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Donuts loses $22.5m .web lawsuit as judge rules gTLD applicants cannot sue

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2016, Domain Registries

The promise not to sue ICANN that all new gTLD applicants made when they applied is legally enforceable, a California judge has ruled.

Judge Percy Anderson on Monday threw out Donuts’ lawsuit against ICANN over the controversial $135 million .web auction, saying the “covenant not to sue bars Plaintiff’s entire action”.

He wrote that he “does not find persuasive” an earlier and contrary ruling in the case of DotConnectAfrica v ICANN, a case that is still ongoing.

Donuts sued ICANN at first to prevent the .web auction going ahead.

The registry, and other .web applicants, were concerned that ultimately successful bidder Nu Dot Co was being covertly bankrolled by Verisign, which turned out to be completely correct.

Donuts argued that ICANN failed to adequately vet NDC to uncover its secret sugar daddy. It wanted $22.5 million from ICANN — roughly what it would have received if the auction had been privately managed, rather than run by ICANN.

But the judge ruled that Donuts’ covenant not to sue is enforceable. Because of that, he made no judgement on the merits of Donuts’ arguments.

Under the relevant law, Donuts had to show that the applicant contract was “unconscionable” both “procedurally” and “substantively”.

Basically, the question for the judge was: was the contract unfairly one-sided?

The judge ruled (pdf) that it was not substantively unconscionable and “only minimally procedurally unconscionable”. In other words: a bit crap, but not illegal.

He put a lot of weight on the fact that the new gTLD program was designed largely by the ICANN community and on Donuts’ business “sophistication”. He wrote:

Without the covenant not to sue, any frustrated applicant could, through the filing of a lawsuit, derail the entire system developed by ICANN to process applications for gTLDs. ICANN and frustrated applicants do not bear this potential harm equally. This alone establishes the reasonableness of the covenant not to sue.

Donuts VP Jon Nevett said in a statement yesterday that the fight over .web is not over:

Donuts disagrees with the Court’s decision that ICANN’s required covenant not to sue, while being unconscionable, was not sufficiently unconscionable to be struck down as a matter of law. It is unfortunate that the auction process for .WEB was mired in a lack of transparency and anti-competitive behavior. ICANN, in its haste to proceed to auction, performed only a slapdash investigation and deprived the applicants of the right to fairly compete for .WEB in accordance with the very procedures ICANN demanded of applicants. Donuts will continue to utilize the tools at its disposal to address this procedural failure.

It looks rather like we could be looking at an Independent Review Process filing, possibly the first to be filed under ICANN’s new post-transition rules.

Donuts and ICANN are already in the Cooperative Engagement Process — the mediation phase that usually precedes an IRP — with regards .web.

Second-placed bidder Afilias is also putting pressure on ICANN to overturn the results of the auction, resulting in a bit of a public bunfight with Verisign.

TL;DR — don’t expect to be able to buy .web domains for quite a while to come.

Verisign and Afilias in open war over $135m .web

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2016, Domain Registries

Two of the industry’s oldest and biggest gTLD registries escalated their fight over the .web gTLD auction this week, trading blows in print and in public.

Verisign, accused by Afilias of breaking the rules when it committed $130 million to secure .web for itself, has now turned the tables on its rival.

It accuses Afilias of itself breaking the auction rules and of trying to emotionally blackmail ICANN into reversing the auction on spurious political grounds.

The .web auction was won by obscure shell-company applicant Nu Dot Co with a record-setting $135 million bid back in July.

It quickly emerged, as had been suspected for a few weeks beforehand, that Verisign was footing the bill for the NDC bid.

The plan is that NDC will transfer its .web ICANN contract to Verisign after it is awarded, assuming ICANN consents to the transfer.

Afilias has since revealed that it came second in the auction. It now wants ICANN to overturn the result of the auction, awarding .web to Afilias as runner-up instead.

The company argues that NDC broke the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook rules by refusing to disclose that it had become controlled by Verisign.

It’s now trying to frame the .web debate as ICANN’s “first test of accountability” under the new, independent, post-IANA transition regime.

Afilias director Jonathan Robinson posted on CircleID:

If ICANN permits the auction result to stand, it may not only invite further flouting of its rules, it will grant the new TLD with the highest potential to the only entity with a dominant market position. This would diminish competition and consumer choice and directly contradict ICANN’s values and Bylaws.

Given the controversy over ICANN’s independence, all eyes will be on the ICANN board to see if it is focused on doing the right thing. It’s time for the ICANN board to show resolve and to demonstrate that it is a strong, independent body acting according to the letter and spirit of its own AGB and bylaws and, perhaps most importantly of all, to actively demonstrate its commitment to act independently and in the global public interest.

Speaking at the first of ICANN’s two public forum sessions at ICANN 57 in Hyderabad, India this week, Robinson echoed that call, telling the ICANN board:

You are a credible, independent-minded, and respected board who recognized the enhanced scrutiny that goes with the post-transition environment. Indeed, this may well be the first test of your resolve in this new environment. You have the opportunity to deal with the situation by firmly applying your own rules and your own ICANN bylaw-enshrined core value to introduce and promote competition in domain names. We strongly urge you to do so.

Then, after a few months of relative quiet on the subject, Verisign and NDC this week came out swinging.

First, in a joint blog post, the companies rubbished Afilias’ attempt to bring the IANA transition into the debate. They wrote:

Afilias does a great disservice to ICANN and the entire Internet community by attempting to make this issue a referendum on ICANN by entitling its post “ICANN’s First Test of Accountability.” Afilias frames its test for ICANN’s new role as an “independent manager of the Internet’s addressing system,” by asserting that ICANN can only pass this test if it disqualifies NDC and bars Verisign from acquiring rights to the .web new gTLD. In this case, Afilias’ position is based on nothing more than deflection, smoke and cynical self-interest.

Speaking at the public forum in Hyderabad on Wednesday, Verisign senior VP Pat Kane said:

This is not a test for the board. This issue is not a test for the newly empowered community. It is a test of our ability to utilize the processes and the tools that we’ve developed over the past 20 years for dispute resolution.

Verisign instead claims that Afilias’ real motivation could be to force .web to a private auction, where it can be assured an eight-figure payday for losing.

NDC/Verisign won .web at a so-called “last resort” auction, overseen by ICANN, in which the funds raised go into a pool to be used for some yet-to-be-determined public benefit cause.

That robbed rival applicants, including Afilias, of the equal share of the proceeds they would have received had the contention set been settled via the usual private auction process.

But Verisign/NDC, in their post, claim Afilias wants to force .web back to private auction.

Afilias’ allegations of Applicant Guidebook violations by NDC are nothing more than a pretext to conduct a “private” instead of a “public” auction, or to eliminate a competitor for the .web new gTLD and capture it for less than the market price.

Verisign says that NDC was under no obligation to notify ICANN of a change of ownership or control because no change of ownership or control has occurred.

It says the two companies have an “arms-length contract” which saw Verisign pay for the auction and NDC commit to ask ICANN to transfer its .web Registry Agreement to Verisign.

It’s not unlike the deal Donuts had with Rightside, covering over a hundred gTLD applications, Verisign says.

The contract between NDC and Verisign did not assign to Verisign any rights in NDC’s application, nor did Verisign take any ownership or management interest in NDC (let alone control of it). NDC has always been and always will be the owner of its application

Not content with defending itself from allegations of wrongdoing, Verisign/NDC goes on to claim that it is instead Afilias that broke ICANN rules and therefore should have disqualified from the auction.

They allege that Afilias offered NDC a guarantee of a cash payout if it chose to go to private auction instead, and that it attempted to coerce NDC to go to private auction on July 22, which was during a “blackout period” during which bidders were forbidden from discussing bidding strategies.

During the public forum sessions at ICANN 57, ICANN directors refused to comment on statements from either side of the debate.

That’s likely because it’s a matter currently before the courts.

Fellow .web loser Donuts has already sued ICANN in California, claiming the organization failed to adequately investigate rumors that Verisign had taken over NDC.

Donuts failed to secure a restraining order preventing the .web auction from happening, but the lawsuit continues. Most recently, ICANN filed a motion attempting to have the case thrown out.

In my opinion, arguments being spouted by Verisign and Afilias both stretch credulity.

Afilias has yet to present any smoking gun showing Verisign or NDC broke the rules. Likewise, Verisign’s claim that Afilias wants to enrich itself by losing a private auction appear to be unsupported by any evidence.

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.

Donuts .web claims “discredited”, ICANN tells court

Donuts’ attempt to delay tomorrow’s .web gTLD auction is based on a now “discredited” reading of a single email from rival bidder Nu Dot Co, ICANN told a California court yesterday.

Supporting ICANN’s opposition to Donuts’ motion for a temporary restraining order, two top NDC executives also swore under penalty of perjury that the company is not under new ownership or management.

The filings were made in response to Donuts’ lawsuit, filed Friday, which seeks over $10 million damages and a TRO against the .web auction.

Donuts believes that NDC has been taken over by an as-yet unknown third party with a vested interest in keeping the auction proceeds out of the hands of its competitors by forcing an ICANN-run last-resort auction.

Its belief is based on a June 7 email from NDC CFO Jose Rasco that alludes to COO Nicolai Bezsonoff no longer being with the company and makes reference to unspecified “powers that be” that are now in charge of the company.

By not disclosing the alleged change of control to ICANN, NDC broke Application Guidebook rules, Donuts claims.

But according to ICANN and NDC, this is all nonsense. ICANN told the court:

three separate ICANN bodies – ICANN’s staff, ICANN’s Ombudsman, and ICANN’s Board – have already looked into the alleged change in Nu Dotco’s ownership or management. All three found no credible evidence that any such change had occurred within Nu Dotco, and therefore nothing supported a delay of the Auction. Plaintiff’s TRO application, filed nearly three months after the Auction was scheduled and just two business days before bidding is set to officially begin, relies solely on a strained, and now completely discredited, interpretation of the Nu Dotco CFO’s June 7 email. However, the evidence accompanying this opposition – sworn declarations from ICANN and Nu Dotco executives – confirms that Nu Dotco has not made any change in its ownership or management, much less a “disqualifying” change that should derail the Auction processes already under way or the official start of bidding.

Rasco and Nicolai Bezsonoff both swear in accompanying declarations that the managers and members (ie owners) of NDC have not changed since the original 2012 application.

NDC, according to its .web application, is owned by two Delaware shell companies — Domain Marketing Holdings, LLC and NUCO LP, LLC — both of which appear to have been created in order to provide a layer of separation between NDC and its actual investors.

Rasco and Bezsonoff say that these two companies remain the only owners of NDC requiring their identities to be disclosed to ICANN.

There’s no comment in either declaration about whether either of those two companies has undergone a change in control.

What we seem to have here, amusingly, is NDC using exactly the same legal tricks as Donuts to hide the ultimate beneficiaries of its gTLD applications.

Donuts, you may recall, applied for 307 new gTLDs via 307 distinct shell LLCs with randomly generated names. Not only that, but each of those LLCs is owned by one of two other shell companies — 201 belonged to Dozen Donuts LLC, 106 belonged to Covered TLD LLC.

Donuts never formally disclosed in its ICANN applications (or, to my recollection, publicly confirmed) that business partner Rightside had the right to buy any of the Covered TLD strings — including .web, it seems — a right Rightside has exercised many times since.

Rightside basically got the same layer of identity insulation that whoever’s pulling the strings at NDC is getting now.

That irony is not pointed out in ICANN’s latest court filing, which can be read here (pdf). The Rasco and Bezsonoff declarations can be read here and here.

The applicants for .web are NDC, Radix, Donuts, Schlund, Afilias, Google and Web.com. Vistaprint’s bid for .webs is also in the auction.

Unless Donuts gets its TRO, the auction will begin at 1400 UTC tomorrow and we could find out how much .web sold for later that day.