On March 12th, France.com suddenly went offline. For 24 years, it had been a tourist and travel booking site, but now it was redirecting to the English version of the government’s official site at France.fr. No one was more surprised than Jean-Noel Frydman, the previous owner of the domain and trademark holder for France.com. Overnight, his website had disappeared, and all associated email addresses were suddenly bouncing back. In a matter of minutes, a unique and lucrative asset had gone up in smoke.
“It’s all gone. In one instant, gone,” Frydman tells The Verge. “It’s been incredibly challenging. I have no contingency for this.”
Now, Frydman is fighting to get it back. He’s currently suing the French government and a string of hosting providers in federal court, hoping to undo the swap and rebuild his business. The fight has turned into a lesson in international relations, with US and French courts dueling over a prized slice of intangible namespace, testing exactly how neutral and international the infrastructure of the web really is.
““It’s all gone. In one instant, gone.””
Frydman first registered the domain in 1994, less than three years after the World Wide Web became publicly available. “I was at a crossroads professionally, and I wanted to discover something new,” Frydman says. He found his way to BBS boards and the still-young web, recognizing the possibilities immediately. “I could see it was a new frontier. And like the frontier, if you went in early, you could stake a claim.” A French expat, he was drawn to France.com.
The site went through a number of incarnations, briefly offering France-based news (including Le Monde) for paying subscribers before eventually settling on a travel agency model. For most of its history, the site has offered travel tips alongside packaged vacation deals. With roughly 100,000 visitors a month, Frydman could easily support the site on commissions. He had registered other domain names, too. But over the years, he sold them off, and France.com became his only project.
The French tourism bureau was friendly with Frydman, even giving him a “Best Website” award in 2009. But in 2016, the foreign ministry seemed to have a change of heart. He says they made no effort to buy the domain from Frydman (although he would have been unlikely to sell), but argued in court that the domain was rightful property of the government. Who should France.com belong to, if not France? In July 2016, the High Court of Paris agreed, ordering Frydman to transfer the domain or face a fine. The ruling that was upheld by an appeals court in September 2017, and it’s currently being appealed to France’s highest court.
Frydman still expected to maintain control of the domain while the case was going forward, even if he faces a fine for holding out. But sometime between September and March, France served an order directly to Frydman’s registrar, Web.com, which was enough to convince them to transfer the domain. Making matters worse, the transfer shifted the registration from Web.com to OVH, a French registrar that may be less responsive to US courts. (Web.com did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
““I could see it was a new frontier. And like the frontier, if you went in early, you could stake a claim.””
It’s unclear if a US court ever validated the order with an international enforcement of judgment, a common measure for foreign rulings involving US businesses. But if Web.com had enough business in France, that may not have been necessary. Faced with a valid court order and the pressure of an entire government, the company’s lawyers may have simply decided it wasn’t worth fighting the issue in court. (Web.com did not respond to multiple requests for comment on their policy regarding court-ordered transfers.)
“Domain names are a first-come first-served product, and that’s true across the globe,” Frydman’s lawyer David Ludwig says. “This turns that framework on its head.”
The French office of foreign affairs did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Still, there’s little precedent for a .com domain being expropriated by a country. The .com top-level domain was intended for commercial ventures, with a clear distinction from .gov or country-specific TLDs. (The “com” stands for “commercial.”) As a result, it’s rare for a government to own its .com domain. USA.com, Canada.com, and Germany.com are all privately operated, while Japan.com is a Hong-Kong-based tourist site similar to Frydman’s site. Even beyond the domain name itself, it’s highly unusual for a government to simply assert legal ownership over a domain rather than trying to purchase it from the existing owner.
While less powerful in the age of search engines and social media, single-word domains can still drive significant traffic, and they regularly sell for over a million dollars as a result. (Super.com sold for $1.2 million earlier this year.) But while Frydman’s claim to France.com looks like a form of property, it’s mediated through private registrars abiding by their own sometimes obscure terms of service.
In theory, international disputes like this can be resolved through ICANN’s Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy (or UDRP), which gives registrars a clear set of rules beyond the specific rulings of national courts. But those rules mostly focus on straightforwardly abusive registrations. So far, neither side has invoked the rules in either US or French courts, leaving the issue in a kind of international limbo.