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Judge blocks seizure of Iran’s ccTLD

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2014, 09:51:36 (UTC), Domain Policy

ICANN has won a court battle, and avoided a major political incident, over an attempt by terrorism victims to seize ccTLDs belonging to Iran, Korea and Syria.

A District of Columbia judge ruled this week that while ccTLDs may be a form of “property” under the law, they’re not “attachable” property.

Attachment is a legal concept used when creditors attempt to seize assets belonging to debtors.

The ruling overturns a request by a group of terrorism survivors, led by attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, to have .ir, .sy, .kp, سور, and ايران. transferred to them in lieu of payment of previous court rulings.

Darshan-Leitner has previously secured US court judgments amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars against the three nations. Because the nations have not paid these penalties, she’s been using the courts to seize state-owned assets in the US instead.

But US District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled (pdf) earlier this week:

the country code Top Level Domain names at issue may not be attached in satisfaction of plaintiffs’ judgments because they are not property subject to attachment under District of Columbia law.

However, he added in a footnote:

But the conclusion that ccTLDs may not be attached in satisfaction of a judgment under District of Columbia law does not mean that they cannot be property. It simply means that they are not attachable property within this statutory scheme.

Drawing on “sparse” case law, Lamberth’s rationale appears to be that domain names are not a product, they’re a service. He wrote:

The ccTLDs exist only as they are made operational by the ccTLD managers that administer the registries of second level domains within them and by the parties that cause the ccTLDs to be listed on the root zone file. A ccTLD, like a domain name, cannot be conceptualized apart from the services provided by these parties. The Court cannot order plaintiffs’ insertion into this arrangement.

The ruling, which may of course be challenged by the plaintiffs, helps ICANN and the US government avoid a huge political embarrassment at a time when the links between the two are being dissolved and relations with Iran are defrosting.

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Comments (4)

  1. The judgment is a very interesting read, for lawyers. ICANN advanced some half-a-dozen arguments, and the court didn’t rule on any of them except that they found that ccTLDs are, like second-level domains, not attachable, under the law that applies in the District of Columbia.

    There’s also a strong hint in Judge Lamberth’s words here that Kremen -v- Cohen (the “SEX.COM” case) might be followed in any future case or application relating to whether ccTLDs (or, by implication, gTLDs) are property.

    I suspect that within 3 or 4 years this will be considered again.

    (There’s more comment on this case at nigel.je, by the way).

    • John Berryhill says:

      I’m surprised at no citation to the Ninth Circuit decision in Office Depot, Inc. v. Zuccarini, Case No. 07-16788 (9th Cir., Feb. 26, 2010) in which the seizure of domain names in satisfaction of an unrelated judgment was affirmed.

  2. John:

    Interesting authority you cite there. Are you suggesting that if this case had been filed in ICANN’s home territory, instead of in Washington, the outcome might have been difference?

    • Rubens Kuhl says:

      Possibly, but choosing this court was already a forum shopping decision by the filers. This court has fame of being receptive to causes such as people against countries.

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