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Judge hands DotConnectAfrica another bizarre win

A California judge just handed ICANN another upset in the interminable legal battle waged against it by unsuccessful .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica.

Gary Klausner yesterday admitted he made a mistake when he earlier slapped ICANN with a preliminary injunction preventing .africa being delegated to DCA rival ZA Central Registry, but said his error did not have a huge bearing on that decision.

More remarkably, he’s now suggesting that ICANN may have been wrong to make DCA undergo the same Geographic Names Review as every other new gTLD applicant.

Both DCA and ZACR applied for .africa and had to go through the same evaluation processes, one of which was the Geographic Names Review.

Both had to show that they had support from 60% of the governments in Africa, and no more than one governmental objection.

ZACR had that support — though there’s legitimate dispute over whether its paperwork was all in order — while DCA did not. DCA also had over a dozen objections from African governments.

ZACR passed its geographic review, but DCA’s application was tossed out based on Governmental Advisory Committee advice before the review could be completed.

DCA took ICANN to an Independent Review Process panel, which ruled that ICANN had failed to live up to its bylaws and that DCA’s application should be returned to the evaluation process.

ICANN returned DCA’s application to the process at the point it had left it — before the geographic review was complete.

DCA then failed the review, because it has no support.

But when he granted the injunction against ICANN back in April, Klausner thought that DCA had actually passed the geographic review on the first pass. Not even DCA had claimed that; it was just a brain fart on his behalf.

He’s now admitted the mistake, but says the April ruling was not dependent on that misunderstanding.

The Court finds that the error in its factual finding was not determinative to its ultimate conclusion that there are serious questions going toward Plaintiff’s likelihood of success on the merits.

Now, he says that there may be some merit in DCA’s claim that it should have been allowed to skip the GNR due to the IRP’s recommendation that ICANN “permit DCA Trust’s application to proceed through the remainder of the new gTLD application process.”

Klausner wrote yesterday:

At this stage of litigation, it is reasonable to infer that the IRP Panel found that ICANN’s rejection of Plaintiff’s application at the geographic names evaluation phase was improper, and that the application should proceed to the delegation phase.

The problem with this thinking is that it was not the geographic panel that flunked DCA on the first pass, it was the GAC.

DCA got this document (pdf) from the geographic panel. It just says “Incomplete”.

If DCA succeeds in persuading a jury that it should have skipped the geographic panel, Africa could wind up with a .africa gTLD operator that none of its governments support and in circumvention of ICANN’s rules.

Yesterday’s ruling isn’t a killer blow against ICANN, but it does make me wonder whether Klausner — who is also hearing the much higher-profile Stairway to Heaven case right now — is really paying attention.

Anyway, he’s thrown out the ZACR/ICANN motion to reconsider the injunction, so the case is carrying on as before. Read the ruling here (pdf).

Judge throws out DotConnectAfrica’s case against ZACR

Kevin Murphy, June 15, 2016, Domain Policy

South African registry ZACR did not engage in a fraudulent conspiracy with ICANN to get its .africa gTLD application approved, a court ruled yesterday.

The California judge in the case of DotConnectAfrica vs ICANN and ZACR threw out all of DCA’s claims against ZACR, approving ZACR’s motion to dismiss.

The judge said DCA had failed to make claims for fraud, contract intereference and unfair competition.

He also threw out DCA’s demand for ZACR’s .africa Registry Agreement to be scrapped.

The case is not over, however.

DCA’s claims against ICANN still stand and ICANN, perhaps regrettably, withdrew its own motion to dismiss the case weeks ago. The case still looks like heading to trial.

DCA reckons ICANN, ZACR, independent evaluator InterConnect Communications, and the Governmental Advisory Committee improperly ganged up on it, in breach of its new gTLD application contract.

The judge has already ruled that the litigation waiver DCA signed when it applied for .dotafrica .africa may be unenforceable.

He also based a decision to give DCA’s claims the benefit of the doubt on a huge misunderstanding of the facts, which he has yet to address publicly.

You can read the judge’s latest order here (pdf).

Under an injunction DCA won, .africa cannot be delegated until the case is resolved.

ZACR wades into .africa lawsuit, tells judge he screwed up

ZA Central Registry has told the judge in DotConnectAfrica’s lawsuit against ICANN that the preliminary injunction he granted DCA recently was based on a misunderstanding.

The injunction, granted a month ago, prevents ICANN delegating the .africa gTLD to ZACR until the lawsuit reaches a conclusion.

But, in papers filed Friday, ZACR points out that the judge screwed up in his reasoning. Judge Gary Klausner’s ruling was “predicated upon a key factual error”, ZACR says.

The error is the same one I wrote about last month — the judge thinks DCA originally passed the Geographic Names Review of its Initial Evaluation for .africa, and that ICANN later failed it anyway.

In fact, DCA never passed the GNR, and the document the judge cites in his ruling is actually ZACR’s Initial Evaluation report.

The GNR is the bit of the evaluation where both .africa applicants had to prove they had support from 60% of African governments and no more than one African governmental objection.

ZACR said in one of its Friday filings (pdf):

The record is undisputed that DCA’s application had not passed the geographic names evaluation process. And it could not because DCA did not have the requisite support of 60% or more of the African Union governments. Further, DCA’s application had been the subject of 17 “Early Warning” submissions by African Union governments. Correcting for this factual error, the record is clear that DCA has no likelihood of success in this litigation.

ZACR also says Klausner erred by saying .africa could only be delegated once, saying that TLDs can be redelegated to different operators after their initial delegation.

It’s filed a motion asking the judge to “reconsider and vacate” his preliminary injunction ruling.

ZACR is now named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which originally only named ICANN and unidentified parties.

ICANN has dropped its motion to dismiss the case and last week filed its answer (pdf) to DCA’s complaint, in which it denies any wrongdoing.

ICANN appears to be happy to let the judge’s mistake slide, or at least to allow ZACR to burden the risk of potentially pissing him off by highlighting his error.

African brands wiped off the map as ICANN flips the kill switch on 10 gTLDs

Ten dot-brand gTLDs may never see the light of day, after ICANN sent termination notices to the applicants.

The move means that the number of African-owned dot-brand gTLDs to go live in the current round will be precisely zero.

The 10 affected gTLDs are .naspers, .supersport, .mzansimagic, .mnet, .kyknet, .africamagic, .multichoice, .dstv and .gotv, which were applied for by four South African companies, and .payu, which came from a Dutch firm.

In each case, the applicant had signed a Registry Agreement with ICANN in early 2015, but had failed to actually go live in the DNS within the required 12-month window.

All had deadlines in February or March but failed to meet even extended deadlines.

The condemned gTLDs make up more than half of the total applications originating in Africa.

Of the original 17 African applications, only ZACR’s .joburg, .capetown and .durban city gTLDs have actually been delegated.

Another application, the generic .ummah from Ummah Digital of Gambia, was withdrawn in 2013.

The League of Arab States’ .arab and عرب. are both currently in pre-delegation testing, having signed ICANN contracts in November.

The remaining two applications are both for .africa, which is currently stuck in litigation.

We’re looking at a maximum of six African-owned gTLDs, of a possible 16, going live in the 2012 round.

ICANN was criticized back in 2012 for not doing enough to raise awareness of the new gTLD program, criticisms that have been raised again recently as the community starts to seriously look at how things can be improved for the next round.

UPDATE: This article originally stated that .ummah was a dot-brand application. It was not. The text has been corrected accordingly.

Did the DotConnectAfrica judge make a big dumb mistake?

Kevin Murphy, April 14, 2016, Domain Registries

The court ruling that granted DotConnectAfrica a preliminary injunction preventing ICANN delegating .africa seems to be based to a large extent on a huge error by the judge.

In explaining why he was allowing DCA v ICANN to proceed, despite DCA’s signing away its right to sue when it filed its new gTLD application, California district judge Gary Klausner seems to have confused DCA with rival .africa applicant ZACR.

In his Tuesday ruling, Klausner said that evidence supports the claim that ICANN was determined to flunk DCA’s application no matter what.

The key evidence, according to the judge, is that the Initial Evaluation of DCA’s application found that it did have enough support from African governments to pass its Geographic Names Review, but that ICANN subsequently reversed that view in Extended Evaluation.

He wrote:

DCA claims that “the process ICANN put Plaintiff through was a sham with a predetermined ending – ICANN’s denial of Plaintiff’s application so that ICANN could steer the gTLD to ZACR.”

In support, DCA offers the following evidence. ICANN’s initial evaluation report in July 2013 stated that DCA’s endorsement letters “met all relevant criteria in Section 2.2.1.4.3 of the Applicant Guidebook.” (Bekele Decl. ¶ 40, Ex. 27, ECF No. 17.) After the IRP Decision, ICANN performed a second evaluation on the same information originally submitted by DCA. In the second evaluation, however, ICANN found that the endorsement letters did not meet the same criteria applied in the first evaluation

He later writes:

Despite ICANN’s contention, the evidence presents serious questions pointing in favor of DCA’s argument. First, a March 2013 email from ICC to ICANN stated that ICANN needs to clarify AUC’s endorsements since AUC properly endorsed both DCA and ZACR. (Bekele Decl. ¶ 30, Ex. 19, ECF No. 17.) Subsequently, ICANN’s July 2013 initial evaluation report found that the endorsement letters have “met all relevant criteria in Section 2.2.1.4.3 of the Applicant Guidebook.” (Bekele Decl. ¶ 40, Ex. 27, ECF No. 17.) Because ICANN found DCA’s application passed the geographic names evaluation in the July 2013 initial evaluation report, the Court finds serious questions in DCA’s favor as to whether DCA’s application should have proceeded to the delegation stage following the IRP Decision.

The document “Bekele Decl. ¶ 40, Ex. 27” referred to is exhibit 27 of DCA CEO Sophia Bekele’s March 1 declaration, filed in support of its preliminary injunction motion.

The problem is that that exhibit is not the Initial Evaluation report for DCA’s .africa bid, it’s the IE report for rival ZACR (aka UniForum).

Read it here (pdf).

DCA’s own application never received a scored IE report. At least, one was never published.

It only got this (pdf), which states simply “Overall Initial Evaluation Summary: Incomplete”. That document is dated July 3, 2013, almost two weeks before the ZACR report.

Bekele’s declaration even states that exhibit 27 is the IE report for the ZACR application.

It’s not clear to this non-lawyer how important this pretty basic error is to Klausner’s thinking, but as a layman it looks pretty crucial.

It certainly seems like something that needs to be addressed, given that the apparent misunderstanding plays into both the decision to allow the lawsuit to proceed and the decision that DCA’s complaint may have merit.

Several other exhibits cited in the ruling — including emails from the InterConnect Communications evaluators who carried out the Geographic Names Review — have been redacted by the court.

It’s possible there are smoking guns contained within these censored documents that were more influential on the ruling.

It’s also notable that ICANN is continuing to redact the court documents it publishes on its web site, beyond those filed under seal and censored by the court.