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That .sucks weirdness? Worse than I thought

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2020, Domain Registries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Daniels sucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But who is Everything.sucks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Whois is useless nowadays, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are 25x price increases on the cards as XYZ corners the cars market?

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Grab-happy registry XYZ.com has expanded its stable of strings to 22 after buying five little-used gTLDs from Dominion Registries.

It recently came into control of .autos, .motorcycles, .homes, .yachts, and .boats, CEO Daniel Negari confirmed earlier this week.

Following XYZ’s buyout of .auto, .car and .cars from former joint venture partner UNR a couple months back, it seems the company now pretty much has a lock on the English-language automotive domain market.

This raises the question, so far unanswered by the registry, about whether .autos registrants could be about to face some of the steepest price increases the new gTLD market has seen to date.

XYZ’s .auto, .car and .cars currently command among the highest base prices in the market — about $2,500 at retail for a basic, non-premium name — while .autos has been chugging along at $100 per domain per year.

It would make perfect sense for the registry to give its new acquisition a 25x price increase to align it with the rest of the automotive portfolio, but so far the company is tight-lipped on the subject.

Fortunately, the current pool of .autos registrants is quite small — a little over 400 names, about the same as .auto but a couple hundred ahead of .cars and .car — so there would not be many customers to piss off.

Indeed, three of the other TLDs XYZ just bought have what you might generously call “growth potential”.

The only one of the five gTLDs to have more than 500 domains under management is .homes, which has more than 13,000.

With XYZ’s broader channel reach and superior marketing prowess, there’s certainly upside on the horizon.

MMX probing accounting of mystery contract

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry MMX says it’s looking into whether it incorrectly accounted for about $1 million of revenue last year.

The company told investors Friday that $938,000 of revenue from a single contract was recognized in 2019, but there’s a possibility it should have been classified as “a refundable deposit against future sales or deferred revenue”.

The same goes for $25,000 recognized in the first half of this year.

The contract generated cash of $1.125 million in 2019.

Regular domain sales are usually recognized over the course of the registration and show up on the balance sheet as deferred revenue.

It’s not known which contract MMX is referring to in its notice. I’m tempted to wonder whether it relates to AdultBlock, the defensive registration service available across the company’s four porn-themed gTLDs.

The company had previously reported $1.1 million in revenue (rather than cash) from the sale of 2,000 AdultBlock regs for 2019, which puts it in the right ball-park, but it seems unlikely that so many domains would be blocked under a single contract.

MMX said the worst that could happen is that it would be on the hook for $1 million if it turned out the cash was refundable, adding that it had $7.3 million in the bank at the end of June.

Its share price took a battering anyway, losing almost a fifth of its value on Friday.

ICANN playing ping-pong on closed generics controversy

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has refused to comment on the issue of “closed generic” gTLDs, bouncing the thorny issue back to the community.

In its response to the SubPro working group’s draft final report this week, the board declined to be drawn on whether it thinks closed generics should be allowed in future application rounds, and urged the GNSO to figure it out, writing:

the Board is not in a position to request policy outcomes… we will base our decision on whether we reasonably believe that the policy proposal is or is not in the best interests of the ICANN community or ICANN

A closed generic is a gTLD representing a non-trademark dictionary word, where the registry is the only eligible registrant. Dozens of companies tried to snap up such TLDs in 2012

ICANN changed the rules to disallow them, based largely on government advice, before punting the issue to the community, in the form of the GNSO, back in 2015.

But despite five years of thinking, the GNSO’s SubPro working group was unable to reach a consensus on whether closed generics should be allowed or not, or whether they should be allowed, but only when there’s a “public interest” purpose.

As I noted last month, it presented three possible ways closed generics could be permitted, none of which have consensus support.

So it asked the board for guidance, and the board’s response is basically “not our problem, figure it out yourselves”.

It would be churlish to criticize the board for refusing to make policy from the top-down, of course.

Much better to wait for the next time it does make policy from the top-down, and criticize it then.

Has ICANN cut off its regulatory hands?

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN may have voluntarily cut off its power to enforce bans on things like cyberbullying, pornography and copyright infringement in future new gTLDs.

Its board of directors yesterday informed the chairs of SubPro, the community group working on new gTLD policy for the next round, that its ability to enforce so-called Public Interest Commitments may be curtailed in future.

A PIC is a contractual promise to act in the public interest, enforceable by ICANN through a PIC Dispute Resolution Process. All 2012 new gTLDs have them, but some have additional PICs due to the gTLD’s sensitive nature.

They were created because ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee didn’t like the look of some applications for gTLD strings it considered potentially problematic.

.sucks is a good example — registry Vox Populi has specific commitments to ban cyberbullying, porn, and parking in its registry agreement.

Should ICANN receive complaints about bullying in .sucks, it would be able to invoke the PICDRP and, at least in theory, terminate Vox Pop’s registry contract.

But these are all restrictions on content, and ICANN is singularly focused on not being a content regulator.

It’s so focused on staying away from content that four years ago, during the IANA transition, it amended its bylaws to specifically handcuff itself. The bylaws now state, front and center:

ICANN shall not regulate (i.e., impose rules and restrictions on) services that use the Internet’s unique identifiers or the content that such services carry or provide… For the avoidance of doubt, ICANN does not hold any governmentally authorized regulatory authority.

There’s a specific carve-out grandfathering contracts inked before October 1, 2016, so PICs agreed to by 2012-round applicants are still enforceable.

But it’s doubtful that any PICs not related to the security and stability of the DNS will be enforceable in future, the board told SubPro.

The issue is being raised now because SubPro is proposing a continuation of the PICs program, baking it into policy in what it calls Registry Voluntary Commitments.

Its draft final report acknowledges that ICANN’s not in the content regulation business, but most of the group were in favor of maintaining the status quo.

But the board evidently is more concerned. It told SubPro’s chairs:

The language of the Bylaws, however, could preclude ICANN from entering into future registry agreements (that materially differ in form from the 2012 round version currently in force) that include PICs that reach outside of ICANN’s technical mission as stated in the Bylaws. The language of the Bylaws specifically limits ICANN’s negotiating and contracting power to PICs that are “in service of its Mission.” The Board is concerned, therefore, that the current Bylaws language would create issues for ICANN to enter and enforce any content-related issue regarding PICs or Registry Voluntary Commitments (RVCs)

There’s a possibility that it could now be more difficult for future applicants to get their applications past GAC concerns or other complaints, particularly if their chosen string addresses a “highly sensitive or regulated industry”.

There was a “chuck it in the PICs” attitude to many controversies in the 2012 round, but with that option perhaps not available in future, it may lead to an increase in withdrawn applications.

Could .sucks get approved in future, without a cast-iron, enforceable commitment to ban bullying?

MMX revenue down even as sales rise during pandemic

Kevin Murphy, September 30, 2020, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry MMX saw its revenue dip in the first half of the year, even as the number of domain names it sold increased.

The company today reported a net profit after tax of $1.2 million, down from $1.7 million a year ago, on revenue that was down 5% at $8.5 million.

But billings were up in the quarter were up 7%, with channel billings (ie, domains sold via third-party registrars) up 20%.

Billings is the measure of how much the company sold, which is largely deferred and recognized as revenue over the period of the registration.

Domains under management across the registry’s portfolio of 31 gTLDs increased 31% to 2.38 million.

The company blamed a lack of brokered premium sales for the top-line decline, saying that segment contributed $0.1 million in the half, compared to $0.8 million a year ago.

MMX said registrar partner sales were “unimpacted by COVID”, up 4% to $8.3 million, but two of its brand-protection partners had to delay the launch of its pricey AdultBlock porn domain blocks until Q4, so there was no revenue to be found in defensives in the half.

This ICANN comment period is a Kafkaesque nightmare

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2020, Domain Policy

With the deadline for commenting on draft new gTLD program rules rapidly approaching, you may be tempted to visit the ICANN web site to peruse the comments that have already been submitted by others. Good bloody luck.

The way ICANN has chosen to present the comments is so bafflingly opaque, confusing and confounding that I can’t help but conclude it must have been deliberately designed to be as soul-crushing as possible.

Regular comment periods are pretty straightforward: you email your comments as prose to ICANN, ICANN publishes the email and any attachments for others to read. Everyone knows where everyone stands. Job done.

But recently there’s been a worrying trend towards a questionnaire and spreadsheet model based around Google Docs, and that’s the model being used for comments on the final draft report of the new gTLD program working group, known as SubPro.

You can check out the spreadsheet here.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the spreadsheet is 215 columns wide, with each respondent given one row for their responses.

You’ll also notice that the spreadsheet doesn’t seem to understand line breaks. Where the respondent has provided some textual commentary, it’s spread across multiple columns in some cases and not in others.

And then there’s the column headings.

While stumbling randomly through the spreadsheet, I discovered an interesting nugget of information — it seems the new gTLD registry MMX wants the next application round delayed until all of the 2012 round have been launched, which I found a bit surprising.

This nugget can be found under the column heading “Enter your response here”, a heading that is helpfully shared by 90 (ninety) other columns on the same damn page.

The heading “Do you want to save your progress and quit for now? You will be able to return to the form to complete it at a later time” appears 10 times in the document.

No information in adjacent columns sheds any light on what triggered MMX to make its comment.

In order to figure out the question for pretty much any response, the only option appears to be to cross-reference the spreadsheet with the original form questionnaire, which can be found as a PDF here.

But the questionnaire has 234 questions and there’s no straightforward correlation between the question number and the columns on the spreadsheet, which are addressed as AA through IG.

So when you see that European industry group CENTR went to the trouble to “Support Output(s) as written” in column DI, under the heading “If you choose one of the following responses, there is no need to submit comments”, it’s virtually impossible to figure out what it actually supports.

If you are able to figure out which question it was answering, that probably won’t help you much either.

The form merely contains brief summaries of changes the working group has made. To see the “Output(s) as written” you’d have to cross-reference with the 363-page draft final report (pdf).

A lot of you are probably thinking that I should just export the spreadsheet into Excel or OpenOffice and clean it up a bit. But, no, you can’t. ICANN has disabled exporting, downloading, and even copy-pasting.

It’s enough to make one feel like going out and licking the floor on public transport.

Way to go on the transparency, ICANN!

I have to believe that the ICANN staffer responsible for compiling all these comments into the official ICANN summary has some tools at his or her disposal to render this mess decipherable, because otherwise they’ve got a huge, hair-ripping job on their hands.

Of course, since there doesn’t appear to be a way for the rest of us to verify the summary report’s accuracy, they can probably just write whatever they want.

Could .cpa be the most successful new gTLD sunrise yet?

Kevin Murphy, September 25, 2020, Domain Registries

The registry for the new .cpa gTLD reckons it has received “thousands” of applications for domains during its current launch period, potentially making it the most successful gTLD sunrise since 2012.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which manages the TLD, said today:

Well over half of the 100 biggest U.S. firms — as well as an equally large percentage of the next 400 — have begun advancing their applications as part of the early phase of the .cpa registration process, which launched on Sept. 1.

Assuming “thousands” means at least 2,000, this would make .cpa a top three or four sunrise, judging by figures collected by ICANN showing Google’s .app the current volume leader at 2,908.

But we can’t assume that all the .cpa domains boasted of are trademark-verified sunrise period applications under ICANN’s rules.

AICPA is running a simultaneous Limited Registration Period during which any CPA firm can apply for domains that are “most consistent with their current digital branding” — ie, no trademark required.

Both of these periods end October 31, after which the registry will dole out domains in a batch, presumably giving preference to the sunrise applicants.

We have to assume the amount of purely defensive registrations will be relatively low, due to AICPA’s policies.

Not only are registrants limited to licensed CPA companies and individuals, but registrants have to commit to redirect their .cpa domain to their existing web site within a month and deploy a full web site within a year.

.cpa domains sell for $225 a year, according to the registry. General availability is scheduled for January 15.

Three-letter .blog domains priced up to $100k

Kevin Murphy, September 25, 2020, Domain Registries

Knock Knock Whois There, the .blog registry, said it is going to release its inventory of three-character domains next month.

Roughly 47,000 names will be released at premium fees, with prices ranging “from a few hundred dollars to over $100K”, the company said.

That number suggests that pretty much all of the alphanumeric combinations and hyphenated L-L, N-N, L-N and N-L variants will be available.

The premium pricing only applies to year one; the names will renew at the standard rate of between $10 and $30.

The names will be released October 7 on a first-come, first-served basis.

.blog is doing pretty well by new gTLD standards, with over 190,000 registered names.

Donuts to launch .contact next week

Kevin Murphy, September 23, 2020, Domain Registries

Almost a year and a half after buying it, Donuts is ready to launch its newest gTLD, .contact.

According to ICANN records, the sunrise period for the domain will run from September 29 to November 28.

Registrars report that general availability will begin December 9. Retail pricing is expected to be competitive with .com.

Donuts will also run its traditional Early Access Period, from December 2, a week during which prices start very high and decline day by day.

It will be an unrestricted space, as it Donuts’ wont, and I imagine the suggested use case is something similar to the .tel model — the publication of contact information.

Donuts acquired .contact from Top Level Spectrum for an undisclosed amount in April 2019.