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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.

.web has an auction date

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2016, Domain Registries

The .web gTLD will go to auction July 27, according to ICANN.

The organization released an updated auction schedule (pdf) on Wednesday night that also slates .kids/.kid for an auction on the same day.

Both auctions have confusing “indirect contention” elements, where two strings were ruled confusingly similar.

With .web, it’s lumped in with Vistaprint’s application for .webs, which lost a String Confusion Objection filed by Web.com.

Under ICANN rules, .webs is confusingly similar to to Web.com’s .web, but not to the other six .web applications.

This means that Vistaprint and Web.com basically are fighting a mini contention set auction to see who gets their applied-for gTLD.

If Web.com wins the auction for .web, Vistaprint cannot have .webs. However, if any other .web applicant wins, Vistaprint can go ahead with .webs.

Either way, there will be a .web delegated this year. Google, Donuts, Radix, Afilias, Schlund Technologies, Nu Dot Co are all contenders.

In the case of .kids/.kid, the one applicant for .kid — Google — won SCOs against DotKids Foundation and Amazon by default because both .kids applicants failed to respond to the complaints.

DotKids Foundation recently lost a Community Priority Evaluation, enabling the auction to go ahead.

Because Google is in contention with both .kids applicants, only one of the two strings will ultimately be delegated — .kids and .kid will not coexist.

The only other scheduled auction right now is that of .doctor, which is planned for May 25. Radix, Donuts and The Medical Registry will fight it out in this rather less complex battle.

It’s worth noting that if any of these contention sets unanimously choose to resolve their differences via private auction, none of the ICANN auctions will go ahead.

Web.com just gave itself another reason to bid high for .web gTLD

Kevin Murphy, November 9, 2015, Domain Registrars

Registrar group Web.com is changing its stock market ticker symbol to WEB tomorrow, in another sign that it really, really wants to be identified with the string.

The switch from WWWW may indicate that the NASDAQ-listed company’s six rivals for the new gTLD .web have a fight — and a possible big payday — on their hands when .web finally goes to auction.

Web.com is competing with Nu Dot Co, Radix, Google, Donuts, Afilias and Schlund for the gTLD.

The company has already fiercely defended its “right” to .web, filing successful String Confusion Objections against .webs applicant Vistaprint.

Vistaprint subsequently filed an ICANN Independent Review Process complaint to appeal its SCO loss.

Last month, the IRP was won by ICANN, but the panel left the door open for ICANN to reconsider its decision.

The .web auction is not likely to go ahead until the Vistaprint issue is resolved.

If ICANN decides the two strings can be delegated separately, what I think is the last barrier to the .web auction going ahead disappears.

If not, then Vistaprint finds itself as the seventh contender in the auction, which may give it the impetus to carry on challenging the ruling.

ICANN’s board plans to discuss the issue at its next meeting, December 10.

Which way it leans will give an indication of how long it will be before .web goes to auction.

ICANN win leaves door open for plural gTLD rethink

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has fought off an appeal by .webs gTLD applicant Vistaprint, in a case that considered the coexistence of singular and plural gTLDs.

While ICANN definitively won the Independent Review Process case, the IRP panel nevertheless invited its board of directors to consider whether Vistaprint should be given a chance to appeal a decision that ruled .webs too similar to .web.

Vistaprint runs a web site building service called Webs.com. It filed two applications for .webs — one “community” flavored, one vanilla — but then found itself on the losing end of a String Confusion Objection filed by rival Web.com, one of the many .web applicants.

It was one of the few instances where a SCO panel decided that a plural string was too confusingly similar to its singular for the two to coexist.

In many other cases, such as .auto(s), .fan(s) and .gift(s), the two strings have been allowed to be delegated.

Not wanting to have to fight for .webs at auction against eight .web applicants — which would likely cost eight figures to win — Vistaprint filed a Request for Reconsideration (which failed), followed by an last-ditch IRP complaint.

But its three-person IRP panel ruled on Friday (pdf) that ICANN did not violate its bylaws by accepting the SCO decision and subsequently rejecting the RfR.

However, the panel handed Vistaprint a silver lining that may eventually give the company what it wants. Even though ICANN won, Vistaprint may not necessarily have lost.

The panel wrote:

the Panel recommends that ICANN’s Board exercise its judgment on the question of whether an additional review mechanism is appropriate to re-evaluate the Third Expert’s determination in the Vistaprint SCO, in view of ICANN’s Bylaws concerning core values and non-discriminatory treatment, and based on the particular circumstances and developments noted in this Declaration, including (i) the Vistaprint SCO determination involving Vistaprint’s .WEBS applications, (ii) the Board’s (and NGPC’s) resolutions on singular and plural gTLDs, and (iii) the Board’s decisions to delegate numerous other singular/plural versions of the same gTLD strings.

In other words, ICANN has been invited to consider whether Vistaprint should be able to appeal, using a similar mechanism perhaps to that which was offered to other applicants that suffered from inconsistent, adverse SCO decisions.

At time when ICANN’s accountability is under international scrutiny, it’s highly likely that the board will give this recommendation some thought.

The IRP declaration does not reflect well on ICANN’s current level of accountability.

As usual, ICANN tried to wriggle out of accountability by attempting to castrate the panel from the outset, arguing again that IRP panels must be “deferential” to the board — that is, assume that its actions were correct by default — and that its declarations are “advisory” rather than “binding”.

And, as usual, the panel disagreed, saying previous IRP cases show this is now “settled” law. It said that it would evaluate the case “objectively and independently”, not deferentially.

But while it said its declaration was binding “in the sense that ICANN’s Board cannot overrule the Panel’s declaration” it agreed with ICANN that it only had the power to “recommend”, rather than order, remedies.

Acknowledging Vistaprint raised important public interest questions, the panel ordered ICANN to pay 40% of IRP costs.

The Vistaprint IRP was one of the things holding up the .web contention set, so Friday’s declaration moves the fabled gTLD one step closer to reality.

If the company gets the ability to appeal its SCO loss, it would add months to the .web runway. If it does not, it will have to remain in the .web contention set, which would head to auction.

Web.com CEO talks “defensive” .web strategy

Number-three registrar Web.com applied for the new gTLD .web in order to protect a trademark, but it’s open to partnerships to secure and manage the string, according to its CEO.

But the .web contention set will take a “considerable amount of time to be resolved”, David Brown told analysts during the company’s first-quarter earnings conference call last night.

“The way we’ve always thought about .web is that given that we have a trademark on the name Web.com, we really needed to apply for .web in order to protect our trademark,” he said.

“In order to protect our trademark globally, we needed to basically defend ourselves by applying for .web, and we’re certainly interested in getting it, but it’s not our core business,” he added.

Web.com, which also owns Network Solutions and Register.com, is one of seven applicants for .web.

But the company did not file any Legal Rights Objections against its competitors, as its trademark may have permitted, reflecting a slightly relaxed attitude to the string that also came across in the yesterday’s call.

Brown said, according to the Seeking Alpha transcript:

We’ll be perfectly content if anyone gets .web because they’re going to distribute it through us, and it’s our name, and we’re advertising and building a brand in the marketplace, and we’re going to be a great deliverer of .web extensions, whoever gets it, whether it’s us or someone else.

He indicated that the ultimate winner of .web is likely to be some kind of cooperative arrangement between applicants. He said:

Our strategy has always been to cooperate. And so we’ve looked at the people who have applied, and we certainly are talking to all of them about who would benefit from this and which team would be the best team to provide services, and so that would be our strategy… We won’t bear the full load of the economics of acquisition ourselves likely. It’ll likely be shared.

To me, this screams “joint venture”, which has always been the way I’ve seen .web pan out. If you recall, when Afilias was formed to apply for .web in 2000, it was a joint venture of many leading registrars of the time.

Brown also said on the call that he expects to see the first new gTLDs get approved in the fourth quarter, but they’ll be the uncontested ones and therefore not particularly lucrative.

Web.com could also be the beneficiary of marketing dollars spent by new gTLDs to secure shelf space, he said.