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Dot Registry backs .africa loser, batters on the ICANN lawsuit floodgates

Kevin Murphy, August 28, 2016, Domain Registries

Rejected community gTLD applicant Dot Registry has waded into the lawsuit between DotConnectAfrica and ICANN.

Filing an amicus brief on Friday in support of the unsuccessful .africa applicant, Dot Registry argues that chagrined new gTLD applicants should be allowed to sue ICANN, despite the legal releases they all signed.

The company is clearly setting the groundwork for its own lawsuit against ICANN — or at least trying to give that impression.

If the two companies are successful in their arguments, it could open the floodgates for more lawsuits by pissed-off new gTLD applicants.

Dot Registry claims applicants signed overly broad, one-sided legal waivers with the assurance that alternative dispute mechanisms would be available.

However, it argues that these mechanisms — Reconsideration, Cooperative Engagement and Independent Review — are a “sham” that make ICANN’s assurances amount to nothing more than a “bait-and-switch scheme”.

Dot Registry recently won an Independent Review Process case against ICANN that challenged the adverse Community Priority Evaluation decisions on its .inc, .llc, and .llp applications.

But while the IRP panel said ICANN should pay Dot Registry’s share of the IRP costs, the applicant came away otherwise empty-handed when panel rejected its demand to be handed the four gTLDs on a plate.

The ICANN board of directors has not yet fully decided how to handle the three applications, but forcing them to auction with competing applications seems the most likely outcome.

By formally supporting DotConnectAfrica’s claim that the legal waiver both companies signed is “unconscionable”, the company clearly reckons further legal action will soon be needed.

DotConnectAfrica is suing ICANN on different grounds. Its .africa bid did not lose a CPE; rather it failed for a lack of governmental support.

But both companies agree that the litigation release they signed is not legally enforceable.

They both say that a legal waiver cannot be enforceable in ICANN’s native California if the protected party carries out fraud.

The court seems to be siding with DotConnectAfrica on this count, having thrown out motions to dismiss the case.

Dot Registry’s contribution is to point to its own IRP case as an example of how ICANN allegedly conned it into signing the release on the assumption that IRP would be able to sort out any disputes. Its court brief (pdf) states:

although claiming to provide an alternative accountability mechanism, the Release, in practice, is just a bait-and-switch scheme, offering applicants a sham accountability procedure

Indeed, the “accountability” mechanism is nothing of the sort; and, instead of providing applicants a way to challenge actions or inactions by ICANN, it gives lip-service to legitimate grievances while rubber-stamping decisions made by ICANN and its staff.

That’s an allusion to the IRP panel’s declaration, which found no evidence that ICANN’s board of directors had conducted a thorough, transparent review of Dot Registry’s complaints.

Dot Registry is being represented by the law firm Dechert. That’s the current home of Arif Ali, who represented DotConnectAfrica in its own original IRP, though Ali is not a named lawyer in the Dot Registry brief.

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.

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.

ICANN will post more uncensored .africa info

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has committed to post more unredacted documents from its Independent Review Process case with DotConnectAfrica, following a request from DI.

The organization told DI today that it will publish the documents on its web site by August 31, in response to our July 27 Documentary Information Disclosure Request.

I’d asked ICANN to publish, unredacted, the entire declaration of the IRP panel, along with all equally unredacted exhibits and hearing transcripts.

Aware that ICANN enjoys invoking its “Defined Conditions for Non-Disclosure” in order to stop material being released sometimes, I added “that the public interest and transparency benefits to ICANN of disclosing this information far outweigh any benefit that could be accrued by invoking the Defined Conditions for Non-Disclosure”.

In response, ICANN said today (pdf) that it evaluates the public interest when processing DIDP requests, adding:

we have determined that to the extent additional information warrants disclosure and can be released without further consultation with third parties ICANN will publish that unredacted information no later than 31 August 2015. We will send you an email notification upon that publication. To the extent that disclosure of some information designated as confidential by third parties may be warranted and requires further consultation with third parties, or consultation with other third parties not previously consulted, ICANN has already initiated that consultation process. ICANN will publish such further unredacted information promptly upon, and to the extent that we receive, authorization from the relevant parties to release the information, and will send you an email notification upon that publication.

Since the DIDP was filed, ICANN has published over 700 pages of redacted transcripts from two in-person IRP hearings that took place in May.

Today, it also published a letter from DCA’s competing .africa applicant, ZA Central Registry, comprising an ultimately unsuccessful request for a couple of seats at the hearing.

What has not yet been published are the IRP exhibits showing exactly what ICANN did to oil the gears for ZACR’s application.

Due to Kieren McCarthy’s articles at The Register and ICANN’s subsequent admissions, we know that ICANN staff drafted a letter that the African Union Commission could use to express its support for ZACR in the correct format.

However, the IRP exhibits that would give clarity into what exactly ICANN sent and why remain redacted.

Communications between ICANN and InterConnect, which ran the Geographic Names Panel, and references to the Kenyan government’s did-they-didn’t-they support for DCA also remain redacted.