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 domain name industry is kicking off one of its most fundamental shifts in its plumbing this week.
Over the next two years, Verisign and every registrar that sells .com domains will have to rejigger their systems to convert .com from a “thin” to “thick” Whois.
This means that by February 1, 2019, Verisign will for the first time control the master database of all Whois records for .com domains, rather than it being spread piecemeal across all registrars.
The switch comes as a result of a years-in-the-making ICANN policy that officially came into force yesterday. It also applies to .com stablemates .net and .jobs.
The first big change will come August 1 this year, the deadline by which Verisign has to give all of its registrars the ability to submit thick Whois records both live (for new regs) and in bulk (for existing ones).
May 1, 2018 is the deadline for all registrars to start submitting thick Whois for new regs to Verisign, but they can start doing so as early as August this year if they want to.
Registrars have until February 1, 2019 to supply Verisign with thick Whois for all their existing registrations.
There’s a process for registrars who believe they would be violating local privacy laws by transferring this data to US-based Verisign to request an exemption, which may prevent the transition going perfectly uniformly.
Some say that the implementation of this policy may allow Verisign to ask for the ability to ask a for an increase in .com registry fees — currently frozen at the command of the US government — due to its inevitably increased costs.
Personally, I think the added costs will likely be chickenfeed compared to the cash-printing machine that is .com, so I think it’s far from a slam-dunk that such fee increases would be approved.
The Internet Commerce Association has called for a “moratorium” on the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy being added to legacy gTLD contracts, months before Verisign’s .net contract is up for renewal.
In a blog post, ICA counsel Phil Corwin accused ICANN staff of making policy by the back door by compelling pre-2012 registries to adopt URS, despite a lack of ICANN community consensus policy.
In the last few years the registries for .jobs, .travel, .cat, .pro, .xxx and most recently .mobi have agreed to adopt many aspects of the 2012 Registry Agreement, which includes the URS, often in exchange for lower ICANN fees.
the real test of [ICANN’s Global Domains Division’s] illicit strategy of incremental de facto policymaking will come later this year, when the .Net RA comes up for renewal. We have no idea whether Verisign will be seeking any substantial revisions to that RA that would provide GDD staff with substantial leverage to impose URS, nor do we know whether Verisign would be amenable to that tradeoff.
The .net RA is due to expire July 1 this year.
Verisign pays ICANN $0.75 for each .net domain registration, renewal and transfer. If that were to be reduced to the 2012 standard of $0.25, it would save Verisign at least $7.5 million a year.
The URS provides brand owners with a way to suspend trademark-infringing domains in clear-cut cases. It’s based on UDRP but is faster and cheaper and does not allow the brand owner to seize ownership of the domains.
ICA represents large domain speculators, most of which have their investments tied up in .com and .net domains. It’s complained about the addition of URS to other gTLDs but the complaints have largely fallen on deaf ears.
ICANN has said that it does not force URS on anyone, but that it takes the base new gTLD program RA as its starting point for bilateral negotiations with registries whose contracts are up for renewal.
The US elections last month seem to be responsible for almost all of Verisign’s “top trending keywords” for November.
Donald Trump topped the company’s monthly list of fastest-growing strings in both .com and .net registries.
The four words of his idiotic campaign slogan “Make America great again” also appear individually in the .com top ten.
The votes to legalize medical and recreational marijuana use in several US states also seems to have inspired speculation in “pot”, “weed” and “cannabis” names, though more noticeably in .net.
In fact, the only string in the .com list not related to the US polls appears to be “near” (at least, I cannot find a connection).
The Verisign report includes words that achieve a certain level of growth month-to-month, factoring out strings that are commonly registered every month.
Here are the November lists.
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.