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ICANN finally cans Net 4 India

iCANN has terminated Net 4 India’s registrar accreditation, after many months of criticism and foot-dragging and a recent sharp uptick in customer complaints.

The move comes after an unprecedented four concurrent public breach notices over 20 months, almost four years after the company entered insolvency proceedings — grounds for termination which ICANN became aware of almost two years ago.

ICANN has received over 2,600 customer complaints over the last year, and almost 1,000 of these were submitted in February alone, according to the organization.

“The termination of the RAA is due to Net 4 India’s repeated and consistent breaches of the RAA and failure to cure such breaches despite multiple notices from ICANN and opportunity to cure,” ICANN said in its ginormous 59-page execution warrant (pdf).

Among the charges ICANN levels at Net4 is its failure to operate a functioning Whois service, something it’s warned the company about 30 times since November.

This hindered ICANN’s ability to investigate the more serious charges — that Net4 transferred some of its customers’ domains to a different registrar, OpenProvider, without their knowledge or consent, in violation of ICANN transfer policies.

The registrar also failed to enable its customers to renew their expired domains or transfer them to other registrars, also in violation of binding policy, ICANN said.

ICANN said:

Currently, more than 400 cases remain unresolved; and hundreds of complaints are still under review, which, once vetted, will become more new cases. In addition, ICANN Contractual Compliance continues to receive more than 20 new complaints each day. And it is not known how many more complaints are pending with Net 4 India that have not yet been brought to ICANN’s attention.

The termination notice contains 10 pages of complaints from Net4 customers, saying their domains could not be renewed or transferred. Some came from non-profits and hospitals. One registrant said he was contemplating suicide.

Net4’s customer service was non-responsive in each of these cases, the complainants said.

While some of Net4’s problems could be chalked down to coronavirus-related restrictions, the company has been in trouble for much longer.

It entered insolvency proceedings in 2017 after a debt recovery company called Edelweiss bought roughly $28 million of unpaid debt from the State Bank of India and took Net4 to court.

ICANN did not find out about this until April 2019 — it’s probably not a coincidence that this was the same month Net4 was late paying its first ICANN invoice — and it issued its first public breach notice in June that year.

Insolvency is grounds for termination in itself under the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

It’s never been clearly stated why ICANN did not escalate at that time. Had it done so, it could have saved Net4’s customers from a world of hurt.

The Indian insolvency court admitted last month that it had no jurisdiction over ICANN or the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, both of which are governed primarily by California law.

Nevertheless, the court asked ICANN to not terminate Net4’s contract until after April 25, to give the company time to get its house in order.

But the termination notice, issued on Friday, will see the RAA cut off March 13. ICANN notes that it hasn’t heard from the court-appointed resolution professional, to whom previous breach notices were addressed, since mid-January.

Affected domains — there are still thousands under Net4’s accreditation — will be moved to another registrar under ICANN’s De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure.

Net4 could have a say in where its domains wind up. It’s already an OpenProvider reseller so that’s a possibility. Otherwise, ICANN will pick a beneficiary from a queue of qualified candidates.

Time is running out for Net4 as ICANN questions Indian court ruling

Kevin Murphy, February 1, 2021, Domain Registrars

Struggling registrar Net 4 India has been hit with an unprecedented fourth concurrent breach-of-contract notice by ICANN, but an Indian court has ruled that ICANN should NOT terminate its accreditation.

It also turns out that Public Interest Registry wants to terminate its Registry-Registrar Agreement with Net4, after it failed to deposit about $22,000 in its account to cover renewal fees, putting 1,644 .org domains at risk.

The latest ICANN breach notice is much the same as the two delivered in December, both of which suggest that Net4 has been transferring its customers’ domains to a partner registrar, OpenProvider, without the registrants’ knowledge or consent.

They further suggest that Net4 has not enabled its customers to renew their domains or reclaim them after they’ve expired, and claim that the company has consistently refused to hand over records proving that its disputed transfers were legit.

Net4 also owes ICANN thousands in past due fees.

The company has been in quasi-judicial insolvency proceedings since 2017 over $28 million in unpaid bank loans that were acquired by a debt recovery agency called Edelweiss; its first breach notice came two years later when ICANN first learned of the case.

For some reason, ICANN did not terminate or suspend Net4’s contract back then.

With hindsight, this may have proven a bad move — during India’s first coronavirus lockdown last year, hundreds of Net4 customers started complaining about lost domains and non-existent customer service.

It was not until December last year that these complaints were escalated to the level of formal breach notices, and more threats to terminate its Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

Net4, in response, asked its insolvency court for a ruling preventing ICANN and PIR from terminating their respective agreements. It reckons it can get is house in order in the next five or six weeks.

ICANN presented what appears to be a wealth of evidence of the company’s misconduct and argued that the court has no jurisdiction over ICANN anyway, because the RAA is governed by California law and ICANN has no presence in India.

Nevertheless, the National Company Law Tribunal in New Delhi has ruled, in a virtually impenetrable word soup of a document (pdf) that reads like it was vomited up by a Victorian-era college freshman who’d just rolled up and smoked an entire legal dictionary, that ICANN and PIR should not “terminate these agreements at least until three months from hereof”.

That would stay Net4’s executive until April 25. The latest ICANN breach notice gives the company until February 19 to come back into compliance, though technically there’s nothing stopping it starting termination proceedings today based on past notices.

The orders given to ICANN and PIR are more “requests”, due to the fact that the court couldn’t decide whether its words had any jurisdictional power over either.

Rather hilariously, ICANN said in a press release late Friday:

When a registrar fails to allow registrants to renew, transfer, and manage their domain names, ICANN will not hesitate to take whatever actions are necessary, up to and including termination of the registrar, to protect registrants’ rights and interests.

These are words that ring hollow, given that it’s allowed Net4 to slide three times already and has been hesitating since June 2019.

Net 4 India gets unwelcome Christmas gift from ICANN

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2021, Domain Registrars

Struggling Indian registrar Net 4 India has been hit by its third notice of contract breach by ICANN, in a letter delivered Christmas Eve.

Net4 is on ICANN’s naughty list this time due to its alleged violations of ICANN’s transfer and expired domains policies. The breach notice is very similar to that delivered just two weeks earlier, concerning different domains.

ICANN reckons Net4, once India’s largest independent registrar, has in some cases been transferring domains to a partner registrar, OpenProvider, without the consent or knowledge of the registrant.

It’s been asking the company for records proving compliance, which Net4 has apparently not been providing. Therein lies the alleged breach.

Net4 has been persona non grata among many of its customers for several months, with complaints about billing and renewal failures, expirations, and a general lack of customer service availability compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

The company has also been fighting an insolvency proceeding over millions of dollars in allegedly unpaid debts for years, which has been the subject of an ICANN breach notice for about 18 months.

The Christmas Eve breach notice gives Net4 until January 14 to turn over the relevant records or possibly face termination.

But that might prove moot — the December 10 notice had a deadline of December 31, so the wheels may already be in motion.

ICANN throws the book at Net4 over dodgy transfer claims

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2020, Domain Registrars

Struggling Indian registrar Net 4 India has been slammed with a massive breach notice by ICANN, following claims of domain transfers failing or happening without the consent of the registrant.

ICANN also accuses the company, which is or was India’s largest independent registrar, of trying to bullshit its compliance staff about whether expired domains had been renewed or not.

According to ICANN, Net4 is in breach of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement on four counts, three of which relate to domain ownership records.

ICANN says the company isn’t operating a Whois service on the web or port 43, has failed to escrow its registration data on two recent occasions, and has failed to hand over registrant information upon ICANN’s request.

It’s also past due with its fees, ICANN says.

ICANN’s been dealing with complaints about Net4 for months, after the company’s customer service system appeared to break down in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of customers have said their domains were unrenewable and that they were unable to transfer to another registrar.

In the latest breach notice — the first published breach notice against any registrar since February — ICANN names almost 200 domain names that have allegedly been held hostage at Net4, despite the registrant’s efforts to transfer out.

ICANN wants proof that registrants were given transfer authorization codes and that their domains were unlocked.

In a smaller number of cases, ICANN wants proof that domains were transferred to Net4 partner Openprovider, for which it acts as a reseller, with the consent of the registrants.

It also claims that Net4 has more than once tried to prove that a registrant renewed their expired name by supplying the registry’s expiration date instead of its own, to blag its way out of accusations that registrants were unable to renew.

ICANN also accuses the registrar of dragging its feet to address complaints:

Over the past few months, the number of complaints ICANN Contractual Compliance has received from [registered name holders], and authorized representatives, asserting that Net 4 India is exhibiting a pattern of non-response to domain transfer and renewal requests has steadily increased. While addressing the relevant compliance cases, Net 4 India’s responses to ICANN Contractual Compliance have also regularly been untimely and incomplete.

Net4 is now in the unprecedented position of being subject to two different breach notices simultaneously.

ICANN actually issued a suspension notice in June 2019, after noticing that Net4 had been in insolvency proceedings for two years — a debt recovery agency is trying to recover $28 million in unpaid debts.

But that suspension deadline was paused after talks with the “resolution professional” handling the insolvency case, for reasons ICANN’s been rather quiet about, and it remains on pause to this date.

The newest breach notice has a December 31 deadline on it. Unless Net4 turns on its Whois and hands over the reams of requested data by then, ICANN could terminate its contract.

Assuming the insolvency court allows it to, presumably.

ICANN finally addresses Net 4 India meltdown, but mysteries remain

Kevin Murphy, November 18, 2020, Domain Registrars

ICANN today made an effort to publicly address the hundreds of complaints that have recently been made about Net 4 India, India’s largest registrar, which has been in insolvency proceedings for over three years and recently started losing its customers’ domains.

In a lengthy blog post, ICANN confirmed that it received roughly 300 complaints about Net4 in August and September, when India was in coronavirus lockdown and the registrar’s customer service department was unable to cope with demand.

Many customers reported on social media and elsewhere that domains were expiring and transfers to third-party registrars were not possible.

ICANN said it had received over 400 complaints since it filed its first notice of suspension against Net4, which came about after ICANN learned of the insolvency proceedings, in June 2019. It says 74% have been resolved and it’s working on the remainder.

The post sets out customers’ options when it comes to filing complaints, which is complicated by the fact that Net4 also acts as a reseller for OpenProvider, which is not in the same financial difficulty.

ICANN’s says that it is closely monitoring Net4’s compliance with its Registrar Accreditation Agreement and has regular contact with the insolvency court where the company’s case is being heard.

What’s unclear is why the company has been permitted to continue to operate as an accredited registrar, despite its insolvency proceeding being a direct violation of the RAA. ICANN filed a suspension notice in June last year, but has postponed its effective date ever since.

While ICANN says it has not ruled out terminating Net4 and transferring its domains to another registrar, the reality may be that it is unable to do so.

In today’s post, ICANN says it “postponed the start date of the Suspension Period after considering information regarding the insolvency proceedings” provided by the court-appointed resolution professional.

Last month, during the ICANN 69 public forum, the org was asked by an Indian registrant what it was doing about Net4, and compliance chief Jamie Hedlund responded:

When they initially filed for insolvency, we attempted to suspend them and prevent them from being able to register new names. But unfortunately due to the insolvency, we were not able to do that.

It seems that a resolution professional appointed by a quasi-judicial Indian court has managed to trump ICANN’s powers under its Californian-law registrar contract.

Net4’s latest registry transaction reports show that it had 90,000 gTLD domains under management at the end of July. It’s bleeding thousands of domains every month. The company claims to have 400,000 customers in total.

The insolvency proceedings were initiated in 2017 by a debt-recovery agency called Edelweiss, which had acquired $28 million of debts Net4 owed the State Bank of India.

Is India’s largest registrar about to go titsup? And where the hell is ICANN?

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2020, Domain Registrars

India’s largest independent domain name registrar appears to be “doing an AlpNames”, with many customers complaining about domains going dark, transfer codes not being issued, and customer support being unavailable for weeks.

Net 4 India, which claims to have 400,000 customers, has been in insolvency proceeds for over two years, but it’s only in the last couple months that the complaints have started piling up by the scores from disgruntled customers.

A major complaint is that renewals are not processed even after they are paid for, that transfer authcodes never arrive, that customer support never picks up the phone or replies to emails, and (occasionally) that the Net4 web site itself is down.

As we saw with AlpNames last year and RegisterFly back in the mists of time, These are all the warning signs of a registrar in trouble.

On its web site, Net4 prominently warns customers that its call centers are operating on a skeleton staff due to India’s coronavirus lockdown measures, which may account for the lack of support.

But there are reports that customers have visited the company’s offices in person to find them closed.

There’s been radio silence from the registrar. Even its Twitter account is private.

Many local commentators are pointing to the fact that Net4 is in protracted insolvency proceedings as the true underlying issue.

There have been calls for government intervention, action by .in registry NIXI, ICANN enforcement, and even the Indian equivalent of a class action lawsuit. This local cyber law blogger is all over it.

But what is ICANN doing about it?

Net4 was taken to a quasi-judicial insolvency court in 2017 by a debt-recovery company called Edelweiss over the rupee equivalent of about $28 million of unpaid loans from the State Bank of India.

ICANN has been aware of this fact since at least April 2019, when it started calling the registrar for an explanation.

Under the standard Registrar Accreditation Agreement, being in insolvency for over 30 days is grounds for unilateral termination by ICANN.

ICANN could terminate the agreement and transfer all of Net4’s gTLD domain names to a different registrar pretty much at will — all the registrant data is in escrow. This would not protect Net4’s many thousands of .in registrants of course.

ICANN suspended Net4’s RAA in June last year, but Net4 somehow managed to talk its way out of it. ICANN later rescinded the suspension on the proviso that the registrar provide monthly updates regarding its insolvency.

Net4’s cure period has been extended three times by ICANN. The latest expired July 31 this year.

At least one ICANN staffer is on the case, however. ICANN’s head of India Samiran Gupta has recently been reaching out to customers on Twitter, offering his email address and assistance getting in contact with Net4 staff, apparently with some success.

But Net4 had 95,000 gTLD names under management at the last count (though it’s been hemorrhaging thousands per month) so this individual approach won’t go very far.

Net 4 India gets brief reprieve from ICANN suspension

India registrar Net 4 India has been given a bit of breathing space by ICANN, following its suspension last month.

ICANN suspended the registrar’s accreditation a month ago, effective June 21, after discovering the company had been in insolvency proceedings for some time.

But on June 20 ICANN updated its suspension notice to give Net4 more time to comply. It now has until September 4, the same day its insolvency case is expected to end, to provide ICANN with documentation showing it is still a going concern.

The registrar was sued by a debt collector that had acquired some Rs 1.94 billion ($28 million) of unpaid debts from an Indian bank.

ICANN’s updated suspension notice adds that Net4 is to provide monthly status updates, starting July 18, if it wants to keep its accreditation.

The upshot of all this is that the registrar can carry on selling gTLD domains and accepting inbound transfers for at least another couple months.

India’s largest registrar goes insolvent, gets suspended

India’s largest independent registrar has been found insolvent by a local court, after failing to pay back $28 million in bank loans.

Net 4 India has now also had its right to sell gTLD domains suspended by ICANN as a result.

Judging by legal papers (pdf) buried on Net4’s web site, the insolvency relates to a series of loans the company took out with the State Bank of India between 2002 and 2012.

After the company failed to pay those loans back, in 2014 the debt was acquired from SBI by Edelweiss Asset Reconstruction, which specializes in buying debt cheap then recovering it through the courts.

Edelweiss sued Net4 to get its money back a couple of years ago and, in March this year after what appears to have been a slam-dunk, won its case.

The ruling states that the outstanding debt in 2017 was almost two billion rupees — Rs 1,940,860,284, which works out to just short of $28 million at today’s rates.

Having learned about the insolvency in April, ICANN set about trying to contact Net4’s management to see if the company was coming back into compliance.

ICANN’s Registrar Accreditation Agreement says ICANN can terminate registrars’ contracts if they are in insolvency proceedings for more than 30 days.

After the company failed to show it was compliant, this week its RAA was suspended from June 21 to September 19.

During that period, Net4 will not be able to sell new domain registrations or accept incoming transfers. It will also have to display a notice on its web site to that effect.

If it has not demonstrated compliance by August 28, ICANN may start its termination process.

Net4 is the largest ICANN-accredited registrar based in India, as measured by number of registered gTLD domains (excluding Public Domain Registry, LogicBoxes, and several affiliated dummy accreditations, which are all owned by US-based Endurance International).

It had over 100,000 gTLD domains under management at the end of February — almost all in .com and other legacy gTLDs — but its DUM had been shrinking hard for many months.

At some point, Net4 appears to have been listed on both India’s National Stock Exchange and the Bombay Stock Exchange, but was delisted about a year ago.