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.web ruling hands Afilias a chance, Verisign a problem, and ICANN its own ass on a plate

Kevin Murphy, May 26, 2021, 11:15:35 (UTC), Domain Policy

ICANN has lost yet another Independent Review Process case, and been handed a huge legal bill, after being found to have violated its own rules on transparency and fairness.

The decision in Afilias v ICANN has failed to definitively resolve the issue of whether the auction of the .web gTLD in 2016, won by a shell applicant called Nu Dot Co backed by $135 million of Verisign’s money, was legit.

ICANN’s now urging NDC, Afilias and other members of the .web contention set to resolve their beefs privately, which could lead to big-money pay-days for the losing auction bidders at Verisign’s expense.

For ICANN board and staff, the unanimous, three-person IRP panel decision is pretty damning, with the ruling saying the org “violated its commitment to make decisions by applying documented policies objectively and fairly”.

It finds that ICANN’s board shirked its duty to consider the propriety of the Verisign/NDC bid, allowing ICANN staff to get perilously close to signing a registry contract with an applicant that they knew may well have been in violation of the new gTLD program rules.

Despite being named the prevailing party, it’s not even close to a full win for Afilias.

The company had wanted the IRP panel to void the NDC/Verisign winning bid and award .web to itself, the second-highest bidder. But the panel did not do that, referring the decision instead back to ICANN.

As the loser, ICANN has been hit with a $1,198,493 bill to cover the cost of the case, which includes Afilias’ share of $479,458, along with another $450,000 to cover Afilas’ legal fees connected to an earlier emergency IRP request that ICANN “abusively” forced Afilias into.

The case came about due to a dispute about the .web auction, which was run by ICANN in July 2016.

Six of the seven .web applicants had been keen for the contention set to be settled privately, in an auction that would have seen the winning bid distributed evenly among the losing bidders.

But NDC, an application vehicle not known to be particularly well-funded, held out for a “last resort” auction, in which the winning bid would be deposited directly into ICANN’s coffers.

This raised suspicions that NDC had a secret sugar daddy, likely Verisign, that was covertly bankrolling its bid.

It was not known until after NDC won, with a $135 million bid, that these suspicions were correct. NDC and Verisign had a “Domain Acquisition Agreement” or DAA that would see NDC transfer its .web contract to Verisign in exchange for the money needed to win the auction (and presumably other considerations, though almost all references to the terms of the DAA have been redacted by ICANN throughout the IRP).

Afilias and fellow .web applicant Donuts both approached ICANN before and after the auction, complaining that the NDC/Verisign bid was bogus, in violation of program rules requiring applicants to notify ICANN if there’s any change of control of their applications, including agreements to transfer the gTLD post-contracting.

ICANN has never decided at the board level whether these claims have merit, the IRP panel found.

The board did hold a secret, off-the-books discussion about the complaints at its retreat November 3, 2016, and concluded, without any type of formal vote, that it should just keep its mouth shut, because Afilias and Donuts had already set the ball rolling on the accountability mechanisms that would ultimately lead to the IRP.

More than half the board was in attendance at this meeting, and discussions were led by ICANN’s top two lawyers, but the fact that it had even taken place was not disclosed until June last year, well over three and a half years after the fact.

Despite the fact that the board had made a conscious, if informal, choice not to decide whether the NDC/Verisign bid was legit, ICANN staff nevertheless went ahead and started contracting with NDC in June 2018, taking the .web contention set off its “on-hold” status.

Talks progressed to the point where, on June 14, ICANN had sent the .web contract to NDC, which immediately returned a signed copy, and all that remained was for ICANN to counter-sign the document for it to become binding.

ICANN VP Christine Willett approved the countersigning, but four days later Afilias initiated the Cooperative Engagement Process accountability mechanism, the contract was ripped up, and the contention set was placed back on hold.

“Thus, clearly, a registry agreement with NDC for .WEB could have been executed by ICANN’s Staff and come into force without the Board having pronounced on the propriety of the DAA under the Guidebook and Auction Rules,” the IRP panel wrote.

This disconnect between the board and the legal staff is at the core of the panel’s criticism of ICANN.

The board had decided that Afilias’ claim that NDC had violated new gTLD program rules was worthy of consideration and had informally agreed to defer making a decision, but the staff had nevertheless gone ahead with contracting with a potentially bogus applicant, the panel found.

In the opinion of the Panel, there is an inherent contradiction between proceeding with the delegation of .WEB to NDC, as the Respondent [ICANN] was prepared to do in June 2018, and recognizing that issues raised in connection with NDC’s arrangements with Verisign are serious, deserving of the Respondent’s consideration, and remain to be addressed by the Respondent and its Board, as was determined by the Board in November 2016. A necessary implication of the Respondent’s decision to proceed with the delegation of .WEB to NDC in June 2018 was some implicit finding that NDC was not in breach of the New gTLD Program Rules and, by way of consequence, the implicit rejection of the Claimant’s [Afilias’] allegations of non-compliance with the Guidebook and Auction Rules. This is difficult to reconcile with the submission that “ICANN has taken no position onw hether NDC violated the Guidebook”.

The upshot of the panel’s ruling is to throw the issue back to ICANN, requiring the board to decide once and for all whether Verisign’s auction gambit was kosher.

If you’ll excuse the crude metaphor, ICANN’s board has been told to shit or get off the pot:

The evidence in the present case shows that the Respondent, to this day, while acknowledging that the questions raised as to the propriety of NDC’s and Verisign’s conduct are legitimate, serious, and deserving of its careful attention, has nevertheless failed to address them. Moreover, the Respondent has adopted contradictory positions, including in these proceedings, that at least in appearance undermine the impartiality of its processes.

[The panel r]ecommends that the Respondent stay any and all action or decision that would further the delegation of the .WEB gTLD until such time as the Respondent’s Board has considered the opinion of the Panel in this Final Decision, and, in particular (a) considered and pronounced upon the question of whether the DAA complied with the New gTLD Program Rules following the Claimant’s complaints that it violated the Guidebook and Auction Rules and, as the case may be, (b) determined whether by reason of any violation of the Guidebook and Auction Rules, NDC’s application for .WEB should be rejected and its bids at the auction disqualified;

At the same time as the decision was published last night — shortly after midnight UTC and therefore helpfully too late to make it into today’s edition of ICANN’s godawful new email subscriptions feature — ICANN issued a statement on the outcome.

“In its Final Declaration, the IRP panel ruled that the ICANN Board, and not an IRP panel, should decide which applicant should become the registry operator for .WEB,” CEO Göran Marby said.

“The ICANN Board will consider the Final Declaration as soon as feasible, within the timeframe prescribed in the Bylaws, and remains hopeful that the relevant .WEB applicants will continue to seek alternatives to resolve the dispute between them raised during the IRP,” the statement concludes.

That should be of concern to Verisign, as any non-ICANN resolution of the .web battle is inevitably going to involve Verisign money flowing to its competitors.

But my first instinct strikes me that this a is a low-probability outcome.

It seems to me much more likely at first glance that ICANN will rule the NDC/Verisign ploy legitimate and proceed to contracting again.

For it to declare that using a front organization to bid for a gTLD is against the rules would raise questions about other applications that employed more or less the same tactic, such as Automattic’s successful bid, via an intermediary, for .blog, and possibly the 100-ish applications Donuts and Rightside cooperated on.

The ICANN bylaws say the board has to consider the IRP’s findings at its next meeting, for which there’s currently no published date, where feasible.

I should note that, while Donuts acquired Afilias last December, the deal did not include its .web application, which is why both the panel’s decision and this article refer to “Afilias” throughout.

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Comments (1)

  1. John says:

    Folks, please see the comments about the .web affair in yesterday’s thread too, beginning with:

    ” John

    May 25, 2021 at 7:59 pm

    Okay, but…isn’t the real truth that Chris Ambler and whatever company or group was associated with him is the real party that was genuinely screwed out of .web no matter what anyone says otherwise?”

    http://domainincite.com/26733-breaking-verisign-hopeful-after-decision-reached-in-web-gtld-case

Leave a Reply to John