ICANN has fought off an appeal by .webs gTLD applicant Vistaprint, in a case that considered the coexistence of singular and plural gTLDs.
While ICANN definitively won the Independent Review Process case, the IRP panel nevertheless invited its board of directors to consider whether Vistaprint should be given a chance to appeal a decision that ruled .webs too similar to .web.
Vistaprint runs a web site building service called Webs.com. It filed two applications for .webs — one “community” flavored, one vanilla — but then found itself on the losing end of a String Confusion Objection filed by rival Web.com, one of the many .web applicants.
It was one of the few instances where a SCO panel decided that a plural string was too confusingly similar to its singular for the two to coexist.
In many other cases, such as .auto(s), .fan(s) and .gift(s), the two strings have been allowed to be delegated.
Not wanting to have to fight for .webs at auction against eight .web applicants — which would likely cost eight figures to win — Vistaprint filed a Request for Reconsideration (which failed), followed by an last-ditch IRP complaint.
But its three-person IRP panel ruled on Friday (pdf) that ICANN did not violate its bylaws by accepting the SCO decision and subsequently rejecting the RfR.
However, the panel handed Vistaprint a silver lining that may eventually give the company what it wants. Even though ICANN won, Vistaprint may not necessarily have lost.
The panel wrote:
the Panel recommends that ICANN’s Board exercise its judgment on the question of whether an additional review mechanism is appropriate to re-evaluate the Third Expert’s determination in the Vistaprint SCO, in view of ICANN’s Bylaws concerning core values and non-discriminatory treatment, and based on the particular circumstances and developments noted in this Declaration, including (i) the Vistaprint SCO determination involving Vistaprint’s .WEBS applications, (ii) the Board’s (and NGPC’s) resolutions on singular and plural gTLDs, and (iii) the Board’s decisions to delegate numerous other singular/plural versions of the same gTLD strings.
In other words, ICANN has been invited to consider whether Vistaprint should be able to appeal, using a similar mechanism perhaps to that which was offered to other applicants that suffered from inconsistent, adverse SCO decisions.
At time when ICANN’s accountability is under international scrutiny, it’s highly likely that the board will give this recommendation some thought.
The IRP declaration does not reflect well on ICANN’s current level of accountability.
As usual, ICANN tried to wriggle out of accountability by attempting to castrate the panel from the outset, arguing again that IRP panels must be “deferential” to the board — that is, assume that its actions were correct by default — and that its declarations are “advisory” rather than “binding”.
And, as usual, the panel disagreed, saying previous IRP cases show this is now “settled” law. It said that it would evaluate the case “objectively and independently”, not deferentially.
But while it said its declaration was binding “in the sense that ICANN’s Board cannot overrule the Panel’s declaration” it agreed with ICANN that it only had the power to “recommend”, rather than order, remedies.
Acknowledging Vistaprint raised important public interest questions, the panel ordered ICANN to pay 40% of IRP costs.
The Vistaprint IRP was one of the things holding up the .web contention set, so Friday’s declaration moves the fabled gTLD one step closer to reality.
If the company gets the ability to appeal its SCO loss, it would add months to the .web runway. If it does not, it will have to remain in the .web contention set, which would head to auction.
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)
The South Korean industrial conglomerate Doosan has decided to formally abandon its new dot-brand gTLD, the first to do so.
The news was announced by ICANN this evening, as part of the launch of a new web page for tracking gTLD contract termination requests.
Doosan is a bloody big company with multiple billions of annual revenue, in no danger of going out of business any time soon, so it seems the termination is simply due to a lack of interest.
The .doosan gTLD is not subject to the dot-brand provisions in Specification 13 — it actually signed its contract a week or so before Spec 13 was finalized — but ICANN has determined that the string should not be transitioned to a new registry.
Intellectual property rights and the fact that nobody else owns any .doosan names figured heavily in the decision.
Even though Doosan signed its Registry Agreement in April 2014, got delegated a year ago, and has been available to use since mid-March, the company never created any domains other than the obligatory nic.doosan (which no longer resolves for me).
The termination is subject to public comment until November 9.
dotgay LLC has failed in its bid to eliminate its competitors for the new gTLD .gay for the second time.
After an unprecedented re-run of its Community Priority Evaluation, the applicant scored just 10 out of the 16 available points.
That’s exactly the same as it scored the first time around, exactly one year ago, still four points short of success.
For the second time, dotgay scored zero from a possible four points on the “Nexus” criteria — the link between the string “gay” and the community dotgay wants to serve.
The CPE panel decision reads:
The Panel has determined that more than a small part of the applicant’s defined community is not identified by the applied-for string, as described below, and that it therefore does not meet the requirements for Nexus.
The Panel has determined that the applied-for string does not sufficiently identify some members of the applicant’s defined community, in particular transgender, intersex, and ally individuals
As I explained a year ago, when the first CPE panel flunked the applicant for exactly the same reason, dotgay’s proposed community included lots of people who would not necessarily describe themselves as “gay”.
You, possibly, for example.
If you’re an “ally” of gay people, by for example supporting equal rights, then you would qualify as “gay” under dotgay’s definition.
If you’re transgender or intersex, you would similarly captured by this definition. The panel said:
Despite the applicant’s assertions to the contrary, its own evidence here shows that “gay” is most commonly used to refer to both men and women who identify as homosexual, and not necessarily to others. The applicant’s “umbrella term” argument does not accurately describe, for example, the many similar transgender stories in the mass media where “gay” is not used to identify the subject. In these cases, “transgender” is used because “gay” does not identify those individuals.
The panel concluded that .gay “does not identify or match” the target community, and scored it zero.
dotgay had a second roll of the dice because the first CPE panel was found to have committed a process error by not sufficiently verifying the company’s many dozens of letters of support from gay advocacy organizations.
However, this error did not relate to the Nexus criteria, so a victory was always going to be a long shot.
The .gay gTLD is now heading to auction, where Minds + Machines, Rightside and Top Level Design are the other bidders.
You can read the new decision in PDF format here.
A new company says it is going to sell .sucks domain names, which usually retail for around $250, for as little as $12 a year.
This.sucks Inc, which says it is not affiliated with the registry, is even planning to give away 10,000 names for free.
That’s a hell of a cost to cover — the .sucks registry fee is $199 for most names or $1,999 for names, including brands, that have been marked as premium.
A 10,000-name giveaway would cost close to $2 million per year, in other words.
But This.sucks isn’t a registrar. Instead, it wants to tie its customers in to its forum and blogging platform, which will be monetized in some way.
Spokesperson Phil Armstrong told us “our plan is to create new revenue streams from different sources, including possibly advertising.” He said:
Our goal is to build a business around giving consumers affordable and easy access to these expressive web addresses, and we’ll work with different registrars to get the best price. We think we can create a large, sustainable community that over time will generate income well above the initial costs of the registrations.
There are good reasons to believe that the company is in fact the “Consumer Advocate Subsidy” provider that .sucks registry Vox Populi promised would be launching in September.
Vox Pop said in March that the subsidizing entity — which would be an unaffiliated company — would offer .sucks domains with attached forum sites for around $10 a year.
The proposed name of the service was “Everything.sucks” — a domain now owned by This.sucks Inc that redirects to this.sucks.
But Vox Pop CEO John Berard said that This.sucks was “just another registrant” and that it was “not a registry service”.
Armstrong said: “We are not related to anything Vox Populi is doing. Not sure what they are up to, but hopefully they’ll be excited about what we are doing.”
The company’s mailing address appears to be a UPS store at a small strip mall in New York state.
The this.sucks service is currently in invitation-only beta testing “for individuals with a passion”.
There’s a sister site with a virtually identical design and mission statement at this.rocks.
In a fact sheet, This.sucks says:
At both This.Rocks and This.Sucks consumers will be able to pick the name of companies, products, people and causes they want to be the focus of the commentary and conversation. With the web address of their choosing, they will be able to moderate a blog or forum to talk about the issues, initiatives and interests that stir their passions.
The goal is to encourage individual consumers to give voice to their points-of-view and make it easy for like‐minded people to join the conversation, much like Reddit for general topics, Slash/Dot for technology, CafePharma in the ethical drug industry, and Glassdoor for job seekers and employers.