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.
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.
Momentous Corp, whose .sucks application has been branded “predatory”, has won the three-way contention set for the new gTLD, according to sources with knowledge of the auction.
The company paid over $3 million for the string, one source said.
Momentous affiliate Vox Populi Registry beat Donuts and Top Level Spectrum, the other applicants, at a private auction I gather was managed by Applicant Auction.
It’s likely to be a controversial win.
Vox Populi has said it plans to charge $25,000 per year for a single Sunrise registration, leading some (myself included) to believe its business model is to exploit the fears of brand owners.
(UPDATE: The company has changed its mind about pricing. It says it won’t charge $25,000 after all.)
In March, US Senator Jay Rockefeller branded the plan nothing more than a “predatory shakedown scheme” with “no socially redeeming value”.
But the company’s CEO, John Berard, told DI last year that .sucks will be an “innovative part of customer service, retention and loyalty”.
Vox Populi is positioning .sucks as a customer feedback tool that companies can budget alongside other pricey items such as retaining a PR agency, for example.
The registry plans to have strict rules against cyber-bullying. The proposed $300-a-year general availability price tag is likely to keep it out of the hands of most schoolyard bullies.
There will also be a “zero tolerance” policy toward parked domains and pornography, according to its web site.
That’s unlikely to calm the concerns of trademark owners, however.
.sucks is a gTLD that many advisers have been characterizing as a “must-have” for companies worried about their online image, rather like .xxx was a few years ago.
Vox Populi started accepting Sunrise pre-registrations for $2,500 on its web site last December, but that offer does not appear to be still available.
US Senator Jay Rockefeller today came out swinging against the proposed .sucks new gTLD, saying it looks like little more than a “predatory shakedown” by applicants.
In a letter to ICANN (pdf), Rockefeller has particular concern about Vox Populi, the .sucks applicant owned by Canadian group Momentous.
As we’ve previously reported, Vox Populi plans to charge trademark owners $25,000 a year for defensive registrations and has already started taking pre-registrations even though .sucks is still in contention.
Rockefeller told ICANN:
I view it as little more than a predatory shakedown scheme… A gTLD like “sucks” has little or no socially redeeming value and it reinforces many people’s fears that the purpose of the gTLD expansion is to enrich the domain name industry rather than benefit the broader community of internet users.
Unusually, I find myself in agreement with Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee — Vox Populi’s plan does bring the domain industry into disrepute.
But it’s not the only applicant for .sucks. Top Level Spectrum and Donuts have also applied for the string.
While neither has revealed their proposed pricing, in Donuts’ case a blocking registration via its Domain Protected Marks List service will cost substantially less on a per-domain basis.
Rockefeller asks that ICANN keep his thoughts in mind when reviewing the application, and I’m sure ICANN will pay lip service to his concerns in response, but I don’t think the letter will have much impact.
A bigger question might be: does Rockefeller’s letter foreshadow more Congressional hearings into the new gTLD program?
The last one, which Rockefeller chaired (for about five minutes, before he buggered off to do more important stuff) was in December 2011, and they have tended to happen every couple of years.
Such a hearing would come at an inopportune moment for ICANN, which is trying to distance itself from the perception of US oversight in light of the Edward Snowden spying revelations.
It’s been setting up offices all over the world and championing the forthcoming NetMundial internet governance meeting, which is happening in Brazil next month.
Vox Populi Registry, the .sucks new gTLD applicant backed by Momentous Corp, is to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in its Sunrise period, should it win the TLD.
Not only that, but it’s become the first new gTLD applicant that I’m aware of to start taking pre-registration fees from trademark owners while it’s still in a contention set with other applicants.
At first glance, it looks like plain old trademark-owner extortion, taken to an extreme we’ve never seen before.
But after 45 minutes talking to Vox Pop CEO John Berard this evening, I’m convinced that it’s worse than that.
The company is setting itself up as the IP lobby’s poster child for everything that is wrong with the new gTLD program.
If Vox Pop wins the .sucks contention set — it’s competing against Donuts and Top Level Spectrum — it plans to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in Sunrise and $25,000 a year thereafter.
Registrations during general availability, whether they match a trademark or not, will cost $300 a year.
During the pre-registration period, the Sunrise fee is $2,500 and the “Priority Reservation” fee is $250.
The Sunrise fee is, I believe, higher than any sunrise fee in any TLD ever to launch.
But Berard said that he believes Vox Pop’s .sucks proposition is, if anything, “under-priced”.
“Most companies spend far more than $25,000 a month on a public relations agency, most companies spend more than $25,000 a month on a Google ad campaign,” he said.
“Companies spend millions of dollars a year on customer service. We view .sucks as an element of customer service on the part of companies,” he said.
Berard, a 40-year veteran of the public relations business, said that he believes .sucks represents an opportunity for brands to engage with their customers, gaining valuable insight that could help them improve product development or customer service.
“The last thing I view .sucks as is a domain name. That’s the last value proposition for .sucks,” he said. “The primary value proposition is as a key and innovative part of customer service, retention and loyalty.”
It’s about giving companies “the ability to bring internet criticism and commentary out of the shadows and into the light” and “an opportunity to actually have a legitimate ability to correct misconceptions and engage, in much the way they’re doing now with Facebook”, he said.
It’s all about helping companies create a dialogue, in other words.
But Berard said that Vox Pop does not intend to launch any value-added services on .sucks domains.
While a domain name may be the “last value proposition” of .sucks, it is also the only thing that Vox Pop is actually planning to sell.
Asked to justify the $25,000 Sunrise fee, at first Berard pointed to policies that he said will ensure a transparent space for conversation.
“A company might not have to register its brand in .sucks, because if someone else does the policies and practices that we hope to deploy give that company a transparent opportunity to participate,” Berard said. “There’s no chasing unknown people down dark alleys for unfounded criticism. It will all be done in the light of day.”
“We have built-in policies that prevent sites from being parked pages,” he said. “The site must be put to that use — of customer service — whether you are the company that owns [the brand] or a customer that wants to complain about it.”
There was some confusion during our conversation about what the policies are going to be.
At first it sounded like companies would be obliged to run criticism/conversation sites targeting their own brands or risk losing their domains, but Berard later called to clarify that while pages cannot be parked under the policy, they can be left inactive.
It will be possible, in other words, for a company to register its brand.sucks and leave the associated site dark.
The registry would also have an “authenticated Whois database”, he said, though it would allow registrants to use privacy services.
There would also be prohibitions on cyber-bullying and porn in .sucks, if Vox Pop wins it. It has committed to these policies in its Public Interest Commitments (pdf)
But the company does not appear to be doing anything that ICM Registry did not already do when it launched .xxx a couple of years ago, when it comes to making brand owners’ lives easier.
In fact, it’s planning to do a lot less, while being literally a hundred times more expensive.
By contrast, if Donuts wins .sucks, brand owners will be able to defensively block their marks using the Domain Protected Marks List for $3,000 over five years, which would cover all of Donuts 200-300 new gTLDs.
There doesn’t appear to be any good reason Vox Pop is charging prices well above the market rate, in my view, other than the fact that the company reckons it can get away with it.
In what may well be a deliberate move to put pressure on trademark owners, Vox Pop is also the first registry I’ve encountered to say it will do a 30-day, as opposed to a 60-day, Sunrise period.
Under ICANN rules, registries have to give at least 30 days warning before a 30-day Sunrise starts, but once it’s underway they are allowed to allocate domains on a first-come-first-served basis.
All of the 30-odd registries currently in Sunrise have opted for the traditional 60-day option instead, where no domains are allocated until the end of the period.
There’s also the question of accepting Sunrise pre-registrations before Vox Pop even knows whether it will get to run .sucks.
There are two other applicants and Berard said that he reckons the contention set is likely to go to an ICANN last-resort auction.
Judging by ICANN’s preliminary timetable, the .sucks auction wouldn’t happen until roughly September next year, by my reckoning.
Anyone who pre-registers today will have to wait a year before they can use (or not) their domain, if they even get to register it at all.
Any money that is taken during the pre-reg period will be refunded if Vox Pop fails to launch.
In the meantime, it will be sitting in Momentous’ bank account where the company, presumably, will be able to use it to try to win the .sucks auction.
Trademark owners, in my view, should vote with their wallets and stay the hell away from Vox Pop’s pre-registration service.
I’m not usually in the business of endorsing one new gTLD applicant over another, but I think Vox Pop’s Sunrise pricing is going to make the whole new gTLD program — and probably also ICANN and the domain name industry itself — look bad.
It’s a horrible reminder of a time when domain name companies were often little better than spammers, operating at the margins and beyond of acceptable conduct, and it makes me sad.
The new gTLD program is about increasing choice and competition in the TLD space, it’s not supposed to be about applicants bilking trademark owners for whatever they think they can get away with.