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.sucks registry probably “connected” to mass cybersquatter, panel rules

Kevin Murphy, August 19, 2021, Domain Registries

Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, is probably affiliated with and financially benefiting from a mass cybersquatter, a panel of domain experts has said.

In the UDRP case of Euromaster v Honey Salt, a three-person panel handed the complainant the domain euromaster.sucks, ruling that it was a case of cybersquatting.

It’s one of 21 .sucks UDRP complaints filed against Honey Salt, a Turks & Caicos company operating under unknown ownership believed to own hundreds or thousands of brand-match .sucks domains.

It’s lost 17 of the 19 so-far decided cases. It also won one case on a technicality and another early case on the merits after mounting a free-speech defense that subsequent panels have not bought.

What’s new about this one is that the WIPO panel — Lawrence Nodine, Douglas Isenberg and Stephanie Hartung — is the first to follow the money and openly infer a connection between Honey Salt and Vox Pop.

The panel said that it “infer[s] that the Respondent [Honey Salt] and Registry [Vox Pop] are connected”, and that Vox is probably trying to make money by charging trademark owners premium fees for their own brands.

Vox Pop has previously denied such a connection, when I first made the same inference last October.

Regular readers will recall that Honey Salt has registered hundreds of .sucks domains and pointed them to a wiki-style web site called Everything.sucks, ostensibly run by a third-party, US-based non-profit.

Rather than containing original “gripe” content, which could easily enable it to win a free-speech UDRP defense, Everything.sucks simply populates its site with poor-quality, context-free content scraped by bots from social media and third-party web sites such as TrustPilot and GlassDoor.

Originally, each page carried a banner linking to a secondary market page at Uniregistry or Sedo where the domains could be purchased, often at cost price.

That quickly disappeared when the first UDRP cases started rolling in, and earlier this year Everything.sucks said on each page that it refused to sell its domains to anyone, instead offering a free transfer.

It even published the pre-authorized transfer codes on each page, meaning literally anyone could seize control of the domain in question without asking permission from or negotiating with Honey Salt in advance.

The problem with that is that transfers are not free. Some domains are flagged as premium — including lots of brand-matches — and have transfer fees in the thousands of dollars. Even the cheapest still carry the base registry fee.

Many registrars steer well clear of this model, disallowing any .sucks transfers.

One registrar that reliably does allow .sucks transfers is Rebel, which is sister company to Vox Pop under the Momentous group of companies. It offers .sucks domains at the registry wholesale fee, which is $200 for an non-premium.

It’s been painfully obvious since the outset that the only parties that stand to make a profit on the Everything.sucks business model are the registry and its affiliated companies — it simply doesn’t make sense that Honey Salt would invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in trademark-infringing domains, simply to hand them over at cost.

But the Euromaster panel is the first to infer the connection, or at least the first to publicly infer the connection.

Euromaster had filed a supplemental document in its complaint pointing out that the “free” transfer of euromaster.sucks would in fact cost a “premium” fee of $2418.79. The registrar quoting that fee is not revealed.

The WIPO panel asked Honey Salt for an explanation and it sounds like it got a bunch of procedural waffle in response.

This led to the following discussion, to which I’ve added some emphasis:

The Panel also finds that Respondent [Honey Salt] has failed to show that it has no financial interest in the Disputed Domain Name. Complainant’s Supplemental submissions demonstrate that Complainant’s chosen registrar quoted a fee of USD 2418.79 to transfer the Disputed Domain Name. Complainant’s report is consistent with M and M Direct Limited v. Pat Honey Salt, Honey Salt Limited, WIPO Case No. D2020-2545, where a different panel conducted an independent investigation and reported that the domain name at issue in that case was not offered “free” as promised, but instead that registrars classified the domain names at issue as “premium” and quoted transfer fees of USD 3,198 and USD 4,270 respectively.

This directly contradicts any claim to be offering a free and noncommercial service, and given that any registration would result in a fee being paid to the Registry by a registrar, leads the Panel to infer that the Respondent [Honey Salt] and Registry [Vox Pop] are connected.

Given the prior decision in M and M Direct, and the evidence that Complainant’s Supplemental submissions, the Panel afforded Respondent an opportunity to submit additional argument and evidence to explain the inconsistency. Respondent made no effort to do so, but instead only opposed consideration of Complainant’s supplemental evidence and repeated its previous contentions. The Panel rejects the objections to Complainant’s Supplemental submission, and emphasizes that Respondent was given an opportunity fully to respond.

The Panel finds that Complainant’s evidence raises substantial questions about the credibility of Respondent’s assertion that it has no financial interest in the Disputed Domain Name and whether Respondent’s offer to transfer the Disputed Domain might, directly or indirectly, financially benefit Respondent. Accordingly, the Panel finds that Respondent has not carried its burden to show that its use is noncommercial

In other words, the panel suspects that Vox Pop is in on Honey Salt’s bulk-cybersquatting game.

The closest any other UDRP panel has come to making this link was in a recent case filed by multiple, unrelated trademark owners, where the panel, while denying the complaint on procedural grounds, suggested that aggrieved trademark owners instead invoke ICANN’s Trademark Post Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure.

The Trademark PDDRP is a mechanism — so far unused and untested — that allows trademark owners to allege registry complicity in cybersquatting schemes. Think of it like UDRP for cybersquatting registries.

Frankly, I’m amazed it hasn’t been used yet.

Panel hands .sucks squatter a WIN, but encourages action against the registry

A UDRP panel has denied a complaint against .sucks cybersquatter Honey Salt on a technicality, but suggested that aggrieved trademark holders instead sic their lawyers at the .sucks registry itself.

The three-person World Intellectual Property Organization panel threw out a complaint about six domains — covestro.sucks, lundbeck.sucks, rockwool.sucks, rockfon.sucks, grodan.sucks, tedbaker.sucks, tedbaker-london.sucks, and tedbakerlondon.sucks — filed jointly by four separate and unrelated companies.

The domains were part of the same operation, in which Turks & Caicos-based Honey Salt registers trademarks as .sucks domains and points them at Everything.sucks, a wiki-style site filled with content scraped from third-party sites.

Honey Salt has lost over a dozen UDRP cases since Everything.sucks emerged last year.

But the WIPO panel dismissed the latest case without even considering the merits, due to the fact that the four complainants had consolidated their grievances into a single complaint in an apparent attempt at a “class action”.

The decision reads:

although the Complainants may have established that the Respondent has engaged in similar conduct as to the individual Complainants, which has broadly-speaking affected their legal rights in a similar fashion, the Complainants do not appear to have any apparent connection between the Complainants. Rather it appears that a number of what can only realistically be described as separate parties have filed a single claim (in the nature of a purported class-action) against the Respondent, arising from similar conduct. As the Panel sees it, the Policy does not support such class actions

The panel decided that to force the respondent to file a common response to these complaints would be unfair, even if it is on the face of it up to no good.

Making a slippery-slope argument, the panel suggested that to allow class actions might open up the possibility of mass UDRP complaints against, for example, domain parking companies.

So the case was tossed without the merits being formally considered (though the panel certainly seemed sympathetic to the complainants).

But the sting in the tale comes at the end: the panel allowed that the complainants may re-file separate complaints, but also suggested they invoke the Trademark Post Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure.

That’s interesting because the Trademark PDDRP, an ICANN policy administered by WIPO and others, is a way to complain about the behavior of the registry, not the registrant.

It’s basically UDRP for registries.

The registry for .sucks domains is Vox Populi, part of the Momentous group of companies. It’s denied a connection to Honey Salt, which uses Vox sister company Rebel for its registrations.

According to ICANN: “The Trademark PDDRP generally addresses a Registry Operator’s complicity in trademark infringement on the first or second level of a New gTLD.”

Complainants under the policy much show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the registry operator or its affiliates are either doing the cybersquatting themselves or encouraging others to do so.

There’s no hiding behind shell companies in tax havens — the policy accounts for that.

The trick here would be to prove that Honey Salt is connected to Vox Pop or the Momentous group.

Nothing is known about the ownership of Honey Salt, though Whois records and UDRP decisions identify a person, quite possibly a bogus name, as one “Pat Honeysalt”, who has no digital fingerprint to speak of.

The most compelling piece of evidence linking Honey Salt to Vox is gleaned by following the money.

The current business model is for Everything.sucks to offer Honey Salt’s domains for “free” by publishing transfer authorization codes right there on the squatted domain.

But anyone attempting to claim these names will still have to pay a registrar — such as Rebel — a transfer/registration fee that could be in excess of $2,000, most or all of which flows through to Vox Pop.

If we ignore the mark-up charged by non-Rebel registrars, the only party that appears to be profiting from Honey Salt’s activities appears to be the .sucks registry itself, in other words.

On its web site, Everything.sucks says it’s a non-profit and makes the implausible claim that it’s just a big fan of .sucks domains. Apparently it’s a fan to the extent that it’s prepared to spend millions registering the names and giving them away for free.

An earlier Everything.sucks model saw the domains listed at cost price on secondary market web sites.

The Trademark PDDRP, which appears to be tailor-made for this kind of scenario, has not to my knowledge been used to date. Neither WIPO nor ICANN have ever published any decisions delivered under it.

It costs complainants as much as $30,500 for a three-person panel with WIPO and has a mandatory 30-day period during which the would-be complainant has to attempt to resolve the issue privately with the registry.

The six domains in the UDRP case appear to have all gone into early “pending delete” status since the decision was delivered and do not resolve.

Honey Salt stops responding to .sucks cybersquatting complaints

Kevin Murphy, May 27, 2021, Domain Policy

.sucks cybersquatter Honey Salt has stopped responding to UDRP and URS complaints related to the affiliated Everything.sucks web site.

Three UDRP decisions and one URS decisions resolved since early April have stated that the shadowy Turks & Caicos company defaulted or did not respond to the complaints.

It lost all four cases, all on pretty much the same grounds, losing its domains or having them suspended as a result.

Panelists concluded that while Everything.sucks presents itself as a grassroots free-speech wiki populated by user-generated content, in reality it’s just stuffed with undated, anonymous, context-free comments scraped from third-party web sites and designed to pressure brand owners into buying their .sucks domains.

Honey Salt has been hit with 19 UDPR and URS complaints covering 27 .sucks domains since last September. It’s lost all bar one of those that have been decided, an early UDRP in which the panelist bought its free-speech defense.

With the precedent that Everything.sucks is a cybersquatting enterprise pretty solidly set, it presumably doesn’t make much sense for Honey Salt to pay expensive lawyers to put up a defense any more.

In earlier cases, when Honey Salt was still responding, the company was represented by Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, the US law firm that has also worked for .sucks registry Vox Populi.

Everything.sucks publishes transfer auth codes for thousands of domains in latest .sucks pimpage

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2021, Domain Registries

Everything.sucks, which is quickly emerging as one of the world’s most prominent organized cybersquatting projects, has a novel new way to sell .sucks domains without, technically, selling them.

The company, which casts itself as a “non-profit organization and communications forum for social activism” has published the transfer authorization codes for what appears to be the thousands of .sucks domains in its portfolio.

This means that anyone can transfer any of the company’s .sucks domains into their own registrar account with just a few clicks and without asking the current registrant — if they can afford the exorbitant transfer fee and don’t mind legal exposure.

You may recall that Everything.sucks is a Wikipedia-style web site that is fed by traffic from thousands of .sucks domains that, as the company freely admits, match the trademarks of famous companies.

Typing poptarts.sucks into your browser address bar will take you to the Everything.sucks wiki pages for Pop-Tarts, which contains content critical of the brand scraped from third-party web sites.

Everything.sucks emerged last year, and in October I reported that hundreds of .sucks domains were pointing there.

At the time, the web site carried banner ads on each brand’s page that took visitors to secondary-market sales pages at Sedo or Uniregistry, where the price was usually the same as the .suck’s registry’s wholesale price of $200.

I thought it was weird that a registrant at the very least flirting with cybersquatting would put up their domains at cost price, but Vox Populi, the registry, denied any involvement with the domains.

The registrant of these names, according to several UDRP decisions that it lost, is a probably fictitious individual named Pat Honeysalt, from a company called Honey Salt Ltd based in either Turks & Caicos or the UK.

Honey Salt has told UDRP panels that it registers the names on behalf of Everything.sucks. Given the volume of registrations, it must have spent many millions of dollars.

In any event, shortly after the UDRP cases started trickling in and not long after DI’s initial coverage, the banner ads on the .sucks pages disappeared.

And now, the auth codes have appeared. It looks like this:

Poptarts

Publishing auth codes right there on its web site appears to be the latest stage in a cat-and-mouse game Everything.sucks is playing with the trademark lawyers pursuing it through the UDRP process.

The boilerplate reads:

We occasionally buy a dot sucks domain and point it at a specific page. We do this to bring awareness to our site and because, well, we love the dot sucks domain. If you ask us if we would sell the domain, our answer is simple. Absolutely not. We will give it to you.

It’s not technically offering to sell these domains any more, right? As far as this nominal non-profit is concerned, it’s giving them away for free to anyone who wants them, including the brand’s owner.

But if you want the names, you’ve still got to pay for the transfer, of course. In the case of poptarts.sucks, it’s $2,399 at the registrar screen-capped below. Another registrar has the same name priced at $2,599.99.

Poptarts

If we’re following the money here, the only beneficiaries that spring to mind are Vox Pop, which gets its fat-margin registry fee, and the hapless registrar, which gets whatever its markup on a .sucks domain transfer is.

I tried these auth codes at six leading registrars and found that four of their shopping carts informed me point-blank that they do not support .sucks transfers at all.

Everything.sucks, in losing UDRPs, puts the lie to the .sucks business model

The World Intellectual Property Organization has delivered its first UDRP decision concerning a .sucks domain name, ruling that the name sanofi.sucks is in fact cybersquatting.

The three-person panel ruled that the domain was identical or confusingly similar to a trademark owned by Sanofi, a French pharmaceuticals manufacturer involved in producing vaccines for the COVID-19 virus.

That was despite the fact that the registrant, affiliated with the Everything.sucks project, argued that nobody would think a domain name ending in “.sucks” would be affiliated with the trademark owner.

That argument flies in the face of official .sucks registry marketing from Vox Populi Registry, which positions .sucks as a place for brand owners to consolidate and manage customer criticism, feedback and support.

The sanofi.sucks case is one of two UDRP losses in the last few weeks for Honey Salt, a Turks and Caicos-based company that is believed to account for over a third of all .sucks registrations.

Honey Salt has registered thousands of brand names in .sucks, linking them to a wiki site operated by Everything.sucks Inc that contains criticism of the brands concerned copied from third-party web sites such as TrustPilot and GlassDoor.

There’s evidence that Everthing.sucks and Honey Salt are affiliated or share common ownership with Vox Pop, but the registry has denied this.

In the Sanofi case, Honey Salt mounted a free speech defense, saying it was providing a platform for legitimate criticism of the company and that Sanofi was using the UDRP to silence such criticism.

Sanofi claimed that the domain had in fact been registered for commercial purposes and to unfairly suggest an official connection to the company.

But what’s interesting is how Honey Salt argues that the domain itself, regardless of the associated web site’s content, is not confusingly similar to the Sanofi mark. The WIPO panelsts wrote, with my added emphasis:

The Respondent maintains that the disputed domain name is not identical or confusingly similar to a trademark in which the Complainant has rights. According to it, the “.sucks” gTLD is not like other generic TLDs, and its pejorative nature renders the disputed domain name as a whole nonidentical and prevents confusion, and the inclusion of “.sucks” in the disputed domain name makes clear that the associated website is not affiliated with the Complainant, but instead contains criticism of it and of its business.

In other words, if you visit a .sucks domain, you automatically will assume that the site is not associated with the brand owner.

Honey Salt seems to have made an identical argument in the UDRP case of cargotec.sucks, which it also lost at the Czech Arbitration Forum last month. The panelists in that decision summarized the company’s defense like this:

The TLD at issue here, however, .sucks, is not like other generic top level domains. Its pejorative nature renders the domain name as a whole nonidentical and prevents confusion… The inclusion of “.sucks” makes abundantly clear that the website is not affiliated with Complainant and instead contain criticism of its business.

Again, this is completely contrary to the stated goal of the .sucks registry.

Vox Pop has from the outset claimed that .sucks domains are a way for brands to aggregate customer feedback and criticism in one place, using a .sucks domain controlled by the brands themselves.

That purpose goes all the way back to its 2012 ICANN new gTLD application and continues to this day on its official web site and Twitter feed, which is primarily used to goad companies undergoing media controversies into registering and using their .sucks exact-match.

Back in 2015, Vox Pop CEO John Berard told us:

A company would be smart to register its name because of the value that consumer criticism has in improving customer loyalty, delivering good customer service, understanding new product and service possibilities… They’re spending a lot more on marketing and customer service and research. This domain can another plank in that platform

Vox Pop even owns and uses voxpopuli.sucks and dotsucks.sucks, where it hosts a little-used forum welcoming criticism from people who say the company sucks.

But Honey Salt, its largest registrant by a significant margin, is now on-record stating that .sucks domains only imply ownership by third parties and could not possibly be confused with brand-owner ownership.

If the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, there exists a corner of the multiverse in which Honey Salt and Everything.sucks are just fronts for the entities that also control Vox Pop and its top registrar, Rebel.com. In that universe, it would be trippy indeed for the registry’s own affiliates to admit its entire stated business model is bullshit.

In our universe, that particular cat, which very probably has a goatee, is still firmly in the box, however.

Speculative forays into science fiction aside, Honey Salt’s record on UDRP is now three losses versus one win. It has six more cases pending at WIPO

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.