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Extortion.sucks — Vox Pop CEO defends “under-priced” $25,000 sunrise fee

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, 23:20:09 (UTC), Domain Registries

Vox Populi Registry, the .sucks new gTLD applicant backed by Momentous Corp, is to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in its Sunrise period, should it win the TLD.

Not only that, but it’s become the first new gTLD applicant that I’m aware of to start taking pre-registration fees from trademark owners while it’s still in a contention set with other applicants.

At first glance, it looks like plain old trademark-owner extortion, taken to an extreme we’ve never seen before.

But after 45 minutes talking to Vox Pop CEO John Berard this evening, I’m convinced that it’s worse than that.

The company is setting itself up as the IP lobby’s poster child for everything that is wrong with the new gTLD program.

If Vox Pop wins the .sucks contention set — it’s competing against Donuts and Top Level Spectrum — it plans to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in Sunrise and $25,000 a year thereafter.

Registrations during general availability, whether they match a trademark or not, will cost $300 a year.

During the pre-registration period, the Sunrise fee is $2,500 and the “Priority Reservation” fee is $250.

The Sunrise fee is, I believe, higher than any sunrise fee in any TLD ever to launch.

But Berard said that he believes Vox Pop’s .sucks proposition is, if anything, “under-priced”.

“Most companies spend far more than $25,000 a month on a public relations agency, most companies spend more than $25,000 a month on a Google ad campaign,” he said.

“Companies spend millions of dollars a year on customer service. We view .sucks as an element of customer service on the part of companies,” he said.

Berard, a 40-year veteran of the public relations business, said that he believes .sucks represents an opportunity for brands to engage with their customers, gaining valuable insight that could help them improve product development or customer service.

“The last thing I view .sucks as is a domain name. That’s the last value proposition for .sucks,” he said. “The primary value proposition is as a key and innovative part of customer service, retention and loyalty.”

It’s about giving companies “the ability to bring internet criticism and commentary out of the shadows and into the light” and “an opportunity to actually have a legitimate ability to correct misconceptions and engage, in much the way they’re doing now with Facebook”, he said.

It’s all about helping companies create a dialogue, in other words.

But Berard said that Vox Pop does not intend to launch any value-added services on .sucks domains.

While a domain name may be the “last value proposition” of .sucks, it is also the only thing that Vox Pop is actually planning to sell.

Asked to justify the $25,000 Sunrise fee, at first Berard pointed to policies that he said will ensure a transparent space for conversation.

“A company might not have to register its brand in .sucks, because if someone else does the policies and practices that we hope to deploy give that company a transparent opportunity to participate,” Berard said. “There’s no chasing unknown people down dark alleys for unfounded criticism. It will all be done in the light of day.”

“We have built-in policies that prevent sites from being parked pages,” he said. “The site must be put to that use — of customer service — whether you are the company that owns [the brand] or a customer that wants to complain about it.”

There was some confusion during our conversation about what the policies are going to be.

At first it sounded like companies would be obliged to run criticism/conversation sites targeting their own brands or risk losing their domains, but Berard later called to clarify that while pages cannot be parked under the policy, they can be left inactive.

It will be possible, in other words, for a company to register its brand.sucks and leave the associated site dark.

The registry would also have an “authenticated Whois database”, he said, though it would allow registrants to use privacy services.

There would also be prohibitions on cyber-bullying and porn in .sucks, if Vox Pop wins it. It has committed to these policies in its Public Interest Commitments (pdf)

But the company does not appear to be doing anything that ICM Registry did not already do when it launched .xxx a couple of years ago, when it comes to making brand owners’ lives easier.

In fact, it’s planning to do a lot less, while being literally a hundred times more expensive.

By contrast, if Donuts wins .sucks, brand owners will be able to defensively block their marks using the Domain Protected Marks List for $3,000 over five years, which would cover all of Donuts 200-300 new gTLDs.

There doesn’t appear to be any good reason Vox Pop is charging prices well above the market rate, in my view, other than the fact that the company reckons it can get away with it.

In what may well be a deliberate move to put pressure on trademark owners, Vox Pop is also the first registry I’ve encountered to say it will do a 30-day, as opposed to a 60-day, Sunrise period.

Under ICANN rules, registries have to give at least 30 days warning before a 30-day Sunrise starts, but once it’s underway they are allowed to allocate domains on a first-come-first-served basis.

All of the 30-odd registries currently in Sunrise have opted for the traditional 60-day option instead, where no domains are allocated until the end of the period.

There’s also the question of accepting Sunrise pre-registrations before Vox Pop even knows whether it will get to run .sucks.

There are two other applicants and Berard said that he reckons the contention set is likely to go to an ICANN last-resort auction.

Judging by ICANN’s preliminary timetable, the .sucks auction wouldn’t happen until roughly September next year, by my reckoning.

Anyone who pre-registers today will have to wait a year before they can use (or not) their domain, if they even get to register it at all.

Any money that is taken during the pre-reg period will be refunded if Vox Pop fails to launch.

In the meantime, it will be sitting in Momentous’ bank account where the company, presumably, will be able to use it to try to win the .sucks auction.

Trademark owners, in my view, should vote with their wallets and stay the hell away from Vox Pop’s pre-registration service.

I’m not usually in the business of endorsing one new gTLD applicant over another, but I think Vox Pop’s Sunrise pricing is going to make the whole new gTLD program — and probably also ICANN and the domain name industry itself — look bad.

It’s a horrible reminder of a time when domain name companies were often little better than spammers, operating at the margins and beyond of acceptable conduct, and it makes me sad.

The new gTLD program is about increasing choice and competition in the TLD space, it’s not supposed to be about applicants bilking trademark owners for whatever they think they can get away with.

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Comments (14)

  1. John Berard says:

    Kevin,

    Thanks for taking the time to listen. Based on the quotes, it is clear you heard me out.

    I feel bad I fell short of getting you to see outside the frame of a routine URL (and their traditional cost — like the $12.99 for “domainincitesucks.co” GoDaddy), but your point is honestly held and one that will likely be uttered by others.

    Cheers,

    Berard

    • Rubens Kuhl says:

      I can’t refrain from thinking that this announcement had the worst timing ever considering applications subject to GAC Safeguards Advices are still on hold pending marching orders from NGPC. This doesn’t only affect .sucks applicants, but all 406 applications (source: DI PRO) with such status.

  2. JS says:

    good piece Kevin.

    I agree with Ruben, the timing was not great.

  3. Mr. Magoo says:

    Who cares? All of the gtlds are destined to go down in flames anyways.

    What a waste of time, energy and money.

    How about ICANN.SUCKS?

  4. John Gotti says:

    What has become ICANN nowadays?!?!

    This is EXTORTION.

    .sucks HAS TO BE RESERVED TO COMPLAINTS, trademark holders CAN NOT REGISTER THEM

    If not, it means the Registry is in BAD FAITH and IT IS DOING EXTORTION.

  5. Gaz says:

    I’m all for the new domains. I think it’s going to make a lot of relevant domains to people who are going to use them. That’s better for businesses and customers.

    However, I think that allowing .sucks or any of the other porn addresses was a stupid mistake by ICANN.

    Why would you want to create a new gTLD which has the sole purpose of abusing a company or individual? On the porn front, why would you create more gTLDs where a large portion of the registrations are defensive?

    This pricing is a disgrace and I agree with the way John Gotti has put it.

    The only positive is that, by setting the minimum charge to $250, then it will reduce the chance of people using this for cyber bullying. If people could buy .sucks domains for $10 / year and get round the public registrations, then ICANN (and the company running the gTLD) would expect truck loads of complaints and bad press.

  6. John Gotti says:

    Mr.Berard, you made me
    You have to learn too much as extortionist. Do you want make extortions to Google? You can ask them 10 billion dollars, but you can’t ask $ 25K to a little company. GuagliĆ², would you play?

  7. enoss says:

    much ado about nothing. it will cause much hand wringing for sure, but if left to its own devices will have well < 1000 registrations, perhaps 5 years sub-10%) or other businesses? having a terrible meal can be much more stressful than registering in a silly namespace!

    • blehblehbleh says:

      “having a terrible meal can be much more stressful than registering in a silly namespace!” What a great catchphrase!

      Or maybe “the new namespace – it lets you sh*t where you register!”

  8. enoss says:

    my comment was weirdly truncated.

    “” belongs between “perhaps” and “5”. kevin, comments are borked!

  9. Barry Shein says:

    I keep wondering who asked him what he’s going to charge?

    Did he just volunteer this information out of the blue or was he required somehow to disclose his plans?

  10. Florian says:

    In my opinion, .sucks is a big mistake anyway, no matter who wins it. What’s next? .scam, .fraud, .mugshot? It’s not about big companies and brands only, but all persons of public interest, too.

    Get yourname.sucks or end up with shitstorm.sucks, what a brave new gTLD world!

    @John Berard: If it looks like a gTLD, swims like a gTLD and quacks like a gTLD, then it probably is a gTLD…nothing to see outside the frame. Sorry for this narrowminded assumption!

  11. Ted says:

    Having been in the domain name space for over 10 years I embarrassed to put this to my clients. These guys are extortionists, hiding behind PR bullshit. The company that owns the Registry, Momentum states that one of its values is “we tell it how it is, always have always will”…. well I say to them that they are full of shit, and have paid a smug PR agency to come up with bullshit about why this domain name represent value to companies.

    This paints all of us in the industry with the same brush. ICANN, WTF are you doing??????????

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