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Rival dot-brand bidders in settlement talks, seek auction delay

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2019, Domain Registries

Two companies called Merck have managed to delay an ICANN auction for the .merck dot-brand top-level domain.

The two companies applied for .merck in 2012 and have spent the last almost eight years conducting a battle for the string using various ICANN conflict and appeals mechanisms.

Earlier this year, ICANN placed the two applications into a “last resort” auction, the proceeds of which would flow into ICANN’s own coffers.

Scheduled for July, it would have been the first time competing brands had fought for the same gTLD at ICANN auction.

But the two Mercks sought and received multiple extensions to the auction date, telling ICANN that they were in private settlement talks, until ICANN seemingly got bored and denied their last extension request.

The auction was set to go ahead in late October, but the two applicants managed to get another delay anyway by filing a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, asking that the refusal to extend be overturned.

While the request is likely to be rejected, the mere fact of its filing means both applications continue to be in “On Hold” status while the request is processed, buying the companies at least a month of extra time to come to their own less-expensive resolution.

The two companies are US-based Merck Registry Holdings, Inc. and its former parent, Germany-based Merck KGaA. The German company is over 350 years old and split from its American subsidiary when it was seized by the US government during World War I. They’re both in the chemicals business.

ICANN redacts the secrets of Verisign’s .web deal

Afilias thinks it has found the smoking gun in its fight to wrestle .web out of the hands of rival Verisign, but for now the details are still a closely guarded secret.

The company recently filed an amended complaint in its Independent Review Process case against ICANN, after it managed to get a hold of the deal that Verisign struck with Nu Dot Co, the company that spent $135 million of Verisign’s money to win .web at auction in 2016.

The Domain Acquisition Agreement, which apparently set out the terms under which NDC would bid for .web on Verisign’s behalf, was revealed during disclosure in December.

But in publishing the amended complaint (pdf) (which seems to have happened in the last week or two), ICANN has whited out all references to the contents of this document.

Afilias claims that the DAA proves that NDC broke the rules of the new gTLD program by refusing to disclose to ICANN that it had essentially become a Verisign proxy:

It claims that ICANN should therefore have disqualified NDC from the .web auction.

Based on the terms of the DAA, it is evident that NDC violated the New gTLD Program Rules. ICANN, however, has refused to disqualify NDC from the .WEB contention set, or to disqualify NDC’s bids in the .WEB Auction.

Afilias came second in the 2016 auction, bidding $135 million. NDC/Verisign won with a $142 million bid, committing it to pay the amount Afilias was willing to pay.

While Verisign has said that it plans to market .web, Afilias believes that Verisign’s primary motivation at the auction was to essentially kill off what could have been .com’s biggest competitor. It says in its amended complaint:

ICANN has eviscerated one of the central pillars of the New gTLD Program and one of ICANN’s founding principles: to introduce and promote competition in the Internet namespace in order to break VeriSign’s monopoly

Whether the DAA reveals anything we do not already know is an open question, but Afilias reckons ICANN’s prior failure to disclose its contents represents a failure of its commitment to transparency.

Reading between the lines, it seems Afilias is claiming that ICANN got hold of the DAA some time before it was given to Afilias in discovery last December, but that ICANN “had refused to provide the DAA (or even confirm its existence)”.

By redacting its contents now, ICANN is helplessly playing into the narrative that it’s trying to cover something up.

But ICANN is probably not to blame for the redactions. It was ICANN holding the axe, yes, but it was Verisign that demanded the cuts.

ICANN said in its basis for redactions document (pdf) that it “has an affirmative obligation to redact the information designated as confidential by the third party(ies) unless and until said third party authorizes the public disclosure of such information.”

Afilias has also managed to put George Sadowsky, who for the best part of the last decade until his October departure was one of ICANN’s most independent-minded directors, on the payroll.

In his testimony (pdf), he apparently reveals some details of the ICANN boards private discussions about the .web case.

Guess what? That’s all redacted too, unilaterally this time, by ICANN.

ICANN to host first-ever high-stakes dot-brand auction

Kevin Murphy, May 7, 2019, Domain Sales

Two companies that own trademark rights to the same brand are to fight it out at an ICANN auction for the first time.

Germany-based Merck Group will fight it out for .merck with American rival Merck & Co at an auction scheduled to take place July 17.

Because it’s an ICANN “last-resort” auction, the value of the winning bid will be disclosed and all the money will flow to ICANN.

It will be the first ICANN gTLD auction for three years, when a Verisign proxy agreed to pay $135 million for .web.

The two Mercks could still avoid the ICANN auction by resolving their contention set privately.

The German Merck is a chemicals company founded in 1668 (not a typo) and the US Merck was founded as its subsidiary in the late 19th century.

That division was seized by the US government during World War I and subsequently became independent.

The German company uses merckgroup.com as its primary domain today. The US firm, which with 2018 revenue of over $42 billion is by far the larger company, uses merck.com.

Both companies applied for .merck as “community” applicants and went through the Community Priority Evaluation process.

Neither company scored enough points to avoid an auction, but the German company had the edge in terms of points scored.

Both applications then found themselves frozen while ICANN reviewed whether its CPE process was fair. That’s the same process that tied up the likes of .gay and .music for so many years.

While the July auction will be the first all-brand ICANN auction, at least one trademark owner has had to go to auction before.

Vistaprint, which owns a trademark on the term “webs” was forced to participate in the .web auction after a String Confusion Objection loss, but due to the technicalities of the process only had to pay $1 for .webs.

How new gTLD auctions could kill gaming for good

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2019, Domain Policy

Ever heard of a Vickrey auction? Me neither, but there’s a good possibility that it could become the way most new gTLD fights get resolved in future.

It’s one of several methods being proposed to help eliminate gaming in the next new gTLD application round that have received some support in a recently closed round of public comments.

ICANN’s New gTLD Subsequent Procedures working group (SubPro) is the volunteer effort currently writing the high-level rules governing future new gTLD applications.

Two months ago, it published a preliminary report exploring possible ways that contention sets could be resolved.

The current system, from the 2012 round, actively encourages applicants to privately resolve their sets. Usually, this entails a private auction in which the winning bid is shared evenly between the losing applicants.

This has been happening for the last five years, and a lot of money has been made.

Losing auctions can be a big money-spinner. Publicly traded portfolio registry MMX, for example, has so far made a profit of over $50 million losing private auctions, judging by its annual reports. It spent $13.5 million on application fees in 2012.

MMX is actually in the registry business, of course. But there’s a concern that its numbers will encourage gaming in future.

Companies could submit applications for scores of gTLDs they have no intention of actually operating, banking on making many multiples of their investment by losing private auctions.

Pointing no fingers, it’s very probably already happened. But what to do about it?

Who’s this Vickrey chap?

One suggestion that seems to be getting some love from diverse sections of the community is a variation of the “Vickrey auction”.

Named after the Canadian Nobel Prize-winning economist William Vickrey, it’s also called a “second price sealed bid auction”.

Basically, each applicant would secretly submit the maximum price they’d be willing to pay for the contested gTLD, and the applicant with the highest bid would pay the amount of the second-highest bid.

This method has, I believe, been used more than once in private contention resolution during the 2012 round.

But under the system suggested by SubPro, each applicant would make their single, sealed, high bid at time of application, before they know who else is gunning for the same string.

That way, contention sets could be mostly eliminated right at the start of the process, leading to time and cost efficiencies.

There’d be no need for every application in a contention set to go through full evaluation. Only the high bidder would be evaluated. If it failed evaluation, the second-highest bidder would go into evaluation, etc, until a successful applicant was found.

For losing applicants, a possible benefit of this is that they’d get much more of their application fees refunded, because they’d be skipping much of the process.

Neither would they have to bear the ambient running costs of sitting on their hands for potentially years while the ICANN process plays itself out.

It could also substantially speed up the next round. If the round has five, 10, 20 or more times as many applications as the 1,930 received in 2012, resolving contention sets at the very outset could cut literally years off processing times.

The SubPro concept also envisages that the winning bid (which is to say, the second-highest bid) would go directly into ICANN’s coffers, eliminating the incentive to game the system by losing auctions.

I must admit, there’s a lot to love about it. But it has drawbacks, and critics.

Why Vickrey may suck

SubPro itself notes that the Vickrey model it outlines would have to take into account other aspects of the new gTLD program, such as community applications, applicants seeking financial support from ICANN, and objections.

It also highlights concerns that bids submitted at the time of application constitute private business-plan information that applicants may not necessarily want ICANN staff seeing (with the revolving door, this info could quite easily end up at a competitor).

Companies and constituencies responding to the recent public comment period also have concerns.

There’s hesitance among some potential applicants about being asked to submit blind bids. There are clearly cases where an applicant would be prepared to pay more to keep a gTLD out of the hands of a competitor.

One could imagine, for example, that Coca-Cola would be ready to spend a lot more money on .cola if it knew Pepsi was also bidding, and possibly less if it were only up against Wolf Cola.

The Intellectual Property Constituency raised this concern. It said that it was open to the idea of Vickrey auctions, but that it preferred that bids should be submitted after all the applications in the contention set have been revealed, rather than at time of application:

Although there is a potential downside to this in that the parties have not put a “value” on the string in advance, the reality is that many factors come into play in assessing that “value”, certainly for a brand owner applicant and possibly for all applicants, including who the other parties are and how they have indicated they intend to use the TLD.

The Brand Registry Group and Neustar were both also against the Vickrey model outlined by SubPro, but neither explained their thinking.

The Business Constituency, which is often of a mind with the IPC, in this case differed. The BC said it agreed that bids should be submitted alongside applications, only to be unsealed in the event that there is contention. The BC said:

This Vickrey auction would also resolve contention sets very early in the application evaluation process. That saves contending applicants from spending years and significant sums during the contention resolution process, which was very difficult for small applicants.

It’s hard to gauge where current registries, which are of course also likely applicants, stand on Vickrey. The Registries Stakeholder Group is a pretty diverse bunch nowadays and it submitted a set of comments that, unhelpfully, flatly contradict each other.

“Some” RySG members believe that the current evaluation and contention process should stay in place, though they’re open to a Vickrey-style auction replacing the current ascending-clock model at the last-resort stage after all evaluations are complete.

“Other” RySG members, contrarily, wholeheartedly support the idea that bids should be submitted at the time of application and the auction processed, Vickrey-style, before evaluation.

“An application process which requires a thorough evaluation of an applicant who will not later be operating the gTLD is not an efficient process,” these “other” RySG members wrote. They added:

if contention sets are resolved after the evaluation process and not at the beginning of it, like the Vickery model suggestion, it would enable applicants who applied for multiple strings to increase the size of their future bids each time they lost an auction. Each TLD needs to be treated on its own merits with no contingencies allowed for applicants with numerous applications.

It’s not at all clear which registries fall into the “some” category and which into “other”, nor is it clear the respective size of each group.

Given the lack of substantive objections to pre-evaluation Vickrey auctions from the “some” camp, I rather suspect they’re the registries hoping to make money from private settlements in the next round.

Other ideas

Other anti-gaming ideas put forward by SubPro, which did not attract a lot of support, included:

  • A lottery. Contention sets would be settled by pulling an applicant’s name out of a hat.
  • An RFP process. This would mean comparative, merit-based evaluation, which has never been a popular idea in ICANN circles.
  • Graduated fees. Basically, applicants would pay more in application fees for each subsequent application they filed. This would disadvantage portfolio applicants, but could give smaller applicants a better shot at getting the string they want.

All of the comments filed on SubPro’s work has been fed back into the working group, where discussions about the next new gTLD round will soon enter their fourth year…

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.

Chutzpah alert! DotKids wants ICANN handout to fight gTLD auction

Kevin Murphy, September 24, 2018, Domain Policy

New gTLD applicant DotKids Foundation has asked ICANN for money to help it fight for .kids in an auction against Amazon and Google.

The not-for-profit was the only new gTLD applicant back in 2012 to meet the criteria for ICANN’s Applicant Support Program, meaning its application fee was reduced by $138,000 to just $47,000.

Now, DotKids reckons ICANN has a duty to carry on financially supporting it through the “later stages of the process” — namely, an auction with two of the world’s top three most-valuable companies.

The organization even suggests that ICANN dip into its original $2 million allocation to support the program to help fund its bids.

Because .kids is slated for a “last resort” auction, an ICANN-funded winning bid would be immediately returned to ICANN, minus auction provider fees.

It’s a ludicrously, hilariously ballsy move by the applicant, which is headed by DotAsia CEO Edmon Chung.

It’s difficult to see it as anything other than a delaying tactic.

DotKids is currently scheduled to go to auction against Google’s .kid and Amazon’s .kids application on October 10.

But after ICANN denied its request for funding last month, DotKids last week filed a Request for Reconsideration (pdf), which may wind up delaying the auction yet again.

According to DotKids, the original intent of the Applicant Support Program was to provide support for worthy applicants not just in terms of application fees, but throughout the application process.

It points to the recommendations of the Joint Applicant Support working group of the GNSO, which came up with the rules for the support program, as evidence of this intent.

It says ICANN needs to address the JAS recommendations it ignored in 2012 — something that could time quite some time — and put the .kids auction on hold until then.

How ICANN could spend its $240 million war chest

Kevin Murphy, January 2, 2018, Domain Policy

Schools, pHD students and standards groups could be among the beneficiaries of ICANN’s nearly quarter-billion-dollar new gTLD auction war chest.

But new gTLD registries hoping for to dip into the fund for marketing support are probably shit out of luck.

Those are among the preliminary conclusions of a volunteer working group that has been looking at how ICANN should spend its new gTLD program windfall.

Over 17 new gTLD auctions carried out by ICANN under its “last resort” contention resolution system, the total amount raised to date is $240,590,128.

This number could increase substantially, should still-contested strings such as .music and .gay go to last-resort auction rather than being settled privately.

Prices ranged from $1 for .webs to $135 million for .web.

ICANN has always said that the money would be held separate to its regular funding and eventually given to special projects and worthy causes.

Now, the Cross-Community Working Group on New gTLD Auction Proceeds has published its current, close-to-final preliminary thinking about which such causes should be eligible for the money, and which should not.

In a letter to ICANN (pdf), the CCWG lists 18 (currently hypothetical, yet oddly specific) example proposals for the use of auction funds, 17 of which it considers “consistent” with ICANN’s mission.

A 19th example, which would see money used to promote TLD diversity and “smells too much like marketing” according to some CCWG members, is still open for debate.

While the list of projects that could be approved for funding under the proposed regime is too long to republish here, it would for example include giving scholarships to pHD students researching internet infrastructure, funding internet security education in developing-world primary schools and internet-related disaster-recovery efforts in risk-prone regions.

The only area the CCWG appears to be reluctant to endorse funding is the case of commercial enterprises run by women and under-represented communities.

The full list can be downloaded here (pdf).

The CCWG hopes to publish its initial report for public comment not too long after ICANN 61 in March. Comment would then need to be incorporated into a final report and then ICANN would have to approve its recommendations and implement a process for actually distributing the funds.

Don’t expect any money to change hands in 2018, in other words.

.kids auction is off

Kevin Murphy, December 12, 2017, Domain Registries

ICANN has postponed the planned auction of the .kid(s) gTLDs after an appeal from one of the applicants.

The last-resort auction had been penciled in for January 25, and there was a December 8 deadline for the three participants to submit their info to the auctioneer.

But DotKids Foundation, the shallowest-pocketed of the three, filed a Request for Reconsideration last Wednesday, asking ICANN to put the contention set back on hold.

The cancellation of the January auction appears to be to give ICANN’s board of directors time to consider the RfR under its usual process — it has not yet ruled on it.

DotKids and Amazon have applied for .kids and Google has applied for .kid. A String Confusion Objection won by Google put the two strings in the same contention set, meaning only one will eventually go live.

DotKids comprehensively lost a Community Priority Evaluation, which would negate an auction altogether, but it thinks the CPE got it wrong and wants to be treated the same way as other gTLD applicants whose CPE results are currently under review.

Reconsideration requests take between 30 and 90 days to process, and they rarely go the way of the requester, so the delay to the auction will likely not be too long.

DotKids doesn’t want .kids auction to go ahead

Kevin Murphy, December 7, 2017, Domain Registries

One of the applicants for the .kids gTLD has asked ICANN to stop the planned last-resort auction.

DotKids Foundation is competing with Amazon for .kids and, because the two strings were ruled confusingly similar, with Google’s application for the singular .kid.

ICANN last month set a January 25 date for the three contenders to go to auction, having unfrozen DotKids’ application back in October.

DotKids’ bid had been put on hold due to it losing a Community Priority Evaluation — which found overwhelmingly that the organization did not represent a proper community — and its subsequent appeals of that ruling.

But the foundation now says that its application should be treated the same as .music, .gay, and a few others, which are currently on hold while ICANN waits for the results of a third-party review of the CPE process.

DotKids filed a Request for Reconsideration (pdf) with ICANN yesterday, immediately after being told that there were no plans to put the contention set back on hold.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the three applicants to submit their information to ICANN to participate in next month’s auction.

An ICANN last-resort auction sees the winning bid being placed in a fund for a yet-to-be-determined purpose, as opposed to private auctions where the losing bidders share the loot.

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.