Written by Niraj Chokshi
It’s happening. Democracy is officially up for sale.
The domain name Democracy.com is being auctioned off this month, and it can be yours for a hefty price. The bidding, hosted by Heritage Auctions, which specializes in the sale of collectibles, begins at $300,000 and closes at 5 pm October 25.
To the winner goes a rare piece of prime internet real estate, but the man behind the sale isn’t eager to let it go.
“I’m bummed that we’re selling it,” said Talmage Cooley, who used the domain name for years to host a social platform where politicians and civics groups could communicate their positions on the issues, collect donations, announce events and otherwise connect with supporters.
Cooley, an entrepreneur, started making payments on the domain name in 2012 and quickly put it to use, attracting users, press coverage and accolades, with the goal of eventually converting the civics-minded project into a business.
The startup raised $4.5 million, much of it from friends and family, but struggled in recent years to line up more substantial, institutional investment. A large crowdfunding campaign was planned for April, Cooley said, but the site ran out of money in February.
“We just had to call it off, and that was that,” he said.
A Market Like Any Other
Domain names, especially those composed of single words or phrases, can be incredibly expensive.
In May, a blockchain company bought Voice.com for $30 million, according to the business that sold it. In 2010, a marketing company bought Insurance.com for nearly $36 million and CarInsurance.com for nearly $50 million. And then there’s LasVegas.com, which was sold in 2005 in a complex, ongoing deal, which according to details outlined in a 2015 corporate filing would be worth about $90 million when and if it finally closes in 2040. (The company that purchased the domain did not respond to a request for comment on whether the deal is still in place.)
But, as with any market, demand for domain names has ebbed and flowed over time as preferences have changed.
Companies once fought over domains that described the services or products they sold, like shoes, but such literal names proved limiting as businesses sought to expand, according to Aron Meystedt, who left Heritage Auctions a year ago but still consulted on the sale of Democracy.com (which currently redirects to the auction page).
“Now, the trend is get a killer one-word name, and the reason is that you can pivot into anything you want,” said Meystedt, who has traded domain names for years and owns Symbolics.com, which became the first public dot-com address when it was registered in 1985.
Even with years of experience, appraising the value of a domain name is difficult because their worth is so often determined by what a limited pool of buyers is willing to pay, he said.
That’s why Heritage Auctions said it had decided to sell Democracy.com in a sealed-bid auction, in which each potential buyer is blind to what others have offered. Unlike an open auction, in which the winner only has to bid slightly more than the second-highest bidder, sealed-bid auctions can pressure buyers to make offers closer to their own upper limits.
The Foundations of Democracy.com
Democracy.com was registered in the mid-1990s by Intraactive, an online business in Washington, D.C., that claimed the name on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, according to a 1997 article in the magazine In These Times.
Back then, Intraactive was struggling to get rid of the domain, which the DNC had never used, according to the article. But the business eventually found a buyer in John Carrieri, who said in an interview that his personal records indicated he had bought the domain name from Intraactive and that he believed the sale likely took place in or around 1998.
Carrieri, now chief executive of an energy management business in San Diego, was an early investor in domains and once owned Jokes.com, which is now in the hands of Comedy Central, and Jobs.com, now owned by Monster. But while he ran those domains as businesses, he had more idealistic goals for Democracy.com.
“I wanted to spread democracy,” said Carrieri, who majored in history and political science in college and had planned to turn the domain into an educational resource.
Ultimately, Carrieri was never able to give the project the time and resources it demanded, so he sold the domain a little more than a decade after buying it. He declined to name the buyer, citing a nondisclosure agreement that was part of the sale, but a domain name reseller announced auctions that included Democracy.com in both 2010 and 2012, the same year that Cooley said he began licensing Democracy.com from a domain name broker.
Cooley soon began using it for his project and eventually persuaded an investor in the site to buy the domain outright. The investor, whom he declined to name, still owns Democracy.com and will receive a cut of the profits from this month’s auction.
Cooley launched the platform, which had signed up thousands of candidates and organizations, out of frustration with what he saw as the rising influence of moneyed interests in U.S. politics. The problem, as he saw it, was that democracy in America was for sale.
Now, Democracy.com is.
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