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M+M adds $14m to new gTLDs war chest

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2012, Domain Registries

Top Level Domain Holdings has raised £9 million ($14.2 million) with a share sale, boosting its ability to apply for new generic top-level domains.

TLDH, which is listed on the Alternative Investment Market in London, owns registry provider Minds + Machines and has interests in a number of new gTLD joint ventures.

The shares were sold to “institutional and other investors” for 8.25p each, the company said.

TLDH now has a cash pile of about $25 million, CEO Antony Van Couvering said in a press release. Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush added:

TLDH management believes that the increased capital will allow it to increase significantly the number of applications it is able to make, allowing it to develop a wider, more diversified portfolio of names in multiple languages and scripts

The current cash balance would allow it to apply for 135 gTLDs, if it blew the whole lot on application fees.

I expect its actual number of applications to be more like 30, which would leave TLDH with about $20 million in reserve for fighting contested applications and start-up costs.

It could also try to raise some more money from the markets when some of its gTLD applications start being approved, of course.

Being the only public company entirely devoted to new gTLDs may leave TLDH in an interesting tactical position a few months from now — competing applicants are going to have a relatively good insight into the strength of its hand if any of its applications go to auction.

M+M wins contract for ‘laptops and lederhosen’ gTLD

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2012, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines has won governmental approval for its .bayern new gTLD application, according to the company.

The Bavarian state government has said it will back a bid for .bayern from Bayern Connect, which is majority-owned by M+M parent Top Level Domain Holdings, TLDH said today.

According to its press release, M+M will provide the back-end registry services, which strongly suggests that it does not plan to outsource to Neustar on this occasion.

Bayern Connect is not the only company to have announced a .bayern application, however.

Rival applicant PunktBayern, which is backed by United Domains and InterNetX among others, has been public about its plans for a couple of years too. Last year, it selected Afilias to provide its registry back-end.

If the Bavarian government is offering its exclusive support to Bayern Connect, as TLDH now says, it puts a serious question mark over the viability of the PunktBayern bid.

Under ICANN’s rules, any gTLD purporting to represent a state must secure the support or non-objection of the relevant government. Without that support, applications will be rejected.

PunktBayern does have a registered trademark on “.bayern”, however, so the tussle may not be quite over yet.

Bayern is the German name for Bavaria. The state has a population of about 12.5 million and quite a strong sense of its own identity.

It’s often referred to as the land of “laptops and lederhosen” due to a long-running government policy of friendliness to the tech industry.

ICANN to hire conflict of interest experts

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN is to bring in ethics experts to advise it on its conflicts of interest policy, addressing the ongoing controversy over its former chairman’s move to the domain industry.

The organization plans to “engage an external firm with expertise in advising on ethical issues”, according to the minutes of a September 15 meeting of its Board Governance Committee.

The consultants will be tasked with helping to “develop an ICANN Ethics Regime or set of Guidelines for the Board, the staff and the community.”

ICANN has been faced recently with calls to impose post-employment restrictions on board members and staff, in order to prevent a “revolving door” between it and the industry it essentially regulates.

This follows former chairman Peter Dengate Thrush’s move to new gTLD applicant Minds + Machines just a few weeks after voting to approve the new gTLD program.

Senator Ron Wyden and the Association of National Advertisers are among those making the call, and the US Department of Commerce, which oversees ICANN, appears to have heard it.

But as I reported earlier in the week, it may actually be illegal for ICANN, as a California corporation, to contractually ban employees from joining domain name companies after they quit.

However, the BGC has other ideas about how to strengthen ethics without imposing these potentially problematic employment restrictions.

It’s now talking about a ethics policy with “disclosure and abstention requirements” for directors “surrounding future interests or potential future interests”.

While the policy has yet to be written, one can imagine a scenario in which an ICANN director would be prevented from voting on a policy that would be likely to enrich them in a future job.

Cherine Chalaby, Bill Graham and Ray Plzak are the BGC members who will be leading the board discussions, which are expected to continue in Dakar later this month.

The ethics issue was first raised publicly by ICANN president Rod Beckstrom during his opening address at the Singapore meeting in June — before the new gTLD vote and before Dengate Thrush’s departure.

Would an ICANN ethics policy break the law?

Kevin Murphy, October 3, 2011, Domain Policy

Calls for a new ethics policy to prevent a “revolving door” between ICANN and the domain name industry stepped up today, with the Association of National Advertisers entering the debate.

But would such a policy be illegal in ICANN’s home state of California?

The ANA and others wrote to ICANN today, in response to a public comment period on the question of whether ICANN should revise its conflicts of interest policy.

ICANN had asked whether the policy should be changed in order to let its board of directors vote to give themselves a salary. They’re currently all unpaid except the chair.

But the responses so far have instead largely focused on the perceived need to stop directors (and to a lesser extent staff) from taking lucrative industry jobs after they quit.

That was perhaps inevitable given the recent mainstream media coverage of former ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush, who took a high-paying job with new gTLD applicant Minds + Machines just a few weeks after helping to push through approval of the gTLD program.

The ANA’s president, Bob Liodice, wrote:

There is, at a minimum, legitimate reason for concern that the lack of adequate conflict of interest policies have led to the development of a growing perception that Mr. Thrush (and perhaps other senior staff who recently have left ICANN) may have let future career prospects influence their official duties.

(The other senior staffer he refers to could only be Craig Schwartz, the former chief gTLD registry liaison, who quit ICANN to join a likely .bank applicant in June.

While there are good reasons that Dengate Thrush’s move looks extremely fishy to outsiders, I’ve yet to hear any compelling arguments that Schwartz, who I don’t think had any high-level policy-making power anyway, did anything wrong.)

The ANA is of course the ring-leader of the ongoing campaign to get ICANN to rethink the new gTLD program in its entirety.

Liodice’s letter goes on to outline a number of suggestions, posed as questions, as to how ICANN could improve its conflict of interest policy, such as:

should ICANN consider reasonable restrictions or a moratorium on post‐service employment of ICANN staff by, or the contracting of such staff members with, parties under contract to ICANN, or whose businesses are materially affected by any decision made by the Board during the staff member’s tenure?

In other words: should ICANN staff be banned from joining registrars and registries after they leave?

In two other letters to ICANN today, Coalition for Online Accountability, International Trademark Association and American IP Law Association (collectively) and the French government make similar calls for future employment restrictions, albeit only for ICANN directors rather than staff.

But here’s another question: if the community asked ICANN to institute a revolving-door prevention policy, could it legally do so? A bit of digging suggests it might be tough.

According to the minutes of an August 15 meeting of ICANN’s Board Governance Committee:

The BGC discussed that as a private sector organization, ICANN is limited in its ability to place restrictions on future employment, though there are many things that ICANN can do to address these concerns, such as continued strict adherence and enforcement of confidentiality provisions.

The matter was also discussed by the full board at its retreat last month, and is on the agenda for the public meeting in Dakar, Senegal, at the end of October.

While ICANN does have pseudo-regulatory power (all enforced through contract) it is at the end of the day a California corporation, which is bound by California law.

And in California, it may not be legal to unreasonably restrict employees’ future job opportunities.

I’m not a lawyer, and this may not be applicable to ICANN for any number of reasons, but consider how California law deals with so-called “non-compete clauses” in employment contracts.

The text “every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void” is on the California statute books.

And in 2008, the California Supreme Court interpreted this rather strictly, ruling that “non-competition agreements are invalid under section 16600 in California even if narrowly drawn”.

So could ICANN legally prevent staff or directors from jumping into the for-profit sector when they please? Is there any point in the community even debating the subject?

At this point, any members of the California Bar reading this are welcome to throw their $0.02 into the comments section below.

Even without Al Gore, don’t count Minds + Machines out of the .eco race

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2011, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines may have lost the support of Al Gore for its .eco bid, but it should not necessarily be dismissed as a contender for the .eco top-level domain.

The Guardian today reported that the former US vice president’s Alliance for Climate Protection campaign has dropped its support for the M+M-backed Dot Eco LLC .eco bid.

It noted that the other public .eco applicant, Big Room, is backed by former Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and it made some tenuous Cold War allusions accordingly:

The global power struggle, with echoes of the cold war, is over control of the new .eco internet domain which could be up and running by 2013.

But the Guardian has learned that Gore’s group has quietly dropped its plan, leaving the door open for Big Room to act as the registry for the new domain.

The reality is of course not quite as exciting, at least not to a general readership. Big Room in fact quickly distanced itself from the hyperbole in a blog post today.

Gore’s group did in fact stop supporting M+M’s .eco bid earlier this year. The site previously dedicated to the project, SupportDotEco.com, went dark for a while before being redirected to M+M in June.

It seems that the once-public M+M .eco project may now be a regular will-they-won’t-they bid.

So while The Guardian fairly reported that Gore is no longer in the running for .eco, that does not necessarily mean Big Room is a shoo-in either.

As I’ve previously commented, publicly announcing a gTLD application means absolutely nothing.

Big Room may secure .eco. M+M may. Any one of a number of potential candidates could win the contract.

Big Room, which has secured support from many organizations in the environmental community, intends to file its bid with as a self-designated “community” application.

Such a designation can enable applicants for contested gTLDs to avoid an auction, if they can score 14 out of a possible 16 points against the very strict criteria set by ICANN.

Big Room has spent a great deal of time building up support and setting proposed policies governing how .eco will be managed. It has some potentially innovative ideas about how to promote corporate responsibility using domain names.

“I hope people don’t try to hold the community hostage about this, I think our community been very transparent about their intentions,” said Big Room co-founder Trevor Bowden. “If this thing goes to auction, this community has no voice whatever. If they have no voice then the potential of .eco will be diminished.”

Minds + Machines, on the other hand, is on-record saying that it does not believe that .eco could possibly qualify as a community bid.

In July, CEO Antony Van Couvering published a piece on CircleID estimating that, with just nine points out of the 14 required to pass a Community Priority Evaluation, it would not.

It seems that “community” backing, even from an environmentalist as high-profile as Al Gore, may not be part of the M+M .eco application strategy.

With M+M parent Top Level Domain Holdings funded sufficiently to apply for gTLDs into double figures, I would not be at all surprised if .eco is among its target strings.

UPDATE (30/9/11): TLDH has confirmed that Dot Eco LLC will apply for .eco. The characteristically blunt press release also has a few choice words about gTLD applications backed by “celebrities”.

AusRegistry wins .jewelers deal

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2011, Domain Registries

GJB Partners, one of the few companies to recently announce a commercial new top-level domain bid, has selected AusRegistry International to provide the back-end registry for .jewelers.

It’s the first non-geographic TLD contract win AusRegistry has announced this year.

While it’s probably a small deal, it’s notable because one of GJB’s managing partners is George Bundy, CEO of BRS Media, the registry for .fm and a potential .radio applicant.

BRS is currently the only public reference customer for Espresso, the registry platform offered by Minds + Machines, an AusRegistry competitor.

M+M offers .brand gTLDs from $25k

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2011, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines is promoting its gTLD registry services to brand owners at the International Trademark Association meeting in Washington DC, revealing prices as low as $25,000 a year.

Its .brand package covers preparing and filing the application with ICANN and then running the technical back-end.

The company also appears to have introduced a price ceiling of $100,000 a year for .brand clients, according to a press release.

M+M is even offering to throw in a private, ICANN-accredited registrar. I believe the company may be the first registry to publicize this kind of bundled service.

The company is targeting brand owners that may not be convinced by the attractiveness of a .brand, and may have no clue what to do with one, but which nevertheless do not want to be left behind in the event that the second round of new gTLD applications is delayed for many years.

M+M CEO Antony Van Couvering is quoted as saying:

There are a lot of innovative ways for brands to use new gTLDs, but most brands want to first secure their gTLD for a reasonable price, and maybe use it internally, before deciding on the next step.

M+M, which hired former ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush as chairman in June, has been among the most aggressive marketers of new gTLDs (which are, after all, it’s entire raison d’etre).

Its enthusiasm has already caused a couple of raised eyebrows.

A teaser announcement from M+M earlier this week, which mentioned how its “registry platform is connected with all major registrars, including MarkMonitor” caused MarkMonitor to issue a clarification stating that it has “no business relationship” with the company.

While MarkMonitor is plugged into CoCCA, the registry platform that handles dozens of ccTLDs, it is not plugged into Espresso, which is M+M’s in-house version of the open-source CoCCA software, the company said in a blog post.

(UPDATE: M+M’s Antony Van Couvering notes in the comments below that MarkMonitor accepts .fm registrations, and that the .fm registry uses Espresso)

CoCCA itself felt compelled to issue a statement in July, clarifying that CoCCA and M+M are not working together on Espresso, as some had inferred from an M+M interview.

M+M surprised by .mumbai snub

Kevin Murphy, August 25, 2011, Domain Registries

One of Minds + Machines’ key top-level domain applications has been thrown into confusion after government support for its .mumbai bid was apparently revoked.

In a letter that surfaced on the ICANN web site this week, Y.S. Mahangade, deputy director of IT at the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, wrote (pdf):

Honorable Deputy Mayor of MCGM inadvertently issued a letter to one organization which has been revoked later by Honorable Deputy Major of MCGM. It may please be noted that the official position of the City of Mumbai is communicated by Municipal Commissioner.

Under ICANN’s rules, all applications for geographical gTLDs must be backed officially by the local government, otherwise they get rejected.

According to Wikipedia, the Mayor of Mumbai (and presumably the deputy) has a “largely ceremonial” function, “as the real powers are vested in the Municipal Commissioner”.

Wikipedia does not say what kind of power the deputy director of IT wields. I’m guessing it’s not much.

M+M CEO Antony Van Couvering said in a statement:

This is the first we have heard about this and we are looking into the matter with our client, India TL Domain Pvt Ltd, to whom the original letter of appointment was issued by the Deputy Mayor of Mumbai. Once we understand what the situation is viz-a-viz India TL Domain Pvt Ltd and the City of Mumbai, we will provide an update.

You can view the letter of support from the deputy mayor here.

M+M announced its deal with the .mumbai applicant, India TL Domain, in June. As I noted at the time, not much is known about the company.

But according to official records, the company’s managing director is Ashok Hiremath, who’s also chairman of Mumbai-based fungicide manufacturer Astec Lifesciences.

His brother Suresh, now apparently a British citizen living in London, appears to be the only one of the company’s three directors to have engaged, albeit lightly, in ICANN policy development.

The third director is also Astec’s corporate secretary. The company shares its address with Astec.

In June, M+M’s parent company, Top Level Domain Holdings, issued two million new shares to an unnamed consultant as a result of the .mumbai deal, raising £160,000 ($260,000).

This is not the first time a geographic gTLD applicant that apparently raised support from the necessary governmental entity has had its plans thrown into doubt.

The same happened to DotConnectAfrica, a potential .africa bidder, in May, after the African Union apparently did an about-face.

Mumbai is India’s largest city, with over 20 million citizens. It’s also the richest (although the poverty there is enough to make you weep) making .mumbai a potentially lucrative gTLD.

Former ICANN chair joins M+M

Peter Dengate Thrush, the former ICANN chairman who pushed through approval of the new top-level domains program less than a month ago, is to join new gTLD firm Minds + Machines.

He has become executive chairman of Top Level Domain Holdings, M+M’s parent company, which is listed on the Alternative Investment Market.

The hire will undoubtedly boost M+M’s credibility and raise its profile, but is already also raising eyebrows.

TLDH plans to apply to ICANN for potentially dozens of new gTLD contracts next year, both with partners and customers and on its own.

Dengate Thrush has been granted options to buy 15 million TLDH shares for 8p each, roughly the same as its current price, which he can exercise at a rate of 1.25 million per quarter through July 2014.

TLDH currently has no revenue to speak of. Its future share price will depend on its ability to sign registry services customers and win new gTLDs through the ICANN process.

It’s fairly easy to extrapolate scenarios where Dengate Thrush’s compensation package is worth millions.

His chairmanship of ICANN’s board of directors came to an end June 24, just a few days after it voted to approve the new gTLD program.

During that vote, dissenting director Mike Silber accused the board of voting too soon, saying it was being hurried by “ego-driven deadlines”.

This was a reference to Dengate Thrush and fellow new gTLD cheerleader Rita Rodin Johnston, both of whom were due to see their terms on the board expire that week.

Dengate Thrush is the first ICANN chair to take a high-paying domain name industry job following his time with ICANN.

His predecessor, Vint Cerf, joined Google. Earlier, Esther Dyson went on to invest in and work with a number of technology start-ups.

ICANN does not have a policy preventing former employees or directors taking lucrative jobs working for the companies that they were previously essentially regulating.

Indeed, some of its directors currently work for such companies.

Few in the ICANN community doubted that Dengate Thrush, an IP lawyer by trade, would join a new gTLD company. The question was which one.

I asked him, along with CEO Rod Beckstrom and senior VP Kurt Pritz, at a press conference in Singapore, whether they would be prevented from joining a new gTLD firm.

The answer, basically, was: “No.”

ICANN staff and board sign confidentiality agreements that prevent them taking secrets into future employers, but there’s nothing to prevent a “revolving door” between industry and regulator.

There have already been calls from parts of the ICANN community to create a new ethics policy, after senior registry liaison Craig Schwartz left to join the VeriSign-backed .bank project.

GNSO Council chair Stephane Van Gelder of the French registrar Indom suggested in a blog post this morning that ICANN should consider hiring independent directors and barring them from working in the industry for a year after their terms end.

It would be pretty difficult to enforce such a rule on the board as it is currently made up, given that it draws some of its members, by design, from the domain name industry.

ICANN’s new vice chair Bruce Tonkin works for Melbourne IT, a registrar, for example. He recused himself from the new gTLD vote because of this conflict of interest.

It would be silly for ICANN to ban him from working for Melbourne IT after his term expires if he’s allowed to work there during the term itself.

While no rules appear to have been broken, M+M’s new hire may sit uncomfortably with some.

It will certainly reinforce beliefs, where they are held, that the new gTLD program is largely a money-grabbing exercise by the domain industry.

M+M intros flat-rate new TLD services

Minds + Machines is to offer its back-end registry services to new top-level domain applicants for a flat $100,000 annual fee, the company has announced.

The deal represents a bit of a switch for the registry market, which typically charges on a per-domain, per-year basis and doesn’t talk about pricing.

The $100,000 offer will not be extended to potentially high-volume gTLDs, such as .music, or geographic strings such as .nyc, M+M said.

Customers deemed “disadvantaged or needy” will get a 50% discount.

It’s a pretty aggressive move by the company, which has been waiting for years for ICANN to approve the new gTLD program and needs to grab market and mindshare quickly.

M+M was recently compelled to partner with a larger rival, Neustar, to run the back ends for geo-TLDs supported by governmental entities nervous about using a relatively inexperienced player.

“Until now, pricing for registry services has been shrouded in secrecy, and potential applicants have had to try to decipher convoluted pricing tiers,” M+M CEO Antony Van Couvering said in a press release.

He’s not wrong.

The large incumbent registry players have not publicly disclosed pricing, but I gather it’s usually around a couple of dollars per domain per year, with some additional flat fees.

From up-and-coming registry operators, I’ve heard figures as low as $0.75 per domain per year. Competition for applicant customers is, I’m told, getting pretty fierce.

While the new M+M pricing structure is obviously simpler, it will appeal largely to applicants expecting to take a relatively low registration volume, but still high enough that $100,000 does not work out to a ludicrous per-domain fee.

A 25,000-name community registry, for example, would pay the equivalent of $4 per domain per year, which might not make a heck of a lot of sense if they can get an equivalent service for a buck a name elsewhere.

On the other hand, a company targeting a stable base of 250,000 names may lose money in the years it ramps up to that goal, but it will see its margins swell as its registration volume grows.

Still, the new gTLD program is all about innovation (right?) and this seems to be one of the first tangible examples, so it will be very interesting to see how well it plays in the market.