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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.

Donuts files $10 million lawsuit to stop .web auction

Donuts has sued ICANN in an attempt to block the auction of the .web gTLD this Wednesday.

The gTLD portfolio registry filed a lawsuit in California on Friday, seeking over $10 million in damages and a temporary restraining order to stop the auction going ahead.

The complaint alleges breach of contract, negligence and unfair competition and seeks a court declaration that the covenant not to sue signed by all new gTLD applicants is unenforceable.

According to Donuts, ICANN breached its duties by not fully investigating the allegation that rival .web applicant Nu Dot Co has undergone a change of control and has a new, wealthier owner.

NDC is the only applicant in the eight-strong .web/.webs contention set that refuses to resolve the contest privately.

A private auction would enrich all losing applicants to the tune of many millions of dollars.

By forcing a “last resort” ICANN auction, NDC has ensured that ICANN will be the only party to benefit from the auction proceeds.

Last-resort auction funds are placed in a separate ICANN account, currently worth over $100 million, which will be spent according to a currently undecided policy created by the ICANN community.

But Donuts’ complaint strongly implies that ICANN is forcing the auction to go ahead because it stands to benefit financially.

Donuts repeats the allegation from its recent joint Request for Reconsideration with Radix that NDC should be forced to disclose to ICANN, via a gTLD application change, the names of its alleged new directors.

It cites again a redacted email from NDC director Jose Ignacio Rasco which talks about fellow listed director Nicolai Bezsonoff no longer being involved with the application but that “several” new directors were.

It adds a quote about Rasco talking about “powers that be”, which Donuts takes to mean he is answering to someone else.

NDC is not listed in the lawsuit, which focuses on ICANN’s obligations under the new gTLD program application contract.

Donuts alleges, for example, that ICANN has a duty to fully investigate whether NDC has indeed changed directors.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee said last week that ICANN staff had talked to and emailed Rasco about the allegations. Donuts says it should have at least talked to Bezsonoff too.

Donuts also claims that ICANN is not allowed to go ahead with a last-resort auction while there are still outstanding “accountability mechanisms” — including the RfR, which has not yet been formally closed out by the full ICANN board.

The lawsuit also reveals that Donuts simultaneously filed a complaint using ICANN’s less legally formal Independent Review Process, though documentation for that is not yet available.

ICANN’s most recent statement on .web, which just confirms that the .web auction will go ahead this coming Wednesday, was also posted on Friday. It’s not clear if that was posted before or after ICANN became aware of the lawsuit.

All new gTLD applicants had to agree not to sue ICANN when they applied, but Donuts argues that this is unfair and unenforceable.

DotConnectAfrica has had some success with this argument, though Donuts does not cite that case in its own complaint.

There’s been some speculation about the motives of Donuts and others in trying to delay the auction.

The lawsuit will not force NDC into a private auction, but it might buy Donuts and the other applicants more time to consider their strategies.

I’m getting into speculative territory here, but if NDC’s strategy is to win the .web auction as a Trojan horse for its alleged new owner, perhaps revealing the identity of that new owner would make it less likely to insist on a last-resort auction.

If NDC’s alleged new owner has a time-sensitive need for the revenue .web could bring (which could be the case if, for example, the owner was Neustar) perhaps the prospect of a long lawsuit and IRP case could make it more likely to accept a private auction.

If the alleged new owner was revealed to be Verisign — a company more likely than most to acquire .web simply in order to bury it — perhaps that revelation could spur remaining applicants into pooling their resources to defeat it.

It it was a big tech firm from outside the domain industry, perhaps that would strengthen Google’s resolve to win the auction.

That’s all just me talking off the top of my head, of course.

I have no idea whether or not NDC even has new backers, though its behavior in avoiding private auction goes against character and certainly raises eyebrows.

The Donuts complaint, filed as its subsidiary Ruby Glen LLC, can be read here (pdf).

Judge hands DotConnectAfrica another bizarre win

A California judge just handed ICANN another upset in the interminable legal battle waged against it by unsuccessful .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica.

Gary Klausner yesterday admitted he made a mistake when he earlier slapped ICANN with a preliminary injunction preventing .africa being delegated to DCA rival ZA Central Registry, but said his error did not have a huge bearing on that decision.

More remarkably, he’s now suggesting that ICANN may have been wrong to make DCA undergo the same Geographic Names Review as every other new gTLD applicant.

Both DCA and ZACR applied for .africa and had to go through the same evaluation processes, one of which was the Geographic Names Review.

Both had to show that they had support from 60% of the governments in Africa, and no more than one governmental objection.

ZACR had that support — though there’s legitimate dispute over whether its paperwork was all in order — while DCA did not. DCA also had over a dozen objections from African governments.

ZACR passed its geographic review, but DCA’s application was tossed out based on Governmental Advisory Committee advice before the review could be completed.

DCA took ICANN to an Independent Review Process panel, which ruled that ICANN had failed to live up to its bylaws and that DCA’s application should be returned to the evaluation process.

ICANN returned DCA’s application to the process at the point it had left it — before the geographic review was complete.

DCA then failed the review, because it has no support.

But when he granted the injunction against ICANN back in April, Klausner thought that DCA had actually passed the geographic review on the first pass. Not even DCA had claimed that; it was just a brain fart on his behalf.

He’s now admitted the mistake, but says the April ruling was not dependent on that misunderstanding.

The Court finds that the error in its factual finding was not determinative to its ultimate conclusion that there are serious questions going toward Plaintiff’s likelihood of success on the merits.

Now, he says that there may be some merit in DCA’s claim that it should have been allowed to skip the GNR due to the IRP’s recommendation that ICANN “permit DCA Trust’s application to proceed through the remainder of the new gTLD application process.”

Klausner wrote yesterday:

At this stage of litigation, it is reasonable to infer that the IRP Panel found that ICANN’s rejection of Plaintiff’s application at the geographic names evaluation phase was improper, and that the application should proceed to the delegation phase.

The problem with this thinking is that it was not the geographic panel that flunked DCA on the first pass, it was the GAC.

DCA got this document (pdf) from the geographic panel. It just says “Incomplete”.

If DCA succeeds in persuading a jury that it should have skipped the geographic panel, Africa could wind up with a .africa gTLD operator that none of its governments support and in circumvention of ICANN’s rules.

Yesterday’s ruling isn’t a killer blow against ICANN, but it does make me wonder whether Klausner — who is also hearing the much higher-profile Stairway to Heaven case right now — is really paying attention.

Anyway, he’s thrown out the ZACR/ICANN motion to reconsider the injunction, so the case is carrying on as before. Read the ruling here (pdf).

Krueger’s suit against M+M dropped, for now

Former Minds + Machines chair Fred Krueger has dropped his lawsuit against the company, which concerned “missing” shares.

M+M announced today that the two parties have signed a “tolling agreement”, which apparently leave the door open for Krueger to re-file the suit at a later date.

If he does re-file, the company has agreed to the date of the original suit being filed if it deploys any statute of limitations defenses.

The company said in a statement to investors:

The Tolling Agreement provides that if the plaintiffs refile their suit, that any statute of limitation defenses of the defendants will be based on the date of the filing of the dismissed suit, 23 February 2016, but will not be deemed to revive any of the plaintiffs’ causes of action, claims, rights, legal positions, or defenses, at law or in equity, that were time-barred prior to 23 February 2016.

Krueger sued claiming M+M or its accountants had misplaced five million shares he was due.

He was looking for $1.5 million in damages.

XYZ settles Verisign’s back-end switcheroo lawsuit

XYZ.com has settled a lawsuit filed against it against Verisign stemming from XYZ’s acquisition of .theatre, .security and .protection.

Verisign sued the new gTLD registry operator for “interfering” with its back-end contracts with the previous owners last August, as part of its campaign to compete against new gTLDs in the courtroom.

XYZ had acquired the .security and .protection ICANN contracts from security Symantec, and .theatre from a company called KBE Holdings.

As part of the transitions, all three applications were modified with ICANN to name CentralNic as the back-end registry services provider, replacing Verisign.

Verisign sued on the basis of tortious interference and business conspiracy. It was thrown out of court in November then amended and re-filed.

But the case appears to have now been settled.

Negari issued a grovelling not-quite-apology statement on his blog:

I am pleased to report that the recent case filed by Verisign against CentralNic, Ltd., XYZ and myself has been settled. After looking at the claims in dispute, we regret that as a result of our acquisition of the .theatre, .security and .protection extensions and our arrangement for CentralNic to serve as the backend service provider for these extensions, that Verisign was prevented from the opportunity to pursue monetization of those relationships. As ICANN’s new gTLD program continues to evolve, we would caution others who find themselves in similar situations to be mindful of the existing contracts extension owners may have with third parties.

Registries changing their minds about their back-end provider is not unheard of.

In this case, large portions of Verisign’s final amended complaint were redacted, suggesting some peculiarities to this particular switch.

If there was a monetary component to the settlement, it was not disclosed. The original Verisign complaint had demanded damages of over $2 million.