Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

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.

Momentous pays over $3 million for .sucks

Kevin Murphy, November 3, 2014, Domain Registries

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.

Rockefeller slams .sucks as “predatory shakedown”

Kevin Murphy, March 12, 2014, Domain Policy

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.

Extortion.sucks — Vox Pop CEO defends “under-priced” $25,000 sunrise fee

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Registries

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.

First new gTLD contracts signed

Donuts, an ARI Registry Services subsdiary and CORE this morning became the first new gTLD applicants to sign registry contracts with ICANN.

The ceremonial signing took place live on stage at the opening ceremony of ICANN 47, the week-long public meeting in Durban, South Africa.

ARI CEO Adrian Kinderis signed on behalf of شبكة. applicant International Domain Registry. The string is Arabic for “.web” and transliterates as “.shabaka”. It is 3 in the program’s evaluation queue.

In an ARI press release, Go Daddy CEO Blake Irving confirmed that Go Daddy will carry .shabaka.

Donuts CEO Paul Stahura signed for .游戏, the Chinese-language “.games”, which had prioritization number 40.

It was not immediately clear which contracts Iliya Bazlyankov, chair of CORE’s executive committee, signed. CORE has applied for three internationalized domain name gTLDs with high priority numbers.

(UPDATE: Bazlyankov has been in touch to say: “We signed the .сайт (site) and .онлайн (online) contracts which had numbers 6 and 9 in the priority”.)

Representatives of Go Daddy, MarkMonitor, Momentous, Mailclub and African registrar Kheweul.com also joined ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade on stage to sign the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

The event marks the beginning of the contract signing phase of the new gTLD program, an important milestone.

For applicants without outstanding objections, contention or Governmental Advisory Committee advice, signing a contract means only pre-delegation testing and the final transition to delegation remains.

Registrars sought as Pool.com shuts down drop-catching business

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2013, Domain Registrars

ICANN is looking for new homes for approximately 67,000 domain names, after a decision by Momentous to dump 85 of its domain name registrar accreditations.

The accreditations were used primarily for drop-catching, according to an email sent to registrars last Friday, and each has between 200 and 3,000 gTLD domains under management.

While most affected domains are recently caught drops, there may be some regular registrants scattered throughout the customer base, according to ICANN.

Momentous, owner of Pool.com, announced that it was getting rid of its drop-catching registrars in an email to customers late last year, as several domainer blogs reported at the time.

Pool plans to “refocus its business away from an emphasis on the secondary market”, the email said.

The company wanted to consolidate all of the domains in its NameScout registrar with the transfer fees waived, but ICANN declined its request, according to the email.

Some customers are not happy with how Pool has handled the situation.

The domainer “Acro” is currently pursuing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau in Momentous’ native Canada, according to a recent blog post.

The 85 accreditations are due to expire January 10. Registrars wishing to take over the portfolios had a deadline of this afternoon to express an interest with ICANN.