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Donuts files $10 million lawsuit to stop .web auction

Donuts has sued ICANN in an attempt to block the auction of the .web gTLD this Wednesday.

The gTLD portfolio registry filed a lawsuit in California on Friday, seeking over $10 million in damages and a temporary restraining order to stop the auction going ahead.

The complaint alleges breach of contract, negligence and unfair competition and seeks a court declaration that the covenant not to sue signed by all new gTLD applicants is unenforceable.

According to Donuts, ICANN breached its duties by not fully investigating the allegation that rival .web applicant Nu Dot Co has undergone a change of control and has a new, wealthier owner.

NDC is the only applicant in the eight-strong .web/.webs contention set that refuses to resolve the contest privately.

A private auction would enrich all losing applicants to the tune of many millions of dollars.

By forcing a “last resort” ICANN auction, NDC has ensured that ICANN will be the only party to benefit from the auction proceeds.

Last-resort auction funds are placed in a separate ICANN account, currently worth over $100 million, which will be spent according to a currently undecided policy created by the ICANN community.

But Donuts’ complaint strongly implies that ICANN is forcing the auction to go ahead because it stands to benefit financially.

Donuts repeats the allegation from its recent joint Request for Reconsideration with Radix that NDC should be forced to disclose to ICANN, via a gTLD application change, the names of its alleged new directors.

It cites again a redacted email from NDC director Jose Ignacio Rasco which talks about fellow listed director Nicolai Bezsonoff no longer being involved with the application but that “several” new directors were.

It adds a quote about Rasco talking about “powers that be”, which Donuts takes to mean he is answering to someone else.

NDC is not listed in the lawsuit, which focuses on ICANN’s obligations under the new gTLD program application contract.

Donuts alleges, for example, that ICANN has a duty to fully investigate whether NDC has indeed changed directors.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee said last week that ICANN staff had talked to and emailed Rasco about the allegations. Donuts says it should have at least talked to Bezsonoff too.

Donuts also claims that ICANN is not allowed to go ahead with a last-resort auction while there are still outstanding “accountability mechanisms” — including the RfR, which has not yet been formally closed out by the full ICANN board.

The lawsuit also reveals that Donuts simultaneously filed a complaint using ICANN’s less legally formal Independent Review Process, though documentation for that is not yet available.

ICANN’s most recent statement on .web, which just confirms that the .web auction will go ahead this coming Wednesday, was also posted on Friday. It’s not clear if that was posted before or after ICANN became aware of the lawsuit.

All new gTLD applicants had to agree not to sue ICANN when they applied, but Donuts argues that this is unfair and unenforceable.

DotConnectAfrica has had some success with this argument, though Donuts does not cite that case in its own complaint.

There’s been some speculation about the motives of Donuts and others in trying to delay the auction.

The lawsuit will not force NDC into a private auction, but it might buy Donuts and the other applicants more time to consider their strategies.

I’m getting into speculative territory here, but if NDC’s strategy is to win the .web auction as a Trojan horse for its alleged new owner, perhaps revealing the identity of that new owner would make it less likely to insist on a last-resort auction.

If NDC’s alleged new owner has a time-sensitive need for the revenue .web could bring (which could be the case if, for example, the owner was Neustar) perhaps the prospect of a long lawsuit and IRP case could make it more likely to accept a private auction.

If the alleged new owner was revealed to be Verisign — a company more likely than most to acquire .web simply in order to bury it — perhaps that revelation could spur remaining applicants into pooling their resources to defeat it.

It it was a big tech firm from outside the domain industry, perhaps that would strengthen Google’s resolve to win the auction.

That’s all just me talking off the top of my head, of course.

I have no idea whether or not NDC even has new backers, though its behavior in avoiding private auction goes against character and certainly raises eyebrows.

The Donuts complaint, filed as its subsidiary Ruby Glen LLC, can be read here (pdf).

.web auction to go ahead after ICANN denies Donuts/Radix appeal

The new gTLD .web seems set to go to auction next week after ICANN rejected an 11th-hour delay attempt by two applicants.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee said yesterday that there is no evidence that applicant Nu Dot Co has been taken over by a deep-pocketed third party.

The BGC therefore rejected Donuts’ and Radix’s joint attempt to have the July 27 “last resort” auction delayed.

Donuts and Radix had argued in a Request for Reconsideration earlier this week that Nu Dot Co has changed its board of directors since first applying for .web, which would oblige it to change the application.

Its failure to do so meant they auction should be delayed, they said.

They based their beliefs on an email from NDC director Jose Ignacio Rasco, in which he said one originally listed director was no longer involved with the application but that “several others” were.

There’s speculation in the contention set that a legacy gTLD operator such as Verisign or Neustar might now be in control of NDC.

But the BGC said ICANN had already “diligently” investigated these claims:

in response to the Requesters’ allegations, ICANN did diligently investigate the claims regarding potential changes to Nu Dot’s leadership and/or ownership. Indeed, on several occasions, ICANN staff communicated with the primary contact for Nu Dot both through emails and a phone conversation to determine whether there had been any changes to the Nu Dot organization that would require an application change request. On each occasion, Nu Dot confirmed that no such changes had occurred, and ICANN is entitled to rely upon those representations.

ICANN staff had asked Rasco via email and then telephone whether there had been any changes to NDC’s leadership or control, and he said there had not.

He is quoted by he BGC as saying:

[n]either the ownership nor the control of Nu Dotco, LLC has changed since we filed our application. The Managers designated pursuant to the company’s LLC operating agreement (the LLC equivalent of a corporate Board) have not changed. And there have been no changes to the membership of the LLC either.

The RfR has therefore been thrown out.

Unless further legal action is taken, the auction is still scheduled for July 27. The deadline for all eight applicants (seven for .web and one for .webs) to post deposits with ICANN passed on Wednesday.

As it’s a last resort auction, all funds raised will go into an ICANN pot, the purpose of which has yet to be determined. The winning bid will also be publicly disclosed.

Had the contention set been settled privately, all losing applicants would have made millions of dollars of profit from their applications and the price would have remained a secret.

NDC is the only applicant refusing to go to private auction.

The applicants for .web are NDC, Radix, Donuts, Schlund, Afilias, Google and Web.com. Vistaprint’s bid for .webs is also in the auction.

The RfR decision can he read here (pdf).

Is Verisign .web applicant’s secret sugar daddy?

The fiercely contested .web gTLD is being forced into a last-resort auction and some people seem to think a major registry player is behind it.

Two .web applicants — Radix (pdf) and Schlund (pdf) — this week wrote to ICANN to demand that the .web auction, currently planned for July 27, be postponed.

They said the sale should be delayed to give applicants time “to investigate whether there has been a change of leadership and/or control” at rival applicant Nu Dot Co LLC.

Nu Dot Co is a new gTLD investment vehicle headed up by Juan Diego Calle, who launched and ran .CO Internet until it was sold to Neustar a couple of years ago.

I gather that some applicants believe that Nu Dot Co’s .web application is now being bankrolled by a larger company with deeper pockets.

The two names I’ve heard bandied around, talking to industry sources this week, are Verisign and Neustar.

Nobody I’ve talked to has a shred of direct evidence either company is involved and Calle declined to comment.

So is this paranoia or not?

There are a few reasons these suspicions may have come about.

First, the recent revelation that successful .blog applicant Primer Nivel, a no-name Panama entity with a Colombian connection, was actually secretly being bankrolled by WordPress, has opened eyes to the possibility of proxy bidders.

It was only after the .blog contention set was irreversibly settled that the .blog contract changed hands and the truth become known.

Some applicants may have pushed the price up beyond the $19 million winning bid — making the rewards of losing the private auction that much higher — had they known they were bidding against a richer, more motivated opponent.

Second, sources say the .web contention set had been heading to a private auction — in which all losing applicants get a share of the winning bid — but Nu Dot Co decided to back out at the last minute.

Under ICANN rules, if competing applicants are not able to privately resolve their contention set, an ICANN last-resort auction must ensue.

Third, this effective vetoing of the private auction does not appear to fit in with Nu Dot Co’s strategy to date.

It applied for 13 gTLDs in total. Nine of those have already gone to auctions that Nu Dot Co ultimately lost (usually reaping the rewards of losing).

The other four are either still awaiting auction or, in the case of .corp, have been essentially rejected for technical reasons.

It usually only makes sense to go to an ICANN last-resort auction — where the proceeds all go to ICANN — if you plan on winning or if you want to make sure your competitors do not get a financial windfall from a private auction.

Nu Dot Co isn’t actually an operational registry, so it doesn’t strictly have competitors.

That suggests to some that its backer is an operational registry with a disdain for new gTLD rivals. Verisign, in other words.

Others think Neustar, given the fact that its non-domains business is on the verge of imploding and its previous acquisition of .CO Internet from Calle.

I have no evidence either company is involved. I’m just explaining the thought process here.

According to its application, two entities own more than 15% of Nu Dot Co. Both — Domain Marketing Holdings, LLC and NUCO LP, LLC — are Delaware shell corporations set up via an agent in March 2012, shortly before the new gTLD application filing deadline.

Many in the industry are expecting .web to go for more than the $41.5 million GMO paid for .shop. Others talk down the price, saying “web” lacks the cultural impact it once had.

But it seems we will all find out later this month.

Responding to the letters from Schlund and Radix, ICANN yesterday said that it had no plans to postpone the July 27 last-resort auction.

All seven applicants had to submit a postponement form by June 12 if they wanted a delay, ICANN informed them in a letter (pdf), and they missed that deadline.

They now have until July 20 to either resolve the contention privately or put down their deposits, ICANN said.

The applicants for .web, aside from Nu Dot Co, are Google, Donuts, Radix, Schlund, Web.com and Afilias.

Due to a string confusion ruling, .webs applicant Vistaprint will also be in the auction.

Buy it or lose it? Governments could get first dibs on two-letter domains

Governments and ccTLD registries would get new rights to own two-letter domains in new gTLDs under a proposed ICANN policy.

These highly-prized domains, many of which are likely worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, would be subject to a mini sunrise period, under the proposal.

The so-called Exclusive Availability Pre-registration Period would be limited to those companies or government entities in charge of matching ccTLDs.

The measures are outlined in “Proposed Measures for Letter/Letter Two-Character ASCII Labels to Avoid Confusion with Corresponding Country Codes” (pdf), published by ICANN late last week.

The surprisingly succinct document outlines three things new gTLD registries must do if they want to start selling two-letter domains matching ccTLDs, which are currently restricted.

The key measure is:

Registry Operator must implement a 30-day period in which registration of letter/letter two-character ASCII labels that are country codes, as specified in the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 standard, will be made exclusively available to the applicable country-code manager or government.

In other words, if you’re a government or company listed as the ccTLD manager here, you get 30 days of exclusive opportunity to buy the LL.example matching your ccTLD.

Until now, governments have been able to block the release of LL new gTLD domains matching their ccTLDs.

The new proposal, introduced in an attempt to settle a long-running debate about the most appropriate way to enable the release of two-character strings, appears to add a “buy it or lose it” component to existing policy.

Under the base New gTLD Registry Agreement, all two-character domains were initially reserved.

Then, in late 2014, ICANN said registries could release all letter-number, number-letter and number-number combinations.

Many registries have already released such names, some selling for thousands at auction. When Rightside released its LN/NL/NN names, some carried price tags as high as $50,000.

Letter-letter domains could also be released following a formal registry request to ICANN, but were subject to a 60-day period during which governments could object.

Almost 1,000 new gTLDs have submitted such requests, and almost all have been “partially approved”.

That means some governments objected to the release of ccTLD-matching domains. Over 16,000 unique domain names have been objected to and therefore blocked over the last year or so.

The new proposal would add an extra process under which these blocked domains could be released, with ccTLD concerns getting first rights.

Interestingly, it appears to bring ccTLD managers into the mix, rather than restricting the names simply to governments.

The Governmental Advisory Committee has been the main driving force behind demands for restrictions on LL domains, but the proposed policy appears to also extend rights to private entities.

Remember, many ccTLDs are operated independently by private companies, without local government oversight.

For example, .uk is managed by Nominet, a non-governmental entity. The UK government has blocked many uk.example domains from being registered. The new policy appears to allow either Nominet or the government to register these names.

The one-page proposal is light on some details. It does not say, for example, what happens when the government and the ccTLD manager both want the name.

In keeping with ICANN’s habit of staying out of pricing, it does not specify price caps either.

It does, however, oblige registries to ban registrants from pretending to be affiliated with the relevant government when they are not.

Governments also get to complain, and registries have to investigate, if the relevant domains are causing “confusion”, though registries do not appear to be under a strict obligation to delete or suspend domains.

The policy is open for public comment until August here.

Chinese gTLD cranks up renewal prices from $18 to $100

Chinese new gTLD registry Beijing RITT-Net has said it intends to more than quintuple its registration and renewal prices.

From January 1, 2017, prices for .手机 will go up from $18 a year to $100 a year, the company said in a notice to ICANN late last month.

.手机 (.xn--kput3i) is a Chinese internationalized domain name meaning “.cell” or “.cellphone”.

The registry told ICANN:

it is our sincere hope to adjust the initial registration and renewal fees from 18 dollars to 100 dollars with the aim to keep up with the status quo of China’s domain name market and to provide registrants with better services. We wish the new price will be effective from Jan 1st, 2017.

I believe this is the biggest renewal price hike for a new gTLD registry to date.

Around 25,000 existing registrations appear to be affected, but very few registrars will have to deal with the ramifications.

According to registry reports, over 99% of its registrations were made via Beijing Innovative Linkage Technology, which does business at dns.com.cn.