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.