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PwC wants to be your Whois gatekeeper

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2019, Domain Services

PricewaterhouseCoopers has built a Whois access system that may help domain name companies and intellectual property interests call a truce in their ongoing battle over access to private Whois data.

Its new TieredAccess Platform will enable registries and registrars to “outsource the entire process of providing access to non-public domain registration data”.

That’s according to IP lawyer Bart Lieben, partner at the Belgian law firm ARTES, who devised the system and is working with PwC to develop it.

The offering is designed to give trademark lawyers access to the data they lust after, while also reducing costs and mitigating domain name industry liability under the General Data Protection Regulation.

TieredAccess would make PwC essentially the gatekeeper for all requests for private Whois data (at least, in the registries plugged into the platform) coming from the likes of trademark owners, security researchers, lawyers and law enforcement agencies.

At one end, these requestors would be pre-vetted by PwC, after which they’d be able to ask for unredacted Whois records using PwC as an intermediary.

They’d have to pick from one of 43 pre-written request scenarios (such as cybersquatting investigation, criminal probe or spam prevention) and assert that they will only use the data they obtain for the stated purposes.

At the other end, registries and registrars will have adopted a set of rules that specify how such requests should be responded to.

A ruleset could say that cops get more access to data than security researchers, for example, or that a criminal investigation is more important than a UDRP complaint.

PwC has created a bunch of templates, but registrars and registries would be able to adapt these policies to their own tastes.

Once the rules are put in place, and the up-front implementation work has been done to plug PwC into their Whois servers, they wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with Whois requests manually as most are today. The whole lot would be automated.

Not even PwC would have human eyes on the requests. The private data would only be stored temporarily.

One could argue that there’s the potential for abusive or non-compliant requests making it through, which may give liability-nervous companies pause.

But the requests and response metadata would be logged for audit and compliance, so abusive users could be fingered after the act.

Lieben says the whole system has been checked for GDPR compliance, assuming its prefabricated baseline scenarios and templates are adopted unadulterated.

He said that the PwC brand should give clients on both sides “peace of mind” that they’re not breaking privacy law.

If a registrar requires an affidavit before releasing data, the assertions requestors make to PwC should tick that box, he said.

Given that this is probably a harder sell to the domain name industry side of the equation, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s the requestors that are likely to shoulder most of the cost burden of using the service.

Lieben said a pricing model has not yet been set, but that it could see fees paid by registrars subsidized by the fees paid by requestors.

There’s a chance registries could wind up paying nothing, he said.

The project has been in the works since September and is currently in the testing phase, with PwC trying to entice registries and registrars onto the platform.

Lieben said some companies have already agreed to test the service, but he could not name them yet.

The service was developed against the backdrop of ongoing community discussions within ICANN in the Expedited Policy Development Working group, which is trying to create a GDPR-compliant policy for access to private Whois records.

ICANN Org has also made it known that it is considering making itself the clearinghouse for Whois queries, to allow its contracted parties to offload some liability.

It’s quite possible that once the policies are in place, ICANN may well decide to outsource the gatekeeper function to the likes of PwC.

That appears to be what Lieben has in mind. After all, it’s what he did with the Trademark Clearinghouse almost a decade ago — building it independently with Deloitte while the new gTLD rules were still being written and then selling the service to ICANN when the time came.

The TieredAccess service is described in some detail here.

Defunct Famous Four ordered to hand $1.5 million back to investors

Former domain registry manager Famous Four Media has been ordered to return money to investors that was being used as insurance against its portfolio of gTLDs going out of business.

In an April 18 ruling (pdf) from Gibraltar’s Supreme Court, FFM and its CEO Iain Roache are told that original investors Domain Venture Partners are the true owners what looks to be about $1.5 million being used to back letters of credit in ICANN’s name.

It’s a very complicated ruling, reflecting the complex structure of the FFM/DVP relationship. It wants for clarity in some areas, and is probably best suited to interpretation by a forensic accountant.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.

Basically, back in 2011 businessman Iain Roache recruited a bunch of international investors to join him in funding applications for 60 new gTLDs. The investment vehicle was and is called Domain Venture Partners.

Each application had an associated “bid vehicle”, essentially a Gibraltar-based shell company with names along the lines of Dot Science Ltd or Dot Accountant Ltd.

Those of the vehicles that were successful in their applications continue to be the official registry sponsors for 16 active gTLDs. They’re all owned by DVP.

Famous Four was a separate company, owned 80:20 by Roache and business partner Geir Rasmussen, hired by DVP to manage the business of actually selling domains.

For many years, myself and pretty much everybody else covering the domain name industry referred to FFM as if it was the owner of the TLDs, more or less interchangeably with DVP.

In fact, FFM was just a DVP contractor and behind the scenes DVP was growing increasingly unhappy with how the domains were being managed, DVP investor Robert Maroney told DI last August.

For about a year now, FFM has been in liquidation. DVP kicked it out of the registry management business and replaced it with a new company that it controls called GRS Domains, managed by a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant called Edgar Lavarello.

Thirteen of the DVP bid vehicles sued Famous Four to claim ownership of, among other things, the money backing the so-called “Continuing Operations Instruments” that ICANN demanded from each new gTLD applicant.

The COI, usually a letter of credit from a big bank, were used to give ICANN the confidence that new gTLD domain registrants would not be affected by dodgy registries going out of business and their domains immediately going dark. The money would fund ongoing technical operations for a few years, giving registrants time to find a new home for their web sites.

In this case, Famous Four’s liquidator refused to agree that the money backing the COIs was rightfully DVP’s.

What seems to have happened is that in mid-2016 the DVP letters of credit were hastily switched from Credit Suisse to Barclays, after Credit Suisse closed down its Gibraltar branch.

There was a period in which both sets of LoCs were active, in order to remain compliant with ICANN’s rule that there must be an active COI at all times.

The original Credit Suisse LoCs had been funded by DVP, but the Barclays LoCs were funded by FFM, or quite possibly Roache himself, to the tune of about $1.5 million.

FFM was then repaid by the return of the money backing the Credit Suisse LoCs, when those LoCs were closed, according to Chief Justice Anthony Dudley’s ruling.

After the switch of banks, the LoCs were no longer in the names of the DVP bid vehicles; they belonged to FFM. The money DVP put up to originally secure the COIs was now in FFM’s control.

Dudley now seems to have ruled that FFM now owes DVP this money back, and that the liquidator, Grant Jones of Simmons Gainsford, was wrong to withhold it.

In fact, the judge has some quite stern words for Jones, saying that he was “wholly inappropriate” when he temporarily turned over his responsibilities as liquidator to Roache and his law firm. Dudley wrote:

It may be that it arises as a consequence of the Liquidator having limited funds with which to engage in litigation. But whatever the reason, the position adopted by the liquidator of FFM in these proceedings has been unusual and certainly capable of being construed as running counter to the fundamental principle of objectivity required of a Liquidator, now codified in the Insolvency Practitioner Regulations 2014. Rather than formulate his own view (or as urged by me at a preliminary hearing seek his own independent legal advice) by letter dated 1 March 2019 GJ sought to abrogate his responsibility and authorised IR and JSF to act on behalf of FFM

That aside, the main piece of evidence that appears to have caused Dudley to side with DVP was a set of emails from Famous Four chief legal officer Oliver Smith to DVP investors that were sent at the time the LoCs were switching banks.

Smith confirmed in one of these emails that FFM was basically just acting as a conduit for DVPs bid vehicles, which by that point were operational registries.

The judge noted that the Smith email that confirmed this was submitted in evidence by Lavarello and Maroney only after Roache had submitted the rest of the thread, excluding this email, in his own evidence.

Dudley ruled that the DVP companies should get what they asked for, namely the funds associated with the LoCs. It’s not entirely clear from his ruling how much this is, but by my reading it’s around the $1.5 million mark.

The liquidation, which is ongoing, is to the best of my knowledge unrelated to the still unexplained demise of AlpNames, the registrar and close FFM partner also owned by Roache and Rasmussen.

Finally, a disclaimer.

Because I’ve already had one spurious legal threat related to my ongoing coverage of Famous Four’s demise, and don’t really need the arseache of any more, I’m going to state unequivocally for the record that I’m not alleging any wrongdoing by anyone.

If I’ve got anything wrong, as always I will gladly issue a correction. Just ask, and show your working. No need to sic the lawyers on me.

You can read the judge’s decision (pdf) and decide for yourself what’s been going on.

KPMG dumps .com for dot-brand gTLD

Kevin Murphy, April 12, 2019, Domain Registries

KPMG has become the latest company to dump its .com domain in favor of its dot-brand gTLD.

The company recently announced that it is now using home.kpmg as its primary web site domain, replacing kpmg.com.

The migration appears to be complete already. URLs on the old .com address now bounce users to the equivalent page on .kpmg. Web searches for KPMG return the .kpmg domain as the top hit.

KPMG said in a press release:

The move enhances the KPMG brand through a strong, simplified name, and provides end users with a level of assurance that any site that ends with .kpmg is owned and operated by KPMG.

Since the top level domain can only be used by KPMG, visitors to sites that use the new top level domain can easily confirm its authenticity and be assured that the information they contain is reliable and secure.

The company said that it is the first of the “Big Four” professional services firms to make the switch.

This is technically correct. Rival Deloitte uses several .deloitte domains, but it has not bit the bullet and migrated from its .com.

Of the other two, Ernst & Young does not have a dot-brand, and PricewaterhouseCoopers does not use its .pwc extension beyond a single experimental domain that redirects to pwc.com.

KPMG had revenue just shy of $29 billion last year and is one of the most recognizable brands in the corporate world.

Has the world’s biggest new gTLD registry gone bankrupt?

Has Famous Four Media, by some measures the largest new gTLD registry, gone bankrupt?

There’s some startling evidence that this may be the case, but the company and others concerned are maintaining radio silence.

Last week, IANA’s administrative contact for all of the company’s 16 TLDs changed from its CEO, Geir Rasmussen, to someone called Edgar Lavarello. Here’s an example.

Lavarello, it turns out, is a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Gibraltar who specializes in insolvency and liquidation.

Here he is in a three-year-old interview explaining why my headline today technically really should have used the word “insolvent” rather than “bankrupt”.

On Wednesday, I reached out for comment to Rasmussen and Lavarello, along with others known to work at FFM (at least recently) but have not received any responses.

Absence of a reply is not proof of anything of course — FFM has never been the most communicative company in the world and nobody is under any obligation to respond to inquiries from a humble blogger.

But I suspect that if I posed the straightforward if slightly cheeky question “Has your company gone bankrupt?” to almost any other member of the domain name industry, I’d usually expect to receive a denial in short order.

Sadly, insolvency records in laissez-faire British tax haven Gibraltar, where FFM is based, do not appear to be a matter of public record.

Even if FFM has not gone insolvent, I think there are clear signs it is having problems.

Its primary web site at famousfourmedia.com has been stripped back to be little more than a privacy policy and a contact form. Gone are all the sales pitches, press releases and TLD-specific pages. It’s now basically a one-pager.

The web site of its parent company, Domain Venture Partners, no longer resolves.

Reaching out to industry sources who have business relationships with FFM, I was unable to find anyone who’d talked to the company recently, though there were rumors of departing staff.

Earlier this year, company chair Iain Roache spent £3.9 million ($5.4 million) to buy out former FFM COO Charles Melvin, after Melvin filed a lawsuit against him and Rasmussen.

The nature of the suit is not particularly clear from public records, but at one point Gibraltar’s top judge ruled that the defendants had filed inaccurate — technically “forged” — documents to the court.

These documents included 10 invoices between FFM and AlpNames, its affiliated registrar.

Famous Four runs 16 new gTLDs — the largest among them .loan, .win and .men — and has arguably shifted more domains than any other portfolio registry.

Group volume currently runs at about 4.5 million names according to ntldstats, compared to 3.9 million for Donuts with its far larger portfolio of 241 strings.

It’s achieved this impressive scale largely by selling domains super cheap, often at or below cost and often via AlpNames.

This has resulted in huge numbers of domains being acquired by spammers. FFM strings are routinely listed in the SpamHaus top-ten list of dirtiest TLDs.

AlpNames is also regularly fingered as one of the most spam-friendly registrars.

The company’s chosen business model means that renewals, where you’d expect to make your actual revenue, are on the low side. If you take its .science as a representative example, the TLD peaked at 350,000 domains under management in April 2016 but stood at around 63,000 this February.

Fatal timeout? A dozen dot-brands procrastinating to death

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2015, Domain Registries

Over a dozen new gTLD applications have been iced because the applicants couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to ICANN about signing contracts before their deadlines.

Volvo and PricewaterhouseCoopers are among the 13 dot-brand applicants whose $185,000+ investments could vanish in a puff of smoke because they can’t bring themselves to sign on the dotted line, I’ve discovered.

The following gTLD applications, filed by 10 different companies, are no longer active because of contracting problems:

.select, .compare, .axis, .origins, .changiairport, .nissay, .lamer, .clinique, .pwc, .volvo, .amp, .招聘 (Chinese “.recruitment”), .wilmar

They’re all uncontested applications. They’re also all, with the exception of .招聘, envisaged having single-registrant policies (dot-brands, in other words).

All had their apps flagged by ICANN as “Will Not Proceed” in the new gTLD process late last year, having failed to sign or start negotiating their Registry Agreements in time.

Under program rules, applicants originally had nine months from the day they were invited to contract with ICANN in which to sign their RAs.

After protests from dot-brand applicants planning to sign up for so-called “Spec 13” code of conduct exemptions, ICANN last June gave such applicants an extension until July 2015, as long as they hit a September 1 deadline to respond to ICANN’s overtures.

Applicants that did not request an extension had an October 29 deadline to sign their RAs.

According to an ICANN spokesperson, a failure to hit such “interim milestones” disqualifies applicants from signing RAs.

It’s not entirely clear from the Applicant Guidebook how applicants can extricate themselves from this limbo state without withdrawing their applications, but ICANN assures us it is possible.

“Will not Proceed is not a final status,” the spokesperson cautioned. “But they are currently not eligible to sign the RA with ICANN. But if that status changes, we’ll update it accordingly on the site.”

Withdrawals would qualify the applicants for a 35% refund on their application fees, he confirmed.