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)
Momentous says CEO Rob Hall is NOT the man behind a registrar devoted almost exclusively to running “illegal” online pharmacies, after the US Congress was told he was a few hours ago.
In written testimony to Congress today, LegitScript president John Horton linked Hall to an “illegal online pharmacy network” called 4rx.
Horton said that the people running 4rx, which he said sells prescription drugs without a license, are also running the ICANN-accredited registrar Crazy8Domains
He went on to produce Canadian corporation records naming Hall as the sole director of the registrar.
I had a bit of a Google and found that Crazy8Domains says it’s based in a building in Ottawa that appears to have been once owned by Momentous.
But Rob Villeneuve, CEO of Momentous registrar Rebel, told us today that Crazy8Domains has not been part of Momentous for years. He said:
the Momentous group sold that Registrar over two years ago, and ICANN approved the sale. Mr. Hall and Momentous are no longer involved in Crazy8Domains in any way. We are unsure why the Industry Canada records have not been updated, and we have today notified Industry Canada of their error.
While Momentous may not be involved with Crazy8Domains, Horton presented some compelling evidence that it’s basically just a puppet registrar for an online pharmacy outfit.
It also goes by the name Kudo.com.
The contact name for the registrar listed by ICANN is Sabita Limbu, who is also listed in Whois as the registrant of domains such as indianpharmaonline.com, offshorerx1.com, and cheapestonlinedrugstore.com.
These sites offer hundreds of generic varieties of drug that purport to treat every condition under the sun, from erectile dysfunction to cancer.
Prescriptions do not appear to be required, and there’s a US toll-free number in case there was any doubt whose citizens are being marketed to.
Whether that’s illegal or not, I couldn’t possibly comment, but Horton told Congresspeople today that there are no countries where it is legal to sell prescription drugs without a license.
According to Horton, Crazy8Domains only has 18 domains live at present, and 15 of them are pharmacies:
In short, for all practical purposes, the ICANN-accredited registrar is the illegal online pharmacy, and the illegal online pharmacy is the ICANN-accredited registrar.
This means it would be virtually impossible for an outfit like LegitScript to get them taken down — any complaints made to ICANN would simply be referred to the registrar, which is in this case also the registrant.
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 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.
The new .sucks gTLD has some interesting pricing for its reserved premium names. Notably aids.sucks, which currently carries a $1.5 million first-year fee at one registrar.
As far as I can tell, 101domain is the only registrar that is currently publishing its prices for .sucks premium names.
I had a bit of a play around with its web site, to see if I could discover which strings the registry has flagged as premium and which appear to be blocked by the registry.
aids.sucks was the most expensive domain I found, by some margin, at $1.5 million.
The presumably puts it within the pocketbook of, say, a pharmaceuticals company, but probably not a support group.
101domain confirmed that the published price was not an error and is based on the registry’s pricing, but said it was considering lowering it.
That price, and all the other prices cited in this article, are retail prices that would include the registrar’s mark-up.
The next-highest price I could find was $450,000 for sex.sucks.
The string “sex” is usually highly priced on registries’ reserved lists. It’s a slightly different story for .sucks, however, because registry policy states that all pornography is banned. The registrant would have to find a different use.
porn.sucks does not appear to carry a premium fee.
I could not find any other physical diseases carrying premium fees, and it seems that cancer.sucks is not available to register.
However, anxiety.sucks is $4,500, depression.sucks is $12,000, and suicide.sucks is available for $16,500.
It’s worth noting at this point that .sucks is not alone in putting premium prices on domains such as these — suicide.club and aids.club both carry $5,500 fees, for example.
Sports domains baseball.sucks, football.sucks, soccer.sucks, basketball.sucks and hockey.sucks all carry $75,000 fees.
On the vices: poker.sucks is also $75,000, gambling.sucks is $42,000, beer.sucks is $27,000 and alcohol.sucks is $4,500. Other strings, such as casino.sucks, do not appear to be premiums.
This patchy premium coverage goes for entertainment too. While television.sucks ($88,500) and music.sucks ($15,000) are premiums, internet.sucks and radio.sucks are not.
In relationships, gay.sucks is listed at $27,000 (lesbian.sucks does not appear to be premium) and dating.sucks is $15,000.
I tried a few common racial slurs and found them to be unavailable. Vox Pop has a policy against cyber-bullying, which may account for that.
racism.sucks costs $52,500, however.
Religious terms blocked?
Some religious terms are considered premium, while others are not available to register.
.sucks is currently in its sunrise period, so unavailable names have presumably been blocked by the registry for some reason.
I found that christianity.sucks carries a premium price tag of $75,000, while church.sucks is $30,000 and christian.sucks is $34,500.
catholic.sucks is not available, nor are jesus.sucks, christ.sucks and moses.sucks.
But catholicism.sucks, protestant.sucks, methodist.sucks baptist.sucks, can be bought for the regular reg fee.
hindu.sucks, hinduism.sucks, buddhist.sucks and buddhism.sucks are all for sale at the usual price.
judaism.sucks and jews.sucks are available at the regular reg fee, but jew.sucks is not available.
islam.sucks, muslim.sucks and muslims.sucks are not currently available. Nor is muhammed.sucks. But mohammed.sucks and muhammad.sucks are available.
I wonder what we can fairly infer from these apparent discrepancies.
As you might expect, the name of the registry is reserved — that happens in pretty much ever gTLD.
It remains to be seen whether Vox Pop will eat its own dog food and allow third-party criticism on its site.
It turns out johnberard.sucks (Vox Populi CEO) is not available. Neither are the names of Rob Hall, CEO of Vox Pop parent Momentous, and Uniregistry CEO Frank Schilling, who is involved in the TLD is some currently undisclosed capacity.
rob.sucks, john.sucks and frank.sucks are all not available to register.
As controls, I checked out other common male first names and the full names of other major registry/registrar CEOs and found them all available.
It will be interesting to see if any of these names are ever developed into criticism web sites by their owners.