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.africa to finally go live after judge denies injunction

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2017, Domain Policy

A Los Angeles court has rejected a demand for a preliminary injunction preventing ICANN delegating .africa, meaning the new gTLD can go live soon.

Judge Howard Halm ruled February 3, in documents published last night, that the “covenant not to sue” signed by every new gTLD applicant is enforceable and that Africans are being harmed as long as .africa is stuck in legal limbo.

The ruling comes two and a half years after ZA Central Registry, the successful of the two .africa applicants, signed its Registry Agreement with ICANN.

Rival applicant DotConnectAfrica, rejected because it has no African government support, is suing ICANN for fraud, alleging that it failed to follow its own rules and unfairly favored ZACR from the outset.

Unfortunately, the ruling does not address the merits of these claims. It merely says that DCA is unlikely to win its suit due to the covenant it signed.

Halm based his decision on the precedent in Ruby Glen v ICANN, the Donuts lawsuit that seeks to stop ICANN awarding .web to Verisign. The judge in that case ruled last November that Donuts signed away its right to sue.

An earlier judge in the DCA v ICANN case had ruled — based at least in part on a misunderstanding of the facts — that the covenant was unenforceable, but that decision now seems to have been brushed aside.

Halm was not convinced that DCA would suffer irreparable harm if ZACR got given .africa, writing:

The .Africa gTLD can be re-delegated to DCA in the event DCA prevails in this litigation… Further, it appears that any interim harm to DCA can be remedied by monetary damages

He balanced this against the harm of NOT delegating .africa:

The public interest also weighs in favor of denying the injunction because the delay in the delegation of the .Africa gTLD is depriving the people of Africa of having their own unique gTLD.

So what now?

ICANN said in a statement: “In accordance with the terms of its Registry Agreement with ZACR for .AFRICA, ICANN will now follow its normal processes towards delegation.”

As of this morning, ZACR’s .africa bid is officially still marked as “On Hold” by ICANN, though this is likely to change shortly.

Assuming ZACR has already completed pre-delegation testing, delegation itself could be less than a week away.

If DCA’s record is anything to go by, it seems unlikely that this latest setback will be enough to get it to abandon its cause.

Its usual MO whenever it receives an adverse decision or criticism is to double down and start screaming about conspiracies.

While the injunction was denied, the lawsuit itself has not been thrown out, so there’s still plenty of time for more of that.

You can read Halm’s ruling here (pdf).

Antitrust feds probing Verisign’s .web deal

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2017, Domain Policy

US antitrust authorities are investigating Verisign over its anticipated operation of the .web gTLD.

The probe was disclosed by company CEO Jim Bidzos in yesterday’s fourth-quarter earnings call. He said:

On January 18, 2017, the company received a Civil Investigative Demand from the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice, requesting certain information related to Verisign’s potential operations of the .web TLD. The CID is not directed at Verisign’s existing registry agreements.

He did not comment further, beyond describing it as “kind of like a subpoena”.

Verisign acquired the rights to run .web at an ICANN last-resort auction last July, agreeing to pay $135 million.

Rather than applying for the gTLD itself, it secretly bankrolled shell company Nu Dot Co, which intends to transfer its .web contract to Verisign after it is signed.

ICANN is being sued by rival applicant Donuts, which claims NDC should have been banned from the auction. Afilias, the auction runner up, is also challenging the outcome.

But this new DoJ investigation, if we take Bidzos’ words at face value, appears to focus on what Verisign plans to do with .web once it is live.

It’s the view of many that .web would be the new gTLD best positioned as an alternative to .com, which makes Verisign hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

It’s my view that it would make perfect sense for Verisign to flush the $135 million and bury .web, rather than have a viable competitor on the market.

Verisign has repeatedly said that intends to “grow and widely distribute .web”, words Bidzos repeated last night.

The investigation is likely into whether Verisign wants to actually raise .web, or strangle it in its crib.

It seems the investigation was launched in the dying days of the Obama administration, so the recent changing of the guard at Justice — Attorney General Jeff Sessions was confirmed by Congress just two days ago — may have an impact on how it plays out.

ICANN’s Empowered Community to get its first test-drive after appeals panel vote

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN’s post-transition bylaws have only been in effect for a few months, but the board of directors wants to change one of them already.

The board last week voted to create a new committee dedicated to handling Requests for Reconsideration — formal appeals against ICANN decisions.

But because this would change a so-called Fundamental Bylaw, ICANN’s new Empowered Community mechanism will have to be triggered.

The Board Governance Committee, noting that the number of RfR complaints it’s having to deal with has sharply increased due to fights over control of new gTLDs, wants that responsibility split out to be handled by a new, dedicated Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee.

It seems on the face of it like a fairly non-controversial change — RfRs will merely be dealt with by a different set of ICANN directors.

However, it will require a change to one of the Fundamental Bylaws — bylaws considered so important they need a much higher threshold to approve.

This means the untested Empowered Community (which I’m not even sure actually exists yet) is going to get its first outing.

The EC is an ad hoc non-profit organization meant to give ICANN the community (that is, you) ultimate authority over ICANN the organization.

It has the power to kick out directors, spill the entire board, reject bylaws changes and approve Fundamental Bylaws changes.

It comprises four or five “Decisional Participants” — GNSO, the ccNSO, the ALAC, the ASO and (usually) the GAC.

In this case at least three of the five Decisional Participants must approve the change, and no more than one may object.

The lengthy process for the EC approving the proposed bylaws change is outlined here.

I wouldn’t expect this proposal to generate a lot of heated discussion on its merits, but it will put the newly untethered ICANN to the test for the first time, which could highlight process weaknesses that could be important when more important policy changes need community scrutiny.

ICANN’s divorce from the US cost $32 million

Kevin Murphy, February 6, 2017, Domain Policy

The IANA transition cost ICANN a total of $32 million, according to documentation released today.

The hefty bill was racked up from the announcment of the transition in March 2014 until the end of 2016, according to this presentation (pdf).

A whopping $15 million of the total went on lawyers.

IANA costs

Another $8.3 million went on other third-party services, including lobbying, PR and translation.

More than half of the overall expenses — $17.8 million — was incurred in ICANN’s fiscal 2016, which ended last June.

ICANN feeds troll, refuses to censor “rip-off” web site

Kevin Murphy, February 2, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board has rejected a formal demand that it “take down” the web site RipoffReport.com in what is possibly the strangest Request for Reconsideration case it has considered to date.

The almost 20-year-old site hosts reports from consumers about what they consider to be “rip-offs”. It’s seen its fair share of controversy and legal action over the years.

Somebody called Fraser Lee filed the RfR in December after (allegedly) trying and failing to get the site’s registrar, DNC Holdings (aka Directnic), to yank the domain and then trying and failing to get ICANN Compliance to yank DNC’s accreditation.

The request (pdf) is a rambling, often incoherent missive, alleging that RipoffReport contains “legally proven illegal defamatory, copyright infringing, hateful, suicidal and human rights depriving content” and demanding ICANN “take down the site RIPOFFREPORT.COM AS EXPECTED BY THEIR POLICIES OR RISK BEING SUED AS AN ENDORSER OF CYBER TERRORISM.”

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee has naturally enough rejected (pdf) the request, largely on the grounds that it does not have the authority to police internet content and that it could find no evidence that DNC had breached its contract:

the Requester ultimately seeks to have ICANN assume greater responsibility of policing purportedly illegal activity on the Internet, and attempts to place the burden on ICANN to regulate content on the Internet. That is not ICANN’s role. If content is to be regulated, that review and enforcement falls to institutions charged with interpreting and enforcing laws and regulations around the world, such as law enforcement

In a bizarre twist, the BGC further decided that “Fraser Lee” may not even be the person who filed the original complaints with DNC and ICANN Compliance.

“Fraser Lee, has never initiated a complaint with the ICANN Contractual Compliance department,” the BGC wrote.

A lengthy (and, one imagines, maddening) email thread between DNC’s lawyer and somebody called “Smith”, evidently provided by DNC to ICANN (pdf), appears show that at least two different identities are in play here.

It’s an odd one for sure, but it does have the virtue of getting ICANN’s board on the record again stating that it does not police content.