Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

Another new gTLD applicant lawyers up on ICANN

Kevin Murphy, July 28, 2021, Domain Policy

Another rejected new gTLD applicant has filed an Independent Review Process complaint against ICANN, claiming the org failed to follow proper procedures on fairness and transparency.

And I think it’s got a pretty good chance of winning.

A Bahrain company called GCCXI has filed the IRP, eight years after its application for .gcc was thrown out by ICANN on the vague advice of its Governmental Advisory Community.

.gcc is for Gulf Cooperation Council, the short-hand English name for the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Persian Gulf, a proto-union of six states on the east coast of the Arabian peninsula.

The applicant’s problem is that it’s not affiliated with, nor supported by, the GCC or its member states.

The GAC, in its controversial Beijing communique of April 2013 objected to GCCXI’s application in the same breath and under the same power as it objected to DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid.

Back then, the GAC was much more secretive than it is today, and did not have to provide a rationale for its advice. Its powers to object to gTLD applications pretty much amounted to a veto.

ICANN dutifully followed the GAC’s advice, throwing out the .gcc application later that year.

The applicant has evidently been trying to get ICANN to change its mind, using the Request for Reconsideration and then Cooperative Engagement Processes, since early 2014. That CEP concluded in May, and GCCXI filed for IRP in June.

Why did the CEP — a form of arbitration designed to avoid expensive IRP complaints and lawsuits — take so long and ultimately fail?

Don’t look to the IRP complaint published by ICANN (pdf) for answers — it’s redacted the whole ruddy lot, a few pages of text, without explanation.

That’s ironic given that a lack of transparency is one of GCCXI’s beefs against the org, along with an alleged failure to follow its bylaws on neutrality and fairness.

ICANN has ignored all of its carefully developed and documented policies, and instead has kowtowed to unspecified government concerns — devising a secret process to kill Claimant’s investment and opportunity, and completely disregarding the public interest in delegating the TLD for use.

The continued fight for a gTLD it surely has no hope of ever operating is a ballsy move by the applicant.

It’s roughly equivalent to some random European company applying to run .eu to represent the geographic region of EU member states without the consent of the EU institutions themselves and then complaining when it’s told to take a walk.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will lose the IRP. In fact, I think it has a pretty good chance of winning.

GCCXI does not deserve to prove it should be given .gcc, it only needs to show that ICANN broke its own bylaws.

DotConnectAfrica, which was rejected by the GAC and then ICANN for pretty much the same unsubstantiated reasons — the GAC “veto” — won its IRP in 2015, with the panel finding that ICANN accepted the GAC’s unexplained advice without even rudimentary due diligence, violating its commitment to fairness.

It was particularly embarrassing for the GAC, whose then-chair admitted that the committee deliberately kept its advice vague and open to interpretation

While .africa is not exactly the same as .gcc (the former is officially a geographic string, the latter is not), GCCXI had DCA had their applications rejected based on the exact same piece of GAC advice.

It’s also similar to Amazon’s IRP fight for .amazon, which it won. That bid was also kicked out as a result of ICANN’s adoption of opaque GAC advice from the Beijing communique.

You’ve got to think GCCXI has a decent shot at a victory here, though if recent IRPs and general ICANN foot-dragging on accountability are any guide we won’t know for a couple years.

Afilias hints at more legal action over .web

As Verisign does everything but declare outright victory in last week’s Independent Review Process result, .web rival Afilias is now strongly hinting that its lawyers are not quite ready to retire.

John Kane, VP of Afilias (now Altanovo) said in a statement that Afilias is prepared to “take all actions necessary to protect our rights in this matter”.

This matter is of course the contested 2015 auction for the new gTLD .web, which was won by Nu Dot Co with $135 million of Verisign’s money.

Afilias thinks the winning bid should be voided because Verisign’s involvement had been kept a secret. The IRP panel stopped short of doing that, instead forcing ICANN’s board of directors to make a decision.

The earliest they’re likely to do this is at ICANN 71 later this month.

But with one IRP down, Afilias is now reminding ICANN that the board’s ultimate decision will also be “subject to review by an IRP Panel.”

So if ICANN decides to award .web to Verisign, Afilias could challenge it with another IRP, adding another two years to the go-live runway and another couple million dollars to the lawyers’ petty cash jar.

None of which should overly bother Verisign, of course, if one subscribes to the notion that its interest in .web is not in owning it but rather in preventing its competitors from owning it and aggressively marketing it against .com.

But Verisign also put out a statement reviewing the IRP panel’s decision last week, reiterating that it believes Afilias should be banned from the .web contest and banned from making any further complaints about Verisign’s bid.

While Afilias spent its press release focusing on trashing ICANN, Verisign instead focused its blog post on trashing Afilias.

According to Verisign, Afilias is no longer competent to run a registry (having sold those assets to Donuts) and is just looking for a payday by losing a private auction.

“Afilias no longer operates a registry business, and has neither the platform, organization, nor necessary consents from ICANN, to support one,” Verisign claims.

Afilias could of course outsource its would-be .web registry, as is fairly standard industry practice, either to Donuts or any other back-end operator.

.web ruling hands Afilias a chance, Verisign a problem, and ICANN its own ass on a plate

Kevin Murphy, May 26, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN has lost yet another Independent Review Process case, and been handed a huge legal bill, after being found to have violated its own rules on transparency and fairness.

The decision in Afilias v ICANN has failed to definitively resolve the issue of whether the auction of the .web gTLD in 2016, won by a shell applicant called Nu Dot Co backed by $135 million of Verisign’s money, was legit.

ICANN’s now urging NDC, Afilias and other members of the .web contention set to resolve their beefs privately, which could lead to big-money pay-days for the losing auction bidders at Verisign’s expense.

For ICANN board and staff, the unanimous, three-person IRP panel decision is pretty damning, with the ruling saying the org “violated its commitment to make decisions by applying documented policies objectively and fairly”.

It finds that ICANN’s board shirked its duty to consider the propriety of the Verisign/NDC bid, allowing ICANN staff to get perilously close to signing a registry contract with an applicant that they knew may well have been in violation of the new gTLD program rules.

Despite being named the prevailing party, it’s not even close to a full win for Afilias.

The company had wanted the IRP panel to void the NDC/Verisign winning bid and award .web to itself, the second-highest bidder. But the panel did not do that, referring the decision instead back to ICANN.

As the loser, ICANN has been hit with a $1,198,493 bill to cover the cost of the case, which includes Afilias’ share of $479,458, along with another $450,000 to cover Afilas’ legal fees connected to an earlier emergency IRP request that ICANN “abusively” forced Afilias into.

The case came about due to a dispute about the .web auction, which was run by ICANN in July 2016.

Six of the seven .web applicants had been keen for the contention set to be settled privately, in an auction that would have seen the winning bid distributed evenly among the losing bidders.

But NDC, an application vehicle not known to be particularly well-funded, held out for a “last resort” auction, in which the winning bid would be deposited directly into ICANN’s coffers.

This raised suspicions that NDC had a secret sugar daddy, likely Verisign, that was covertly bankrolling its bid.

It was not known until after NDC won, with a $135 million bid, that these suspicions were correct. NDC and Verisign had a “Domain Acquisition Agreement” or DAA that would see NDC transfer its .web contract to Verisign in exchange for the money needed to win the auction (and presumably other considerations, though almost all references to the terms of the DAA have been redacted by ICANN throughout the IRP).

Afilias and fellow .web applicant Donuts both approached ICANN before and after the auction, complaining that the NDC/Verisign bid was bogus, in violation of program rules requiring applicants to notify ICANN if there’s any change of control of their applications, including agreements to transfer the gTLD post-contracting.

ICANN has never decided at the board level whether these claims have merit, the IRP panel found.

The board did hold a secret, off-the-books discussion about the complaints at its retreat November 3, 2016, and concluded, without any type of formal vote, that it should just keep its mouth shut, because Afilias and Donuts had already set the ball rolling on the accountability mechanisms that would ultimately lead to the IRP.

More than half the board was in attendance at this meeting, and discussions were led by ICANN’s top two lawyers, but the fact that it had even taken place was not disclosed until June last year, well over three and a half years after the fact.

Despite the fact that the board had made a conscious, if informal, choice not to decide whether the NDC/Verisign bid was legit, ICANN staff nevertheless went ahead and started contracting with NDC in June 2018, taking the .web contention set off its “on-hold” status.

Talks progressed to the point where, on June 14, ICANN had sent the .web contract to NDC, which immediately returned a signed copy, and all that remained was for ICANN to counter-sign the document for it to become binding.

ICANN VP Christine Willett approved the countersigning, but four days later Afilias initiated the Cooperative Engagement Process accountability mechanism, the contract was ripped up, and the contention set was placed back on hold.

“Thus, clearly, a registry agreement with NDC for .WEB could have been executed by ICANN’s Staff and come into force without the Board having pronounced on the propriety of the DAA under the Guidebook and Auction Rules,” the IRP panel wrote.

This disconnect between the board and the legal staff is at the core of the panel’s criticism of ICANN.

The board had decided that Afilias’ claim that NDC had violated new gTLD program rules was worthy of consideration and had informally agreed to defer making a decision, but the staff had nevertheless gone ahead with contracting with a potentially bogus applicant, the panel found.

In the opinion of the Panel, there is an inherent contradiction between proceeding with the delegation of .WEB to NDC, as the Respondent [ICANN] was prepared to do in June 2018, and recognizing that issues raised in connection with NDC’s arrangements with Verisign are serious, deserving of the Respondent’s consideration, and remain to be addressed by the Respondent and its Board, as was determined by the Board in November 2016. A necessary implication of the Respondent’s decision to proceed with the delegation of .WEB to NDC in June 2018 was some implicit finding that NDC was not in breach of the New gTLD Program Rules and, by way of consequence, the implicit rejection of the Claimant’s [Afilias’] allegations of non-compliance with the Guidebook and Auction Rules. This is difficult to reconcile with the submission that “ICANN has taken no position onw hether NDC violated the Guidebook”.

The upshot of the panel’s ruling is to throw the issue back to ICANN, requiring the board to decide once and for all whether Verisign’s auction gambit was kosher.

If you’ll excuse the crude metaphor, ICANN’s board has been told to shit or get off the pot:

The evidence in the present case shows that the Respondent, to this day, while acknowledging that the questions raised as to the propriety of NDC’s and Verisign’s conduct are legitimate, serious, and deserving of its careful attention, has nevertheless failed to address them. Moreover, the Respondent has adopted contradictory positions, including in these proceedings, that at least in appearance undermine the impartiality of its processes.

[The panel r]ecommends that the Respondent stay any and all action or decision that would further the delegation of the .WEB gTLD until such time as the Respondent’s Board has considered the opinion of the Panel in this Final Decision, and, in particular (a) considered and pronounced upon the question of whether the DAA complied with the New gTLD Program Rules following the Claimant’s complaints that it violated the Guidebook and Auction Rules and, as the case may be, (b) determined whether by reason of any violation of the Guidebook and Auction Rules, NDC’s application for .WEB should be rejected and its bids at the auction disqualified;

At the same time as the decision was published last night — shortly after midnight UTC and therefore helpfully too late to make it into today’s edition of ICANN’s godawful new email subscriptions feature — ICANN issued a statement on the outcome.

“In its Final Declaration, the IRP panel ruled that the ICANN Board, and not an IRP panel, should decide which applicant should become the registry operator for .WEB,” CEO Göran Marby said.

“The ICANN Board will consider the Final Declaration as soon as feasible, within the timeframe prescribed in the Bylaws, and remains hopeful that the relevant .WEB applicants will continue to seek alternatives to resolve the dispute between them raised during the IRP,” the statement concludes.

That should be of concern to Verisign, as any non-ICANN resolution of the .web battle is inevitably going to involve Verisign money flowing to its competitors.

But my first instinct strikes me that this a is a low-probability outcome.

It seems to me much more likely at first glance that ICANN will rule the NDC/Verisign ploy legitimate and proceed to contracting again.

For it to declare that using a front organization to bid for a gTLD is against the rules would raise questions about other applications that employed more or less the same tactic, such as Automattic’s successful bid, via an intermediary, for .blog, and possibly the 100-ish applications Donuts and Rightside cooperated on.

The ICANN bylaws say the board has to consider the IRP’s findings at its next meeting, for which there’s currently no published date, where feasible.

I should note that, while Donuts acquired Afilias last December, the deal did not include its .web application, which is why both the panel’s decision and this article refer to “Afilias” throughout.

Verisign hopeful after decision reached in .web gTLD case

Kevin Murphy, May 25, 2021, Domain Policy

The fate of .web has been decided, over 20 years after it was first applied for, and Verisign thinks it might emerge triumphant.

The company said last night that the ICANN Independent Review Panel handling the case of Afilias v ICANN reached a decision May 20 and delivered it to Verisign the following day.

Verisign says the panel “dismissed Afilias’ claims for relief seeking to invalidate the .web auction and to award the .web TLD to Afilias, concluding that such issues were beyond its jurisdiction.”

Sounds good for Verisign so far. Afilias wanted its $135 million bid for .web, submitted via an intermediary called Nu Dot Co, thrown out due to claims that ICANN violated its own bylaws by not sufficiently vetting the bidder.

But Verisign goes on to say “the panel’s ruling recommends that ICANN’s Board of Directors consider the objections made about the .web auction and then make a decision on the delegation of .web”.

It adds that the panel found that ICANN violated its fairness and transparency commitments:

With respect to ICANN, the ruling finds that certain actions and/or inaction by ICANN in response to Afilias’ objections violated aspects of ICANN’s bylaws related to transparency and fairness. These findings are particular to ICANN’s actions and not conduct by Verisign. Verisign anticipates that ICANN’s Board will review the panel’s ruling and proceed consistent with the panel’s recommendation to consider the objections and make a decision on the delegation of .web.

Based on Verisign’s statements, it seems that ICANN lost, but Afilias didn’t win.

The revelation was buried in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing on an unrelated financial matter last night. Hat tip to @jintlaw for spotting and tweeting about it.

It’s the most eagerly anticipated IRP ruling since 2011’s .xxx case, but in stark contrast to Rod “let’s draft this tweet” Beckstrom-era ICANN, where the decision was posted in a matter of hours, the 2021 org has not yet posted the panel’s findings or made a public statement acknowledging the ruling.

Verisign says it intends to “vigorously pursue” .web, but “can provide no assurance” as to which way the ICANN board of directors will swing.

Price caps on .org could return, panel rules

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN could be forced to reimpose price caps on .org, .biz and .info domains, an Independent Review Process panel has ruled.

The panel handling the IRP case filed by Namecheap against ICANN in February 2020 has decided to allow the registrar to continue to pursue its claims that ICANN broke its own bylaws by removing price controls from the three gTLD contracts.

Conversely, in a win for ICANN, the panel also threw out Namecheap’s demand that the IRP scrutinize ICANN’s conduct during the attempted takeover of .org’s Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital in 2019.

The split ruling (pdf) on ICANN’s motion to dismiss Namecheap’s case came March 10 and was revealed in documents recently published by ICANN. The case will now proceed on the pricing issue alone.

The three-person panel decided that the fact that ICANN ultimately decided to block Ethos’ acquisition of PIR meant that Namecheap lacked sufficient standing to pursue that element of its case.

Namecheap had argued that ICANN’s opaque processing of PIR’s change of control request created uncertainty that harmed its business, because ICANN may approve such a request in future.

But the panel said it would not prejudge such an eventuality, saying that if another change of control is approved by ICANN in future, Namecheap is welcome to file another IRP complaint at that time.

“Harm or injury flowing from possible future violations by the ICANN Board regarding change of control requests that are not presently pending and that may never occur does not confer standing,” the panel wrote.

On the pricing issue, the panel disagreed with ICANN’s argument that Namecheap has not yet been harmed by a lack of .org price caps because PIR has not yet raised its .org prices.

It said that increased prices in future are a “natural and expected consequence” of the lack of price controls, and that to force Namecheap to wait for such increases to occur before filing an IRP would leave it open to falling foul of the 12-month statute of limitations following ICANN decision-making baked into the IRP rules.

As such, it’s letting those claims go ahead. The panel wrote:

This matter will proceed to consideration of Namecheap’s request for a declaration that ICANN must annul the decision that removed price caps in the .org, .info and .biz registry agreements. The Panel will also consider Namecheap’s request for a declaration that ICANN must ensure that price caps from legacy gTLDs can only be removed following policy development process that takes due account of the interests of the Internet user and with the involvement of different stakeholders. The Panel will consider Namecheap’s request for a declaration that “registry fees… remain as low as feasible consistet with the maintenance of good quality service” within the context of removal of price caps (not in the context of regulating changes of control).

In other words, if Namecheap prevails, future price caps for pre-2012 gTLDs could be decided by the ICANN community, with an assumption that they should remain as low as possible.

That would be bad news for PIR, as well as .info registry Donuts and .biz registry GoDaddy.

But it’s important to note that the IRP panel has not ruled that ICANN has done anything wrong, nor that Namecheap is likely to win its case — the March 10 ruling purely assesses Namecheap’s standing to pursue the IRP.

The panel has also significantly extended the proposed timeline for the case being resolved. There now won’t be a final decision until 2022 at the earliest.

The panel last week delayed its final hearing in the case from August this year to January next year, according to a document published this week.

Other deadlines in the case have also been pushed backed weeks or months.

Verisign says it needs .web because .com is running out of names

Kevin Murphy, April 14, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign’s affinity for cognitive dissonance has emerged yet again — it’s now claiming that it needs to be awarded the .web gTLD because it’s running out of .com domains to sell.

In legal documents released by ICANN yesterday, Verisign’s lawyers say: “The undisputed evidence is that Verisign needs a TLD like .WEB for growth given the decreased name availability in .COM”.

The admission/claim/lie (delete according to preference) came in a joint post-hearing filing by Verisign and Nu Dot Co, the .web applicant to which Verisign loaned $135 million to bid for the gTLD on its behalf at a record-breaking ICANN auction in 2016.

Afilias, now owned by Donuts, was the second-highest bidder and since November 2018 has been trying to get the auction result cancelled via ICANN’s quasi-judicial Independent Review Process.

The IRP’s final hearing was held over seven days last June, and we’ve been waiting with baited breath for a ruling ever since.

At some point over the last 48 hours, ICANN published three sets of post-hearing arguments — one from itself, one from complainant Afilias and an amicus (non-party, friend of the court) filing from Verisign/NDC.

The Verisign filing (pdf) attempts to rubbish Afilias’ claims across the board, but its rebuttal of the argument that it only wants .web in order to bury it and protect .com’s dominance is particularly interesting:

Verisign Has Every Incentive To Grow .WEB Aggressively. Afilias’ Amended IRP Request asserts without evidence that Verisign seeks to acquire .WEB in order to eliminate a potential competitor for .COM and that Afilias would make a better operator of .WEB. Afilias presented no evidence to support this claim prior to the IRP, and none was presented at the hearing. In fact, the evidence before this Panel refutes Afilias’ claims. The undisputed evidence is that Verisign needs a TLD like .WEB for growth given the decreased name availability in .COM. Even Afilias’ own experts concede that the .COM TLD now has limited name availability. Moreover, the undisputed evidence establishes that Verisign is well-positioned to maximize .WEB’s potential, while Afilias’ recent track record suggests that it would be a less effective operator of .WEB.

In June last year, Verisign had submitted to the IRP panel:

Verisign needs a new TLD like .WEB for growth. Verisign’s growth rate has declined in recent years, largely due to many names in .COM already having been taken and increased competition from new gTLDs and ccTLDs that have superior name availability.

Even Afilias’ own experts concede that the .COM name space effectively is taken. Numerous other industry participants have noted that most of the “good” names in .COM already are taken.

While Verisign had a applied for a few non-English transliterations of .com in the 2012 new gTLD application round, it had avoided getting involved with potential competitors to .com.

But, according to its brief, in 2014 it had just sold off the remainder of its non-domain businesses and, realizing its growth now needed to come from a pure domains strategy, tasked VP Paul Livesay with figuring out how it could worm its way back into the new gTLD program.

Many of the details of Livesay’s research and decision making have been redacted by ICANN (purportedly at Verisign’s request), but it seems he came to the conclusion that the best way to benefit from the program long after the application window closed would be to secretly financially back NDC’s participation in the .web auction, with the provision that the .web contract would be transferred to Verisign should it win.

Quite apart from its regular postings touting .com availability over the last few years, the same year that Verisign was coming to the conclusion that .com was becoming saturated and it needed new growth opportunities in other TLDs, it sued XYZ.com for false advertising for having the gall to suggest that it was hard to find available .com domains. It lost.

Because Verisign apparently enjoys nothing more than holding two diametrically opposed positions simultaneously, its October amicus filing also claims that .web isn’t nearly as awesome as Afilias and others claim.

On the same page that it insists that .web is needed to drive growth, Verisign poo-poos the notion that .web could be a significant competitor to .com, relying on an “expert report” commissioned by Verisign and compiled by University of Chicago economist Kevin Murphy.

(Murphy’s report is redacted in its entirety (pdf) by ICANN, but his 1,119 pages of unredacted exhibits (pdf) prominently include screenshots from this blog, so I feel the need to point out that he’s a different Kevin Murphy — he’s not me, and I’d never even heard of the dude until this morning. On a personal level, the fact that I’m apparently not even the best Kevin Murphy when it comes to the .web story that I’ve been covering for the last two decades is, as you might imagine, as depressing to me as it is presumably amusing to you.)

While his report is redacted, reading around the edges it appears that Murphy reckons .web will not be an exceptional competitor to .com.

Verisign’s October filing states:

.WEB’s Valuation Shows It is Not Particularly Competitively Significant. The Murphy Report models multiple economic scenarios to assess Afilias’ claim that the $135 million price paid for .WEB at the public auction shows that .WEB will be a substantial competitor. None of these scenarios indicate that .WEB is likely to gain a significant market share. Instead, each scenario shows that .WEB is likely to have no more than a 2–3% market share.

Because of the redactions, it’s not clear what market Murphy was referring to, but a 3% market share of the current universe of domain names across all TLDs works out to over 10 million domains. In other words, .web could be a top-five gTLD, up alongside the likes of .org.

But elsewhere in its IRP filings, Verisign cites Murphy to support its argument that .web will have “registrations in the low single digit millions”. That would still be enough to make it one of the best-selling new gTLDs.

This relatively low expected turnout of course begs the question of why Verisign needs .web to grow. It added 4 million net new names across .com and .net last year alone, with .net pretty static, according to its financial filings.

I’m no Kevin Murphy, but here’s a table I’ve thrown together showing Verisign’s domain growth over the last decade.

EOYTotal .com/.net domains (millions)
2010105.2
2011113.8
2012121.1
2013127.2
2014130.6
2015139.8
2016142.2
2017146.4
2018153
2019158.8
2020165.2

Its revenue has consistently grown year over year, from $681 million in 2010 to $1.27 billion in 2020. It’s considered one of the most profitable companies in the world, and its share price has tripled since 2011.

And that was without .web.

Got beef with ICANN? Why you may not want to use the Ombudsman

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2021, Domain Policy

Complaining to the independent Ombudsman may not be the best way to start a beef with ICANN, and that’s according to the Ombudsman himself.

Herb Waye told DI this week that consulting him as a first port of call may well lock complainants out of escalating their complaints through his office in future procedures.

Earlier this week, I reported on a lawsuit filed by three so-far unsuccessful .hotel gTLD applicants, which among other things alleges that ICANN’s Request for Reconsideration appeals process is a “sham”.

Reconsideration has quite a high barrier to success, and complaints are rarely successful. Requests are dealt with by the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, a subset of the very same board of directors that passed the resolution being complained about, advised by the same ICANN lawyers.

But RfRs are also automatically sent to the Ombudsman for a determination before the BAMC looks into them, which should provide a valuable and ostensibly independent second set of critical eyes.

However, in practice this has almost never happened since the provision was added to the ICANN bylaws five year ago.

The .hotel plaintiffs tallied up the 14 RfRs related to the new gTLD program since 2017 and found that the Ombudsman had recused himself, without detailed explanation, on every single occasion. Their complaint in California Superior Court reads:

Neither ICANN nor the Ombudsman has provided any intelligible reason for this gross flouting of ICANN’s bylaws and the Ombudsman’s dereliction of duty, other than a naked and vague claim of “conflict of interest”. The lack of any Ombudsman process not only violates ICANN’s bylaws and its contracts with Plaintiffs, but it renders the promise of a fair and independent Reconsideration process null and illusory, and the notion of true accountability a farce.

The ICANN bylaws state that the Ombudsman must recuse himself from considering RfRs “involving matters for which the Ombudsman has, in advance of the filing of the Reconsideration Request, taken a position while performing his or her role as the Ombudsman”.

According to Waye’s explanation, this is a very broad standard indeed. He told DI in an email:

it is not just me but over 18(?) years of Office of the Ombudsman involvement in complaints or investigations. So I need to go back through the archives when I receive an RR to make sure neither Chris [LaHatte] nor Frank [Fowlie] have made a determination (it doesn’t have to be a public report (or position) or a report to the Board to qualify for recusal).

Among other factors, it also doesn’t have to be a past determination directly involving the RR requestor either… if the substance of the RR has been reviewed by the Office in the past, or if the RR is about an issue similar to one that has been the subject of a complaint and a determination, then recusal is also required to avoid inconsistencies or perceived bias.

He consults with his “independent outside counsel”, Dave Marglin, when figuring out whether recusal is necessary, he said.

Waye published an explanation of his role in Reconsideration on page 19 of the Ombusdman’s most-recent annual report (pdf).

I wondered whether a 2015 decision by Waye predecessor LaHatte related to the new gTLD program’s controversial Community Priority Evaluation might account for the spate of recusals over the last few years, but Waye would not be drawn.

“I can’t identify specifics about each recusal as I must at all cost avoid identifying past complainants or subjects of complaints,” he said. “As I mentioned, some published reports may be the reason for a recusal but it may also be the result of the RfR issue having passed through my Office prior to the RfR being filed as a complaint; which may or may not be a known fact, so I err on the side of caution and treat all recusals the same.”

Given that the Ombudsman also deals with sensitive interpersonal interactions, including sexual harassment complaints, a code of confidentiality could be a good thing.

But it also means that there are an unknown number of undisclosed topics, dating back the best part of two decades, that the Ombudsman is apparently powerless to address via the Reconsideration process.

And that list of untouchable topics will only get longer as time goes by, incrementally weakening ICANN’s accountability mechanisms.

It seems to me that for companies with no interest in confidentiality but with serious complaints against an ICANN board action, complaining to the Ombudsman as the first port of call in a case that would likely be escalated to Reconsideration, Cooperative Engagement Process and Independent Review Process may be a bad idea.

Not only would they be locking the Ombudsman out of their own subsequent RfR, but they’d be preventing him or her getting involved in related RfRs for eternity.

Waye does not disagree. He said:

I think anyone considering bringing a complaint to the Office of the Ombuds should now consider their desired outcome if there is any possibility the issue may be something that could eventually take the RfR route. Do they want an informal (potentially confidential) determination from the Ombuds or do they want something more “public” from the Ombuds in the form of a substantive evaluation made directly to the BAMC. It’s still a new process and my participation in the RfR accountability mechanism is still a work in progress for the people considering using the RfR. But it’s what the community wanted and we will make it work.

It strikes me that the Reconsideration policy outlined in the ICANN bylaws is, by accident or design, self-terminating and opaque. It becomes less useful the more often it is used, as the range of topics the Ombudsman is permitted to rule on are slowly whittled away in secret.

It also occurs to be that it might be open to abuse and gaming.

Worried that a rival company will try to use Reconsideration to your disadvantage? Why not file a preemptive Ombudsman complaint on the same topic, forcing him to recusing himself and leaving the eventual RfR in the hands of the far-from-objective BAMC and ICANN board?

Waye said:

I suppose it would be possible, though it would require me making a determination or taking a position of sorts related to the eventual RfR… a complaint doesn’t automatically mean recusal. And of course it would mean me and my counsel not seeing through the “gaming” agenda and declining the complaint at the outset.

.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?

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.