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Could ICANN reject Verisign’s $135m .web bid?

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2016, Domain Registries

ICANN is looking into demands for it to throw out Verisign’s covert $135 million winning bid for the highly prized .web gTLD.

ICANN last week told the judge hearing Donuts’ .web-related lawsuit that it is “currently in the process of investigating certain of the issues raised” by Donuts through its “internal accountability mechanisms”.

Donuts is suing for $22.5 million, claiming ICANN should have forced Nu Dot Co to disclose that its .web bid was being secretly bankrolled by Verisign and alleging that the .com heavyweight used NDC as cover to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

ICANN’s latest filing (pdf), made jointly with Donuts, asked for an extension to October 26 of ICANN’s deadline to file a response to Donuts’ complaint.

It was granted, the second time the deadline has been extended, but the judge warned it was also the final time.

The referenced “internal accountability mechanism” would seem to mean the Cooperative Engagement Process — a low-formality bilateral negotiation — that Donuts and fellow .web bidder Radix initiated against ICANN August 2.

The filing states that the “resolution of certain issues in controversy may be aided by allowing [ICANN] to complete its investigation of [Donuts’] allegations prior to the filing of its responsive pleading.”

In other words, Donuts is either hopeful that ICANN may be able to resolve some of its complaints in the next month, or it’s not particularly impatient about the case progressing.

Meanwhile, fellow .web applicant Afilias has demanded for the second time that ICANN hand over .web to it, as the second-highest bidder, throwing out the NDC/Verisign application.

In a September 9 letter, published last night, Afilias told ICANN to “disqualify and reject” NDC’s application, alleging at least three breaches of ICANN rules.

Afilias says that by refusing to disclose Verisign’s support for its bid, NDC broke the rules and should have its application thrown out.

The company also confirmed on the public record for what I believe is the first time that it was the second-highest bidder in the July 27 auction.

Afilias would pay somewhere between $57.5 million and $71.9 million for the gTLD, depending on what the high bid of the third-placed applicant was.

In its new letter, Afilias says NDC broke the rule from the Applicant Guidebook that does not allow applicants to “resell, assign or transfer any of applicant’s rights or obligations in connection with the application”.

It also says that NDC was obliged by the AGB to notify ICANN of “changes in financial position and changes in ownership or control”, which it did not.

It finally says that Verisign used NDC as a front during the auction, in violation of auction rules.

“In these circumstances, we submit that ICANN should disqualify NDC’s bid and offer to accept the application of Afilias, which placed the second highest exit bid,” Afilias general counsel Scott Hemphill wrote (pdf).

Hemphill told ICANN to defer from signing a Registry Agreement with NDC or Verisign, strongly implying that Afilias intends to invoke ICANN accountability mechanisms (presumably meaning the Request for Reconsideration process and/or Independent Review Process).

While Afilias and Donuts are both taking issue with the secretive nature of Verisign’s acquisition of .web, they’re not necessarily fighting the same corner.

Donuts is looking for $22.5 million because that’s roughly what it would have received if the .web contention set had been resolved via private auction and $135 million had been the winning bid.

But Afilias wants the ICANN auction outcome to stand, albeit with NDC’s top bid rejected. That would mean Donuts, Radix, and the other applicants would still receive nothing.

There’s also the question of other new gTLD applications that have prevailed at auction and been immediately transferred to third-party non-applicants.

The most notable example of this was .blog, which was won by shell company Primer Nivel with secretive backing from WordPress maker Automattic.

Donuts itself regularly wins gTLD auctions and immediately transfers its contracts to Rightside under a pre-existing agreement.

In both of those cases, the reassignment deals predated, but were not disclosed in, the respective applications.

There’s the recipe here for a messy, protracted bun fight over .web, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

.hotel losers gang up to threaten ICANN with legal bills

Kevin Murphy, August 30, 2016, Domain Registries

The six losing applicants for the .hotel new gTLD are collectively threatening ICANN with a second Independent Review Process action.

Together, they this week filed a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, challenging its decision earlier this month to allow the Afilias-owned Hotel Top Level Domain Sarl application to go ahead to contracting.

HTLD won a controversial Community Priority Evaluation in 2014, effectively eliminating all rival applicants, but that decision was challenged in an IRP that ICANN ultimately won.

The other applicants think HTLD basically cobbled together a bogus “community” in order to “game” the CPE process and avoid an expensive auction.

Since the IRP decision, the six other applicants — Travel Reservations, Famous Four Media, Radix, Minds + Machines, Donuts and Fegistry — have been arguing that the HTLD application should be thrown out due to the actions of Dirk Krischenowski, a former key executive.

Krischenowski was found by ICANN to have exploited a misconfiguration in its own applicants’ portal to download documents belonging to its competitors that should have been confidential.

But at its August 9 meeting, the ICANN board noted that the timing of the downloads showed that HTLD could not have benefited from the data exposure, and that in any event Krischenowski is no longer involved in the company, and allowed the bid to proceed.

That meant the six other applicants lost the chance to win .hotel at auction and/or make a bunch of cash by losing the auction. They’re not happy about that.

It doesn’t matter that the data breach could not have aided HTLD’s application or its CPE case, they argue, the information revealed could prove a competitive advantage once .hotel goes on sale:

What matters is that the information was accessed with the obvious intent to obtain an unfair advantage over direct competitors. The future registry operator of the .hotel gTLD will compete with other registry operators. In the unlikely event that HTLD were allowed to operate the .hotel gTLD, HTLD would have an unfair advantage over competing registry operators, because of its access to sensitive business information

They also think that HTLD being given .hotel despite having been found “cheating” goes against the spirit of application rules and ICANN’s bylaws.

The RfR (pdf) also draws heavily on the findings of the IRP panel in the unrelated Dot Registry (.llc, .inc, etc) case, which were accepted by the ICANN board also on August 9.

In that case, the panel suggested that the board should conduct more thorough, meaningful reviews of CPE decisions.

It also found that ICANN staff had been “intimately involved” in the preparation of the Dot Registry CPE decision (though not, it should be noted, in the actual scoring) as drafted by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The .hotel applicants argue that this decision is incompatible with their own IRP, which they lost in February, where the judges found a greater degree of separation between ICANN and the EIU.

Their own IRP panel was given “incomplete and misleading information” about how closely ICANN and the EIU work together, they argue, bringing the decision into doubt.

The RfR strongly hints that another IRP could be in the offing if ICANN fails to cancel HTLD application.

The applicants also want a hearing so they can argue their case in person, and a “substantive review” of the .hotel CPE.

The HTLD application for .hotel is currently “On Hold” while ICANN sorts through the mess.

Dot Registry backs .africa loser, batters on the ICANN lawsuit floodgates

Kevin Murphy, August 28, 2016, Domain Registries

Rejected community gTLD applicant Dot Registry has waded into the lawsuit between DotConnectAfrica and ICANN.

Filing an amicus brief on Friday in support of the unsuccessful .africa applicant, Dot Registry argues that chagrined new gTLD applicants should be allowed to sue ICANN, despite the legal releases they all signed.

The company is clearly setting the groundwork for its own lawsuit against ICANN — or at least trying to give that impression.

If the two companies are successful in their arguments, it could open the floodgates for more lawsuits by pissed-off new gTLD applicants.

Dot Registry claims applicants signed overly broad, one-sided legal waivers with the assurance that alternative dispute mechanisms would be available.

However, it argues that these mechanisms — Reconsideration, Cooperative Engagement and Independent Review — are a “sham” that make ICANN’s assurances amount to nothing more than a “bait-and-switch scheme”.

Dot Registry recently won an Independent Review Process case against ICANN that challenged the adverse Community Priority Evaluation decisions on its .inc, .llc, and .llp applications.

But while the IRP panel said ICANN should pay Dot Registry’s share of the IRP costs, the applicant came away otherwise empty-handed when panel rejected its demand to be handed the four gTLDs on a plate.

The ICANN board of directors has not yet fully decided how to handle the three applications, but forcing them to auction with competing applications seems the most likely outcome.

By formally supporting DotConnectAfrica’s claim that the legal waiver both companies signed is “unconscionable”, the company clearly reckons further legal action will soon be needed.

DotConnectAfrica is suing ICANN on different grounds. Its .africa bid did not lose a CPE; rather it failed for a lack of governmental support.

But both companies agree that the litigation release they signed is not legally enforceable.

They both say that a legal waiver cannot be enforceable in ICANN’s native California if the protected party carries out fraud.

The court seems to be siding with DotConnectAfrica on this count, having thrown out motions to dismiss the case.

Dot Registry’s contribution is to point to its own IRP case as an example of how ICANN allegedly conned it into signing the release on the assumption that IRP would be able to sort out any disputes. Its court brief (pdf) states:

although claiming to provide an alternative accountability mechanism, the Release, in practice, is just a bait-and-switch scheme, offering applicants a sham accountability procedure

Indeed, the “accountability” mechanism is nothing of the sort; and, instead of providing applicants a way to challenge actions or inactions by ICANN, it gives lip-service to legitimate grievances while rubber-stamping decisions made by ICANN and its staff.

That’s an allusion to the IRP panel’s declaration, which found no evidence that ICANN’s board of directors had conducted a thorough, transparent review of Dot Registry’s complaints.

Dot Registry is being represented by the law firm Dechert. That’s the current home of Arif Ali, who represented DotConnectAfrica in its own original IRP, though Ali is not a named lawyer in the Dot Registry brief.

Spurned applicant crowd-funding to fight ICANN for .gay gTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 26, 2016, Domain Registries

The community-driven applicant for .gay is attempting to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars via crowd-funding to challenge a series of adverse decisions that look set to lock it out of running the gTLD.

Alongside the fundraising, dotgay LLC has launched an extraordinary broadside at its frustrators, accusing ICANN of “discrimination” and rival applicants of trying to “exploit” the gay community.

The company wants to raise $360,000 via this Generosity.com page, “to challenge decisions that have stalled community efforts for .GAY.”

Although the campaign has been running for 23 days, so far only three people (including a former employee) have donated a total of $110.

Given the vast number of LGBTQIA organizations that have lent their support to dotgay, I can only assume a lack of publicity is to blame for the $359,890 shortfall.

A five-minute video announcing the campaign has been on YouTube since August 3, but at time of writing has only been viewed 100 times.

In the video, embedded below, dotgay says that only it can properly represent the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Ally) community.

ICANN is dividing the community by accepting the Economist Intelligence Unit’s decision that the company should fail its Community Priority Evaluation (largely because the TQIA are not necessarily “gay”), the video voiceover suggests.

This is an old game that highlights how LGBTQIA continue to be disadvantaged and discriminated against. If .gay is not recognized as a community domain, ICANN will simply auction the namespace to the highest bidder and pocket the proceeds. If ICANN assigns to the right to operate the registry for .gay to a company seeking to exploit it for profit — very possibly without community participation in policy development for the domain, or taking into consideration LGBTQIA interests and concerns — the community will have no assurances .gay will be s safe space on the internet… In the end, ICANN and the three other applicants for the .gay domain have shown no respect for the global gay community’s wishes.

Neither the video not the crowdfunding page specify exactly what the $360,000 would be used for.

However, in order to challenge the CPE decision(s) against it, a lawsuit or an Independent Review Process — either of which could wind up costing over a million dollars — would be the most usual avenues of attack.

Perhaps eager to avoid the possibility of a legal challenge, the three other applicants — Minds + Machines, Rightside and Top Level Design — this week wrote to ICANN to demand a hasty resolution of the long-running saga.

Writing on behalf of all three, Rightside VP Statton Hammock wrote (pdf):

It has been more than FOUR years since the Applicants filed their applications for .GAY. Since this time long ago, dotGay has filed THREE community objections, one against each of the Applicants; TWO community priority applications, ONE Independent Review Panel request (later withdrawn) and ONE motion for reconsideration with the BGC which has been carefully considered by the members of that Committee and found insufficient to be granted. In total dotGay has had SIX “bites of the apple” and has been unsuccessful each time… It is simply time for the Board to affirm these decisions and allow the .GAY applications to proceed to contention set resolution.

The ICANN board had been due to consider dotgay’s latest Request for Reconsideration at at a meeting August 9, but the agenda item was removed, the letter notes. The applicants called on the board to meet again soon to make a decision.

After the board processes the RfR, .gay would presumably go to auction. Whether the auction resulted in ICANN pocketing the cash (as dotgay claims) or being distributed between the three losing applicants remains to be seen.

Whether the auction is public or private, the crowdfunding campaign strongly suggests that dotgay does not currently have the resources to win.

ICANN lawyers slam “fire him” story “blogger”

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2016, Domain Policy

ICANN lawyers have launched an extraordinary attack on a “blogger” who recently wrote an article headlined “ICANN’s general counsel should lose his job over this”.

Early Friday, ICANN’s board of directors issued its response to the recent Independent Review Process case in which new gTLD applicant Dot Registry managed to show that the board had breached its transparency and accountability bylaws.

The board resolution did not say what is going to happen to Dot Registry’s four new gTLD applications, due to lack of guidance from the IRP panel.

But it did contain a surprising retaliation against Chris Williams, a reporter for online news site The Register, referring to “factual inaccuracies that have been reported in online blogged reports”.

(Before going any further, some disclosure: I freelanced for The Register for several months about five years ago, when Williams was the copy editor I sometimes had to work with. I also worked directly under its current group editor for about five years at a different publication in the early-mid 2000s.)

In the rationale accompanying its resolution last week, the board said:

the Board also notes that there have been online blogged reports about what the [IRP] Final Declaration actually says, yet many of the items reported on have been factual inaccuracies

I immediately grew worried that the resolution was having a pop at this site. But it actually refers to The Register, a news site with millions of readers that, despite its tabloid style, is not usually described as a “blog”.

The board ordered the simultaneous release of their staff-prepared briefing notes (pdf) for the meeting at which the resolution was passed, which contain an 800-word rebuttal of Williams’ August 3 article “Simply not credible: The extraordinary verdict against the body that hopes to run the internet”.

The article covers the Dot Registry IRP decision in a tone that is harshly critical of ICANN.

It is particularly critical of ICANN’s legal team and specifically general counsel John Jeffrey and notes that he makes a tonne of cash due to his regular, generous pay rises.

I compared each point in the rebuttal to the original article and I think ICANN is generally on fairly safe ground in some of what it says are inaccuracies.

In other cases, the rebuttal instead takes issue with the opinion of a third party quoted in the piece, or with a different, but in my view fair, characterization of the IRP declaration.

It seems the Reg article did incorrectly conflate “ICANN staff” and the “ICANN legal team” in at least one instance, as the ICANN rebuttal claims.

It also does in fact quote sections of “the [IRP] Panel’s recitation of Dot Registry’s claims as if they are the Panel’s own finding” as the rebuttal says it does.

But the actual findings of the panel were arguably much harsher than the text the Reg quoted.

So why is the ICANN board of directors passing a resolution addressing the veracity of a news report rather than the real concerns raised by the IRP declaration?

Column yards of horseshit are written about ICANN on a daily basis — I’m probably responsible for an inch or two myself — so why has ICANN zeroed in on this particular piece?

Could it be because Williams’ follow-up piece, August 4, leads with Dot Registry CEO Shaul Jolles calling for the head of Jeffrey? Jolles is quoted as saying:

ICANN’s general counsel should lose his job for this. The advice that he gives, everything was processed through him. It’s shocking.

There’s a rich irony at work here.

The main takeaway from the IRP’s declaration was that the ICANN board sometimes rubber-stamps resolutions drafted by ICANN staff without doing its due diligence.

The Reg then reported that fact.

In response, ICANN staff drafted a resolution designed to shoot the messenger, deflecting attention from the IRP’s findings, which the board then approved without amendment.

If somebody over at ICANN is chagrined about inaccurate reporting, I can’t help but feel that the best way to deal with that would be to request a correction or publish a rebuttal in the form of a blog post or some other kind of statement.

Using the very method under scrutiny — staff drafts, board approves — to issue a rebuttal simply serves to highlight the failings outlined by the IRP panel.

Compounding this, the only reason we’re able to see the full rebuttal today is that the board approved a (staff-drafted) resolution authorizing the concurrent publishing of staff briefing materials.

Usually, briefing materials are published alongside formal minutes when they are approved many weeks later.

If the ICANN board is able to publish briefing materials just a couple of days after passing its resolutions, why on Earth does it not do so as a matter of course?

Did any member of the ICANN board raise her or his hand to ask why these materials had to be published with such haste?

Can ICANN only be transparent in a timely fashion when its lawyers have been criticized in the press?