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That .sucks weirdness? Worse than I thought

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2020, Domain Registries

A business plan to turn .sucks into a massive Wikipedia-style gripe site, described by trademark lawyers five years ago as a “shakedown”, has reared it ugly head again.

You may recall that earlier this week I reported how somebody had registered many hundreds of .sucks domain names and listed them for sale on secondary market web sites at cost price. It looked weird, almost as if the registry or an affiliate was the registrant, which the registry denied.

It turns out I only told you half the story, for which I can only apologize.

At the time, the domains in question were not resolving for me, probably due to my terrible, block-happy ISP. But now they are resolving, and they reveal the return of Everything.sucks, a plan first floated by the .sucks registry in 2015.

It’s a network of hundreds of .sucks micro gripe-sites, each targeted to a specific brand and each each populated with content scraped, usually without citation, from Wikipedia, social media, and consumer-review aggregator web sites.

Here’s where jackdaniels.sucks takes you, for example (click to enlarge).

Jack Daniels sucks

The description of the company is taken from Wikipedia. The customer comments below are taken from reviews of an apparently unrelated company called The Whisky Exchange published by TrustPilot, and the social media posts have been pulled from Instagram users deploying the hashtag #jackdanielssucks.

Other pages on the site seem to scrape content from GlassDoor, a site where employees review their employers.

While there’s nothing wrong with gripe sites, automating their creation over hundreds or even thousands of brands that you don’t genuinely have gripes with seems, charitably, churlish.

And these gripe sites are — or at least were — being monetized.

You’ll see a banner ad in the top-right corner of the above screen-grab, offering jackdaniels.sucks for sale. The link took you to a page on Sedo that offers the domain for sale with a buy-now price of $199 (the same as the registry’s wholesale fee).

Banners on other pages led to landers on GoDaddy-owned Uniregistry.com with prices of $599.

These banners, which appeared on every brand’s page that I checked, seem to have disappeared at some point over the last two days. I’m sure the change is unrelated to the fact that I started asking .sucks registry Vox Populi and parent Momentous difficult questions about these trademark-match domains on Wednesday.

While UDRP panels have disagreed over the years, there’s precedent dating back two decades that “trademarksucks.tld” domains with sites that contain genuine, non-commercial criticism can confer legitimate rights to the registrant and are therefore NOT cybersquatting.

I doubt a site that actively tries to sell the domain name in question for above out-of-pocket costs could be considered non-commercial.

Still, it looks like those banners are gone now, and I can’t find any other examples of obvious monetization.

I use jackdaniels.sucks as an example here as it’s the site I took a screenshot of before the changes, but there are many hundreds of similar trademark-match domains being used to feed traffic to Everything.sucks.

I note that unitedinternet.sucks, named after the parent company of Sedo, is for sale for $199 on Sedo and leads to a gripe site on Everything.sucks containing less-than-complimentary remarks. It’s for sale at $599 on Uniregistry.

But who is Everything.sucks?

The concept itself originates with the .sucks registry itself. Before the TLD launched in 2015, it floated the idea to a tsunami of criticism from trademark owners.

The plan back then was to sell .sucks domains for .com prices — a discount of a couple hundred dollars — but only to registrants unaffiliated with the trademark owner. These registrants would have had to forward their domains to an Everything.sucks-branded discussion forum.

Back then, Vox Pop said it planned to work with a non-for-profit third party on this initiative.

That third party never materialized, and later in 2015 appeared to mutate into a system called This.sucks, operated by a company called This.sucks Ltd, which took over the Everything.sucks domain name.

This.sucks sold .sucks domains for $12 a year, with the domains pointing to a forum/blogging platform that the company hoped to monetize.

Both This.sucks and Vox Pop denied there was any link between the two companies, but I later uncovered a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence linking the two companies, including the fact that Rob Hall, CEO of Vox Pop parent Momentous, paid for This.sucks’ web site design.

This.sucks appears to have fizzled out in the intervening years, but now Everything.sucks is back with a mystery registrant snapping up thousands of domains, at a cost of at least half a million bucks, under the Everything.sucks brand.

Public Whois is useless nowadays, of course.

But the front page of Everything.sucks describes it as “a non-profit organization and communications forum for social activism”.

Many of the domains that redirect to its site appear to be registered to a Turks and Caicos company called Honey Salt Ltd, a name that does not naturally suggest a non-profit entity.

Others use Momentous’ domain privacy service. All appear to be registered via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, which sells .sucks domains at cost and is therefore one of the cheapest registrars on the market.

Back in 2015, intellectual property interests expressed doubt that the proposed Everything.sucks third party and the This.sucks third party were not in fact just smokescreens, fronts for the registry itself.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard on Wednesday denied to DI that the company had any involvement in the recent spurt of trademark-match registrations being used by Everything.sucks and expressed a lack of knowledge about the registrant’s intent.

I’ve not yet received comment from Momentous, but I’d be very surprised if the company does not know who is behind Everything.sucks.

At the very least, Vox Pop and Rebel are both privy to the unexpurgated Whois and/or customer records for whoever is running Everything.sucks and whoever it is that has grown the .sucks zone file by about 50% since June.

Something weird’s going on at .sucks

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Ever heard of a domainer or cybersquatter putting their freshly-registered domains up for sale at cost?

Me neither, but that’s what seems to be going on at .sucks right now.

The sudden appearance of many hundreds of .sucks domains — many of them matching very famous trademarks — at Sedo and Uniregistry comes as the registry unveils plans to open up a secondary marketplace of its own.

.sucks registry Vox Populi, a part of the Momentous group of companies, wants to open its own marketplace, according to a letter it recently sent to ICANN.

The registry told ICANN it plans to launch a service “whereby a Registrant of a .sucks domain name can list their domain for resale with the Registry”, saying it will “allow our Registrars to show the domain as available for purchase by third parties at the price set by the current Registrant.”

It’s taking a somewhat confrontational approach from the outset, telling ICANN that it does not believe the service would constitute a “registry service” that would require ICANN’s approval under the Registry Service Evaluation Process.

It points to the fact that registrants can already list their .sucks names on existing marketplaces such as Sedo as proof that it’s not a “product or service that only a registry operator is capable of providing, by reason of its designation as the registry operator” requiring the RSEP.

This interpretation strikes me as open to debate, but I’m not going to get into that here.

What’s more interesting is that the vast majority of the domains listed on these competing platforms appear to have been registered relatively recently, in bulk, all via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, and quite possibly by the same registrant.

What’s weird is that the majority of the .sucks names listed at Sedo have a buy-now price of $199. Some are priced higher. Some priced at $199 at Sedo are priced at $599 at Uniregistry.

$199 is the absolute cheapest you can buy a .sucks domain name anywhere. It’s Rebel’s retail price, and I believe it’s also Vox Pop’s wholesale price. Even the cheapest unaffiliated registrars slap a $50 markup on the registry fee.

The domains started being listed on the aftermarkets after a sharp spike in .sucks sales back in June, where my data shows that over 2,000 names were registered, via Rebel, in the space of about 24 hours.

The .sucks zone file has been growing ever since, swelling from 7,347 — where volume had been flattish and under 8,000 names for years — to 11,255 since June 16, the date of the first spike.

Almost every .sucks listing I spot-checked on Sedo has three things in common: the $199 price-tag, a recent registration date, and a seller who signed up for the service in 2020 submitting their home territory as Turks and Caicos.

Turks and Caicos, which is also where Rebel is legally based, is a British island territory in the Caribbean with fewer than 38,000 inhabitants. It’s often used for offshore company registrations.

Whois records for the domains I checked with June reg dates use Momentous privacy service Privacy Hero, while other more-recent regs list the registrant as Honey Salt Ltd, a company apparently also based in Turks and Caicos.

So what we seem to have here is a registrant willing to invest half a million dollars or more in .sucks domain names, a great many matching famous brands, and then list them for resale at the exact same price he paid for them.

Why would a cybersquatter pay $199 for jackdaniels.sucks or dolceandgabbana.sucks or unitedinternetmedia.sucks and then put them up for sale for $199? It makes no sense to me.

And it comes at a time when Vox Pop is trying to persuade ICANN that there’s a thriving aftermarket for .sucks domains.

I put all these observations to the CEOs of Momentous and the registry earlier today, and Vox Pop chief John Berard got back to us to say:

With regard to those 2,000 registered names, that was most welcome. I don’t know much more than that about Honey Salt… I am certainly not going to speculate on their plans.

That they are in the Turks and Caicos is interesting, for sure. But you know as well as I that the Caribbean is a hotbed of domain name innovation and investment.

He later added: “Yes, take it to the bank that VPR [Vox Populi Registry] is not behind the registrations.”

On the issue of the registry’s own secondary market plans, Berard said:

we are trying to catch up to others in the domain name industry who first saw the customer value of fostering a secondary market. I think we may be the first registry to do it, but we, i am sorry to say, weren’t the first to market.

If I receive more information or commentary on this weirdness I shall provide updates accordingly.

Vox Pop denies links to free .sucks company

Kevin Murphy, October 10, 2015, Domain Registries

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.

This.sucks reverse Whois

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.

Caymans link

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.

That’s the same address Vox Populi gave ICANN (pdf) when it transferred its Registry Agreement from its original Canadian corporate entity to a Cayman-based one this March.

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.

It might be interesting, but probably not relevant, to note that Cayman Law’s domain name is owned, according to Whois, by a domainer who lost one of the first “-sucks.com” UDRP cases, back in 2003.

I asked Berard if Vox Pop had any links to the Cayman company but have not yet received a reply.

Everything.sucks

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 denies link to “illegal” pharmacy gang

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 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.

AIDS.sucks at $1.5 million and other .sucks premium weirdness

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.

Registry defensives?

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.

That mystery $1 million .sucks fee explained, and it’s probably not what you thought

Vox Populi has agreed to pay ICANN up to $1 million in extra fees in order to pay off the debts of affiliated deadbeat registrars, I can reveal.

The formerly mysterious fees, which comprise a $100,000 start-up payment and $1 for each of its first 900,000 .sucks transactions, were discovered by ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency, as I reported Friday.

I speculated that the payments may have related to ICANN padding out its legal defense fund, rather like it did with .xxx a few years ago, but it turns out that guess was dead wrong.

ICANN has told DI:

Some affiliates of Momentous, the majority owners of Vox Populi Registry, had previously defaulted on substantial payments to ICANN. Given this previous experience, ICANN negotiated special contract provisions in the Vox Populi Registry Agreement to provide additional financial assurances. Those provisions were added solely for that reason and were not related to the nature of this specific TLD.

I gather that the affiliated companies in question were shell registrars that went out of business a while ago.

Momentous company Pool.com used large numbers of empty registrar accreditations in order to drop-catch expiring domain names. Fairly standard practice in the drop-catching game.

But many of these entities were shut down, owing ICANN a whole bunch of cash in unpaid registrar fees.

ICANN has now chosen to recoup the money by extracting it from the .sucks registry, which according to its new gTLD application is majority-owned by Momentous.

The .sucks contract calls the $100,000 a “registry access fee” and the $1-a-name charge as “registry administration fee”.

For avoidance of doubt, this post is not an April Fool joke.

Why is .sucks based in Frank Schilling’s office?

Kevin Murphy, March 23, 2015, Domain Registries

The upcoming new gTLD .sucks is being run from the offices of Frank Schilling’s Uniregistry and it has a close business relationship with the registry, DI has discovered.

Vox Populi Registry, which runs .sucks and which I and many others have been assuming is completely controlled by Canadian registrar group Momentous, in fact seems to be tightly aligned with Uniregistry.

Schilling characterized it both as a “working relationship” and a “joint venture” today.

I heard through the rumor mill last year that Uniregistry may have a stake in Vox Pop.

But it wasn’t until I checked the IANA database record for .sucks today that the rumor seemed to be to an extent confirmed.

The address for Vox Populi, a Canadian company according to its ICANN contract, is listed as Uniregistry’s office in Grand Cayman in both Registry Sponsor and Administrative Contact records.

Momentous CEO Rob Hall is named as Technical Contact at a Barbados address.

“We have a joint venture agreement and are presently handling postage and handling for Vox Populi,” Schilling told DI today. “We are providing office space services to them as well.”

He characterized the deal as a “working relationship”.

I would not be at all surprised if it’s much closer than that.

.sucks domains “will not be $25k”

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2014, Domain Registries

Vox Populi Registry, which won the auction for the .sucks new gTLD last week, says its Sunrise prices will not be $25,000 a year after all.

The company has further denied that its general availability prices will be $300 a year.

As DI reported earlier today, the Momentous affiliate beat off competition from Donuts and Top Level Spectrum to win the .sucks contention set.

We reported it was likely to be controversial due to the high prices Vox Populi had previously revealed.

But CEO John Berard, while neither confirming or denying that Vox Populi won the auction, told DI tonight that the company has had a rethink of its pricing strategy.

“We are considering something much more in line with current pricing practices,” he said.

While Berard would not discuss numbers, current pricing practices among new gTLDs tend to be in the $10 to $150 range for GA names and a few hundred for Sunrise registrations.

That’s a far cry from the $25,000 a year Sunrise fee the registry hopeful aired last December.

Berard added that .sucks under Vox Populi would have additional rights protection mechanisms beyond the mandatory set all new gTLDs must carry, but he could not yet provide specifics.

My criticisms of the company’s .sucks have been concerned entirely with its pricing, which I thought would bring the industry into disrepute. If its proposed fees have been lowered, that can only be a good thing.

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