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Record-breaking $30 million domain sale was financed by cryptocurrency

Kevin Murphy, June 19, 2019, Domain Sales

Records were broken yesterday when voice.com became the most-expensive domain name ever sold.

Handed over for a cool $30 million cash, it more than doubled the previous record for a domain-only transaction, 2010’s $13 million sale of sex.com.

The seller was MicroStrategy, an analytics software provider that just happens to have a stash of high-end, one-word .com domains among its assets.

The new owner is Block.one, a blockchain software developer that has raised a staggering amount of money despite not yet having any products.

The voice.com domain will be used for Voice, its first service, a social media platform based on the EOSIO blockchain platform that Block.one develops.

How Voice specifically differs from existing social media offerings is currently a little vague. It’s currently just a press release and a beta-signup form.

But the company says it will be more transparent than competitors such as Facebook or Instagram, with revenue generated feeding its content-creating users rather than the platform owner.

Not even the blogs covering crypto on a daily basis seem to understand the Voice business model yet.

A crucial step in the early stages appears to be enticing so-called “influencers” — social media personalities with large followings — over from the current dominant platforms with the promise of huge financial rewards (presumably paid in cryptocurrency) if they bring their fans with them.

Key differences include the fact that users will need a government-issued ID to sign up (mitigating the problem of anonymous trolling and bots), and that every post will be recorded for eternity in the blockchain.

Is this what social media users are crying out for? More friction and less privacy? I don’t get it, personally. But then I didn’t get Twitter at first either.

The product was announced at a flashy news event in Washington, DV a few weeks ago. An executive discusses the value proposition briefly at around the 20-minute mark in this video recording.

Block.one itself is an equally odd fish.

It has amassed oodles of cash despite having no obvious business model. It may be the only company with a billion-dollar-plus valuation that doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page.

It reportedly raised over $4 billion through an initial coin offering — where speculators buy a basically unused cryptocurrency in the hope that it will be adopted and its value will rise — over the space of a year.

The ICO’s success appears to be partly based on the personal branding of its founders, backers and executives, who have made names for themselves in the burgeoning crypto space.

Since the ICO ended about a year ago, the company has been pumping tens of millions of dollars into third-party projects that use its EOS blockchain, in an attempt to spur adoption.

It also reportedly expects to spend $150 million developing Voice.

So, $30 million is pretty much pocket change to these guys, who’ve rewarded MicroStrategy’s speculation in domain names with the fruits of their own investors’ speculation in another type of essentially worthless digital record.

In many ways, I guess cryptocurrency really is turning out to be to this decade what domain investment was to the last.

Ten years from now, perhaps voice.com will be sold for a trillion dollars, paid for in telepathic tulips or something.

Oh, the irony! Banned anti-Islam activist shows up on “Turkish” new gTLD domain

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2019, Domain Policy

Tommy Robinson, who has been banned from most major social media platforms due to his anti-Islam “hate speech”, is now conducting business via a domain name that some believe rightfully belongs to the Muslim-majority nation of Turkey.

The registration could add fuel to the fight between ICANN and its governmental advisers over whether certain domains should be blocked or restricted.

Robinson, the nom de guerre of the man born Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the far-right English Defence League and known primarily for stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK for the last decade.

He’s currently, controversially, an adviser to the UK Independence Party. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, also a thoroughly unpleasant bloke, considers Robinson so far to the right he quit the party in response to the appointment.

Over the last year, Robinson has been banned from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and had his YouTube account placed under serious restrictions. This month, he was also banned from SnapChat, and the EDL he used to lead was among a handful of far-right groups banned from Facebook.

Since his personal Facebook page went dark in February, he’s been promoting his new web site as the primary destination for his supporters.

It features news about his activities — mainly his ongoing fights against social media platforms and an overturned contempt of court conviction in the UK — as well as summaries of basically any sufficiently divisive anti-Islam, anti-immigration, or pro-Brexit stories his writers come across.

The domain he’s using is tr.news, a new gTLD domain in a Donuts-owned registry. It was registered in December via GoDaddy.

Given it’s a two-character domain, it will have been registry-reserved and would have commanded a premium price. Other two-character .news domains are currently available on GoDaddy for between $200 and $10,000 for the first year.

It will come as no surprise at all for you to learn that the domain was transferred out of GoDaddy, which occasionally kicks out customers with distasteful views, to Epik, now de facto home of those with far-right views, a couple of weeks after the web site launched.

The irony of the choice of domain is that many governments would claim that tr.news — indeed any two-character domain, in any gTLD, which matches any country-code — rightfully belongs to Turkey, a nation of about 80 million nominal Muslims.

TR is the ISO 3166-1 two-character code for Turkey, and until a couple of years ago new gTLD registries were banned from selling any of these ccTLD-match two-letter domains, due to complaints from ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

Many governments, including the UK and US, couldn’t care less who registers their matching domain. Others, such as France, Italy and Israel, want bans on specific domains such as it.pizza and il.army. Other countries have asked for blanket bans on their ccTLD-match being used at all, in any gTLD.

When new gTLDs initially launched in 2012, all ccTLD matches were banned by ICANN contract. In 2014, ICANN introduced a cumbersome government-approval system under which governments had to be consulted before their matches were released for registration.

Since December 2016, the policy (pdf) has been that registries can release any two-letter domains, subject to a provision that they not be used by registrants to falsely imply an affiliation with the country or registry with the matching ccTLD.

Robinson is certainly not making such an implication. I imagine he’d be as surprised as his readers to learn that his new domain has a Turkish connection. It’s likely the only people who noticed are ICANN nerds and the Turkish themselves.

Would the Turkish people look at tr.news and assume, from the domain alone, that it had some connection to Turkey? I think many would, though I have no idea whether they would assume it was endorsed by the government or the ccTLD registry.

Would Turkey — a government whose censorship regime makes Robinson’s social media plight look like unbounded liberalism — be happy to learn the domain matching its country code is being used primarily to deliver divisive content about the coreligionists of the vast majority of its citizens? Probably not.

But under current ICANN policy it does not appear there’s much that can be done about it. If Robinson is not attempting to pass himself of as an affiliate of the Turkish government or ccTLD registry, there’s no avenue for complaint.

However, after taking the cuffs off registries with its December 2016 pronouncement, allowing them to sell two-letter domains with barely any restrictions, ICANN has faced continued complaints from the GAC — complaints that have yet to be resolved.

The GAC has been telling ICANN for the last two years that some of its members believe the decision to release two-character names went against previous GAC advice, and ICANN has been patiently explaining the process it went through to arrive at the current policy, which included taking GAC advice and government comments into account.

In what appears to be a kind of peace offering, ICANN recently told the GAC (pdf) that it is developing an online tool that “will provide awareness of the registration of two-character domains and allow for governments to report concerns”.

The GAC, in its most-recent communique, told ICANN its members would test the tool and report back at the public meeting in Montreal this November.

The tool was not available in December, when tr.news was registered, so it’s not clear whether Turkey will have received a formal notification that its ccTLD-match domain is now registered, live, and being used to whip up mistrust of Muslims.

Update April 30: ICANN informs me that the tool has been available since February, but that it does not push notifications to governments. Rather, governments can search to see if their two-letter codes have been registered in which gTLDs.

Uniregistry calls for domain Bill of Rights as Schilling says Gab.com was not booted

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2018, Domain Services

Uniregistry has called for a “Domain Bill of Rights” to protect free speech in a world were domain takedowns can be used to de-platform controversial speakers.

Meanwhile, CEO Frank Schilling has told DI that the company did not expel the right-wing social network Gab.com from Uniregistry’s platform, and would have allowed it to stay.

In a press release this week, Uniregistry COO Kanchan Mhatre said that while the company rejects “hatred and bigotry”, free speech is an “inalienable” human right.

The company called for the new agreement “to guarantee every domain name owner a formal ‘due process’ when being faced with accusations and demands for censorship”.

Schilling said that Uniregistry’s idea for a Domain Bill of Rights is still in the early stages. It has sketched out 10 draft bullet points but is not ready to publish them yet.

The press release was issued to coincide with Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for a “Contract for the Web”, a set of broad principles governing rights and responsibilities online.

But it also coincided with the ongoing controversy over Gab.com, the microblogging platform favored by right-wing voices, including many white supremacists, that have been kicked off Twitter.

The guy who murdered 11 people at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh last month used Gab, a back-breaking straw which prompted GoDaddy to inform the network it intended to suspend its domain unless it was immediately moved to another registrar.

It’s not the first time GoDaddy has shut down the far right for breaching its terms of service. Last year, it took the same action against a neo-Nazi site.

The Gab.com domain briefly wound up at Uniregistry, before Epik CEO Rob Monster stated publicly that he would offer Gab a home. Gab took him up on his offer, and transferred away from Uniregistry.

Uniregistry’s Schilling confirmed that “We did not ask gab.com to leave our platform… they were welcome to stay subject to law”.

Monster said in a blog post largely praising Gab and founder Andrew Torba that “De-Platforming is Digital Censorship”. He noted that for Gab, “there is a duty to monitor and lightly curate, keeping content within the bounds of the law”.

Wagner takes dig at Verisign as GoDaddy reports $310 million domain revenue

Kevin Murphy, November 7, 2018, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy CEO Scott Wagner ducked a question about how the company will react to future .com price increases during its third-quarter earnings call yesterday, but used the opportunity to take a gentle swipe at Verisign.

Asked by an analyst whether the first 7% price increase, almost certainly coming in 2020, would have any effect on GoDaddy’s gross margins (ie, will they shrink as the company swallows increased costs, or swell as it increases its own prices above 7%), Wagner said:

the last time VeriSign took a price increase the industry passed that through to the end registrant.

.com and more importantly the software around bringing somebody’s .com to life is valuable and, modestly, we’re providing the value in that relationship around taking a domain name and actually turning it into something that somebody cares about.

I’m interpreting that as a pop at the idea that Verisign enjoys the fat registration margins while GoDaddy is the one that actually has to market domains, up-sell, innovate, deal with customers, and so on.

The remarks came just a few days after Verisign, in a blog post, branded GoDaddy and other secondary-market players “scalpers”, infuriating domainers.

Wagner was talking to analysts as the market-leading registrar reported revenue for Q3 of $679.5 million, up 16.7% year over year.

Revenue from domains, still the biggest of its three reporting business segments, was $309.5 million, up 14.0% compared to the year-ago quarter. GoDaddy now has 18 million customers and over 77 million domains under management.

Overall net income was down to $13.2 million from $22.4 million, as operating expenses rose over 16% to hit $642 million, after the company invested more in marketing, development and so on. Its operating income was $37.5 million.

Contrast this with Verisign’s performance for the same quarter, reported two weeks ago.

It saw revenue about the same as GoDaddy’s domains revenue — $306 million — but net income of $138 million and operating income of $195 million.

GoDaddy and Verisign could find themselves competing before long. As part of its deal with the US government to allow it to raise .com wholesale prices once more, the government also lifted its objection to Verisign becoming a registrar, just as long as it does not deal in .com names.

Parsons quits GoDaddy board

Kevin Murphy, October 3, 2018, Domain Registrars

Bob Parsons has resigned from GoDaddy’s board of directors, 21 years after he founded the company.

The registrar announced today that Parsons will leave this Friday to devote more attention to his philanthropic Bob and Renee Parsons Foundation and to the various motorcycle and golf-related businesses he runs under the Yam Worldwide brand.

He was CEO of GoDaddy from 1997 until 2011 and executive chairman until 2014.

The company is of course the runaway success story of the competitive registrar market, using a combination of cheap prices and bold marketing to eat incumbent Network Solutions’ lunch in just a few short years.

Today, it has over $2.2 billion in annual revenue and somewhere in the region of 60 million domains under management, and that’s just the gTLDs.

GoDaddy’s success made Parsons himself a billionaire.