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Verisign says Afilias tried to “rig” $135 million .web auction

Kevin Murphy, December 17, 2018, Domain Services

Verisign has jumped back into the fight for the .web gTLD, all guns blazing, with a claim that Afilias offered millions in an attempt to “rig” a private auction for the string.

The .com behemoth accused Afilias last week of “collusive and anti-competitive efforts to rig the [.web] auction in its favor”.

It claims that Afilias offered rival bidder — and secret Verisign stooge — Nu Dot Co up to $17 million if it would participate in a private auction, and then tried to contact NDC during the auction’s “Blackout Period”.

The claims came in an amicus brief (pdf) filed by Verisign as part of Afilias’ Independent Review Process proceeding against ICANN.

The IRP is Afilias’ attempt to overturn the result of the July 2016 .web auction, in which NDC paid ICANN $135 million of Verisign’s money in exchange for the exclusive rights to .web

While neither Verisign nor NDC are parties to the IRP, they’re both attempting to become amicus curiae — “friends of the court” — giving them the right to provide evidence and arguments to the IRP panel.

Verisign argues that its rights would be seriously impacted by the proceeding — Afilias is looking for an emergency ruling preventing .web being delegated — because it won’t be able to bring .web to market.

But it’s also attempting to have the IRP thrown out altogether, on the basis of claims that Afilias broke the auction rules and has “unclean hands”.

Verisign’s brief states:

Afilias and other bidders proposed that a private auction be performed pursuant to collusive and potentially illegal terms about who could win and who would lose the auction, including guarantees of auction proceeds to certain losers of the auction.

NDC CFO Jose Rasco provides as evidence screenshots (pdf) of a text-message conversation he had with Afilias VP of sales Steve Heflin on June 7, 2016, in which Heflin attempts to persuade NDC to go to a private auction.

Every other member of the contention set at that point had agreed to a private auction, in which the winning bid would be shared out among the losers.

NDC was refusing to play along, because it had long ago secretly agreed to bid on behalf of Verisign, and was forcing a last-resort ICANN auction in which ICANN would receive the full sum of the winning bid. 

In that SMS conversation, Heflin says: “Can’t give up…how about I guarantee you score at least 16 mil if you go to private auction and lose?” followed by three money-bag emojis that I refuse to quote here on general principle.

Rasco responds with an offer to sell Afilias the .health gTLD, then just weeks away from launch, for $25 million.

Heflin ignores the offer and ups his .web offer to $17.02 million.

Given that it was a contention set of seven applicants, that suggests Afilias reckoned .web was going to sell for at least $100 million.

Verisign claims: “Afilias’s offers to ‘guarantee’ the amount of a payment to NDC as a losing bidder are an explicit offer to pay off NDC to not compete with Afilias in bidding on .web.”

Rasco also provides evidence that Schlund, another .web applicant, attempted to persuade NDC to join what it called an “Alternative Private Auction”.

This process would have divided bidders into “strong” and “weak” categories, with “strong” losing bidders walking away with a greater portion of the winning bid than the “weak” ones.

Verisign and NDC also claims that Afilias broke ICANN’s auction rules when VP John Kane texted Rasco to say: “If ICANN delays the auction next week would you again consider a private auction?”

That text was received July 22, four days before the auction and one day into the so-called “Blackout Period”, during which ICANN auction rules (pdf)  prohibit bidders from “cooperating or collaborating” with each other.

At that time, .web applicants Schlund and Radix already suspected Verisign was bankrolling NDC, and they were trying to get the auction delayed.

According to Verisign, Kane’s text means Afilias violated the Blackout rules and therefore it should lose its .web application entirely.  

The fact that these rules proscribe “collaborating” during the Blackout suggests that collaborating at other times was actually envisaged, which in turn suggests that Heflin’s texts may not be as naughty as Verisign claims.

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say the gloves, were they ever on, have come off.

Weighing in at over 1,000 pages, the combined amicus briefs and attached exhibits reveal some interesting additional facts that I don’t believe were in the public domain before now and may be worth noting here.

The Verisign filing reveals, I believe for the first time, that the final Verisign bid for .web was $142 million. It only paid $135 million because that was runner-up Afilias’ final bid.

It also reveals that Verisign and NDC signed their “executory agreement” — basically, NDC’s promise to sign over .web if Verisign bankrolled its bid — in August 2015, nearly a year before the auction took place. NDC evidently kept its secret for a long time before rivals got suspicious.

The IRP panelist is scheduled to rule on Afilias’ request for a “stay of all ICANN actions that further the delegation of the .WEB gTLD” on January 28.

No .web until 2021 after Afilias files ICANN appeal

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2018, Domain Registries

Afilias has taken ICANN to arbitration to prevent .web being delegated to Verisign.

The company, which came second in the $135 million auction that Verisign won in 2016, filed Independent Review Process documents in late November.

The upshot of the filing is that .web, considered by many the best potential competitor for .com — Afilias describes it as “crown jewels of the New gTLD Program” — is very probably not going to hit the market for at least a couple more years.

Afilias says in in its filing that:

ICANN is enabling VeriSign to acquire the .WEB gTLD, the next closest competitor to VeriSign’s monopoly, and in so doing has eviscerated one of the central pillars of the New gTLD Program: to introduce and promote competition in the Internet namespace in order to break VeriSign’s monopoly

Its beef is that Verisign acquired the rights to .web by hiding behind a third-party proxy, Nu Dot Co, the shell corporation linked to the co-founders of .CO Internet that appears to have been set up in 2012 purely to make money by losing new gTLD auctions.

Afilias says NDC broke the rules of the new gTLD program by failing to notify ICANN that it had made an agreement with Verisign to sign over its rights to .web in advance of the auction.

The company says that NDC’s “obligation to immediately assign .WEB to VeriSign fundamentally changed the nature of NDC’s application” and that ICANN and the other .web applicants should have been told.

NDC’s application had stated that .web was going to compete with .com, and Verisign’s acquisition of the contract would make that claim false, Afilias says.

This means ICANN broke its bylaws commitment to apply its policies, “neutrally, objectively, and fairly”, Afilias claims.

Allowing Verisign to acquire its most significant potential competitor also breaks ICANN’s commitment to introduce competition to the gTLD market, the company reckons.

It will be up to a three-person panel of retired judges to decide whether these claims holds water.

The IRP filing was not unexpected. I noted that it seemed likely after a court threw out a Donuts lawsuit against ICANN which attempted to overturn the auction result for pretty much the same reasons.

The judge in that case ruled that new gTLD applicants’ covenant not to sue ICANN was valid, largely because alternatives such as IRP are available.

ICANN has a recent track record of performing poorly under IRP scrutiny, but this case is by no means a slam-dunk for Afilias.

ICANN could argue that the .web case was not unique, for starters.

The .blog contention set was won by an affiliate of WordPress maker Automattic under almost identical circumstances earlier in 2016, with Colombian-linked applicant Primer Nivel paying $19 million at private auction, secretly bankrolled by WordPress.

Nobody complained about that outcome, probably because it was a private auction so all the other .blog applicants got an even split of the winning bid.

Afilias wants the .web IRP panel to declare NDC’s bid invalid and award .web to Afilias at its final bid price.

For those champing at the bit to register .web domains, and there are some, the filing means they’ve likely got another couple years to wait.

I’ve never known an IRP to take under a year to complete, from filing to final declaration. We’re likely looking at something closer to 18 months.

Even after the declaration, we’d be looking at more months for ICANN’s board to figure out how to implement the decision, and more months still for the implementation itself.

Barring further appeals, I’d say it’s very unlikely .web will start being sold until 2021 at the very earliest, assuming the winning registry is actually motivated to bring it to market as quickly as possible.

The IRP is no skin off Verisign’s nose, of course. Its acquisition of .web was, in my opinion, more about restricting competition than expanding its revenue streams, so a delay simply plays into its hands.

Donuts backs away from .spa fight

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has finally admitted defeat in its long-running fight to run the .spa gTLD, withdrawing its application and leaving rival Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council the victor.

ASWPC, run from Hong Kong by .asia’s Edmon Chung, has now entered into contracting with ICANN.

The company had won a Community Priority Evaluation back in 2015, with a passing score of 14 out of 16, which Donuts has been challenging ever since.

Donuts and ICANN were in a so-called Cooperative Engagement Process, a form of informal arbitration designed to stave off a more expensive Independent Review Process fight, from January 2016 until this month.

This meant ASWPC has been sitting twiddling its thumbs, unable to sign its contract or launch its TLD, for the better part of three years.

It’s not clear why Donuts decided not to go to a full-blown IRP. The company declined to comment for this article.

As a community applicant, the company had the backing of hundreds of spas worldwide.

It also had the backing of the Belgian government, which was important because spas are (little-known fact alert!) named after the tiny Belgian town of Spa.

It is believed that ASWPC promised up to 25% of its profits to Spa in order to gain this backing, but only from domains registered by Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgish, French or German registrants.

Donuts loses to ICANN in $135 million .web auction appeal

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has lost a legal appeal against ICANN in its fight to prevent Verisign running the .web gTLD.

A California court ruled yesterday that a lower court was correct when it ruled almost two years ago that Donuts had signed away its right to sue ICANN, like all gTLD applicants.

The judges ruled that the lower District Court had “properly dismissed” Donuts’ complaint, and that the covenant not to sue in the Applicant Guidebook is not “unconscionable”.

Key in their thinking was the fact that ICANN has an Independent Review Process in place that Donuts could use to continue its fight against the .web outcome.

The lawsuit was filed by Donuts subsidiary Ruby Glen in July 2016, shortly before .web was due to go to an ICANN-managed last-resort auction.

Donuts and many others believed at the time that one applicant, Nu Dot Co, was being secretly bankrolled by a player with much deeper pockets, and it wanted the auction postponed and ICANN to reveal the identity of this backer.

Donuts lost its request for a restraining order.

The auction went ahead, and NDC won with a bid of $135 million, which subsequently was confirmed to have been covertly funded by Verisign.

Donuts then quickly amended its complaint to include claims of negligence, breach of contract and other violations, as it sought $22.5 million from ICANN.

That’s roughly how much it would have received as a losing bidder had the .web contention set been settled privately and NDC still submitted a $135 million bid.

As it stands, ICANN has the $135 million.

That complaint was also rejected, with the District Court disagreeing with earlier precedent in the .africa case and saying that the covenant not to sue is enforceable.

The Appeals Court has now agreed, so unless Donuts has other legal appeals open to it, the .web fight will be settled using ICANN mechanisms.

The ruling does not mean ICANN can go ahead and delegate .web to Verisign.

The .web contention set is currently “on-hold” because Afilias, the second-place bidder in the auction, has since June been in a so-called Cooperative Engagement Process with ICANN.

CEP is a semi-formal negotiation-phase precursor to a full-blown IRP filing, which now seems much more likely to go ahead following the court’s ruling.

The appeals court ruling has not yet been published by ICANN, but it can be viewed here (pdf).

The court heard arguments from Donuts and ICANN lawyers on October 9, the same day that DI revealed that ICANN Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah had been hired by Donuts as its new CEO.

A recording of the 32-minute hearing can be viewed on YouTube here or embedded below.

Muslim world still thinks .islam isn’t kosher

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2018, Domain Policy

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has repeated its objection to the gTLDs .islam and .halal ever seeing the light of day.

OIC Secretary General Yousef Al-Othaimeen wrote to ICANN earlier this month to declare that its position on the two controversial applications has not changed since it initially objected to them in 2013.

The OIC comprises the foreign ministers from 57 majority-Muslim countries and these ministers recently voted unanimously to re-adopt the 2013 objection, Al-Othaimeen said (pdf).

The group “maintain the position that the new gTLDs with Islamic identity are extremely sensitive in nature as they concern the entire Muslim nature” he wrote.

He reiterated “official opposition of the OIC Member states towards the probable authorization that might allow the use of these gTLDs .islam and .halal by any entity.”

This puts ICANN between a rock an a hard place.

The applicant for both strings, Turkish outfit Asia-Green IT Systems (AGIT), won an Independent Review Process case against ICANN last November.

The IRP panel ruled that ICANN broke its own bylaws when it placed .islam and .halal into permanent limbo — an “On Hold” status pending withdrawal of the applications or OIC approval — in 2014.

ICANN’s board accepted the ruling and bounced the decision on whether to finally approve or reject the bids to its Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which is currently mulling over the problem.

Technically, it’s “non-consensus Governmental Advisory Committee advice”, which means the board has some wriggle room to simply accept the advice and reject the applications.

But AGIT’s lawyer disagrees, recently telling ICANN (pdf) its options are to approve the bids or facilitate dialogue towards their approval, rather like ICANN is doing with .amazon right now.