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MarkMonitor tells .feedback to take a hike after “breach” claim

Kevin Murphy, April 25, 2017, Domain Registrars

MarkMonitor is to voluntarily terminate its registrar relationship with Top Level Spectrum after the .feedback registry hit it with a breach of contract notice.

Troy Fuhriman, director of domain management at the registrar, told DI today that the company has just sent TLS a letter stating that it no longer wishes to sell .feedback names.

TLS earlier this month accused MarkMonitor of breaking the terms of its Registry-Registrar Agreements by leaking details of that agreement to media outlets including yours truly.

While TLS CEO Jay Westerdal told DI that an apology from MarkMonitor would be enough to make the termination threat go away, MarkMonitor has clearly decided against that route.

“We’re going to terminate all accreditation agreements for .feedback,” he said. “In part it’s a response to ICANN’s finding that Top Level Spectrum violated its Pubic Interest Commitments, and what we believe is a retaliatory breach notification from them.”

MarkMonitor and a small posse of high-profile clients including Facebook recently won a Public Interest Commitment Dispute Resolution Policy complaint against .feedback, related to the transparency of its launch policies and pricing.

It was in that complaint that MarkMonitor released details contained in the RRA that TLS deemed to be confidential.

Terminating the agreement means that MarkMonitor will no longer be able to sell .feedback names as a registrar and will have to transfer its existing registrations to a different registrar.

Not many clients are affected. MarkMonitor had only 45 .feedback domains under management at the last count (which was still enough to make it the fourth-largest independent .feedback registrar).

Most of these domains will be moved to 101domain, which with fewer than 200 domains is still the leading .feedback registrar.

UPDATE: Westerdal says that MarkMonitor was in fact terminated on Monday. Neither party claims that MarkMonitor made any effort to comply with the breach notice by apologizing.

.feedback threatens to shut off MarkMonitor

Top Level Spectrum, the controversial .feedback gTLD registry, has threatened to de-accredit MarkMonitor unless it apologizes for “breaching” its registrar contract.

The move is evidently retaliation for the MarkMonitor-coordinated complaint about .feedback’s launch policies, which last month led to TLS being found in breach of its own ICANN contract.

De-accreditation would mean MarkMonitor would not be able to sell .feedback domains any more, and its .feedback names would be transferred to another registrar.

In a letter to MarkMonitor (pdf) yesterday, TLS informs the registrar that it breached its Registry-Registrar Agreement by releasing said RRA to “the press” as part of the exhibits to its Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Policy complaint.

The problem we take issue with is that your exhibit should have redacted the “Confidential RRA Agreement” prior to being handed over to ” the press ” and it should have been marked in an appropriate way so ICANN would not publicly disclose it. As we can tell no precautions were taken and as a party to the action we find that you violated the confidentiality of the agreement.

I understand “the press” in this case includes DI and others. We published the document last October. We were not asked to keep anything confidential.

The RRA section of the document is marked as “private and confidential” and contains terms forbidding the disclosure of such information, but the name of the registrar is redacted.

TLS believes the undisclosed registrar is actually Facebook, a MarkMonitor client and one of the several parties to the PICDRP complaint against .feedback.

While Facebook may not have actually signed the RRA, MarkMonitor certainly did and therefore should not have released the document, TLS says.

The letter concludes that the “breach… seems incurable” and says: “Please let us know what actions you will take to cure this breach with us or we will have no other option but to de-accredited your Registrars.”

Despite this, TLS CEO Jay Westerdal tells us that an apology will be enough to cure the alleged breach.

The threat is reminiscent of a move pulled by Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, last year. Vox deaccredited MarkMonitor rival Com Laude in June for allegedly leaking a confidential document to DI (I was never able to locate or identify the allegedly leaked document, and had not published any document marked as confidential).

TLS was found in breach of the Public Interest Commitments in its ICANN contract last month by a PICDRP panel. It was the first registry to suffer such a loss.

The PICDRP panel found that .feedback’s launch had not been conducted in a transparent way, but it stopped short of addressing MarkMonitor’s complaints about “fraudulent” behavior.

Big brands condemn “fraudulent” .feedback gTLD in ICANN complaint

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2016, Domain Registries

Top Level Spectrum has been accused today of running the gTLD .feedback in a “fraudulent and deceptive” manner.

Over a dozen famous brands, corralled by corporate registrar MarkMonitor, today formally complained to ICANN that .feedback is a “complete sham”.

They reckon that the majority of .feedback domains belong to entities connected to the registry, violate trademarks, and have been stuffed with bogus and plagiarized reviews.

TLS denies any involvement.

MarkMonitor clients Adobe, American Apparel, Best Buy, Facebook, Levi and Verizon are among those that today filed a Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Policy complaint with ICANN.

PICDRP is the mechanism third parties can use to complain about new gTLD registries they believe are in breach of the Public Interest Commitments found in their registry contracts.

The 50-page complaint (pdf), which comes with hundreds of pages of supporting documentation spread over 36 exhibits, purports to show TLS engaging in an “escalating pattern of discriminatory, fraudulent and deceptive registry misconduct”.

While the allegations of wrongdoing are fairly broad, the most interesting appears to be the claim that TLS quietly registered thousands of .feedback names matching trademarks to itself and then filled them with reviews either ripped off from Yelp! or supplied by overseas freelancers working for pennies.

TLS denies that it did any of this.

The .feedback registry is closely tied to the affiliated entity Feedback SAAS, which offers a hosted social platform for product/company reviews. Pricing for .feedback domains is dependent on whether registrants use this service or not.

The complaint states:

the overwhelming majority of domain names registered and activated within the .FEEDBACK TLD — over seventy percent (70%) — are currently owned and operated by Respondent [TLS], and parties working in concert with Respondent

Respondent has solicited and paid numerous third parties, including professional freelance writers who offer to post a set number of words for a fee, to write fabricated reviews regarding Complainants’ products and services.

These ostensibly independent reviews from ordinary consumers are intended to give the appearance of legitimate commentary within .FEEDBACK sites, when, in fact, the reviews are a complete sham.

An investigation carried out by MarkMonitor (pdf) showed that of the 2,787 .feedback domains registered up to July 31, 73% were registered to just five registrants.

The top registrant, Liberty Domains LLC of Las Vegas, owned 47% of these domains.

MarkMonitor believes this company (which it said does not show up in Nevada company records) and fourth-biggest registrant Core Domains LLC (based at the same Vegas mail forwarding service) are merely fronts for TLS, though it has no smoking gun proving this connection.

TLS CEO Jay Westerdal denies the company is affiliated with Liberty.

The MarkMonitor investigation counted 27,573 reviews on these sites, but 22% of them purported have been written prior to the date the domain was registered, in some cases by years.

The company reckons hundreds of reviews can be traced to five freelance writers who responded to February job ads looking for people who could write and post 10 150-word reviews per hour.

Other reviews appear to have been copied wholesale from Yelp! (this can be easily verified by visiting almost any .feedback site and searching for exact-match content on Google).

Westerdal told DI last week that registrants can use an API to import reviews.

The brands’ complaint goes on to criticize TLS for its Free.feedback offering, a very odd, bare-bones web site which seems to offer free .feedback domains.

When you type a domain or email address into the form on Free.feedback, it offers to give you the equivalent .feedback domain for free, automatically populating a second form with the Whois record of the original domain.

According to the complaint, after somebody registers a free .feedback domain, Feedback SAAS starts contacting the person listed in the Whois about their “free trial registration” regardless of whether they were actually the person who signed up the the domain. The complaint states:

Complainants and multiple other trademark owners who received such email notifications from Feedback SAAS and TLS registrars never visited the FREE.FEEDBACK website, and they never requested a free trial registration in the .FEEDBACK TLD

I’ve been unable to fully replicate this experience in attempts to test Free.feedback.

The complaint alleges multiple breaches of the PICs in the .feedback ICANN Registry Agreement.

The brands want ICANN Compliance to conduct a thorough investigation of .feedback, for all Free.feedback domains with phony Whois to be terminated, and for affected trademark owners to get refunds. They also want their legal costs paid by TLS.

ICANN does not typically publish the outcome of PICDRP complaints. Indeed, this is only the second one I’m aware of. It’s difficult to judge what MarkMonitor’s posse’s chances of success are.

Squabbling drug peddlers drag .pharmacy into brand bunfight

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2016, Domain Policy

The .pharmacy new gTLD has been dragged into the ongoing trademark dispute between two pharmaceuticals giants called Merck.

Germany-based Merck KGaA has accused the .pharmacy registry of operating an unfair and “secretive” process to resolve competing sunrise period applications.

The domain merck.pharmacy was awarded to US rival Merck & Co, which was spun off from the German original a hundred years ago, after both Mercks applied for the domain during .pharmacy’s January-March 2015 sunrise.

Now Merck KGaA has become what I believe might be the first company to reveal an attempt to invoke ICANN’s Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Procedure to get the decision reversed.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, a US entity, operates .pharmacy as a tightly controlled gTLD with pre-registration credential validation.

When it launched for trademark owners in last year, it was vague about how contentions between owners of matching trademarks would be handled, according to Merck KGaA.

Merck KGaA claims that NABP awarded merck.pharmacy to Merck & Co and initially refused to disclose how it had arrived at its decision other than to say the German firm “met fewer criteria” than its rival.

After some back-and-forth between their lawyers, Merck KGaA was still not happy with NABP’s response to the dispute, so it decided to start filing compliance reports ICANN.

A year on, it tried to invoke the PICDRP.

Public Interest Commitments are addenda to ICANN Registry Agreements that bind the registries to certain behaviors, such as fighting malware and working with industry-specific regulatory bodies.

The PICDRP, heard by ICANN or an independent standing panel, is a way for third parties to challenge registries’ compliance with their contracts when they believe PICs have been violated.

No PICDRP disputes have actually made it before a panel to date, to my knowledge. Indeed, this is the first time I’ve heard of anyone even attempting to file one, though ICANN Compliance reports indicate about 20 were filed last year.

Merck KGaA claims that by not disclosing how it decided Merck & Co should win merck.pharmacy, NABP is in breach of the PIC that states:

Registry Operator will operate the TLD in a transparent manner consistent with general principles of openness and non-discrimination by establishing, publishing and adhering to clear registration policies.

It suspects that NABP was biased towards Merck & Co because the US firm is a $100,000+ contributor to its coffers.

NABP has denied any wrongdoing, saying it applied “objective criteria” to decide which Merck most deserved the name.

This June, over a year after the domain was awarded, Merck KGaA filed its PICDRP complaint with ICANN. Two weeks ago, ICANN responded saying the complaint had been rejected, saying:

The detailed review criteria used to resolve the contention for the registration of the domain name was part of an operational procedure that the registry operator applied to both applicants’ websites and was consistent with .pharmacy’s community restrictions in Specification 12 of the RA. As the internal operational procedure does not conflict with ICANN’s agreements and policies, it is deemed outside of ICANN’s scope of enforcement.

The decision seems to have been made by ICANN staff. No independent panel was appointed. The PICDRP grants ICANN “sole discretion” as to whether a panel is needed.

The only reason the dispute has come to light is that Merck KGaA has decided to challenge ICANN’s decision with a Request for Reconsideration. The RfR and 600-odd pages of exhibits are published here.

It’s the second concurrent RfR Merck has on the go with ICANN. The Mercks are also simultaneously fighting for the right to run .merck as a dot-brand gTLD.

Both applications for .merck went through the Community Priority Evaluation process, but both failed.

The next stage in resolving the contention said would have been an auction, but Merck KGaA has filed for Reconsideration on its CPE panel’s determination.