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.feedback gTLD in breach of contract after big brand “fraud” claims

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2017, Domain Registries

ICANN has slapped .feedback operator Top Level Spectrum with a contract breach notice after a huge complaint about alleged fraud filed by a gang of big brands.

The company becomes the third new gTLD to be hit by a breach notice, and the first to receive one as a result of losing a Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Process case.

While TLS dodged the “fraud” charges on a technicality, the breach is arguably the most serious found by ICANN in a new gTLD registry to date.

The three-person PICDRP panel found TLS was in violation of the following commitment from its registry agreement:

Registry Operator will operate the TLD in a transparent manner consistent with general principles of openness and non-discrimination by establishing, publishing and adhering to clear registration policies.

But TLS dodged the more serious charges of “fraudulent” behavior, which it denied, largely on the technicality that its PICs only require it to bar its registrants from such behavior.

There’s nothing in the PICs preventing the registry from behaving fraudulently, so the PICDRP panel declined to rule on those allegations, saying only that they “may be actionable in another forum”.

The complainants, which filed their 1,800-page complaint in October, were MarkMonitor and a bunch of its clients, including Adobe, American Apparel, Best Buy, Facebook, Levi and Verizon.

They’d claimed among other things that 70% of .feedback domains were trademarked names actually registered by the registry, and that TLS had stuffed each site with reviews either paid for or scraped from services such as Yelp!.

They claimed that Free.Feedback, a free domains service hosted by an affiliated entity, had been set up to auto-populate Whois records with the names of brand owners (or whoever owned the matching .com domain) even when the registrant was not the brand owner.

This resulted in brand owners receiving “phishing” emails related to domains they’d never registered, the complainants stated.

TLS denied all all the allegations of fraud, but the PICDRP panel wound up not ruling on many of them anyway, stating:

the Panel finds that Respondent’s Registry Operator Agreement contains no covenant by the Respondent to not engage in fraudulent and deceptive practices.

The only violations it found related to the transparency of .feedback’s launch policies.

The panel found that TLS had not given 90 days notice of policy changes and had not made its unusual pricing model (which included an extra fee for domains that did not resolve to live sites) transparent.

The registry had a number of unusual launch programs, which I outlined in December 2015 but which were apparently not adequately communicated to registrars and registrants.

The panel also found that Free.Feedback had failed to verify the email addresses of registrants and had failed to make it easy for trademark owners to cancel domains registered in their names without their consent.

Finally, it also found that TLS had registered a bunch of trademark-match domain names to itself during the .feedback sunrise period:

self-allocating or reserving domains that correspond to the trademark owners’ marks during the Sunrise period constitutes a failure by the Respondent to adhere to Clause 6 of its Registration and Launch policies, versions 1 and 2. According to the policies, Sunrise period is exclusively reserved for trademark owners

TLS, in its defense, denied that it had self-allocated these names and told the panel it had “accidentally” released them into the zone file temporarily.

As a result of the PIC breaches found by the panel, ICANN Compliance has issued a breach notice (pdf) against the company.

To cure the breach, and avoid having its Registry Agreement taken away, TLD has to, by April 15:

Provide ICANN with corrective and preventative action(s), including implementation dates and milestones, to ensure that Top Level Spectrum will operate the TLD feedback in a transparent manner consistent with general principles of openness and nondiscrimination by establishing, publishing and adhering to clear registration policies;

That seems to me like it’s probably vague enough to go either way, but I’d be surprised if TLS doesn’t manage to comply.

Complaints about registrars dip in 2016

Kevin Murphy, February 2, 2017, Domain Registrars

There were slightly fewer complaints about domain name registrars in 2016, compared to 2015, according to newly published ICANN data, but complaints still run into the tens of thousands.

There were 43,156 complaints about registrars to ICANN Compliance in 2016, compared to 45,926 in 2015, according to the data (pdf). That’s a dip of about 6%.

The overall volume of complaints, and the dip, can be attributed to Whois.

About three quarters of the complaints directed at registrars in 2016 were for Whois inaccuracy — 32,292 complaints in total, down from 34,740 in 2015.

The number of complaints about gTLD registries was pretty much flat at 2,230, despite hundreds of new gTLDs being delegated during the year.

The vast majority of those gTLDs were dot-brands, however, with nowhere near the same kind of potential for abuse as generally available gTLDs.

The biggest cause for complaint against registries, representing about half the total, was the Zone File Access program. I’ve filed a few of these myself, against dot-brands that decide the ZFA policy doesn’t apply to them.

Formal, published breach notices were also down on the year, with 25 breaches, four suspensions and four terminations, compared to 32 breaches, six suspensions and eight terminations in 2015.

That’s the second consecutive year the number of breach notices was down.

ICANN’s top DC lobbyist gets consumer safeguards role

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN has named veteran staffer Jamie Hedlund as its new senior VP for contractual compliance and consumer safeguards.

It’s a new executive team role, created by the departure of chief contract compliance officer Allen Grogan. Grogan announced his intention to leave ICANN last May, and has been working there part-time since August.

The “consumer safeguards” part of the job description is new.

ICANN first said it planned to hire such a person in late 2014, but the position was never filled, despite frequent poking by anti-spam activists.

Now it appears that the two roles — compliance and consumer safeguards — have been combined.

This makes sense, give that ICANN has no power to safeguard consumers other than the enforcement of its contracts with registries and registrars.

From the outside, it does not immediately strike me as an obvious move for Hedlund.

While his job title has changed regularly during his six or so years at ICANN, he’s mainly known as the organization’s only in-house Washington DC government lobbyist.

He played a key role in the recent IANA transition, which saw the US government sever its formal oversight ties with ICANN.

His bio shows no obvious experience in consumer protection roles.

His replacement in the government relations role is arguably just as surprising — Duncan Burns, a veteran PR man who will keep his current job title of senior VP of global communications.

The appointments seem to indicate that lobbying the US government is not as critical to ICANN in the post-transition world, and that institutional experience in the rarefied world of ICANN is a key qualifier for senior positions.

ICANN terminates penis pill pimp registrar

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2017, Domain Registrars

ICANN is to terminate the contract of a Chinese registrar linked to dodgy pharmaceuticals web sites and other malfeasance.

Nanjing Imperiosus Technology Co, which does business as DomainersChoice.com, has been told it will lose its registrar accreditation February 3.

ICANN said in the termination notice that the company had failed to keep records related to abuse reports, failed to validate Whois records, and failed to provide ICANN with registration records, all in breach of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

The breaches related to complaints filed by illegal pharmacy watchdog LegitScript last September, I believe.

DomainersChoice and its CEO Stefan Hansmann were listed in Whois as the owners of potentially hundreds of domains that were being used to sell medicines for conditions ranging from heart disease to erectile dysfunction.

The domains 5mg-cialis20mg.com, acheterdutadalafil.com, viagra-100mgbestprice.net and 100mgviagralowestprice.net were among those apparently owned by the registrar.

According to LegitScript, thousands of DomainersChoice domains were “rogue internet pharmacies”.

The registrar has also been linked by security researchers to mass typosquatting campaigns.

The company’s web site even has a typo generator. While one could argue such tools are also useful to brand owners, DomainersChoice’s name suggests it’s geared towards domainers, not brands.

DomainersChoice had about 27,000 domains under management at the last count, which ICANN will now migrate to another registrar.

It’s not known how many of those were self-registered domains and how many were being used nefariously, but LegitScript CEO John Horton estimated (pdf) at least 2,300 dodgy pharma sites used the registrar.

Registrar accused of pimping prescription penis pills

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2016, Domain Registrars

ICANN has implicated a Chinese domain name registrar in the online selling of medications, including Viagra and Cialis, without the required prescription.

The organization’s Compliance department filed a contract breach notice with Nanjing Imperiosus, which does business as DomainersChoice.com, today.

The move follows an allegation from pharmacy watchdog LegitScript in the US Congress that DomainersChoice is “rogue internet pharmacy operator”.

Because ICANN has no authority to police online pharmacies, it’s gone after the registrar based on an obscure part of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

Section 3.7.7 of the 2013 RAA says that domains must be registered to a third party, unless they’re used by the registrar in the course of providing its registrar services.

According to ICANN, DomainersChoice has refused to provide evidence that many of its domains are not in fact registered to itself and CEO Stefan Hansmann, in violation of this clause.

It cites 5mg-cialis20mg.com, acheterdutadalafil.com, viagra-100mgbestprice.net and 100mgviagralowestprice.net as examples of domains apparently registered to Hansmann and his company.

Historical Whois records show Hansmann and Nanjing Imperiosus as the registrant of these names until recently.

The domains all refer to erectile dysfunction medicines, which are usually only available in the US with a prescription.

A reverse Whois lookup reveals Hansmann’s name in the records for many more pharmaceuticals-related domains, some of which are for more serious medical conditions.

Several of the domains contain the words “without prescription” or similar, where the drug in question requires a prescription in the US.

Some of the domains do not currently resolve or no longer provide current Whois records and others have been recently transferred, but some resolve to apparently active e-commerce sites.

ICANN’s breach notice (pdf) doesn’t allege any illegal activity.

The same cannot be said for LegitScript CEO John Horton, who lumped DomainersChoice in with a few other registrars he believes are operating “illegal online pharmacies”.

Horton testified (pdf) before Congress last month that the registrar was playing host to 2,300 such sites.

The testimony was filed September 14, the same day ICANN began its compliance investigation.

ICANN’s notice, which alleges a handful of other relatively trivial breaches, asks that Hansmann provide a full list of domains registered in his and his company’s name via DomainersChoice.

It also demands evidence that the domains were either used to provide registrar services or were registered to a third party.

It wants all that by November 2, after which it may start to terminate the company’s RAA.