...picked up by The Register and the BBC at the time... but the Afilias Board would not give way to demands for mass deletions or the Domebase Solution:
BAD INFO AT DOT INFO
A massive storm is brewing over the launch of the new .info domain system, which was promoted as "the next .com". The company administering the new domain (Afilias) has bungled its opening procedures, resulting in thousands of cases of fraud, with people stealing high-value names. Worse still, its own Board members have been caught out at it too, leading to the resignation today of one of its Directors in protest at the shambles and its effect on customers.
The company introduced a 'Sunrise' procedure which was supposed to safeguard Trademarked names for identifiable businesses, and protect them from cyber-squatters. But Afilias failed to check the details before granting registrations, and as a result thousands of people just invented Trademark numbers which were in many cases ridiculous or gave no numbers at all.
The losers in all this were the honest customers who had already paid for the chance to get these names in the second phase of the launch, called the Landrush. It is estimated that they have been cheated of over $1million in non-refundable payments, as well as the expected market value of the names they could have got. Afilias have told them that their claim to these names on September 12th is now lost, and the cheated customers have now to hope that Afilias will challenge a proportion of the false names, so that someone someday might get the name honestly... but they will probably have to pay all over again to have a chance then.
Thousands of false claims have already been identified, but the more remain undiscovered. Many of the Trademark claims are faked, using supposed numbers from as far afield as Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Namibia, Christmas Island and Yemen. Others are so obvious that the most basic of checks would have stopped them from being accepted. And yet Afilias has registered all comers, including mass orders with an identical number, and hundreds of ridiculous numbers - 123456789, 00000000, 11111111111, "none", "don't know" and even the number "1" for the domain bible.info.
Even more astonishingly than this negligence has been the participation of Afilias Board members in the fraudulent applications which cheat customers out of the names they had paid to try to get. Govinda Leopold is not only on the Board of Afilias but runs the Hawaii-based company 1stDomainNet, and in that second capacity gained the names HAWAII.info and MAUI.info as a result of the Trademarks being faked. She also reserved for herself the name GERMAN.info for good measure. And later, the name GOVINDA.info was obtained for her company, again with fake details.
She is not alone. The Board of Afilias is made up of the executives of some dozen registrar companies from around the world. Registrars like Hal Lubsen - chief executive of Afilias and also with a big interest in the company Domain Bank which accepted over $150 a time for around 100 name applications from one individual (even though none of them had a TM number at all and were therefore ineligible and in breach of the rules), and Hal Lubsen's team at Afilias where he is CEO granted the registrations (which were ineligible and worthless). Then, when the customer realised this was wrong and asked for all the names to be deleted, Lubsen and his team would not delete them.
This has been repeated thousands of times by different registrars, amassing a small fortune at around $200 for each Trademark claim, as well as a second windfall from the honest customers who were told they could expect their own applications to be processed on September 12th. Mr Lubsen's colleagues at DomainBank continued for weeks up to the end of the Sunrise period to charge customers for "available" names, even though his Registry had already registered them to fraud Trademark claimants at Afilias. People were paying money for nothing.
N.B. This was publicised and DomainBank later refunded some of the Landrush customers in this category
So valuable has been this virtual mandate to print money, that Registrars have chosen not to stop the fraudsters but rather, in some cases to encourage and assist them. One company told customers 'anyone' could apply for an early reservation, even if they had no trademark at all. And the US-based Spy Productions registrar Lars Hindsley not only faked trademark numbers for his own use, but put in phoney numbers for hundreds of his customers, telling them the best names would be gone by September and to "do it with your eyes open". He justified his actions in writing, by saying that so many others were doing it that his customers would miss out if he didn't do it as well.
History has proved him right. Rival companies opened the doors and let in a landslide. The executive of accredited company Woo-ho applied for over 30 high-demand names using identical trademark numbers to steal them off their own Landrush customers. The same happened in other companies. But Afilias declined to cancel their accreditation and continued to do business with them.
Speednames registrars, part of the Afilias cartel and represented on their Board, charged $500,000 to apply for 4981 fake names for an Austrian called Plankenstein, with repeated 1899-dated Trademarks, and yet although this was obviously an abuse of the system, the money was taken and the names were registered.
In a situation that has descended into near-farce, Afilias CEO Roland laPlante has lauded the success of the .info project, while on the other hand derisory members of the internet community have set up sites like www.theinternetchallenge.com to identify the chief fraudsters and publicise the full scale of the scam. Others like Associate Professor Robert Connor have created algorithms and analysed samples of over 10000 names. Their findings confirm the vast scale of the fraud.
But in the close-knit and mutually-supporting community of registrars, it has been a season of plenty. Overseen by the benevolent watchdog organisation ICANN, itself made up largely of industry insiders, Afilias has been given a free hand, which has led to calls for the US Congress and other publicly-elected bodies to demand greater controls to create accountability.
There is still time left for Afilias to resolve the shambles that .info has become. Workable solutions have been proposed - allowing September customers a 'reserve' claim in the event of names being disproved later. But Afilias have, as yet, shown no signs of resolving the injustice suffered by their customers. They even refuse to delete names, where the applicant has admitted they are ineligible.
The customers who have lost their money are unhappy. As one Scottish woman - who applied for several names - has put it in weary resignation: "First they didn't stop the cheats. Then they were caught cheating themselves. To believe that they will protect our interests is a bit like asking a poacher to catch a poacher. As far as they are concerned, the money is already in the bank."
Nor did it convince a Director of their own Board - Robert Connelly - who has today effectively resigned and washed his hand of the company, complaining that customers were not being protected and that the Sunrise was an "Abomination". His voice for decency echoed what ordinary honest customers had been saying for weeks.
It remains to be seen whether the US government - already sceptical of the internet watchdog ICANN - will put pressure on Afilias to clean up its act when such clear and culpable cases of fraud have taken place. Meanwhile court cases may follow.
In the midst of the mayhem there have been inexplicable and bizarre episodes too: the registrar Signature Domains got discovered "reserving" the name NUDES.info for itself and keeping it from the public domain. Another applicant has reserved most of the world's countries, without a single Trademark. According to the rules, it was impossible for this to happen, but the rules have just been ignored and the transactions for all these countries were made by a company with links straight to the Afilias Boardroom. "He was well on the way to world domination," said a victim wearily. "Someone's making a fortune out of all this, but I've been cheated and my money's in their banks."
END OF PRESS RELEASE 09-06-01
I find it very disappointing that Afilias have never accepted responsibility for any of this or apologised to the de-frauded customers. They have failed to respond to the substance and detail of the complaints which have been filed against them. The abandonment of thousands of ordinary customers who trusted their processes and their integrity seems to me to be an act of arrogance and an abuse of privilege and power.