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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.

The company had planned to raise £3 million selling shares next month. That’s not happening now, either.

Angry investor sues for 30% of new .spa gTLD

Kevin Murphy, October 28, 2020, Domain Registries

Barely had the new gTLD .spa made it into the DNS root than it got sued by a company that claims it was stiffed out of a 30% stake in the domain.

Malaysia-based Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council, the newly minted registry, is being sued in Hong Kong by DotPH, the company that runs the Philippines ccTLD, .ph, over an eight-year-old investment deal DotPH says is being ignored.

It’s also named as defendants .asia registry DotAsia, DotAsia subsidiary Namesphere, and several DotAsia directors.

DotPH claims in its lawsuit that its CEO, Joel Disini, got together with DotAsia CEO Edmon Chung in early 2012 to come up with a deal whereby ownership of .spa, should its application be successful, would be split three ways.

ASWPC would hold half the shares, Namesphere 20%, and DotPH the remaining 30%, according to the complaint. DotPH claims it paid $60,000 for its stake in April 2012.

Now it claims that these shares were never formally issued, and it wants the Hong Kong court to force Namesphere to hand them over and force the original three-way ownership structure originally agreed.

But it turns out that DotAsia seems to have abandoned .spa anyway. Its board of directors a year ago voted to give ASWPC “sole rights” to the gTLD, enabling it to concentrate on .asia.

Disini, who was a member of the board at the time, claims he was only emailed about the vote a day before the meeting and did not see the email until it was too late.

He told DI: “the board of dotAsia moved to give away DotPH’s 30% equity in SPA”. He’s not happy about it. He reckons .spa could easily be a $2 million-a-year business.

The suit was filed October 19. You can read it here (pdf).

I’ve yet to receive a response to my request for comment from Chung, and will of course provide an update should he get back to me.

Amazon sold rights to .box gTLD for $3 million

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2020, Domain Registries

Amazon relinquished its rights to the .box gTLD five years ago for $3 million, according to court documents seen by DI.

Amazon was one of two applicants for .box, the other being a company called NS1 (that’s the numeral 1; this has nothing to do with Network Solutions).

According to a complaint filed a couple of years ago that I came across today, Amazon agreed to withdraw its application, giving its rival an unobstructed shot at the gTLD, for $3 million.

It was a private settlement of the contention set and the payout was not publicly revealed at the time.

A $3 million deal puts .box in the same ballpark as public auctions such as MMX’s .vip and Johnson & Johnson’s (now XYZ.com’s) .baby.

While the deal is years old, I thought the data point was worth publishing.

NS1’s application suggests that its business plan was to offer registrants cloud storage services, along the lines of DropBox.

But the ICANN contract was sold to Intercap, which also runs .inc and .dealer, earlier this year. The plan now appears to be to operate it as an open niche gTLD, but no launch dates have been announced.

It’s not known how much the gTLD sold for second time around.

Big pharma firm dumps its gTLD

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2020, Domain Registries

Indian pharmaceuticals company Lupin has become the latest new gTLD registry to drop its dot-brand.

The firm told ICANN recently that it no longer wishes to continue running .lupin, which it has never actually used.

It’s the 82nd dot-brand to self-terminate, the 13th this year.

Lupin is one of the world’s largest manufacturer of generic medicines, with revenue in excess of $2 billion per year.

.web ruling might not come this year

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2020, Domain Registries

A decision about who gets to run the .web gTLD may not arrive until early next year, according to Verisign CEO Jim Bidzos.

“A final decision from the [Independent Review Process[ panel may be issued later this year or early next year,” he told analysts late last week.

.web sold at auction for $135 million four years ago to a company being secretly bankrolled by Verisign, but the outcome is being challenged in the IRP by runner-up bidder Afilias.

Afilias argues that the auction should be voided because ICANN failed to sufficiently investigate links between Verisign and the winning bidder. ICANN denies any wrongdoing.

It’s widely believed that .web is the strongest potential competitor to Verisign’s .com, and its attempt to secure the string is largely defensive.

The IRP case heard several days of testimony in August and the panel retired to consider its decision.

The internet just got its first proper new gTLD of the year, and the timing couldn’t be worse

Kevin Murphy, October 21, 2020, Domain Registries

The DNS root zone has just had its first non-branded TLD delegation of the year, and the midst of a highly virulent pandemic is probably the worst possible time for its niche.

It’s .spa, newly assigned to a Malaysian company called Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council.

Spas, of course, are at the top of every government’s list when it comes to sectors that get shut down at the first whiff of virus.

Unlike restaurants and bars, which drove registrations of gTLDs such as .bar in the locked-down second quarter, spa services are not something that can easily be adapted to take-out or home delivery.

.spa has taken this long to reach the root largely due to to a fight with rival applicant Donuts.

ASWPC, backed by spas worldwide and the Belgian government (which claimed geographical protection because spas are named after the town of Spa) applied as a Community Priority Evaluation applicant, and won its CPE.

The company has said it will donate 25% of its profits to the town of Spa.

Donuts fought the CPE decision, preventing ASWPC from proceeding for three years, before backing off without explanation two years ago.

Hopefully, by the time .spa is properly ready to launch, its niche will be approaching some kind of normality.

It’s the fourth root delegation this year, after Amazon’s three dot-brands.

These eight companies account for more than half of ICANN’s revenue

Kevin Murphy, October 19, 2020, Domain Policy

While 3,207 companies contributed to ICANN’s $141 million of revenue in its last fiscal year, just eight of them were responsible for more than half of it, according to figures just released by ICANN.

The first two entries on the list will come as no surprise to anyone — they’re .com money-mill Verisign and runaway registrar market-leader GoDaddy, together accounting for more than $56 million of revenue.

Registries and registrars pay ICANN a mixture of fixed fees and transaction fees, so the greater the number of adds, renews and transfers, the more money gets funneled into ICANN’s coffers.

It’s perhaps interesting that this top-contributors list sees a few companies that are paying far more in fixed, per-gTLD fees than they are in transaction fees.

Binky Moon, the vehicle that holds 197 of Donuts’ 242 gTLD contracts, is the third-largest contributor at $5.2 million. But $4.9 million of that comes from the annual $25,000 fixed registry fee.

Only 14 of Binky’s gTLDs pass the 50,000-name threshold where transaction fees kick in.

It’s pretty much the same story at Google Registry, formally known as Charleston Road Registry.

Google has 46 gTLDs, so is paying about $1.1 million a year in fixed fees, but only three of them have enough regs (combined, about one million names) to pass the transaction fees threshold. Google’s total funding was almost $1.4 million.

Not quite on the list is Amazon, which has 55 mostly unlaunched gTLDs and almost zero registrations. It paid ICANN $1.3 million last year, just to sit on its portfolio of dormant strings.

The second and third-largest registrars, Namecheap and Tucows respectively, each paid about $1.7 million last year.

The only essentially single-TLD company on the list is Public Interest Registry, which runs .org. Despite having 10 million domains under management, it paid ICANN less than half of Binky’s total last year.

The anomaly, which may be temporary, is ShortDot, the company that runs .icu, .cyou and .bond. It paid ICANN $1.6 million, which would have been almost all transaction fees for .icu, which peaked at about 6.5 million names earlier this year.

Here’s the list:

VeriSign, Inc.$45,565,544
GoDaddy.com, LLC$10,678,376
Binky Moon, LLC$5,231,898
Public Interest Registry$2,515,416
NameCheap, Inc.$1,755,932
Tucows Domains Inc.$1,747,648
ShortDot SA$1,643,103
Charleston Road Registry Inc.$1,385,356

Combined, the total is over $70.5 million.

The full spreadsheet of all 3,000+ contributors can be found over here.

That .sucks weirdness? Worse than I thought

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2020, Domain Registries

A business plan to turn .sucks into a massive Wikipedia-style gripe site, described by trademark lawyers five years ago as a “shakedown”, has reared it ugly head again.

You may recall that earlier this week I reported how somebody had registered many hundreds of .sucks domain names and listed them for sale on secondary market web sites at cost price. It looked weird, almost as if the registry or an affiliate was the registrant, which the registry denied.

It turns out I only told you half the story, for which I can only apologize.

At the time, the domains in question were not resolving for me, probably due to my terrible, block-happy ISP. But now they are resolving, and they reveal the return of Everything.sucks, a plan first floated by the .sucks registry in 2015.

It’s a network of hundreds of .sucks micro gripe-sites, each targeted to a specific brand and each each populated with content scraped, usually without citation, from Wikipedia, social media, and consumer-review aggregator web sites.

Here’s where jackdaniels.sucks takes you, for example (click to enlarge).

Jack Daniels sucks

The description of the company is taken from Wikipedia. The customer comments below are taken from reviews of an apparently unrelated company called The Whisky Exchange published by TrustPilot, and the social media posts have been pulled from Instagram users deploying the hashtag #jackdanielssucks.

Other pages on the site seem to scrape content from GlassDoor, a site where employees review their employers.

While there’s nothing wrong with gripe sites, automating their creation over hundreds or even thousands of brands that you don’t genuinely have gripes with seems, charitably, churlish.

And these gripe sites are — or at least were — being monetized.

You’ll see a banner ad in the top-right corner of the above screen-grab, offering jackdaniels.sucks for sale. The link took you to a page on Sedo that offers the domain for sale with a buy-now price of $199 (the same as the registry’s wholesale fee).

Banners on other pages led to landers on GoDaddy-owned Uniregistry.com with prices of $599.

These banners, which appeared on every brand’s page that I checked, seem to have disappeared at some point over the last two days. I’m sure the change is unrelated to the fact that I started asking .sucks registry Vox Populi and parent Momentous difficult questions about these trademark-match domains on Wednesday.

While UDRP panels have disagreed over the years, there’s precedent dating back two decades that “trademarksucks.tld” domains with sites that contain genuine, non-commercial criticism can confer legitimate rights to the registrant and are therefore NOT cybersquatting.

I doubt a site that actively tries to sell the domain name in question for above out-of-pocket costs could be considered non-commercial.

Still, it looks like those banners are gone now, and I can’t find any other examples of obvious monetization.

I use jackdaniels.sucks as an example here as it’s the site I took a screenshot of before the changes, but there are many hundreds of similar trademark-match domains being used to feed traffic to Everything.sucks.

I note that unitedinternet.sucks, named after the parent company of Sedo, is for sale for $199 on Sedo and leads to a gripe site on Everything.sucks containing less-than-complimentary remarks. It’s for sale at $599 on Uniregistry.

But who is Everything.sucks?

The concept itself originates with the .sucks registry itself. Before the TLD launched in 2015, it floated the idea to a tsunami of criticism from trademark owners.

The plan back then was to sell .sucks domains for .com prices — a discount of a couple hundred dollars — but only to registrants unaffiliated with the trademark owner. These registrants would have had to forward their domains to an Everything.sucks-branded discussion forum.

Back then, Vox Pop said it planned to work with a non-for-profit third party on this initiative.

That third party never materialized, and later in 2015 appeared to mutate into a system called This.sucks, operated by a company called This.sucks Ltd, which took over the Everything.sucks domain name.

This.sucks sold .sucks domains for $12 a year, with the domains pointing to a forum/blogging platform that the company hoped to monetize.

Both This.sucks and Vox Pop denied there was any link between the two companies, but I later uncovered a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence linking the two companies, including the fact that Rob Hall, CEO of Vox Pop parent Momentous, paid for This.sucks’ web site design.

This.sucks appears to have fizzled out in the intervening years, but now Everything.sucks is back with a mystery registrant snapping up thousands of domains, at a cost of at least half a million bucks, under the Everything.sucks brand.

Public Whois is useless nowadays, of course.

But the front page of Everything.sucks describes it as “a non-profit organization and communications forum for social activism”.

Many of the domains that redirect to its site appear to be registered to a Turks and Caicos company called Honey Salt Ltd, a name that does not naturally suggest a non-profit entity.

Others use Momentous’ domain privacy service. All appear to be registered via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, which sells .sucks domains at cost and is therefore one of the cheapest registrars on the market.

Back in 2015, intellectual property interests expressed doubt that the proposed Everything.sucks third party and the This.sucks third party were not in fact just smokescreens, fronts for the registry itself.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard on Wednesday denied to DI that the company had any involvement in the recent spurt of trademark-match registrations being used by Everything.sucks and expressed a lack of knowledge about the registrant’s intent.

I’ve not yet received comment from Momentous, but I’d be very surprised if the company does not know who is behind Everything.sucks.

At the very least, Vox Pop and Rebel are both privy to the unexpurgated Whois and/or customer records for whoever is running Everything.sucks and whoever it is that has grown the .sucks zone file by about 50% since June.

Are 25x price increases on the cards as XYZ corners the cars market?

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Grab-happy registry XYZ.com has expanded its stable of strings to 22 after buying five little-used gTLDs from Dominion Registries.

It recently came into control of .autos, .motorcycles, .homes, .yachts, and .boats, CEO Daniel Negari confirmed earlier this week.

Following XYZ’s buyout of .auto, .car and .cars from former joint venture partner UNR a couple months back, it seems the company now pretty much has a lock on the English-language automotive domain market.

This raises the question, so far unanswered by the registry, about whether .autos registrants could be about to face some of the steepest price increases the new gTLD market has seen to date.

XYZ’s .auto, .car and .cars currently command among the highest base prices in the market — about $2,500 at retail for a basic, non-premium name — while .autos has been chugging along at $100 per domain per year.

It would make perfect sense for the registry to give its new acquisition a 25x price increase to align it with the rest of the automotive portfolio, but so far the company is tight-lipped on the subject.

Fortunately, the current pool of .autos registrants is quite small — a little over 400 names, about the same as .auto but a couple hundred ahead of .cars and .car — so there would not be many customers to piss off.

Indeed, three of the other TLDs XYZ just bought have what you might generously call “growth potential”.

The only one of the five gTLDs to have more than 500 domains under management is .homes, which has more than 13,000.

With XYZ’s broader channel reach and superior marketing prowess, there’s certainly upside on the horizon.

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.