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Famous Four chair pumps $5.4 million into AlpNames to settle COO lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2018, Domain Registrars

Famous Four Media chair Iain Roache has bought out his former COO’s stake in AlpNames, its affiliated registrar, settling a lawsuit between the two men.

He’s acquired Charles Melvin’s 20% stake in the company for £3.9 million ($5.4 million), according to a press release.

A spokesperson confirmed that the deal settles a lawsuit in the companies’ home territory of Gibraltar, which we reported on in December.

Roache said in the press release that he has a plan to grow AlpNames into a “Tier 1 registrar”:

“I’ve got a 10 year strategic plan, which includes significant additional investment, to set the business up for future growth and success,” he said. “We’re going to bring the competition to the incumbents!”

AlpNames is basically the registrar arm of Famous Four, over the last few years supporting the gTLD portfolio registry’s strategy of selling domains in the sub-$1 range and racking up huge market share as a result.

But it’s on a bit of a slide, volume-wise, right now, as hundreds of thousands of junk domains are allowed to expire.

According to today’s press release, AlpNames has 794,000 gTLD domains under management. That’s a far cry from its peak of 3.1 million just under a year ago.

Seller Melvin, according to the press release, “has decided to pursue other interests outside of the domain name industry”.

It appears he left his COO job at Famous Four some time last year, and then sued Roache and CEO Geir Rasmussen (also an AlpNames investor) over a financial matter. Previous attempts to buy him out were rebuffed.

Last October, the Gibraltar court ruled that the defendants has supplied the court with “forged documents” in the form of inaccurately dated invoices between the registry and AlpNames.

The pair insisted to the court that the documents were an honest mistake and their lawyer told DI that there was no “forgery” in the usual sense of the word.

But it appears that Melvin’s split from the companies was less than friendly and the £3.9 million buyout should probably be viewed in that light.

Famous Four bosses gave “forged documents” to court

Kevin Murphy, December 28, 2017, Domain Registries

The leaders of Famous Four Media produced “forged documents” during a lawsuit filed by the company’s former chief operating officer, according to Gibraltar’s top judge.

The new gTLD registry’s chairman and CEO were both, along with four other unidentified former employees, involved to some degree in “forging” invoices to an affiliated registrar and/or documents relating to a rights issue, according to a ruling by Chief Justice Anthony Dudley.

The ruling was made in October, but appears to have been published more recently.

Former Famous Four COO Charles Melvin is suing CEO Geir Rasmussen and Iain Roache, chair of parent Domain Venture Partners, over a rights issue that diluted his holdings in a related company, according to a court document.

There’s little in the public record about the specifics of the suit. The complaint is not available publicly and neither man wished to comment while the trial is still ongoing.

But Dudley’s ruling shows that the original claims seem to have been sidetracked by Melvin’s new allegations that the “forged” documents demonstrate that Roache, Rasmussen and others engaged in “fraud” and “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice”.

Nick Goldstone, a partner at Gordon Dadds and a lawyer for Rasmussen and Roache, told DI that they both deny any dishonest behavior and that there has been no finding of dishonesty by the court.

He said in an emailed statement: “both of the individual defendants deny (if it be alleged) that they are dishonest and both deny that they have been engaged in the creation of any forged documents in the wider sense, as alleged by counsel for the opponents in the Court case, or at all.”

According to Dudley’s ruling, the defendants’ trial lawyers have claimed that errors in the invoices provided to the court were the result of “honest incompetence”, which the judge said has “a ring of truth” to it.

Dudley, having decided Roache and Rasmussen “have historically been guilty of serious shortcomings in relation to their disclosure obligations” at some point ordered that metadata be gathered from various documents handed over during the disclosure phase of the trial.

This metadata showed that some documents “were created after (in some instances long after) the date on the face of the documents”, which led the judge to conclude they were technically “forged documents”.

But Goldstone told DI that the documents in question were “forged” only in “explicitly a narrow characterisation of the term”, adding that they had been created by former employees who have all since been fired.

The documents included 10 invoices from Famous Four to AlpNames, also based in Gibraltar, the affiliated registrar responsible for selling hundreds of thousands of cheap names in Famous Four gTLDs.

They also included documents concerning a rights issue in a company called Myrtle Holdings that reduced Melvin’s stake to a negligible amount. Again, dating seems to have been an issue.

Dudley wrote in his decision (pdf):

It is accepted by the respondents that the material produced by them contained inaccurate and misleading information; and that the forged documents have been deployed in the litigation and relied upon in pleadings and witness statements. It also formed part of the material provided to the expert witnesses, whose opinions are consequently tainted.

But Goldstone told DI: “no conclusion has been reached in the ruling as to any ‘dishonesty’ or ‘forgeries’ in the wider sense.”

The trial had been due to kick off in October, but it’s been delayed due to the fact that a lot of evidence and testimony has to be reevaluated.

Roache and Rasmussen had proposed to settle the case with a buy-out offer earlier this year, but that offer was rebuffed by Melvin, according to Dudley’s ruling.

Famous Four runs 16 new gTLDs including .science, .download, .loan and .bid.

Many of its TLDs have been offered at super-cheap prices that have boosted sales volumes but have often attracted high levels of abuse.

ICANN urged to crack down on new gTLD abuse

Kevin Murphy, November 29, 2017, Domain Registries

Registries selling dirt-cheap new gTLD domains should be rewarded with lower ICANN fees when they get proactive about abuse, while registrars that turn a blind eye to spammers should be suspended, an ICANN working group will recommend.

In its second batch of findings, the Competition, Consumer Trust, and Consumer Choice Review Team (CCT) said that financial incentives and a new complaints procedure should be used to persuade registries and registrars to fight DNS abuse.

The CCT said it “proposes the development of incentives to reward best practices preventing technical DNS abuse and strengthening the consequences for culpable or complacent conduits of technical DNS abuse” in a paper published today.

The review, which drew on multiple sources of market and abuse data, original research, and analysis of third-party research, is probably the most comprehensive study into the impact of the new gTLD program to date.

It concluded that overall rates of DNS abuse did not increase as a result of the program, but that bad actors are increasingly migrating away from legacy gTLDs such as .com to 2012-round TLDs such as .top, .gdn and Famous Four Media’s stable.

Indeed, much of the paper appears to be a veiled critique of FFM’s practices.

The registrar AlpNames, known to be affiliated with FFM and responsible for most of its retail sales, is singled out as the currently accredited registrar particularly favored by abusers.

The CCT report notes that AlpNames regularly sells domains for under $1, or gives them away for free, and offered a tool allowing registrants to randomly generate up to 2,000 available domains in 27 different gTLDs, pretty much inviting abuse.

“Certain registries and registrars appear to either positively encourage or at the very least willfully ignore DNS abuse. Such behavior needs to be identified rapidly and action
must be taken by ICANN compliance as deemed necessary,” the paper says.

The review found that gTLDs with no registration restrictions and the lowest prices had the most abuse. Duh.

“Generally, the DNS Abuse Study indicates that the introduction of new gTLDs did not increase the total amount of abuse for all gTLDs,” its report says. “[F]actors such as registration restrictions, price, and registrar-specific practices seem more likely to affect abuse rates.”

Drawing on data provided by 11 domain block-lists (SURBL, SpamHaus, etc), the paper states that at least one TLD (FFM’s .science) had an abuse rate excess of 50%.

Using SpamHaus data, the paper identities FFM’s .science, .stream, .trade, .review, .download and .accountant as having over 10% abuse during the period of its study. Also on that list: Uniregistry’s low-price .click and the China-based .top and .gdn.

One thing they all have in common is that AlpNames is a leading registrar, usually accounting for at least a quarter of domains under management.

There’s no way AlpNames/FFM is not aware of the amount of bad actors in its customer base, the question is what can ICANN do about it?

The CCT team recommends that registries and registrars with over 10% of their names used for abusive purposes should be tasked by ICANN with proactively cleaning up their zones. Those that fail to do so should be subject to a new Domain Abuse Dispute Resolution Process, it said.

These companies should have their contracts suspended when they’re “associated with unabated, abnormal and extremely high rates of technical abuse”, the report recommends.

There’s a big boilerplate specifying, tellingly, that registry operators that control registrars are affected by this recommendation too.

It should be noted that there was not a full consensus of support for the idea of a DADRP. Half a dozen working group members filed minority statements opposing it.

It’s not all stick in the report, however. There’s some carrot, too.

The CCT report recommends financial incentives such as fee reductions for registries that have “proactive anti-abuse measures” in place.

It noted that there is precedent for ICANN doing this kind of thing when it implemented an anti-tasting policy that seriously restricted registrars’ ability to get registry refunds.

The CCT Review Team was formed to figure out what impacts the 2012 new gTLD round had on the domain name market.

The completion of its work is one of several gating factors to the next new gTLD application round under ICANN’s new bylaws and the old Affirmation of Commitments with the US government.

It published initial recommendations earlier this year. This new set of recommendations is now open for public comment until January 8.

ICANN finds no conflict of interest in .sport decision

Kevin Murphy, June 5, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN has rejected claims that the .sport gTLD contention set was settled by an arbitrator who had undisclosed conflicts of interest with the winning applicant.

Its Board Governance Committee last week decided that Community Objection arbitrator Guido Tawil had no duty to disclose his law firm’s ties to major sports broadcasters when he effectively eliminated Famous Four Media from its fight with SportAccord.

Back in 2013, SportAccord — an applicant backed by pretty much all of the world’s major sporting organizations — won the objection when Tawil ruled that FFM’s fully commercial, open-registration bid could harms its members interests.

FFM complained with Requests for Reconsideration, Ombudsman complaints and then an Independent Review Process complaint.

It discovered, among other things, that Tawil’s law firm was helping broadcaster DirecTV negotiate with the International Olympic Committee (one of SportAccord’s backers) for Olympics broadcasting rights at the time of the Community Objection.

The IRP panel ruled in February this year that the BGC had failed to take FFM’s allegations of Tawil’s “apparent bias” into account when it processed Reconsideration requests back in 2013 and 2014.

So the BGC reopened the two Reconsideration decisions, looking at whether Tawil was required by International Bar Association guidelines to disclosed his firm’s client’s interests.

In a single decision (pdf) late last week, the BGC said that he was not required to make these disclosures.

In each of the three claims of bias, the BGC found that the connections between Tawil and the alleged conflict were too tenuous to have required disclosure under the IBA rules.

It found that the IOC and SportAccord are not “affiliates” under the IBA definition, which requires some kind of cross-ownership interests, even though the IOC is, judging by the .sport application, SportAccord’s most valued supporter.

The BGC also found that because Tawil’s firm was representing DirecTV, rather than the IOC, the relationship did not technically fall within the disclosure guidelines.

For these and other reasons, the BGC rejected FFM’s Reconsideration requests for a second time.

The decision, and the fact that FFM seems to have exhausted ICANN’s appeals mechanisms, means it is now more likely that SportAccord’s application will be allowed to continue negotiating its .sport Registry Agreement with ICANN, where it has been frozen for years.

ICANN loses another IRP — .sport gTLD fight reopens as panel finds “apparent bias”

Kevin Murphy, February 2, 2017, Domain Registries

The future of the .sport gTLD was cast into turmoil this week after an independent panel ruled that there was “apparent bias” in the decision that awarded the string to a group linked to the Olympics.

The new Independent Review Panel ruling found that ICANN broke its own bylaws by refusing to allow Famous Four Media to appeal a 2013 decision that essentially awarded .sport to rival bidder SportAccord.

FFM claims the expert panelist tasked with deciding SportAccord’s Community Objection had undisclosed conflicts of interest that made him much more likely to rule in favor of SportAccord, which is backed by the International Olympic Committee, than FFM, which is a purely commercial operator.

And the IRP panel did not disagree, ruling this week that ICANN should have taken FFM’s claims into account before rejecting its requests for an appeal in 2014.

The ruling means that ICANN may be forced to throw out the Community Objection decision from 2013 and order it to be re-tried with a new expert, potentially allowing FFM back into the .sport contest.

As usual with IRP cases, the ruling is a complex and very dry read, involving multiple layers of objections, appeals, panels and experts.

FFM and SportAccord were the only two applicants for .sport in the 2012 application round.

SportAccord, which has the backing of dozens of sporting organizations in addition to the IOC, claims to represent pretty much all organized sport and wants to run .sport with restrictions on who can register.

FFM, conversely, wants to keep it open to everyone with a passing interest in sport.

In an attempt to kick FFM out of the contest without a potentially expensive auction, SportAccord filed, and then won, a Community Objection in 2013.

To win, it had to prove that the interests of the sport community would be harmed if FFM got to run it. The objection expert panelist, Guido Tawil, came down on SportAccord’s side.

FFM naturally enough disagreed with his conclusion, and vowed to fight to overturn it.

The registry later discovered that Tawil had undisclosed ties to the IOC, which it said should have disqualified him from acting as an independent expert.

First, Tawil attended a conference of the International Bar Association in Rio de Janeiro in 2011 called “Olympic‐Size Investments: Business Opportunities and Legal Framework”, where he co‐chaired a panel entitled “The quest for optimising the dispute resolution process in major sport‐hosting events”.

Second, the law firm he works for, Argentina-based M & M Bomchil, counts DirecTV among its key clients and at the time of the Community Objection DirecTV was negotiating with the IOC for Latin America broadcasting rights for the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Olympics, rights it subsequently obtained.

Third, a partner in Tawil’s law firm is president of Torneos y Competencias, a sports broadcaster with ties to DirecTV.

FFM has claimed: “Guido Tawil’s own legal practice and business is built around a company for whom IOC broadcasting rights are a core aspect of its business.”

While FFM filed two Requests for Reconsideration with ICANN in late 2013 and early 2014, raising the possibility of conflicts of interest and demanding ICANN have Tawil’s ruling thrown out, both were rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee.

It also took its claims to the ICANN Ombudsman, who drafted (but did not finalize) a finding that agreed with FFM that the Community Objection should be retried with a new expert.

The subsequent IRP filing challenged the two RfR decisions and, two years later, the IRP panel has now ruled:

the IRP Panel is of the view that in order to have upheld the integrity of the system, in accordance with its Core Values, the ICANN Board was required properly to consider whether allegations of apparent bias in fact gave rise to a basis for reconsideration of an Expert Determination. It failed to do so and, consequently, is in breach of its governing documents.

The panel also said that ICANN should have taken the Ombudsman’s draft report into account.

It declared:

that the action of the ICANN Board in failing substantively to consider the evidence of apparent bias of the Expert arising after the Expert Determination had been rendered was inconsistent with the Articles, Bylaws and/or the Applicant Guidebook.

The panel has ordered ICANN to pay FFM’s share of the $152,673 IRP costs.

ICANN’s board will now have to consider the IRP decision, and it seems very possible that a new Community Objection review might be ordered.

On the face of it, it looks like a big win for FFM.

That does not mean that SportAccord will not prevail in its objection for a second time, even with a different presiding expert, however.

One fact in its favor is that it now has three years’ worth of evidence of how Famous Four conducts its business — selling domains at super-cheap prices, some say at the expense of the cleanliness of its namespaces — with which to attempt to show the likelihood of harm.

What seems certain is that the .sport gTLD is not going to see the light of day any time soon.

Read the ruling as a PDF here.