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OpenTLD suspension stayed in unprecedented arbitration case

“Cybersquatting” registrar OpenTLD, part of the Freenom group, has had its accreditation un-suspended by ICANN while the two parties slug it out in arbitration.

Filed three weeks ago by OpenTLD, it’s the first complaint to head to arbitration about under the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

ICANN suspended the registrar for 90 days in late June, claiming that it “engaged in a pattern and practice of trafficking in or use of domain names identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark of a third party”.

But OpenTLD filed its arbitration claim day before the suspension was due to come in to effect, demanding a stay.

ICANN — voluntarily, it seems — put the suspension on hold pending the outcome of the case.

The suspension came about due to OpenTLD being found guilty of cybersquatting its competitors in two UDRP cases.

In both cases, the UDRP panel found that the company had cybersquatted the trademarks of rival registrars in an attempt to entice their resellers over to its platform.

But OpenTLD claims that ICANN rushed to suspend it without giving it a chance to put forward its side of the story and without informing it of the breach.

It further claims that the suspension is “disproportionate and unprecedented” and that the public interest would not be served for the suspension to be upheld.

This is not an Independent Review Process proceeding, so things are expected to move forward relatively quickly.

The arbitration panel expects to hear arguments by phone August 14 and rule one way or the other by August 24.

Read the OpenTLD complaint here.

First example of .sucks cybersquatting?

The .sucks domain has been generally available for a little over a week now, and I’ve found what may be the first example of somebody attempting to sell one to a brand owner.

amherstcollege.sucks is one of only a handful on non-registry-owned .sucks domains to have a web site already indexed by Google.

The site solicits commentary about Amherst College — a liberal arts university in Massachusetts that owns a US trademark on “Amherst” — but does not yet publish any such criticism.

However, the phrases “AMHERSTCOLLEGE.SUCKS DOMAIN NAME + WEBSITE IS FOR SALE” and “IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN PURCHASING THIS DOMAIN AND WEBSITE CONTACT US” appear prominently on the bare-bones WordPress blog currently running at the site.

The Whois record shows “THIS DOMAIN IS FOR SALE” as the registrant organization.

Under the UDRP, offering a domain for sale is usually considered enough to meet the “bad faith” part of the three-prong cybersquatting test.

I doubt it’s the only example of a .sucks domain matching a brand currently listed for sale by a third-party registrant, but it is the first one showing up in Google.

It’s still early days; the other .sucks domains with sites and a Google presence are a mix of redirects, mirroring and placeholders.

Microsoft-owned microsoft.sucks is one of them. It redirects to a Bing search results page.

The $250-a-year .sucks gTLD, managed by Vox Populi registry, currently has fewer than 5,700 domains in its zone file. Growth has ground almost to a halt over the last few days.

Posh Spice takes down porn site

Kevin Murphy, June 24, 2015, Domain Policy

Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham has used UDRP to take down a porn site bearing her name.

victoria-beckham.biz was owned by a Ukrainian, who had set up a site “at which adult and/or pornographic images and services are offered”, according to the UDRP panelist.

It was pretty much a slam-dunk case.

While not all celebrities own trademarks on their names, Beckham does. The squatter, who registered the name in December 2014, did not even attempt a response.

Based on archived screenshots and Whois records, it looks like victoria-beckham.biz has been around as a rather harmless fan site since about 2006.

It was only after the domain expired late last year and was re-registered did it become a porn site, attracting the attention of Beckham’s lawyers.

Freenom suspended for cybersquatting rival registrars

Freenom, the company behind .tk and other freebie ccTLDs, has had its ICANN registrar accreditation suspended for cybersquatting competing registrars including Go Daddy and Key-Systems.

OpenTLD, its registrar business, has been told it cannot accept new registrations or inbound transfers from July 8 to October 6 or until it provides ICANN with a full list of the names it squatted.

I believe it’s the first time ICANN has suspended a registrar for this reason.

The suspension notice states:

ICANN has found that OpenTLD has engaged in a pattern and practice of trafficking in or use of domain names identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark of a third party in which the Registered Name Holder has no rights or legitimate interest

That’s a long-winded way of saying “massive cybersquatting”.

ICANN is basing its claims on two UDRP cases that Freenom and its CEO, Joost Zuurbier, lost.

According to WIPO panelists in Key-Systems GmbH v. Joost Zuurbier, OpenTLD B.V. and NetEarth Group, Inc. v. Stichting OpenTLD WHOIS Proxy, the company squatted at least seven of its rivals’ trademarks.

The domains were netearthone.biz, rrpproxy.me, key-systems.cc, resellerclub.tk, resellbiz.biz, godaddy.cf and resello.ws.

According to the UDRP decisions, Freenom used the domains to try to entice resellers of the other registrars over to OpenTLD.

It bought the competing registrars’ trademarks as search keywords on Google’s advertising platform, a WIPO panelist found. If you searched Google for Key-Systems trademark “RRPproxy”, for example, you’d get an ad linking to rrpproxy.me.

In some cases the names were registered behind Freenom’s in-house privacy service. In others, Zuurbier and OpenTLD were listed plainly as the registrants.

The WIPO panelists also found that Freenon shirked its duties under the UDRP as registrar, deleting the squatted domains rather than locking them, which essentially amounted to “cyberflight”.

It all looks pretty bad for Freenom, which only gained its accreditation two years ago.

To avoid termination, it has to provide ICANN with a list of all of its trademark infringing names, agree to transfer them to the mark owners or delete them, and bunch of other stuff.

Here’s the letter.

Obama, Apple, cancer and Taylor Swift’s cat top lists of most searched-for .sucks domains

You’ve got to hand it to .sucks registry Vox Populi.

The pricing may be “exploitative” and “predatory”, as the intellectual property community believes, but damn if the the company doesn’t know how to generate headlines.

Vox Pop has just added a new ticker stream to its web site, fingering the 50 most sucky celebrities, politicians, companies, social ills and abstract concepts.

The lists have been compiled from “more than a million” searches for .sucks domains that Vox Pop has seen pass through its system, according to CEO and veteran PR man John Berard.

For some reason, TayloySwiftsCat.sucks is the most searched-for in the “Personalities” category.

I’m guessing this relates to a meme that has yet to reach my isolated, middle-aged, non-country-music-loving corner of the world.

Whatever the cat did to earn this ire, it’s presumably equivalent to what Barack Obama, Apple, cancer and just life generally has done to searchers on the .sucks web site.

Here are the lists of most-searched-for terms, as it stands on the .sucks web site right now.

Top Personalities:

  • 1. TaylorSwiftsCat
  • 2. JustinBeiber
  • 3. KevinSpacey
  • 4. Oprah
  • 5. KimKardashian
  • 6. KayneWest
  • 7. GuyFieri
  • 8. TomBrady
  • 9. DonaldTrump
  • 10. OneDirection

Catch Phrases:

  • 1. Life
  • 2. YourMomma
  • 3. This
  • 4. Everyone
  • 5. MyJob
  • 6. MyLife
  • 7. Reality
  • 8. YouKnowWhat
  • 9. Who
  • 10. College

Causes:

  • 1. Cancer
  • 2. Technology
  • 3. Obesity
  • 4. Racism
  • 5. Depression
  • 6. Meat
  • 7. AIDS
  • 8. Hate
  • 9. Poverty
  • 10. Government

Companies:

  • 1. Apple
  • 2. Google
  • 3. Microsoft
  • 4. Facebook
  • 5. Comcast
  • 6. Walmart
  • 7. CocaCola
  • 8. McDonalds
  • 9. Sony
  • 10. Amazon

Politicians:

  • 1. Obama
  • 2. Hillary
  • 3. TedCruz
  • 4. RandPaul
  • 5. StephenHarper
  • 6. Putin
  • 7. JebBush
  • 8. TonyAbbott
  • 9. DavidCameron
  • 10. Democrats

Make no mistake, this is a headline-generating exercise by Vox Pop.

It comes as .sucks hits 10 days left on the clock for its $1,999+-a-pop sunrise period.

The company got a shed-load of mainstream media publicity when celebrities, starting with Kevin Spacey, started registering their names in .sucks several weeks ago.

It’s looking to get more headlines now, from lazy journalists and bloggers.

This is one of the first, for which I can only apologize.

Businesses call on regulators to stop .sucks “extortion”

ICANN’s Business Constituency wants US and Canadian regulators to intervene to prevent Vox Populi Registry, which runs .sucks, “extorting” businesses with its high sunrise fees.

The BC wrote to ICANN, the US Federal Trade Commission and the Canadian Office for Consumer Affairs on Friday, saying .sucks has employed “exploitive [sic] pricing and unfair marketing practices”.

The constituency adds its voice to Intellectual Property Constituency, which complained last month, causing ICANN to refer the matter to US and Canadian regulators.

Now, the BC has told the OCA and FTC:

We do not believe that exploitative and unfair business practices are conducive either to promoting end-user confidence in the Internet or to fair competition in the domain name space. On the contrary, the pricing structure adopted by Vox Populi for .sucks domain names is predicated purely on expecting the businesses and brands that drive global growth to pay extortionate fees for no consumer or market benefit.

Vox Populi’s tactics exploit businesses that neither want nor need these domain name registrations but feel unfairly pressured to register purely for defensive purposes.

The BC’s letter chooses to focus on saying sunrise names cost “$2,499 and up” (original emphasis). That’s based on the MSRP Vox Pop publishes on its web site.

In reality, Vox Pop is charging a registry fee of $1,999 per year for .sucks sunrise registrations.

Retail registrars can add hundreds of dollars in mark-up fees, but the leading corporate registrars that are selling the most .sucks sunrise names — MarkMonitor, CSC and Com Laude among them — have said that as a matter of principle they are only charging a nominal $20 to $25 processing fee.

It’s not the highest sunrise fee I’ve come across. The Chinese registry behind .top asked for $3,500 during its sunrise.

But the semantics of the .sucks TLD makes brand owners nervous and makes many of them feel that a defensive registration is a must-have.

The BC now write to regulators to “urge the FTC and OCA to expeditiously determine whether these practices constitute unfair trade practices”.

The letter points to US and Canadian regulations covering consumer protection for examples of where Vox Pop’s practices may fall short of the law.

The free speech opportunities afforded by .sucks do not outweigh the harms, the BC says.

It’s also interesting to note that while the BC appears to be running to regulators for assistance, it notes that it still fully supports the ICANN model.

There may be a degree of cognitive dissonance within the BC.

In a separate letter to ICANN, also signed by BC chair Elisa Cooper and sent yesterday, the BC seems to take issue with the fact that ICANN felt the need to report .sucks to regulators in the first place, writing:

We would like to understand the rationale for doing so. ICANN has ample authority, a clear obligation and the resources available to stop rogue practices through its contractual agreements with registries, its Compliance Department, and its broad duty to protect the public interest and the security and stability of the Internet, particularly for issues with global reach. Like all other gTLDs launched under ICANN’s program, .sucks has a global reach. It is not clear why ICANN feels it should seek clarification from these two North American agencies.

It’s worth noting that Vox Pop CEO Berard is a member of the BC via his PR agency, Credible Context. He was Cooper’s immediate predecessor as BC chair, leaving the post last year.

Correction: Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that Berard was actually the BC’s representative to the GNSO, not its chair. Apologies for the error.

The letter tells Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah that “viewed in its entirety, Vox Populi’s pricing scheme is a violation of the Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs)” developed for the new gTLD program, alleging it discourages use of the RPMs and encourages cybersquatting.

It claims that if Vox Pop populated its Sunrise Premium list (now known as Market Premium, it seems) with data from the Trademark Clearinghouse it could be in violation of its Registry Agreement with ICANN.

My sense has been that the names on that list were actually culled from zone files. Vox Pop has said it was compiled from lists of names that have previously been defensively registered. Most of the names in the TMCH have not been defensively registered.

The BC asks for ICANN “to take strong action”, but does not specify what, exactly, it wants.

The letter to the OCA and FTC can be read here. The letter to ICANN is here. Both are PDF files.

Dot-brand gTLD guilty of domain name hijacking

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2015, Domain Policy

Fashion retailer Mango, which owns its own dot-brand gTLD, has been found guilty of Reverse Domain Name Hijacking after allegedly doctoring evidence in a .uk cybersquatting case.

The company, which runs .mango, lost a Nominet Dispute Resolution Service complaint against New Zealand-based domain investor Garth Piesse over mango.co.uk and mango.uk.

It’s only the sixth RDNH finding in 13 years of DRS history.

Mango tried to buy the domain using a pseudonym and, when Piesse asked for “six figures”, filed the DRS instead.

Piesse claimed in what appears to have been a well-argued defense that the person attempting to buy the domain on Mango’s behalf did not identify Mango as the would-be buyer.

Further, he claimed that Mango deliberately tried to hide this fact from the DRS panel by scrubbing its negotiator’s email address from evidence it submitted.

While DRS panelist Tim Brown did not agree that this omission alone was enough to find RNDH, he agreed that Mango did not have “entirely clean hands”. He ruled:

The sequence of events in the present case appears to show that the Complainant attempted to buy from the Respondent. When these negotiations failed the Complainant started proceedings under the DRS. As I have noted, the Complainant has relied on bare assertion and has provided a paucity of evidence to support its arguments.

Even a cursory reading of the Policy, Procedure and extensive guidance on Nominet’s website would quickly show that a matter concerning a clearly generic, dictionary term would require a higher standard of argument and evidence than is perhaps common. That the Complainant has failed to come anywhere close to providing sufficient argument or evidence is, in my view, strongly indicative that the Complainant pursued this dispute in frustration at the Respondent’s unwillingness to sell for a price it was willing to pay, rather than because of the merits of its position in terms of the Policy’s requirements.

I conclude that the Complainant brought a speculative complaint in bad faith in an attempt to deprive the Respondent of the Domain Names. I therefore determine that the Complainant has engaged in Reverse Domain Name Hijacking.

Spain-based Mango has owned its trademarks for well over a decade, and Piesse only got his hands on the domains in question in 2013 and 2014.

Piesse, who owns about 18,000 domains, was able to show that Mango the brand is unheard of in New Zealand and that he has a track record of buying fruit-based .uk domain names.

Cybersquatter jailed for seven years after prison break

Kevin Murphy, April 20, 2015, Domain Policy

Fraudster Neil Moore, who escaped from prison by cybersquatting, has reportedly been handed a seven-year sentence by a British court.

As we reported last month, Moore escaped from Wandsworth prison merely by sending an email ordering his release from an hmcts-gsi-gov.org.uk email address.

He’d registered the name, a typo of the genuine hmcts.gsi.gov.uk used by the UK court service, on a smuggled smartphone.

He was being held on remand for an unrelated fraud at the time.

Today’s sentencing follows Moore pleading guilty to eight counts of fraud (it doesn’t seem those were related to cybersquatting) and one count of wrongful escape from custody.

ICANN in “fact-finding” mode over potential .sucks breach

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2015, Domain Registries

ICANN is playing its cards close to its chest when pressed on what it thinks Vox Populi may have done wrong with its .sucks launch pricing and policies.

The organization told DI in a statement that it is currently “fact-finding”, and will not speculate on what parts of the Registry Agreement may have been breached.

ICANN on Thursday reported Vox Pop to the US and Canadian trade regulators, asking them to judge whether the registry’s $2,000 sunrise fee broke any laws.

Its Intellectual Property Constituency reckons the launch, which also places thousands of trademarks on permanent, high-priced “Sunrise Premium” list amounts to nothing more than a “shakedown” of brand owners.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI last week that the referral to the US Federal Trade Commission, despite that fact that the company and its owners are Canadian, amounted to “appeasement” of the IPC.

In response, ICANN told DI in a statement:

The registry is offering domain name registrations to registrants located in jurisdictions around the world. It¹s possible that a registry’s activities could violate the law in the registry’s own jurisdiction; it is also possible that a registry’s activities could violate the law in the jurisdiction of a registrar or registrant where the registry offers domain name registrations. In this case, the IPC letter was signed by an attorney based in New York City, and ICANN thought it appropriate to ask both U.S. and Canadian authorities to consider the IPC allegations.

ICANN seems to be saying on the one hand that registries are beholden to the laws of wherever their registrants are based and on the other hand that the jurisdiction of the IPC’s current president, Greg Shatan, somehow has a bearing on what laws gTLD registries are obliged to obey.

I await correction from more knowledgeable readers, but I don’t think either of those statements is accurate.

If the latter is true, then perhaps the IPC should in future elect its leaders from only the countries with the most trademark-friendly regimes.

In ICANN’s letters to the FTC and IPC, the organization said it was “evaluating other remedies”. From the context, it seems that ICANN is thinking it could initiate some kind of compliance action against .sucks regardless of the what governmental regulators say.

Asked to explain this, ICANN told DI:

We¹re currently doing some fact-finding and analysis to assess whether there has been any breach by the registry of its obligations, and, based on the results of that analysis, we will try to determine what remedies, if any, may be available. Obviously, it will depend on all the facts and circumstances. Beyond that, since we haven¹t finished that evaluation process it would be inappropriate to speculate about possible remedies.

That’s not saying much, but it leaves the door open for ICANN Compliance to do something even if the FTC and Office of Consumer Affairs deem that no laws have been broken.

One possible “breach” that has been floated relates to the differential pricing created by the Sunrise Premium list. However, my take on this is that, under the new gTLD contracts, it’s not massively different to other kinds of premium pricing program.

Differential pricing protections only apply to renewal fees. If the registrant is told at the point of sale that their renewal fees will be high, that enables registries to put different fees on different domains.

There have also been theories put forward about ICANN’s motivation for referring .sucks to regulators.

The idea that ICANN can defer to the FTC and others on legal matter is not entirely new. In cases where registries intend to merge, ICANN is allowed under its contracts to refer the deals to regulators before approving them.

But this is the first time ICANN has referred new gTLD pricing to competition authorities.

Is it a case of ICANN ass-covering?

ICANN is taking unique fees worth up to $1 million extra from Vox Populi and, as I wrote two weeks ago, the optics of this are bad for ICANN, which could look like it is profiteering from .sucks.

ICANN has explained that the extra fees related to entities that were owned by Vox Pop parent Momentous, the Canadian registrar that had many subsidiaries go out of business owing ICANN a tonne of cash.

By punting the IPC’s complaint to regulators, ICANN could deflect criticism that it is not doing enough to protect rights holders and registrants while avoiding having to make a tricky decision itself.

Regardless, the FTC referral and the fact that ICANN is charging Vox Pop special fees sends a strong message that ICANN does not trust the registry one bit.

ICANN reports .sucks to the FTC over “predatory” pricing

ICANN has referred .sucks registry Vox Populi to the US Federal Trade Commission over concerns from intellectual property owners that its pricing is “predatory”.

The organization has asked the FTC and the Canadian Office of Consumer Affairs to determine whether Vox Pop is breaking any laws.

It asks both agencies to “consider assessing and determining whether Vox Populi is violating any laws or regulations enforced by your respective offices”.

If it is determined that laws are being broken, ICANN said it would be able to “enforce remedies” in the .sucks registry agreement.

ICANN goes on to say that it is “evaluating other remedies” in the registry’s contract.

The shock news comes two weeks after the Intellectual Property Constituency of ICANN complained that Vox Pop’s $2,000 sunrise fee is just a “shakedown scheme”.

The IPC said March 27 it was:

formally asking ICANN to halt the rollout of the .SUCKS new gTLD operated by Vox Populi Registry Inc. (“Vox Populi”), so that the community can examine the validity of Vox Populi’s recently announced plans to: (1) to categorize TMCH-registered marks as “premium names,” (2) charge exorbitant sums to brand owners who seek to secure a registration in .SUCKS, and (3) 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 is also pissed off that there’s a Sunrise Premium fee that applies to the most famous brands, regardless of when they register.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI tonight that the company’s pricing and policies are “well within the rules”, meaning both ICANN’s rules and North American laws.

He asked why ICANN has referred the matter to the FTC, given that Vox Populi is a Canadian company.

He said that a senior ICANN executive had told him it was because many IPC members are US-based. He described this as “appeasement” of the IPC interests.

Greg Shatan, president of the IPC, whose letter sparked ICANN’s outreach to the FTC and OCA, said that the word “justice” is more appropriate than “appeasement”. He told DI tonight:

We’re looking forward to the FTC and OCA taking a look at Vox Populi’s behavior. And there’s lots to look at. The punitive TMCH Sunrise, where a “rights protection mechanism” intended to protect trademark owners has been turned into a scheme to extort $2,500 and up… The eternal Sunrise Premium of the far-from-spotless .SUCKS registry. The mysterious “everybody.sucks” — purportedly a third party, purportedly providing a “subsidy” to registrant — would anyone be surprised if that was a sham?

With reference to the FTC referral, Shatan also told DI tonight:

I don’t think ICANN wants to waste the FTC’s time. It’s far more rational to think that ICANN informed the FTC because Vox Populi’s activities are within the jurisdiction of the FTC. Mr. Berard’s remarks seem to indicate that he believes that Vox Populi operates beyond the reach of US laws.

With a tech contact in Bermuda and an admin contact in the Caymans, that may have been Vox Pop’s intention. Vox Pop may be operating outside US laws, but I doubt they are operating beyond their reach.

Vox Populi is incorporated in Canada, hence ICANN’s outreach to the Canadian regulator. According to its gTLD application, its only 15%+ owner is Momentous, another Canadian company.

But its IANA record lists an address in Bermuda for its technical contact and Uniregistry’s office in Grand Cayman as its administrative address.

There’s been rumors for months that Uniregistry or CEO Frank Schilling helped bankroll Vox Populi’s participation in the .sucks auction, which saw it splash out over $3 million.

ICANN is asking the US and Canadian agencies to respond to its letter with “urgency”, as .sucks is currently in sunrise and is due to go to general availability May 29.

Trademark owners and celebrities are already registering their names in the .sucks sunrise period.

ICANN confirmed in a separate letter today to IPC chair Greg Shatan that Vox Pop has paid ICANN a unique $100,000 start-up fee, and has promised to pay an extra $1 per transaction, due to now-defunct Momentous subsidiaries defaulting on “substantial payments”.

As DI reported last week, ICANN says that the fee is “not related to the nature” of .sucks, but it could give the appearance that ICANN is a beneficiary of the .sucks business model.

This article was published quite quickly after the news broke. It was updated several times on April 9, 2015. It was updated with background material. It was then updated with comments from Vox Pop. It was then updated with comments from the IPC. Later commenters had the benefit of reading earlier versions of this post before they submitted their comments.