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Has the world’s biggest new gTLD registry gone bankrupt?

Has Famous Four Media, by some measures the largest new gTLD registry, gone bankrupt?

There’s some startling evidence that this may be the case, but the company and others concerned are maintaining radio silence.

Last week, IANA’s administrative contact for all of the company’s 16 TLDs changed from its CEO, Geir Rasmussen, to someone called Edgar Lavarello. Here’s an example.

Lavarello, it turns out, is a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Gibraltar who specializes in insolvency and liquidation.

Here he is in a three-year-old interview explaining why my headline today technically really should have used the word “insolvent” rather than “bankrupt”.

On Wednesday, I reached out for comment to Rasmussen and Lavarello, along with others known to work at FFM (at least recently) but have not received any responses.

Absence of a reply is not proof of anything of course — FFM has never been the most communicative company in the world and nobody is under any obligation to respond to inquiries from a humble blogger.

But I suspect that if I posed the straightforward if slightly cheeky question “Has your company gone bankrupt?” to almost any other member of the domain name industry, I’d usually expect to receive a denial in short order.

Sadly, insolvency records in laissez-faire British tax haven Gibraltar, where FFM is based, do not appear to be a matter of public record.

Even if FFM has not gone insolvent, I think there are clear signs it is having problems.

Its primary web site at famousfourmedia.com has been stripped back to be little more than a privacy policy and a contact form. Gone are all the sales pitches, press releases and TLD-specific pages. It’s now basically a one-pager.

The web site of its parent company, Domain Venture Partners, no longer resolves.

Reaching out to industry sources who have business relationships with FFM, I was unable to find anyone who’d talked to the company recently, though there were rumors of departing staff.

Earlier this year, company chair Iain Roache spent £3.9 million ($5.4 million) to buy out former FFM COO Charles Melvin, after Melvin filed a lawsuit against him and Rasmussen.

The nature of the suit is not particularly clear from public records, but at one point Gibraltar’s top judge ruled that the defendants had filed inaccurate — technically “forged” — documents to the court.

These documents included 10 invoices between FFM and AlpNames, its affiliated registrar.

Famous Four runs 16 new gTLDs — the largest among them .loan, .win and .men — and has arguably shifted more domains than any other portfolio registry.

Group volume currently runs at about 4.5 million names according to ntldstats, compared to 3.9 million for Donuts with its far larger portfolio of 241 strings.

It’s achieved this impressive scale largely by selling domains super cheap, often at or below cost and often via AlpNames.

This has resulted in huge numbers of domains being acquired by spammers. FFM strings are routinely listed in the SpamHaus top-ten list of dirtiest TLDs.

AlpNames is also regularly fingered as one of the most spam-friendly registrars.

The company’s chosen business model means that renewals, where you’d expect to make your actual revenue, are on the low side. If you take its .science as a representative example, the TLD peaked at 350,000 domains under management in April 2016 but stood at around 63,000 this February.

$44 billion company is latest deadbeat gTLD registry

Indian car-making giant Tata Motors has become the latest new gTLD registry to fail to pay its ICANN fees.

According to a breach notice (pdf), $44 billion-a-year Tata hasn’t paid its $6,250 quarterly registry fee since at least November last year (though probably much earlier).

Listed on the New York Stock Exchange and elsewhere and part of the Indian conglomerate Tata Group, the company runs .tatamotors as a dot-brand gTLD.

The breach notice, dated 10 days ago, also says that the company is in breach of its contract for failing to publish an abuse contact on its nic.tatamotors web site, something it seems to have corrected.

.tatamotors had half a dozen domains under management at the last count and seems to have at least experimented with using the TLD for private purposes.

Tata becomes the second dot-brand registry to get a slap for non-payment this year.

Back in April, the bank Kuwait Finance House, with revenues of $700 million a year, was also told it was late paying its fees.

After ICANN nod, MMX buys .xxx

MMX has closed the acquisition of porn-focused ICM Registry, after receiving the all-clear from ICANN for the contract transfers.

The deal is worth roughly $41 million — $10 million cash and about $31 million in stock.

ICM runs .xxx from the 2003 gTLD application round (though it didn’t go live until 2011) and .porn, .adult and .sex from the 2012 round.

MMX, which now has 29 fully-owned TLDs and another five in partnerships, will now become roughly a quarter-owned by former ICM employees and its back-end provider, Afilias.

ICM president Stuart Lawley now owns 15% of MMX and is its largest shareholder.

CEO Toby Hall said in a statement to the markets that he has “identified a number areas of potential growth and synergy”.

The company noted that the deal increases the share of its revenue coming from the US and Europe, implicitly highlighting the reduction of its exposure to the volatile Chinese market, where .vip has been its biggest money-spinner to date.

ICM had something like 152,000 .xxx domains under management at the last count, but over 80,000 of those are reservations. It has about 92,000 names in its zone file currently.

The three 2012-round names are faring less well, with about 8,000 to 10,000 names apiece in their zones.

Somebody once jokingly told me that ICM stood for “Internet Cash Machine”, due to the perception that porn-focused names would sell like, well, porn. Just thought I’d mention that.

ICANN slashes new gTLD income forecast AGAIN

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN has yet again been forced to lower its funding expectations from new gTLDs, as the industry continues to face growth challenges.

In its latest draft fiscal year 2019 budget, likely to be approved at the end of the month, it’s cut $1.7 million from the amount it expects to receive in new gTLD transaction fees.

That’s even after cutting its estimates for fiscal 2018 in half just a few months back.

New gTLD registry transaction fees — the $0.25 collected whenever a new gTLD domain is registered, renewed or transferred, provided that the gTLD has over 50,000 domains under management — are now estimated at $5.1 million for FY19

That’s up just $500,000 from where it expects FY18, which ends June 30 this year, to finish off.

But it’s down $900,000 or 15% from the $6 million in transaction fees it was forecasting just four months ago.

It’s also still a huge way off the $8.7 million ICANN had predicted for FY18 in March 2017.

Registrar new gTLD transaction fees for FY19, paid by registrars regardless of the size of the TLD, are now estimated to come in at $4.3 million, up $400,000 from the expect FY18 year-end sum.

But, again, that number is down $800,000 from the $5.1 million in registrar fees that ICANN was forecasting in its first-draft FY19 budget.

In short, even when it was slashing its FY18 expectations in half, it was still over-confident on FY19.

On the bright side, at least ICANN is predicting some growth in new gTLD transactions.

And the story is almost exactly reversed when it comes to pre-2012 gTLDs.

For legacy gTLD registry transaction fees — the majority of which are paid by Verisign for .com and .net — ICANN has upped its expectations for FY19 to $49.6 million, compared to its January estimate of $48.7 million (another $900,000 difference, but in the opposite direction).

That growth will be offset by lower growth at the registrar level, where transaction fees for legacy gTLDs are now expected to be $30.2 million for FY19, compared to its January estimate of $30.4 million, a $200,000 deficit.

None of ICANN’s estimates for FY18 transaction fees have changed since the previous budget draft.

But ICANN has also slashed its expectation in terms of fixed fees from new gTLD registries — the $25,000 a year they all must pay regardless of volume.

The org now expects to end FY18 with 1,218 registries paying fees and for that to creep up slightly to 1,221 by the end of FY19.

Back in January, it was hoping to have 1,228 and 1,231 at those milestones respectively.

Basically, it’s decided that 10 TLDs it expected to start paying fees this year actually won’t, and that they won’t next year either. These fixed fees kick in when TLDs are delegated and stop when the contract is terminated.

It now expects registry fixed fees (legacy and new) of $30.5 million for FY19, down from expected $30.6 million for FY18 and and down from its January prediction of $31.1 million.

ICANN’s budget documents can be downloaded here.

Failure to launch: 10 years-old gTLDs that are still dormant

Over six years after the last new gTLD application window closed, more than one in 10 new gTLDs have yet to launch, even though some have been delegated for over four years.

Once you filter out duplicates, withdrawals and terminations from the original 1,930 applications, there were a maximum of roughly 1,300 potential new gTLDs from the 2012 round.

But, by my calculations, 144 of those have yet to even get around to their sunrise period. Most of those haven’t even filed their launch plans with ICANN yet.

Here’s 10 from that list I’ve picked based on how interesting they appear to me, in no particular order.

Yes, DI is doing listicles now. Hate-mail to the usual address.

.forum

This one’s owned by Jay Westerdal’s Top Level Spectrum, the same company behind .feedback, .realty and others. I quite like the potential of this string — the internet is chock-full of forums due to the easy availability of open-source forum software — but so far nobody’s gotten to register one. It was delegated back in June 2015 and doesn’t have a published launch plan as yet. An FAQ reading just saying “Jay was here !!!!! Test deploy..delete me later…” has been up on its site since at least last September. TLS is also sitting on .contact and .pid (for “personal ID”) with no launch dates in sight.

.scholarships

Owned by Scholarships.com, there’s a whiff of the defensive about this one. It’s been in the root since March 2015 but its site states the registry “is still finishing launch plans and will provide updates as they become available”. Scholarships.com is a site that connects would-be higher education students to potential sources of funding. It’s difficult to imagine many ways the matching gTLD could possibly help in that mission.

.giving

JustGiving, the UK-based charity campaign aggregator, won this gTLD and had it delegated in August 2015, but seemingly still hasn’t figured out what it wants to do with it. It’s not a dot-brand, so it’s presumably mulling over ways to give .giving domains to fundraisers in a way that does not compromise credibility. Whatever its plans, it’s taking its sweet time over them.

.cancerresearch

This is a weird one. Delegated four years ago, the Australian Cancer Research Foundation rather quickly went live with a bunch of interlinked .cancerresearch web sites, using its contractually permitted allotment of promotional domains. Contractually, it’s not a dot-brand, but it’s basically acting like one, having never actually given ICANN any info about sunrise, eligibility, trademark claims, general availability, etc. Technically, it’s still pre-launch, and I can’t see any reason why it would want to budge from that status. Huge loophole in the ICANN rules?

.beauty

Another whiff of gaming here. International woman-shaming powerhouse L’Oreal still has no announced plans to launch .beauty, .skin or .hair, which it had originally wanted to run as so-called “closed generics” (presumably to keep the keywords out of the hands of competitors). Of its small portfolio of generic gTLDs, delegated in 2016, it has actually launched .makeup already, with a $6,000 retail price and a strategy seemingly based on registry-owned domains matching the names of makeup-focused social media influencers. At least it’s actually selling names, even if nobody’s bought one yet.

.budapest

One of three city TLDs that were delegated back in 2014 but have yet to start selling domains. MMX is to run it in partnership with the local government of the Hungarian city, if it ever gets off the ground. Madrid (.madrid) and Zurich (.zuerich) have both also yet to roll out, although Zurich has settled on early 2019 for its launch.

.fan

Regular DI readers won’t be surprised to see this one on the list. In what may turn out to be a shocking waste of money, .fans registry Asiamix Digital acquired the singular .fan from Donuts back in 2015 and promptly let it sit idle for the next three years. Currently, with .fans turning out to be a flop, Asiamix has money troubles and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it under new ownership before too long. It’s not a terrible string, so there’s some potential there.

.ком, etc

.ком is one of 11 internationalized domain name transliterations of .com — .कॉम, .ком, .点看, .คอม, .नेट, .닷컴, .大拿, .닷넷, .コム, .كوم and .קוֹם — that Verisign had delegated back in 2015. To date, only the Japanese .コム has launched, and the registry reportedly arsed it up quite badly. Records show .コム peaked at over 28,000 names and sits at fewer than 7,000 today. None of the remaining IDNs have launch dates attached.

Anything owned by Google or Amazon

When it comes to sitting on dormant gTLDs, you can’t top Google and Amazon for sheer numbers. Google has 19 strings in pre-launch states right now, while Amazon has a whopping 34. Amazon is letting the likes of .free, .wow, .now, .deal, .save and .secure sit idle, while Google is still stroking its chin on the likes of .eat, .meme, .fly and .channel. At the snail’s pace these companies roll out gTLDs, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these strings never hit the market.

.bom

Portuguese for “.good”, .bom was delegated to local ccTLD registry Nic.br in 2015 but has no published launch dates and no content on its nic.bom registry web site. I’d say more, but I expect a certain prolific DI commenter could do a better job of it, so I’ll turn it over to him