By Lucy Rana and Pranit Biswas
The last 25 years has seen a paradigm shift in how we perceive business. The internet, having become inseparable from our daily lives, has resulted in websites and domain names becoming critical assets in business, commerce and the economy.
The Net 4 India Saga
For many website/domain name owners in India, the indigenous domain registrar Net 4 India Limited (“Net 4”) had become a go-to for any domain related services. Net4 is, or rather was, one of India’s largest domain name service providers, and was also an ICANN and NIXI accredited Domain Registrar, through which thousands of customers had registered domain names. However, apparently Net 4 has been faltering in its service quality since early 2019. The crisis came to a head on with insolvency proceedings being admitted in the NCLT against Net4 in March 2020.  A brief background of the events leading up to this point is given below.
Insolvency Proceedings Against Net 4 India Limited
Edelweiss Asset Reconstruction Company had filed a suit against Net 4 in 2019 to recover its dues. M/s Edelweiss Asset Reconstruction Co. Ltd. (“Edelweiss”) had filed an Application under Section 7 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 read with Rule 4 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Application to Adjudicating Authority) Rules, 2016, with a prayer to trigger Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process in respect of the Company M/s. Net 4 India Limited (“Net 4”), vide Company Petition No. (IB)-409 (PB)/2017 admitted on March 08, 2020, before the Hon’ble National Company Law Tribunal (“NCLT”), New Delhi.
Because of the above-mentioned proceedings, thousands of customers had been facing inexplicable technical problems as Net4 had abruptly ceased providing backend domain support or any dispute or complaint redressal. The issues ranged from failure to renew domain names within time, websites being taken down without any reason, and perhaps most importantly, non-issuance of authorization codes for transfer of the domain names registered with Net 4 to other domain registrars.
Many customers were finally able to transfer their Indian ccTLDs (Country code top-level domains) such as .IN and .CO.IN domain names, due to the invaluable assistance provided by the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI). However, customers who own gTLDs (Generic top level domain names) such as .COM, .ORG, .NET, etc. had not been able to obtain assistance and relief till date from NIXI, as such domain names fall under the purview of the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which is a not-for-profit partnership of people from all over the world dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable and interoperable. While ICANN is the administrative body governing gTLDs, it has no power in itself to issue authorisation codes to transfer domain names.
ICANN transfers domain registration to ICANN accredited registrar
Initially, on 26 February 2021, ICANN had issued a Notice of Termination of Net 4 India’s Registrar Accreditation Agreement (“RAA”) due to Net 4’s repeated violations of the RAA and failure to cure the same (Termination Notice available at the URL- https://www.icann.org/uploads/compliance_notice/attachment/1155/hedlund-to-bajaj-26feb21.pdf). The RAA is the agreement/contract that governs the relation between the ICANN and its accredited domain registrars. The Registrars are obliged to comply with the agreement, and upon failure to uphold their part of the agreement, ICANN can terminate the agreement. Prior to terminating the RAA, the ICANN had sent notices of breach of agreement to Net 4. In its termination notice, ICANN had noted that it had received 2,600 formal complaints regarding Net 4 from January 01, 2020 till February 26, 2021!
However, ICANN’s move to terminate Net 4’s RAA got slightly delayed due to the ongoing insolvency proceedings (for reference, please see https://www.icann.org/en/announcements/details/update-on-net-4-india-limited-25-3-2021-en). The NCLT, on March 13, 2021, had issued an ad-interim order, directing ICANN to defer the termination of the RAA. Thereafter on April 27, 2021, pursuant to a hearing, the NCLT vacated the ad-interim order, thereby enabling ICANN to go ahead with the termination of Net 4’s RAA. Accordingly, ICANN has now initiated the De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure (DARTP), which will allow ICANN to transfer the registrations currently under Net 4 India’s management to an ICANN accredited registrar in good standing. ICANN in this regard has made available to the public a dedicated webpage which provides updates regarding the ongoing insolvency proceedings, available at https://www.icann.org/resources/pages/litigation-bajaj-v-icann-2021-01-29-en.
De-Accredited Registrar Transition Procedure (DARTP)
ICANN developed this procedure, specifically for the purpose of managing the transfer of gTLDs registered with a de-accredited domain registrar to a ‘gaining registrar’ (of good standing). This procedure comes into play in situations like the one discussed above about Net 4 India Limited. Such transfers are carried out through a “bulk transfer”. Details of the DARTP can be accessed on ICANN’s website at https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/dartp-11jul13-en.pdf. ICANN has, in the past, successfully implemented the DARTP in such cases against domain registrars, including but not limited to Alpnames Limited, BatDomains.com Ltd., Rethem Hosting LLC, etc. (full list available at https://www.icann.org/resources/pages/bulk-transfers-2017-10-06-en).
Implementation of DARTP for NET 4 Customers
As the ad-interim order has now been vacated by the NCLT, ICANN will now finally be able to implement the DARTP for domains which are registered with Net 4 India Limited, thereby allowing the said domains to be transferred to another domain registrar, which will hopefully soon alleviate the problems faced by thousands of customers.
ICANN vide its announcement dated April 28, 2021 (available at https://www.icann.org/en/announcements/details/icann-org-initiates-next-steps-to-provide-relief-to-former-net-4-india-registrants-28-4-2021-en), announced that it is initiating the DARTP and is now in the process of identifying a ‘gaining registrar’, to whom the domains will be transferred. It will be the responsibility of the gaining registrar to support former Net 4 users with respect to renewals, transfers and other management of their domain names. Once the gaining registrar has been finalized, the same will be made available on ICANN’s bulk transfers page at https://www.icann.org/resources/pages/bulk-transfers-2017-10-06-en. It is pertinent to note that this solution will only be applicable to Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs), which come under ICANN’s purview. ccTLDs like .IN and .CO.IN will not come under the purview of the impending bulk transfer. As noted earlier in this piece, NIXI is providing assistance and support for transfer of ccTLD’s registered with Net 4. It is expected that ICANN will soon provide an update regarding the next steps for customers.
Finally, for Net 4 India’s customers, there is a light at the end of the tunnel!
Many customers, from individuals to big businesses, who had lost access to their domain names/ websites/ email IDs etc., can finally breathe a sigh of relief as a tangible solution is in sight. The sheer magnitude and urgency of the situation is evident from the fact that on April 14, 15 and 16, 2021 alone, ICANN received approximately 2,400 new complaints regarding Net 4’s failure and non-responsiveness! In fact, in an affidavit dated April 17, 2021, submitted by ICANN before the NCLT (which can be accessed at https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/litigation-bajaj-record-certain-additional-facts-documents-affidavit-18apr21-en.pdf), it was stated that some of the most prominent Indian enterprises such as the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd., Bharti Group, Punjab National Bank, etc. were among the aggrieved parties. It was further submitted that between January 01, 2020 and April 15, 2021, ICANN had been in receipt of over 9,000 complaints and emails regarding problems being faced with Net 4 from various customers!
Thus, in light of these new developments, it is hoped that ICANN will be able to provide some much needed relief to the harassed former customers of Net 4 India.