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Donuts joins fight to delay .web gTLD auction with emergency appeal

Donuts and Radix have filed an “emergency” appeal with ICANN in an attempt to get the forthcoming auction for the .web gTLD delayed.

The companies, both of which have applied for .web, say they have evidence that one of their rival bidders recently changed ownership without telling ICANN, in breach of application rules.

They filed a Request for Reconsideration (pdf) with ICANN (pdf) on Sunday, demanding the delay and an investigation into whether Nu Dot Co LLC is under new control.

The move follows speculation, which we reported last week, that Nu Dot Co is now being controlled by a major legacy gTLD registry player such as Verisign.

The evidence for the the change of ownership comes to light for the first time in the RfR. It’s an email from Nu Dot Co director Jose Ignacio Rasco to Donuts dated June 7. It reads:

Nicolai is at NSR full time and no longer involved with our TLD applications. I’m still running our program and Juan sits on the board with me and several others.

“Nicolai” is Nicolai Bezsonoff, who is listed as an NDC director in its .web application. NSR is presumably Neustar, where Bezsonoff went to work when it acquired .CO Internet.

“Juan” is Juan Calle, the third NDC director, CEO, and former CEO of .CO Internet.

Donuts and Radix believe that Bezsonoff’s departure and the apparent appointment of the unnamed “several others” as NDC directors gave NDC the obligation, under Applicant Guidebook rules, to inform ICANN of the changes.

The Guidebook states:

If at any time during the evaluation process information previously submitted by an applicant becomes untrue or inaccurate, the applicant must promptly notify ICANN via submission of the appropriate forms. This includes applicant-specific information such as changes in financial position and changes in ownership or control of the applicant.

(With that in mind, one wonders whether the acquisition of .blog at auction was strictly legit).

Donuts and Radix now want ICANN to delay the “last resort” auction, which is currently slated for July 27, and “conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the apparent discrepancies and/or changes in NDC’s .WEB/.WEBS application”.

NDC is believed to be the only one of the eight .web/.webs applicants to be refusing to settle the contention set via a private auction, where the losers get an equal share of the winning bid.

If the set goes to ICANN’s last-resort auction, ICANN gets all the cash.

The final price of .web could easily be in the ball park of $50 million, so each applicant stands to lose several million dollars if the July 27 auction goes ahead as planned.

Radix and fellow .web applicant Schlund had previously written to ICANN to request the delay, but were rebuffed in a letter last week.

The decision outlined in that letter is what the new RfR challenges.

RfRs have a long track record of being dismissed by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee, very often because the requester has not supplied ICANN with any new information with which to change its mind.

That’s a risk here, too, given that ICANN seems to have been in possession of the Rasco email since June 22, before decision to go ahead with the auction was made.

However, that decision seems to have been made by ICANN staff. An RfR makes sure it gets the attention of the ICANN board of directors.

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.