Creditors Can’t Seize Country Code Top Level Domains
This is a ruling addressing plaintiffs’ ability to levy against a country code top level domain (TLD). Plaintiffs obtained judgments against the Islamic Republic of Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Syrian Arab Republic.
They sought to attach defendants’ property that was allegedly in possession of ICANN (the “Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”). The court says that plaintiffs cannot attach the authority to operate the country code top level domains.
Country code domains are two letter country codes identifying a relationship to a particular country. These top level domains are operated by “managers” for a particular country. Information regarding the names and locations of various TLDs is stored in the “root zone file.” (The court analogizes it to a phone book for the internet.) The root zone file contains information on TLDs; and registries of the TLDs, in turn, contain IP address information on domain names logged within the TLD. ICANN is a quasi non-profit that manages the process of delegation of TLDs. The delegation process basically assigns a TLD to a manager and makes a corresponding change to the root zone.
The court looks to the District of Columbia Code, which states that a judgment creditor can attach a “judgment debtor’s goods, chattels, and credits.” The court then looks to Network Solutions v. Umbro, where the Virginia Supreme Court held that a domain name was not subject to garnishment by a judgment creditor. Finding Umbro instructive, this court says that the result is the same under D.C.’s attachment law:
A ccTLD, like a domain name, cannot be conceptualized apart from the services provided by these parties. The Court cannot order plaintiffs’ insertion into this arrangement.
The court looks to other decisions construing the rights and remedies of judgment creditors under and also finds them instructive.
Finally, the court footnotes Kremen v. Cohen, the prevailing Ninth Circuit case, which held that domain names are a species of property like any other and can be converted. (Uncited are a few decisions that have followed Kremen dealing with involuntary transfers to creditors of rights in domain names. Examples include Bosh v. Zavala and Office Depot v. Zuccarini)
This is an interesting rule that should be appealed because courts so rarely deal with this issue even though it relates to the innards of the top level domain name allotment process.
The court’s ruling feels somewhat cursory, given its failure to address whether country-specific TLDs warrant unique treatment. Does it make sense for a third party to come in and get control of a domain name that is associated with a country? Are there good reasons to treat this differently from a typical second level domain name? For example, what about the third parties who have registered domain names? (For example, Bit.ly, a popular URL shortener, uses Libya’s cc TLD.) It would also be nice to have clues on how this may track to generic top level domains as well, which depending on who you ask are all the rage. (The gTLD process is complicated and slow-moving. ICANN takes into account a variety of factors in deciding who is entitled to operate a gTLD. In this sense, court are likely to treat them as similar to country code domains and find them not subject to the efforts of creditors.)
A related question is to what extent this result is unique to the D.C. statute providing for remedies to judgment creditor. Would the result be different in another state?
Case citation: Stern v. Islamic Republic of Iran, et al., No. 00-2602 (D.D.C. Nov. 10, 2014)