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Squarespace files to go public in New York

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2021, Domain Registrars

Web site tools maker and registrar Squarespace has filed its papers for an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company is focused on serving small businesses by simplifying the process of building web sites. It sells domains as a value-added service, but it’s not its core competency.

In filing for its IPO, the company said its revenue last year was $621 million, up 28% on 2019. It had a net profit of $30.6 million, down from $58.2 million the previous year.

Squarespace said it has 3.7 million unique subscriptions, but it did not break down how many of those are domain registrations.

Squarespace has been an ICANN-accredited registrar since 2018, but it has historically acted as a Tucows/OpenSRS reseller. That dynamic changed a little last year.

It sold about 10,000 .com domains per month on its own accreditation in the fourth quarter. It’s accredited in many other gTLDs, but has yet to sell any domains there on its own IANA tag.

Facebook gunning for Web.com in latest $27 million-plus cybersquatting lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, April 16, 2021, Domain Registrars

Facebook has sued what it believes is a Web.com subsidiary, claiming the company has been engaged in wholesale cybersquatting for well over a decade.

The complaint, filed in a Pennsylvania District Court, alleges that New Venture Services Corp current owns 74 domains, and has previously owned 204 more, that infringe its Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp trademarks.

While no other named defendants are listed, the complaint makes it abundantly clear that it believes NVSC is a subsidiary of Web.com and a sister of Network Solutions, Register.com, SnapNames and Perfect Privacy.

Facebook is suing partly under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, allowing it to claim $100,000 damages per infringing domain, so we’re looking at a floor of $27.8 million of potential damages should the lawsuit be successful.

But it’s also looking for NVSC to hand over any profits it’s made from the domains in question, which are generally parked with ads and listed for sale via the SnapNames network for premium fees.

While NVSC is registered in the British Virgin Islands and uses a Pennsylvania post office box as its mailing address, there’s a wealth of evidence going back to 2007 that it’s been affiliated first with NetSol and then Web.com.

Web.com’s last regulatory filing before it went private in 2017 lists NVSC as a subsidiary, which is probably the most compelling piece of evidence establishing ownership.

It appears that NVSC is a shell company that Web.com uses to hold potentially valuable or traffic-rich domains that its customers have allowed to expire. The names are then parked and put up for resale.

Example domains listed in the complaint include httpinstagram.com, faceebbok.com, facebooc.net, instagram-login.com, and installwhatsapps.com.

One would have to assume these names were captured using a fully automated process; even a cursory human review would clock that they’re useful only to bad actors.

The lawsuit is the latest in Facebook’s crusade against mainstream registrars it believes are profiting by infringing its trademarks, which has already ensnared Namecheap a year ago and OnlineNIC in October 2019.

Namecheap recently filed a counterclaim in which it tries to get some of Facebook’s trademarks cancelled.

Facebook has all but admitted that putting legal pressure on registrars is part of its strategy when it comes to getting the policies it wants out of ICANN on privacy and Whois access, where there’s currently an impasse.

Here’s the complaint (pdf).

As Net4 goes dark, NIXI says customers won’t lose their expired domains

Kevin Murphy, March 29, 2021, Domain Registrars

Indian ccTLD registry NIXI has thrown a life vest to the owners of some 73,000 .in domain names, giving them a way to transfer out of slowly sinking registrar Net 4 India.

NIXI also said that it will not cancel expired domains that registrants have been unable to renew due to Net4’s ongoing problems.

“NIXI has decided not to discontinue the .IN Services for those .IN domain end users whose renewal is due,” the company said in a statement (pdf).

It sounds rather like registrants will be able to renew directly with the registry. They’ll also be able to transfer to a new registrar by emailing NIXI from the address in the Whois or mailing proof of company identity.

Why NIXI has chosen to act now, when Net4’s troubles have been known for almost year, is not clear.

“In the recent days, NIXI was informed that Net 4 India, who is one of the registrars of NIXI for Country code domain “.IN” has some issues in maintaining domains,” its statement says.

Net4’s web site isn’t resolving right now, at least for me, which probably has something to do with it.

The company has been in insolvency proceedings since 2017, a fact ICANN discovered when it started missing payments two years ago, but it was not until mid-2020 that Net4’s customers started complaining en masse about problems renewing and transferring their domains.

ICANN has processed thousands of complaints since then.

The registrar was told last month that ICANN was terminating its accreditation to sell gTLDs. Registrants of names in .com for example should be pretty safe, with their names automatically transferred to a new registrar, should ICANN follow through on its threat.

The termination was challenged in the insolvency court shortly before it would have become effective two weeks ago.

While ICANN does not believe it is subject to the court’s jurisdiction, it has decided to wait for an official ruling on the matter.

Pirate Bay founder says ICANN won’t let him be a registrar

Peter Sunde, co-founder of the controversial Pirate Bay file-sharing web service, says ICANN is unfairly refusing him a registrar accreditation and he’s not happy about it.

Sunde told DI at the weekend that his application for his new registrar, Sarek.fi, to obtain accreditation was recently denied after over 18 months on the grounds that he lied about his criminal convictions on his application form.

He denies this, saying that his crimes were not of the type ICANN vets for, and in any event they happened over a decade ago.

He thinks ICANN is scared about doing business with a disruptive and “annoying” “pain in the ass” with a history of criticizing the intellectual property industry.

Would-be registrars have to select “Yes” or “No” to the question of whether any officer or major shareholder of the company has:

within the past ten (10) years, has been convicted of a felony or of a misdemeanor related to financial activities, or has been judged by a court to have committed fraud or breach of fiduciary duty, or has been the subject of a judicial determination that is similar or related to any of these;

Sunde was convicted by a Swedish court of enabling copyright infringement via the Pirate Bay in 2009, and was sentenced to a year in prison — later reduced to eight months on appeal — and hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines.

The Pirate Bay was a web site that collected links to BitTorrent files, largely copyrighted movies and music.

Because he was not based in Sweden, Sunde avoided jail for several years despite an Interpol arrest warrant.

He eventually served five months of his sentence after being arrested in 2014.

He checked “No” on his registrar accreditation application form, on the basis that he had not been convicted of fraud or any of the other listed financial crimes, and certainly not within the last 10 years.

But ICANN took a broader interpretation, and refused him accreditation due to the Pirate Bay conviction and his Interpol status in 2014, he says.

Since then, the Org, including CEO Göran Marby (with whom he had a brief email exchange) have been ignoring his emails, he says.

Sarek.fi has already been accredited to sell ccTLD domains by the likes of Nominet, Verisign and Donuts, but ICANN’s rejection means the company won’t be able to sell gTLD names.

Sunde says he’s now faced with the likelihood of having to leave his own company in order to secure accrediation, though he’s not ruled out pursuing ICANN through its own appeals process.

He says he suspects ICANN just doesn’t want to do business with him due to his reputation as a disrupter. He’s attended ICANN meetings in the past but wants to get more involved in the policy process.

“it’s really a way for ICANN to make sure that an annoying person with media influence and with a dislike for centralised organisations and monopolies to be there to raise concerns — that they just proved valid,” he told DI in an email.

I take quite an offence to their denial. Not just on the basis of their interpretation of the law (copyright infringement is not fraud, i would have been convicted of fraud then…) Not just because it seems that it’s ok to be a murderer the past 10 years. Or a wife beater. Or a neonazi. These things that are a bit worse than being an internet activist, caring about the free and open internet. The biggest offence I take is to their obligation to the general public to have a broader membership than what they allow today.

Sarek.fi’s business model is to charge a flat fee above wholesale cost for every domain registered.

It’s Sunde’s second domain business. He launched Njalla, a Tucows reseller with a focus on protecting the privacy of registrants, in 2017.

ICANN finally cans Net 4 India

iCANN has terminated Net 4 India’s registrar accreditation, after many months of criticism and foot-dragging and a recent sharp uptick in customer complaints.

The move comes after an unprecedented four concurrent public breach notices over 20 months, almost four years after the company entered insolvency proceedings — grounds for termination which ICANN became aware of almost two years ago.

ICANN has received over 2,600 customer complaints over the last year, and almost 1,000 of these were submitted in February alone, according to the organization.

“The termination of the RAA is due to Net 4 India’s repeated and consistent breaches of the RAA and failure to cure such breaches despite multiple notices from ICANN and opportunity to cure,” ICANN said in its ginormous 59-page execution warrant (pdf).

Among the charges ICANN levels at Net4 is its failure to operate a functioning Whois service, something it’s warned the company about 30 times since November.

This hindered ICANN’s ability to investigate the more serious charges — that Net4 transferred some of its customers’ domains to a different registrar, OpenProvider, without their knowledge or consent, in violation of ICANN transfer policies.

The registrar also failed to enable its customers to renew their expired domains or transfer them to other registrars, also in violation of binding policy, ICANN said.

ICANN said:

Currently, more than 400 cases remain unresolved; and hundreds of complaints are still under review, which, once vetted, will become more new cases. In addition, ICANN Contractual Compliance continues to receive more than 20 new complaints each day. And it is not known how many more complaints are pending with Net 4 India that have not yet been brought to ICANN’s attention.

The termination notice contains 10 pages of complaints from Net4 customers, saying their domains could not be renewed or transferred. Some came from non-profits and hospitals. One registrant said he was contemplating suicide.

Net4’s customer service was non-responsive in each of these cases, the complainants said.

While some of Net4’s problems could be chalked down to coronavirus-related restrictions, the company has been in trouble for much longer.

It entered insolvency proceedings in 2017 after a debt recovery company called Edelweiss bought roughly $28 million of unpaid debt from the State Bank of India and took Net4 to court.

ICANN did not find out about this until April 2019 — it’s probably not a coincidence that this was the same month Net4 was late paying its first ICANN invoice — and it issued its first public breach notice in June that year.

Insolvency is grounds for termination in itself under the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

It’s never been clearly stated why ICANN did not escalate at that time. Had it done so, it could have saved Net4’s customers from a world of hurt.

The Indian insolvency court admitted last month that it had no jurisdiction over ICANN or the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, both of which are governed primarily by California law.

Nevertheless, the court asked ICANN to not terminate Net4’s contract until after April 25, to give the company time to get its house in order.

But the termination notice, issued on Friday, will see the RAA cut off March 13. ICANN notes that it hasn’t heard from the court-appointed resolution professional, to whom previous breach notices were addressed, since mid-January.

Affected domains — there are still thousands under Net4’s accreditation — will be moved to another registrar under ICANN’s De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure.

Net4 could have a say in where its domains wind up. It’s already an OpenProvider reseller so that’s a possibility. Otherwise, ICANN will pick a beneficiary from a queue of qualified candidates.

More acquisitions? GoDaddy to raise $800 million

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2021, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy said today that it plans to raise $800 million, which may be put towards future acquisitions.

The company said it is issuing that amount in senior notes to institutional investors.

The money will be used “for general corporate purposes, which may include working capital, capital expenditures and potential acquisitions and strategic transactions”, GoDaddy said.

Lockdown bump sees GoDaddy double customer gains in 2020

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2021, Domain Registrars

GoDaddy almost doubled its rate of customer acquisition in 2020, compared to 2019, as pandemic-related lockdown measures pushed more small businesses online.

The company last week reported that it added 1.4 million customers last year, a 7% year-on-year growth but almost double the number it added the previous year.

It ended the year with 20.6 million customers, up from 19.3 million 12 months prior.

Recognizing that coronavirus restrictions in various parts of the world were increasing demand for domains, hosting and related services, the market-leading registrar upped its marketing spend to make sure it captured as many customers as possible.

It spent $438.5 million on marketing last year, up from $345.6 million in 2019.

Its full-year revenue from domains grew from $1.35 billion to $1,51 billion. Including its other segments, company revenue was up to $3.31 billion from $2.98 billion, an 11% increase.

Domains revenue for the fourth quarter was $402.2 million, up 14.2% on Q4 2019. Total revenue for the quarter was $873.9 million, up 12.0%.

Registrar giant created as Web.com merged with Endurance

Kevin Murphy, February 11, 2021, Domain Registrars

Clearlake Capital Group, which has taken Endurance International private and recently took a big stake in Web.com, has merged the two registrar stables to create a new company it’s calling Newfold Digital.

By my reckoning, Newfold has probably become the second-largest registrar group by domains under management, with around 16.5 million gTLD names across just its best-known half-dozen brands, leapfrogging Namecheap and Tucows in the registrar league table.

That number’s probably a big understatement. It doesn’t capture ccTLDs and does not take into account that the company now has hundreds of active ICANN accredited registrars, largely due to Web.com’s drop-catching business.

Its best-known registrar brands are Register.com, Network Solutions, Domain.com, BuyDomains, BigRock, PublicDomainRegistry and CrazyDomains. Its BlueHost and HostGator brands are both pretty big deals in web hosting.

Clearlake says Newfold has 6.7 million customers worldwide.

The privatization of Endurance, which sees it delisted from the Nasdaq stock exchange, was announced in November and cost Clearlake $3 billion. The value of its Web.com stake, which it acquired last month, was not disclosed.

Siris Capital, which bought Web.com in 2018, continues to have a stake.

Newfold will be led by two Web.com execs — CEO Sharon Rowlands and CFO Christina Clohecy.

The deal follows Web.com’s unsuccessful attempt to buy Webcentral last year.

There’s no word on (presumably inevitable) layoffs as the two companies come together.

One year on, Namecheap still fighting aborted .org takeover and may target GoDaddy and Donuts next

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2021, Domain Registrars

Even though Ethos Capital’s proposed takeover of Public Interest Registry was rejected last May, registrar Namecheap is still doggedly pursuing legal action against ICANN’s handling of the deal, regardless.

The Independent Review Process complaint filed last February is still active, with Namecheap currently fighting a recent ICANN motion to dismiss the case.

The company is also demanding access to information about GoDaddy’s acquisition of Neustar and Donuts’ acquisition of Afilias, and is threatening to file separate actions related to both those deals.

Namecheap has essentially two beefs with ICANN. First, that it should not have lifted price caps in its .org, .biz and .info registry contracts. Second, that its review of Ethos’ bid for PIR lacked the required level of transparency.

ICANN’s trying to get the IRP complaint thrown out on two fairly simple grounds. First, that Namecheap lacks standing because it’s failed to show a lack of price caps have harmed it. Second, that it rejected the PIR acquisition, so Namecheap’s claims are moot.

In its motion to dismiss (pdf), its lawyers wrote:

Namecheap’s entire theory of harm, however, is predicated on the risk of speculative future harm. In fact, nearly every explanation of Namecheap’s purported harm includes the words “may” or “potential.” Namecheap has not identified a single actual, concrete harm it has suffered.

Namecheap’s claims related to the Change of Control Request should be dismissed because ICANN’s decision not to consent to the request renders these claims moot
and, separately, Namecheap cannot demonstrate any harm resulting from this decision.

In December, Namecheap had submitted as evidence two analyses of its business prospects in the event of registry price increases, one compiled by its own staff, the other prepared by a pair of outside expert economists.

While neither shows Namecheap has suffered any directly quantifiable harm, such as a loss of revenue or customers, Namecheap argues that that doesn’t matter and that the likelihood of future harm is in fact a current harm.

A mere expectation of an increase in registry prices is sufficient to show harm. This is because such expectation reduces Namecheap’s expected profits and its net present value.

It further argues that if Namecheap was found to not have standing, it would give ICANN the ability to evade future IRP accountability by simply adding a 12-month delay to the implementation of controversial decisions, pushing potential complainants outside the window in which they’re able to file for IRP.

On the PIR change of control requests, Namecheap says it’s irrelevant that ICANN ultimately blocked the Ethos acquisition. The real problem is that ICANN failed in its transparency requirements related to the deal, the company claims.

The fact that ICANN withheld its consent is no excuse for refusing to provide full transparency with respect to the actions surrounding the proposed acquisition and ICANN’s approval process. Namecheap’s claims relate to the non-transparent process; not the outcomes of such process. Irrespective of the outcome, lack of transparency increases the level of systemic risk in Namecheap’s business environment.

How did ICANN come to its decision? Was an imminent request for a change of control known to ICANN, when it took the decision to remove the price control provisions? What was discussed in over 30 hours of secret meetings between ICANN org and the Board? What discussions took place between ICANN, PIR and other entities involved? All these questions remain unanswered

Namecheap refers to two incidents last year in which ICANN hid its deliberations about industry acquisitions by conducting off-the-books board discussions.

The first related to the PIR deal. I called out ICANN for avoiding its obligation to provide board meeting minutes in a post last May.

The second relates to the board’s consideration of Donuts’ proposed (and ultimately approved) acquisition of Afilias last December. Again, ICANN’s board discussed the deal secretly prior to its official, minuted December 17 meeting, thereby avoiding its transparency requirements.

In my opinion, this kind of bullshit has to stop.

Namecheap is also now threatening to bring the Afilias deal and GoDaddy’s acquisition of Neustar’s registry business last April into the current IRP, or to file separate complaints related to them, writing in its response to ICANN’s motion (pdf):

Namecheap seeks leave to have ICANN’s actions and inactions regarding its consideration of the Neustar and Afilias changes of control reviewed by this IRP Panel. If, per impossibile such leave is not granted, Namecheap reserves all rights to initiate separate proceedings on these issues.

The deals are similar because both involve the change of control of legacy gTLD contractors with millions of domains under management that have recently had their price caps lifted — Afilias ran .info and Neustar ran .biz.

Webcentral to change its branding yet again after tricky takeover

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registrars

Pioneering Aussie registrar Webcentral is to undergo yet another rebranding under its new ownership.

The company said last week that its new strategy “will include the transition to a single brand, with a standardised set of core products”.

It also plans to bring its customer support back to Australia. It is currently outsourced overseas.

Its current brands include Melbourne IT, Netregistry, WME and Domainz. There’s no word on which of these, if any, will survive.

The company was founded as Melbourne IT and became one of the first half-dozen registrars accredited by ICANN over two decades ago.

It rebranded as Arq Group in 2018 after a series of acquisitions, and then again to Webcentral Group last year after a series of divestitures.

Late last year, it became majority-owned by a company called 5G Networks, beating a rival offer from Web.com.

That takeover is currently subject to protests to government regulators by shareholder Keybridge Capital, which believes the 5G takeover was coerced.