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Net4’s “complete breakdown” is bringing India to a screeching halt, and ICANN could have prevented it

Kevin Murphy, April 20, 2021, 16:57:50 (UTC), Domain Registrars

Domains belonging to hospitals, power grids, public transit services, banks, and other critical services have gone offline due to the collapse of a major local registrar whose troubles ICANN has been aware of for years.

Net 4 India, which has been slowly imploding over the last year, saw a number of its name servers stop functioning last week, leading to customers’ web sites and email services ceasing to work.

Affected customers are not only domainers, web developers, mom-n-pop stores, and small businesses. We’re talking about major players in India’s physical infrastructure, some with billions of dollars of annual revenue.

Power Grid Corporation of India, for example, has complained to ICANN that its primary web site, at powergridindia.com, has gone down, and that its email at that domain is no longer working.

That’s a government-owned company that according to Wikipedia takes in $5.4 billion per year and is responsible for transmitting 50% of the electricity generated in India, a nation of almost 1.4 billion people.

“We are facing problems with DNS of Net4India and due to non availability of email service our operations would affect badly,” a Power Grid employee told ICANN, according to papers filed with Net4’s insolvency court at the weekend.

Others to inform ICANN of outages include:

  • The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, which with over four million passengers per day is India’s largest mass transit rail network.
  • Multi-billion-dollar conglomerate Bharti Group, which has its fingers in pies such as telecoms, insurance and food, said its “email and other essential business services have been rendered defunct”.
  • The Punjab National Bank, which had revenue of over $9 billion last year, named eight domains, seven of which were in gTLDs, that were with Net4 but no longer work.
  • Global Hospitals India, a private healthcare provider that sees to 18,000 transplant surgeries per year, has seen its .com domain stop working and has been unable to secure an auth code for a transfer out.

I’ve not seen any reports of these internet-based problems spilling over into actual life-threatening issues such as power outages or failures of critical hospital functions, but one can only assume that not having functional email represents a risk of this kind of thing happening.

The customer testimonies cited above were part of a second batch (pdf) sent to the insolvency court handling Net4’s case by ICANN’s head of compliance, Jamie Hedlund, on Sunday.

And those are just a sampling of the over 2,400 complaints about Net4 that ICANN said it received between April 14 and April 16 last week.

Net4’s own web site appears to have been dark for most or all of this month.

And this is all happening as India’s struggle with the coronavirus pandemic hits a low point. Not only have many heavily-populated areas of the country been forced into lockdown in recent days, but the country seems to have spawned its own virus variant, which is raising concerns among scientists worldwide.

A major internet infrastructure crisis couldn’t come at a worse time, but ICANN not only could fix it now but could have prevented it years ago.

ICANN on February 26 told Net4 it would terminate the company’s Registrar Accreditation Agreement, after the company did not get its act together to fix three previous breach notices detailing its customers’ woes, the first of which was issued December 10.

That meant — or should have meant — that after March 13 ICANN would kick off its process of transferring Net4’s domains and customers to a third-party registrar, where none of this downtime nonsense would have occurred.

But the “resolution professional” trying to keep Net4 alive long enough to service its corporate creditors asked the insolvency court to ask ICANN to halt the termination, and the court complied.

Even though neither ICANN nor the court seems to be claiming that the court has any jurisdiction over a California non-profit and an RAA governed by California law, ICANN has nevertheless spent the last five weeks noticeably NOT terminating Net4 and saving its customers as promised.

Hedlund told the court (pdf) at the weekend:

Unfortunately, ICANN currently is not in a position to assist these individuals, businesses and organizations in transferring their domain names from Net 4 to another registrar because ICANN has no access to AuthInfo codes or the technical ability to generate them the way that registry operators, like the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI), and registrars, like Net 4, can. Rather, ICANN can only assist these registrants by transitioning all of Net 4’s registrations to a functioning registrar through a bulk transfer in connection with ICANN’s termination of Net 4’s RAA, which ICANN has been prevented from doing as a result of this Hon’ble Tribunal’s Ad Interim Order of 16 March 2021

It’s not at all clear from the record why ICANN’s lawyers are allowing Net4’s customers to suffer — and its own compliance department to turn into a de facto replacement for Net4’s absentee customer service department — to abide by the suggestion of a court they claim has no power over it.

In fact, it’s not even clear why ICANN has been playing softball with Net4 since it first issued a breach notice against the firm in June 2019.

At that time, ICANN threatened to suspend Net4 for going into insolvency proceedings — the RAA gives it the right to do so unilaterally when “proceedings are instituted by or against Registrar under any bankruptcy, insolvency, reorganization or other laws relating to the relief of debtors”.

If it had wanted to, ICANN could have terminated Net4 and transferred its domains to a safe registrar in 2019, a year before its troubles (arguably exacerbated by the pandemic) started to cause serious problems for the registrar’s customers.

But ICANN did not act at that time. Instead, court filings and other documents suggest, it chose to cooperate with Net4 and the resolution professional, allowing Net4 to continue to market itself to new customers as an accredited registrar.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s something ICANN didn’t have in June 2019.

But now that we do have that luxury, surely we can say that the Net4 debacle is going to have to go down as one of ICANN’s all-time most humiliating and potentially dangerous failures.

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Comments (3)

  1. Dan says:

    Isn’t this basically a repeat of registerfly?

    Isn’t this the exact scenario which triggered ICANN to have the policies to handle this when a registrar is in trouble!?

  2. Terminating the registrar and assigning the domains to another registrar would be the first step in helping the customers, but the process may be more complicated beyond that.

    The problem is not just the registrar functionality itself being defunct, it appears to be that the company was also providing DNS and hosting services.

    So even terminating the registrar itself (and transferring the domains to another registrar) will not solve the customer’s problems of their sites not functioning. The nameserver entries and server contains from net4india are not under ICANN “jurisdiction” and will still have to be recreated wherever the customers go, and this will take lots of additional time.

    • Dan says:

      It will however enable the new registrar and customers to change their DNS – it appears currently customers can’t even do that.

      And if ICANN had done its job a year ago, there could have been an orderly transition.

      ICANN utterly failed to protect registrants here.

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