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Facebook, under Chinese court threat, transfers Instagram.com to its new registrar

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2016, Domain Registrars

It’s not quite cyberflight, but Facebook has transferred threatened domain name instagram.com to its newly acquired in-house registrar.

Whois records show that the domain, used for the popular photo-sharing social network, was moved from MarkMonitor to RegistrarSEC yesterday.

It emerged on Friday that Facebook had recently acquired RegistrarSEC.

So why the transfer?

It does not appear that the move is part of a wholesale transfer of domains — facebook.com, whatsapp.com, fb.com and all the other Facebook domains I checked are still with MarkMonitor.

Instead, I would speculate that it’s related to the lawsuit in China in which the family of a deceased cybersquatter are fighting for the return of the domain to their ownership.

Instagram acquired the name for $100,000 from the Guangdong-based Zhou family in January 2011, just a couple of months after Zhou Weiming, the now deceased patriarch, bought it from an American domainer.

According to a lawsuit (pdf) filed against the family in California by Instagram this January, Zhou’s widow and two daughters are suing the third daughter in a Chinese court for selling the domain without the proper authority.

They want the domain returned to them.

By transferring instagram.com to a registrar completely controlled by Facebook, the company has removed one huge risk factor from the Chinese lawsuit.

If MarkMonitor were to be served with a Chinese court order ordering the transfer of the domain to the Zhous, and it were to comply, the Instagram service used by millions could be held hostage by a group of known cybersquatters.

Now that the domain is at RegistrarSEC, Facebook gets the ability to refuse to comply with any such order.

This all begs the question of whether the deep-pocketed social network would go to the trouble of acquiring a registrar (with only 11 names to its accreditation) purely to provide a layer of insurance.

A fresh ICANN accreditation would be cheaper, but would take longer, and transferring to a different third-party registrar wouldn’t really solve the problem.

Instagram is predicted by one analyst to provide Facebook with $5.8 billion in annual revenue by the end of the decade.

Instagram paid Chinese cyberquatter $100,000 for instagram.com, Facebook lawsuit reveals

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2016, Domain Sales

Facebook has sued a Chinese cybersquatter for trying to renege on a five-year-old deal that saw it buy the domain instagram.com for $100,000.

The lawsuit, filed in California last week, claims that a family of known cybersquatters, based in Guangdong, is trying to have the purchase invalidated by a Chinese court.

The company, which acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, wants the court to rule that the domain deal was legal, preventing the cybersquatters retaking control of the domain.

Photo-sharing app Instagram launched in October 2010 using the domain instagr.am.

At that time, instagram.com was owned by a US-based domain investor, but it was bought by Zhou Weiming about a month later.

Zhou, Facebook says, was the now-dead father of three of the people it is suing, and the husband of the fourth.

When Zhou purchased the domain, Instagram had become wildly popular, well on the way to hitting the million-user mark in December 2010.

Instagram had applied for the US trademark on its name in September 2010, less than a month before its launch.

The company made the decision to pay $100,000 for the domain in January 2011.

The Whois information for instagram.com changed from Zhou Weiming to Zhou Murong, apparently his daughter, around about the same time, though the registrant email address did not change.

The purchase was processed by Sedo, according to a copy of the deal filed as evidence (pdf).

Now, Murong’s mother and sisters are suing her and Instagram in China, claiming she did not have the authority to sell the domain, according to Facebook’s complaint.

Facebook claims the Chinese suit is a “sham” and that the whole Zhou family is acting in concert.

The company wants the California court to declare that the sale was valid, and that registrar MarkMonitor should not be forced to transfer the domain back to the Zhous.

Facebook in 2014 won a 22-domain UDRP case against Murong Zhou, related to typos of its Instagram trademark.

Read the full California complaint as a PDF here.

Does .tickets have the ultimate anti-cybersquatting system?

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2016, Domain Registries

I’ve never seen anything like this before.

.tickets gTLD registry Accent Media has launched an anti-cybersquatting measure that lets the world know who is trying to register what domain name a whole month before the domain is allowed to go live.

The service, at domains.watch, is currently only being used by .tickets, but it seems to be geared up to accept other TLDs too.

A spokesperson said the site soft-launched a couple months ago.

Today, if you want to register a .tickets domain name, you have a choice of two processes — “fast-track” or “standard”.

Fast-track is for organizations with trademarks matching their names. It take five days for the trademark to be verified and the domain to go live.

Standard-track applications, however, are published on domains.watch for 30 days before the the registration is fully processed (under the registry hood, the domain are kept in “Pending Create” status).

Domains.Watch

During that 30 days, anyone with a trademark they believe would be infringed by the domain may file a challenge against the registration. They have to pay a fee to do so.

The would-be registrant can counter by showing their own rights. If they have no documented rights, the challenger gets the name instead.

“Rights” in the case of .tickets means a trademark or evidence of use of a mark in a ticketing-related context.

While it’s certainly not unusual in the industry for restricted TLDs to manually vet their registrants before processing a registration, I’ve never before come across a registry that does it all in public, allowing basically anyone — or, at least, anyone who is willing to pay the challenge fee — to challenge any registration.

Can you imagine what the domain world would be like if this kind of system were commonplace across a range of TLDs?

A lot of people outside the industry — particularly in security, I fancy — would love it.

Top 2015 new gTLD sale looks like cybersquatting

Kevin Murphy, January 8, 2016, Domain Sales

One of the top secondary market domain sales of 2015, as reported by Sedo, appears to be a case of somebody selling a domain matching a trademark to the trademark’s owner.

According to a press release yesterday, the domain basic-fit.fitness was the third-priciest reportable new gTLD domain sale handled by Sedo last year.

It went for €7,949 ($8,634).

Given that it’s not intrinsically an attractive-looking domain, I tried to figure out why it sold.

Judging by Whois records, the buyer is the corporate owner of Basic-Fit, a chain of over 300 gyms in four European countries.

It has at least one trademark on “Basic-Fit”.

The original registrant, according to records cached by DomainTools, was a Belgian web designer.

The domain seems to have changed hands around May last year. In April, it spent a couple of weeks under Whois privacy.

The domain was registered August 27, 2014, the day .fitness exited its Early Access Period and domains were available at regular prices.

It seems the same Belgian web designer owns several more new gTLD domain names matching brands that are parked with Sedo and available to buy instantly.

Many are .immo (“.realestate”) domains matching the brands of Belgian real estate firms. There are also a few .beer domains under his name matching the brands of breweries and beers in the UK, US and Czech Republic.

It’s not unheard of for web developers to register domains on behalf of clients. It’s rather less common for them to then list them for sale, with buy-now prices, on domain marketplaces.

Looks dodgy to me.

TLS says .feedback will be “UDRP-proof”, will hire lawyers to defend registrants

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Services

Top Level Spectrum plans to make its .feedback domains dirt cheap for domainers during its forthcoming Early Access Period, and is claiming that its domains will be “UDRP-proof”.

CEO Jay Westerdal told DI today that the registry will even hire lawyers to defend its registrants if and when UDRP cases arise.

The company has also introduced a new $5,000 “claims” service that is guaranteed to drive the intellectual property community nuts.

.feedback is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating new gTLD launches to date.

The company’s original plan, to sell 5,000 trademark-match domains to a single entity after its sunrise period ends has been tweaked.

Now, it will instead offer huge rebates during its Early Access Period next month, which will bring the price to registrants down from as much as $1,815 to as little as $5.

It’s called the “Free Speech Partner Program”.

To qualify for the program rebate, registrants will have to agree to stick to using TLS’s specially designated name servers, which point to a hosted feedback service managed by the registry.

An example of such a site can be seen at donaldtrump.feedback, which is among several US presidential candidate names TLS has registered to itself recently.

That commitment will be passed on if the domain ever changes hands, and a $5,000 fee will be applicable if the registrant wants to switch to their own name servers.

A registry charging a lower fee during EAP than GA is unheard of, but that’s what TLS is planning.

Rebates will not be available during the first three days of EAP, which starts January 6 at $14,020 per name. Days two and three see domains priced at $7,020 and $3,520.

From January 9 to January 18, rebates will bring the prices down to $5 per domain.

That’s a quarter of the $20 registry fee it plans to charge during general availability.

“Our plan is to sell thousands of domains before normal GA,” Westerdal said.

“It is a great opportunity for domainers to register domains that will be UDRP proof,” he said. “As free speech sites they are going to improve the world and let anyone read reviews on any subject.”

“I think they are UDRP proof,” he said. “As a registry we will hire lawyers to fight cases that arise.”

Asked to confirm that TLS would pay for lawyers to defend its registrants in UDRP cases, he said: “Hell yes we will.”

The registry plans to give trademark owners a way to avoid UDRP, however, if they’re willing to pay $5,000 for the privilege.

“Free Speech” registrants will have to agree not only to use TLS’s feedback platform, but also to allow the owners of trademarks matching their domains to more or less unilaterally seize those domains for up to two years after registration.

This “claims period” is also unprecedented in new gTLD launches. It’s described like this:

The registry will accept trademarks for a period of 2 years after the initial registration on a “Free Speech Partner Program” domains. The cost is $5,000 to have the mark validated, if the trademark is found to be the first to successfully make a claim against a domain in the program the domain will be transferred to the mark holder. The mark holder will be allowed to change name servers and is not subject to the “Free Speech Partner Program” terms of service.

Domain registrants of the “Free Speech Partner Program” agree the outcome of a validated mark by the Registry have no further claim to the domain if it is transferred to a new registrant.

If TLS is trying to design a system that will enrage the trademark community to the maximum extent possible, it’s doing a fantastic job.

It even introduced a new clause (2.9, here) to its registration agreement earlier this month, obliging registrants to point their domains to a web page that collects feedback. That means nobody will be allowed to leave their .feedback domains dark.

Are these measures justifiable disincentives, or plain old extortion? Opinion will no doubt be split along the usual lines.

More on my Twitter.sucks reg

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Registries

If you were reading on Friday, you’ll know that I brought about the registration of the domain twitter.sucks and took charge of a web site hosted at that address.

I hinted that there was a little more to the story, but couldn’t get into it.

The first part of the story is here.

What I didn’t mention was that twitter.sucks was in my This.sucks account for probably less than 10 minutes before I removed it.

I have no beef with Twitter and no particular desire to moderate a .sucks discussion forum.

After removing twitter.sucks from my account, I noticed that This.sucks again gave me the option to “register” a free .sucks domain.

So I experimentally “registered” thisdotsucks.sucks too.

Again, the domain started resolving, showed up in Whois, and the associated WordPress site went live within seconds.

At this point, I discovered that I had admin privileges for both twitter.sucks and thisdotsucks.sucks sites simultaneously.

Suspecting that I may have found a bug that would allow anyone to register an essentially unlimited number of free and potentially trademark-matching .sucks domains, I informed This.sucks of my findings in the interest of responsible bug disclosure and ended my blog post prematurely.

Late Friday, This.sucks spokesperson Phil Armstrong told me that it wasn’t a bug after all.

He said that the company allows one “do-over”. So if you register a name for free, then delete it, you get another one for free.

He also said that WordPress admin privileges for domains removed from user accounts expire after a period (I had admin rights for the twitter.sucks web site for roughly 48 hours after I deleted it from my account.)

Right now, the domain twitter.sucks still exists, registered to This.sucks as before, as does the associated web site. I have no idea if another user has taken over its administration or if it’s in some kind of limbo state.

All I know is that it’s nothing to do with me any more.

How I just registered Twitter.sucks for free in just five clicks

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2015, Domain Registries

This morning, I caused the registration of and was given control of a web site at twitter.sucks.

I didn’t pay a thing, though I did — by checking a box linked to hidden terms and conditions — promise to pay $10,000 if I was later determined to be working for Twitter.

Ordinarily, registering a .sucks domain would have cost me over $200.

The controversial This.sucks service (which may share ownership with .sucks registry Vox Populi) has gone live and is giving out 10,000 .sucks web sites for free.

Users, who can sign up merely by connecting their Facebook or LinkedIn accounts, are able to cause This.sucks to register names on their behalf.

They are then immediately given limited control over a WordPress blog hosted at that domain, though not to the associated name servers or Whois records.

It’s actually quite a slick, streamlined service, that could quite easily dramatically increase the number of active .sucks site overnight.

But it’s going to cause no end of headaches for trademark owners.

Earlier this week, you may recall DI reporting that This.sucks seemed to have registered the .sucks names matching the brands of Twitter, Adobe, Goldman Sachs and Justin Timberlake.

It seems that this may have been a test of the This.sucks service, as I was tipped off last night that twitter.sucks was no longer registered.

Here’s how I got control over the twitter.sucks web site in just FIVE clicks.

This.sucks has a domain availability query box, just like a regular registrar. I looked up “twitter”:

This.sucks 1

Seeing that the domain was available, I went through the two-click process of allowing This.sucks to use my Facebook login credentials.

This.sucks 2

Obviously, while I used a genuine Facebook account, I see no reason why I couldn’t have used a fake one.

After connecting, I was bounced back to This.sucks and was given the ability to register twitter.sucks in a single click.

This.sucks 3

I also had to check a box confirming:

I’m a free-thinking individual, not a corporate yes-man. I agree to the terms and conditions and any penalties which may apply.

Clicking either of the T&C links, or hovering over the question mark, will introduce you to the concept of a $10,000 penalty.

This.sucks 4

That’s right — by causing This.sucks to register a .sucks domain, you agree to pay $10,000 if the company decides, in its “sole discretion” that you are affiliated with the matching trademark owner. The terms state:

Site Runners on this.sucks must be individuals who have no affiliation with the subject matter of the Site. You can’t be running the Site on behalf of a company, entity or anyone who is the subject of the Site.

As a Site Runner you agree that if you are found by this.sucks, in our sole discretion, to be in violation of this principal, that a $10,000 USD payment to This.sucks will immediately become due and payable. You will also no longer be a Site Runner with us. Your Site may also be given to a different Site Runner to run.

If you think a Site is being run by someone acting on behalf of the subject of the Site, please email us at whistleblower@this.sucks

Given that Twitter’s lawyers are probably going to hate me for doing this, I felt pretty confident in accepting this risk.

In addition, at this point This.sucks has not asked me for any payment information. If they want $10,000 off of me, they can take a hike, I figure.

So I clicked the “Register Now” button.

Bam! In under 10 seconds the domain name twitter.sucks existed in DNS, in Whois, and there was a simple WordPress web site there that I, to a significant extent, controlled.

The domain is registered to This.sucks, which makes it clear on its web site FAQ that its users — or “Site Runners” — do not actually own the domains they cause to be registered.

This.sucks 6

As administrator of the WordPress site, I am able to create and update blog posts as well as change the appearance by switching between a limited selection of themes. I can also edit and delete comments and manage registered users.

There’s a little bit more to my story — which I cannot get into for now.

For the moment, it must suffice to say that this is a whole new world for famous brand owners.

They can either pay the roughly $2,000 required to defensively register their brand in .sucks, or they can try to sneak through a free (or $0.99 per month) registration at This.sucks at the risk of being billed $10,000 if they get rumbled.

Twitter and Justin Timberlake targeted by This.sucks

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2015, Domain Registries

This.sucks, a company with close ties to .sucks registry Vox Populi, has started registering domain names matching famous brands to itself.

Twitter, along with singer Justin Timberlake, software maker Adobe and investment bank Goldman Sachs all saw their matching .sucks domains registered by This.sucks on Friday, according to the .sucks zone file and Whois queries.

The domains twitter.sucks, goldmansachs.sucks, justintimberlake.sucks and adobe.sucks currently resolve in browsers, but only to a password-protected web site.

New York-based This.sucks says its service is in beta. It plans to give 10,000 .sucks domains away for free, and to sell them for as little as $12 per year. Its business model has not been revealed.

That’s a deep discount from their regular $250 suggested retail price, which rises to $2,500 for domains matching famous brands.

Technically, the company should have just paid around $10,000 for the four brand-matching domains it has just registered.

But it is broadly suspected that This.sucks shares ownership with Vox Populi, the .sucks registry operator, which would make this a case of the right hand paying the left.

As we uncovered in October, Vox Populi originally hosted This.sucks’ web sites and the CEO of Momentous, which founded Vox Pop, paid for its web site to be developed.

The two companies also share a physical address and a Cayman Islands lawyer.

Vox Pop has denied any involvement in This.sucks, saying it’s just another customer.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for one of the four affected brands to file a UDRP or URS complaint on these new domains.

As far as I can tell, the .sucks namespace currently has an unblemished UDRP record.

Unlike rival Top Level Spectrum, which runs .feedback, neither Vox Pop nor This.sucks has revealed any plans to use brands belonging to third parties as part of their services.

TLS has said it plans to sell 5,000 branded .feedback domains to a third party after its sunrise period ends next month.

It has already registered fox.feedback to itself as one of its special 100-domain pre-sunrise registry allowance.

Since we last reported on .feedback a month ago, the registry appears to have also registered the names of all the current US presidential candidates — such as donaldtrump.feedback and hillaryclinton.feedback — to itself.

The sites are all live, as is santaclaus.feedback, which seeks commentary on the “fictional” character.

Forget .sucks, .feedback will drive trademark owners nuts all over again

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2015, Domain Registries

Top Level Spectrum, the new gTLD registry behind .feedback, plans to give sell domains matching 5,000 of the world’s top brands to a third party that does not own the trademarks.

That’s one novel element of a .feedback business model that is guaranteed to drive the intellectual property community crazy in much the same way as .sucks did earlier this year.

The other piece of ‘innovation’ will see all .feedback domains — including the 5,000 brands — point by default to a hosted service that facilitates comment and criticism.

An example of such a site can be seen at www.eggsample.feedback. The registry’s CEO, Jay Westerdal, has a .feedback site at www.jay.feedback

If you agree to use the hosted service with your domain, the domain and service combined will cost a minimum of just $20 per year.

However, if you want to turn off the hosted service and use your .feedback like a regular domain, pointing to the web site of your choice, the price will ratchet up to $50 a month, or $620 a year.

Those are the wholesale prices. Both services will be offered through registrars, where some markup is to be expected.

The hosted service is being offered by Feedback SAAS LLC, a company that, judging by its web site, appears to share ownership with Top Level Spectrum, though Westerdal says the two firms have different employees.

It’s not dissimilar to the model employed by .tel, where name servers by default point to a registry-hosted service.

Unlike .tel, .feedback registrants will be able to opt out of using the SAAS service and point their domains to whatever name servers they want.

Westerdal told DI that .feedback is in the process of making a deal with a “third party” he could not yet name to have 5,000 branded .feedback domains deployed during the Early Access Period of the .feedback launch. That’s scheduled to start January 6.

“We are striking a deal to get feedback sites out there. We want everything to have feedback,” he said. “We are signing an agreement to get the ball rolling by doing a founders program to get names out there. Your favorite shoe, your pizza place, your everything.”

“The sites are all geared towards free speech and giving reviews,” he said. He said:

No trademark infringement will occur though, the sites are all geared towards free speech and giving reviews. Confusing the public that the brand is running the site will not happen, each site has a disclaimer and makes it clear the brand is not running the site.

Asked whether we were talking about a genuine third party or a shell set up by the registry, he said: “A real third party. I am not playing games.”

He said the higher pricing for the naked domain registration is intended to discourage companies from turning off the domains matching their brands.

The whole point of .feedback is to solicit feedback.

The as-yet unspecified third-party taking possession of the 5,000 brand names would not be prevented from selling the domains to the matching brand owner, or to any third parties, he said, though he would not be in favor of such a move.

He said that $20 a year to run a configurable .feedback site, with moderator privileges, is a “great deal” compared to the $300-a-month service he said consumer review site Yelp offers.

The SAAS service will make additional revenue by selling added features, suitable for enterprises, he said.

.feedback went into its sunrise period last week with a $2,000 wholesale fee — the same high price that attracted criticism for .sucks.

The original Registry Service Evaluation Process for the .feedback service hit ICANN over a year ago (pdf).

I missed it then. Sorry.

I noticed it today after corporate registrar MarkMonitor blogged about it.

Matt Serlin, VP of MarkMonitor, who blogged his opinion on .feedback’s strategy earlier today, said in an email that the .feedback strategy was “more objectionable” than he had thought, and that “[W]e would most likely look to raise to ICANN if that is his stated intent.”

URS arrives in three legacy gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, October 2, 2015, Domain Policy

The legacy gTLDs .cat, .pro and .travel will all be subject to the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy from now on.

Earlier this week, ICANN approved the new Registry Agreements, which are based on the new gTLD RA and include URS, for all three.

URS is an anti-cybersquatting policy similar to UDRP. It’s faster and cheaper than UDRP but has a higher burden of proof and only allows domains to be suspended rather than transferred.

The inclusion of the policy in pre-2012 gTLDs caused a small scandal when it was revealed a few months ago.

Critics, particularly the Internet Commerce Association, said that URS (unlike UDRP) is not a Consensus Policy and therefore should not be forced on registries.

ICANN responded that adding URS to the new contracts came about in bilateral negotiations with the registries.

The board said in its new resolutions this week:

the Board’s approval of the Renewal Registry Agreement is not a move to make the URS mandatory for any legacy TLDs, and it would be inappropriate to do so. In the case of .CAT, inclusion of the URS was developed as part of the proposal in bilateral negotiations between the Registry Operator and ICANN.

The concern for ICA and others is that URS may one day be forced into the .com RA, putting domainer portfolios at increased risk.