Category Archives: Legal

Congress prepares for legal action over ICANN transition

As the end of September approaches, and the planned handover of ultimate responsibility for internet naming by the US Government, it has emerged that Congress is making preparations to take legal action to halt the transition.

House Resolution 853, introduced by Congressman Mike Kelly on the 8th September will authorise the Speaker of the House to initiate civil action (or intervene in an existing action)regard  “compliance of the executive branch with the provision of law prohibiting relinquishment of the responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with respect to Internet domain name system functions.”

This development doesn’t make certain that there will be legal action against the Department of Congress, but it makes it more likely.

We will find out between now and the end of the month if this is just sabre-rattling or if the long-brewing (principally Republican) objections to the ICANN transition will boil over into an out-and-out fight between the legislative and executive branches, in the sunset weeks of the Obama administration.

The full text of the Resolution may be found at :-


Senators up the ante over spending on ICANN transition

Republican senators, including former Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, just upped the ante in their bid to stall or prevent the Obama administration’s plan to remove ultimate US Government oversight of ICANN.

In another letter to Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling they allege that the US Government broke the law when it gave a contract to the Berkman Center (sic) for the evaluation of the transition plan.

Cruz and several other Senators write: ‘We believe that NTIA has violated that prohibition by funding projects whose only conceivable purpose is to facilitate the transition . . . ‘

Federal law prevents NTIA spending money on the transition under a rider in the appropriation that funds the Department of Commerce and NTIA.

Strickling has become a not unfamiliar face at ICANN meetings; another meeting is due to take place in Helsinki next week.

It’s arguable that the routine travel expenses of NTIA employees to such meetings come out of general funds, and in pursuance of NTIA’s general oversight duties.

It’s much harder to argue that a sole-source contract, to an external organisation whose whole brief is to assess the transition proposal, is expenditure that’s unrelated to the transition . . .

The full letter is here and Cruz’s commentary can be found here.

It will be interesting to see what comes of this complaint. It probably doesn’t matter whether NTIA broke the law or not here.

What matters is, that if so, what Rafael (who is receiving up-to-date, and accurate briefings on the transition) will do about it, other than write aggrieved letters, no matter how eminent the signatories. So far, that’s not much. But of course, he’s been somewhat distracted by a different project until recently.

One thing I’ve learned about dealing with ICANN  senior staff over nearly 20 years, is that they have an unshakeable belief in their correctness of whatever decisions they are involved in, and simply motor on, irrespective of any expressed concerns.

It remains to be seen whether Assistant Secretary Strickling (who is due to leave office at the end of the Obama administration) takes a similar approach.

Ubi vires?

The following is my submission during the Public Comment phase of the IANA Transition Proposal

The IANA Transition Proposal is a proposal to transfer existing apparent residual powers currently exercised by the United States Government in respect of the important Internet Assigned Numbers
Authority (IANA) function; day-to-day operations being carried out by ICANN under a contract awarded to it by the Federal Government.

It is notable and welcome that the Proposal appears to recognise, to a large extent, the need for the Corporation to have real and enforceable accountability to those whom the Corporation, in the future, will regulate, or have significant economic effects upon by virtue of the IANA role.

As the business goal of the Corporation is to “co-ordinate at the overall level the Internet’s system of unique names and numbers”, it can clearly be seen that this means ICANN must needs find ways to be held accountable to the whole world: that is to say, business, civil society and public authorities world-wide.

The Proposal contains many interesting features, ostensibly designed to achieve this goal. They may (or may not) do so to the needed extent. Others equally qualified to comment have already, and will, provide input on these specific features.

Accordingly I choose to focus this, my formal submission on the Proposal, to a more fundamental question, which I submit, is required to be answered before transition may proceed.

That question can be summarised as follows: ”Whence derive the powers?”.  More specifically, it is submitted that as a pre-requisite of transition, it must be necessary to understand with complete clarity the following:

  1.  the legal basis for the existing role of the agencies of the United States;
  2. under what existing statutory powers or proposed legislation the proposed transfer of powers from the United States to a California non-profit corporation is to take place; and
  3. precisely which powers are proposed to be transferred from the United States to the selected private sector body by virtue of the IANA transition.

It is axiomatic, and trite to say that the principle of the Rule of Law (not to mention the constitution of the US) demands a government of laws, not governance by men. Yet, it seems to this author, the Proposal curiously lacks the necessary fundamental background of the powers involved. It is submitted that it is only reasonable to expect that the Proposal should set this out with precision and clarity before delving into the technical mechanics of how a future ICANN, once removed from the benevolent oversight of the United States’ Department of Commerce, would operate.

To the writer, it appears to be envisaged in the Proposal, that post-transition the Corporation (ICANN) will have untrammelled powers to co-ordinate (that is to say: to regulate) the Internet’s unique system of names and numbers in accordance with ICANN policies and its world-view of the global interest.

It further appears that, post-transition, that the operator for-the-time-being of the IANA function (i.e. ICANN) is intended to have power (within ICANN’s mission and policies but without external oversight such as is currently exercised by the United States) to create, modify, and remove global and country-code top-level domains (gTLDs and ccTLDs).

As an entirely private sector corporation, it is hard to see where ICANN’s legal authority is intended to sit, post-transition. The power  to compel another individual or corporation to regulatory compliance has to be founded either in contract, alternatively in statutory or prerogative power.

Further, as any other non-profit corporation, ICANN is free to enter into any contracts that it wishes, it remains hard to see whence (in the absence of some form of a deed of gift by the United States under existing statutory powers of the US Federal government) ICANN could henceforth derive a legal authority over the root zone database, which, although there are some questions about its very nature, has been previously claimed belongs to the United States, and without whose affirmative sanction, permissions, additions, modification and removal of entries may not currently be made.

In the absence of the needed clarity on the matters set out above, I cannot and do not support the Proposal as is.

Accordingly it is submitted that no changes to the status quo should be made unless and until the abovementioned deficiency has been rectified.

ICANN terrorism case set to move to D.C.

In an interesting twist, the appeal in the victims of terrorism case (now known as Weinstein & others -v- Iran & others) appears to be on the point taking a detour, leaving Federal jurisdiction, and being heard at the Appeal Court level in D.C. (i.e. the DC equivalent of the state appeals court).

You will recall that at first instance, it was decided that it was not necessary for the Federal court to decide whether TLDs and IP address blocks were property, because, even if they were — and the Court seemed to give a strong hint that they might be — they wouldn’t be the sort of property that could be garnished/attached.

The Plaintiffs appealed this. And in an interesting, although not unusual, development, they have petitioned the court to have part of the case decided not by the United States’ Court of Appeals but by the District of Columbia appeals court.

The way this seems to work, is a bit like when an English court, upon realising that its decision in a case before it depends on the interpretation of EU law, decides to refer the question to the ECJ in Luxembourg.

So here, the appellants have asked the Courts to answer the following question: ‘Whether D.C. CODE § 16-544, which provides that a judgment creditor may attach the “goods, chattels, and credits” of the judgment debtor, permits or might permit (dependent on what is revealed in discovery) ajudgment creditor to attach top level domain names and IP addresses of its judgment debtor?’

ICANN opposed this, but apparently lost the most recent skirmish: on 6th August, the Federal court stated: ‘Upon consideration of the motion to certify a question of law to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the opposition thereto, and the reply, it is ORDERED that the motion be referred to the merits panel to which this appeal is assigned.’

What this appears to mean is that the three judges of the Appeal Court that are assigned will now consider the application that ICANN wanted dismissed, namely whether the DC courts should be asked for a definitive interpretation of the statute (16-544).

It seems very likely that they will agree; and then at that point (some time in October) the case will head off to the DC Appeals Court.

The appellants have now filed a full brief, and it’s extremely interesting. There are a number of arguments in it which I will look at more closely in the coming days.

But the most powerful argument is simply this:

“Might the DC statute mean that TLDs and IP addresses could be attached?” That is a low hurdle to jump over, and it seems that the appellants ought to be able to leap it with ease.

It seems that the Federal Court doesn’t have to decide whether even whether it’s more likely than not. It has to decide simply whether there is a possibility.

And if there is a possibility the statute means what the Appellants say it does, then the obvious and necessary course of action is to obtain a definitive ruling on that.

And the correct way to get a ruling on D.C law is to ask a D.C. court.

ICANN Transparency

ICANN Transparency

As ICANN attempts to persuade the world that it deserves to be cut loose  from the apron-strings of the United States’ government, it is perhaps appropriate to review whether it is fulfilling the requirements of its founding community, never mind going forward.

The ICANN by-laws state, in Section 1 of Bylaw 3 that:

The Corporation and its subordinate entities shall operate to t’he maximum extent feasible in an open and transparent manner and consistent with procedures designed to ensure fairness.

Now this is pretty unambiguous.  In the first few ICANN meetings this meant that anyone could participate in the work of ICANN. You just turned up, registered (at no cost), attend and speak the sessions that interested you.

The Government Advisory Committee was a special case — it was formed specifically outside of ICANN, so it is not bound by the bylaws, and membership is restricted to accredited representatives of governments and multi-national organisations.

GAC meetings were originally held entirely behind closed doors, leading to all kinds of speculations. But over the years, the GAC began to feel more and more comfortable — holding joint meetings with other constutiencies and become more transparent. And we learned that, far from devil-worship, the GAC were doing extremely useful work that quite often had a lot in common with the ccTLD community.

Unfortunately, ICANN itself seemed to be going the other way.

In recent years, the perception is that more and more meetings were being held behind closed doors. You only have to look at the proliferation of the ‘CLOSED’ tags on the schedule.

And many of these ‘closed meetings’ are unnecessarily so.

I’ve been in a number of meetings when literally none of the participant knew why it had been scheduled behind closed doors.

It’s fairly self-eviden that if there’s a meeting of the members of a particular Council, or Working Group, that the participants in that group are the only people you’d expect to be debating, but there’s no reason why the general public can’t attend, and follow the discussions.

Transparency demands it, in fact.

The only time a meeting needs to resolve to close its doors, is if, for example it is discussing staff salaries, appointments, or reviewing privileged legal advice.

It was that dangerous radical, Margaret Thatcher, who in 1962, in a Private Members Bill, brought transparency to English local government.

Given the binding nature of the by-law that requires the ‘maximum feasible’ transparency, ICANN should not be doing worse.

Victims of terrorism versus ICANN (round 2)

In an earlier article I wrote about the court case of Ben Haim (& others) -v- Iran (& others) where the successful Claimants (Plaintiffs) were attempting to attach the Iranian, Syrian and (just for good measure) North Korean country code domain names (.IR, .SY and .KP) and wanted ICANN to hand them over, and took it to court to force it.

A DC court rebuffed the attempt stating that while top-level domains might be property (like any other domain name) they weren’t the sort of property that could be garnished.

Well, as I write this in the aftermath of the Sony hack, and what seem to be countermeasures taking North Korean off the Internet entirely, details are slowly emerging that (not entirely unexpectedly, given their historic persistence) the Claimants, or at least one of them, has launched an appeal.

What is mildly interesting is that it’s just one of the Claimants (lead Plaintiff Seth Ben Haim, and just one of the Defendants (Iran). All the Court filing says is, in essence “I appeal”.

You don’t have to be legally qualified to work out that this is a placeholder, designed to ‘stop the clock’. It also allows the Plaintiffs a breathing space so they can work out whether Washington, DC is the best forum to haul ICANN into court.

Even if, as Judge Landreth clearly foreshadows, (cc)TLDs are property, if .COM names can’t be attached in DC, then the Claimant’s may still have some difficulty with attaching TLDs (which after all, are just dotless domain names).

It always puzzled me anyway that this lawsuit was in DC. After all, ICANN is a California corporation, and the California district courts saw the first lawsuit over TLDs back in November of 1999.

Still, no doubt the Federal Appeal Court in DC is as good a place as any.



Court judgment: ccTLDs might be property

At the beginning of August I wrote about the long-running saga of terrorists’ victims who are pursuing ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ (specifically, Iran, Syria, and North Korea) through the US courts for damages for the injuries they have suffered.

Several years along that path they managed to obtain Writs of Attachment in the Federal court district in Washington (D.C.) courts ordering that the ccTLDs of those respective countries be seized in part-payment of the damages they are owed.

ICANN, fairly predictably, became involved at this point. It went to Court in DC asking that the Writs be quashed. It appeared to based its argument on a number of points, starting with the theory that TLDs are different from other domain names, and are not property. See my earlier article..

Federal courts apply the law of the State in which they sit, on matters such as asset seizure.

The Court ruled on the 10th November and the full judgment has just become available.

ICANN has been successful in quashing the Writs attaching the TLDs.

However, as any legal observer will tell you, the actual outcome of a case is not that important (except to the winners and losers!). What is important is the legal reasoning; the rationale and the dicta.

In other words, on what legal principles is a judgment made. Does it create new law, for example, which can bind the decisions of future courts (‘binding precedent’). And are there any other legal principles discussed: these can form what are called ‘persuasive precedent’ and/or obiter dicta).

Well, in this case, the outcome seems to turn on fact, rather than any estoteric legal principle.

The Court appears to have found as fact that the domain names that had prospectively been seized by the Plaintiffs (Claimants) had the nature of a contractual right.

What this means for the Plaintiffs is that under the statute law of DC, rights arising under a contract cannot be seized as part of a judgment. This technicality means that the Court did not have to rule whether ccTLDs are property or not: it just had to be satisfied that, if it were property, it was not the sort of property that the relevant law (statute) allows to be seized by a creditor (in D.C.) , which ICANN has fairly easily been able to show.

Other commentators (e.g. the DomainPulse people) have written the court has ruled that ccTLDs are not property. This turns out to be incorrect.

[DomainPulse updated and revised their coverage since this was written and they have now corrected this.]


Interestingly, the Court chose explicitly to say in the judgment that it has not decided that ccTLDs were not property.

On page 8 of the judgment, in footnote 2, the Court says: “The Court notes that judicial decisions have found domain names to be a form of intangible property. See e.g. Kremen v Cohen 337 F.3d 102,1030 (9th Cir 2002). But the conclusion that ccTLDs may not be attached in satisfaction of a judgement under DC law does not mean that they cannot be property.”

This appears to give us a clue that the Court might have considered that ccTLDs are no different to gTLDs and no different to domain names such as SEX.COM (which was the property at issue in Kremen v Cohen).

It simply found that ccTLDs were, like other domain names, in the nature of a contractual right, which under DC law cannot be seized by creditors.

As this was sufficient to dispose of the current application, no binding ruling has been issued, so another court could decide either way. But from the above quote, it’s fairly clear that the court clearly seems to think that Kremen v Cohen would have been relevant if it had had to decide whether TLDs are property.


ICANN: Domain names aren’t property

ICANN is embroiled in an ongoing civil court case between victims of terrorism and the government’s of three countries, in the case of Rubin & ors v Iran and other actionswhich are in federal court in the District of Columbia. (Michele Neylon reporting).

Essentially the form of the current Claim is that ICANN are seeking to quash a court order that requires them to transfer the management of three Top Level Domain names to the successful Claimants in a number of separate actions against the Governments of Iran, Syria and North Korea.

ICANN’s full Application to Quash has been published here.

When analysis ICANN’s argument it appears to be that

(a) domain names, at the top level which consist of two letters only (i.e country-code domain names, or “ccTLDs) cannot be regarded as property;

(b) that even they are property they aren’t the sort of property that can be seized in law;

(c) that even if they are seizable property, they aren’t owned by the countries concerned;

(d) even if they are owned by the countries concerned, they aren’t inside the court’s jurisdiction;

(e) even if they are in the jurisdiction, a US Federal law giving immunity to foreign governments prohibits the seizure;

(f) even if that law doesn’t prohibit seizure, ICANN acting along cannot transfer ownership

(g) forced transfer would destroy the inherent value in the property.

The property question is particularly interesting and relevant, since many ccTLDs have invested major resources in developing their registries, and at least at first blush, ICANN appears to be saying they have no rights whatsoever to the delegation.

Even to raise such an argument appears that it might destabilise the smooth functioning of the Internet’s unique naming system . . .



Censorship, fundamental rights and the DNS (part 1)

It seems clear to me that the next field of engagement over fundamental rights is going to involve the Domain Name System. The recent skirmishes over SOPA (the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, recently holed below the waterline by Pres. Obama) seems to confirm this view.

The DNS is the technical system at the heart of what nearly everyone who uses the Internet does.

It enables people and  applications to locate things on the Internet. Things such as website addresses, email servers and many other things. Watch the video at

The DNS is run by a diverse group of people and organisations which evolved from the Internet’s early research within academia. This group includes universities, government agencies and private businesses and is co-ordinated at its apex by a California organisation called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

A recently hot topic in the DNS world is something called ‘Notice and Takedown’.

That is to say, “someone” (in the British Isles this is most usually the owner of some intellectual property or an organisation such as the Internet Watch Foundation which monitors the Internet for illegal content such as child abuse images or extreme pornography) will send a Notice to an ISP or domain name registrar to inform them that a domain name (or web address) is being used by what is becoming known in the industry as ‘bad actor’.

The recipient of such a Notice is then expected to take the appropriate action; the expectation being that the domain name concerned is blocked, filtered or ‘taken down’.

Much of the activity, as you might expect, in this regard has come from IP rights-owners as well as anti-phishing & anti-spam organisations.

Now your author’s anti-spam credentials cannot be doubted but it is submitted that there are significant dangers in the understandable wish of  registrars, ISPs and others to ‘do the right thing’. One insufficiently considered action could pose great reputational or even existential risk to the ISP executing takedown. On the other hand, there are equally significant risks to inaction as well.

There is a certain amoun of protection in Europe law for ‘mere conduits’, for example, under the e-commerce Directive.

But what if a registry (rather than a registra) receives a notice drawing its attention to the fact that a domain name is being used for bad purposes?

Such bad behaviour doesn’t have to be illegal (that is to say, criminal) conduct. It can equally well be an infringment of the civil rights of a third party, such as a defamation.

In England, defamation is a very great risk for any person or organisation that can be said to publish or assist publication. Ask any newspaper editor.

The UK libel laws are archaic and arcane. This basically means that it is extremely risky and extremely expensive to be either a Claimant or a Defendant, whether willingly or unwillingly.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that one of the early cases on the principles of notice and takedown are set out early on in an internet  libel case in England .. Godfrey -v- Demon Internet.

The effects of that regime on intermediaries has been ameliorated by subsequent European legislation — the e-commerce Directive but nonetheless, it is clear that not only are there risks to an ISP or registrar or registrar in taking positive action over a domain name that is alleged to be being used for illegal (criminal) or unlawful (civil) purposes, there are risks in NOT taking action.

I predict this debate will continue for several years, and is likely to engage the law enforcement, legislative and judicial authorities in a number of countries at the highest levels.

Manwin’s squeaky wheel

ICANN has been taken to an Independent Review Proceeding by Manwin Licensing International.

Independent Review is a form of arbitration, which is provided for in ICANN’s By-laws.

What is ironic, is that this suit appears to be filed on behalf of a number of major players in Internet


That is, the people behind such hit websites as ‘YouP*rn’ and ‘Br*zzers’ among others. (No, I’m not going to hyperlink them — Google is your friend if you really are curious ).

Internet porn has been major beneficiaries of the US First Amendment and the constitutional law doctrine that protects distasteful speech (such as ‘Net porn itself, or demonstrating about military presence in Afghanistan or similar at soldiers’ funerals!)

But it seems to be sauce for the gander tine when someone else wants to exercise their rights of free expression (that is to say, expression in the form new TLDs, and specifically in the form of .XXX) in a way which the pornsters don’t like.

In Europe the equivalent of the First Amendment is Article 10, which all Governments are under a legal obligation positively to protect.

It says: “Everyone has the right of freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without inference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

Pretty clear.

It’s worth pointing out that free expression is not unlimited.

Restrictions can be placed on it, for example, balancing and protecting the rights of others. (Libel laws are an obvious example; there are many others).

The difference in approach can be see that, in the Land of the Free protesting at a soldiers funeral and causing distress to the bereaved is constitutionally guaranteed expression (Snyder v Phelps) where as in the UK you’d probably get locked up for Behaviour Likely To Cause a Breach of the Peace.

Burning the flag is perfectly acceptable behaviour in the USA, while burning poppies on Armistice Day attracts a criminal conviction, albeit attracting a fine. (Poppies are worn in remembrance of the dead on Armistice Day, our equivalent of Veterans Day).

However, the default position in Europe as in the USA, remains, that you have the right of expression, unless a qualifying factor is present and can be shown to be.

Article 10 goes on to say say: “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

So surely this would mean that presumption must be that proponents of newTLDs can express themselves in the way the want to unless restrictions are necessary in a democratic society.

Censoring .XXX does not protect health or morals — there’s plenty enough internet porn under .COM, and I don’t think Manwin are arguing here for the content restrictions that this caveat might allow, anyway. They probably don’t want to open that door!

The only other aspect in 10(2) that they could pray in aid is the protection of the rights of others — in this case the very real property rights of Manwin and their allies. After all, intellectual and intangible property are equally property as any other kind.

And it’s a reasonable point, particularly as Luxembourg headquartered Manwin is, on the face of things, a European company, and Manwin therefore inherently has these Convention rights

But the starting point of Article 10 is that the expression must be allowed, and it’s only after considering the balancing exercise of considering the harm to Manwin’s Article 1 (Protocol 1) property rights, could the censorship they seem to be seeking be lawful.

And, this, I suggest, will be an uphill struggle.

Although Manwin’s property rights are in essence, and in law, exactly the same property rights that, for example, Google and Facebook have in their brands, Manwin’s task is made no easier by the unredeeming nature of their own content.

And the harm that they claim — well, why should they have special treatment above the thousands of WIPO cases over other, non-porn relating cybersquatting. A proper UDRP process and timely access to the Courts, is really all they can demand, and .XXX, and the forthcoming newTLDs will, at ICANN’s insistence, deliver this.

In conclusion, it seems to me that Manwin’s Independent Review Claim is just a case of a squeaky wheel not realising it is already sufficient lubricated, and demanding more oil.