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.hotel battle lands ICANN in court over accountability dodges

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN’s accountability mechanisms, or lack thereof, have landed the Org in court.

Three applicants for the .hotel new gTLD have sued in California’s Superior Court in LA, claiming ICANN has consistently failed to provide true accountability, refusing for over seven years to implement fundamental mechanisms required by its bylaws.

They want the court to force ICANN to stick to its bylaws and to also temporarily freeze an Independent Review Process case related to .hotel.

The registries in question are Fegistry, Domain Venture Partners and Radix. They filed their complaint at the end of October, but ICANN did not publish it until the end of January, after its terse reply, and an administrative ruling, had also been filed with the court.

While the endgame is presumably to get the .hotel contention set pushed to auction, the lawsuit barely mentions the gTLD at all. Rather, it’s a broad-ranging challenge to ICANN’s reluctance to submit to any kind of accountability at all.

The main beef is that ICANN has not created a so-called “Standing Panel” of judges to preside over IRP cases, something that its bylaws have required since 2013.

The Standing Panel is meant to comprise seven legal experts, trained up in all things ICANN, from which the three panelists presiding over each IRP would be selected.

It would also operate as a final appeals court for IRP rulings, with all seven panelists involved in such “en banc” challenges.

The idea is to have knowledgeable panelists on a retainer to expedite IRPs and ensure some degree of consistency in decision-making, something that has often been lacking in IRP decisions to date.

Despite this requirement being in the bylaws since 2013, ICANN has consistently dragged its feet on implementation and today there still is no Standing Panel.

The .hotel plaintiffs reckon ICANN has dodged $2.7 million in fees by refusing to pick a panel, all the while offloading certain fees onto complainants.

It didn’t get the ball rolling until January 2018, but the originally anticipated, rather streamlined, selection process quickly devolved into the usual mess of ICANN bureaucracy, red tape and circular community consultation.

The latest development was in November 2020, when ICANN announced that it was looking for volunteers for a cross-community “IRP Community Representatives Group”, a team similar to the Nominating Committee. which would be responsible for picking the Standing Panel members.

The deadline to apply was December 4, and we’ve not heard anything else about the process since.

The .hotel litigants also have beef with the “sham” Request for Reconsideration process, which is notorious for enabling the board to merely reinforce its original position, which was drafted by ICANN staff lawyers, based on advice provided by those same ICANN staff lawyers.

They also take aim at the fact that ICANN’s independent Ombudsman has recused himself from any involvement in Reconsideration related to the new gTLD program, for unclear reasons.

The lawsuit (pdf) reads:

ICANN promised to implement these Accountability Mechanisms as a condition of the United States government terminating its formal oversight of ICANN in 2016 — yet still has wholly failed to do so.

Unless this Court forces ICANN to comply with its bylaws in these critical respects, ICANN will continue to force Plaintiffs and any other complaining party into the current, sham “Reconsideration” and Independent Review processes that fall far short of the Accountability Mechanisms required in its bylaws.

The plaintiffs say that ICANN reckons it will take another six to 12 months to get the Standing Panel up and running. The plaintiffs say they’re prepared to wait, but that ICANN is refusing and forcing the IRP to continue in its absence.

They also claim that ICANN was last year preparing to delegate .hotel to HTLD, the successful applicant now owned by Donuts, which forced them to pay out for an emergency IRP panelist to get the equivalent of an injunction, which cost $18,000.

That panelist declined to force ICANN to immediately appoint a Standing Panel or independent Ombudsman, however.

The .hotel plaintiffs allege breach of contract, fraud, deceit, negligence and such among the eight counts listed in the complaint, and demand an injunction forcing ICANN to implement the accountability mechanisms enshrined in the bylaws.

They also want an unspecified amount of money in punitive damages.

ICANN’s response to the complaint (pdf) relies a lot on the fact that all new gTLD applicants, including the plaintiffs in this case, signed a covenant not to sue as part of their applications. ICANN says this means they lack standing, but courts have differed of whether the covenant is fully enforceable.

ICANN also claims that the .hotel applicants have failed to state a factual case for any of their eight counts.

It further says that the complaint is just an effort to relitigate what the plaintiffs failed to win in their emergency hearing in their IRP last year.

It wants the complaint dismissed.

The court said (pdf) at the end of January that it will hold a hearing on this motion on DECEMBER 9 this year.

Whether this ludicrous delay is related to the facts of the case or the coronavirus pandemic is unclear, but it certainly gives ICANN and the .hotel applicants plenty of time for their IRP to play out to conclusion, presumably without a Standing Panel in place.

So, a win-by-default for ICANN?

Former ICANN vice-chair Disspain joins Donuts

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2021, Domain Registries

ICANN’s influential former vice-chair, Chris Disspain, has evidently become the latest former ICANN top dog to take a job at portfolio registry Donuts.

I’m told Disspain has joined the company as senior policy advisor to CEO Akram Atallah.

He recently informed rival registries of his new move, and updated his “statement of interest” profile earlier this month to reflect his connection to Donuts.

Disspain was on ICANN’s board of directors from 2011 until October last year, when he left due to term limits. For a big chunk of that tenure he also served as vice-chair, and was often one of the more engaged and vocal of the directors.

At the start of his run, he was chair of Australian ccTLD registry auDA, but he was let go controversially in 2016.

For much of Disspain’s time on the ICANN board, new boss Atallah was serving as president of ICANN’s Global Domains Division.

Ethos Capital, which recently said it is acquiring a controlling stake in Donuts, also has a few former senior ICANNers, including CEO Fadi Chehadé, among its senior executives.

Donuts acquires four more gTLDs, but allows one to be scrapped

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2021, Domain Registries

Donuts has acquired a portfolio of four finance-related new gTLDs, according to a source familiar with the matter, but is allowing a fifth string to fall onto the scrap heap of history.

I’m told Donuts will soon take over the ICANN contracts for .markets, .forex, .broker and .trading, which were all part of the Boston Ivy stable.

But its appears that Boston Ivy couldn’t find a buyer for .spreadbetting, which describes a complex form of gambling used in sports and financial markets, and has filed with ICANN to instead terminate its Registry Agreement.

You’ll recall that earlier this month I reported that ShortDot has acquired .cfd from Boston Ivy and plans to market it as “clothing and fashion design”, rather than its originally intended purpose of “contracts for difference”.

Both .spreadbetting and .cfd were unlaunched — both represent controversial forms of financial instrument — but the ones Donuts is acquiring already have a small number of registrations and active sites.

.markets, .forex, .trading and .broker have fewer than 4,000 registered names between them and appear to retail for between $17 and $50 per year.

I’ve lost track of precisely how many gTLD contracts Donuts currently controls, what with its recent acquisitions, but I’m pretty sure it’s pushing 300.

As for Boston Ivy, it’s game over as far as being a gTLD registry is concerned. Its only other string was .nadex, and it terminated that over a year ago.

Rival wants the truth about the Afilias-Donuts deal amid “collusion” claims

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2021, Domain Registries

Portfolio gTLD investor Domain Venture Partners wants ICANN to fully explain its decision to approve Donuts’ acquisition of Afilias, claiming the deal gives the combined company an unfair advantage in the long-running battle for the .hotel gTLD.

DVP has filed a formal Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, tearing it a new one for seemingly going out of its way to avoid its transparency obligations when it came to the December approval of the acquisition.

ICANN’s board of directors had been scheduled to discuss the mega-deal at a special meeting December 17, but instead it carried out these talks off-the-books, in such a way as to avoid bylaws rules requiring it to publish a rationale and meeting minutes.

As I noted recently, it was the second time in 2020 (after the Ethos-PIR deal) the board resorted to this tactic to avoid publicly stating why it was approving or rejecting a large M&A transaction.

DVP notes the contrast with the Ethos-PIR proposal, which endured months of public scrutiny and feedback, adding in its RfR:

Why did the ICANN Board have a Special Meeting on this topic? Why did they not publish or otherwise identify a single background fact or point of discussion from the Special Meeting? Why did they not identify a single source of evidence or advice relied upon in coming to the decision? Why have they refused to provide even the slightest hint as to anything they considered or any reason why they came to their decision? How did they vote, was there any dissent? Nobody knows, because ICANN has kept all that secret.

The company argues that all this secrecy leaves itself and other registries at a loss to predict what might happen should they be involved in future acquisitions, particularly given the allegedly anti-bylaws “discriminatory” treatment between PIR on the one hand and Afilias on the other.

DVP stops short of asking for ICANN to overturn its decision to permit the acquisition — it would be moot anyway, as the deal has already closed — but it does demand that ICANN:

Provide complete, published rationale for the Resolution of Dec. 17, 2020 to essentially approve the Afilias acquisition of Donuts, including identification of all materials relied upon by the Board and/or Staff in evaluating the transaction, publication of all communications between Board, Staff and/or outside advisors relating to the transaction, and publication of all communications regarding the transaction between ICANN on the one hand, and Afilias, Donuts and/or Ethos Capital on the other hand.

Develop, implement, publish and report results of a clear policy as to what registry combination transactions will be approved or rejected, including clearly defined criteria to be assessed — and clearly defined process to assess that criteria – as to each and every future proposed transaction.

It’s interesting that nobody has filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request for this information yet.

But it’s not all just about transparency for DVP. Its big concern appears to be its application for .hotel, which is in one of the few new gTLD contention sets still not resolved almost a decade after the 2012 application round.

DVP is the Gibraltar investment vehicle that controls the 16 new gTLDs that were formerly managed by Famous Four Media and are now managed by GRS Domains (which I believe is owned by PricewaterhouseCoopers). Dot Hotel Limited is one of its application shells.

Donuts is now in possession of two competing .hotel applications — its own, which is for an open, unrestricted space gTLD, and the Afilias-owned HTLD application, which is for a restricted Community-based space.

Back in 2014, HTLD won a Community Evaluation Process, which should have enabled it to skip a potentially expensive auction with its rival bidders and go straight to contracting and delegation.

But its competing applicants, including DVP and Donuts, challenged the CPE’s legitimacy with an Independent Review Process appeal.

To cut a long story short, they lost the IRP but carried on delaying the contention set and came back with a second IRP (this one not including Donuts as a complainant), which involves claims of “hacking”, one year ago.

The contention set is currently frozen, but DVP thinks Donuts owning two applications is a problem:

Donuts now owns or controls both that Community Application, and another pending standard application in the contention set for .hotel. There is no provision in the Applicant Guidebook for applicants to own more than one application for the same gTLD string. It certainly indicates collusion among applicants within a contention set, since two of them are owned by the same master.

DVP is concerned that Donuts may have no intention of honoring those Community commitments, and instead intends to operate an open registry.

DVP wants ICaNN to publish a rationale for why it’s allowing Donuts to own two applications for the same TLD.

It also wants ICANN to either force Donuts to cancel its HTLD application — which would likely lead to a .hotel auction among the remaining applicants, with the winning bid flowing to either ICANN or the losing applicants — or force it to stick to its Community designation commitments after launch, which isn’t really Donuts’ usual business model.

RfRs are usually resolved by ICANN’s lawyers Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee in a matter of weeks, and are rarely successful.

One year on, Namecheap still fighting aborted .org takeover and may target GoDaddy and Donuts next

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2021, Domain Registrars

Even though Ethos Capital’s proposed takeover of Public Interest Registry was rejected last May, registrar Namecheap is still doggedly pursuing legal action against ICANN’s handling of the deal, regardless.

The Independent Review Process complaint filed last February is still active, with Namecheap currently fighting a recent ICANN motion to dismiss the case.

The company is also demanding access to information about GoDaddy’s acquisition of Neustar and Donuts’ acquisition of Afilias, and is threatening to file separate actions related to both those deals.

Namecheap has essentially two beefs with ICANN. First, that it should not have lifted price caps in its .org, .biz and .info registry contracts. Second, that its review of Ethos’ bid for PIR lacked the required level of transparency.

ICANN’s trying to get the IRP complaint thrown out on two fairly simple grounds. First, that Namecheap lacks standing because it’s failed to show a lack of price caps have harmed it. Second, that it rejected the PIR acquisition, so Namecheap’s claims are moot.

In its motion to dismiss (pdf), its lawyers wrote:

Namecheap’s entire theory of harm, however, is predicated on the risk of speculative future harm. In fact, nearly every explanation of Namecheap’s purported harm includes the words “may” or “potential.” Namecheap has not identified a single actual, concrete harm it has suffered.

Namecheap’s claims related to the Change of Control Request should be dismissed because ICANN’s decision not to consent to the request renders these claims moot
and, separately, Namecheap cannot demonstrate any harm resulting from this decision.

In December, Namecheap had submitted as evidence two analyses of its business prospects in the event of registry price increases, one compiled by its own staff, the other prepared by a pair of outside expert economists.

While neither shows Namecheap has suffered any directly quantifiable harm, such as a loss of revenue or customers, Namecheap argues that that doesn’t matter and that the likelihood of future harm is in fact a current harm.

A mere expectation of an increase in registry prices is sufficient to show harm. This is because such expectation reduces Namecheap’s expected profits and its net present value.

It further argues that if Namecheap was found to not have standing, it would give ICANN the ability to evade future IRP accountability by simply adding a 12-month delay to the implementation of controversial decisions, pushing potential complainants outside the window in which they’re able to file for IRP.

On the PIR change of control requests, Namecheap says it’s irrelevant that ICANN ultimately blocked the Ethos acquisition. The real problem is that ICANN failed in its transparency requirements related to the deal, the company claims.

The fact that ICANN withheld its consent is no excuse for refusing to provide full transparency with respect to the actions surrounding the proposed acquisition and ICANN’s approval process. Namecheap’s claims relate to the non-transparent process; not the outcomes of such process. Irrespective of the outcome, lack of transparency increases the level of systemic risk in Namecheap’s business environment.

How did ICANN come to its decision? Was an imminent request for a change of control known to ICANN, when it took the decision to remove the price control provisions? What was discussed in over 30 hours of secret meetings between ICANN org and the Board? What discussions took place between ICANN, PIR and other entities involved? All these questions remain unanswered

Namecheap refers to two incidents last year in which ICANN hid its deliberations about industry acquisitions by conducting off-the-books board discussions.

The first related to the PIR deal. I called out ICANN for avoiding its obligation to provide board meeting minutes in a post last May.

The second relates to the board’s consideration of Donuts’ proposed (and ultimately approved) acquisition of Afilias last December. Again, ICANN’s board discussed the deal secretly prior to its official, minuted December 17 meeting, thereby avoiding its transparency requirements.

In my opinion, this kind of bullshit has to stop.

Namecheap is also now threatening to bring the Afilias deal and GoDaddy’s acquisition of Neustar’s registry business last April into the current IRP, or to file separate complaints related to them, writing in its response to ICANN’s motion (pdf):

Namecheap seeks leave to have ICANN’s actions and inactions regarding its consideration of the Neustar and Afilias changes of control reviewed by this IRP Panel. If, per impossibile such leave is not granted, Namecheap reserves all rights to initiate separate proceedings on these issues.

The deals are similar because both involve the change of control of legacy gTLD contractors with millions of domains under management that have recently had their price caps lifted — Afilias ran .info and Neustar ran .biz.

Defensive windfall on the cards for .spa? It’s not just for spas any more

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registries

Forthcoming new gTLD .spa has published its planned launch dates and registrations policies, and it’s not just for spas any more.

Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council, the registry, has informed ICANN that it plans to take .spa to sunrise for 30 days starting April 20 and expects to go to general availability around the start of July.

But despite being a “Community” gTLD under ICANN rules, it appears to be also marketing itself at any Italian company that uses the S.p.A corporate suffix, which is generally equivalent to the US Inc/Corp and UK Plc.

According to its eligibility criteria (pdf), under the heading “Coincidental Community Guidelines”, proof of an Italian business address should be enough for any SpA company to qualify to register.

The registry’s web site at nic.spa currently says:

Apart from the spa and wellness industry, .spa can also be a abbreviation to represent:

  • Società per Azioni (a form of corporation in Italy, Public Limited Companies By Shares)
  • Sociedad por acciones (Joint-stock company in South American Countries)

This offers a great opportunity for entitles in Italy and South American Countries to registered a wonderful name.

This is interesting, because ASPWC applied for .spa as a Community applicant dedicated to the spa and wellness industry.

The primary reason it’s getting to run .spa rather than rival applicant Donuts is that ASPWC won a Community Priority Evaluation, enabling it to avoid a potentially costly auction against its deeper-pocketed competitor.

There’s no mention of Italians or South Americans in its 2015 CPE result (pdf).

Donuts fought the CPE result in ICANN’s Cooperative Engagement Process for three years, but eventually backed away for unknown reasons.

In its original application, ASWPC spends a lot of time discussing its “intended use” of .spa and possible overlap with other meanings of the string. Among this text can be found:

The use of “S.p.A.” as a short form for the Italian form of stock corporation: “Società Per Azioni” is also relatively much less prevalent than the word as intended for the spa community. Furthermore, a more proper and popular way of denoting the form of corporation is “S.p.A.” with the periods included. While this is an important usage of the string “SpA”, the Registry believes that it should not take away from the significant meaning of the word “spa” in its intended use for the spa community as a TLD. Furthermore, additional preventive measures can be put in place to mitigate against any concerns for abusive utilization of the TLD in this manner.

I could find no text explicitly ruling out the Italian corporate use in the application, nor could I find any indication that it was part of the hard-C “Community” upon whose behalf ASWPC was applying for, and eventually won, the gTLD.

The application does seem to envisage some kind of reserved names list that could include S.p.A companies, but that doesn’t appear to be what the registry has in mind any more.

Donuts punter welcomes our new alien overlords in December premium sale

Kevin Murphy, January 5, 2021, Domain Registries

When humanity finally confirms the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, what’s the new gTLD domain name you’d want to have in your portfolio?

Why, first.contact, of course. The domain name was registered with premium pricing from Donuts in December, according to registry data published this week, and is currently listed for resale with a $1 million price tag.

If domaining is often likened to gambling, first.contact has to be one of the biggest lottery tickets of them all — you’re betting on the biggest news story in human history breaking during your lifetime.

The chances of a final solution to the Fermi paradox may be unknowable, but a million bucks might not be an unreasonable ask if the gamble pays off.

I like the name, anyway, even if it’s more likely to be a drain on the registrant’s resources for the rest of his life.

It’s one of three .contact domains Donuts counted among its top 20 premium-priced sales for December, the others being my.contact and business.contact.

The company took over .contact from Top Level Spectrum in 2019 and took it to general availability last month.

.contact does not rank in the top 10 of Donuts’ portfolio of gTLDs for the month.

While Donuts does not publish sale prices for its premiums, the top name for December appears to have been category-killer office.furniture.

Donuts acquisition of Afilias closes, integration work begins

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2021, Domain Registries

Donuts’ acquisition of Afilias closed without incident on December 29, the companies announced last week.

The registries said that registrants and registrar partners should not see any immediate disruption, but added that it’s now working on an integration plan that should see some changes over the longer term.

“Our combined teams can now begin developing an integration plan, with a goal of minimizing disruption to those we serve,” Akram Atallah, Donuts’ CEO, said in a press release. “We expect no changes in the short term, and ample notice on any changes that are decided.”

Atallah has previously told DI that it’s likely that Afilias’ owned and operated TLDs will likely be transferred to Donuts’ registry back-end, which is hosted on the Amazon cloud.

He also said that services such as the Domain Protected Marks List, currently available in 240+ Donuts gTLDs, should soon become available in Afilias’ 20-odd.

The deal, for an undisclosed sum, was subject to scrutiny by ICANN, which could have blocked it, but its board of directors considered the merger last month with no resolution passed.

ICANN could block Donuts from buying Afilias

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2020, Domain Registries

In what appears to be an almost unprecedented move, ICANN is to review Donuts’ proposed acquisition of rival Afilias at the highest level, raising a question mark over the industry mega-merger.

The org’s board of directors will meet Thursday to consider, among other things, “Afilias Change of Control Approval Request”.

It’s highly unusual for a change of control to be discussed at such a high level.

Every registry contract contains clauses requiring ICANN’s consent before a registry switches owners, and it has approved hundreds over the last decade. But the process is usually handled by legal staff, without board involvement.

The only time, to my memory, that the board has got involved was when it withheld consent from .org manager Public Interest Registry earlier this year.

It’s not entirely clear why Afilias has been singled out for special treatment.

It’s probably not due to its status as a legacy gTLD registry operator because of .info — when GoDaddy bought .biz operator Neustar’s registry business earlier this year, there was no such board review.

In addition, the .info contract’s change of control provisions are very similar to those in the standard new gTLD contract.

Could it be due to Donuts executives former ties to ICANN and the perception of a conflict of interest? Again, it seems unlikely.

While Donuts CEO Akram Atallah is former president of ICANN’s Global Domains Division, former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé is no longer involved with Donuts owner Abry Partners, having jumped to erstwhile PIR bidder Ethos Capital this July.

Are there competition concerns? It’s a possibility.

Afilias holds the contracts for 24 gTLDs new and legacy, but supports a couple hundred more, while Donuts is contracted for over 240.

But between them, they have barely 10 million domains under management. Donuts isn’t even the market leader in terms of new gTLD registrations.

And ICANN avoids making competition pronouncements like the plague, preferring instead to refer to national competition regulators.

Could ICANN’s interest have been perked by the fact that Afilias is the back-end provider for .org’s 10 million domains, and the proposed Donuts deal comes hot on the heels of the failed PIR acquisition? Again, it’s a possibility.

But none of the dangers ICANN identified in the .org deal — such as pricing, freedom of speech, and the change from a non-profit to for-profit corporate structure — appear to apply here.

There could be technical concerns. Atallah told DI a couple weeks ago that the plan was to ultimately migrate its managed TLDs to its Amazon cloud-based registry.

But moving its clients’ TLDs to a new back-end infrastructure would require their consent — it would be up to PIR and its overlords at the Internet Society to agree to moving .org to the cloud.

I think it’s likely that a combination of all the above factors, and maybe others, are what’s driving the Afilias acquisition to the ICANN boardroom. It will be interesting to see what the board decrees.

Westerdal offloads two more gTLDs to Donuts

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2020, Domain Registries

Donuts has bulked out its gTLD portfolio yet again, acquiring two more strings from Fegistry and Top Level Spectrum.

ICANN records show that it recently took over the contracts for .observer and .realty.

They’re both launched, active TLDs. Both selling registries are backed by investor Jay Westerdal.

.observer was bought dormant by TLS from the British newspaper of the same name in 2016 and launched the following year with .com-competitive prices.

TLS has been marketing it as a place for news organizations, though it’s unrestricted. Registrations plateaued at about 1,000 a couple of years ago and haven’t seen much movement since.

.realty is a different story.

Fegistry paid ICANN $5,588,888 at a public auction — beating Donuts, in fact — in 2014, and launched it in 2017 with a roughly $300-a-year retail price.

It’s been cruising along with about 2,200 names under management for the last couple of years, until this September and early October, when its zone file shot up to almost 18,000 domains.

This seems to have been the result of a $0.99 promotion at Epik, which has since ended.

One would have to assume that the vast majority of those new domains will be speculative and are unlikely to renew at the full $300 reg fee a year from now.

While the contracts changed hands in late October, it’s inconceivable that Donuts was not aware of the quality of the recent registrations.

It’s not the first time Westerdal’s businesses have sold to Donuts, which took .contact off Top Level Spectrum’s hands in April 2019. That gTLD entered general availability this week.

It’s also handed off responsibility for .forum to MMX, which plans to launch it with a puzzling $1,000 price tag next March, although TLS is still listed as the ICANN contractor.

TLS still runs the controversial gripe site TLD .feedback, along with the unlaunched head-scratcher .pid.

Fegistry is still fighting for .hotel, along with rival applicants, in ICANN’s quasi-judicial Independent Review Process.