ICANN has won a court battle, and avoided a major political incident, over an attempt by terrorism victims to seize ccTLDs belonging to Iran, Korea and Syria.
A District of Columbia judge ruled this week that while ccTLDs may be a form of “property” under the law, they’re not “attachable” property.
Attachment is a legal concept used when creditors attempt to seize assets belonging to debtors.
The ruling overturns a request by a group of terrorism survivors, led by attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, to have .ir, .sy, .kp, سور, and ايران. transferred to them in lieu of payment of previous court rulings.
Darshan-Leitner has previously secured US court judgments amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars against the three nations. Because the nations have not paid these penalties, she’s been using the courts to seize state-owned assets in the US instead.
But US District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled (pdf) earlier this week:
the country code Top Level Domain names at issue may not be attached in satisfaction of plaintiffs’ judgments because they are not property subject to attachment under District of Columbia law.
However, he added in a footnote:
But the conclusion that ccTLDs may not be attached in satisfaction of a judgment under District of Columbia law does not mean that they cannot be property. It simply means that they are not attachable property within this statutory scheme.
Drawing on “sparse” case law, Lamberth’s rationale appears to be that domain names are not a product, they’re a service. He wrote:
The ccTLDs exist only as they are made operational by the ccTLD managers that administer the registries of second level domains within them and by the parties that cause the ccTLDs to be listed on the root zone file. A ccTLD, like a domain name, cannot be conceptualized apart from the services provided by these parties. The Court cannot order plaintiffs’ insertion into this arrangement.
The ruling, which may of course be challenged by the plaintiffs, helps ICANN and the US government avoid a huge political embarrassment at a time when the links between the two are being dissolved and relations with Iran are defrosting.
ICANN is fighting a US court action that could see the ccTLDs of Iran, Syria and Korea being seized by victims of terrorism.
While ICANN has not been sued as such, it’s been named in three “writs of attachment”, which seek to force the organization to hand over control of .ir, .sy, .kp, سور, and ايران.
This audacious attempt to take over three nations’ domains is being attempted by lawyers representing victims of state-sponsored terrorism, reportedly led by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.
Darshan-Leitner has secured billions of dollars worth of judgments against these states in US courts over the last decade.
But because the states won’t pay up, she’s been getting US courts to seize state-owned US-based assets, such as valuable real estate, instead.
Now her attention has turned to domain names.
The writs against ICANN, issued by a District of Columbia court a month ago, would force ICANN to hand over any assets belonging to Iran, Syria and Korea.
But ICANN says it cannot and should not be made to do so, filing hundreds of pages of court documents yesterday explaining why ccTLDs are not property that can be “attached”.
“Attachment” is a legal term used in the process of transferring assets from debtors to creditors.
In its defense, ICANN argues that allowing the seizure would do nothing less than jeopardize the globally interoperable internet:
First, a ccTLD simply is not “property” subject to attachment. Second, although operating for the benefit of the people of Iran, Syria and North Korea, respectively, the relevant ccTLDs are not “owned” by the defendants or anyone else, for that matter. Third, the .IR, .SY and .KP ccTLDs are not “located” in the District of Columbia or even the United States, and therefore are beyond the reach of Plaintiffs’ Writs of Attachment. Fourth, even if these ccTLDs could be characterized as “property in the United States of the defendants,” this Court would lack jurisdiction over these proceedings, according to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Fifth, ICANN does not unilaterally have the capability or authority to transfer the .IR, .SY or .KP ccTLDs to Plaintiffs. Finally, a forced transfer of the .IR, .SY and .KP ccTLDs would destroy whatever value may exist in these ccTLDs, would wipe out the hundreds of thousands of second-level domain names registered therein by various individuals, businesses and charitable organizations, and could jeopardize the single, global, interoperable structure the Internet.
“While we sympathize with what plaintiffs may have endured, ICANN’s role in the domain name system has nothing to do with any property of the countries involved,” ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey said in a statement.
In its motions to quash the writs, ICANN describes how it has no contractual relationship and few dealings with the three ccTLD managers in question and how it has received no money from them.
It goes on to describe its relationship to the DNS root zone and the US Department of Commerce
The motion then compares domain names to street addresses and not “property”:
a ccTLD can be thought of as a zip code. That zip code may encompass many different addresses, and those addresses in turn may correspond to certain places on the Internet that people can access, such as websites. But the street address itself is not property, nor is the zip code in which the street address exists…To the extent a ccTLD is capable of a legal definition, it is a collection of technical and administrative services, rather than property
There’s a bunch of US case law that states second-level domain names are not property, which ICANN draws on heavily in its motion.
I’m not going to dwell on the legal issues at stake here too much, but the case is politically, to use an inappropriate word, explosive.
If ICANN were to receive a court order, instructing it to transfer ownership of .ir to Darshan-Leitner’s group, and had no option but to comply, we’re looking at a major international political incident.
Under ICANN’s current IANA arrangement, ICANN-recommended changes to ccTLD management are handled by Verisign, but only with the consent of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The US Department of Commerce, of which NTIA is a part, would have to give its approval to the transfer of Iran’s ccTLD from an Iranian institution to an Israeli entity.
It’s a recipe for putting the IANA contract at the center of what can mildly be described as a “political incident” unlike anything the internet has seen to date.
While the US government has a role in ccTLD redelegations today, due to its membership of the DNS root zone triumvirate, it has announced its intent to step away from IANA stewardship.
The NTIA will be replaced, possibly as early as September 2015, by a mechanism that the ICANN community has started to develop.
If we can assume that the US government’s current role may prove to be a buffer between the US courts and potentially devastating forced ccTLD redelegations, it’s not at all clear that the NTIA-replacement mechanism would hold the same kind of political clout.
Would an IANA without US stewardship be more susceptible to crazy US court rulings?
If the US court asserts its authority over the DNS root zone, by ordering the transfer of a ccTLD to a private entity, all ccTLD registries would have a right to be very nervous indeed.
The case also highlights the fact that ICANN is subject to US court jurisdiction — something likely to remain after the IANA stewardship transition — which also makes some nations very nervous.
Rumors have been floating around for a while that ICANN would like to move its headquarters and primary legal structure to Switzerland — it already has an office and a legal presence there — and this case will certainly provide ammunition for those who would like to see such a move happen.
Operators of dozens of ccTLDs are said to be furious that they don’t have representation on the group coordinating the transition of the IANA functions from US oversight.
The IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) has been “captured” by members of ICANN’s country-code Names Supporting Organization, which does not represent all ccTLDs, according to ccTLD sources.
While the ccNSO is the official body representing ccTLDs within ICANN, many refuse to participate.
Some registries fear that signing up to ICANN and its rules may one day lead to them losing their delegations, while others have sovereignty or liability concerns.
It is believed that while 151 ccTLDs participate in the ccNSO, 104 do not.
None of these 104 are represented on the new ICG, which met for the first time to draft a charter in London last Thursday and Friday.
The ICG is tasked with holding the pen when the community writes a proposal for replacing the US government in the management of the DNS root zone and other IANA functions.
The ccTLD community was given four seats on the ICG, out of a total of 27. All four seats were taken by ccNSO members, picked by a five-person selection committee that included one non-ccNSO member.
I gather that about 20 non-ccNSO ccTLDs are up in arms about this state of affairs, which they believe has seen them “proactively excluded” from the ICG.
Some concerns originate from operators of ccTLDs for dependent territories that may face the risk of being taken over by governments in future.
Because IANA manages the DNS root zone, the transition process may ultimately impact ccTLD redelegations.
But the loudest voice, one of only two speaking on the record so far, is India’s government-established National Internet Exchange of India, which runs .in.
Dr Govind (apparently he doesn’t use his first name), CEO of NIXI, said in a statement last week:
Clearly the process has already been captured by a subset of the ccTLD community. The selection process controlled by the ccNSO resulted in all four seats being assigned to their members. A significant section of the ccTLD Registry operator community do not share the objectives of the ccNSO membership are now excluded from the process.
Balazs Martos, registry manager of Hungary’s .hu, added:
I am very concerned that the ccNSO seem to feel they speak for the whole ccTLD Community when dealing with every IANA matter. They do not, .HU is an IANA service user, but we are not a member of the ccNSO.
The joint statement also raises concerns about “cultural diversity”, which seems like a cheap move played from a position in the deck close to the race card.
The ccTLD representation on the ICG comprises the UK, New Zealand, China and Nigeria.
The chair of the ccNSO, .ca’s Byron Holland, has stated that the way the these four were selected from the 12 candidates (two of whom were non-ccNSO) was a “very difficult task”.
The selection committee had to consider factors such as geography, registry size, candidate expertise and available time, governance structure and business model, Holland said.
Blogging last week, addressing Govind’s concerns if not directly acknowledging them, he wrote:
Given the criteria we had to balance, there were no ‘reserved’ seats for any one group. The fact is four seats only allowed us to ensure some – not all – of the criteria were met. The discussion was difficult and the outcome was not unanimous. We did, however, reach consensus. In paring this list down to the final four, we balanced the selection criteria – balance being the keyword here. Geographic diversity is a good example of this – while there are five ICANN-defined geographic regions, we only had four seats on the Coordination Committee.
Did we meet the all of the criteria set out at the beginning of the process? No, but given the constraints we were facing – four seats to represent a community as large and diverse as ccTLDs – I have no hesitation in endorsing each of them for their ability to be representative of the global ccTLD community – both ccNSO members and non-members – effectively.
Top Level Design has scored a bit of a coup for its forthcoming .wiki gTLD — Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, has signed up as an anchor tenant.
According to the registry, Wikimedia will use w.wiki as a URL shortener and they’re in talks about other domains.
The company has also applied to ICANN to release hundreds of two-letter language codes that the foundation wants to use for language-specific short links.
The deal is reminiscent of .CO Internet’s launch, when it allocated the now-ubiquitous t.co for Twitter’s in-house URL shortener, giving it a much-needed marketing boost.
The deal for two-letter domains stands only a slim chance of of being ready in time for .wiki’s general availability, scheduled for May 26, in my view.
Under ICANN’s standard Registry Agreement, all two-character strings are blocked, in order to avoid clashes with country codes used in the ccTLD naming schema.
Top Level Design has now used the Registry Services Evaluation Process to try to get 179 two-letter strings, each of which represents a language code, unblocked.
Wikimedia explicitly endorses the proposal, in a letter attached to the March 11 RSEP (pdf)
The organization plans to use domains such as fr.wiki to redirect to French-language Wikipedia pages and so forth.
It remains to be seen whether ICANN will approve the request. It’s previously been envisaged that registries would approach each country individually to have its ccTLD’s matching string released.
Top Level Design points out that the strings it wants unblocked are from the ISO 639-1 language codes list, not the ISO 3166-1 lists from which ccTLD names are drawn.
But it’s a bit of an argument to nowhere — the strings are identical in most cases.
Under the RSEP policy, Top Level Design really should have been given a preliminary determination by now. It filed its request March 11 but it was only posted last week.
The clock, which gives ICANN 15 days to give the nod or not, may have only just started.
After the preliminary determination, there would be a public comment period and a board of directors decision. The timetable for this would not allow .wiki to launch with the two-letter names active.
But even with the delay, it seems that the registry will be coming out of the door with at least one strong anchor tenant, which is something most new gTLDs have so far failed to manage.
ICANN will soon remove 11 experimental internationalized domain name TLDs from the domain name system.
The TLDs, which represent “.test” in nine scripts and 10 languages, were added to the root almost exactly six years ago in preparation for ICANN’s IDN ccTLDs program.
Now that the program is quite mature, with a few dozen IDN ccTLDs live on the internet with no major reported problems, ICANN has decided that the test TLDs are no longer required.
They will be removed from the DNS root zone on October 31, ICANN said.