responsible for a very large portion of registrations in the portfolio, had the same ownership structure as FFM and was never directly connected to DVP, Maroney said.

Following a court battle, GRS Domains has replaced FFM as the registry manager.

GRS is owned by DVP, and is currently being managed by court-appointed administrator Edgar Lavarello, a Gibraltar-based accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Maroney did not want to get into the detailed specifics about what caused the investor revolt, but did say that shareholders were unhappy with how FFM was managing the portfolio.

Its low-price, high-volume strategy had caused its TLDs to become the destinations of choice for spammers and other abusive registrants.

But the court case was brought after Roache attempted to break up DVP, restructure ownership of the 16 individual registries, and “escape the regulation of Gibraltar”, Maroney said.

“Roache wanted to shut down DVP in a way we considered to be unlawful,” he said.

He said DVP shareholders felt Roache’s moves were “inappropriate and unlawful”, which is what caused him to “engineer”, via fellow investor Christina Mattin, DVP being placed into administration.

I have seen no independent evidence that Roache acted or attempted to act unlawfully. The court document I’ve seen appointing Lavarello as administrator contains no finding of wrongdoing by anyone.

The upshot of all this is that the group of TLDs formerly known as Famous Four Media is now GRS Domains — Global Registry Services Ltd — and that Lavarello is currently in charge.

I imagine the company will want to find permanent management at some point, but Maroney did not want to talk about that.

In the meantime, GRS has already made moves to become more transparent and to engage more with the rest of the industry.

Maroney said, and I have independently confirmed, that he was at the ICANN meeting in Panama recently, meeting senior industry figures. Famous Four executives have not been known to attend ICANN meetings or industry events in the past.

GRS has told registrars it intends to have a formal presence at ICANN 63 in Barcelona also.

The company will shortly terminate all of its promotional pricing and introduce a flat $9.98 registry fee, which is very likely to affect its volumes and reduce spamming activity over the next year or so.

Famous Four is DEAD! New registry promises spam crackdown

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLD registries is now under the control of a new company, Global Registry Services Ltd, which has promised to abandon its failed penny-domain strategy and crack down on spam.

(August 9 update: This article contains some incorrect assumptions and speculation. Please read this follow-up piece for clarifications.)

The company, which goes by the name GRS Domains, told registrars yesterday that FFM’s 16 gTLDs are now “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited, and are no longer under the management of FFM.”

DVP also owned FFM, so it’s not clear how big of a deal this restructuring is from a management point of view.

My sense is that there’s not really been a substantial change, but it’s certainly more than a simple rebranding exercise.

I’ve learned that DVP was placed into administration under the Insolvency Act back in April, with management of the TLDs handed to a PricewaterhouseCoopers administrator, more or less as I speculated in June.

The TLDs affected are: .loan, .win, .men, .bid, .stream, .review, .trade, .date, .party, .download, .science, .racing, .accountant, .faith, .webcam and .cricket.

GRS told registrars:

Moving forward there are several changes being made with regard to the overall strategy of the portfolio of gTLDs, the main one being a change to a “quality over quantity” ethos and focusing on working with our Registrar Partners to sharply reduce abuse and spam registrations.

As such, all of its current pricing promotions will end August 20 and a “much more transparent and sensible pricing strategy” will come into play.

That means a wholesale reg fee of $9.98 across the board, at least until February 2019.

GRS also plans to take a lot of its lower-priced reserved “premium” names out of the premium program altogether, and to reprice “a considerable portion” of the more expensive ones.

Finally, the company, not known to attend ICANN meetings in the past, said it plans to show up at the Barcelona meeting in October to formally relaunch itself.

Famous Four has become notorious over the last few years for its deep-discounted TLDs, which have become a haven for spammers who want to register large numbers of super-cheap, throwaway domains.

As such, its gTLDs’ volumes have been huge — many racking up hundreds of thousands of names — but their renewals poor and their reputation worse.

If GRS’ new strategy is effective, we’re almost certainly going to see the industry-wide overall number of active new gTLD domains tank over the next year or so, giving more ammunition to those who think the new gTLD program was a huge waste of effort.

It could also have an impact on ICANN’s budget — no matter how cheap FFM sold its names, it still had to pay its ICANN fees on a per-domain basis. Fewer domains equals less money in ICANN’s coffers. FFM’s registries paid over $1.6 million in ICANN fees in the organization’s fiscal 2017.

While GRS is now apparently “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited”, it’s not abundantly clear to me whether that’s the same people who’ve been running FFM for the last eight years.

DVP has not immediately responded to a request for comment today.

The DVP web site has not resolved in months. The new grs.domains site doesn’t name anyone, and the NIC sites for the gTLDs in the portfolio only identify a PwC bankruptcy accountant as the primary contact.

All the companies in question are based in tax haven Gibraltar, which isn’t particularly forthcoming about identifying company directors, partners or owners.

DVP’s directors were originally Adrian Hogg, Charles Melvin, Iain Roache, Douglas Smith, Peter Young, Joseph Garcia and a company called Domain Management II (itself chaired by Roache), according to an investor presentation (pdf) DI obtained back in 2013.

I believe Melvin at least, after a legal dispute with the others, is no longer involved.

And it appears that DVP is or was in fact in administration.

I noted back in June that the 16 gTLDs were now all being administered by PwC accountant Edgar Lavarello, and wondered aloud whether this meant FFM was bankrupt.

Today I obtained (read: paid an extortionate sum for) a Gibraltar court order dated April 23 putting DVP into administration under the Insolvency Act and appointing PwC as the administrator.

The application had been made by an investor called Christina Mattin and fellow investor Braganza, a private vehicle owned by a wealthy Scandinavian family, which was (at least last year) a 10% owner.

Other named investors the court heard from were the mysterious Liechtenstein-based Rennes Foundation, something called Northern Assets Investments Limited and Dutch multimillionaire Francis Claessens.

Overall, it smells a bit to me like DVP’s principals, having seen their previous venture put out of business by disgruntled investors, have snapped up its assets and are going to try to make a second go of running the business.

As for FFM? Well, it looks rather like we won’t be hearing that name again.

UPDATE: This article was updated several hours after it was originally posted to clarify that DVP was/is “in administration”.

After long fight, Donuts adds .charity to its gTLD stable

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2018, Domain Registries

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Donuts has prevailed in the two-horse race for the .charity gTLD.

The company appears to have privately resolved its contention set, paying off rival bidder Famous Four Media, judging by updates to ICANN’s web site today.

The gTLD had been scheduled for an ICANN “last resort” auction in April, but that’s now off.

Famous Four has also withdrawn its application, leaving Donuts the only remaining applicant.

I believe it will be Donuts’ 239th 240th gTLD.

But for a while it looked like Famous Four had a slam-dunk on its hands.

Back in 2014, the Independent Objector of the new gTLD program had filed an Community Objection against Donuts’ application, saying it was too risky to unleash a .charity domain onto the world without registration eligibility restrictions.

The fear was (and probably still is) that fraudsters could use the domains to lend an air of credibility to their online scams.

The IO prevailed, pretty much gifting Famous Four — which had proposed restrictions — the TLD.

But Donuts embarked upon an arduous set of appeals, including an Independent Review Process case, that culminated, last December, in a ruling (pdf) that reversed the original Community Objection decision.

That cleared the way for Donuts back into the application process and, now, the private auction it seems to have won.

Due to ICANN’s adoption of Governmental Advisory Committee advice on sensitive strings, Donuts will be obliged to put some Public Interest Commitments into its .charity contract, with the aim of reducing abuse.