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Afilias appeals .web ruling, Verisign responds with “rigging” claims

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2021, Domain Registries

Afilias has filed an unusual and unprecedented appeal against the May ruling that found ICANN broke its bylaws by awarding the .web gTLD to a Verisign affiliate.

The company is arguing that the Independent Review Process panel that decided the .web case shirked its duties, by not actually resolving the major disputes placed before it.

Verisign, in response, has accused Afilias of asking for a “do-over”, which it said is against the rules, and published information it said showed the company had tried to “rig” the .web auction.

The IRP followed the 2015 ICANN last-resort auction, which saw Verisign secretly fund a shell applicant called Nu Dot Co to win with a $135 million bid, on the basis .web would later be transferred to its custody.

Afilias was the runner-up, and argued that ICANN should have voided the NDC bid because Verisign’s involvement was not disclosed.

But the IRP panel merely found that ICANN had breached its bylaws by failing to have the courage to actually rule on the legitimacy of Verisign’s tactics, and threw it back to ICANN to make a decision.

ICANN has yet to make that decision. Instead, Afilias has filed an appeal (pdf) with the in the form of an “application for an additional decision and interpretation”.

IRP cases are handled by the International Center for Dispute Resolution, and Afilias is invoking the ICDR Arbitration Rules that allow a claimant to request an “interpretation” or “additional award” from the original decision:

By failing to resolve all of the claims and issues Afilias presented to the Panel for decision, the Panel has not only failed to satisfy its mandate; it has also undermined the very Purposes of the IRP (as set out in Section 4.3(a) of the Bylaws)—especially, but not exclusively, by its decision to refer Afilias# claim arising from Nu Dot Co’s (“NDC”) violation of the New gTLD Program Rules back to the ICANN Board and Staff to “pronounce” upon “in the first instance.”

The lengthy request is, I believe, an unprecedented attempt at an appeal of an IRP ruling. It’s also heavy on the legal arguments and does not really shed much light on the facts of the case.

The gist of it is that Afilias wants the panel to rule that ICANN breached its bylaws, new gTLD program rules and international law by failing to disqualify NDC and awarding .web to Afilias instead.

Verisign, in response, said in a blog post that Afilas’ application is “not permitted by the arbitration rules – which expressly prohibit such requests for ‘do overs.'”

It also published a letter (pdf) from NDC to ICANN in which it argues that Afilias tried to engage in a “collusive scheme” to “rig” the .web auction.

The letter contains many pages of private correspondence — emails and phone text messages — in which rival .web applicants, before Verisign’s involvement had been confirmed, fruitlessly attempted to persuade NDC to join them in a private auction in which the winning bid would have been shared among the losers rather than all going to ICANN.

While this kind of private settlement was envisaged, and indeed encouraged, by new gTLD program rules, Verisign reckons its smoking gun is messages sent by Afilias during the so-called “blackout period” before the last-resort auction, during which communications between applicants were forbidden.

As far as I can tell, all or almost all of the documents provided by NDC to ICANN had already been submitted to the public record during the IRP.

Note — the “Afilias” referred to throughout this post is the portion of the company, now known as Altanovo Domains, left behind after most of its operating businesses were acquired by Donuts late last year.

ICANN ordered to freeze .hotel after “serious questions” about trade secrets “theft”

Kevin Murphy, September 3, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has been instructed to place the proposed .hotel gTLD in limbo after four applicants for the string raised “sufficiently serious questions” that ICANN may have whitewashed the “theft” of trade secrets.

The order was handed down last month by the emergency panelist in the Independent Review Process case against ICANN by claimants Fegistry, MMX, Radix and Domain Ventures Partners.

Christopher Gibson told ICANN to “maintain the status quo” with regards the .hotel contention set, meaning currently winning applicant Hotel Top Level Domain, which is now owned by Afilias, won’t get contracted or delegated until the IRP is resolved.

At the core of the decision (pdf) is Gibson’s view that the claimants raised “sufficiently serious questions related to the merits” in allegations that ICANN mishandled and acted less than transparently in its investigation into a series of data breaches several years ago.

You may recall that ICANN seriously screwed up its new gTLD application portal, configuring in such a way that any applicant was able to search for and view the confidential data, including financial information such as revenue projections, of any other competing applicant.

Basically, ICANN was accidentally publishing applicants’ trade secrets on its web site for years.

ICANN discovered the glitch in 2015 and conducted an audit, which initially fingered Dirk Krischenowski — who at time was the half-owner of a company that owned almost half of HTLD as well as a lead consultant on the bid — as the person who appeared to have accessed the vast majority of the confidential data in March and April 2014.

ICANN did not initially go public with his identity, but it did inform the affected applicants and I managed to get a copy of the email, which said he’d downloaded about 200 records he shouldn’t have been able to access.

It later came to light that Krischenowski was not the only HTLD employee to use the misconfiguration to access data — according to ICANN, then-CEO of HTLD Katrin Ohlmer and lawyer Oliver Süme had too.

HTLD execs have always denied any wrongdoing, and as far as I know there’s never been any action against them in the proper courts. Krischenowski has maintained that he had no idea the portal was glitched, and he was using it in good faith.

Also, neither Ohlmer nor Krischenowski are still involved with HTLD, having been bought out by Afilias after the hacking claims emerged.

These claims of trade secret “theft” are being raised again now because the losing .hotel applicants think ICANN screwed up its probe and basically tried to make it go away out of embarrassment.

Back in August 2016, the ICANN board decided that demands to cancel the HTLD application were “not warranted”. Ohlmer barely gets a mention in the resolution’s rationale.

The losing applicants challenged this decision in a Request for Reconsideration in 2016, known as Request 16-11 (pdf). In that request, they argued that the ICANN board had basically ignored Ohlmer’s role.

Request 16-11 was finally rejected by the ICANN board in January last year, with the board saying it had in fact considered Ohlmer when making its decision.

But the IRP claimants now point to a baffling part of ICANN’s rationale for doing so: that it found “no evidence that any of the confidential information that Ms. Ohlmer (or Mr. Krischenowski) improperly accessed was provided to HTLD”.

In other words, ICANN said that the CEO of the company did not provide the information that she had obtained to the company of which she was CEO. Clear?

Another reason for brushing off the hacking claims has been that HTLD could have seen no benefit during the application process by having access to its rivals’ confidential data.

HTLD won the contention set, avoiding the need for an auction, in a Community Priority Evaluation. ICANN says the CPE was wholly based on information provided in its 2012 application, so any data obtained in 2014 would have been worthless.

But the losing applicants say that doesn’t matter, as HTLD/Afilias still have access to their trade secrets, which could make the company a more effective competitor should .hotel be delegated.

This all seems to have been important to Gibson’s determination. He wrote in his emergency ruling (pdf) last month:

The Emergency Panelist determines that Claimants have raised “sufficiently serious questions related to the merits” in in relation to the Board’s denial of Request 16-11, with respect to the allegations concerning the Portal Configuration issues in Request 16-11. This conclusion is made on the basis of all of the above information, and in view of Claimants’ IRP Request claim that ICANN subverted the investigation into HTLD’s alleged theft of trade secrets. In particular, Claimants claim that ICANN refused to produce key information underlying its reported conclusions in the investigation; that it violated the duty of transparency by withholding that information; that the Board’s action to ignore relevant facts and law was a violation of Bylaws; and further, to extent the BAMC and/or Board failed to have such information before deciding to disregard HTLD’s alleged breach, that violated their duty of due diligence upon reasonable investigation, and duty of independent judgment.

The Emergency Panelist echoes concerns that were raised initially by the Despegar IRP Panel regarding the Portal Configuration issues, where that Panel found that “serious allegations” had been made188 and referenced Article III(1) of ICANN’s Bylaws in effect at that time, but declined to make a finding on those issues, indicating “that it should remain open to be considered at a future IRP should one be commenced in respect of this issue.” Since that time, ICANN conducted an internal investigation of the Portal Configuration issues, as noted above; however, the alleged lack of disclosure, as well as certain inconsistencies in the decisions of the BAMC and the Board regarding the persons to whom the confidential information was disclosed and their relationship to, or position with HTLD, as well as ICANN’s decision to ultimately rely on a “no harm no foul” rationale when deciding to permit the HTLD application to proceed, all raise sufficiently serious questions related to the merits of whether the Board breached ICANN’s Article, Bylaws or other polices and commitments.

It’s important to note that this is not a final ruling that ICANN did anything wrong, it’s basically the ICANN equivalent of a ruling on a preliminary injunction and Gibson is saying the claimants’ allegations are worthy of further inquiry.

And the ruling did not go entirely the way of the claimants. Gibson in fact ruled against them on most of their demands.

For example, he said their was insufficient evidence to revisit claims that a review of the CPE process carried out by FTI Consulting was a whitewash, and he refused to order ICANN to preserve documentation relating to the case (though ICANN has said it will do so anyway).

He also ruled against the claimants on a few procedural issues, such as their demands for an Ombudsman review and for IRP administrator the International Center for Dispute Resolution to recuse itself.

Some of their claims were also time-barred under ICANN’s equivalent of the statute of limitations.

But ICANN will be prevented from contracting with HTLD/Afilias for now, which is a key strategic win.

ICANN reckons the claimants are just using the IRP to try to force deep-pocketed Afilias into a private auction they can be paid to lose, and I don’t doubt there’s more than a grain of truth in that claim.

But if it exposes another ICANN cover-up in the process, I for one can live with that.

The case continues…

Panel throws out ludicrous .shop confusion ruling

Kevin Murphy, August 25, 2015, Domain Registries

The new gTLD strings .shop and .通販 are not too confusingly similar-looking to coexist on the internet.

While that may be blindingly obvious to anyone who is not already blind, it’s taken the ICANN process three years to arrive at this conclusion.

An August 18 ruling by a three-person International Centre for Dispute Resolution appeals panel has “reversed, replaced and superseded” a two-year-old decision by a lone String Confusion Objection panelist. The appeals panel found:

the [original] expert panel could not have reasonably come to the decision reached by it in connection with the underlying String Confusion Objection

The two strings indisputably have no visual or aural similarity, are in different languages, written in different scripts that look very different, and have different phonetic spellings and pronunciations.

.通販 is the Japanese for “.onlineshopping”, applied for by Amazon in the 2012 new gTLD round.

.shop is a contested string applied for by Commercial Connect and others.

The two strings were ruled dissimilar by the String Similarity Panel in February 2013, but Commercial Connect filed the SCO a few weeks later.

In an SCO, the complainant must show that it is “probable, not merely possible” that the two strings will get mixed up by internet users.

In August 2013, ICDR panelist Robert Nau ignored that burden of proof and inexplicably ruled that the two strings were too similar to coexist and should therefore be placed in a contention set.

Nau would later rule that .shop and .shopping are also confusingly similar.

The .通販 decision was widely criticized for being completely mad.

Amazon appealed the decision via the ICANN Request for Reconsideration, but predictably lost.

After much lobbying, last October ICANN’s board of directors created an appeals process for SCO decisions, but limited the appellant pool to Amazon with .通販 and applicants for .cam (which had been ruled similar to .com).

Now, 10 months later, we finally have a sane decision in the Amazon case. Its application will presumably now be removed from the .shop contention set.

Read the final ruling here.

Two new gTLD confusion decisions thrown out

Kevin Murphy, October 15, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN has reopened the contention sets for .cam and .通販 after deciding that two String Confusion Objection panels may have been wrong to reject certain applications.

Two rulings — that .cam is confusingly similar to .com and that .通販 is confusingly similar to .shop (really) — will now head to an appeals panel for a “final” determination.

The decision was made by the ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee this week at the ICANN 51 public meeting in Los Angeles.

The first case being reopened for scrutiny is Verisign versus Rightside, where the original SCO panel found that .cam and .com were too similar to coexist on the internet.

But a different panelist found that the two strings were not confusingly similar in objections filed by Verisign against two other applicants — Dot Agency and AC Webconnecting.

The opposing rulings meant that Rightside’s application would have been kicked out of the .cam contention set, which hardly seems fair.

This and many other “perceived inconsistencies” led to the ICANN board being pressured to come up with some kind of appeals process, which it agreed to do in February.

Verisign, unfairly in my view, was not given the opportunity to appeal the two .cam decisions that went against it, even though they were made by the same panelist for the same reasons.

The second, altogether more peculiar, case was .shop applicant Commercial Connect versus .通販 applicant Amazon.

The panelist in that case seemed to have checked his brain at the door that day, concluding that the two strings are confusingly similar simply because 通販 means “online shopping” in Japanese.

Another panelist, in a different case also involving Commercial Connect, had found that .购物 (Chinese for “shopping”) was not confusingly similar to .shop because duh.

ICANN’s NGPC has now decided that the two controversial decisions are “not being in the best interest of the New gTLD Program and the Internet community”.

Both .cam and .通販 will now be referred to a three-person panel at the International Center for Dispute Resolution, the same body that processed the original objections, for a final determination.

Panel slaps ICANN in .africa case

Kevin Murphy, August 18, 2014, Domain Policy

A panel of arbitrators had some stern words for ICANN as it handed controversial .africa gTLD applicant DotConnectAfrica another win in its Independent Review Process case.

In a 33-page procedural ruling (pdf) published by ICANN late Friday, the IRP panel disagreed with ICANN’s lawyers on almost every argument they made, siding with DCA instead.

The panel strongly indicated that it believes ICANN has attempted to render the IRP toothless, after losing the first such case against ICM Registry a few years ago.

The ruling means that ICANN’s top executives and board may have to face hostile cross-examination by DCA lawyers, rather than simply filing written statements with the panel.

It also means that whatever the IRP panel ultimately decides will in all likelihood be binding on ICANN.

DCA filed the IRP with the International Center for Dispute resolution after ICANN, accepting Governmental Advisory Committee advice, rejected the company’s application for .africa.

The ICDR panel has not yet ruled on the merits of the case — personally, I don’t think DCA has a leg to stand on — but last week’s ruling is certainly embarrassing for ICANN.

On a number of counts, ICANN tried to wriggle out of its accountability responsibilities, the ruling suggests.

Primarily, ICANN lawyers had argued that the eventual outcome of the IRP case should be advisory, rather than binding, but the panel disagreed.

The panel noted that new gTLD applicants sign away their rights to sue when they apply for a gTLD, meaning IRP is their last form of appeal against rejection.

It also called into question ICANN’s ability to police itself without a binding decision from an independent third party, pointing to previously reported accountability problems (my emphasis):

The need for a compulsory remedy is concretely shown by ICANN’s longstanding failure to implement the provision of the Bylaws and Supplementary Procedures requiring the creation of a standing panel. ICANN has offered no explanation for this failure, which evidences that a self-policing regime at ICANN is insufficient. The failure to create a standing panel has consequences, as this case shows, delaying the processing of DCA Trust’s claim, and also prejudicing the interest of a competing .AFRICA applicant.

Moreover, assuming for the sake of argument that it is acceptable for ICANN to adopt a remedial scheme with no teeth, the Panel is of the opinion that, at a minimum, the IRP should forthrightly explain and acknowledge that the process is merely advisory. This would at least let parties know before embarking on a potentially expensive process that a victory before the IRP panel may be ignored by ICANN.

The decision is the opposite of what the IRP panel found in the ICM Registry case, which was ruled to be “non-binding” in nature.

While deciding that its own eventual ruling will be precedential, the panel said it did not have to follow the precedent from the ICM case, due to changes made to the IRP procedure in the meantime.

ICANN had also argued against the idea of witnesses being cross-examined, but the panel again disagreed, saying that both parties will have the opportunity “to challenge and test the veracity of statements made by witnesses”.

The hearing will be conducted by video ink, which could reduce costs somewhat, but it’s not quite as streamlined as ICANN was looking for.

Not only will ICANN’s top people face a grilling by DCA’s lawyers, but ICANN’s lawyers will, it seems, get a chance to put DCA boss Sophia Bekele on the stand.

I’d pay good money for a ticket to that hearing.

ICANN reveals gTLD objections appeals process

Kevin Murphy, February 12, 2014, Domain Policy

Two new gTLD applicants would get the opportunity to formally appeal String Confusion Objection decisions that went against them, under plans laid out by ICANN today.

DERCars and United TLD (Rightside), which lost SCOs for their .cars and .cam applications respectively, would be the only parties able to appeal “inconsistent” objection rulings.

DERCars was told that its .cars was too similar to Google’s .car, forcing the two bids into a contention set. But Google lost similar SCO cases against two other .cars applicants.

Likewise, Rightside’s .cam application was killed off by a Verisign SCO that stated .cam and .com were too similar, despite two other .cam applicants prevailing in virtually identical cases.

Now ICANN plans to give both losing applicants the right to appeal these decisions to a three-person panel of “Last Resort” operated by the International Centre for Dispute Resolution.

ICDR was the body overseeing the original SCO process too.

Notably, ICANN’s new plan would not give Verisign and Google the right to appeal the two .cars/.cam cases they lost.

Only the applicant for the application that was objected to in the underlying SCO and lost (“Losing Applicant”) would have the option of whether to have the Expert Determination from that SCO reviewed.

There seems to be a presumption by ICANN already that what you might call the “minority” decision — ie, the one decision that disagreed with the other two — was the inconsistent one.

I wonder if that’s fair on Verisign.

Verisign lost two .cam SCO cases but won one, and only the one it won is open for appeal. But the two cases it lost were both decided by the same ICDR panelist, Murray Lorne Smith, on the same grounds. The decisions on .cam were really more 50-50 than they look.

According to the ICANN plan, there are two ways an appeal could go: the panel could decide that the original ruling should be reversed, or not. The standard of the review is:

Could the Expert Panel have reasonably come to the decision reached on the underlying SCO through an appropriate application of the standard of review as set forth in the Applicant Guidebook and procedural rules?

The appeals panelists would basically be asked to decide whether the original panelists are competent or not.

If the rulings were not reversed, the inconsistency would remain in place, making the contention sets for .car, .cars and .cam stay rather confusing.

ICANN said it would pay the appeals panel’s costs.

The plan (pdf) is now open for public comment.

ICANN looking into string confusion confusion

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN is looking at “consistency issues” in new gTLD String Confusion Objections, program manager Christine Willett said in an ICANN interview published last night.

The nature of the probe is not clear, but ICANN does appear to be working with the dispute resolution provider, the International Centre For Dispute Resolution, on the issue.

In the interview, Willett said:

Staff is working diligently with dispute resolution service providers to ensure that all procedures have been followed and to look at the expert determinations — we’re looking at these consistency issues.

The SCO has come in for tonnes of criticism due to the conflicting and downright ludicrous decisions made by panelists.

I would hope that ICANN is looking beyond just whether “all procedures have been followed”, given that the root cause of the consistency problems appears to be the lack of guidance for panelists in the policy itself.

Also in the interview, Willett said that she expects the first new gTLDs to be “in production” before the end of the year, and guessed that the second round of applications “is a couple of years down the road”.

Watch it here:

Famous Four says that Demand Media’s .cam should be rejected

Kevin Murphy, September 6, 2013, Domain Policy

Demand Media’s application for .cam should be rejected because it lost a String Confusion Objection filed by .com registry Verisign, according to rival applicant Famous Four Media.

“The process in the applicant guidebook is now clear: AC Webconnecting and dot Agency Limited proceed to resolve the contention set, and United TLD’s application cannot proceed,” chief legal officer Peter Young told DI.

dot Agency is Famous Four’s applicant for .cam, which along with AC Webconnecting survived identical challenges filed by Verisign. United TLD is the applicant subsidiary of Demand Media.

Serious questions were raised about the SCO process after two International Centre for Dispute Resolution panelists reached opposition conclusions in the three .cam/.com cases last month.

Demand Media subsequently called for an ICANN investigation into the process, with vice president Statton Hammock writing:

String confusion objections are meant to be applicant agnostic and have nothing to do with the registration or use of the new gTLD.

However, Famous Four thinks it has found a gotcha in a letter (pdf) written by a lawyer representing Demand which opposed consolidation of the three .cam cases, which stated:

Consolidation has the potential to prejudice the Applicants if all Applicants’ arguments are evaluated collectively, without regard to each Applicant’s unique plan for the .cam gTLD and their arguments articulating why such plans would not cause confusion.

In other words, Demand argued that the proposed usage of the TLD should be taken into account before the ICDR panel ruled against it, and now it saying usage should not have been taken into account.

Famous Four’s Young said:

Whether or not one ascribes to the view that usage should not be taken into account, and we believe that it should (otherwise we would not have argued it), the fact is that United TLD were very explicit prior to the publication that usage should indeed be taken into account.

The SCO debate expanded yesterday when the GNSO Council spent some time discussing .cam and other SCO discrepancies during its regular monthly meeting.

Concerns are such that the Council intends to inform the ICANN board of directors and its New gTLD Program Committee that it is looking into the issue.

The NGPC, has “Update on String Similarity” on its agenda for a meeting on Tuesday, which will no doubt try to figure out what, if anything, needs to be done.

All gTLD confusion decisions in one handy chart

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2013, Domain Registries

Dirk Krischenowski of DotBerlin has produced an interesting chart plotting all the new gTLD string confusion decisions to come out of ICANN and its objection panels to date.

He’s kindly allowed us to reproduce it here. Click to enlarge.

Each string-pair’s percentage of similarity, as determined by the Sword algorithm, determines its position on the Y-axis, while the color of the circle indicates which way the decision went.

It’s a nice way of visualizing the fact that while Sword may have been instructive in the String Similarity Panel’s determinations it’s not an overwhelming factor in String Confusion Objection decisions made by International Centre for Dispute Resolution panelists.

You can download the chart as a PDF here.

Panel says .sport and .sports are confusingly similar

Kevin Murphy, August 22, 2013, Domain Registries

Olympics-backed new gTLD applicant SportAccord has won a String Confusion Objection against Donuts, with an arbitration panel finding that .sport and .sports are too similar to coexist.

It’s the second SCO case involving a plural to go against Donuts, after the shock .pet/.pets decision last week.

While the judgment is sure to fuel the debate about singular and plural gTLD coexistence, the strings in question in this case do have some unique characteristics.

As panelist M Scott Donahey noted, .sport is both singular and a collective noun, making it essentially a plural and synonymous with .sports.

The sentences “I like sports” and “I like sport” both make sense and mean the same thing. The same could not be said for, for example, “I like car” or “I like pet”.

Donahey was also persuaded by the argument that because “sport” is also a French word meaning the same thing, the fact that “sports” and “sport” are pronounced the same in French means the two strings confusingly similar aurally. He wrote:

The convergence of all these similarities, the fact that the words look very similar in English and sound the same in French, and that the words can be used interchangeably as nouns in English to indicate the panorama of sporting activities, and that the words are interchangeable when used as adjectives in English, all lead the Expert to conclude that it is probable that confusion will arise in the mind of the average, reasonable internet user.

The panelist had access to the rulings in the .pets v .pet case (cited by SportAccord) and the .car v cars case (which went the other way and was cited by Donuts).

Donahey’s ruling is notable also because of what he explicitly declined to consider, namely: the possible harms that could be created by string confusion. He wrote:

Objector’s many references to possible fraud, deceit, cybersquatting or other types of abuse through the use of the gTLD proposed by Applicant are in the nature of a legal rights objection, and mere speculation, and are unworthy of any consideration by an Expert in a string confusion analysis.

In other words, he focused just on the visual, aural and semantic similarity of the two strings. It’s going to be hard for anyone to argue that he overstepped the bounds of an SCO, which has happened following other decisions.

All in all it seems like a pretty sensible decision (pdf). It’s hard to fault Donahey’s logic.

(As an aside, I’ve started to notice that the SCO decisions with the soundest reasoning seem to be coming from panelists, such as Donahey, with extensive experience adjudicating UDRP complaints).

If the ruling stands — that is, if ICANN does not reopen the plurals/singulars policy debate — Donuts’ application for .sports will be forced into a contention set with the two applications for .sport.

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