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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.

It’s open season on ICANN as judge rules new gTLD applicants CAN sue

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2016, Domain Policy

DotConnectAfrica has won a California court ruling that will allow it to continue suing ICANN over its twice-rejected .africa gTLD application.

District judge Gary Klausner ruled yesterday that the litigation waiver all applicants had to sign when they applied may be unenforceable.

“The Court finds substantial questions as to the Release, weighing toward its unenforceability,” he wrote (pdf).

California law says that such waivers cannot stop people being sued for fraud, and fraud is what DCA is alleging, he explained.

DCA alleges that ICANN intended to deny DCA’s application after the IRP proceeding under any pretext and without a legitimate reason.

The evidence suggests that ICANN intended to deny DCA’s application based on pretext. Defendants have not introduced any controverting facts. As such, the Court finds serious questions regarding the enforceability of the Release due to California Civil Code § 1668.

The judge granted DCA’s request for a preliminary injunction that will prevent it from delegating .africa to successful applicant ZACR.

ZACR has the backing of the African Union Commission and, per ICANN rules, over 60% of the governments in Africa.

DCA applied for .africa with no government support, but with an AUC letter of support than had already been retracted. The company claims that the AUC was not allowed to withdraw its endorsement under ICANN rules.

But it doesn’t seem to matter what the governments of Africa want. Klausner wrote:

On balance, the Court finds it more prejudicial to the African community, and the international community in general, if the delegation of .Africa is made prior to a determination on the fairness of the process by which it was delegated.

Sorry Africa, no gTLD for you yet!

The case continues…

US judge freezes .africa gTLD

A US court has blocked ICANN from delegating the .africa gTLD for at least another month.

At the request of failed .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica, a California judge handed ICANN a temporary restraining order, enjoining it from “issuing” .africa.

The ruling came two days after the ICANN board of directors voted to allow .africa to be delegated to successful applicant ZACR.

The decision seems to be based on the fact that a delegation is essentially irreversible, so even if DCA were to win the lawsuit it would not be able to get its hands on the gTLD.

“Plaintiff has demonstrated that once the tGLD [sic] is issued, it will be unable to obtain those rights elsewhere,” the judge wrote (pdf).

DCA’s lawsuit, filed despite the that that it waived its right to sue under the new gTLD application agreement, basically makes the same arguments that its successful Independent Review Process made.

The court is due to hold a hearing on April 4 to decide whether ICANN can delegate .africa or will have to wait until the lawsuit is fully resolved.

The company, incidentally, appears to have changed lawyers since its original complaint against ICANN was filed. It’s now with Brown Neri & Smith, having briefly been with Brandon Schantz.

DCA fails .africa evaluation

Kevin Murphy, February 18, 2016, Domain Policy

DotConnectAfrice application for the .africa gTLD has, as expected, failed its ICANN evaluation for want of government support.

The official decision (pdf) was handed down overnight.

According to the Extended Evaluation panel, DCA’s “required documentation of support or non-objection was either not provided or did not meet the criteria”.

In other words, DCA did not have a shred of support for its controversial application.

For gTLDs representing multinational regions, support or non-objection is required from 60% of the governments in that region.

In addition, there cannot be more than one objection from a government in that region.

Not only did DCA not have any support, it also had over a dozen governmental objections.

The company had relied on support letters from the African Union Commission and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, both of which have been retracted.

The AU and most African governments support rival, successful applicant ZACR.

ZACR signed its .africa registry contract with ICANN in March 2014, but its bid has been kept in limbo while DCA has exploited ICANN appeals processes to delay delegation.

Most recently, DCA sued ICANN, despite signing away its right to sue when it applied.

DCA was originally rejected due to Governmental Advisory Committee advice, before it had completed evaluation.

But the company won an Independent Review Process ruling stating that ICANN erred by accepting the advice with no explanation, compelling ICANN to put the DCA application back into evaluation.

After a six-month review, the Geographic Names Panel has now concluded that, duh, nobody supports DCA’s bid.

ICANN has now changed the status of DCA’s application from “Not Approved” to “Will Not Proceed”.

Oddly, and possibly incorrectly, this status cites the GAC advice as the reason for the failure, rather than the fact that DCA failed its evaluation.

Per ICANN practice, no application is truly dead until the applicant withdraws.

DCA sues ICANN for fraud, demands cash

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2016, Domain Policy

New gTLD applicants may have signed away all their rights to sue ICANN, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern for loose-cannon .dotafrica .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica.

The company has filed suit in California, trying to kill off rival ZACR’s application as “fraudulent” and demanding a load of cash from ICANN.

The suit was filed January 20, and DCA’s request for an emergency restraining order has already been thrown out by the judge.

DCA is basically attempting to re-litigate the Independent Review Process case it won against ICANN last year.

The company claims that ICANN, ZACR, independent evaluator InterConnect Communications, and the Governmental Advisory Committee improperly ganged up on it, in breach of contract.

It also claims fraud, negligence, and a few other alleged violations of the law on the same grounds.

It’s looking for three flavors of monetary damages and “rescission of ICANN’s registry agreement with ZACR as a null and void contract predicated on fraud.”

The IRP panel ruled last year that ICANN breached its bylaws by kicking out DCA’s application based on GAC advice that had not been properly and transparently explained.

The case revealed that ICANN had drafted a letter of support for the African Union Commission to submit in order to show its support for ZACR.

ICANN claims there was nothing improper about that — and the IRP panel did not express an opinion — but it looked pretty dodgy.

The organization says it has not yet been formally served with DCA’s complaint, but told the court that there’s no need for an emergency TRO against .africa being delegated because it’s not an imminent possibility.

Indeed, there’s no danger of ZACR getting .africa live while DCA’s application is undergoing a second round of InterConnect scrutiny for evidence of governmental support (which it does not have).

ICANN added in its filing, almost as an aside, that DCA has signed away its right to sue.

DCA’s new choice of law firm, post-IRP, may be an indication of either the fragile nature of its standing or dwindling cash reserves.

Pricey ICANN-killer Arif Ali is out. Replacing him, a dude who runs a website-free, six-month-old, one-man show from his home in a California cul-de-sac.

Disclosure: DCA thinks I’m a racist, and I think it’s mad. The long, sordid history of the company’s shenanigans can be perused at your leisure with this search.

Africa hands coffin nails to DotConnectAfrica evaluators

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2015, Domain Policy

The African Union and a United Nations commission have formally told ICANN that they don’t support DotConnectAfrica’s bid for .africa.

When it comes to showing governmental support, a necessity under ICANN’s rules for a geographic gTLD applications, the UN Economic Commission for Africa was DCA’s only prayer.

Company CEO Sophia Bekele had managed to get somebody at UNECA to write a letter supporting .africa back in 2008, and DCA has continued to pretend that the letter was relevant even after the entire continent came out in support of rival applicant ZA Central Registry.

During its Independent Review Process appeal, DCA begged the IRP panel to declare that the 2008 letter showed it had the support of the 60% of African governments that it requires to be approved by ICANN.

The panel naturally declined to take this view.

Now UNECA has said in a letter to the African Union Commission (pdf) dated July 20, which has since been forwarded to ICANN:

ECA as United Nations entity is neither a government nor a public authority and therefore is not qualified to issue a letter of support for a prospective applicant in support of their application. In addition, ECA does not have a mandate represent the views or convey the support or otherwise of African governments in matters relating to application for delegation of the gTLD.

It is ECA’s position that the August 2008 letter to Ms Bekele cannot be properly considered as a “letter of support or endorsement” with the context of ICANN’s requirements and cannot be used as such.

The AUC itself has also now confirmed for the umpteenth time, in a September 29 letter (pdf), that it doesn’t support the DCA bid either. It said:

Any reliance by DCA in its application… proclaiming support or endorsement by the AUC, must be dismissed. The AUC does not support the DCA application and, if any such support was initially provided, it has subsequently been withdrawn with the full knowledge of DCA even prior to the commencement of ICANN’s new gTLD application process.

The AUC went on to say that if DCA is claiming support from any individual African government, such claims should be treated “with the utmost caution and sensitivity”.

That’s because a few years ago African Union member states all signed up to a declaration handing authority over .africa to the AUC.

The AUC ran an open process to find a registry operator. DCA consciously decided to not participate, proclaiming the process corrupt, and ZACR won.

The new letters are relevant because DCA is currently being evaluated for the second time by ICANN’s independent Geographic Names Panel, which has to decide whether DCA has the support of 60% of African governments.

ZACR passed its GNP review largely due to a letter of support from the AUC.

If DCA does not have the same level of support, its application will fail for the second time.

The 2008 UNECA letter was the only thing DCA had left showing any kind of support from any governmental authority.

Now that’s gone, does this mean the DCA application is dead?

No. DCA has a track record of operating irrationally and throwing good money after bad. There’s every chance that when it fails the Geographic Names Review it will simply file another Request for Reconsideration and then another IRP, delaying the delegation of .africa for another year or so.