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ICANN finally addresses Net 4 India meltdown, but mysteries remain

Kevin Murphy, November 18, 2020, Domain Registrars

ICANN today made an effort to publicly address the hundreds of complaints that have recently been made about Net 4 India, India’s largest registrar, which has been in insolvency proceedings for over three years and recently started losing its customers’ domains.

In a lengthy blog post, ICANN confirmed that it received roughly 300 complaints about Net4 in August and September, when India was in coronavirus lockdown and the registrar’s customer service department was unable to cope with demand.

Many customers reported on social media and elsewhere that domains were expiring and transfers to third-party registrars were not possible.

ICANN said it had received over 400 complaints since it filed its first notice of suspension against Net4, which came about after ICANN learned of the insolvency proceedings, in June 2019. It says 74% have been resolved and it’s working on the remainder.

The post sets out customers’ options when it comes to filing complaints, which is complicated by the fact that Net4 also acts as a reseller for OpenProvider, which is not in the same financial difficulty.

ICANN’s says that it is closely monitoring Net4’s compliance with its Registrar Accreditation Agreement and has regular contact with the insolvency court where the company’s case is being heard.

What’s unclear is why the company has been permitted to continue to operate as an accredited registrar, despite its insolvency proceeding being a direct violation of the RAA. ICANN filed a suspension notice in June last year, but has postponed its effective date ever since.

While ICANN says it has not ruled out terminating Net4 and transferring its domains to another registrar, the reality may be that it is unable to do so.

In today’s post, ICANN says it “postponed the start date of the Suspension Period after considering information regarding the insolvency proceedings” provided by the court-appointed resolution professional.

Last month, during the ICANN 69 public forum, the org was asked by an Indian registrant what it was doing about Net4, and compliance chief Jamie Hedlund responded:

When they initially filed for insolvency, we attempted to suspend them and prevent them from being able to register new names. But unfortunately due to the insolvency, we were not able to do that.

It seems that a resolution professional appointed by a quasi-judicial Indian court has managed to trump ICANN’s powers under its Californian-law registrar contract.

Net4’s latest registry transaction reports show that it had 90,000 gTLD domains under management at the end of July. It’s bleeding thousands of domains every month. The company claims to have 400,000 customers in total.

The insolvency proceedings were initiated in 2017 by a debt-recovery agency called Edelweiss, which had acquired $28 million of debts Net4 owed the State Bank of India.

Is India’s largest registrar about to go titsup? And where the hell is ICANN?

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2020, Domain Registrars

India’s largest independent domain name registrar appears to be “doing an AlpNames”, with many customers complaining about domains going dark, transfer codes not being issued, and customer support being unavailable for weeks.

Net 4 India, which claims to have 400,000 customers, has been in insolvency proceeds for over two years, but it’s only in the last couple months that the complaints have started piling up by the scores from disgruntled customers.

A major complaint is that renewals are not processed even after they are paid for, that transfer authcodes never arrive, that customer support never picks up the phone or replies to emails, and (occasionally) that the Net4 web site itself is down.

As we saw with AlpNames last year and RegisterFly back in the mists of time, These are all the warning signs of a registrar in trouble.

On its web site, Net4 prominently warns customers that its call centers are operating on a skeleton staff due to India’s coronavirus lockdown measures, which may account for the lack of support.

But there are reports that customers have visited the company’s offices in person to find them closed.

There’s been radio silence from the registrar. Even its Twitter account is private.

Many local commentators are pointing to the fact that Net4 is in protracted insolvency proceedings as the true underlying issue.

There have been calls for government intervention, action by .in registry NIXI, ICANN enforcement, and even the Indian equivalent of a class action lawsuit. This local cyber law blogger is all over it.

But what is ICANN doing about it?

Net4 was taken to a quasi-judicial insolvency court in 2017 by a debt-recovery company called Edelweiss over the rupee equivalent of about $28 million of unpaid loans from the State Bank of India.

ICANN has been aware of this fact since at least April 2019, when it started calling the registrar for an explanation.

Under the standard Registrar Accreditation Agreement, being in insolvency for over 30 days is grounds for unilateral termination by ICANN.

ICANN could terminate the agreement and transfer all of Net4’s gTLD domain names to a different registrar pretty much at will — all the registrant data is in escrow. This would not protect Net4’s many thousands of .in registrants of course.

ICANN suspended Net4’s RAA in June last year, but Net4 somehow managed to talk its way out of it. ICANN later rescinded the suspension on the proviso that the registrar provide monthly updates regarding its insolvency.

Net4’s cure period has been extended three times by ICANN. The latest expired July 31 this year.

At least one ICANN staffer is on the case, however. ICANN’s head of India Samiran Gupta has recently been reaching out to customers on Twitter, offering his email address and assistance getting in contact with Net4 staff, apparently with some success.

But Net4 had 95,000 gTLD names under management at the last count (though it’s been hemorrhaging thousands per month) so this individual approach won’t go very far.

Free domains registrar gets FOURTH breach notice

Kevin Murphy, April 21, 2020, Domain Registrars

OpenTLD, the company that offers free and at-cost domain names under the Freenom brand, has received its fourth public breach of contract notice from ICANN.

The alleged violation concerns a specific expired domain — tensportslive.net — which was until its expiration last November hosting a Pakistani cricket blog.

ICANN claims OpenTLD failed to hand over copies of expiration notices it sent to the former registrant of the name, which expired November 12, despite repeated requests.

The blogger seems to have been royally screwed over by this situation.

ICANN first started badgering OpenTLD for its records on December 23, presumably alerting the company to the fact that its customer had a problem, when the domain had expired but was still recoverable.

ICANN contacted the registrar four more times about the domain before February 1, when it dropped and was promptly snapped up by DropCatch.com.

The public breach notice (pdf) was published February 27. OpenTLD has apparently since provided ICANN with data, which is being reviewed.

But it’s the fourth time the registrar has found itself in serious trouble with ICANN.

It got a breach notice in March 2015 after failing to file compliance paperwork.

Later that year, ICANN summarily suspended its accreditation — freezing its ability to sell domains — after the Dutch company was found to have been cybersquatting rival registrars including Key-Systems and NetEarth in order to poach business away from them.

That suspension was fought in an unprecedented arbitration case, but ICANN won and suspended the accreditation again that August.

It got another breach notice in 2017 for failing to investigate Whois accuracy complaints, which ICANN refers to in its current complaint.

OpenTLD/Freenom is perhaps best known as the registry for a handful of African ccTLD and Tokelau’s .tk, which is the second-largest TLD after .com by volume of registered domains.

Its business model is to give the names away for free and then monetize them after they expire or are deleted for abuse. In the gTLD space, it says it offers domains at the wholesale cost.

According to SpamHaus, over a third of .tk domains it sees are abusive.

Registrar terminated after what looks like domain hijacking

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2020, Domain Registrars

ICANN has canned its first registrar of the year.

Los Angeles-based World Biz Domains will be going out of bizness after ICANN terminated its registrar contract earlier this week, following its non-responsiveness to what appears to be case of domain hijacking.

It’s a nothing registrar, with fewer than 100 domains under management, but it once had over 5,000.

The termination comes following the suspension I blogged about in October, which was related to the transfers to World Biz of 15 potentially valuable domains in late 2018.

The names were all either short numerics or the names of famous places in Singapore and Malaysia.

ICANN spent most of last year demanding records showing that the transfers were legit, but was ghosted.

World Biz allegedly also had failed to deliver Whois records in the proper format, and was behind on its ICANN accreditation fees.

The company will lose its accreditation officially on January 22.

.whoswho survives!

Kevin Murphy, October 3, 2019, Domain Registries

The registry running the failing new gTLD .whoswho has managed to avoid having its contract terminated by ICANN.

According to an update on the ICANN web site, Who’s Who Registry came back into compliance with its obligations earlier this week, meaning it can continue operating.

It had been under a cloud of uncertainty since January, when ICANN Compliance sent off a breach notice saying the company was overdue with its $25,000-a-year fees.

Who’s Who originally had until a date in February to pay up, but this deadline has been extended repeatedly over the course of the year.

Registry CEO John McCabe had told ICANN last November that the fee is “onerous” and “the single largest item in .whoswho’s budget”.

ICANN later rejected his request for a fee reduction.

.whoswho, which seeks to replicate the once-popular biography compilation books of the same name, has fewer than 100 real registrations to its name, most of which appear to be defensive, despite being live for five years.

At about $70 a pop, that’s still not nearly enough to cover ICANN fees, never mind other operating costs.

It sold barely a dozen names in the first half of this year.

I thought it was a goner for sure.

But it looks like it’s been saved from the axe for now, so maybe there’s time to turn things around.

Registrar suspended over dodgy transfers

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2019, Domain Registrars

ICANN has suspended a Los Angeles-based registrar after failing to get answers to its questions about a bunch of domain transfer.

World Biz Domains won’t be able to sell any gTLD domains, or accept transfers, from October 16 until January 13 next year. It will also have to post ICANN’s suspension notice on its home page.

Its crime? Failing to provide ICANN with records proving that the change of registrant requests for 15 potentially valuable domain names were legitimate.

ICANN has been badgering World Biz for these records since April, but says it was given the runaround.

The domains in question — 28.net, 68.net, 88.org, changi.com, tay.net, goh.net, koh.net, kuantan.com, yeong.com, merlion.org, og.net, raffles.net, sentosa.org, sg.org and shenton.com — all appear to have been registered to a Singaporean investor using the registrar DomainDiscover until about a year ago.

The non-numeric names all have significance to Singapore or neighboring Malaysia one way or the other. Some of them are arguably UDPR fodder.

Shenton is a busy street and hotel in the city, Merlion is Singapore’s lion mascot, Sentosa is a Singaporean island, and Raffles is of course the name of the famous hotel. Other domains on the list are common Chinese surnames used by Singaporeans.

It appears that about a year ago, according to DomainTools’ historical Whois records, they were transferred to World Biz and put under privacy protection.

There’s no specific claim in ICANN’s notice that any domain hijacking has taken place, but it’s easy to infer that the original registrant was for some reason not happy that the domains changed hands and therefore complained to ICANN.

Some of the domains in question have since been transferred to other registrars and may have been returned to the original registrant.

If ICANN’s track record of demanding records is any guide, this will not help World Biz come into compliance.

Should it be terminated, it looks like very few registrants will be affected.

While World Biz at one point had over 5,000 gTLD domains under management, it’s been shrinking consistently for the best part of a decade and in May had just 74 DUM.

September last year, when the domains in question moved to World Biz, was the company’s most-successful month in terms of inbound transfers — 17 domains — since I started tracking this kind of data nine years ago.

Net 4 India gets brief reprieve from ICANN suspension

India registrar Net 4 India has been given a bit of breathing space by ICANN, following its suspension last month.

ICANN suspended the registrar’s accreditation a month ago, effective June 21, after discovering the company had been in insolvency proceedings for some time.

But on June 20 ICANN updated its suspension notice to give Net4 more time to comply. It now has until September 4, the same day its insolvency case is expected to end, to provide ICANN with documentation showing it is still a going concern.

The registrar was sued by a debt collector that had acquired some Rs 1.94 billion ($28 million) of unpaid debts from an Indian bank.

ICANN’s updated suspension notice adds that Net4 is to provide monthly status updates, starting July 18, if it wants to keep its accreditation.

The upshot of all this is that the registrar can carry on selling gTLD domains and accepting inbound transfers for at least another couple months.

Five more gTLD deadbeats fingered by ICANN

The company that tried unsuccessfully to get the .islam new gTLD has been slammed by ICANN for failing to pay its dues on five different gTLDs.

Asia Green IT System, based in Turkey, has been considered “past due” on its registry fees since at least January, according to an ICANN breach notice sent yesterday.

The company runs .nowruz (Iranian New Year), .pars (refers to Persia/Iran), .shia (a branch of Islam), .tci (a closed dot-brand) and .همراه (.xn--mgbt3dhd, appears to mean something like “comrade” in Persian).

The only one of these to actually launch is .nowruz. It came to market March last year — bizarrely, it didn’t leave sunrise until a week after Nowruz was over — and has scraped just over 40 registrations. It does not appear to have any active web sites.

With little to no revenue, one can imagine why it might have difficulty paying ICANN’s $25,000 annual per-TLD registry fee, which it will have been paying for almost four years before lapsing.

None of its mandatory “nic.example” sites resolve for me today, though its “whois.nic.example” sites can be reached once you click through an SSL security warning.

The primary registry web site for AGIT, agitsys.com, also does not resolve for me.

ICANN’s breach notice claims that it has been unable to contact anyone at the registry, despite many outreach attempts, since January. It believes it has outdated contact data for the company.

AGIT is perhaps best-known to DI readers for its unsuccessful attempts to apply for .islam and .halal.

ICANN rejected these applications last October after an outcry from governments of Muslim-majority nations and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

Given AGIT’s apparent difficulties, perhaps that was a good call.

If the registry doesn’t cough up by June 13, ICANN may start termination proceedings.

It’s the 19th published breach notice ICANN has sent to a gTLD registry. In most cases, even the handful of cases that have escalated to termination, the registry has managed to resolve the issue before losing their contracts.

The only gTLD to actually get terminated to date I believe is .wed, which is currently being wound down by Nominet in its role as Emergency Back-End Registry Operator.

The most-recent registry breach notice, filed against .whoswho in January, is still “under review” by ICANN.

Pay up or sell up, ICANN tells failing new gTLD

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2019, Domain Registries

ICANN has responded to a request for it to reduce the $25,000 annual fee it charges gTLD registries.

The answer is no.

That wholly unsurprising reply came in a letter from registry services director Russ Weinstein to John McCabe, CEO of failing new gTLD operator Who’s Who Registry.

McCabe, in November, had asked ICANN to reduce its fees for TLDs, such as its own .whoswho, that have zero levels of abuse. ICANN fees are the “single biggest item” in the company’s budget, he said.

His request coincided with ICANN commencing compliance proceedings against the company for failure to pay these fees

Weinstein wrote, in a letter (pdf) published today:

We sympathize with the financial challenges that some new gTLD registry operators may be facing in the early periods of these new businesses. New gTLD operators face a challenging task of building consumer awareness and this can and may take significant time and effort.

But he goes on to point out that the $25,000-a-year fee was known to all applicants before they applied, and had been subject to numerous rounds of public comment before the Applicant Guidebook was finalized.

Weinstein writes:

The AGB made clear that evaluation phase was to determine whether an applicant had the requisite technical, operation and financial capabilities to operate a registry, and was not a assessment nor an endorsement of a particular business plan.

It’s pretty clear that the .whoswho business plan has failed. It’s sold no more than a handful of non-defensive domains over the four years it has been available.

Weinstein concludes his letter by pointing out that all new gTLD registries are free to terminate their contracts for any reason, and that it’s perfectly permissible under ICANN rules to sell your contract to another registry.

ICANN told Who’s Who earlier this month that it has until February 10 to pay its overdue fees or risk having its contract terminated.

Another failing gTLD not paying its “onerous” dues

Kevin Murphy, January 15, 2019, Domain Registries

ICANN has sent out its first public contract breach notice of the year, and it’s going to another new gTLD registry that’s allegedly not paying its fees.

The dishonor goes to Who’s Who Registry, manager of the spectacularly failing gTLD .whoswho.

According to ICANN, the registry hasn’t paid its registry fees for several months and hasn’t been responding to private compliance outreach.

The company has a month to pay up or risk suspension or termination.

CEO John McCabe actually wrote to ICANN (pdf) the day after one of its requests for payment in November, complaining that its fees were too “onerous” and should be reduced for registries that are “good actors” with no abuse.

ICANN’s annual $25,000 fee is “the single largest item in .whoswho’s budget”, McCabe wrote, “the weight of which suppresses development of the gTLD”.

Whether ICANN fees are to blame is debatable, but all the data shows that .whoswho, which has been in general availability for almost four years, has failed hard.

It had 100 domains under management at the last count, once you ignore all the domains owned by the registry itself. This probably explains the lack of abuse.

Well over half of these names were registered through brand-protection registrars. ICANN statistics show 44 names were registered during its sunrise period.

A Google search suggests that only four people are currently using .whoswho for its intended purpose and one of those is McCabe himself.

The original intent of .whoswho was to mimic the once-popular Who’s Who? books, which contain brief biographies of notable public figures.

The gTLD was originally restricted to registrants who had actually appeared in one of these books, but the registry scrapped that rule and slashed prices from $70 to $20 a year in 2016 after poor uptake.

I’d venture the opinion that, in a world of LinkedIn and Wikipedia, Who’s Who? is an idea that might have had its day.