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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.

Rightside refuses Donuts’ “opportunistic” $70m gTLD offer

Rightside has rebuffed Donuts’ semi-hostile takeover attempt for its portfolio of gTLD registry contracts.

The question now is: will Donuts up the offer from the $70 million already on the table?

In a pre-markets statement today, Rightside said the offer “undervalued” the assets.

CEO Taryn Naidu is quoted as saying:

After thoughtful evaluation, Rightside’s Board has determined that Donuts’ proposal significantly undervalues Rightside’s Registry assets. We believe Donuts’ proposal is an opportunistic attempt to acquire Rightside’s valuable portfolio of domain extensions with an undervalued price and in a manner that would not be in the best interests of Rightside shareholders.

The company reckons its gTLDs will be bringing in $50 million to $75 million in revenue a year in the next three two five years, which would represent substantial growth over current levels.

It made $2.6 million from the registry business in the first quarter this year.

Donuts’ offer could be considered “opportunistic” given that there’s some shareholder dissatisfaction with Rightside’s success rate with new gTLDs today.

Activist investor J Carlo Cannell and Uniregistry CEO Frank Schilling, both of whom own small but significant chunks of Rightside, have called on the company to get rid of some of its under-performers.

By announcing the offer publicly — apparently after months of private offers — Donuts might have been trying to capitalize on this unrest.

But pissed-off investors don’t necessarily want these gTLDs sold off cheap.

Rightside has 40 new gTLDs. A $70 million offer equals $1.75 million per gTLD. That’s fair way below the average sale price for gTLDs at ICANN auction, which is $7 million (or $3 million if you take the median).

Will Donuts now increase its offer, or back away?

Web.com acquires dozens of registrars from Rightside

Kevin Murphy, May 11, 2016, Domain Services

Web.com has acquired dozens of registrars from rival/partner Rightside, seemingly to boost the success rate of its SnapNames domain drop-catching business.

I’ve established that at least 44 registrars once managed by Rightside/eNom have moved to the Web.com stable in recent weeks, and that might not even be the half of it.

All of the registrars in question are shell companies used exclusively to register pre-ordered names as they are deleted by registries, usually Verisign.

The more registrars you have, the more EPP connections you have to the Verisign registry and the better your chance at catching a domain.

Web.com runs SnapNames, and is in a 50-50 partnership with Rightside on rival drop-catcher NameJet.

The two compete primarily with NameBright’s DropCatch.com, which obtained hundreds of fresh ICANN accreditations last year, bringing its total pool to over 750.

Web.com has fewer than 400 accreditations right now. Rightside has even fewer.

It’s usually quicker to buy a registrar than to obtain a new accreditation from ICANN.

If Web.com finds itself in need of more accreditations in order to compete, and Rightside is happy to let them go, it could be possible to infer that SnapNames is doing rather better in terms of customer acquisition than NameJet.

But the two services recently announced a partnership under which names grabbed by either network would be placed in an auction in which customers of either site could participate.

This would have the effect of increasing the number of caught names going to auction due to there being multiple bidders, and thus the eventual sales prices.

Rightside to modernize eNom, predicts $75m new gTLD revs

Rightside used its first quarter earnings call yesterday to address, albeit indirectly, some of the criticisms recently leveled at it by activist investors and competitors.

CEO Taryn Naidu revealed for the first time how the company sees the new gTLD market playing out in the longer term.

He said than in three to five years, Rightside expects annual revenue from its registry business to come it at $50 million to $75 million.

That’s a hell of a lot more than it makes today.

In the first quarter, registry revenue was $2.6 million, compared to $1.6 million a year ago. Annualized, that’s a shade over $10 million.

On the back of an envelope, Rightside seems to need roughly 50% growth per year over five years to hit the low end of its target.

Naidu told analysts that one factor built into this projection is that third-party registrars will start to sell just as many new gTLD domains as Rightside’s registrars do.

Currently, Rightside sees 15% to 20% new gTLD, but with others it’s 3% to 5%, he said.

Naidu said he expects margins to be 20% at the EBITDA level.

The revelation of these targets may go some way to address investor concerns that Rightside is putting too much effort into its new gTLD business at the expense of its cash-generating registrars.

J Carlo Cannell of Cannell Capital expressed these views and others in March, and was supported by fellow investor Frank Schilling, CEO of Uniregistry.

Naidu last night also addressed concerns about eNom, which Cannell had called a “time capsule” due to its aging user experience.

He admitted that eNom is “encumbered by some older technology” but said it was being fixed.

“Later this quarter we will be rolling out the first phase of our development efforts, which include a dramatically revamped user interface, a new suite of software development tools and a new developer hub to help our partners learn, develop and test faster,” he said.

The registrar business brought in $44 million in the quarter, up from $41.9 million. Aftermarket revenue was $9.3 million compared to $7.3 million.

Overall, revenue was up 9% at $55.1 million, with a net loss of $5.1 million. That compared to income of $1.9 million a year ago.

Naidu also seemed to obliquely address the criticism that a lot of Rightside’s new gTLDs are shit — .democrat, .dance, .army, .navy, and .airforce have been singled out by Cannell and others — by talking about how the company doesn’t necessarily put the same amount of effort into marketing its whole stable.

Some gTLDs will be marketed more heavily later, he said, comparing it to a real estate owner holding on to parcels of land for later development.

Naidu also talked up Rightside’s prospects in China, where apparently .pub is doing quite well because registrants think it means “public” rather than “drinking establishment”.

Rightside rejects Negari’s $5m new gTLD offer

Rightside has turned down Daniel Negari’s $5 million offer to acquire four of its new gTLDs, according to Negari.

The XYZ.com CEO told DI via email tonight:

I was looking forward to operating .Army, .Dance, .Dentist, and .Vet under the XYZ umbrella. I’m disappointed that Rightside didn’t entertain my offer, especially since I believe $5MM was more than fair. I believe these and other new TLDs are worth more to me than any other registry operator due to my growing enterprise. However, it’s understandable for Rightside to want to monetize on these assets.

Rightside has told him it had reviewed the offer and was not interested, he said.

The offer was made in a March 30 open letter to the company and Securities and Exchange Commission filing and expired last night, April 7.

There was some speculation about whether it was a genuine offer, just an attempt to boost Rightside’s share price, or both.

Negari and his COO, Mike Ambrose, own about 5% of Rightside between them, following an $8.5 million investment.

Rightside’s ability to grow revenue from its new gTLD portfolio has become the focus of attention due to the intervention of activist investor J Carlo Cannell of Cannell Capital, who reckons the company is paying too much attention to rubbish TLDs at the expense of its profitable registrar businesses.

Negari thinks he would be able to grow .army, .dance, .dentist, and .vet.

The largest of those gTLDs is .vet, with about 5,200 names in its zone file. It grew by 794 names in the last 90 days.

The other three are below 3,000 names, and are either shrinking or adding fewer than 10 names per day.

XYZ.com’s second-tier portfolio strings, such as .college, .rent and .theatre, are faring a little better, at least in terms of growth. But they are a little younger, and none are over 10,000 names.