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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.

Applicants spank IO in .health objections

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Policy

Donuts and Dot Health LLC have beaten back objections filed by ICANN’s Independent Objector over the .health gTLD.

In simultaneous separate rulings by the same three-person International Chamber of Commerce panel, it was decided that the string “health” is not intrinsically offensive.

The IO, in his Limited Public Interest Objections, had argued that health is a human right protected by international law, and that .health should be managed with certain safeguards to protect the public.

But the ICC panels sided with the applicants, finding that in order for an objector to prevail in a LPI objection he must show that the string itself contravenes international law.

The panels used a strict reading of the Applicant Guidebook and supporting documentation to come to their conclusions. In the Donuts case, the panel ruled:

The Panel has no hesitation in finding that the string “health” is not objectionable in and of itself. It is obvious to the Panel that the word “health” does not conflict with any generally accepted legal norms relating to morality and public order of the same nature as the first three grounds ICANN listed in AGB Section 3.5.3.

The LPI objection was created in order to prevent gTLDs from being delegated where the string itself endorses ideas such as racism, slavery or child abuse.

ICANN has said that applications for such strings “may well be rare or non-existent”.

The panels sharply dismissed claims that IO, Alain Pellet, and a staff member were conflicted due to their previous work for the World Health Organization.

The Donuts ruling is here and the Dot Health ruling is here.

1&1′s new gTLD ads banned for “misleading” viewers

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Registrars

TV ads promoting 1&1′s new gTLD pre-registration services have been banned from the UK’s airwaves after being ruled “likely to mislead” by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ads were part of probably the biggest new gTLD marketing outreach to date, a worldwide campaign I’ve heard is costing 1&1 up to $80 million. The UK ad stated:

Do you own a company? Or an online shop? Are you an estate agent? Or a car dealer? Are you from London? Or maybe Scotland? Are you looking for a great new web or e-mail address? Then choose from over 700 new domains. Pre-order yours for free, before someone else does, and link it to your website.

The ASA ruled that the ads would have led consumers to believe that they would definitely get the name they pre-registered as soon as it became available.

In fact, of course, allocation is dependent largely on registry policy, Sunrise registrations, name collisions blocking, and whatever other barriers ICANN can think up in the meantime.

The ASA said in its decision:

Whilst we considered consumers would understand the reference to ‘pre-order’ to mean that the domain names were not currently available, we considered they would understand the ad to mean that they could place an order with 1&1 Internet that would secure their chosen domain name when it became available. However, we understood that that was not the case and that upon receipt of a pre-order, 1&1 Internet would pass on the customer’s request to the relevant domain name registry, who would apply their own allocation process when the requested domain name became available. We therefore considered the presentation of the ad was likely to mislead.

The ad therefore “must not appear again in its current form”, the ASA ruled.

Donuts officially richer than God after winning three new gTLD auctions

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Registries

Donuts has a clear path to being awarded the .church, .life and .loans new gTLDs, following a private auction managed by Innovative Auctions this week.

Life Covenant Church and CompassRose.life have already withdrawn their applications for .church and .life respectively, and others are expected to follow soon.

Life Covenant Church, which does business at LifeChurch.tv, was described as the largest multi-site church in the US last year, with 46,000 regular attendees across 15 locations.

A lucrative business, no doubt. But apparently not lucrative enough to beat Donuts.

In the three-way contention set for .life, Donuts beat CompassRose.life, which seems to be affiliated with a Canadian housing developer and Xiamen 35.com Technology.

In .loans, which still faces Governmental Advisory Committee advice, Donuts beat fellow portfolio applicant Radix.

The losing applicants will all receive pay-offs from Donuts as a result of losing the auctions.

Innovative has now helped resolve 21 contention sets.

.buzz and .support go live

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Registries

DotStrategy has become the newest registry with a gTLD live in the DNS root.

Its .buzz, which is aimed at “groups related to blogging, communications, journalism, advertising, and marketing and development” was delegated last night.

The first second-level name, nic.buzz, is currently resolving to a parking page — seemingly managed by one of the usual parking companies — which, let’s face it, looks a bit crap even as a temporary measure.

That said, I really like .buzz as a concept, if for no other reason than it’s a rare example of a gTLD string that seems to have been selected by a human rather than an algorithm.

Speaking of which, Donuts also had its 42nd gTLD, .support, delegated last night.

There are now 54 new gTLDs live in the DNS root.