Top Level Spectrum has been accused today of running the gTLD .feedback in a “fraudulent and deceptive” manner.
Over a dozen famous brands, corralled by corporate registrar MarkMonitor, today formally complained to ICANN that .feedback is a “complete sham”.
They reckon that the majority of .feedback domains belong to entities connected to the registry, violate trademarks, and have been stuffed with bogus and plagiarized reviews.
TLS denies any involvement.
MarkMonitor clients Adobe, American Apparel, Best Buy, Facebook, Levi and Verizon are among those that today filed a Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Policy complaint with ICANN.
PICDRP is the mechanism third parties can use to complain about new gTLD registries they believe are in breach of the Public Interest Commitments found in their registry contracts.
The 50-page complaint (pdf), which comes with hundreds of pages of supporting documentation spread over 36 exhibits, purports to show TLS engaging in an “escalating pattern of discriminatory, fraudulent and deceptive registry misconduct”.
While the allegations of wrongdoing are fairly broad, the most interesting appears to be the claim that TLS quietly registered thousands of .feedback names matching trademarks to itself and then filled them with reviews either ripped off from Yelp! or supplied by overseas freelancers working for pennies.
TLS denies that it did any of this.
The .feedback registry is closely tied to the affiliated entity Feedback SAAS, which offers a hosted social platform for product/company reviews. Pricing for .feedback domains is dependent on whether registrants use this service or not.
The complaint states:
the overwhelming majority of domain names registered and activated within the .FEEDBACK TLD — over seventy percent (70%) — are currently owned and operated by Respondent [TLS], and parties working in concert with Respondent
Respondent has solicited and paid numerous third parties, including professional freelance writers who offer to post a set number of words for a fee, to write fabricated reviews regarding Complainants’ products and services.
These ostensibly independent reviews from ordinary consumers are intended to give the appearance of legitimate commentary within .FEEDBACK sites, when, in fact, the reviews are a complete sham.
An investigation carried out by MarkMonitor (pdf) showed that of the 2,787 .feedback domains registered up to July 31, 73% were registered to just five registrants.
The top registrant, Liberty Domains LLC of Las Vegas, owned 47% of these domains.
MarkMonitor believes this company (which it said does not show up in Nevada company records) and fourth-biggest registrant Core Domains LLC (based at the same Vegas mail forwarding service) are merely fronts for TLS, though it has no smoking gun proving this connection.
TLS CEO Jay Westerdal denies the company is affiliated with Liberty.
The MarkMonitor investigation counted 27,573 reviews on these sites, but 22% of them purported have been written prior to the date the domain was registered, in some cases by years.
The company reckons hundreds of reviews can be traced to five freelance writers who responded to February job ads looking for people who could write and post 10 150-word reviews per hour.
Other reviews appear to have been copied wholesale from Yelp! (this can be easily verified by visiting almost any .feedback site and searching for exact-match content on Google).
Westerdal told DI last week that registrants can use an API to import reviews.
The brands’ complaint goes on to criticize TLS for its Free.feedback offering, a very odd, bare-bones web site which seems to offer free .feedback domains.
When you type a domain or email address into the form on Free.feedback, it offers to give you the equivalent .feedback domain for free, automatically populating a second form with the Whois record of the original domain.
According to the complaint, after somebody registers a free .feedback domain, Feedback SAAS starts contacting the person listed in the Whois about their “free trial registration” regardless of whether they were actually the person who signed up the the domain. The complaint states:
Complainants and multiple other trademark owners who received such email notifications from Feedback SAAS and TLS registrars never visited the FREE.FEEDBACK website, and they never requested a free trial registration in the .FEEDBACK TLD
I’ve been unable to fully replicate this experience in attempts to test Free.feedback.
The complaint alleges multiple breaches of the PICs in the .feedback ICANN Registry Agreement.
The brands want ICANN Compliance to conduct a thorough investigation of .feedback, for all Free.feedback domains with phony Whois to be terminated, and for affected trademark owners to get refunds. They also want their legal costs paid by TLS.
ICANN does not typically publish the outcome of PICDRP complaints. Indeed, this is only the second one I’m aware of. It’s difficult to judge what MarkMonitor’s posse’s chances of success are.
MarkMonitor has become the first accredited registrar to carry over 500 gTLDs.
Inspired by a recent Dynadot press release outlining its passing of the 500-TLD mark, I thought I’d put together a league table of gTLD registrars, ordered by which carries the most.
It will come as little surprise to most that brand protection registrars dominate the top end of the list.
MarkMonitor tops the league, with 504 gTLDs in its stable as of the end of June, up from 499 in May.
It’s closely followed by Ascio and CSC. Indeed, brand-focused registrars occupy many of the top 30 registrars, as you can see from this table.
There’s no real correlation between the number of gTLDs carried and the total domains under management for the registrar.
GoDaddy, with 53 million names, is way down in 28th position, for example.
The list was compiled from the latest gTLD registry reports, which show how many domains were registered to each accredited registrar at the end of June.
The data does not not include ccTLDs, nor does it account for situations where registrars may retail a TLD via a gateway or as a reseller of another registrar.
MarkMonitor owner Thomson Reuters is to sell of its IP division, which includes the brand-protection registrar, to private equity in a $3.55 billion all-cash deal.
The company said it will sell its Intellectual Property & Science business Onex Corporation and Baring Private Equity Asia.
MarkMonitor is of course a small part of that division. It also includes its Web of Science, Thomson CompuMark, Thomson Innovation, MarkMonitor, Thomson Reuters Cortellis and Thomson IP Manager services.
The unit reportedly has 4,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenue.
Thomson Reuters said it will use $1 billion of the sale price to buy back shares and the rest to pay off debts.
The company revealed plans to get rid of the unit last November. Analysts said it was not core to its growth strategy.
Thomson Reuters acquired then privately held MarkMonitor for an undisclosed sum in 2012.
Top Level Spectrum, the new .feedback registry, has painted a second gigantic target on itself by registering to itself a .feedback domain matching one of the world’s largest media brands.
The company has registered fox.feedback and put up a web site soliciting comment on Fox Broadcasting Company.
This has happened whilst .feedback is still in its sunrise period.
The intellectual property community is, I gather, not particularly happy about the move.
The domain fox.feedback points to a web site that uses TLS’ standard feedback platform, enabling visitors to rate and comment on Fox.
The site has a footnote: “Disclaimer: This site is provided to facilitate free speech regarding fox. No direct endorsement or association should be conferred.”
Fox had no involvement with the registration, which Whois records show is registered to Top Level Spectrum itself.
Registry CEO Jay Westerdal said that the domain is one of the 100 “promotional” domains that new gTLD registries are allowed to set aside for their own use under the terms of their ICANN contracts.
Registries usually register names like “buy.example” or “go.example”, along with the names of early adopter anchor tenant registrants, using this mechanism.
I’m not aware of any case where a registry has consciously registered a famous brand, without permission, as part of its promotional allotment.
“The website is hosted automatically by the Feedback platform,” Westerdal said. “Fox Television Network has raised no concerns and has not applied for the domain during sunrise. We are testing out promotion of the TLD with the domain as per our ICANN contract.”
Fox may still be able to buy the domain during sunrise, he said.
“This is a Registry Operation name. During sunrise, If we receive an application from a sunrise-eligible rights holders during sunrise for a Registry Operations name we may release the name for registration,” he said.
Fox’s usual registrar is MarkMonitor. Matt Serlin, VP there, said in an email that the TLS move could be raised with ICANN Compliance:
I find it curious that this branded domain name would have been registered to the registry prior to the sunrise period which is restricted to the 100 registry promotional names. The fact that the domain is actually resolving to a live site soliciting feedback for The Fox Broadcasting Company is even more troubling. MarkMonitor may look to raise this to ICANN Compliance once the registry is able to confirm how this domain was registered seemingly outside of the required process.
The IP community originally fought the introduction of the 100-domain pre-sunrise exception, saying unscrupulous registries would use it to stop trademark owners registering their brands.
While there have been some grumblings about registries reserving dictionary terms that match trademarks, this may be the first case of a registry unambiguously targeting a brand.
Top Level Spectrum courted controversy with the trademark community last week when it told DI that it plans to sell 5,000-brand match domains to a third party company after .feedback goes into general availability in January.
Westerdal told us this is not “cybersquatting”, as the sites contain disclaimers and are there to facilitate free speech.
What do you think about this use of brands as “promotional” domains?
It’s indisputably pushing the envelope of what is acceptable, but is it fair? Should registries be allowed to do this?
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.
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.”