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ICANN feeds troll, refuses to censor “rip-off” web site

Kevin Murphy, February 2, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board has rejected a formal demand that it “take down” the web site RipoffReport.com in what is possibly the strangest Request for Reconsideration case it has considered to date.

The almost 20-year-old site hosts reports from consumers about what they consider to be “rip-offs”. It’s seen its fair share of controversy and legal action over the years.

Somebody called Fraser Lee filed the RfR in December after (allegedly) trying and failing to get the site’s registrar, DNC Holdings (aka Directnic), to yank the domain and then trying and failing to get ICANN Compliance to yank DNC’s accreditation.

The request (pdf) is a rambling, often incoherent missive, alleging that RipoffReport contains “legally proven illegal defamatory, copyright infringing, hateful, suicidal and human rights depriving content” and demanding ICANN “take down the site RIPOFFREPORT.COM AS EXPECTED BY THEIR POLICIES OR RISK BEING SUED AS AN ENDORSER OF CYBER TERRORISM.”

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee has naturally enough rejected (pdf) the request, largely on the grounds that it does not have the authority to police internet content and that it could find no evidence that DNC had breached its contract:

the Requester ultimately seeks to have ICANN assume greater responsibility of policing purportedly illegal activity on the Internet, and attempts to place the burden on ICANN to regulate content on the Internet. That is not ICANN’s role. If content is to be regulated, that review and enforcement falls to institutions charged with interpreting and enforcing laws and regulations around the world, such as law enforcement

In a bizarre twist, the BGC further decided that “Fraser Lee” may not even be the person who filed the original complaints with DNC and ICANN Compliance.

“Fraser Lee, has never initiated a complaint with the ICANN Contractual Compliance department,” the BGC wrote.

A lengthy (and, one imagines, maddening) email thread between DNC’s lawyer and somebody called “Smith”, evidently provided by DNC to ICANN (pdf), appears show that at least two different identities are in play here.

It’s an odd one for sure, but it does have the virtue of getting ICANN’s board on the record again stating that it does not police content.

Verizon subpoenas DirectNIC whistleblower

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2011, Domain Registrars

Verizon has subpoenaed a former DirectNIC employee as part of its ongoing cybersquatting lawsuit against the domain name registrar.

Mark Deshong filed a “whistleblower” suit against his former employer – Keypath LLC, which he said shares ownership with DirectNIC – last August, but it was quickly settled out of court.

He alleged Keypath was engaged in a fraudulent domain arbitrage scheme using Yahoo Search Marketing and credit cards applied for in the name of bogus companies.

Keypath’s lawyers (who denied the links to DirectNIC) in turn accused Deshong of trying to extort the company for a larger severance package. The case was settled in October.

Now, in a Florida court filing (pdf), Verizon said it has subpoenaed Deshong for information related to its own case, which is currently tied up in pretrial discovery arguments.

He was scheduled to provide a deposition on Tuesday.

Verizon claims DirectNIC engaged in cybersquatting via shell companies such as Kenyatech/Kentech and Belize Domain WHOIS Service.

While there’s circumstantial evidence connecting the companies, CEO Sigmund Solares signed a sworn affidavit in a previous case denying Kenyatech and DirectNIC were affiliated.

Verizon’s interest in Deshong appears to be limited to information about DirectNIC’s ownership structure and its affiliations, rather than his allegations about domain arbitrage practices.

The Top Ten Hottest Posts of 2010

Kevin Murphy, December 29, 2010, Gossip

Tumbleweeds are blowing through the domain name industry this week, which makes it an excellent time to take a look back at 2010, in the form of a list of this blog’s most widely read posts.

In descending order, here are the top ten DomainIncite stories of 2010:

ICANN had no role in seizing torrent domains
When ICANN stood accused by the blogosphere of helping the US government shut down dozens of .com domains in November, it took the organization a full week to officially deny it. In the meantime, it kicked off a Twitter campaign encouraging people to visit this post, making it the year’s most-read by some margin.

dotFree’s “free” domain names explained
Everyone wants something for nothing, so when I provided the first interview with the chief executive of the recently launched dotFree Group in August, it gathered a lot of attention. It turned out .free domains may not be as “free” as some had hoped.

WordPress.com becomes a domain name registrar
When I spotted that WordPress.com owner Automattic had received an ICANN registrar accreditation, company CEO Matt Mullenweg was good enough to link back to this post when he subsequently announced the move to his readers in October.

First reactions to ICANN’s VI bombshell
It was the biggest shake-up in the domain name industry in a decade – ICANN announced in November that it would start letting registrars and registries own each other. The full repercussions have yet to be felt, but this post summarized some of the early reactions.

ICANN will not attend White House drugs meeting

When and how governments and law enforcement should be able to block domain names is an ongoing hot topic for the industry. This September post broke the news that ICANN would not participate in US talks about blocking “fake pharmaceuticals” web sites.

Porn group starts anti-XXX campaign
The ongoing .xxx drama continues to be one of the key domain name industry stories that plays just as well with a mainstream readership. In addition, including the keywords “xxx”, “group” and “porn” in the same headline has proven disturbingly useful for acquiring search engine traffic.

Gaming scandal hits Russian domain launch
Internationalized domain names finally arrived on the internet in 2010, and the launch of Russia’s .РФ (.rf) IDN ccTLD was easily the biggest success story. It has racked up almost 700,000 registrations in the last two months, but was hit by allegations of registrar gaming, which I reported on here.

ICANN told to ban .bank or get sued
The road to the approval of ICANN’s new gTLD program was widely anticipated to have wrapped up by the end of the year. It didn’t, but that didn’t stop some eleventh-hour special pleading by organizations such as the Financial Services Roundtable.

Whistleblower alleged shenanigans at DirectNIC
DirectNIC has had its fair share of legal troubles in 2010. First it was sued for cybersquatting by Verizon (which it denied) and then, as I reported in this December post, a former employee alleged a complex scheme to make money through fraudulent domain arbitrage (which it denied, then settled).

Survey reveals demand for .brand TLDs
A World Trademark Review survey revealed mixed reactions from trademark lawyers and corporate marketing departments to new TLDs, but it did reveal that most companies would use their “.brand” TLD, if they had one, as their primary online address.

Let’s hope 2011 brings such a diverse range of interesting topics to write about. I’m certain it will.

Whistleblower alleged shenanigans at DirectNIC

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2010, Domain Registrars

A former employee of a company allegedly affiliated with domain name registrar DirectNIC claimed the company operated a fraudulent domain arbitrage scheme using Yahoo ads and Parked.com.

Mark Deshong filed a whistleblower lawsuit in August. It was settled in October, but its claims are quite interesting, and don’t appear to have been reported on elsewhere.

Until April this year, Deshong worked for a company called Keypath LLC, a domain registration and monetization company based in Tampa, Florida.

According to his lawsuit (pdf), Keypath is owned by the same bunch of people (notably Sigmund Solares and Michael Gardner) who run DirectNIC and Parked.com, as well as entities including Intercosmos Media Group and The Producers Inc.

Deshong said he was fired after blowing the whistle on a “fraudulent” scheme to bilk money out of Yahoo Search Marketing using the old practice of domain arbitrage.

The suit claimed Keypath bought ads on YSM to bring traffic to sites such as cameras.com that, in turn, displayed nothing but contextual ads generated automatically by YSM.

The company would pay Yahoo small amounts for the traffic it received, but would be paid larger amounts for the traffic it sent elsewhere.

That’s domain arbitrage in a nutshell. It was commonplace among domainers back in 2007 and earlier, and Keypath was far from the only company engaged in the practice.

Yahoo tried to put a stop to arbitrage on its ad network in February 2008, as Domain Name Wire reported at the time, but the lawsuit alleged that Keypath carried on regardless, using bogus identities.

This is when the “fraudulent” behavior is alleged to have commenced.

The suit claimed Keypath “created fictitious, unregistered DBA [Doing Business As] company names” in order to obtain up to 1,000 credit cards from Regions Bank.

The complaint, in an eyebrow-raising paragraph, goes on to list almost 100 of these alleged DBA companies’ names.

Each one of these companies would get a Gmail or Hotmail email address and a Skype phone number for the city where the “fictitious” company was supposedly based, the complaint alleged.

A proxy server would be obtained in each of these cities, which Keypath would use to access YSM and order ads pointing to parked pages, under the guise of one of the DBAs, the suit alleged.

The scheme covered about 50,000 domains and made about $375,000 during January 2010, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit was filed under Florida’s whistleblower act, so while it alleged multiple illegal acts (such as bank fraud and wire fraud) on Keypath’s part, it only attempted to prove wrongful termination.

Deshong basically claimed that he was canned after telling his superiors he could no longer carry out duties he believed to be illegal – he didn’t want to go to jail.

In its response (pdf) to the complaint, Keypath denied essentially all of Deshong’s claims.

It also denied that the company has ties to DirectNIC, Michael Gardner, Sigmund Solares, Intercosmos, Parked.com or The Producers.

(Probably a disingenuous claim. Florida company records show they’re all currently or recently linked to businesses located at 5505 West Gray Street in Tampa, Parked.com’s main US office. Keypath’s web site shows the same address).

5505 West Gray Street

Keypath also accused Deshong of a shakedown, attempting to “extort an unreasonable severance package”, and said that he had “improperly retained” a company laptop after he was fired.

The suit was settled out of court (pdf) on October 25th for an undisclosed sum.

The lawsuit is only tangentially related to the cybersquatting lawsuit Verizon filed against DirectNIC earlier this year. That case appears to be currently tied up in a pre-trial discovery/jurisdictional nightmare.

DirectNIC chief tries to dismiss cybersquatting suit

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2010, Domain Registrars

The CEO of DirectNIC is trying to wriggle out of a cybersquatting lawsuit filed by Verizon, seemingly on the grounds that the telco has been unable to track him down.

Sigmund Solares heads up the Grand Cayman-based registrar and lives in Florida, but since suing DirectNIC back in March, Verizon has not been able to find him to serve him notice.

Now, his lawyers are arguing on a technicality that the suit against him should be dismissed (pdf).

Verizon claims that DirectNIC and its directors, via a bunch of shell companies, cybersquatted “nearly every single famous trademark in existence”, including some of Verizon’s.

It filed an amended complaint (pdf) a month ago. Due to its inability to track down Solares, it served the Florida Secretary of State instead, which it’s allowed to do if the defendant evades service.

Verizon has filed a number of declarations from process servers who were unable to serve him, despite staking out his Tampa home on at least 10 occasions over the space of several months.

Solares’ lawyers now want the complaint against him dismissed on the grounds that he’s not been served, and that he was not evading service, he was just away on business and vacation:

no where in the Plaintiffs’ affidavits do the Plaintiffs allege any actions whatsoever on the part of Mr. Solares. The Plaintiffs’ complaint and affidavits merely recount their efforts to serve Mr. Solares. Such allegations cannot clearly show that Mr. Solares is evading process because they allege no actions on his part at all. Plaintiffs’ assertions only show Mr. Solares’ absence from Tampa during the periods when the Plaintiffs attempted to effect service of process.

In response, Solares has filed a fairly detailed account (pdf) of his whereabouts between March and September, which included trips to Milan, Miami, Aruba, Ireland and Boston.

Some of the dates and locations coincide with big domainer conferences.

Verizon’s complaint attacks DirectNIC on essentially two fronts.

It claims that DirectNIC’s practice of parking expiring domains – including those that infringe trademarks – constitutes cybersquatting. This is of course a fairly common industry practice.

It also claims that DirectNIC itself cybersquatted on thousands of domains via a number of shell companies, including NOLDC, Spiral Matrix, Kenyatech, Kentech, Speedy Web, Unused Domains, and Belize Domain WHOIS Service.

There’s a fair bit of circumstantial evidence connecting the firms, and UDRP panelists have previously inferred that they shared ownership, but I don’t think it’s ever been definitively proved.

I reported on this evidence in a bit more depth here.

It’s possible that more evidence could emerge during discovery, but the suit cannot proceed to that stage while the court is still figuring out whether Solares has been served or not.

Dell previously sued DirectNIC on the same grounds. Solares signed an affadavit denying he had anything to do with Kenyatech. That suit was settled.

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