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Minds + Machines to raise $4.7m for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, November 25, 2010, Domain Registries

Top Level Domain Holdings plans to raise £3 million ($4.7 million) in a stock sale to help finance the TLD aspirations of its main business, Minds + Machines.

The funds would almost double the cash reserves TLDH has on tap, which currently amount to $5.5 million, according to StockMarketWire.com.

Recently appointed CEO Antony Van Couvering said in a statement that ICANN’s recent decision to allow registries and registrars to vertically integrate had a bearing on the decision to raise funds:

Having reviewed ICANN’s Final Proposed Applicant Guidebook, and in view of the ICANN Board’s historic decision to do away with cross-ownership restrictions between registries and registrars, we believe that the timing is right for additional investment by TLDH. ICANN’s registry-registrar decision means that additional gTLD business models are now viable, and we have already seen a marked increase in interest from prospective new clients. We intend to make sure we have the resources to take advantage of this opportunity.

M+M is already associated with new TLD applications including .gay and .eco, both of which are expected to be contested by other applicants.

TLDH is listed on London’s small-cap Alternative Investment Market. The announcement of the placement can be found here.

Vertical integration was not a slam dunk

Kevin Murphy, November 17, 2010, Domain Registries

Two members of ICANN’s board voted against the decision to allow registrars and registries to own each other, according to a preliminary report from its November 5 meeting.

The decision was a surprise when it was announced last week, as it was diametrically opposed to the board’s previous stance essentially opposing vertical integration.

The new position, already incorporated in the Applicant Guidebook, allows registrars to apply to run new top-level domains, subject to a code of conduct.

From the board of directors’ meeting report:

Eleven Board members voted in favor of the Resolution. Two Board members were opposed to the Resolution. Two Board members did not participate in the discussion or the vote on the Resolution due to conflicts of interest. The Resolution carried.

I believe Bruce Tonkin was one of the people who recused themselves from the vote. I’m not certain who the other was.

We won’t discover who the dissenting opinions belonged to, or what they were, until the minutes are published, probably not long after the Cartagena meeting next month.

Could vertical integration kill registrar parking?

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2010, Domain Registries

Will ICANN’s decision to allow registrars and registries to own each other help reduce the practice of registrars parking unused or expiring domain names?

A reading of the new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook in light of the recent “vertical integration” ruling it incorporates certainly raises this kind of question.

The AGB includes a policy called the Trademark Post-Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure, or PDDRP, which allows trademark owners to seek remedies against cybersquatting registries.

The policy is quite clear that registries cannot be held accountable for cybersquatting by third parties in their TLD, unless they have, for example, actively encouraged the squatters.

But another example of infringement is given thus:

where a registry operator has a pattern or practice of acting as the registrant or beneficial user of infringing registrations, to monetize and profit in bad faith.

Now, this wouldn’t be a cause for concern in the current vertically separated market.

Most registries are only generally able to register domain names in their own TLD by going through an accredited registrar. Proving bad faith intent in that situation would be trivial.

But what of an integrated registry/registrar that also automatically parks recently registered or expiring domains in order to profit from pay-per-click advertising?

This is common practice nowadays. It’s been used to prove a registrant’s bad faith during many recent UDRP proceedings and one registrar is even being sued by Verizon for doing it.

Would a registrar parking an expired, trademark-infringing domain constitute it acting as a “beneficial user” of the domain “to monetize and profit in bad faith”?

Text added to the PDDRP section of the AGB in its most recent revision strongly suggests that “the registrar did it” would not be a defence for a vertically integrated company:

For purposes of these standards, “registry operator” shall include entities directly or indirectly controlling, controlled by or under common control with a registry operator

The PDDRP allows complainants to seek remedies such as injunctions, as well as the suspension of new registrations in a TLD and, exceptionally, the full revocation of their registry contract.

With that in mind, would an integrated registry/registrar want to risk any practice that puts their TLD at risk?

First reactions to ICANN’s VI bombshell

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2010, Domain Registries

Shortly before 8am UTC today, ICANN announced that it plans to blur the lines between domain name registries and registrars by eliminating cross-ownership restrictions and enabling vertical integration of the two functions.

The shock move is likely to have profound repercussions on the domain industry for years to come.

I’ve spent the last ten hours collating a bunch of early reaction from Twitter and the blogosphere.

Like blind men groping an elephant, everyone had their own take on the news, which perhaps indicates how broad-reaching its effects will be.

Linkfest coming up.

Apparently the first to notice the news, which came just before midnight in California, was AusRegistry, the Australian registry services company, with this pithy tweet:

Any Registrars wanting Registry software can enquire within…

The company later followed up with a blog post:

The positives of this resolution is that it is highly likely that we will see the adoption and growth of smaller more boutique TLDs being championed to market by their Registrar owners and for many industry participants, anything that promotes the success of the new gTLD program and the reduced risk of Registry failure can only be seen as a good thing.

As Europe woke up to the news, Michele Neylon of Irish registrar Blacknight decided to eschew diplomacy, and pondered the possible fallout from ICANN’s decision:

Now the next question is – what next?

How will people react?

Are we going to see a flood of nastygrams from Afilias and PIR being sent to the ICANN board demanding them to backtrack?

Across the pond, Minds + Machines CEO Antony Van Couvering quickly rattled off a typically eloquent blog post that focussed on what he seems to see as ICANN’s sudden spine growth:

This is the only principled decision the ICANN Board could have come to, and they deserve a lot of credit for doing it. By “principled,” I mean taking ICANN’s stated institutional principles and following them to their logical conclusion.

The new landscape will require everyone in the domain name business to re-examine their business, their partners, their strategy. It will have consequences between those I enumerated above. It will re-invigorate the industry, and it will help establish the respect that ICANN has lacked for so long.

Another new TLD applicant, Constanine Roussos of .music tweeted:

ICANN allows Vertical Integration for new top-level domains. .MUSIC is thrilled. #ICANN makes history. The lobbying effort was well worth it

Over in Japan, Jacob Williams of new TLD consultants UrbanBrain reflected some of the industry’s shock that ICANN went against many observers’ expectations.

This announcement is a full 180 degree turn from the verbiage in DAG 4 and the resolutions passed at the public meeting in Nairobi earlier this year. This decision comes huge surprise, but surely a relief to many New gTLD applicants.

On the policy side of things, veteran ICANN commentator Danny Younger expressed surprise of a different kind on his new ICANNology blog:

I’ve been wondering how an ICANN Board session that is “not designated as an Official Board Meeting” can result in official Board Resolutions.

If the meeting is specifically not designated as “special”, but rather as a board “retreat”, should official board resolutions be promulgated at the conclusion of such sessions?

Fellow policy wonk George Kirikos tweeted:

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” applies to #ICANN’s latest moves.

Former ICANN staffer Kieren McCarthy tweeted, less ambiguously:

Good call #ICANN Board. Recognizing the realities of new top-level domains and standing up for principles over pressure

Finally, EnCirca, a US-based registrar, tried to pick winners and losers and concluded that it is the “.brand” TLDs that will gain the most, and that it is the registrars that are in for a shake-up.

the real winners will be the major brands on the internet: Apple, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Microsoft. Any one of these could launch their own TLD to rival dot-com.

Who are the biggest losers? The Registrar channel. Registrars will no longer be assured of being able to offer new TLD’s to their customers. Registries will start to bypass their registrar partners and deal directly with end-users.

Registries and registrars will need to start innovating to remain relevant. It is time to start competing.

As you might expect, there has been not much reaction yet from those, such as Go Daddy, which opposed full vertical integration.

But Warren Adelman, Go Daddy’s president, tweeted within the last hour:

Let the games begin

Quite.

Vertical integration – bad news for domainers?

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s decision to allow domain name registrars to operate registries is a game changer on many fronts, but what impact could it have on domain investors?

For the first time, registrars will be able apply for and run new top-level domains, giving them unprecedented insight into registry-level data.

If they also act as registries, registrars will, for example, be able to see what non-existent domains in their TLD get the most type-in traffic.

They will also be able to see how much traffic expiring domains get, even if the registrant does not use the registrar’s own name servers.

As claimed by some participants in ICANN’s vertical integration working group, this data could be used to “harm” registrants; harms that could be especially noticeable to domainers.

There was a concern from some in the WG that combined registry-registrar entities (we’re going to need a name for these) could use registry data to, for example, identify and withhold high-value names, increasing prices to potential registrants.

The possibility of an increase in “domain tasting” and “front-running” – practices generally frowned upon nowadays – was also raised.

However, some registrars are already owned by companies that register large numbers of traffic domains for themselves, even without access to registry data.

Demand Media subsidiary eNom, the second-largest gTLD registrar, is a good example.

As DomainNameWire reported in August, the company already uses domain name lookups to decide what names to register for itself (though it told DNW it does not “front-run”), saying in SEC filings:

These queries and look-ups provide insight into what consumers may be seeking online and represent a proprietary and valuable source of relevant information for our platform’s title generation algorithms and the algorithms we use to acquire undeveloped websites for our portfolio.

Demand also said that it acquires eNom customers’ expiring domains if they are attractive enough:

Domain names not renewed by their prior registrants that meet certain of our criteria are acquired by us to augment our portfolio of undeveloped owned and operated websites.

Access to registry data could prove invaluable in refining this model, and eNom has, unsurprisingly. long indicated its desire to apply for and operate new TLDs.

But will registries be allowed to exploit this data to line their own pockets?

ICANN indicated today that it plans to introduce a code of conduct for registries, to prevent “misuse of data”, and will likely step up its compliance activities as a result.

What this code of conduct will look like remains to be seen, but I expect we’re looking at “Chinese wall” provisions similar to those self-imposed by VeriSign when it still owned Network Solutions.

It should be pointed out, of course, that standalone registries already have the ability to register domains to themselves, based on their own registry data, and I’m not aware of a great many incidents where this has been abused to the harm of registrants.