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Monte Cahn revealed as third new gTLD buyer

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2022, Domain Registries

Domain investor Monte Cahn has revealed himself as the third partner in the controversial acquisition of new gTLD .hiphop from UNR.

Cahn Enterprises named itself alongside already-reported consultant Jeff Neuman of JJN Solutions and publicly traded startup Digital Asset Monetary Network (DigitalAMN) as a partner in newly formed registry vehicle Dot Hip Hop LLC.

DHH bought .hiphop privately from Frank Schilling’s UNR last April at around the same time as UNR auctioned off the other 22 gTLDs in its portfolio, exiting the registry business.

Cahn founded the registrar Moniker, aftermarket pioneer SnapNames and gTLD auction coordinator RightOfTheDot.

RightOfTheDot’s Scott Pruitt has also joined DHH to lead marketing, Cahn’s press release revealed.

The new registry plans to lower the price of .hiphip domains, which currently retail for over $150 a year, as part of an effort to get broader adoption in the hip-hop cultural community.

The company is strongly pushing digital empowerment and “financial literacy” in an “underserved” community as a public benefit of its plans for the TLD.

The problem DHH continues to face is ICANN’s ongoing blocking of the transfer of .hiphop, and the other 22 UNR TLD contracts, due to confusion about the ownership status of matching TLDs on the Ethereum Name Service, a blockchain-based alt-root.

ICANN is fearful of alternative DNS roots which, if they ever gain broad appeal, in theory could break internet interoperability as well as eroding ICANN’s own uniquely powerful and uniquely lucrative authority over the DNS.

DHH’s Neuman recently accused ICANN of foot-dragging and retaliation over the delayed transfers, which is costing the DHH partners money while their legal status is in limbo and they are unable to sell any names.

ICANN’s top brass subsequently denied these accusations, saying the Org is merely following its established (and rather convoluted) appeals procedures.

While these procedures could delay approval of .hiphop’s transfer for another few months, forcing DHH to burn more capital, ICANN said it is “considering the potential impact on the requestor as we have been requested to do”, so it may cut DHH some slack.

ICANN is blocking 23 gTLD transfers over blockchain fears

ICANN is objecting to the transfer of 23 new gTLDs from UNR to an unknown number of third parties, because it’s scared that the associated non-fungible tokens may break the internet and its own authority over it.

The mystery of how UNR’s auction in April of its entire new gTLD portfolio has so far not resulted in a single ICANN Registry Agreement changing hands appears to have been solved.

It’s because UNR bundled each contract sale with a matching top-level “domain name”, in the form of an NFT, on the Ethereum Name Service, an alt-root based on the Ethereum blockchain, and ICANN is worried about what this means for both the long-term interoperability of the DNS and its own ability to act as the internet’s TLD gatekeeper.

This all emerged in an emergency Request for Reconsideration filed by a company called Dot Hip Hop, which bought .hiphop from UNR earlier in the year.

It turns out .hiphop is the TLD alluded to by Digital Asset Monetary Network, which in October became the first to out itself as a UNR buyer while not naming its gTLD. The purchase was made separately from the April auction, despite .hiphop being “mistakenly” listed as one of the lots.

It also turns out that consultant Jeff Neuman, who’s been a leading figure in the ICANN community since its inception, was behind long-time employer Neustar’s application for .biz, and is a big fan of musical theater, is chief legal officer of and a partner in DHH.

In his reconsideration request, Neuman rages against the fact that it had been over 120 days at time of writing since DHH and UNR had applied to have the .hiphop contract reassigned, but that ICANN is continuing to drag its feet despite DHH long ago passing its due diligence review (which Neuman says cost an excessive $17,000).

DigitalAMN lists DHH as a subsidiary in its recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The company is publicly listed but essentially pre-revenue, making its ability to start selling domain names rather quickly rather important.

ICANN has repeatedly delayed approval of the reassignment, provided no visibility into when approval will come, and has repeatedly asked the same questions — largely related to the NFTs — with only slight rewording, Neuman says:

ICANN Org has already communicated to DHH that it has already met all of the criteria required under the Registry Agreement. Yet still, ICANN is withholding consent based on its mere curiosity about the former owner of the .hiphop, TLD (UNR Co), and based on the questions that ICANN keeps re-asking, has presumably conjured up non-issues that: (a) have already been addressed by DHH on multiple occasions over the past 123 days, (b) are beyond the scope of ICANN’s mission, and (c) are philosophical, fictional and frankly do not exist in this matter.

The ENS NFT is a “de minimus” component of the transaction that DHH didn’t even know about until after it had already decided to buy .hiphop, the request states, and ICANN has no authority over the blockchain so the existence of an NFT is not a valid reason to deny the reassignment.

I think I also detect a race card being played here. The RfR spends a bit of time talking about how ICANN’s foot-dragging is making the Org look bad to “traditionally underserved communities where the Hip Hop culture has thrived, globally”.

Apparently referring to DigitalAMN, the RfR states:

In addition to such partner being established at the birthplace of Hip Hop (Bronx New York), by its founder who shares the same birthdate as Hip Hop (August 11th), its mission is to provide financial literacy and economic opportunities for those communities and cultures that are traditionally under-represented, under-funded and under-valued.

DigitalAMN is majority-owned and led by Ajene Watson, who is black. One of company’s stated goals is to connect early stage companies with capital from non-traditional investors (not just the “privileged few”) using non-traditional means.

The RfR goes on to say:

The most dominantly underserved, under-funded and under-valued communities, are also those that embrace and are part of the Hip Hop culture. This Partner has embraced what seemed to be an opportunity to provide domain name registration services to a culture that knows nothing of ICANN, nor the domain name industry. Now, its first impression of the ICANN community is unnecessary delay, a lack of transparency, and bureaucratic indecision—just another gatekeeper to prevent equitable access. In their eyes, they consistently see deadlines that are never met (by ICANN), a lack of information as to why their launch is being held up, and an entity (ICANN) that takes weeks/months to act on anything with no end in sight. In their view, it would appear that ICANN, as an organization, cares nothing about serving the public interest, or about the impact of its actions (or in this case inactions) on the undervalued communities this Partner aims to support.

It should be noted that 22 other unrelated UNR gTLD reassignments are also in limbo, so it’s not like ICANN has a problem in particular with hip-hop music or those who enjoy it.

ICANN, in its response to the RfR, lays all the blame with UNR for, it says, refusing to provide “fulsome and complete” answers to its questions about the NFTs. In a December 10 letter to Neuman, ICANN VP Russ Weinstein wrote:

Significant questions remain, including regarding the role and rights conveyed to the proposed assignees related to the NFTs created on the ENS. For these reasons, ICANN must continue to object to and withhold its consent to all pending Assignments proposed by UNR, including yours.

The RfR was denied by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee on a technicality. DHH had filed an “emergency” request based on ICANN’s staff inaction, but emergency requests only apply to board action or inaction.

Neuman appears to have known this in advance. It appears DHH just wanted to get something in the public record about the state of play with UNR’s gTLDs.

ICANN seems to have two problems with the NFTs, and they’re both big, existential ones.

First, ENS is essentially an alt-root, and when you have competing roots there’s the risk of TLDs colliding — two or more registries claiming authority for the same TLD — breaking the global interoperability of the internet.

Second, but related, the existence of alt-roots threatens ICANN’s authority.

ICANN has no authority over ENS or the NFT names that live on it, so for a registry to run a TLD in the both the authoritative ICANN root and the alt-root of the ENS could cause problems down the road.

While NFTs can be “owned”, gTLDs are not. UNR is merely the party ICANN has contracted with to run .hiphop. While UNR and any subsequent assignees have a presumptive right of renewal, it’s possible for ICANN to terminate the contract and hand stewardship of the gTLD to another registry. It’s not merely a hypothetical scenario.

Should that ever happen with .hiphop, ICANN wouldn’t have the authority to seize the ENS NFT, meaning the old registry could carry on running .hiphop in the ENS while the new registry runs it in the ICANN root, again breaking global DNS interoperability.

You could spin it either way — either ICANN is worried about interoperability, or it’s worried about protecting its own power. These are not mutually exclusive, and are both probably true.

One thing’s the sure, however — in roadblocking these gTLD transfers, ICANN is playing into the hands of critics and blockchain fanboys who argue for decentralized control of naming, with ICANN as their bogeyman.

First UNR gTLD buyer outs itself

Kevin Murphy, October 28, 2021, Domain Registries

A company from outside the domain industry with no revenue last year and doubts about its survival has announced itself as the buyer of one of UNR’s gTLDs, which were sold off earlier this year.

Digital Asset Monetary Network Inc issued a press release stating that it has “acquired a TLD”. It didn’t name the TLD, or the seller, but gave enough information for us to narrow it down to UNR:

The gTLD acquired by DigitalAMN was originally slated to be part of an auction recently conducted by a large retail registry and was mistakenly listed with the registry’s available inventory for auction. However, the Company and its domain industry partners were able to secure this digital asset completely outside of that auction.

UNR had listed these 23 gTLDs for sale at the April 28 auction: .audio, .blackfriday, .christmas, .click, .country, .diet, .flowers, .game, guitars, .help, .hiphop, .hiv, .hosting, .juegos, .link, .llp, .lol, .mom, .photo, .pics, .property, .sexy and .tattoo.

It’s not clear which of these was “mistakenly listed” and bought separately by DigitalAMN. When UNR announced the closure of the auction, it only said that it had sold “20+” of the names in its portfolio, though the company later confirmed to DI that all 23 had been sold.

The identities of the buyers, which may number as many as 17, have not yet been revealed. All 23 contracts appear to be still subject to ICANN’s regulatory scrutiny, even six months after the auction.

In a press release today, DigitalAMN CEO Ajene Watson said:

We believe this venture continues to support our ethos and mantra. Especially given the name of this gTLD, what it may represent culturally to a multi-billion-dollar global marketplace, and the anticipated financial literacy initiatives that could potentially be born from it.

Which strings does “financial literacy initiatives” suggest? .llp? .property? Your guess is as good as mine.

The press release states that DigitalAMN has two domain industry partners in its new venture. Again, they’re not named, but we can probably assume one’s a back-end registry provider.

DigitalAMN is listed on the over-the-counter markets in the US. It reported $145,000 of consulting revenue in the six months to June 30, but was burning cash and said it needed another $2 million to survive the next 12 months.

It calls itself a Public Accelerator Incubator (PAI) company, which appears to be a term of its own invention. It says it “operates an ecosystem that fosters growth opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to build their businesses”.

This seems to mean it tries to get start-ups investment through means such as crowdfunding and access to capital markets through “mini-IPOs” made possible through the US JOBS Act of 2012.

The company is possibly one of the “blockchain companies” that UNR referred to when it announced the auction results back in May.

DigitalAMN says it intends to introduce “new value-added services, leveraging the newest technologies incorporated in digital wallets and crypto currencies” to its new gTLD.

It’s going to be interesting to see what the company has in mind.

UPDATE: this article was updated November 5, 2021, to remove an inaccurate reference to the company’s Bitcoin position.

Tucows buys UNR’s registry business as Schilling bows out

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2021, Domain Registries

Tucows has acquired UNR’s registry business, the latest in the piecemeal sale of the old Uniregistry by founder Frank Schilling.

The Canadian registrar said it is taking on the technology platform as well as 10 UNR staffers.

Not many details of the deal, not even the purchase price, have been revealed.

“While I am slowly getting out of the industry, it’s important to me to know that my businesses are being left in the best hands,” Schilling said in a brief Tucows press release.

The deal gives Tucows a registry component to match rival GoDaddy, which acquired Neustar’s registry business last year, and makes the company the latest to throw itself into the vertically integrated domain space.

GoDaddy acquired Uniregistry’s registrar business last year also.

The UNR registry was originally Internet Systems Consortium’s but was acquired by UNR towards the beginning of the current new gTLD cycle.

It’s not currently clear which TLDs, if any, continue to run on the UNR platform. The company auctioned off 20 gTLDs in May, making $40 million, but did not disclose the buyers and none of the ICANN contracts have yet changed hands.

Certain ICANN approvals are needed before the deal closes, Tucows said.

Neither company answered DI’s questions about which TLDs are making the move, but Tucows VP Dave Woroch told us:

We are purchasing their registry platform and technology/intellectual property. In addition to servicing a number of registry operators, this platform will be applicable or beneficial to our broader registrar business, and we are looking at how we can implement some of that technology into our registrar platform. Along with this purchase of the registry platform, we have the unique opportunity to bring on a very experienced team of software engineers with specific expertise, and that will benefit our domain business at a time when it has been particularly challenging to add talent…

Tucows will be actively marketing itself as a backend registry provider, both for gTLDs and ccTLDs, and if there is another round of new gTLDs, we would fully expect to participate there as well.

GoDaddy welcomes four porn TLDs

GoDaddy may not have the raunchy public image it once promoted, but it’s now the official registry for tens of thousands of porn-related domain names.

The gTLDs .xxx, .porn, .adult and .sex made the move from UNR’s back-end to GoDaddy Registry this week, IANA records show.

These almost certainly the TLDs that MMX was talking about last week when it said it had ICANN approval to reassign four contracts, which it did not name.

IANA records still show the sponsor as ICM Registry for all four, suggesting the deal was structured a little differently to the 20-odd other gTLDs in MMX’s portfolio, which are still with MMX.

MMX said earlier this year that it was selling its entire portfolio to GoDaddy for at least $120 million.

.xxx, which launched the earliest — pre-2012 — is the largest of the TLDs, with around 55,000 names under management. .porn has about 10,000 and the other two have about 8,000 each.

Could .trust be the next big crypto TLD?

UNR has some big plans for .trust, a gTLD that mysteriously was omitted from its big fire-sale auction last month.

When UNR auctioned 23 of its gTLD portfolio, raising over $40 million over a three-day event, it escaped pretty much everyone’s notice — including mine — that .trust was not among those up for sale.

UNR, the former Uniregistry, acquired the TLD from NCC Group last November. It had been owned before NCC by Deutsche Post.

While it’s technically live, it’s never sold a domain.

It had been expected to launch as a vanilla gTLD around about now, but it seem plans have changed.

Registrars have been told to expect something “innovative” instead, and UNR tells me it has big plans it’s not ready to talk about yet.

My hunch? Crypto.

This is pure speculation based on nothing more than the string being closely associated with the kind of cryptocurrency slash blockchain slash non-fungible token malarkey the interwebs is going barmy for at the moment.

While UNR has not disclosed the identities of its auction winners, it has said at least one buyer is from the blockchain world.

Given UNR’s evident boredom with basic, workaday gTLDs, we’d have to expect its single retained top-level domain to do something a bit special, right?

$40 million UNR auction brings fresh blood to domain industry

Six entities are entering the domain registry business for the first time following UNR’s auction last month, which saw over 20 new gTLDs sold off for a total of over $40 million, according to UNR.

While playing its cards close to its chest and revealing the auction results in rather general terms, UNR disclosed last week that there were 17 bidders at the three-day event, which ran in late April.

It said “between 10 and 20 bidders came away as winners”, which I assume we have to interpret as “between 10 and 17”.

Anyone predicting a bulk purchase by a rival portfolio registry was dead wrong, it appears.

UNR said that, while it will not disclose their identities, “established registries, investment firms, blockchain companies, and high net-worth individuals” were among the winners.

None of the ICANN Registry Agreements have yet changed hands, according to ICANN records.

While existing registries and investment firms (presumably the kind of private equity interests that have shown high levels of interest in the domain industry in recent years) will come as no surprise as buyers, blockchain companies and high net-worth individuals will perhaps raise more eyebrows.

ICANN won’t, to the best of my knowledge, sign an RA with an individual, so we’ll no doubt be seeing a corporate vehicle or two established to take over contracts on behalf of those buyers.

The idea of a blockchain company taking over a TLD in the internet’s official root zone is particularly interesting.

The closest we’ve had to that scenario to date is MMX’s experiments integrating .luxe into the Ethereum blockchain, which has been described as genuinely innovative.

But most forays by blockchain outfits into “domain names” have been strictly alt-root moves, such as Unstoppable Domains’ use of .crypto addresses, which do not use the ICANN root and instead require browser plug-ins to function.

These kinds of services usually have their ability to avoid centralized oversight and control as a USP, which makes an attempt from this sector to suck on the ICANN teat especially intriguing.

And which of UNR’s TLDs would be most suited to blockchain applications? .link? .click? .lol?

UNR has not broken down how much was paid for each TLD, and we’ll likely never know, but the $40 million top-line is far above the $11.65 million minimum opening bids it had established for the no-reserve auction.

But it still works out as under $2 million on average across each of the 23 gTLDs on offer, many of which had been on the market for six or seven years, begging the question of whether UNR CEO Frank Schilling’s big bet on new gTLDs back in 2012 was ultimately a success.

Schilling said in a press release: “All UNR shareholders should be exceptionally pleased with the final outcome of this first-of-its-kind event. We are deeply satisfied to have seen so much new interest and blood enter the arena.”

The TLDs auctioned were: .audio, .blackfriday, .christmas, .click, .country, .diet, .flowers, .game, ,guitars, .help, .hiphop, .hiv, .hosting, .juegos, .link, .llp, .lol, .mom, .photo, .pics, .property, .sexy and .tattoo.

DI will of course reveal the winners over time as their ICANN contracts are updated to reflect the new operators.

UNR cuts $5.2 million from price of new gTLD portfolio

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2021, Domain Registries

UNR has reduced the opening bids on almost all of the gTLDs it plans to auction off later in the week, to the tune of a whopping $5.2 million.

According to the minimum opening bids listed on the auction web site today, the job lot of 23 TLD contracts could go for as little as $11.65 million, if there’s no competitive bidding whatsoever.

That’s compared to the $16.87 million total when the TLDs were first announced for auction back in January.

It’s a no-reserve auction of UNR’s entire portfolio of gTLDs that runs from Wednesday to Friday this week.

Some gTLDs, such as .hiv and .juegos, have no minimum bids.

The only TLD to receive a price increase since January is .llp, which had a $0 listing back then but is now listed at $200,000. There’s been no change in .llp’s fortunes since then — it’s still unlaunched.

The music-themed .country, which had no list price in January, now has a $300,000 tag.

The biggest discount comes on .link, once listed with a $3 million opener, now reduced to $2 million.

Nine of the gTLDs are now priced at below the original ICANN application fee of $186,000.

Here’s a table comparing the January minimum bid to today’s pricing.

[table “66” not found /]

UNR, which sold off its registrar and secondary market businesses to GoDaddy and its stakes in three car-themed gTLDs to XYZ.com last year, plans to remodel itself as a back-end operator post-auction.

UPDATE: According to UNR, the January prices were preliminary and published accidentally, and no changes have been made since late January or early February.

Correction: UNR’s trademark block service

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2021, Domain Registries

The registry or registries that buy UNR’s portfolio of new gTLDs at its firesale auction next month will be obliged to honor domains blocked by subscribers to its UniEPS brand protection service.

That’s contrary to what I reported yesterday, which was pretty much the opposite. I apologize for the error.

I asked UNR CEO Frank Schilling for comment about the post-auction UniEPS service, but did not receive a reply. Today, I learned that Schilling had in fact sent a lengthy reply, but it wound up in my email spam folder. Apparently my emails to him also wound up in his spam folder. The filtering gods clearly do not approve of our relationship.

According to Schilling, bidders for each of the 23 auctioned TLDs have been told “blocked names have to remain blocked, banned, or reserved after acquisition, even if they do not participate in our blocking service”.

Registrars were told:

Should an auction winner elect to withdraw the Asset(s) from UNR’s blocking services, the blocked domains will have to remain blocked, reserved, or banned in the acquired Registries until the expiry dates below. This is no different than a new owner honoring prepaid domains under management with expiry dates in the future. Once a block expires, the associated domains can be released for any registrant to purchase (fees from future registrations will be paid to the new owner).

Schilling also said that UNR is forgoing revenue from UniEPS auto-renews after March 15 until the gTLDs change hands. The new owners will be able to cancel these free renewals, he said.

The new owners will be able to continue to use UniEPS if the gTLDs remain on its registry platform. They could also choose to migrate them to their own blocking service, should they have one.

UniEPS, like other products on the market, blocks trademarks and variants such as IDN homographs from registration. It works out cheaper than defensively registering domains, but the domains cannot be used.

UNR, the former Uniregistry, will auction all of its 23 gTLD contracts April 28, as the company refocuses on back-end registry services.

UNR getting out of the registry business with $17 million no-reserve auctions on 23 new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2021, Domain Registries

UNR, the former Uniregistry, plans to auction off its portfolio of 23 new gTLD contracts in April.

The company, owned by domain investor Frank Schilling, said on a new web site at auction.link:

In a move to completely dedicate the company and its resources to its backend registry and IP rights protection services, UNR has announced that 23 of its Top Level Domain assets will be sold in no-reserve auctions on April 28, 2021.

The TLDs will be sold individually, rather than as a package.

While they’re all no-reserve auctions, the published starting prices add up to $16,870,000. Some have minimum bids of zero, some are less than the price UNR paid ICANN for its application fee back in 2012.

Here’s a list of the TLDs, along with their starting prices.

[table “63” not found /]

The prices appear to be based on the reg fee and volume of existing registrations, which range wildly from around 300 for .hiv to 159,000 for .link. The .country gTLD, aimed at country music makers and fans, currently has no starting bid listed.

The most-likely buyers of these gTLDs would be the rapidly dwindling list of fellow portfolio registries, such as Donuts and Radix.

While UNR’s exit from the registry business may be surprising — Schilling was a big fan of new gTLDs and Uniregistry applied for 54 of them, investing $69 million — it’s merely the latest stage of the business being dismantled.

Uniregistry sold its registrar and secondary market businesses to GoDaddy last year, and later sold its stake in three car-related gTLDs to business partner XYZ.com.

UNR said the April auctions will be managed over one day by Innovative Auctions, which is pretty much the de facto standard player in new gTLD auctions.

While the company says the auctions are open to “businesses and individuals”, I’m pretty sure ICANN rules forbid a gTLD being owned by individuals.

The company now plans to focus on being a pure-play back-end registry services provider, with a focus on dot-brand gTLDs, where it will continue to compete with the likes of GoDaddy, CentralNic, Donuts and Verisign.