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.sucks explains Sunrise Premium name change

Vox Populi Registry abandonment of the .sucks “Sunrise Premium” brand in favor of a new “Market Premium” service is just a renaming, designed to reduce confusion among trademark owners, according to the company.

As we reported Sunday, all mentions of Sunrise Premium — a list of .sucks domains that will always carry a recommended $2,499 a year fee — have been expunged from the Vox Pop web site.

They were replaced with references to Market Premium, which appeared to carry all the characteristics of Sunrise Premium albeit under a new name.

Now, CEO John Berard has confirmed to DI that the program has not changed.

Rather, the new name is an effort to distance it from the regular sunrise period, which is linked to the Trademark Clearinghouse.

The decision was made following last week’s International Trademark Association conference, Berard said:

It was an insight gained from talking to people at INTA15. The intellectual property people there asked us so many times about the sunrise premium list of names that we realized we had allowed a mis-perception to take hold. This is no and never has been a relationship between that list and the TradeMark ClearingHouse. It was surprising how many people thought we had access to the TMCH (we don’t) and merely cut-and-pasted its names.

That is why we renamed it. Now called Market Premium and more clearly presented as a set of names that over time have been viewed as valuable (because they have been registered before). Names on this list will carry a suggested price of $2,499 (yes, the same as was suggested in Sunrise). Given the list is of names that the market has decided has value, it is likely it will contain trademarks.

The change may also be an attempt to head off a contractual squabble with ICANN.

Last Friday, the ICANN Business Constituency told ICANN management that if the Sunrise Premium list had been populated by names drawn from the TMCH, that would have been a breach of the .sucks Registry Agreement.

.sucks threatens ICANN with defamation claim after “extortion” letters

Vox Populi Registry has threatened to sue ICANN for defamation and other alleged breaches of US law, over allegations of “extortion” made by two of its constituencies.

The registry’s outside law firm wrote to ICANN yesterday, saying that it has “has no interest in pursuing claims at this time” but adding:

if ICANN or any of its constituent bodies (or any directly responsible member thereof) engages in any further wrongful activity that prevents the company from fulfilling its contractual obligations and operating the .SUCKS registry as both ICANN and Vox Populi envisioned, the company will have no choice but to pursue any and all remedies available to it.

The letter follows claims by the Intellectual Property Constituency that .sucks and its $1,999 annual sunrise fees constitute a “predatory” “shakedown”, claims which ICANN has forwarded to US and Canadian trade regulators for their legal opinions.

The IPC letter was followed up by similar claims by the Business Constituency on Friday.

Vox Pop now wants these constituencies, and ICANN itself, to shut up.

“Rather than assuming cooler heads will prevail, it is time to tell ICANN to stop interfering in our ability to operate the registry,” CEO John Berard said in an email to reporters. “We are not taking legal action at this point but making it clear that we reserve the right if ICANN continues in its wrong-headed approach.”

The company denies that .sucks will encourage cybersquatting, noting that like all other gTLDs it is subject to the anti-cybersquatting UDRP and URS remedies.

it would seem that ICANN is not actually concerned about cybersquatting or any other illegal activity. Rather, ICANN appears concerned that registrations on the .SUCKS registry will be used to aggregate uncomplimentary commentary about companies and products — the very purpose for the registry that Vox Populi identified in the application it submitted to ICANN, and that ICANN approved

ICANN has disseminated defamatory statements about Vox Populi and its business practices aimed at depriving Vox Populi of the benefits of its contract with ICANN. These actions further violate the duty of good faith and fair dealing that is implied in every contract… in suggesting illegality without any basis whatsoever, your actions (and those of the ICANN IPC and ICANN BC) have given rise to defamation claims against ICANN. Vox Populi hereby demands that ICANN, including any and all of its subdivisions, cease any and all such activity immediately.

There’s bucketloads of irony here, of course.

The company says it is standing up for its future registrants’ rights to free speech, but wants its own critics gagged today.

Read the letter as a PDF here.

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.

Has .sucks abandoned its Sunrise Premium program?

Vox Populi Registry has done away with the “Sunrise Premium” part of its .sucks launch strategy, if only in name.

The pricing page of the company’s web site no longer makes any reference to Sunrise Premium, the controversial, trademark-heavy list of .sucks domains that would cost over $2,000 a year to register and renew.

Instead, there are two new categories of names: Registry Premium and Market Premium.

Registry Premium appears to be what it was previously just calling “Premium” — individually priced high-value domains such as divorce.sucks and life.sucks. That’s in tune with standard registry practice.

The new Market Premium category appears to be the replacement for Sunrise Premium. The web site describes it like this:

In General Availability, dotSucks has created a list of domains called Market Premium names. These are names that the market over time have designated as having a high value.

Previously, Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI and other reporters that the Sunrise Premium list had been compiled from names registered or blocked in previous sunrise periods in other TLDs.

It was characterized as an additional protection against cybersquatting, but intellectual property interests saw it as a shakedown.

It’s not obvious from the updated Vox Pop web site whether Market Premium is a ground-up rethink of the Sunrise Premium concept, or is merely an empty re-branding.

The name “Sunrise Premium” was confusing, given that such domains are not actually available during the formal sunrise period. Also, the name inextricably suggested that it was a list of trademarks.

Market Premium names are priced exactly the same as Sunrise Premium — that is, $1,999 at the registry level, with a suggested retail price of $2,499.

Market Premium names will also not be eligible for the discounted “Block” service but will “likely” be eligible for the Consumer Subsidy program. That’s no change from the policies governing the Sunrise Premium incarnation.

The registry web site now also states that purchasers of the Block service, which carries a $149 registry fee, will be able to unblock their domains if they wish to actively use them, but doing so will convert the domain into a $1,999 Market Premium name.

Defensive blocking could therefore have the eventual effect of stuffing the Market Premium list with trademarks anyway (assuming any trademark holders with blocks wish to activate their .sucks names, which seems unlikely).

I’ve put in a request for clarification about Market Premium with the registry and will provide updates when I get them.

Other updates on the .sucks price list include a removal of the $9.95 suggested retail price for Consumer Subsidy names.

Consumer Subsidy names are supposedly going to be run by a third party consumer advocacy group from Everything.sucks, but that group has not been identified by Vox Pop yet.

The fact that the registry seemingly had no deal in place but already knew the price suggested to many that Everything.sucks would just be another shell company managed by Vox Pop owner Momentous. Berard reportedly denied this publicly at the INTA 2015 conference last week.

The Vox Pop web site now states “dotSucks is hopeful that this will bring the individual consumer price below 10 dollars.”

.sucks and ICANN not invited to Congressional hearing on .sucks and ICANN

Kevin Murphy, May 8, 2015, Domain Policy

The witness list in next week’s US Congressional hearing into .sucks and ICANN accountability does not feature .sucks or ICANN.

The eight witnesses are largely drawn from outspoken critics of both ICANN and Vox Populi, either companies or trade associations and lobby groups. It’s stacked heavily in favor of intellectual property interests.

The hearing is titled “Stakeholder Perspectives on ICANN: The .sucks Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation”.

With hindsight, the “Stakeholder Perspectives” bit gives away the fact that the judiciary subcommittee holding the hearing is more concerned with listening to ICANN’s critics than ICANN itself.

Mei-lan Stark, a senior intellectual property lawyer from Fox and 2014 president of the International Trademark Association, tops the list.

A critic of the new gTLD program, in 2011 Stark told Congress that the first round of new gTLDs would cost Fox “conservatively” $12 million in defensive registration fees.

It will be interesting to see if any Congresspeople confront Stark about that claim, which appeared like a gross overstatement even at the time.

One company that has been enthusiastically embracing new gTLDs — as an applicant, registry, defensive and non-defensive registrant — is Amazon, which has VP of global public policy Paul Misener on the panel.

Amazon has beef with ICANN for siding with the Governmental Advisory Committee over the battle for .amazon, which Amazon has been banned from obtaining, so it’s difficult to see the company as an overly friendly witness.

Next up is John Horton, president of LegitScript, the company that certifies legitimate online pharmacies and backs the .pharmacy new gTLD.

LegitScript is in favor of greater regulation of the domain name industry in order to make it easier to shut down potentially dangerous web sites (though opponents say it’s more often more interested in protecting Big Pharma’s profit margins). This month it called for a ban on Whois privacy for e-commerce sites.

Steve Metalitz, counsel for the Coalition for Online Accountability (a lobbyist for the movie and music industries) and six-term president of the ICANN Intellectual Property Constituency, is also on the list.

Jonathan Zuck, president of ACT The App Association (aka the Association for Competitive Technology, backed by Verisign and other tech firms) is on the list.

NetChoice director Steve DelBianco is also showing up again. He’s an ICANN hearing mainstay and I gather with this appearance he’ll be getting the final stamp on his Rayburn Building Starbucks loyalty card. That means a free latte, which is always nice.

Internet Commerce Association counsel Phil Corwin is a surprise invitee. ICA represents big domainers and is not a natural ally of the IP side of the house.

Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House, rounds off the list. PCH might not have instant name recognition but it provides Anycast DNS infrastructure services for scores of ccTLDs and gTLDs.

The committee hearing will take place at 10am local time next Wednesday.

A second hearing, entitled “Stakeholder Perspectives on the IANA Transition” will be held four hours later by a subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce committee. The witnesses for that one have not yet been announced.

It’s going to be a busy day for ICANN bods on Capitol Hill.