For adjudicators and decision makers default constitutes perhaps one of the major procedural hurdles during the adjudication process. A defaulting party is the one that fails to appear before a court of law or a tribunal within a timely manner, thus failing to exercise her right of defence. Unquestionably, this kind of procedural awkwardness imposes a shadow of doubt in the delivery of justice. The problems with default are many: defendants don’t get to respond to the plaintiff’s assertions; judges find it extremely hard to produce solid decisions; justice struggles. If we were to prioritize, we could easily argue that the greatest challenge of default focuses on how the adjudicator will be able to reach decisions in a fair and equitable manner without, however, capitulating its own obligation for independence and impartiality; the judge cannot possibly be asked to read the defaulting party’s mind, thus inevitably decisions need to be taken absent the defendant.
But somehow, even in the absence of the defendant, justice is still ensured. The existing checks and balances of traditional adjudication processes alongside axiomatic principles relating to the rights of the parties provide a sound basis for the delivery of justice. As part of their mandate to deliver justice, courts have to make sure that the defendant is served and, if that fails, at the very minimum the court must exhaust all the possibilities for service of process. At the same time, courts also have to abide by the idea of the presumption of innocence and the right of defence. Article 48 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights states: “1. Everyone who has been charged shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law. And, 2. Respect for the rights of the defence of anyone who has been charged shall be guaranteed”.
With this in mind, nothing in ICANN’s dispute resolution mechanisms remotely resembles this thinking. The truth is that ICANN’s processes have historically suffered from the issue of default. When the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution (UDRP) was created back in 1999, default was not identified as part of its procedural rules. It was an issue that the drafters of the UDRP had either not considered or they intentionally omitted. But, default was inevitable, especially in a mechanism designed for online disputes like the UDRP, which concerns parties located anywhere in the world and everything is done electronically, from the submission of the necessary forms until the delivery of justice. So, when default started creeping into the UDRP system, the panels opted for the easiest, fastest and most unfair option – they associated it with bad faith, generating this way a vicious circle of decisions that made all defaults indiscriminately tied to bad faith. And to make matters much worse, no one within the adjudication process (ICANN or WIPO or any other accredited dispute resolution provider) stopped to question or even investigate some of the possibilities of default. Because bad faith aside, default may occur for various reasons: the domain name holder (respondent) did not receive the complaint because the email went into her spam folder; the respondent did not have time to respond to the complaint (the UDRP gives the respondent 14 days to respond); the respondent resides in a developing country or a somewhere with limited Internet access; the respondent does not speak English (and most of the complaints are submitted in English); the respondent does not understand what the UDRP is or how it works; the respondent does not have the time or money to hire an attorney to assist with the response – and the list of reasons goes on.
Fast forward now to ICANN’s new gTLD program and the idea of a Uniform Rapid Suspension System (URS). After years of debate, multiple versions of the same policy and controversial meetings, the issue of default still appears not to be settled correctly and to constitute one of the worst attributes of ICANN’s dispute resolution mechanisms. The Governmental Advisory Committee’s (GAC) recommendation, which in relation to default has been accepted by the ICANN Board, basically disseminates one simple message: default means bad faith. The GAC scorecard says: “If, as is expected in the majority of cases, there is no response from the registrant, the default should be in favour of the complainant and the website locked”. All this sentence is wrong: ‘as expected’ means that default constitutes some sort of a bizarre normative account in domain name disputes; ‘in the majority of cases’ means that without having implemented the URS, we should expect more than half of the URS cases to be in default; ‘the default should be in favour of the complainant’ means default equates to some form of malicious conduct.
On top of all this, the Examiner is stripped of any right to attempt to identify good faith, even in the case of default. Using what I consider a very bad choice of words to refer to the party defaulting as ‘non-cooperative’ both ICANN and the GAC agree, “In addition, the examination of possible defences in default cases according to para 8.4(2) means an unjustified privilege of the non-cooperating defendant.” Here is the paradox with this approach. On the one hand, the UDRP (and the current language of the URS) give wide discretionary powers to the panels to find bad faith and interpret it any way they see fit. On the other hand, however, it doesn’t allow the panels to find good faith and apply it. The argument goes that adjudicators cannot be expected to be ‘mind readers’. Sure and I am sure that none of us wants them or expects them to be although some UDRP panels have already done so to prove the impossible (for example, in Educational Testing Services v. TOEFL, the panel seeking to establish bad faith said exercised its discretion by stating the following: “[…] because Respondent is contributing no value-added to the Internet – it is merely attempting to exploit a general rule of registration – the broad community of Internet users will be better served by transferring the domain name to a party with a legitimate use for it.”). But, some domain names are, on their face, registered for fair use. Take, for instance, <ihatebrand.com> - wouldn’t you consider use of such a domain name to fall under fair use?
So, we find ourselves in a very bad conundrum – if the new gTLD program is meant to build bridges and invite applicants from across the world – developing countries included – then this approach will make it impossible. We need to understand and appreciate that not all registrants are bad actors who wish to take advantage of trademarks and we need to find ways to differentiate between those in good faith and those in bad faith. A good way would be to allow the Examiner, should she wishes to, to make determinations of good faith.
The long-awaited interaction between the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and ICANN’s Board of Directors wrapped up its proceedings today in Brussels, one day after the originally scheduled two day meeting. Trademark issues were once again at the forefront of the discussions with the ICANN Board providing some preliminary – and not final – answers to the GAC’s scorecard. For those who have not read or heard the trademark issues raised before the Board, the GAC scorecard focused on three issues relating to the protection of trademarks on the Internet: the Trademark Clearinghouse, the Uniform Rapid Suspension System (URS) and the Post Delegation Dispute Resolution Process (PDDRP). In my previous blog post, I identified the issues that I thought were problematic with the GAC scorecard, focusing mainly on the URS and the way it sought to provide a mechanism that would be beneficial for the trademark community and for no one else.
ICANN, in submitting its preliminary answers, got many things right, but also got some things wrong, whilst it referred some questions back to the GAC for more clarification. The ICANN Board emphasised that its inclination was not final and that further discussions with the GAC would be necessary to clarify and resolve the various outstanding issues. A further call between the GAC and the ICANN Board will be scheduled in the next few days (and before ICANN’s San Francisco meeting) to further discuss and deliberate on these issues with the hope that both entities will reach some agreement.
Regarding the GAC’s recommendation for all types of IP rights to be included in the Trademark Clearinghouse, the Board accepted in principle this proposal asserting, however, that further discussions were necessary to ensure that the implementation of this recommendation would not leave any rightful mark owners outside this framework. The Board accepted the recommendation that both sunrise services and IP claims should be mandatory and raised its objections on the issue of whether ‘IP claims services and sunrise services should go beyond exact matches to include exact match plus key terms associated with goods and services identified by the mark and typographical variations identified by the rights holder’. In relation to this, the Board expressed its difficulty in understanding and setting criteria as to how far the notion of these exact matches could go. One of the things that the Board focused on (and appeared to be quite adamant about it) is that only genuine trademark owners should be given the right to be listed in the Clearinghouse. By ‘genuine’ the Board asserted that proof of use on behalf of trademark owners should be required, expressing fears that various mark owners can potentially approach jurisdictions where no substantive review is conducted and, therefore, receive protection when it is debatable whether such protection should exist in the first place. Finally, in relation to who should bear the costs of sustaining the Clearinghouse, the Board asserted that trademark owners should pay a fee for registration, Registry operators should be required to pay a fee for using the services provided by the Clearinghouse and left open the idea that potentially registrants might bear some of the costs, since they will be using the Clearinghouse as a point of reference when registering a domain name.
In their majority, these preliminary answers seem to be fine. The fact that the ICANN Board was not willing to straightforward accept the ‘exact match plus key word’ issue is a very positive step in limiting the rights that mark owners should enjoy in the Internet, just like in traditional trademark law. The Board was actually very reasonable in expressing its difficulty in understanding how such a provision would work, what criteria would apply and what would be boundaries be.
Uniform Rapid Suspension System (URS)
Regarding the URS, the Board’s preliminary answers were far more contentious. The Board accepted the GAC’s recommendation to reduce the timescales but did not deliberate on which specific ones this reduction would apply (the URS includes various timescales ranging from the time of response to the time of appeal). However, the Board did indicate that the system is meant to be ‘rapid’, indirectly indicating that there might be a reduction in the time for the response. The Board also accepted that there should be a standardised format for the submission of the complaint, which, from the GAC proposal, appears not to apply in the case of the response. The Board further accepted that a qualified ‘Examiner’ should adjudicate URS disputes, instead of panel appointments. The Board was once again adamant that proof of use of the trademark should also apply in the case for a successful URS proceeding and, further, asserted that even in default the Examiner should have to go through the process in delivering his/her decision. The Board, however, rejected GAC’s recommendation for lowing the standard of proof from ‘clear and convincing evidence’ to a ‘preponderance of evidence’, stating that the first lays somewhere in between the notions of ‘preponderance of evidence’ and ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and, thus, it is only fair. The Board took also a negative view on the recommendation that the bad faith element should be abandoned (an issue that I personally felt should not have made it to the scorecard) and rejected the ‘loser pays’ model, which was controversial and would act as a deterrent for registering new gTLDs. The time for filing an appeal in default cases, which was originally set in 2 years, was accepted by the Board as appropriate and as complying with the wishes of the wider community. The Board also accepted that the fee for a URS proceeding should not exceed the amount of $300 and indicated its wish to allow transfer of the domain name after a successful URS. Finally, the Board rejected again the notion of extending exact matches to keywords.
The worst aspect of the Board’s preliminary answer is the idea of allowing transfer of the domain name through a successful URS. As far as I am concerned, this recommendation stands no merit or justification and could in principle be the reason for the collapse of the whole URS. The initial justification of the URS was that it would be distinct from the UDRP as far as its remedies are concerned. Two distinct mechanisms with two distinct remedies: the UDRP would retain its remedial focus on transfer or cancellation of the domain name, whilst the URS would simply ‘lock’ the domain name. By allowing transfer of the domain name through a system intentionally not designed to proceed to substantive evaluation of facts, the need for the UDRP will slowly decrease. It should be anticipated that over time the URS will be used for every contentious issue, making the UDRP redundant. And, why shouldn’t it? If you are a trademark owner, of course you will opt for the cheaper (max. $300) and faster (the whole process will last substantially less than a UDRP process) system. And, if as I fear, the time of response is minimised to just 14 days, then ‘adios’ due process, procedural justice and balance.
The way the Board decided to treat default is also quite problematic. The Board appeared to share the GAC’s (negative) view that default means bad faith and, thus, the defaulting party (the language used is ‘the non-cooperative party’) should not be given any privileges. Again, both the GAC and the Board misunderstand the idea behind default and take into consideration only the very narrow view. Not acknowledging that default might occur for various reasons and within various context will create problems for registrants residing in developing nations, for registrants with limited Internet access and for registrants who are not familiar with the ICANN administrative proceedings and need to find a lawyer to assist them. And, if the time for the response gets to 14 days, then all URS default cases (and they will be many but not for the reasons the trademark community suggests) will be automatically deemed as in bad faith.
The Post Delegation Dispute Resolution System (PDDRP)
This has been a great victory for Registries, which, in any case, they were not particularly thrilled with the concept of the PDDRP. The Board did not seem to agree with most of the GAC’s recommendations regarding the PDDRP, and asked for further clarification in some particular issues.