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Hacking claims resurface as .hotel losers force ICANN to lawyer up again

Kevin Murphy, February 7, 2020, 15:25:07 (UTC), Domain Policy

The fight over .hotel has been escalated, with four unsuccessful applicants for the gTLD whacking ICANN with a second Independent Review Process appeal.

The complaint resurrects old claims that a former lead on the successful application, now belonging to Afilias, stole trade secrets from competing applicants via a glitched ICANN web site.

It also revives allegations that ICANN improperly colluded with the consultant hired to carry out reviews of “community” applications and then whitewashed an “independent” investigation into the same.

The four companies filing the complaint are new gTLD portfolio applicants MMX (Minds + Machines), Radix, Fegistry, and Domain Venture Partners (what we used to call Famous Four).

The IRP was filed November 18 and published by ICANN December 16, but I did not spot it until more recently. Sorry.

There’s a lot of back-story to the complaint, and it’s been a few years since I got into any depth on this topic, so I’m going to get into a loooong, repetitive, soporific, borderline unreadable recap here.

This post could quite easily be subtitled “How ICANN takes a decade to decide a gTLD’s fate”.

There were seven applicants for .hotel back in 2012, but only one of them purported to represent the “hotel community”. That applicant, HOTEL Top Level Domain, was mostly owned by Afilias.

HTLD had managed to get letters of support from a large number of hotel chains and trade groups, to create a semblance of a community that could help it win a Community Priority Evaluation, enabling it to skip to the finish line and avoid a potentially costly auction against its rival applicants.

CPEs were carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, an independent ICANN contractor.

Surprisingly to some (including yours truly), back in 2014 it actually managed to win its CPE, scoring 15 out of the 16 available points, surpassing the 14-point winning threshold and consigning its competing bidders’ applications to the scrap heap.

There would be no auction, and no redistribution of wealth between applicants that customarily follows a new gTLD auction.

Naturally, the remaining applicants were not happy about this, and started to fight back.

The first port of call was a Request for Reconsideration, which all six losers filed jointly in June 2014. It accused the EIU of failing to follow proper procedure when it evaluated the HTLD community application.

That RfR was rejected by ICANN, so a request for information under ICANN’s Documentary Information Disclosure Policy followed. The losing applicants reckoned the EIU evaluator had screwed up, perhaps due to poor training, and they wanted to see all the communications between ICANN and the EIU panel.

The DIDP was also rejected by ICANN on commercial confidentiality grounds, so the group of six filed another RfR, asking for the DIDP to be reconsidered.

Guess what? That got rejected too.

So the applicants then filed an IRP case, known as Despegar v ICANN, in March 2015. Despegar is one of the .hotel applicants, and the only one that directly plays in the hotel reservation space already.

The IRP claimed that ICANN shirked its duties by failing to properly oversee and verify the work of the EIU, failing to ensure the CPE criteria were being consistently applied between contention sets, and failing in its transparency obligations by failing to hand over information related to the CPE process.

While this IRP was in its very early stages, it emerged that one of HTLD’s principals and owners, Dirk Krischenowski, had accessed confidential information about the other applicants via an ICANN web site.

ICANN had misconfigured its applicant portal in such a way that any user could very access any attachment on any application belonging to any applicant. This meant sensitive corporate information, such as worst-case-scenario financial planning, was easily viewable via a simple search for over a year.

Krischenowski appears to have been the only person to have noticed this glitch and used it in earnest. ICANN told applicants in May 2015 that he had carried out 60 searches and accessed 200 records using the glitch.

Krischenowski has always denied any wrongdoing and told DI in 2016 that he had always “relied on the proper functioning of ICANN’s technical infrastructure while working with ICANN’s CSC portal.”

The applicants filed another DIDP, but no additional information about the data glitch was forthcoming.

When the first IRP concluded, in February 2016, ICANN prevailed, but the three-person IRP panel expressed concern that neither the EIU nor ICANN had any process in place to ensure that community evaluations carried out by different evaluators were consistently applying the CPE rules.

The IRP panel also expressed concern about the “very serious issues” raised by the ICANN portal glitch and Krischenowski’s data access.

But the loss of the IRP did not stop the six losing applicants from ploughing on. Their lawyer wrote to ICANN in March 2016 to denounce Krischenowski’s actions as “criminal acts” amounting to “HTLD stealing trade secrets of competing applicants”, and as such HTLD’s application for .hotel should be thrown out.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, Krischenowski has never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any criminal act.

Afilias wrote to ICANN not many weeks later, April 2016, to say that it had bought out Krischenowski’s 48.8% stake in HTLD and that he was no longer involved in the company or its .hotel application.

And ICANN’s board of directors decided in August 2016 that Krischenowski may well have accessed documents he was not supposed to, but that it would have happened after the .hotel CPE had been concluded, so there was no real advantage to HTLD.

A second, parallel battle against ICANN by an unrelated new gTLD applicant had been unfolding over the same period.

A company called Dot Registry had failed in its CPE efforts for the strings .llc, .llp and .inc, and in 2014 had filed its own IRP against ICANN, claiming that the EIU had “bungled” the community evaluations, applying “inconsistent” scoring criteria and “harassing” its supporters.

In July 2016, almost two years later, the IRP panel in that case ruled that Dot Registry had prevailed, and launched a withering attack on the transparency and fairness of the ICANN process.

The panel found that, far from being independent, the EIU had actually incorporated notes from ICANN staff into its CPE evaluations during drafting.

It was as a result of this IRP decision, and the ICANN board’s decision that Krischenowski’s actions could not have benefited HTLD, that the losing .hotel applicants filed yet another RfR.

This one lasted two and a half years before being resolved, because in the meantime ICANN launched a review of the CPE process.

It hired a company called FTI Consulting to dig through EIU and ICANN documentation, including thousands of emails that passed between the two, to see if there was any evidence of impropriety. It covered .hotel, .music, .gay and other gTLD contention sets, all of which were put on hold while FTI did its work.

FTI eventually concluded, at the end of 2017, that there was “no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE reports or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process”, which affected applicants promptly dismissed as a “whitewash”.

They began lobbying for more information, unsuccessfully, and hit ICANN with yet another RfR in April 2018. Guess what? That one was rejected too.

The .hotel applicants then entered into a Cooperative Engagement Process — basically pre-IRP talks — from October 2018 to November 2019, before this latest IRP was filed.

It’s tempting to characterize it as a bit of a fishing expedition, albeit not a baseless one — any allegations of ICANN’s wrongdoing pertaining the .hotel CPE are dwarfed by the applicants’ outraged claims that ICANN appears to be covering up both its interactions with the EIU and its probe of the Krischenowski incident, partly out of embarrassment.

The claimants want ICANN to be forced to hand over documentation refused them on previous occasions, relating to: “ICANN subversion of the .HOTEL CPE and first IRP (Despegar), ICANN subversion of FTI’s CPE Process Review, ICANN subversion of investigation into HTLD theft of trade secrets, and ICANN allowing a domain registry conglomerate to takeover the ‘community-based’ applicant HTLD.”

“The falsely ‘independent’ CPE processes were in fact subverted by ICANN in violation of Bylaws, HTLD stole trade secrets from at least one competing applicant, and Afilias is not a representative of the purported community,” the IRP states.

“HTLD’s application should be denied, or at least its purported Community Priority relinquished, as a consequence not only for HTLD’s spying on its competitors’ secret information, but also because HTLD is no longer the same company that applied for the .HOTEL TLD. It is now just a registry conglomerate with no ties to the purported, contrived ‘Community’ that it claims entitled to serve,” it goes on.

ICANN is yet to file its response to the complaint.

Whether the IRP will be successful is anyone’s guess, but what’s beyond doubt is that if it runs its course it’s going to add at least a year, probably closer to two, to the delay that .hotel has been languishing under since the applications were filed in 2012.

Potentially lengthening the duration of the case is the claimants’ demand that ICANN “appoint and train” a “Standing Panel” of at least seven IRP panelists from which each three-person IRP panel would be selected.

The standing panel is something that’s been talked about in ICANN’s bylaws for at least six or seven years, but ICANN has never quite got around to creating it.

ICANN pinged the community for comments on how it should go about creating this panel last year, but doesn’t seemed to have provided a progress report for the last nine months.

The .hotel applicants do not appear to be in any hurry to get this issue resolved. The goal is clearly to force the contention set to auction, which presumably could happen at Afilias’ unilateral whim. Time-to-market is only a relevant consideration for the winner.

With .hotel, and Afilias’ lawsuit attempting to block the .web sale to Verisign, the last round of new gTLD program, it seems, is going to take at least a decade from beginning to end.

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