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.forum sunrise period will cost less than half the regular reg fee

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2020, Domain Registries

Trademark owners rejoice! There’s a new gTLD registry seemingly not bent on ripping you off during its sunrise period.

Those defensively registering their marks in .forum, which begins its sunrise period on Monday, in some cases could find themselves paying less than half the regular registration fee.

French registrar Gandi today said that its sunrise retail price is $452.13, versus a genera availability price of $1,042.08, and prices at other participating registrars appear to be roughly in line.

.forum’s is being managed by MMX, though the ICANN gTLD contract appears to still belong to original applicant Fegistry.

The first-come, first-served sunrise period will run until December 16. General availability is due to begin.March 2 next year.

I have to admit to finding the $1,000 base registry fee something of a head-scratcher.

I can just about see why gTLDs such as .cars, representing big-ticket niches, can command four-figure reg fees but, anecdotally, I’ve often heard that web forums can be quite expensive to run and difficult to monetize. Hardly obvious candidates for premium-tier recurring prices.

Blood on the boardroom floor after MMX admits revenue screwup

Kevin Murphy, October 30, 2020, Domain Registries

MMX’s top two execs are out, after the new gTLD registry admitted that the company misstated its revenue in 2019 and the first half of 2020.

CEO Toby Hall and CFO Michael Salazar both quit from the board and their executive roles with immediate effect, after a board probe concluded that its 2019 revenue was overstated to the tune of $1.7 million. Its 2019 net income was also overstated by $1.9 million.

In the first half of 2020, it understated revenue by about $80,000 and net income by about $200,000.

The screwups relate to not only the mystery $1.1 million contract MMX warned about earlier this month, but also two more contracts last year worth a total of $790,000.

The company received the cash from these unnamed partners and reported it as revenue immediately, when it should have recognized it only when the partners made sales to end users, MMX said.

Its revenue for 2019 should have been correctly reported as $17.2 million, and its net income should have been $2.8 million.

For the first half of 2020, revenue should have been $8.4 million and net income should have been $1.4 million.

The company said that Tony Farrow, an ICM Registry import who until recently worked as MMX’s COO, will return to the company as interim CEO.

Bryan Disher, an independent MMX director, will be interim CFO. Guy Elliott, currently non-executive chair, will become executive chair.

MMX probing accounting of mystery contract

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry MMX says it’s looking into whether it incorrectly accounted for about $1 million of revenue last year.

The company told investors Friday that $938,000 of revenue from a single contract was recognized in 2019, but there’s a possibility it should have been classified as “a refundable deposit against future sales or deferred revenue”.

The same goes for $25,000 recognized in the first half of this year.

The contract generated cash of $1.125 million in 2019.

Regular domain sales are usually recognized over the course of the registration and show up on the balance sheet as deferred revenue.

It’s not known which contract MMX is referring to in its notice. I’m tempted to wonder whether it relates to AdultBlock, the defensive registration service available across the company’s four porn-themed gTLDs.

The company had previously reported $1.1 million in revenue (rather than cash) from the sale of 2,000 AdultBlock regs for 2019, which puts it in the right ball-park, but it seems unlikely that so many domains would be blocked under a single contract.

MMX said the worst that could happen is that it would be on the hook for $1 million if it turned out the cash was refundable, adding that it had $7.3 million in the bank at the end of June.

Its share price took a battering anyway, losing almost a fifth of its value on Friday.

MMX revenue down even as sales rise during pandemic

Kevin Murphy, September 30, 2020, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry MMX saw its revenue dip in the first half of the year, even as the number of domain names it sold increased.

The company today reported a net profit after tax of $1.2 million, down from $1.7 million a year ago, on revenue that was down 5% at $8.5 million.

But billings were up in the quarter were up 7%, with channel billings (ie, domains sold via third-party registrars) up 20%.

Billings is the measure of how much the company sold, which is largely deferred and recognized as revenue over the period of the registration.

Domains under management across the registry’s portfolio of 31 gTLDs increased 31% to 2.38 million.

The company blamed a lack of brokered premium sales for the top-line decline, saying that segment contributed $0.1 million in the half, compared to $0.8 million a year ago.

MMX said registrar partner sales were “unimpacted by COVID”, up 4% to $8.3 million, but two of its brand-protection partners had to delay the launch of its pricey AdultBlock porn domain blocks until Q4, so there was no revenue to be found in defensives in the half.

ICANN ordered to freeze .hotel after “serious questions” about trade secrets “theft”

Kevin Murphy, September 3, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has been instructed to place the proposed .hotel gTLD in limbo after four applicants for the string raised “sufficiently serious questions” that ICANN may have whitewashed the “theft” of trade secrets.

The order was handed down last month by the emergency panelist in the Independent Review Process case against ICANN by claimants Fegistry, MMX, Radix and Domain Ventures Partners.

Christopher Gibson told ICANN to “maintain the status quo” with regards the .hotel contention set, meaning currently winning applicant Hotel Top Level Domain, which is now owned by Afilias, won’t get contracted or delegated until the IRP is resolved.

At the core of the decision (pdf) is Gibson’s view that the claimants raised “sufficiently serious questions related to the merits” in allegations that ICANN mishandled and acted less than transparently in its investigation into a series of data breaches several years ago.

You may recall that ICANN seriously screwed up its new gTLD application portal, configuring in such a way that any applicant was able to search for and view the confidential data, including financial information such as revenue projections, of any other competing applicant.

Basically, ICANN was accidentally publishing applicants’ trade secrets on its web site for years.

ICANN discovered the glitch in 2015 and conducted an audit, which initially fingered Dirk Krischenowski — who at time was the half-owner of a company that owned almost half of HTLD as well as a lead consultant on the bid — as the person who appeared to have accessed the vast majority of the confidential data in March and April 2014.

ICANN did not initially go public with his identity, but it did inform the affected applicants and I managed to get a copy of the email, which said he’d downloaded about 200 records he shouldn’t have been able to access.

It later came to light that Krischenowski was not the only HTLD employee to use the misconfiguration to access data — according to ICANN, then-CEO of HTLD Katrin Ohlmer and lawyer Oliver Süme had too.

HTLD execs have always denied any wrongdoing, and as far as I know there’s never been any action against them in the proper courts. Krischenowski has maintained that he had no idea the portal was glitched, and he was using it in good faith.

Also, neither Ohlmer nor Krischenowski are still involved with HTLD, having been bought out by Afilias after the hacking claims emerged.

These claims of trade secret “theft” are being raised again now because the losing .hotel applicants think ICANN screwed up its probe and basically tried to make it go away out of embarrassment.

Back in August 2016, the ICANN board decided that demands to cancel the HTLD application were “not warranted”. Ohlmer barely gets a mention in the resolution’s rationale.

The losing applicants challenged this decision in a Request for Reconsideration in 2016, known as Request 16-11 (pdf). In that request, they argued that the ICANN board had basically ignored Ohlmer’s role.

Request 16-11 was finally rejected by the ICANN board in January last year, with the board saying it had in fact considered Ohlmer when making its decision.

But the IRP claimants now point to a baffling part of ICANN’s rationale for doing so: that it found “no evidence that any of the confidential information that Ms. Ohlmer (or Mr. Krischenowski) improperly accessed was provided to HTLD”.

In other words, ICANN said that the CEO of the company did not provide the information that she had obtained to the company of which she was CEO. Clear?

Another reason for brushing off the hacking claims has been that HTLD could have seen no benefit during the application process by having access to its rivals’ confidential data.

HTLD won the contention set, avoiding the need for an auction, in a Community Priority Evaluation. ICANN says the CPE was wholly based on information provided in its 2012 application, so any data obtained in 2014 would have been worthless.

But the losing applicants say that doesn’t matter, as HTLD/Afilias still have access to their trade secrets, which could make the company a more effective competitor should .hotel be delegated.

This all seems to have been important to Gibson’s determination. He wrote in his emergency ruling (pdf) last month:

The Emergency Panelist determines that Claimants have raised “sufficiently serious questions related to the merits” in in relation to the Board’s denial of Request 16-11, with respect to the allegations concerning the Portal Configuration issues in Request 16-11. This conclusion is made on the basis of all of the above information, and in view of Claimants’ IRP Request claim that ICANN subverted the investigation into HTLD’s alleged theft of trade secrets. In particular, Claimants claim that ICANN refused to produce key information underlying its reported conclusions in the investigation; that it violated the duty of transparency by withholding that information; that the Board’s action to ignore relevant facts and law was a violation of Bylaws; and further, to extent the BAMC and/or Board failed to have such information before deciding to disregard HTLD’s alleged breach, that violated their duty of due diligence upon reasonable investigation, and duty of independent judgment.

The Emergency Panelist echoes concerns that were raised initially by the Despegar IRP Panel regarding the Portal Configuration issues, where that Panel found that “serious allegations” had been made188 and referenced Article III(1) of ICANN’s Bylaws in effect at that time, but declined to make a finding on those issues, indicating “that it should remain open to be considered at a future IRP should one be commenced in respect of this issue.” Since that time, ICANN conducted an internal investigation of the Portal Configuration issues, as noted above; however, the alleged lack of disclosure, as well as certain inconsistencies in the decisions of the BAMC and the Board regarding the persons to whom the confidential information was disclosed and their relationship to, or position with HTLD, as well as ICANN’s decision to ultimately rely on a “no harm no foul” rationale when deciding to permit the HTLD application to proceed, all raise sufficiently serious questions related to the merits of whether the Board breached ICANN’s Article, Bylaws or other polices and commitments.

It’s important to note that this is not a final ruling that ICANN did anything wrong, it’s basically the ICANN equivalent of a ruling on a preliminary injunction and Gibson is saying the claimants’ allegations are worthy of further inquiry.

And the ruling did not go entirely the way of the claimants. Gibson in fact ruled against them on most of their demands.

For example, he said their was insufficient evidence to revisit claims that a review of the CPE process carried out by FTI Consulting was a whitewash, and he refused to order ICANN to preserve documentation relating to the case (though ICANN has said it will do so anyway).

He also ruled against the claimants on a few procedural issues, such as their demands for an Ombudsman review and for IRP administrator the International Center for Dispute Resolution to recuse itself.

Some of their claims were also time-barred under ICANN’s equivalent of the statute of limitations.

But ICANN will be prevented from contracting with HTLD/Afilias for now, which is a key strategic win.

ICANN reckons the claimants are just using the IRP to try to force deep-pocketed Afilias into a private auction they can be paid to lose, and I don’t doubt there’s more than a grain of truth in that claim.

But if it exposes another ICANN cover-up in the process, I for one can live with that.

The case continues…

No .sex please, we’re infected!

MMX saw poorer-than-expected sales of porn-related defensive registrations in the first half of the year, the only blip in what was otherwise a strong period for the company.

The registry updated the market today to say that its domain name base grew by 31% year over year during the half, ending June with 2.38 million names under management. It only grew by 19% in the same period last year.

Billings for H1 were up 7% at $7.9 million, MMX said.

But because the mix shifted away from one-off brokered sales, which are registered on the earnings report as a lump sum, and towards regular automated registrations, which are recognized over the lifetime of the reg, MMX expects to report revenue 5% down on last year.

While that’s all fair enough, the company said that it didn’t sell as many defensive blocks in .xxx, .sex, .porn and .adult as it had expected, which it blamed on coronavirus:

Management also notes that expected H1 channel sales from the Company’s brand protection activity were held back due to the impact of COVID-19, but anticipates those brand protection initiatives that were delayed in Q2 will resume in H2.

It’s a reference to the AdultBlock and AdultBlock Plus services launched last year, which enable trademark owners to block (and not use) their marks in all four adult TLDs for about $350 to $800 a year.

The latest industry C-suite musical chairs

There have been several top-level hires at big new gTLD players in the last week.

Donuts has announced it has appointed Mina Neuberg as chief marketing officer. Neuberg appears to be a newcomer to the domain industry, having most recently worked at a learning software company called Revolution Math. It’s the first time has had a named top marketing exec on its web site since VP Judith McGarry left a year ago.

Her appointment follows February’s announcement that Donuts hired Randy Haas as chief financial officer. He was previously CFO of Rhapsody/Napster, the online music company.

Meanwhile, Shayan Rostam has moved from Intercap Holdings, the registry for .inc, .dealer and .box, where he was chief registry officer, to portfolio registry Uniregistry, where he will be chief growth officer, a newly created position.

And DNW is reporting that new gTLD registry MMX has made two new C-level hires, both coming from Uniregistry: Vaughn Lilely has been recruited as chief growth officer while Ben Anderson is coming in as chief operating officer.

Hacking claims resurface as .hotel losers force ICANN to lawyer up again

Kevin Murphy, February 7, 2020, Domain Policy

The fight over .hotel has been escalated, with four unsuccessful applicants for the gTLD whacking ICANN with a second Independent Review Process appeal.

The complaint resurrects old claims that a former lead on the successful application, now belonging to Afilias, stole trade secrets from competing applicants via a glitched ICANN web site.

It also revives allegations that ICANN improperly colluded with the consultant hired to carry out reviews of “community” applications and then whitewashed an “independent” investigation into the same.

The four companies filing the complaint are new gTLD portfolio applicants MMX (Minds + Machines), Radix, Fegistry, and Domain Venture Partners (what we used to call Famous Four).

The IRP was filed November 18 and published by ICANN December 16, but I did not spot it until more recently. Sorry.

There’s a lot of back-story to the complaint, and it’s been a few years since I got into any depth on this topic, so I’m going to get into a loooong, repetitive, soporific, borderline unreadable recap here.

This post could quite easily be subtitled “How ICANN takes a decade to decide a gTLD’s fate”.

There were seven applicants for .hotel back in 2012, but only one of them purported to represent the “hotel community”. That applicant, HOTEL Top Level Domain, was mostly owned by Afilias.

HTLD had managed to get letters of support from a large number of hotel chains and trade groups, to create a semblance of a community that could help it win a Community Priority Evaluation, enabling it to skip to the finish line and avoid a potentially costly auction against its rival applicants.

CPEs were carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, an independent ICANN contractor.

Surprisingly to some (including yours truly), back in 2014 it actually managed to win its CPE, scoring 15 out of the 16 available points, surpassing the 14-point winning threshold and consigning its competing bidders’ applications to the scrap heap.

There would be no auction, and no redistribution of wealth between applicants that customarily follows a new gTLD auction.

Naturally, the remaining applicants were not happy about this, and started to fight back.

The first port of call was a Request for Reconsideration, which all six losers filed jointly in June 2014. It accused the EIU of failing to follow proper procedure when it evaluated the HTLD community application.

That RfR was rejected by ICANN, so a request for information under ICANN’s Documentary Information Disclosure Policy followed. The losing applicants reckoned the EIU evaluator had screwed up, perhaps due to poor training, and they wanted to see all the communications between ICANN and the EIU panel.

The DIDP was also rejected by ICANN on commercial confidentiality grounds, so the group of six filed another RfR, asking for the DIDP to be reconsidered.

Guess what? That got rejected too.

So the applicants then filed an IRP case, known as Despegar v ICANN, in March 2015. Despegar is one of the .hotel applicants, and the only one that directly plays in the hotel reservation space already.

The IRP claimed that ICANN shirked its duties by failing to properly oversee and verify the work of the EIU, failing to ensure the CPE criteria were being consistently applied between contention sets, and failing in its transparency obligations by failing to hand over information related to the CPE process.

While this IRP was in its very early stages, it emerged that one of HTLD’s principals and owners, Dirk Krischenowski, had accessed confidential information about the other applicants via an ICANN web site.

ICANN had misconfigured its applicant portal in such a way that any user could very access any attachment on any application belonging to any applicant. This meant sensitive corporate information, such as worst-case-scenario financial planning, was easily viewable via a simple search for over a year.

Krischenowski appears to have been the only person to have noticed this glitch and used it in earnest. ICANN told applicants in May 2015 that he had carried out 60 searches and accessed 200 records using the glitch.

Krischenowski has always denied any wrongdoing and told DI in 2016 that he had always “relied on the proper functioning of ICANN’s technical infrastructure while working with ICANN’s CSC portal.”

The applicants filed another DIDP, but no additional information about the data glitch was forthcoming.

When the first IRP concluded, in February 2016, ICANN prevailed, but the three-person IRP panel expressed concern that neither the EIU nor ICANN had any process in place to ensure that community evaluations carried out by different evaluators were consistently applying the CPE rules.

The IRP panel also expressed concern about the “very serious issues” raised by the ICANN portal glitch and Krischenowski’s data access.

But the loss of the IRP did not stop the six losing applicants from ploughing on. Their lawyer wrote to ICANN in March 2016 to denounce Krischenowski’s actions as “criminal acts” amounting to “HTLD stealing trade secrets of competing applicants”, and as such HTLD’s application for .hotel should be thrown out.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, Krischenowski has never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any criminal act.

Afilias wrote to ICANN not many weeks later, April 2016, to say that it had bought out Krischenowski’s 48.8% stake in HTLD and that he was no longer involved in the company or its .hotel application.

And ICANN’s board of directors decided in August 2016 that Krischenowski may well have accessed documents he was not supposed to, but that it would have happened after the .hotel CPE had been concluded, so there was no real advantage to HTLD.

A second, parallel battle against ICANN by an unrelated new gTLD applicant had been unfolding over the same period.

A company called Dot Registry had failed in its CPE efforts for the strings .llc, .llp and .inc, and in 2014 had filed its own IRP against ICANN, claiming that the EIU had “bungled” the community evaluations, applying “inconsistent” scoring criteria and “harassing” its supporters.

In July 2016, almost two years later, the IRP panel in that case ruled that Dot Registry had prevailed, and launched a withering attack on the transparency and fairness of the ICANN process.

The panel found that, far from being independent, the EIU had actually incorporated notes from ICANN staff into its CPE evaluations during drafting.

It was as a result of this IRP decision, and the ICANN board’s decision that Krischenowski’s actions could not have benefited HTLD, that the losing .hotel applicants filed yet another RfR.

This one lasted two and a half years before being resolved, because in the meantime ICANN launched a review of the CPE process.

It hired a company called FTI Consulting to dig through EIU and ICANN documentation, including thousands of emails that passed between the two, to see if there was any evidence of impropriety. It covered .hotel, .music, .gay and other gTLD contention sets, all of which were put on hold while FTI did its work.

FTI eventually concluded, at the end of 2017, that there was “no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE reports or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process”, which affected applicants promptly dismissed as a “whitewash”.

They began lobbying for more information, unsuccessfully, and hit ICANN with yet another RfR in April 2018. Guess what? That one was rejected too.

The .hotel applicants then entered into a Cooperative Engagement Process — basically pre-IRP talks — from October 2018 to November 2019, before this latest IRP was filed.

It’s tempting to characterize it as a bit of a fishing expedition, albeit not a baseless one — any allegations of ICANN’s wrongdoing pertaining the .hotel CPE are dwarfed by the applicants’ outraged claims that ICANN appears to be covering up both its interactions with the EIU and its probe of the Krischenowski incident, partly out of embarrassment.

The claimants want ICANN to be forced to hand over documentation refused them on previous occasions, relating to: “ICANN subversion of the .HOTEL CPE and first IRP (Despegar), ICANN subversion of FTI’s CPE Process Review, ICANN subversion of investigation into HTLD theft of trade secrets, and ICANN allowing a domain registry conglomerate to takeover the ‘community-based’ applicant HTLD.”

“The falsely ‘independent’ CPE processes were in fact subverted by ICANN in violation of Bylaws, HTLD stole trade secrets from at least one competing applicant, and Afilias is not a representative of the purported community,” the IRP states.

“HTLD’s application should be denied, or at least its purported Community Priority relinquished, as a consequence not only for HTLD’s spying on its competitors’ secret information, but also because HTLD is no longer the same company that applied for the .HOTEL TLD. It is now just a registry conglomerate with no ties to the purported, contrived ‘Community’ that it claims entitled to serve,” it goes on.

ICANN is yet to file its response to the complaint.

Whether the IRP will be successful is anyone’s guess, but what’s beyond doubt is that if it runs its course it’s going to add at least a year, probably closer to two, to the delay that .hotel has been languishing under since the applications were filed in 2012.

Potentially lengthening the duration of the case is the claimants’ demand that ICANN “appoint and train” a “Standing Panel” of at least seven IRP panelists from which each three-person IRP panel would be selected.

The standing panel is something that’s been talked about in ICANN’s bylaws for at least six or seven years, but ICANN has never quite got around to creating it.

ICANN pinged the community for comments on how it should go about creating this panel last year, but doesn’t seemed to have provided a progress report for the last nine months.

The .hotel applicants do not appear to be in any hurry to get this issue resolved. The goal is clearly to force the contention set to auction, which presumably could happen at Afilias’ unilateral whim. Time-to-market is only a relevant consideration for the winner.

With .hotel, and Afilias’ lawsuit attempting to block the .web sale to Verisign, the last round of new gTLD program, it seems, is going to take at least a decade from beginning to end.

MMX switches porn TLDs from Afilias to Uniregistry

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2019, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines is moving its four porn-themed gTLDs to a new back-end provider.

MMX CEO Toby Hall confirmed to DI today that the company is ditching Afilias, which had been providing registry services for .xxx since 2011.

“We’re in the process of switching the back-ends from Afilias to Uni for the ICM portfolio,” he said.

This portfolio, which MMX acquired last year, also includes .porn, .adult and .sex. There are roughly 170,000 domains under management in total, but about half of these are sunrise-period blocks in .xxx, which could add a wrinkle to the transition.

It appears that Afilias is still providing DNS for the TLDs, but Uniregistry has been named the official tech contact.

It’s not currently clear when the handover will be complete. Hall was not immediately available for further comment.

It’s also not currently clear why Uniregistry was selected. All of MMX’s 27 other gTLDs — the likes of .vip, .work and .law — have been running on Nominet’s platform since MMX dropped its own self-hosted infrastructure a few years back.

During the same restructuring, Uniregistry took on MMX’s registrar business.

Uniregistry has also been working closely with MMX on its recently launched AdultBlock trademark blocking services, which could wind up accounting for a big chunk of MMX’s porn-related revenue.

These latest four gTLDs to switch providers are merely the latest in a game of musical chairs that has been playing out for the last several months, five years after the first new gTLDs started going live and registries shop around for better back-end deals.

Nominet picked up most of Amazon’s portfolio, replacing Neustar, earlier this year.

But Nominet has lost high-profile .blog to CentralNic, and Afilias lost a Brazilian dot-brand to Nic.br

Porn-block retail prices revealed. Wow.

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2019, Domain Registrars

The first retail prices for MMX’s porn-blocking AdultBlock services have been revealed, and they ain’t cheap.

The registrar 101domain yesterday announced that it has started offering AdultBlock and sister service AdultBlock+, and published its pricing.

Trademark owners wanting to block a single string across .sex, .porn, .adult and .xxx will pay $349 per year with the vanilla, renew-annually service.

If they want the AdultBlock+ service, which also blocks homographs, they’ll pay $799 a year or $7,495 for the maximum 10-year term.

Compare this to the Sunrise B offer that ICM Registry made to trademark owners in 2011, where a string in .xxx cost roughly $200 to $300 for a 10-year block.

The two services are not directly comparable, of course. AdultBlock covers three additional TLDs and the AdultBlock+ service covers confusingly similar variants.

But trademark owners are buying peace of mind that their brands won’t be registered as porn sites, and the cost of that peace of mind just increased tenfold.

AdultBlock domains don’t resolve, and are a lot cheaper than domain registrations.

Renewing a single string in all four gTLDs at 101domain prices would cost around $480 a year, so customers will pay about 27% less buying a block instead.

The cost of the first year for those four domains would be $360, just $11 more than the AdultBlock price, according to 101domain’s price list.

MMX, which acquired the gTLD portfolio from ICM last year, is offering a discount on the AdultBlock+ service for customers buying before the end of 2019.

101domain is offering 10 years of AdultBlock+ for $3,999, a saving of $3,500.

101domain is not known as a particularly expensive registrar, so prices elsewhere in the industry could go higher.