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Why you should never let a pizza joint apply for your billion-dollar dot-brand

Kevin Murphy, September 9, 2019, Domain Registries

A multi-billion dollar telecoms company has lost its two dot-brand gTLDs after apparently hiring a failed pizza restaurant to manage them.

For reals.

Several times a year, my friends at other domain news blogs will post cautionary tales about companies losing their domains after falling out with the consultant or developer who originally registered the names on their behalf.

I believe this story is the first example of the same thing happening at the top level, with two valuable dot-brand gTLDs.

It concerns the Saudi Arabian telco Etihad Etisalat, which does business as Mobily. It’s publicly traded, with millions of subscribers and 2018 revenue of the equivalent of $3.14 billion.

The two gTLDs we’re concerned with are .mobily and موبايلي. (.xn--mgbb9fbpob), the Arabic version of the brand.

Back in 2012, a Bahrain company called GreenTech Consultancy Company applied for both of these TLDs. The applications made it explicit that they were to be single-registrant dot-brands to be used by Mobily.

Quite what the relationship between Mobily and GreenTech was — if there even was one — isn’t particularly clear.

GreenTech’s shareholders were Anwar Ahmed and Asma Malik, two Pakistani nationals living in Bahrain, according to Bahrain business records.

Its web site is an laughable mess of broken English, shameful grammar, irrelevant and impenetrable technobabble (much of which appears verbatim on several other South Asian tech companies’ web sites), and a suggestion that the company is primarily in the business of selling satellite modems.

The site just stinks of bogosity. It looks like a dirt-cheap developer threw the site together during his lunch break for beer money.

Bahrain company records show that GreenTech shared a registration with a company called Greentech Pizzeria Restaurant. Same two directors, same address, same company number.

The consultancy company was formed in February 2012 — during the ICANN application window — and the pizza joint opened a bit over a year later.

Why a multi-billion dollar telecommunications company would entrust its brands to these guys, if that is in fact what happened, is a bit of a mystery.

From information that has recently emerged, which I’ll get to shortly, it appears that the true applicant was a Los Angeles-based gTLD consultancy called WiseDots, which in 2011 was co-founded by recently departed ICANN CFO Kevin Wilson and Herman Collins.

WiseDots employees Collins, Wael Nasr and Alan Bair were all at some point listed as primary or secondary contacts for the two applications, as was domain lawyer Mike Rodenbaugh of Rodenbaugh Law.

Wilson left WiseDots in May 2012 and rejoined three years later as CEO after a stint at Donuts. He’s currently listed as the Admin contact for both Mobily gTLDs in the IANA records.

It appears that Mobily signed a letter of intent with WiseDots on April 9, 2012, just three days before the ICANN application window closed, and that was later formalized into a contract in 2014, six months before GreenTech signed its contracts with ICANN.

Both applications made it through ICANN’s evaluation process with apparently no trouble — there were no objections on trademark or any other grounds — and the Registry Agreements were signed in December 2014.

It’s worth noting that neither contract contains Specification 13, which is required for a registry to operate as a dot-brand. If you want to run a dot-brand, you have to show ICANN that you own a trademark matching the string you’ve applied for.

GreenTech did actually submit requests for Spec 13 approval (pdf) — a week after the contracts were already signed — but at a later date both were either withdrawn or rejected by ICANN for reasons unknown.

Both requests include what appear to be scans of Saudi trademark certificates, but they’re both in Arabic and I’ve no idea who they’re assigned to. Presumably, Mobily, which may explain why GreenTech couldn’t get its Spec 13.

After the contracts were signed, it took exactly one full year — the maximum delay permitted by ICANN — before they were delegated and entered the DNS root.

A year after that, in December 2016, ICANN whacked GreenTech with a breach-of-contract notice (pdf), after the company apparently failed to pay its ICANN fees.

The fees had been “past due” for at least six months. It seems quite possible GreenTech had never paid its fees after delegation.

The breach was later escalated to termination, and the two parties entered mediation.

According to Nasr, in a letter to ICANN, Mobily had promised to pay the ICANN fees, but had reneged on its promise, causing the breach.

The issue was resolved, with GreenTech apparently agreeing to some “confidential” terms with ICANN, in November 2017.

It has now transpired, from Nasr’s letter and attached confidential joint-venture agreement, that GreenTech, WiseDots, Collins, Ahmad, Nasr and yet another consultant — an Egyptian named Ahmed El Oteify, apparently with Varkon Group — made a pact in August 2016 whereby the two gTLDs would be transferred into the control of a new jointly owned Bahrain company to be called MobileDots WLL, which in turn would be owned by a new jointly owned Delaware company called MobileDots LLC.

The TLD contracts would then be transferred to Mobily, according to Nasr.

“GreenTech and the two Mobiledots companies were intended to be intermediate conduits for the future transfer of the two Mobily licenses to Mobily as their eventual Registered Operator,” he wrote.

“At no point in time was GreenTech ever contemplated as the true operator of the ‘Mobily’ gTLD licenses. Indeed, GreenTech ran a defunct pizza restaurant, and was long ago de-registered by the Bahraini government for its numerous payments and filing defaults,” he wrote.

The Delaware company was created, but there does not appear to be an official record of the Bahrain company being formed.

According to Nasr, after Mobily stopped paying its ICANN dues the joint venture partners fell out with each other over how to finance the registries. This led to GreenTech asking ICANN to terminate its contracts, which I blogged about in May.

As is customary when a brand registry self-terminates, ICANN made a preliminary decision not to transfer the GreenTech contracts to a third party and opened it up to public comments.

Nasr’s letter is the first example of anyone ever actually using that public comment opportunity.

He argued that because of the JV agreement, ICANN should instead transfer .mobily and the Arabic version to MobileDots.

ICANN declined, saying “it is not within the remit of ICANN org to transfer the TLDs to a specific successor Registry Operator (such as Mobiledots L.L.C., as Mr. Nasr requests) through this termination process”.

As a further twist in the tale, on August 23 this year, just four days before the contract terminations were due to become effective, GreenTech withdrew its requests for reasons unknown.

But it seems ICANN has had enough.

Last Thursday, it told GreenTech (Wilson and Ahmed) that it is terminating its registry contracts anyway, “invoking certain provisions set forth in the previously agreed-upon confidential terms between ICANN org and GreenTech”.

Its termination notices do not reveal what these “confidential terms” are.

But, given that GreenTech stopped existing as a legal entity in February (according to Bahrain company records) it appears it would have been on fairly solid grounds to terminate anyway.

ICANN’s decision is not open for comment this time around, and IANA has been asked to delete both TLDs from the root as soon as possible.

The upshot of all this is that a massive Saudi telco has lost both of the dot-brands it may or may not have wanted, and a whole mess of gTLD consultants appear to be out of pocket.

And the moral of this story?

Damned if I know. Something to do with pizzas, probably.