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Fight over new sports gTLDs gets real ugly

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2013, Domain Registries

The battle for contested new gTLDs .rugby and .basketball is turning nasty.

Roar Domains, a New Zealand marketing firm whose gTLD applications are backed by the official international bodies for both sports, is promising to pull out all the stops to kill off its competition.

The company, which is partnered with Minds + Machines on both bids, has told rival portfolio applicant Donuts that it will attack its applications for the two TLDs on at least three fronts.

Notably, Roar wants Donuts disqualified from the entire new gTLD program, and plans to lobby to have Donuts fail its background check.

The company told Donuts last month:

while we have no desire to join the chorus of voices speaking out against Donuts, it is incumbent on us to pursue the automatic disqualification of Applicant Guidebook Section 1.2.1, and every opposition and objection process available to us.

Applicant Guidebook section 1.2.1 deals with background checks.

Donuts came under more scrutiny than most on these grounds during the new gTLDs public comment period last year due to its co-founders being involved at the sharp end of domain investment over the last decade.

Demand Media and eNom, where founder Paul Stahura was a senior executive, have lost many UDRP cases over the years.

A mystery lawyer who refuses to disclose his clients started pursuing Donuts last August, saying the company is “unsuited and ineligible to participate in the new gTLD program.”

Separate (pseudonymous?) public comments fingered a former Donuts director for allegedly cybersquatting the Olympics and Disney.

While Roar has not claimed responsibility for these specific previous attacks, it certainly seems to be planning something similar in future.

In addition, Roar and International Rugby Board, which supports Roar’s application for .rugby, say they plan to official objections with ICANN about rival .rugby bids.

The IRB told Donuts, in a letter shortly before Christmas:

As the global representative of the sport and the only applicant vested with the trust and representation of the rugby community, we are unquestionably the rightful steward of .RUGBY.

Without the support of the global rugby community your commercialization efforts for .RUGBY will be thwarted. We are also preparing an objection to file against your application in accordance with ICANN rules to which you will be required to dedicate resources to formulate a response.

Roar and the IRB are also both lobbying members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, which has the power to file potentially decisive GAC Advice against any application.

Roar told Donuts recently:

Roar serves as the voice and arm for FIBA [the International Basketball Federation] and IRB in the New gTLD area. We are pleased to have obtained four Early Warnings on behalf of our applications, and fully expect the GAC process to be completed to GAC Advice.

The Early Warnings against the two other .rugby applicants were filed by the UK government — the only warnings it filed — while Greece warned the two non-Roar .basketball applicants.

Roar is also involved with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) on its .basketball bid.

While commercial interests obviously play a huge role, there’s a philosophical disagreement at the heart of these fights that could be encapsulated in the following question:

Should new gTLDs only be delegated to companies and organizations most closely affiliated with those strings?

In response to the UK’s Early Warning, Donut has written to UK GAC representative Mark Carvell asking for face-to-face talks and making the case for a “neutral” registry provider for .rugby.

Donuts told Carvell:

We believe gTLDs should be run safely and securely, and in a manner that is fair to all law-­abiding registrants, not only those predetermined as eligible. A neutral third party, such as Donuts, can be best capable of achieving this outcome.

Donuts believes a neutral operator is better able to ensure that the gTLD reflects the full diversity of opinion and content of all Internet users who are interested in the term “rugby.”

As the IRB is a powerful voice in rugby, an IRB‐managed registry might not be neutral in its operations, raising questions about its ability to impartially oversee the gTLD. For example, will IRB/Roar chill free speech by censoring content adversarial to their interests? How would they treat third parties who are interested in rugby but aren’t part of the IRB? What about IRB critics or potential rival leagues?

Despite these questions, no .rugby applicant has said it plans to operate a restricted registry. There are no applications for .basketball or .rugby designated as “Community” bids.

The IRB/Roar application specifically states “anyone can register a .rugby domain name.”

Both .basketball and .rugby are contested by Roar (FIBA/IRB/M+M), Donuts (via subsidiaries) and portfolio applicant Domain Venture Partners (aka Famous Four Media, also via subsidiaries).

Roar is a sports marketing agency that is also involved in bids for .baseball, .soccer, .football and .futbol. The New Zealand national team football captain, Ryan Nelsen, is on its board.

Here are the letters (pdf).

TLDH hires ICANN’s former new gTLDs head

Kevin Murphy, December 3, 2012, Domain Registries

Top Level Domain Holdings has hired Michael Salazar, former head of the new gTLD program at ICANN, as its chief financial officer.

The hire, which is still subject to some regulatory checks, will also see Salazar become an executive director of the company, which has applied for dozens of new gTLDs.

Salazar was at ICANN for three years, before leaving this June in the wake of the TLD Application System and Digital Archery messes.

Before ICANN, he was with KPMG for 16 years, according to TLDH.

It’s the second time TLDH has brought a former ICANNer on board to fill a senior role.

Former chair Peter Dengate Thrush controversially joined the company as executive chairman in July 2011, but recently announced that he will be leaving the company in January.

Salazer replaces David Weill, CFO as well as a founding director of the company, who is leaving. He’s the second original director, after Clark Landry, to quit in as many months.

Dengate Thrush quits TLDH

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2012, Domain Registries

Peter Dengate Thrush, executive chairman of new gTLD portfolio applicant Top Level Domain Holdings, has decided to quit not much more than a year into the job.

According to a press release, Dengate Thrush will leave the company in January 2013, to be replaced by original chair Fred Krueger.

No reason for the departure was given.

When he joined TLDH, his share option package envisaged him sticking around until at least July 2014.

Dengate Thrush will continue to advise some of TLDH’s new gTLD applicant clients after he leaves, according to the press release.

His decision to join TLDH in July 2011, just a few weeks after helping to push through approval of the new gTLD program as ICANN’s chairman, was a nodal point in ICANN’s recent evolution.

It led directly to strict conflict of interest rules being put in place on ICANN’s board, which are now being criticized by some contracted parties for removing vital expertise from the board.

It also gave plenty of ammunition to those who criticize ICANN for being too focused on enriching its insiders.

TLDH has applied for 70 gTLDs, and its Minds + Machines subsidiary is the named back-end provider for several more.

TLDH signs another city gTLD – .budapest

Top Level Domain Holdings has been backed by the city of Budapest as the official applicant for the .budapest generic top-level domain.

If the application is approved, TLDH subsidiary Minds + Machines will run the back-end registry and the city will receive a share of the revenue.

TLDH has previously announced deals with local governments for .london, .bayern (Bavaria), .miami and .nrw (North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state).

The company does not list its two announced Indian city gTLD bids – .mumbai (for which city approval may have been withdrawn) and .bangaluru (which appears to be a typo) — on its web site, but a spokesperson indicated that they’re both still active applications.

TLDH also seems to be confirming on its web site that it is in fact applying for .horse, an application I’d long suspected was nothing more than a red herring. Guess I was wrong.

Budapest is of course Hungary’s capital city. Wikipedia says it has about 1.74 million inhabitants, making it Europe’s seventh-largest city.

TLDH wins .london contract, gets hacked

Kevin Murphy, April 11, 2012, Domain Registries

Top Level Domain Holdings has won the exclusive contract to apply to ICANN for the .london generic top-level domain, it has just been announced.

The deal was awarded by Dot London Domains, a subsidiary of official city PR agency London & Partners, to Minds + Machines Ltd, TLDH’s London-based subsidiary.

M+M will assist with the application and, assuming ICANN delegates .london, the registry infrastructure for at least seven years, with a three-year renewal option.

The application fees will be paid by L&P, according to TLDH chairman Peter Dengate Thrush.

The good news was soured slightly by an apparent hacking of TLDH’s web site by Viagra spammers this morning. According to the Google Cache, when the news broke, tldh.org looked like this:

TLDH

TLDH is listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market.

It also has an office here, though its senior executives are based in the US and the company is registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.

I’d previously tagged .uk registry Nominet as the favorite to win the contract, but the company said today that it withdrew its bid last week.

APRIL 12 UPDATE

TLDH denies it got hacked yesterday. According to a spokesperson, there was an incident last August that may have been responsible for the Google Cache continuing to show Viagra spam for tldh.org yesterday.

From the explanation provided, it sounds like it was probably what’s sometimes known as a “conditional hack”, a difficult-to-detect attack whereby only the GoogleBot sees the spam SEO links.

The TLDH web site itself apparently never showed the links to visitors. Indeed, I only looked at the cache because tldh.org refused to load up for me yesterday morning.

The spokesperson maintained that the problem was sorted out last August and that TLDH has no idea why the Google Cache was showing the spam links in its cached page dated April 11, 2012.