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ICANN redacts the secrets of Verisign’s .web deal

Afilias thinks it has found the smoking gun in its fight to wrestle .web out of the hands of rival Verisign, but for now the details are still a closely guarded secret.

The company recently filed an amended complaint in its Independent Review Process case against ICANN, after it managed to get a hold of the deal that Verisign struck with Nu Dot Co, the company that spent $135 million of Verisign’s money to win .web at auction in 2016.

The Domain Acquisition Agreement, which apparently set out the terms under which NDC would bid for .web on Verisign’s behalf, was revealed during disclosure in December.

But in publishing the amended complaint (pdf) (which seems to have happened in the last week or two), ICANN has whited out all references to the contents of this document.

Afilias claims that the DAA proves that NDC broke the rules of the new gTLD program by refusing to disclose to ICANN that it had essentially become a Verisign proxy:

It claims that ICANN should therefore have disqualified NDC from the .web auction.

Based on the terms of the DAA, it is evident that NDC violated the New gTLD Program Rules. ICANN, however, has refused to disqualify NDC from the .WEB contention set, or to disqualify NDC’s bids in the .WEB Auction.

Afilias came second in the 2016 auction, bidding $135 million. NDC/Verisign won with a $142 million bid, committing it to pay the amount Afilias was willing to pay.

While Verisign has said that it plans to market .web, Afilias believes that Verisign’s primary motivation at the auction was to essentially kill off what could have been .com’s biggest competitor. It says in its amended complaint:

ICANN has eviscerated one of the central pillars of the New gTLD Program and one of ICANN’s founding principles: to introduce and promote competition in the Internet namespace in order to break VeriSign’s monopoly

Whether the DAA reveals anything we do not already know is an open question, but Afilias reckons ICANN’s prior failure to disclose its contents represents a failure of its commitment to transparency.

Reading between the lines, it seems Afilias is claiming that ICANN got hold of the DAA some time before it was given to Afilias in discovery last December, but that ICANN “had refused to provide the DAA (or even confirm its existence)”.

By redacting its contents now, ICANN is helplessly playing into the narrative that it’s trying to cover something up.

But ICANN is probably not to blame for the redactions. It was ICANN holding the axe, yes, but it was Verisign that demanded the cuts.

ICANN said in its basis for redactions document (pdf) that it “has an affirmative obligation to redact the information designated as confidential by the third party(ies) unless and until said third party authorizes the public disclosure of such information.”

Afilias has also managed to put George Sadowsky, who for the best part of the last decade until his October departure was one of ICANN’s most independent-minded directors, on the payroll.

In his testimony (pdf), he apparently reveals some details of the ICANN boards private discussions about the .web case.

Guess what? That’s all redacted too, unilaterally this time, by ICANN.

Amazon wins! ICANN on verge of approving .amazon despite government outrage

Amazon has one foot over the finish line in its seemingly endless battle for the .amazon gTLD.

ICANN last week nudged its application along to probably its final hurdle and gave the strongest indication yet that the controversial dot-brand will soon be delegated in the root.

Amazon has essentially won, beating off objections from the eight South American nations of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization.

In a May 15 resolution, published late Friday, the ICANN board of directors resolved that there is “no public policy reason for why the .AMAZON applications should not be allowed to proceed”.

It now plans to approve the application for .amazon, along with the Chinese and Japanese translations, after Amazon’s “Public Interest Commitments” — enforceable voluntary commitments that would be incorporated into its registry contract — have been subject to 30-day public comment period.

These PICs would require Amazon to give each of the eight nations, and ACTO itself, one domain name under .amazon that they could use to provide non-commercial information about the region whose name the company shares.

Amazon would also have to block up to 1,500 culturally sensitive terms in each of the TLDs, so that nobody could use them.

There’d be a steering committee comprising Amazon and the ACTO members, which would get to decide which domains are blocked. Amazon would have the ultimate veto, but ACTO states could appeal by filing PIC Dispute Resolution Procedure complaint with ICANN.

The text of Amazon’s proposed PICs can be found in an April 17 letter to ICANN (pdf).

As far as I can tell, the public comment period has not yet been opened. If it has, it’s so well-hidden on the ICANN web site that even my voodoo powers have been ineffective in unearthing it.

It seems likely that it will attract comment from ACTO and its members, along with others with an interest in protecting the Amazon region.

Whether their comments will be enough to make ICANN change its mind about eventually delegating .amazon seems highly unlikely.

Amazon, in my view, has basically won at this point.

The victory comes over seven years after the original application was filed.

Amazon fought off a Community Objection from the Independent Objector in 2013, but its applications were rejected by ICANN after receiving consensus advice from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The GAC reached consensus against Amazon only after the United States, which had been protecting what is one of its largest technology companies’ interests, caved to pressure from the rest of the committee.

But Amazon filed an Independent Review Process complaint, which in July 2017 came back in the company’s favor. The IRP panel ruled that the GAC’s advice had been flimsy and baseless, and that ICANN should un-reject the .amazon applications.

Since then, it’s been a fight between Amazon and ACTO, with ICANN trapped in the middle.

As far as ICANN is concerned, the GAC had only advised it to “facilitate” a resolution between the two parties. It does not appear to believe it was under an obligation to assure that both parties were happy with the outcome.

ACTO had wanted much stronger protections from Amazon including majority control of the policy steering committee and, hilariously, a button on every single .amazon web page linking to an ACTO site promoting the Amazon region.

The company rejected those requests, and instead put its own unilateral proposal to ICANN.

Following ICANN’s approval, it’s now very possible that Amazon could start using .amazon this year.

However, given the usual speed at which the company launches its delegated gTLDs, some time in the 2030s is just as likely.

Brand-blocking service plotted for porn gTLDs

MMX wants to offer a new service for trademark owners worried about cybersquatting in its four porn-themed gTLDs.

The proposed Adult Block Services would be similar to Donuts’ groundbreaking Domain Protected Marks List and the recent Trademark Sentry offering from .CLUB Domains.

The service would enable big brands to block their marks from registration across all four TLDs for less than the price of individual defensive registrations.

Prices have not been disclosed, but a more-expensive “Plus” version would also allow the blocking of variants such as typos. The registry told ICANN:

The Adult Block Services will be offered as a chance for trademark owners to quickly and easily make labels unavailable for registration in our TLDs. For those trademark owners registering domain names as a defensive measure only, the Adult Block Services offer an easy, definitive, and cost-effective method for achieving their goals by offering at-a-stroke protection for TLDs included in the program. The Adult Block Services are similar to the Donuts’ DPML, Uniregistry’s EP and EP Plus and the .Club UNBS and should be immediately understood and accepted by the trademark community.

The Adult Block will allow trademark owners to block unregistered labels in our TLDs that directly match their trademarks. The Adult Block Plus will allow trademark owners to block unregistered, confusingly similar variations of their trademarks in our TLDs.

It seems more akin to DPML, and Uniregistry’s recently launched clone, than to .CLUB’s forthcoming single-TLD offering.

The Registry Service Evaluation Process request was filed by ICM Registry, which was acquired by MMX last year.

It only covers the four porn gTLDs that ICM originally ran, and not any of the other 22 gTLDs managed by MMX (aka Minds + Machines).

This will certainly make the service appear less attractive to the IP community than something like DPML, which covers Donuts stable of 242 TLDs.

While there’s no public data about how successful blocking services have been, anecdotally I’m told they’re quite popular.

What we do have data on is how popular the ICM gTLDs have been in sunrise periods, where trademark owners showed up in higher-than-usual numbers to defensively register their marks.

.porn, .adult and .sex garnered about 2,000 sunrise regs each, more than 20 times the average for a new gTLD, making them three of the top four most-subscribed sunrise periods.

Almost one in five of the currently registered domains in each of these TLDs is likely to be a sunrise defensive.

Now that sunrise is long gone, there may be an appetite in the trademark community for less-expensive blocks.

But there have been calls for the industry to unify and offer blocking services to cover all gTLDs.

The brand-protection registrar Com Laude recently wrote:

What brands really need is for registry operators to come together and offer a universal, truly global block that applies across all the open registries and at a reasonable price that a trademark owner with multiple brands can afford.

Quite how that would happen across over 1,200 gTLDs is a bit of a mystery, unless ICANN forced such a service upon them.

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.

Defunct Famous Four ordered to hand $1.5 million back to investors

Former domain registry manager Famous Four Media has been ordered to return money to investors that was being used as insurance against its portfolio of gTLDs going out of business.

In an April 18 ruling (pdf) from Gibraltar’s Supreme Court, FFM and its CEO Iain Roache are told that original investors Domain Venture Partners are the true owners what looks to be about $1.5 million being used to back letters of credit in ICANN’s name.

It’s a very complicated ruling, reflecting the complex structure of the FFM/DVP relationship. It wants for clarity in some areas, and is probably best suited to interpretation by a forensic accountant.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.

Basically, back in 2011 businessman Iain Roache recruited a bunch of international investors to join him in funding applications for 60 new gTLDs. The investment vehicle was and is called Domain Venture Partners.

Each application had an associated “bid vehicle”, essentially a Gibraltar-based shell company with names along the lines of Dot Science Ltd or Dot Accountant Ltd.

Those of the vehicles that were successful in their applications continue to be the official registry sponsors for 16 active gTLDs. They’re all owned by DVP.

Famous Four was a separate company, owned 80:20 by Roache and business partner Geir Rasmussen, hired by DVP to manage the business of actually selling domains.

For many years, myself and pretty much everybody else covering the domain name industry referred to FFM as if it was the owner of the TLDs, more or less interchangeably with DVP.

In fact, FFM was just a DVP contractor and behind the scenes DVP was growing increasingly unhappy with how the domains were being managed, DVP investor Robert Maroney told DI last August.

For about a year now, FFM has been in liquidation. DVP kicked it out of the registry management business and replaced it with a new company that it controls called GRS Domains, managed by a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant called Edgar Lavarello.

Thirteen of the DVP bid vehicles sued Famous Four to claim ownership of, among other things, the money backing the so-called “Continuing Operations Instruments” that ICANN demanded from each new gTLD applicant.

The COI, usually a letter of credit from a big bank, were used to give ICANN the confidence that new gTLD domain registrants would not be affected by dodgy registries going out of business and their domains immediately going dark. The money would fund ongoing technical operations for a few years, giving registrants time to find a new home for their web sites.

In this case, Famous Four’s liquidator refused to agree that the money backing the COIs was rightfully DVP’s.

What seems to have happened is that in mid-2016 the DVP letters of credit were hastily switched from Credit Suisse to Barclays, after Credit Suisse closed down its Gibraltar branch.

There was a period in which both sets of LoCs were active, in order to remain compliant with ICANN’s rule that there must be an active COI at all times.

The original Credit Suisse LoCs had been funded by DVP, but the Barclays LoCs were funded by FFM, or quite possibly Roache himself, to the tune of about $1.5 million.

FFM was then repaid by the return of the money backing the Credit Suisse LoCs, when those LoCs were closed, according to Chief Justice Anthony Dudley’s ruling.

After the switch of banks, the LoCs were no longer in the names of the DVP bid vehicles; they belonged to FFM. The money DVP put up to originally secure the COIs was now in FFM’s control.

Dudley now seems to have ruled that FFM now owes DVP this money back, and that the liquidator, Grant Jones of Simmons Gainsford, was wrong to withhold it.

In fact, the judge has some quite stern words for Jones, saying that he was “wholly inappropriate” when he temporarily turned over his responsibilities as liquidator to Roache and his law firm. Dudley wrote:

It may be that it arises as a consequence of the Liquidator having limited funds with which to engage in litigation. But whatever the reason, the position adopted by the liquidator of FFM in these proceedings has been unusual and certainly capable of being construed as running counter to the fundamental principle of objectivity required of a Liquidator, now codified in the Insolvency Practitioner Regulations 2014. Rather than formulate his own view (or as urged by me at a preliminary hearing seek his own independent legal advice) by letter dated 1 March 2019 GJ sought to abrogate his responsibility and authorised IR and JSF to act on behalf of FFM

That aside, the main piece of evidence that appears to have caused Dudley to side with DVP was a set of emails from Famous Four chief legal officer Oliver Smith to DVP investors that were sent at the time the LoCs were switching banks.

Smith confirmed in one of these emails that FFM was basically just acting as a conduit for DVPs bid vehicles, which by that point were operational registries.

The judge noted that the Smith email that confirmed this was submitted in evidence by Lavarello and Maroney only after Roache had submitted the rest of the thread, excluding this email, in his own evidence.

Dudley ruled that the DVP companies should get what they asked for, namely the funds associated with the LoCs. It’s not entirely clear from his ruling how much this is, but by my reading it’s around the $1.5 million mark.

The liquidation, which is ongoing, is to the best of my knowledge unrelated to the still unexplained demise of AlpNames, the registrar and close FFM partner also owned by Roache and Rasmussen.

Finally, a disclaimer.

Because I’ve already had one spurious legal threat related to my ongoing coverage of Famous Four’s demise, and don’t really need the arseache of any more, I’m going to state unequivocally for the record that I’m not alleging any wrongdoing by anyone.

If I’ve got anything wrong, as always I will gladly issue a correction. Just ask, and show your working. No need to sic the lawyers on me.

You can read the judge’s decision (pdf) and decide for yourself what’s been going on.