An initial review of ICANN’s response to litigation seeking it to turn over control of the ccTLDs of Iran, Syria and North Korea led to the conclusion that it had opened a “legal can of worms”. A few more just wriggled out, and they threaten the basic assumption that underlies the U.S. statute governing cybersquatting and the practices engaged in by Federal officials seizing domain names engaged in intellectual property infringement.
In a blog post, “Are Internet domain names “property”?”, placed at the influential Volokh Conspiracy legal discussion website, Temple University Law Professor David Post further explores the implications of ICANN’s response. His comments carry considerable weight, as he is also a Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Nexa Center for Internet and Society.
Professor Post starts out by declaring his distaste for “resolving through private litigation matters that are more properly viewed as substantial international disputes between nation-states”. That aversion is heightened when it “embroils ICANN in either (a) complicated questions of international politics or (b) the resolution of private disputes”. And he gets to the heart of the potential international political dangers of this litigation with his observation that, “the notion that the decisions of US courts can interfere in ICANN’s management of the domain name system in a way that courts elsewhere cannot… will not go over very well in an international community that already thinks the US government exercises too much control over ICANN, and over Internet infrastructure in general.
While agreeing with ICANN’s argument that a ccTLD is not property, he goes on to observe that this contention is actually at sharp odds with existing U.S. law and enforcement practices involving the protection of trademarks and copyrights:
It’s a very sensible argument, and I’ve made it myself many times. The problem, though, is that US law already – very unfortunately, in my view, but there you are – treats domain names as if they were “property”. The Anti-Cybersquatting Protection Act permits aggrieved trademark owners to institute in rem actions against domain names whose owners are located abroad (and not subject to the jurisdiction of the US courts) – to seize the domain names and then to adjudicate the rights associated with them, on the fiction that the names are indeed property located in the judicial district where the particular domain name registry is located. On very much the same theory – that domain names are seizeable “property” – the Dept. of Homeland Security has issued several thousand seizure orders over the past few years against domain names allegedly involved in large-scale copyright infringement.
Professor Post, after noting that, “I would expect the plaintiffs here to press this argument in opposition to ICANN’s motions to quash”, concludes his post with the hope that “ICANN’s other arguments are strong enough that the judge can (and hopefully will) grant its motion without having to delve into this rather tricky nomenclatural minefield about what is, and what isn’t, property”.
But what if the case doesn’t play out that way? What if the plaintiffs raise the “are domains property?” issue with sufficient force to get the DC Court of Appeals to rule on it? What if the politically fraught nature of this case propels it on to the Supreme Court, which may have to resolve conflicting Appeals Court decisions that have split on whether second level domains are property or just a form of licensure?
Any holding that domains are not property could well be the basis for a challenge to the in rem provision of the ACPA, and to ICE’s domain seizure practices.
There is of course an argument to be made that ccTLDs assigned to nation-states and whose relationship with ICANN is strictly voluntary are fundamentally different in legal character than gTLDs that are based upon a registry agreement contract between the operator and ICANN. But that argument is most unlikely to be raised in this case as it only involves ccTLDs.
Lots of parties not involved in this litigation have a considerable stake in it. New gTLD applicants that have expended large investments in their registries would like certainty over the U.S. legal status of them, since all registry contracts are governed by US law. While there is no consensus within the domain investment community as to whether it would be desirable to have interests in second level domains classified as a property right, it seems axiomatic that if a gTLD is found to not constitute property than a second level subunit of it will likewise lack that status. And trademark and copyright owners may not be pleased with any judicial decision that undermines the basis of their current online protections.
This is but the latest potential fallout of this most unusual case. More consequences may be in the offing. Stay tuned.