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Donuts loses to ICANN in $135 million .web auction appeal

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has lost a legal appeal against ICANN in its fight to prevent Verisign running the .web gTLD.

A California court ruled yesterday that a lower court was correct when it ruled almost two years ago that Donuts had signed away its right to sue ICANN, like all gTLD applicants.

The judges ruled that the lower District Court had “properly dismissed” Donuts’ complaint, and that the covenant not to sue in the Applicant Guidebook is not “unconscionable”.

Key in their thinking was the fact that ICANN has an Independent Review Process in place that Donuts could use to continue its fight against the .web outcome.

The lawsuit was filed by Donuts subsidiary Ruby Glen in July 2016, shortly before .web was due to go to an ICANN-managed last-resort auction.

Donuts and many others believed at the time that one applicant, Nu Dot Co, was being secretly bankrolled by a player with much deeper pockets, and it wanted the auction postponed and ICANN to reveal the identity of this backer.

Donuts lost its request for a restraining order.

The auction went ahead, and NDC won with a bid of $135 million, which subsequently was confirmed to have been covertly funded by Verisign.

Donuts then quickly amended its complaint to include claims of negligence, breach of contract and other violations, as it sought $22.5 million from ICANN.

That’s roughly how much it would have received as a losing bidder had the .web contention set been settled privately and NDC still submitted a $135 million bid.

As it stands, ICANN has the $135 million.

That complaint was also rejected, with the District Court disagreeing with earlier precedent in the .africa case and saying that the covenant not to sue is enforceable.

The Appeals Court has now agreed, so unless Donuts has other legal appeals open to it, the .web fight will be settled using ICANN mechanisms.

The ruling does not mean ICANN can go ahead and delegate .web to Verisign.

The .web contention set is currently “on-hold” because Afilias, the second-place bidder in the auction, has since June been in a so-called Cooperative Engagement Process with ICANN.

CEP is a semi-formal negotiation-phase precursor to a full-blown IRP filing, which now seems much more likely to go ahead following the court’s ruling.

The appeals court ruling has not yet been published by ICANN, but it can be viewed here (pdf).

The court heard arguments from Donuts and ICANN lawyers on October 9, the same day that DI revealed that ICANN Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah had been hired by Donuts as its new CEO.

A recording of the 32-minute hearing can be viewed on YouTube here or embedded below.

.web closer to reality as antitrust probe ends

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2018, Domain Registries

Verisign has been given the all-clear by the US government to go ahead and run the new gTLD .web, despite competition concerns.

The Department of Justice told the company yesterday that the antitrust investigation it launched almost exactly a year ago is now “closed”.

Verisign’s secret proxy in the 2016 auction, the original .web applicant Nu Dot Co, now plans to try to execute its Registry Agreement with ICANN.

That contract would then be assigned to Verisign through the normal ICANN process.

The .com registry operator today filed this statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission:

As the Company previously disclosed, on January 18, 2017, the Company received a Civil Investigative Demand from the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) requesting certain material related to the Company becoming the registry operator for the .web gTLD. On January 9, 2018, the DOJ notified the Company that this investigation was closed. Verisign previously announced on August 1, 2016, that it had provided funds for Nu Dot Co’s successful bid for the .web gTLD and the Company anticipates that Nu Dot Co will now seek to execute the .web Registry Agreement with ICANN and thereafter assign it to Verisign upon consent from ICANN.

This basically means that Justice disagrees with anyone who thinks Verisign plans to operate .web in a way that just props up its .com market dominance, such as by burying it without a trace.

People clamoring to register .web domains may still have some time to wait, however.

Rival applicant Donuts, via subsidiary Ruby Glen, still has a pending lawsuit against ICANN in California.

Donuts had originally sued to prevent the .web auction going ahead in mid-2016, trying to force Nu Dot Co to reveal who was really pulling its strings.

After the auction, in which Verisign committed to pay ICANN a record-setting $125 million, Donuts sued to have the result overturned.

But in November 2016, a judge ruled that the no-suing covenant that all new gTLD applicants had to sign was valid, throwing out Donuts’ case.

Donuts is now appealing that ruling, however, filing its most-recent brief just a few weeks ago.

Whether that will stop ICANN from signing the .web contract and delegating it to Verisign is an open question. It managed to delegate .africa to ZA Central Registry despite the existence of an ongoing lawsuit by a competing applicant.

If history is any guide, we may see a rival applicant apply for a temporary restraining order against .web’s delegation before long.

This is who won the .inc, .llc and .llp gTLD auctions

Kevin Murphy, October 19, 2017, Domain Registries

The winners of the auctions to run the gTLD registries for company identifiers .inc, .llc and .llp have emerged due to ICANN application withdrawals.

All three contested gTLDs had been held up for years by appeals to ICANN by Dot Registry — an applicant with the support of US states attorneys general — but went to private auction in September after the company gave up its protests for reasons its CEO doesn’t so far want to talk about.

The only auction won by Dot Registry was .llp. That stands for Limited Liability Partnership, a legal construct most often used by law firms in the US and probably the least frequently used company identifier of the three.

Google was the applicant with the most cash in all three auctions, but it declined to win any of them.

.inc seems to have been won by a Hong Kong company called GTLD Limited, run by DotAsia CEO Edmon Chong. DotAsia runs .asia, the gTLD granted by ICANN in the 2003 application round.

My understanding is that the winning bid for .inc was over $15 million.

If that’s correct, my guess is that the quickest, easiest way to make that kind of money back would be to build a business model around defensive registrations at high prices, along the lines of .sucks or .feedback.

My feedback would be that that business model would suck, so I hope I’m wrong.

There were 11 original applicants for .inc, but two companies withdrew their applications years ago.

Dot Registry, Uniregisty, Afilias, GMO, MMX, Nu Dot Co, Google and Donuts stuck around for the auction but have all now withdrawn their applications, meaning they all likely shared in the lovely big prize fund.

MMX gained $2.4 million by losing the .inc and .llc auctions, according to a recent disclosure.

.llc, a US company nomenclature with more potential customers of lower net worth, went to Afilias.

Dot Registry, MMX, Donuts, LLC Registry, Top Level Design, myLLC and Google were also in the .llc auction and have since withdrawn their applications.

Antitrust feds probing Verisign’s .web deal

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2017, Domain Policy

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.

Donuts loses $22.5m .web lawsuit as judge rules gTLD applicants cannot sue

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2016, Domain Registries

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.

The registry, and other .web applicants, were concerned that ultimately successful bidder Nu Dot Co was being covertly bankrolled by Verisign, which turned out to be completely correct.

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.