US antitrust authorities are investigating Verisign over its anticipated operation of the .web gTLD.
The probe was disclosed by company CEO Jim Bidzos in yesterday’s fourth-quarter earnings call. He said:
On January 18, 2017, the company received a Civil Investigative Demand from the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice, requesting certain information related to Verisign’s potential operations of the .web TLD. The CID is not directed at Verisign’s existing registry agreements.
He did not comment further, beyond describing it as “kind of like a subpoena”.
Verisign acquired the rights to run .web at an ICANN last-resort auction last July, agreeing to pay $135 million.
Rather than applying for the gTLD itself, it secretly bankrolled shell company Nu Dot Co, which intends to transfer its .web contract to Verisign after it is signed.
ICANN is being sued by rival applicant Donuts, which claims NDC should have been banned from the auction. Afilias, the auction runner up, is also challenging the outcome.
But this new DoJ investigation, if we take Bidzos’ words at face value, appears to focus on what Verisign plans to do with .web once it is live.
It’s the view of many that .web would be the new gTLD best positioned as an alternative to .com, which makes Verisign hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
It’s my view that it would make perfect sense for Verisign to flush the $135 million and bury .web, rather than have a viable competitor on the market.
Verisign has repeatedly said that intends to “grow and widely distribute .web”, words Bidzos repeated last night.
The investigation is likely into whether Verisign wants to actually raise .web, or strangle it in its crib.
It seems the investigation was launched in the dying days of the Obama administration, so the recent changing of the guard at Justice — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was confirmed by Congress just two days ago — may have an impact on how it plays out.
The promise not to sue ICANN that all new gTLD applicants made when they applied is legally enforceable, a California judge has ruled.
Judge Percy Anderson on Monday threw out Donuts’ lawsuit against ICANN over the controversial $135 million .web auction, saying the “covenant not to sue bars Plaintiff’s entire action”.
He wrote that he “does not find persuasive” an earlier and contrary ruling in the case of DotConnectAfrica v ICANN, a case that is still ongoing.
Donuts sued ICANN at first to prevent the .web auction going ahead.
Donuts argued that ICANN failed to adequately vet NDC to uncover its secret sugar daddy. It wanted $22.5 million from ICANN — roughly what it would have received if the auction had been privately managed, rather than run by ICANN.
But the judge ruled that Donuts’ covenant not to sue is enforceable. Because of that, he made no judgement on the merits of Donuts’ arguments.
Under the relevant law, Donuts had to show that the applicant contract was “unconscionable” both “procedurally” and “substantively”.
Basically, the question for the judge was: was the contract unfairly one-sided?
The judge ruled (pdf) that it was not substantively unconscionable and “only minimally procedurally unconscionable”. In other words: a bit crap, but not illegal.
He put a lot of weight on the fact that the new gTLD program was designed largely by the ICANN community and on Donuts’ business “sophistication”. He wrote:
Without the covenant not to sue, any frustrated applicant could, through the filing of a lawsuit, derail the entire system developed by ICANN to process applications for gTLDs. ICANN and frustrated applicants do not bear this potential harm equally. This alone establishes the reasonableness of the covenant not to sue.
Donuts VP Jon Nevett said in a statement yesterday that the fight over .web is not over:
Donuts disagrees with the Court’s decision that ICANN’s required covenant not to sue, while being unconscionable, was not sufficiently unconscionable to be struck down as a matter of law. It is unfortunate that the auction process for .WEB was mired in a lack of transparency and anti-competitive behavior. ICANN, in its haste to proceed to auction, performed only a slapdash investigation and deprived the applicants of the right to fairly compete for .WEB in accordance with the very procedures ICANN demanded of applicants. Donuts will continue to utilize the tools at its disposal to address this procedural failure.
It looks rather like we could be looking at an Independent Review Process filing, possibly the first to be filed under ICANN’s new post-transition rules.
Donuts and ICANN are already in the Cooperative Engagement Process — the mediation phase that usually precedes an IRP — with regards .web.
Second-placed bidder Afilias is also putting pressure on ICANN to overturn the results of the auction, resulting in a bit of a public bunfight with Verisign.
TL;DR — don’t expect to be able to buy .web domains for quite a while to come.
Two of the industry’s oldest and biggest gTLD registries escalated their fight over the .web gTLD auction this week, trading blows in print and in public.
Verisign, accused by Afilias of breaking the rules when it committed $130 million to secure .web for itself, has now turned the tables on its rival.
It accuses Afilias of itself breaking the auction rules and of trying to emotionally blackmail ICANN into reversing the auction on spurious political grounds.
The .web auction was won by obscure shell-company applicant Nu Dot Co with a record-setting $135 million bid back in July.
The plan is that NDC will transfer its .web ICANN contract to Verisign after it is awarded, assuming ICANN consents to the transfer.
Afilias has since revealed that it came second in the auction. It now wants ICANN to overturn the result of the auction, awarding .web to Afilias as runner-up instead.
The company argues that NDC broke the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook rules by refusing to disclose that it had become controlled by Verisign.
It’s now trying to frame the .web debate as ICANN’s “first test of accountability” under the new, independent, post-IANA transition regime.
Afilias director Jonathan Robinson posted on CircleID:
If ICANN permits the auction result to stand, it may not only invite further flouting of its rules, it will grant the new TLD with the highest potential to the only entity with a dominant market position. This would diminish competition and consumer choice and directly contradict ICANN’s values and Bylaws.
Given the controversy over ICANN’s independence, all eyes will be on the ICANN board to see if it is focused on doing the right thing. It’s time for the ICANN board to show resolve and to demonstrate that it is a strong, independent body acting according to the letter and spirit of its own AGB and bylaws and, perhaps most importantly of all, to actively demonstrate its commitment to act independently and in the global public interest.
Speaking at the first of ICANN’s two public forum sessions at ICANN 57 in Hyderabad, India this week, Robinson echoed that call, telling the ICANN board:
You are a credible, independent-minded, and respected board who recognized the enhanced scrutiny that goes with the post-transition environment. Indeed, this may well be the first test of your resolve in this new environment. You have the opportunity to deal with the situation by firmly applying your own rules and your own ICANN bylaw-enshrined core value to introduce and promote competition in domain names. We strongly urge you to do so.
Then, after a few months of relative quiet on the subject, Verisign and NDC this week came out swinging.
First, in a joint blog post, the companies rubbished Afilias’ attempt to bring the IANA transition into the debate. They wrote:
Afilias does a great disservice to ICANN and the entire Internet community by attempting to make this issue a referendum on ICANN by entitling its post “ICANN’s First Test of Accountability.” Afilias frames its test for ICANN’s new role as an “independent manager of the Internet’s addressing system,” by asserting that ICANN can only pass this test if it disqualifies NDC and bars Verisign from acquiring rights to the .web new gTLD. In this case, Afilias’ position is based on nothing more than deflection, smoke and cynical self-interest.
Speaking at the public forum in Hyderabad on Wednesday, Verisign senior VP Pat Kane said:
This is not a test for the board. This issue is not a test for the newly empowered community. It is a test of our ability to utilize the processes and the tools that we’ve developed over the past 20 years for dispute resolution.
Verisign instead claims that Afilias’ real motivation could be to force .web to a private auction, where it can be assured an eight-figure payday for losing.
NDC/Verisign won .web at a so-called “last resort” auction, overseen by ICANN, in which the funds raised go into a pool to be used for some yet-to-be-determined public benefit cause.
That robbed rival applicants, including Afilias, of the equal share of the proceeds they would have received had the contention set been settled via the usual private auction process.
But Verisign/NDC, in their post, claim Afilias wants to force .web back to private auction.
Afilias’ allegations of Applicant Guidebook violations by NDC are nothing more than a pretext to conduct a “private” instead of a “public” auction, or to eliminate a competitor for the .web new gTLD and capture it for less than the market price.
Verisign says that NDC was under no obligation to notify ICANN of a change of ownership or control because no change of ownership or control has occurred.
It says the two companies have an “arms-length contract” which saw Verisign pay for the auction and NDC commit to ask ICANN to transfer its .web Registry Agreement to Verisign.
It’s not unlike the deal Donuts had with Rightside, covering over a hundred gTLD applications, Verisign says.
The contract between NDC and Verisign did not assign to Verisign any rights in NDC’s application, nor did Verisign take any ownership or management interest in NDC (let alone control of it). NDC has always been and always will be the owner of its application
Not content with defending itself from allegations of wrongdoing, Verisign/NDC goes on to claim that it is instead Afilias that broke ICANN rules and therefore should have disqualified from the auction.
They allege that Afilias offered NDC a guarantee of a cash payout if it chose to go to private auction instead, and that it attempted to coerce NDC to go to private auction on July 22, which was during a “blackout period” during which bidders were forbidden from discussing bidding strategies.
During the public forum sessions at ICANN 57, ICANN directors refused to comment on statements from either side of the debate.
That’s likely because it’s a matter currently before the courts.
Fellow .web loser Donuts has already sued ICANN in California, claiming the organization failed to adequately investigate rumors that Verisign had taken over NDC.
Donuts failed to secure a restraining order preventing the .web auction from happening, but the lawsuit continues. Most recently, ICANN filed a motion attempting to have the case thrown out.
In my opinion, arguments being spouted by Verisign and Afilias both stretch credulity.
Afilias has yet to present any smoking gun showing Verisign or NDC broke the rules. Likewise, Verisign’s claim that Afilias wants to enrich itself by losing a private auction appear to be unsupported by any evidence.
ICANN is looking into demands for it to throw out Verisign’s covert $135 million winning bid for the highly prized .web gTLD.
ICANN last week told the judge hearing Donuts’ .web-related lawsuit that it is “currently in the process of investigating certain of the issues raised” by Donuts through its “internal accountability mechanisms”.
Donuts is suing for $22.5 million, claiming ICANN should have forced Nu Dot Co to disclose that its .web bid was being secretly bankrolled by Verisign and alleging that the .com heavyweight used NDC as cover to avoid regulatory scrutiny.
ICANN’s latest filing (pdf), made jointly with Donuts, asked for an extension to October 26 of ICANN’s deadline to file a response to Donuts’ complaint.
It was granted, the second time the deadline has been extended, but the judge warned it was also the final time.
The referenced “internal accountability mechanism” would seem to mean the Cooperative Engagement Process — a low-formality bilateral negotiation — that Donuts and fellow .web bidder Radix initiated against ICANN August 2.
The filing states that the “resolution of certain issues in controversy may be aided by allowing [ICANN] to complete its investigation of [Donuts’] allegations prior to the filing of its responsive pleading.”
In other words, Donuts is either hopeful that ICANN may be able to resolve some of its complaints in the next month, or it’s not particularly impatient about the case progressing.
Meanwhile, fellow .web applicant Afilias has demanded for the second time that ICANN hand over .web to it, as the second-highest bidder, throwing out the NDC/Verisign application.
In a September 9 letter, published last night, Afilias told ICANN to “disqualify and reject” NDC’s application, alleging at least three breaches of ICANN rules.
Afilias says that by refusing to disclose Verisign’s support for its bid, NDC broke the rules and should have its application thrown out.
The company also confirmed on the public record for what I believe is the first time that it was the second-highest bidder in the July 27 auction.
Afilias would pay somewhere between $57.5 million and $71.9 million for the gTLD, depending on what the high bid of the third-placed applicant was.
In its new letter, Afilias says NDC broke the rule from the Applicant Guidebook that does not allow applicants to “resell, assign or transfer any of applicant’s rights or obligations in connection with the application”.
It also says that NDC was obliged by the AGB to notify ICANN of “changes in financial position and changes in ownership or control”, which it did not.
It finally says that Verisign used NDC as a front during the auction, in violation of auction rules.
“In these circumstances, we submit that ICANN should disqualify NDC’s bid and offer to accept the application of Afilias, which placed the second highest exit bid,” Afilias general counsel Scott Hemphill wrote (pdf).
Hemphill told ICANN to defer from signing a Registry Agreement with NDC or Verisign, strongly implying that Afilias intends to invoke ICANN accountability mechanisms (presumably meaning the Request for Reconsideration process and/or Independent Review Process).
While Afilias and Donuts are both taking issue with the secretive nature of Verisign’s acquisition of .web, they’re not necessarily fighting the same corner.
Donuts is looking for $22.5 million because that’s roughly what it would have received if the .web contention set had been resolved via private auction and $135 million had been the winning bid.
But Afilias wants the ICANN auction outcome to stand, albeit with NDC’s top bid rejected. That would mean Donuts, Radix, and the other applicants would still receive nothing.
There’s also the question of other new gTLD applications that have prevailed at auction and been immediately transferred to third-party non-applicants.
The most notable example of this was .blog, which was won by shell company Primer Nivel with secretive backing from WordPress maker Automattic.
Donuts itself regularly wins gTLD auctions and immediately transfers its contracts to Rightside under a pre-existing agreement.
In both of those cases, the reassignment deals predated, but were not disclosed in, the respective applications.
There’s the recipe here for a messy, protracted bun fight over .web, which should come as no surprise to anyone.
Donuts is demanding ICANN pay up the $22.5 million it reckons it is owed from the auction of the .web gTLD, which sold late last month for $135 million.
The company yesterday amended its existing California lawsuit against ICANN to allege that Verisign tried to avoid regulatory scrutiny by secretly bankrolling successful bidder Nu Dot Co.
The updated complaint (pdf) reads:
VeriSign’s apparent acquisition of NDC’s application rights was an attempt to avoid allegations of anti-competitive conduct and antitrust violations in applying to operate the .WEB gTLD, which is widely viewed by industry analysts as the strongest competitor to the .COM and .NET gTLDs.
Donuts wants a minimum of $22.5 million, which is roughly what each of the six losing .web applicants would have received if the contention set had been resolved via private auction.
(I previously reported that number as $18.5 million, because I accidentally counted .webs applicant Vistaprint as losing .webs applicant, when in fact it won .webs, paying $1.)
The company’s claims are still based around the allegation that ICANN breached its duties by failing to root out Verisign as the puppet-master.
The complaint alleges breach of contract, negligence, unfair competition and other claims. It says:
ICANN allowed a third party to make an eleventh-hour end run around the application process to the detriment of Plaintiff, the other legitimate applicants for the .WEB gTLD and the Internet community at large.
ICANN intentionally failed to abide by its obligations to conduct a full and open investigation into NDC’s admission because it was in ICANN’s interest that the .WEB contention set be resolved by way of an ICANN auction.
The irony here is that Ruby Glen LLC, the Donuts company that applied for .web, is subject to an arrangement not dissimilar to NDC’s with Verisign.
Ruby Glen is owned by Covered TLD LLC, in turn a wholly-owned Donuts subsidiary.
It’s well-known that fellow portfolio registry Rightside has rights to acquire Covered TLD’s over 100 applied-for strings, but this is not disclosed in its .web application.
ICANN will no doubt make use of this fact when it files its answer to the complaint.
Verisign itself has not been added as a defendant, but much of the new text in the complaint focuses on its now-confirmed involvement with NDC. The suit reads:
Had VeriSign’s apparent acquisition of NDC’s application rights been fully disclosed to ICANN by NDC… the relationship would have also triggered heightened scrutiny of VeriSign’s Registry Agreements with ICANN for .COM and .NET, as well as its Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Commerce.
The fact that Verisign is allowed to collect over half a billion dollars cash every year as a result of its state-endorsed monopoly is a longstanding cause of embarrassment for the Department of Commerce.
It has taken an interest in regulating Verisign’s .com contract in the past — it’s the only reason Verisign has not been able to raise .com prices in the last few years.
But the US government is not a party to the .web contract (unlike .com, where it has a special relationship with Verisign) and is not involved in the new gTLD program’s management or policies.
The complaint also makes reference to a completely unrelated Independent Review Process declaration from last week, which slammed ICANN for its lack of accountability and transparency.
Donuts faces the additional problem that, like all new gTLD applicants, it signed a covenant not to sue ICANN when it applied for its new gTLDs.
A judge in the DotConnectAfrica v ICANN can has allowed that lawsuit to proceed, regardless, but it may prove a stumbling block for Donuts.
It all looks a bit flimsy to me, but I’ve learned not to second-guess American judges so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.