Need a .law web address? Then NetNames group GC Andy Southam is the go-to man for legal know-how
A bit like outer space, the internet is unlimited and constantly expanding. And its growth is about to go into warp drive.
Next month, London will get its own domain name, .london, as part of the new generic top level domain (gTLD) programme.
The internet is set to expand with about 1,800 new domain extensions and there is certain to be a welter of applications for .london. Few businesses will feel that expansion more than one of the world’s largest domain name registrars NetNames.
The company that began life above a café in Farringdon and whose first employee was one of the waiters, now has eight offices worldwide and around 350 staff. But the much-heralded roll-out of a stack of new domain names could be the biggest event in its short life.
“We’ve been gearing up for this for over a year,” says Andy Southam, group general counsel at NetNames and the man faced with dealing with the legal ramifications of the internet’s expansion.
Thanks to the new gTLDs, for the first time, businesses, individuals and brands will be able to apply for their own domain extension. So far, it is thought that around 1,800 applications have been made that will be phased in over the next three to five years.
Among the high-profile companies that have done this are Apple, which applied for .apple, Barclays with .barclays and .barclaycard and, inevitably, Google, which has applied for around 100 domain extensions including .google.
There are also a large number of new domains being created such as .law as well as .shop, .flowers and .plumbing. The most popular word so far is .guru. Stats on how many of the applications for this gem are from lawyers are not available.
For those at the heart of registering and policing these new names, business has never been brisker, particularly from a compliance perspective.
“The primary impact on the legal work here is contractual,” says Southam. “The internet is getting much more regulated, with more rigour and structure to operational processes, including having contracts that incorporate the right terms,” says Southam, “so we have to make sure that we’re complying with the regulations and any conditions that have been imposed by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).”
The number of TLDs globally that can be sold to clients, comprising existing gTLDs and ccTLDs (country code top level domain), is set to rise from about 300 to more than a 1,000.
Consequently, the registry operations team has doubled in headcount from three to six.
Southam’s legal team has remained static, at one. For now.
“We want to grow the team,” admits Southam, adding, “there’s no physical way I can do all this work.”
It is a huge change but Southam is a lawyer used to thriving in a fast-moving environment.
He trained at DLA Piper, qualifying in 2003 into the technology and media team that was headed by partner Julian Stait (now at US firm Milbank) and now headed by Stéphane Lemarchand.
Prior to joining NetNames eight months ago Southam worked in-house at advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), best known for campaigns such as Nick Kamen’s Levi’s Launderette advert and the Vorsprung durch Technik tagline for Audi (Sir John Hegarty came up with it after he visited Audi’s factory and saw it on a wall).
“I joined in 2007 as their fourth lawyer,” recalls Southam. “By 2009, when advertising revenue fell off a cliff post-Lehman, I was the only one left. I became head of legal at the end of 2010 and was made a partner in 2012.”
A change of ownership at BBH triggered Southam’s desire to look around. His IP background and experience of dealing with domain name pirates while at DLA Piper
ultimately led him to NetNames.
The company is split into three main divisions including the accredited registrar Ascio and Easily (in Europe, Speed Names), which handles consumer domains. There is also a brand protection business that monitors domain name usage online and handles take-down requests.
NetNames, which counts 30 per cent of the FTSE 100 among its clients, is the largest part of the business, however.
M&A’s on the increase
Netnames was established as Group NBT in 1995. It is backed by private equity house HG Capital, which bought the company in 2013 and renamed it NetNames.
In a typical year, the business can generate high amounts of corporate and finance work, for which Southam turns to Linklaters.
Southam believes the changes in the domain name market will mean higher levels of M&A among the registrars in the coming years,
although whether NetNames will turn to the magic circle firm for any acquisitions is uncertain following the exit of former relationship partner Richard Youle to White & Case.
That covers the UK, which generates about three-quarters of the company’s revenue, but NetNames also uses a raft of firms around the globe. And the company’s general counsel has his eye on an external legal services suppliers overhaul.
“I wouldn’t call it anything as grand as a panel review, I just want to see what’s out there,” says Southam. “
What’s out there in the short term for Southam is the expected spike in work following the introduction of the .london suffix, which should be fully up and running by August.
Despite the tag’s high profile, Southam says the general awareness of the introduction of .london is still relatively low.
“Even quite a few IP lawyers I know are still feeling their way around it,” he adds. “The changes are quite low key but this is how the internet will grow.”
Which brings us neatly back to outer space. Apparently, another one of the new domains is .cern, as in the home of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, site of the Large Hadron Collider and workplace 25 years ago of one Tim Berners-Lee.
Look him up on the internet if you need to.
Andy Southam, NetNames
Position: Group general counsel
Reporting to: Paul Greensmith, CFO
Legal spend: Up to £250,000
Employees: 350 global (250 UK)
Legal capability: One
Main law firms: Baker Botts, Dentons, K&L Gates, Linklaters