Vox Populi, the .sucks gTLD registry, has told DI that it is not involved with This.sucks, the company offering free .sucks domains, after evidence to the contrary was discovered.
Meanwhile, the president of ICANN’s intellectual property constituency says he’s concerned that the registry may be using This.sucks to try to misrepresent its prices.
This.sucks, as reported yesterday, is currently in pre-launch. It has said it plans to give away up to 10,000 .sucks domains to customers who want to run blog/forum sites commenting on companies, products and other general issues.
Its standard pricing would be $1 per month, a massive discount on the regular $200+ annual registry fee, which would require it to make substantial additional revenue to cover its costs.
That’s assuming it is really an independent company, of course.
Some people think it’s just a front for Vox Pop, and there are compelling reasons to believe they’re correct.
Rob Hall paid for the web site
The most compelling piece of evidence, for me, is that somebody called Robert Hall paid for design of the This.sucks web site.
The one-page launch site was created by a designer responding to an ad on the crowdsourcing web site DesignCrowd.
The title of the solicitation page is “Modern, Bold Web design job. Web brief for Robert Hall, a company in Turks and Caicos Islands”.
Rob Hall is the CEO of Momentous, the company that founded Vox Pop and as far as I know still owns most of it.
He’s the technical contact for .sucks in the IANA database, albeit with a Barbados, rather than Turks and Caicos, address.
The DesignCrowd contest seems to have been submitted around August 26 this year, two days before This.sucks existed as a legal entity in New York state.
Hall seems to have paid $370 for the winning design and $10 to five runners-up.
The site is/was hosted on Vox Pop’s server
Another compelling link between Vox Pop and This.sucks is the server on which their respective domains are hosted — it’s the same box.
According to DomainTools, this.sucks is hosted on a server with just 16 other domains. Four of those — everything.sucks and that.sucks, as well as sister sites this.rocks and that.rocks — belong to This.sucks Inc.
The remaining 12 domains — including buy.sucks, register.sucks, search.sucks — are all .sucks promotional sites owned and operated by Vox Populi.
Berard told DI in an email that Vox Pop has never hosted This.sucks sites:
I suspect that in doing the deal for the premium domain names they wanted, some remained pointed at one of our forwarding servers to which they were first assigned. But, as with the other names they have registered, that will sort itself out over time. We have never hosted their website.
It’s true that DomainTools warns that domains may still be listed for up to two weeks after they have been removed from an IP address.
But I don’t think Vox Pop’s explanation explains how this.rocks and that.rocks wound up listed as hosted on the same IP address as the .sucks domains.
The .rocks gTLD is run by Rightside, not Vox Pop, so I can’t see an obvious reason why they started out pointing to a Vox Pop box.
I asked Berard for clarification on this point but have yet to receive a reply. A This.sucks spokesperson has not responded to an inquiry about the apparently shared hosting.
It also turns out that somebody formed a Cayman Islands company called This.sucks Ltd on August 25 this year, three days before the New York-based This.sucks Inc was registered.
The Cayman company’s registered address is the Georgetown PO Box number for Cayman Law Group Ltd, a boutique law firm with a half-finished web site.
As far as ICANN is concerned, Vox Pop’s legal address is the same address as the new This.sucks Ltd entity.
The New York entity’s official address is a PO Box at a strip-mall UPS store in small-town New York state.
I asked Berard if Vox Pop had any links to the Cayman company but have not yet received a reply.
This.sucks has the same business model as was proposed by Vox Populi under its “Consumer Advocate Subsidy” program, which it proposed at the start of the year.
The company had planned to find an independent partner that would subsidize .sucks registrations in cases where the registrant was a genuine third-party critic (rather than the company itself).
The price was to be around $10 a year, the domains would be tied to a hosted forum service, and the name of the service would be Everything.sucks.
That domain, as I reported yesterday, now belongs to This.sucks Inc.
But Berard said This.sucks is not the Consumer Advocate Subsidy, for which a partner has not yet been found. He said:
This is not the consumer subsidy program we have hoped to foster with a non-profit, but it certainly is in keeping with the spirit of our effort. An effort, I must note, that continues. Somethings are harder to do than we’d like!
Why does this matter?
Whether This.sucks is a cloaked registry effort is important to intellectual property interests, which have claimed that subsidized .sucks prices are part of a “shakedown scheme” targeting trademark owners.
The IPC has long suspected that Everything.sucks was just going to be a case of Vox Pop hiding a registry service in a supposedly, but not actually, independent third-party company.
Brand owners that want to register their brand.sucks domain often have to pay over $2,000 a year, but the proposed subsidy would bring that price down to $10 as long as the registrant was not the trademark owner.
IPC president Greg Shatan told DI yesterday:
Any inkling that Vox Pop and This.sucks were linked and pretending not to be, and actively denying it, would be of great concern, not just to the IPC but to the ICANN community at large. It’s all highly suspicious. It’s very hard to believe that it is what they are claiming it is.
The concern centers on an apparent attempt to misrepresent their pricing and hide how much Vox Pop is actually being paid by brand owners vs. other registrants for domain registrations.
Any plans to monetize this.sucks sites would also be of considerable interest. The non-commercial nature of “sucks” sites (generically speaking) is often cited in response to cybersquatting concerns. I’m not sure how this would change that equation.
Back in March, as .sucks was getting ready to launch, the IPC wrote to ICANN to say Vox Pop was trying to “conspire with an (alleged) third party to ‘subsidize’ a complaint site should brand owners fail to cooperate in Vox Populi’s shakedown scheme”.
The IPC wrote (pdf):
Through this “subsidy,” Vox Populi effectively shows brand owners that, if they fail to register at an exorbitant price, a third party will be able to register for a pittance. This is an essential element of Vox Populi’s coercive scheme.
The IPC also claimed that the proposed subsidy would count as a “registry service” under the terms of Vox Pop’s contract and would therefore need approval by ICANN.
Berard told DI on Thursday, quite unambiguously, that This.sucks is “not a registry service”.
If This.sucks isn’t being financially supported by Vox Pop, it’s going to have to find a lot of revenue.
With a $199 basic registry fee, a 10,000-domain giveaway would cost almost $2 million.
Given that This.sucks is actively courting registrants of brand names — many of which are likely to appear on Vox Pop’s premium list — the cost could be literally 10 times as much.
Vox Pop has made it clear that it’s a subsidy, not a registry discount.
In a July blog post addressing perceived inaccuracies in the media coverage of .sucks, Berard wrote:
Whether a registration is subsidized, the price to the registrar and registry is unaffected. That is the nature of a subsidy. Neither is the program to be offered by the registry. We are talking to a number of free speech advocates and domain name companies to find the right partner.
When we do, likely sometime in the Fall, we will make sure that the information is clear and available so that, well, you can look it up.
(Thanks to George Kirikos for the tip about the existence of the Cayman company)