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Verisign likely $135 million winner of .web gTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 1, 2016, Domain Registries

Verisign has emerged as the likely winner of the .web gTLD auction, which closed on Thursday with a staggering $135 million winning bid.

The shell company Nu Dot Co LLC was the prevailing applicant in the auction, which ran for 23 rounds over two days.

Just hours after the auction closed, Domain Name Wire scooped that Verisign had quietly informed investors that it has committed to pay $130 million for undisclosed “contractual rights”.

In its Securities and Exchange Commission quarterly report, filed after the markets closed on Thursday, Verisign said:

Subsequent to June 30, 2016, the Company incurred a commitment to pay approximately $130.0 million for the future assignment of contractual rights, which are subject to third-party consent. The payment is expected to occur during the third quarter of 2016.

There seems to be little doubt that the payment is to be made to NDC (or one of its shell company parents) in exchange for control of the .web Registry Agreement.

The “third-party consent” is likely a reference to ICANN, which must approve RA reassignments.

We speculated on July 14 that Verisign would turn out to be NDC’s secret sugar daddy, which seems to have been correct.

Rival .web applicant Donuts had sued ICANN for an emergency temporary restraining order, claiming it had not done enough to uncover the identity of NDC’s true backers, but was rebuffed on multiple grounds by a California judge.

Donuts, and other applicants, had wanted the contention set settled privately, but NDC was the only hold-out.

Had it been settled with a private auction, and the $135 million price tag had been reached, each of the seven losing applicants would have walked away with somewhere in the region of $18.5 million in their pockets.

This draws the battle lines for some potentially interesting legal fallout.

It remains to be seen if Donuts will drop its suit against ICANN or instead add Verisign in as a defendant with new allegations.

There’s also the possibility of action from Neustar, which is currently NDC’s named back-end provider.

Assuming Verisign plans to switch .web to its own back-end, Neustar may be able to make similar claims to those leveled by Verisign against XYZ.com.

Overall, Verisign controlling .web is sad news for the new gTLD industry, in my view.

.web has been seen, over the years, as the string that is both most sufficiently generic, sufficiently catchy, sufficiently short and of sufficient semantic value to provide a real challenge to .com.

I’ve cooled on .web since I launched DI six years ago. Knowing what we now know about how many new gTLD domains actually sell, and how they have to be priced to achieve volume, I was unable to see how even a valuation of $50 million was anything other than a long-term (five years or more) ROI play.

Evidently, most of the applicants agreed. According to ICANN’s log of the auction (pdf) only two applicants — NDC and another (Google?) — submitted bids in excess of $57.5 million.

But for Verisign, .web would have been a risk in somebody else’s hands.

I don’t think the company cares about making .web a profitable TLD, it instead is chiefly concerned with being able to control the impact it has on .com’s mind-share monopoly.

Verisign makes about a billion dollars a year in revenue, with analyst-baffling operating margins around 60%, and that’s largely because it runs .com.

In 2015, its cash flow was $651 million.

So Verisign has dropped a couple of months’ cash to secure .web — chickenfeed if the real goal is .com’s continued hegemony.

In the hands of a rival new gTLD company’s marketing machine, in six months we might have been seeing (naive) headlines along the lines of “Forget .com, .web is here!”.

That won’t happen now.

I’m not privy to Verisign’s plans for .web, but its track record supporting the other TLDs it owns is not fantastic.

Did you know, or do you remember, that Verisign runs .name? I sometimes forget that too. It bought it from Global Name Registry in late 2008, at the high point of its domains under management in this chart.

.name

I don’t think I expect Verisign to completely bury .web, but I don’t think we’re going to see it aggressively promoted either.

It will never be positioned as a competitor to .com.

If .web never makes $135 million, that would be fine. Just as long as it doesn’t challenge the perception that you need a .com to be successful, Verisign’s purchase was worth the money.

.web could already be a record-breaker as auction enters day two

Kevin Murphy, July 28, 2016, Domain Sales

It seems likely that .web has already smashed through the $41.5 million record sale price for a new gTLD at ICANN auction.

The auction, which kicked off properly at 1300 UTC yesterday, seems to have ended its first day of bidding at around 2300 UTC last night without a winner.

That suggests, based on the rules and how previous auctions have played out, that we’re probably already looking at high bids over $50 million.

The previous top price for a gTLD at ICANN auction was .shop, which sold to GMO for $41.5 million earlier this year.

The signs are that .web will go for more.

Be warned, this is mostly informed guesswork. I don’t know what the current bids are.

ICANN auctions work in rounds. In each round the minimum bid is either $1 (for round one) or the previous round’s maximum bid (for all subsequent rounds).

The maximum bid in each round is set by the auctioneer, who has broad discretion, based on the action at the time.

The range between minimum and maximum bids seems to get bigger in each passing round, based on previous auction results.

According to ICANN auction rules (pdf) each bidding round lasts 20 minutes and is immediately followed by a 20-minute recess.

This schedule is somewhat flexible. It could be slowed down or sped up with the consent of all bidders.

The .web auction was due to kick off at 1300 UTC yesterday, according to court papers, though it seems probable that round-one bids were accepted the previous night.

The first day’s bidding was due to end at 2330 UTC yesterday.

So that’s over 10 hours of bidding yesterday, which works out to about 15 rounds if they stuck to the 40-minute round schedule.

When .shop sold for $41.5 million, it did so in just 14 rounds, carried out in a single day.

The final round of that auction saw an acceptable bidding range of $36.8 million to $46 million — an almost $10 million spread.

So, if we can assume that there were at least 15 rounds in the .web auction yesterday and we can assume that the auctioneer is following a similar playbook to the .shop auction, the maximum bid when the auction paused overnight was likely well over $50 million.

By the time you read this, this guesswork could be moot anyway. I expect we’ll find out later today whether those assumptions were accurate. It seems unlikely that a third day’s bidding will be required.

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

Donuts denied! .web auction to go ahead today

A California judge had denied Donuts’ eleventh-hour attempt to delay today’s .web gTLD auction.

In a ruling late yesterday, Judge Percy Anderson rejected the company’s request for an emergency temporary restraining order preventing ICANN from selling off the premium gTLD.

This means the auction is pretty much certain to go ahead starting at 1300 UTC — that’s 6am local time for ICANN — today.

Donuts had sought the TRO because it claims ICANN failed in its duty to investigate whether rival bidder Nu Dot Co is now backed by a new big-money controlling party.

Its ultimate goal appears to have been to somehow force .web to private settlement, where all the unsuccessful applicants could get a multi-million dollar pay-off.

Anderson dismissed the request for a multitude of largely technical legal reasons surrounding the timing of Donuts’ request.

He said that, had ICANN not already filed its opposition to the TRO, he would have ruled against Donuts simply for failure to formally serve ICANN in a timely fashion.

But on the merits, he ruled that there was not a strong likelihood of Donuts winning a full trial, due to the statements of two NDC executives, who swore on oath there had been no change to the company’s ownership or management.

Anderson wrote (pdf):

Based on the strength of ICANN’s evidence submitted in opposition to the Application for TRO, and the weakness of Plaintiff’s efforts to enforce vague terms contained in the ICANN bylaws and Applicant Guidebook, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to establish that it is likely to succeed on the merits, raise serious issues, or show that the balance of hardships tips sharply in its favor on its breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and negligence claims. Moreover, because the results of the auction could be unwound, Plaintiff has not met its burden to establish that it will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of the preliminary injunctive relief it seeks. The Court additionally concludes that the public interest does not favor the postponement of the auction.

He did give Donuts leave to amend its request, but given that the auction is due to start today before California office/court hours, that courtesy seems moot.

It’s likely that by the end of the day we will know how much the .web, and possibly .webs, domains fetched. We’re certainly looking at eight figures for .web, in my view.

Some have guessed prices in the ballpark of $50 million, based on the $41.5 million paid for .shop earlier this year.

It seems at least seven of the eight applicants in the auction will be bidding blind, strategically speaking.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that NDC does indeed have one or more secret sugar daddies supporting its bid, insulated from public view by NDC’s corporate structure.

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

ICANN currently has over $100 million in a bank account, segregated from its operating funds, from previous last-resort auctions.

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).