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Could ICANN reject Verisign’s $135m .web bid?

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2016, Domain Registries

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 rolls the dice with $22.5 million .web lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2016, Domain Registries

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.

Verisign confirms it did fund $135 million .web bid

Kevin Murphy, August 1, 2016, Domain Registries

Verisign has just confirmed that it was behind the winning bid in last week’s .web gTLD auction.

Nu Dot Co won the auction after 23 rounds over two days of bidding, but Verisign was thought to be the real beneficiary.

The company has now released the following statement confirming the relationship:

The Company entered into an agreement with Nu Dot Co LLC wherein the Company provided funds for Nu Dot Co’s bid for the .web TLD. We are pleased that the Nu Dot Co bid was successful.

We anticipate that Nu Dot Co will execute the .web Registry Agreement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and will then seek to assign the Registry Agreement to Verisign upon consent from ICANN.

As the most experienced and reliable registry operator, Verisign is well-positioned to widely distribute .web. Our expertise, infrastructure, and partner relationships will enable us to quickly grow .web and establish it as an additional option for registrants worldwide in the growing TLD marketplace. Our track record of over 19 years of uninterrupted availability means that businesses and individuals using .web as their online identity can be confident of being reliably found online. And these users, along with our global distribution partners, will benefit from the many new domain name choices that .web will offer.

No big surprises there. Verisign had already told investors it had a $130 million payment coming up soon.

See DI’s analysis on the auction results here.

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.

Donuts .web claims “discredited”, ICANN tells court

Donuts’ attempt to delay tomorrow’s .web gTLD auction is based on a now “discredited” reading of a single email from rival bidder Nu Dot Co, ICANN told a California court yesterday.

Supporting ICANN’s opposition to Donuts’ motion for a temporary restraining order, two top NDC executives also swore under penalty of perjury that the company is not under new ownership or management.

The filings were made in response to Donuts’ lawsuit, filed Friday, which seeks over $10 million damages and a TRO against the .web auction.

Donuts believes that NDC has been taken over by an as-yet unknown third party with a vested interest in keeping the auction proceeds out of the hands of its competitors by forcing an ICANN-run last-resort auction.

Its belief is based on a June 7 email from NDC CFO Jose Rasco that alludes to COO Nicolai Bezsonoff no longer being with the company and makes reference to unspecified “powers that be” that are now in charge of the company.

By not disclosing the alleged change of control to ICANN, NDC broke Application Guidebook rules, Donuts claims.

But according to ICANN and NDC, this is all nonsense. ICANN told the court:

three separate ICANN bodies – ICANN’s staff, ICANN’s Ombudsman, and ICANN’s Board – have already looked into the alleged change in Nu Dotco’s ownership or management. All three found no credible evidence that any such change had occurred within Nu Dotco, and therefore nothing supported a delay of the Auction. Plaintiff’s TRO application, filed nearly three months after the Auction was scheduled and just two business days before bidding is set to officially begin, relies solely on a strained, and now completely discredited, interpretation of the Nu Dotco CFO’s June 7 email. However, the evidence accompanying this opposition – sworn declarations from ICANN and Nu Dotco executives – confirms that Nu Dotco has not made any change in its ownership or management, much less a “disqualifying” change that should derail the Auction processes already under way or the official start of bidding.

Rasco and Nicolai Bezsonoff both swear in accompanying declarations that the managers and members (ie owners) of NDC have not changed since the original 2012 application.

NDC, according to its .web application, is owned by two Delaware shell companies — Domain Marketing Holdings, LLC and NUCO LP, LLC — both of which appear to have been created in order to provide a layer of separation between NDC and its actual investors.

Rasco and Bezsonoff say that these two companies remain the only owners of NDC requiring their identities to be disclosed to ICANN.

There’s no comment in either declaration about whether either of those two companies has undergone a change in control.

What we seem to have here, amusingly, is NDC using exactly the same legal tricks as Donuts to hide the ultimate beneficiaries of its gTLD applications.

Donuts, you may recall, applied for 307 new gTLDs via 307 distinct shell LLCs with randomly generated names. Not only that, but each of those LLCs is owned by one of two other shell companies — 201 belonged to Dozen Donuts LLC, 106 belonged to Covered TLD LLC.

Donuts never formally disclosed in its ICANN applications (or, to my recollection, publicly confirmed) that business partner Rightside had the right to buy any of the Covered TLD strings — including .web, it seems — a right Rightside has exercised many times since.

Rightside basically got the same layer of identity insulation that whoever’s pulling the strings at NDC is getting now.

That irony is not pointed out in ICANN’s latest court filing, which can be read here (pdf). The Rasco and Bezsonoff declarations can be read here and here.

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

Unless Donuts gets its TRO, the auction will begin at 1400 UTC tomorrow and we could find out how much .web sold for later that day.