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Donuts loses to ICANN in $135 million .web auction appeal

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has lost a legal appeal against ICANN in its fight to prevent Verisign running the .web gTLD.

A California court ruled yesterday that a lower court was correct when it ruled almost two years ago that Donuts had signed away its right to sue ICANN, like all gTLD applicants.

The judges ruled that the lower District Court had “properly dismissed” Donuts’ complaint, and that the covenant not to sue in the Applicant Guidebook is not “unconscionable”.

Key in their thinking was the fact that ICANN has an Independent Review Process in place that Donuts could use to continue its fight against the .web outcome.

The lawsuit was filed by Donuts subsidiary Ruby Glen in July 2016, shortly before .web was due to go to an ICANN-managed last-resort auction.

Donuts and many others believed at the time that one applicant, Nu Dot Co, was being secretly bankrolled by a player with much deeper pockets, and it wanted the auction postponed and ICANN to reveal the identity of this backer.

Donuts lost its request for a restraining order.

The auction went ahead, and NDC won with a bid of $135 million, which subsequently was confirmed to have been covertly funded by Verisign.

Donuts then quickly amended its complaint to include claims of negligence, breach of contract and other violations, as it sought $22.5 million from ICANN.

That’s roughly how much it would have received as a losing bidder had the .web contention set been settled privately and NDC still submitted a $135 million bid.

As it stands, ICANN has the $135 million.

That complaint was also rejected, with the District Court disagreeing with earlier precedent in the .africa case and saying that the covenant not to sue is enforceable.

The Appeals Court has now agreed, so unless Donuts has other legal appeals open to it, the .web fight will be settled using ICANN mechanisms.

The ruling does not mean ICANN can go ahead and delegate .web to Verisign.

The .web contention set is currently “on-hold” because Afilias, the second-place bidder in the auction, has since June been in a so-called Cooperative Engagement Process with ICANN.

CEP is a semi-formal negotiation-phase precursor to a full-blown IRP filing, which now seems much more likely to go ahead following the court’s ruling.

The appeals court ruling has not yet been published by ICANN, but it can be viewed here (pdf).

The court heard arguments from Donuts and ICANN lawyers on October 9, the same day that DI revealed that ICANN Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah had been hired by Donuts as its new CEO.

A recording of the 32-minute hearing can be viewed on YouTube here or embedded below.

Muslim world still thinks .islam isn’t kosher

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2018, Domain Policy

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has repeated its objection to the gTLDs .islam and .halal ever seeing the light of day.

OIC Secretary General Yousef Al-Othaimeen wrote to ICANN earlier this month to declare that its position on the two controversial applications has not changed since it initially objected to them in 2013.

The OIC comprises the foreign ministers from 57 majority-Muslim countries and these ministers recently voted unanimously to re-adopt the 2013 objection, Al-Othaimeen said (pdf).

The group “maintain the position that the new gTLDs with Islamic identity are extremely sensitive in nature as they concern the entire Muslim nature” he wrote.

He reiterated “official opposition of the OIC Member states towards the probable authorization that might allow the use of these gTLDs .islam and .halal by any entity.”

This puts ICANN between a rock an a hard place.

The applicant for both strings, Turkish outfit Asia-Green IT Systems (AGIT), won an Independent Review Process case against ICANN last November.

The IRP panel ruled that ICANN broke its own bylaws when it placed .islam and .halal into permanent limbo — an “On Hold” status pending withdrawal of the applications or OIC approval — in 2014.

ICANN’s board accepted the ruling and bounced the decision on whether to finally approve or reject the bids to its Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which is currently mulling over the problem.

Technically, it’s “non-consensus Governmental Advisory Committee advice”, which means the board has some wriggle room to simply accept the advice and reject the applications.

But AGIT’s lawyer disagrees, recently telling ICANN (pdf) its options are to approve the bids or facilitate dialogue towards their approval, rather like ICANN is doing with .amazon right now.

After long fight, Donuts adds .charity to its gTLD stable

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2018, Domain Registries

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Donuts has prevailed in the two-horse race for the .charity gTLD.

The company appears to have privately resolved its contention set, paying off rival bidder Famous Four Media, judging by updates to ICANN’s web site today.

The gTLD had been scheduled for an ICANN “last resort” auction in April, but that’s now off.

Famous Four has also withdrawn its application, leaving Donuts the only remaining applicant.

I believe it will be Donuts’ 239th 240th gTLD.

But for a while it looked like Famous Four had a slam-dunk on its hands.

Back in 2014, the Independent Objector of the new gTLD program had filed an Community Objection against Donuts’ application, saying it was too risky to unleash a .charity domain onto the world without registration eligibility restrictions.

The fear was (and probably still is) that fraudsters could use the domains to lend an air of credibility to their online scams.

The IO prevailed, pretty much gifting Famous Four — which had proposed restrictions — the TLD.

But Donuts embarked upon an arduous set of appeals, including an Independent Review Process case, that culminated, last December, in a ruling (pdf) that reversed the original Community Objection decision.

That cleared the way for Donuts back into the application process and, now, the private auction it seems to have won.

Due to ICANN’s adoption of Governmental Advisory Committee advice on sensitive strings, Donuts will be obliged to put some Public Interest Commitments into its .charity contract, with the aim of reducing abuse.

CPE probe: “whitewash” or “fig leaf”?

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2018, Domain Policy

A few weeks ago, when I was reporting the conclusions of a probe into ICANN’s new gTLD program, I wrote a prediction on a piece of paper and placed it into a sealed envelope.*

I wrote: “They’re gonna call this a whitewash.”

And I was correct! Ta-dah! I’m here all week.

The lawyer for applicants for .music and .gay gTLDs has written to ICANN to complain that a purportedly independent review of the Community Evaluation Process was riddled with errors and oversights and should not be trusted.

In a letter on behalf of dotgay LLC, Arif Ali calls the report a “whitewash”. In a letter on behalf of DotMusic, he calls it a “fig leaf”.

Both companies think that the CPE probe was designed to give ICANN cover to proceed with auctions for five outstanding gTLD contention sets, rather than to get to the bottom of perceived inconsistencies in the process.

Both of Ali’s clients applied for their respective gTLDs as “community” applicants, trying to avoid auctions by using the Community Priority Evaluation process.

During their CPEs, both carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, neither applicant scored highly enough to win the exclusive right to .gay or .music, meaning the next stage was to auction the strings off to the highest bidder.

After repeated complaints from applicants and an Independent Review Process finding that ICANN lacked transparency and that staff may have had inappropriate influence over the EIU, ICANN hired FTI Consulting to look into the whole CPE process.

FTI’s report was finally delivered late last year, clearing ICANN on all counts of impropriety and finding that the EIU’s evaluations had been consistent across each of the applications it looked at.

The remaining gTLDs affected by this are .music, .gay, .hotel, .cpa, and .merck.

ICANN’s board of directors is due to meet to discuss next steps this weekend, but Ali says that it should “critically evaluate the [FTI] Report and not accept its wholesale conclusions”. He wrote, on behalf of DotMusic:

The report reveals that FTI’s investigation was cursory at best; its narrow mandate and evaluation methodology were designed to do little more than vindicate ICANN’s administration of the CPE process.

It is evident that FTI engaged in a seemingly advocacy-driven investigation to reach conclusions that would absolve ICANN of the demonstrated and demonstrable problems that afflicted the CPE process.

Among the applicants’ list of complaints: their claim that FTI did not interview affected applicants or take their submissions seriously, and the fact that ICANN was less than transparent about who was conducting the probe and what its remit was.

The same letter quotes ICANN chair Cherine Chalaby, then vice-chair, saying in a January 2017 webinar that he had observed inconsistencies in how the CPEs were carried out; inconsistencies FTI has since found did not occur.

That should be enough to provoke discussion when the board meets to discuss this and other issues in Los Angeles on Saturday.

* I didn’t actually do this of course, I just thought about it, but you get my point.

“We own your name” government tells Amazon in explosive slapdown

Kevin Murphy, October 29, 2017, Domain Policy

Amazon suffered a blistering attack from South American governments over its controversial .amazon gTLD applications this weekend.

A Peruvian official today excoriated Amazon’s latest peace offering, telling the tech giant in no uncertain terms that the word “Amazon” is not its property and demanding an apology for the company’s alleged behavior during recent legal proceedings.

“We will be giving you permission to use a certain word, not the other way around,” she said. “We are the owners of the Amazonian region.”

Speaking for almost 10 minutes during a session at the ICANN 60 meeting in Abu Dhabi this afternoon, Peru’s representative to the Governmental Advisory Committee pulled rank and scolded Amazon like a naughty schoolchild.

She claimed that Amazon had been bad-mouthing Peru by saying former GAC reps had “lied to and manipulated” the rest of the GAC in order to get support for its objection. She then demanded an apology from the company for this.

She was speaking in support of the idea that the string “Amazon” belongs to the people of the Amazonas region, which covers as many as eight South American countries, rather than the American company, despite the fact that none of those countries use the English word to describe the region.

Her remarks drew applause from parts of the audience.

Amazon had showed up at the session — described by two GAC reps later as a “lion’s den” — to offer a “strong, agreed-upon compromise that addresses the needs of the governments”.

The proposed deal would see the GAC drop its objections to .amazon in exchange for certain safeguards.

Amazon is promising to reserve geographically and culturally sensitive words at the second level in .amazon.

The domain rainforest.amazon, its associate general counsel Dana Northcott said by way of example, would be never be used by anyone.

Affected governments would get to negotiate a list of such terms before .amazon went live and there’d be an ongoing consultation process for more such terms to be protected in future.

The company has also promised not to object to — and in fact to actively support with hard resources — any future applications for .amazonas or other local-language variants by the people of the region.

But Peru was not impressed, telling the company that not only is the English version of the name of the region not its property but also that it must show more respect to governments.

“No government is going to accept any impositions from you,” she said, before appealing to fellow GAC members that the issue represents a kind of existential threat.

“The core issue here… is our survival as governments in this pseudo-multi-stakeholder space that has been invented,” she said.

“They want us to believe this is a place where we have dignity but that is increasingly obvious that this is not the case,” she said. “We don’t have it. And that is because of companies like yours… Companies that persist in not respecting the governments and the people they represent.”

The Peruvian GAC rep, listed on the GAC web site as María Milagros Castañon Seoane but addressed only as “Peru” during the session, spoke in Spanish; I’ve been quoting the live interpretation provided by ICANN.

Her remarks, in my opinion, were at least partially an attempt to strengthen her side’s negotiating hand after an Independent Review Process panel this July spanked ICANN for giving too much deference to GAC advice.

The IRP panel decided that ICANN had killed the .amazon applications — in breach of its bylaws — due to a GAC objection that appeared on the face of the public record to be based on little more than governmental whim.

The panel essentially highlighted a clash between ICANN’s bylaws commitments to fairness and transparency and the fact that its New gTLD Applicant Guidebook rules gave the GAC a veto over any application for any reason with no obligation to explain itself.

It told ICANN to reopen the applications for consideration and “make an objective and independent judgment regarding whether there are, in fact, well-founded, merits-based public policy reasons for denying Amazon’s applications”.

That was back in July. Earlier today, the ICANN board of directors in response to the IRP passed a resolution calling for the GAC to explain itself before ICANN 61 in March next year, resolving in part:

Resolved (2017.10.29.02), the Board asks the GAC if it has: (i) any information to provide to the Board as it relates to the “merits-based public policy reasons,” regarding the GAC’s advice that the Amazon applications should not proceed; or (ii) any other new or additional information to provide to the Board regarding the GAC’s advice that the Amazon applications should not proceed.

Other governments speaking today expressed doubt about whether the IRP ruling should have any jurisdiction over such GAC advice.

“It is not for any panelist to decided what is public policy, it is for the governments to decide,” Iran’s Kavouss Arasteh said.

During a later session today the GAC, talking among itself, made little progress in deciding how to formally respond to the ICANN board’s resolution.

A session between the GAC and the ICANN board on Tuesday is expected to be the next time the issue raises its increasingly ugly head.