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.sucks sends in the lawyers in “gag order” fight

Kevin Murphy, January 23, 2016, Domain Registries

Vox Populi is taking ICANN to mediation over a row about what some of its registrars call a “gag order” against them.

Its lawyers have sent ICANN a letter demanding mediation and claiming ICANN has breached the .sucks Registry Agreement.

I believe it’s the first time a new gTLD registry has done such a thing.

The clash concerns changes that Vox Populi proposed for its Registry-Registrar Agreement late last year.

Some registrars believe that the changes unfairly give the registry the unilateral right to amend the RRA in future, and that they prevent registrars opposed to .sucks in principle from criticizing the gTLD in public.

I understand that a draft letter that characterizes the latter change as a “gag order” has picked up quite a bit of support among registrars.

ICANN has referred the amended draft of the .sucks RRA to its Registrars Stakeholder Group for comment.

But Vox Pop now claims that it’s too late, that the new RRA has already come into force, and that this is merely the latest example of “a pattern on ICANN’s part to attempt to frustrate the purpose and intent of its contract with Vox Populi, and to prevent Vox Populi from operating reasonably”.

The registry claims that the changes are just intended to provide “clarity”.

Some legal commentators have said there’s nothing unusual or controversial about the “gag” clauses.

But the conflict between Vox and ICANN all basically boils down to a matter of timing.

Under the standard Registry Agreement for new gTLDs, registries such as Vox Pop are allowed to submit proposed RRA changes to ICANN whenever they like.

ICANN then has 15 calendar days to determine whether those changes are “immaterial, potentially material or material in nature.”

Changes are deemed to be “immaterial” by default, if ICANN does not rule otherwise within those 15 days.

If they’re deemed “material” or “potentially material”, a process called the RRA Amendment Procedure (pdf) kicks in.

That process gives the registrars an extra 21 days to review and potentially object to the changes, while ICANN conducts its own internal review.

In this case, there seems to be little doubt that ICANN missed the 15-day deadline imposed by the RA, but probably did so because of some clever timing by Vox.

Vox Pop submitted its changes on Friday, December 18. That meant 15 calendar days expired Monday, January 3.

However, ICANN was essentially closed for business for the Christmas and New Year holidays between December 24 and January 3, meaning there were only three business days — December 21 to 23 — in which its lawyers and staff could scrutinize Vox’s request.

Vox Pop’s timing could just be coincidental.

But if it had wanted to reduce the contractual 15 calendar days to as few business days as possible, then December 18 would be the absolute best day of the year to submit its changes.

As it transpired, January 3 came and went with no response from ICANN, so as far as Vox is concerned the new RRA with its controversial changes came into effect January 6.

However, on January 8, ICANN submitted the red-lined RRA to the RrSG, invoking the RRA Amendment Procedure and telling registrars they have until January 29 to provide feedback.

Vox Pop’s lawyer, demanding mediation, says the company was told January 9, six days after ICANN’s 15-day window was up, that its changes were “deemed material”.

Mediation is basically the least-suey dispute resolution process a registry can invoke under the RA.

The two parties now have a maximum of 90 days — until April 20 — to work out their differences more or less amicably via a mediator. If they fail to do so, they proceed to a slightly more-suey binding arbitration process.

In my opinion, ICANN finds itself in this position due to a combination of a) Vox Pop trying to sneak what it suspected could be controversial changes past its staff over Christmas, and b) ICANN staff, in the holiday spirit or off work entirely, dropping the ball by failing to react quickly enough.

While I believe this is the first time a 2012-round gTLD registry has gone to dispute resolution with ICANN, Vox did threaten to sue last year when ICANN referred its controversially “predatory” launch plans to US and Canadian trade regulators.

That ultimately came to nothing. The US Federal Trade Commission waffled and its Canadian counterpart just basically shrugged.

Cars gTLD launch clears $1 million in EAP

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2016, Domain Registries

There was a small turn-out for the premium launch of .cars, .car and .auto gTLDs, but the registry says it cleared over $1 million in revenue.

The three gTLDs are run by Cars Registry, a venture between Uniregistry and XYZ.com.

They all finished their pricey Early Access Periods yesterday and are due to enter general availability today.

The EAP started January 12 with prices of $45,000 per domain. In GA, they won’t cost you less than $2,000.

While zone files show almost no new domains appearing between January 12 and today — three or four per domain at most — Uniregistry CEO Frank Schilling said EAP was a “success”.

“More than 100 dealers and brands took advantage of sunrise and EAP,” he said.

It appears there are a few dozen domains not appearing in zone files yet.

The three gTLDs combined have brought in over $1 million during EAP, Schilling said.

.security names priced at $3,000, .theatre at $750

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2016, Domain Registries

XYZ.com may be best known for its budget .xyz gTLD, but its portfolio is increasingly leaning toward the super-premium end of the industry price range.

The company entered Early Access Period with its .security, .protection and .theatre gTLDs today, and they ain’t cheap.

.security and .protection are expected to carry retail prices of $3,000 a year, when they hit general availability a week from now.

Today, they’re $65,000 apiece, with the price reducing to $35,000, $15,000, $8,750 and $5,000 over the coming days.

Meanwhile, .theatre starts at $64,000, going down to $32,000, $14,000, $7,000 and $4,000 before finally settling at the GA RRP of $750.

All three gTLDs were acquired by XYZ.com from other applicants.

That was also the case for .cars, .car and .auto, which XYZ runs in a joint venture with Uniregistry, where retail prices are roughly $2,500.

In terms of competition, .security and .protection are probably up against .trust, while .theatre may well find itself in competition with .tickets, which has made inroads in Broadway.

.boston was a “distraction”, says gTLD seller

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2016, Domain Registries

The Boston Globe newspaper decided to offload the gTLD after its new owners decided it was a “distraction”.

That’s according to a report yesterday in the newspaper itself.

Last week, it was announced that Minds + Machines, which already runs a handful of geo-gTLDs, is acquiring the .boston contract for an undisclosed sum.

Today, the Globe reports that its owners thought .boston would be “a distraction from the Globe’s central business of providing information through its print and online outlets”.

“The .boston domain business was inherited by the current management team and is not perceived as core to the mission of supporting the highest quality journalism in the region,” it quotes the Globe’s VP of marketing as saying.

The newspaper was acquired by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry in 2013, a year after the .boston application was filed, according to the report.

The acquisition, which sees M+M buy 99% the Globe subsidiary in control of the gTLD registry agreement, is subject to ICANN approving the contract reassignment.

Uniregistry beats Donuts to .shopping, but .shop still in play

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2016, Domain Registries

Uniregistry has emerged as the successful registry-to-be of .shopping from the convoluted .shop/.shopping new gTLD contention set.

Donuts, the only competing applicant for the string, withdrew its application late last week.

As we previously reported, the .shop/.shopping contention sets were joined at the hip due to a bizarre string similarity challenge, making the scheduled auction very complex.

But Donuts and Uniregistry seem to have come to a private arrangement about .shopping, outside of the ICANN auction process, making .shop a straightforward nine-way fight.

Donuts tells me the auction, in which it is participating, is still scheduled for January 27.