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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.

Something weird’s going on at .sucks

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Ever heard of a domainer or cybersquatter putting their freshly-registered domains up for sale at cost?

Me neither, but that’s what seems to be going on at .sucks right now.

The sudden appearance of many hundreds of .sucks domains — many of them matching very famous trademarks — at Sedo and Uniregistry comes as the registry unveils plans to open up a secondary marketplace of its own.

.sucks registry Vox Populi, a part of the Momentous group of companies, wants to open its own marketplace, according to a letter it recently sent to ICANN.

The registry told ICANN it plans to launch a service “whereby a Registrant of a .sucks domain name can list their domain for resale with the Registry”, saying it will “allow our Registrars to show the domain as available for purchase by third parties at the price set by the current Registrant.”

It’s taking a somewhat confrontational approach from the outset, telling ICANN that it does not believe the service would constitute a “registry service” that would require ICANN’s approval under the Registry Service Evaluation Process.

It points to the fact that registrants can already list their .sucks names on existing marketplaces such as Sedo as proof that it’s not a “product or service that only a registry operator is capable of providing, by reason of its designation as the registry operator” requiring the RSEP.

This interpretation strikes me as open to debate, but I’m not going to get into that here.

What’s more interesting is that the vast majority of the domains listed on these competing platforms appear to have been registered relatively recently, in bulk, all via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, and quite possibly by the same registrant.

What’s weird is that the majority of the .sucks names listed at Sedo have a buy-now price of $199. Some are priced higher. Some priced at $199 at Sedo are priced at $599 at Uniregistry.

$199 is the absolute cheapest you can buy a .sucks domain name anywhere. It’s Rebel’s retail price, and I believe it’s also Vox Pop’s wholesale price. Even the cheapest unaffiliated registrars slap a $50 markup on the registry fee.

The domains started being listed on the aftermarkets after a sharp spike in .sucks sales back in June, where my data shows that over 2,000 names were registered, via Rebel, in the space of about 24 hours.

The .sucks zone file has been growing ever since, swelling from 7,347 — where volume had been flattish and under 8,000 names for years — to 11,255 since June 16, the date of the first spike.

Almost every .sucks listing I spot-checked on Sedo has three things in common: the $199 price-tag, a recent registration date, and a seller who signed up for the service in 2020 submitting their home territory as Turks and Caicos.

Turks and Caicos, which is also where Rebel is legally based, is a British island territory in the Caribbean with fewer than 38,000 inhabitants. It’s often used for offshore company registrations.

Whois records for the domains I checked with June reg dates use Momentous privacy service Privacy Hero, while other more-recent regs list the registrant as Honey Salt Ltd, a company apparently also based in Turks and Caicos.

So what we seem to have here is a registrant willing to invest half a million dollars or more in .sucks domain names, a great many matching famous brands, and then list them for resale at the exact same price he paid for them.

Why would a cybersquatter pay $199 for jackdaniels.sucks or dolceandgabbana.sucks or unitedinternetmedia.sucks and then put them up for sale for $199? It makes no sense to me.

And it comes at a time when Vox Pop is trying to persuade ICANN that there’s a thriving aftermarket for .sucks domains.

I put all these observations to the CEOs of Momentous and the registry earlier today, and Vox Pop chief John Berard got back to us to say:

With regard to those 2,000 registered names, that was most welcome. I don’t know much more than that about Honey Salt… I am certainly not going to speculate on their plans.

That they are in the Turks and Caicos is interesting, for sure. But you know as well as I that the Caribbean is a hotbed of domain name innovation and investment.

He later added: “Yes, take it to the bank that VPR [Vox Populi Registry] is not behind the registrations.”

On the issue of the registry’s own secondary market plans, Berard said:

we are trying to catch up to others in the domain name industry who first saw the customer value of fostering a secondary market. I think we may be the first registry to do it, but we, i am sorry to say, weren’t the first to market.

If I receive more information or commentary on this weirdness I shall provide updates accordingly.

Now even parked domains will have GDPR notices

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2018, Domain Services

Sedo will soon start showing privacy notices and cookie warnings on parked domains using its service.

The company told users today that it has updated its terms of service to comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. It said:

As a domain owner parking your domains on Sedo’s platform, within the scope of tracking website visitors to monetize your domain(s), Sedo collects and processes personal data on your behalf. The GDPR requires, among other things, that the person responsible, in this case you, the domain owner, display a data protection declaration and a cookie on your parked page. 

Sedo said this is a “complimentary feature”, but that it makes no assurances that the notices it displays on its users’ behalf are actually compliant with the regulation.

The terms have been changed such that the user agrees to be “solely responsible” for their own GDPR compliance. 

Users have two weeks to object to the changes, but if they do it seems Sedo will terminate their service.

The changes come into effect January 1.

Sedo’s cunning GDPR workaround

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2018, Domain Services

With full Whois records set to disappear from public view for most domain names this Friday, auction house Sedo has had to resort to some technical trickery to enable its users to prove they own the domains they list for sale.

Until now, when listing a domain at Sedo, the company has checked whether the Whois record matches the data it has on file for the customer.

With that no longer possible in many cases, Sedo told users yesterday it instead wants them make updates to their DNS records, which will obviously remain public data post-GDPR.

Sedo will give each customer a personal identification number, which they will have to add to the all-purpose TXT field of their domain’s DNS record.

That’s a fairly straightforward process at most registrars, though volume domainers had better hope their registrar of choice allows DNS changes to be made in bulk.

Sedo’s calling the process “Owner Self-Verification”.

Customers who do not use the system will have to wait three business days before their names are verified. Sedo said it will manually spot-check domains and may ask for other forms of proof of ownership.

UPDATE: Many thanks to all the people on Twitter telling me this system has been in place for years. You’re all very clever. Your cookies/cigars are in the mail.

Sixteen-year-old emoji .com sells for €3,400

Kevin Murphy, June 1, 2017, Domain Sales

An emoji domain name believed to be in the first three such domains ever registered has been sold.

The domain ☮.com (xn--v4h.com) seems to to have been sold to an end-user buyer, via Sedo, for €3,400 ($3,816). The sale appears to have been a quick flip by an Austrian investor.

☮ is of course better known as a symbol representing peace, most associated with campaigns for nuclear disarmament.

The name now redirects to Sonshi.com, an “educational resource for Sun Tzu’s The Art of War”. The owner explains:

As students of Sun Tzu, we understand the objective of understanding warfare is peace. Even when we are forced to do battle, we want to end it quickly. If possible, it is best to prevent fighting altogether. There are few symbols that represent peace and are as recognizable as ☮.

According to research carried out by domain investor Michael Cyger, ☮.com is one of the three oldest emoji domains, after a “hot spring” symbol in .com and .net, all having been registered April 19, 2001.

It’s not a knock-your-socks-off price, given the scarcity of emoji domains and the age of the registration, but it seems to show there are buyers out there.

Emoji domains were recently discouraged by ICANN’s security committee due to the potential for security risks, and are currently effectively banned in new gTLDs.

Short .at domain auction raises over $1m

Kevin Murphy, November 30, 2016, Domain Sales

Nic.at’s three-stage auction of one and two-character .at domains has raised over $1 million.

Auction house Sedo announced today that over 1,000 .at names were sold, for a combined total of over $1 million.

The biggest-ticket name was c.at, which went for €56,000, according to Sedo.

Bidders were not restricted to Austria or German-speaking nations. Sedo said notable bids came in from China, the US and Canada.

Here’s the top-ten list, priced in euros:

c.at€€56,000
1.at€€26,008
at.at€€20,500
e.at€€12,500
b.at€€11,100
6.at€€11,001
d.at€€10,100
ep.at€€10,099
ch.at€€10,002
f.at€€10,000

Pritz joins Allegravita and other industry movements

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2016, Domain Services

It’s been a busy week in the domain industry for executive changes.

Today, we hear that senior ICANN alum Kurt Pritz has joined Chinese domain marketing specialist Allegravita as a “new partner”.

Allegravita is the PR consultancy that’s made a bit of a splash in the industry over the last couple of years shepherding Western clients through the confusing but potentially lucrative Chinese market.

One of its clients is the Domain Name Association, where Pritz worked as executive director for a couple of years until last October. Prior to the DNA, he was head of ICANN’s new gTLD program.

Also today, Uniregistry announced a couple of new bods in its registrar team.

Sam Tseng and Alan Crowe join from Oversee.net and DomainNameSales (another Frank Schilling company) respectively.

They’ll be responsible for working with high-volume customers of Uniregistry’s registrar business.

Meanwhile, .tickets registry Accent Media said it has appointed Kristi Flax as its commercial operations director.

Flax was founder and COO of PPI Claimline, one of those UK companies that manages refund claims against banks that mis-sold payment protection insurance for people too simple to do it for themselves.

Thanks to relentless phone spamming by unscrupulous lead-gen affiliates, it’s one of the few industries with a worse reputation than domain name industry.

Earlier this week, Sedo announced several changes at the top of its ranks.

First, the Germany-based company has appointed telco industry alum Barbara Stolz as its new CFO. She replaces Torsten Hauschildt, who returns to parent United Internet as senior VP of finance and M&A

Its director of marketing, Christian Voss, has been promoted to chief marketing officer, and Dimo Beitzke has been moved up to chief sales officer. Solomon Amoako has left his job as North American CSO for personal reasons.

Top 2015 new gTLD sale looks like cybersquatting

Kevin Murphy, January 8, 2016, Domain Sales

One of the top secondary market domain sales of 2015, as reported by Sedo, appears to be a case of somebody selling a domain matching a trademark to the trademark’s owner.

According to a press release yesterday, the domain basic-fit.fitness was the third-priciest reportable new gTLD domain sale handled by Sedo last year.

It went for €7,949 ($8,634).

Given that it’s not intrinsically an attractive-looking domain, I tried to figure out why it sold.

Judging by Whois records, the buyer is the corporate owner of Basic-Fit, a chain of over 300 gyms in four European countries.

It has at least one trademark on “Basic-Fit”.

The original registrant, according to records cached by DomainTools, was a Belgian web designer.

The domain seems to have changed hands around May last year. In April, it spent a couple of weeks under Whois privacy.

The domain was registered August 27, 2014, the day .fitness exited its Early Access Period and domains were available at regular prices.

It seems the same Belgian web designer owns several more new gTLD domain names matching brands that are parked with Sedo and available to buy instantly.

Many are .immo (“.realestate”) domains matching the brands of Belgian real estate firms. There are also a few .beer domains under his name matching the brands of breweries and beers in the UK, US and Czech Republic.

It’s not unheard of for web developers to register domains on behalf of clients. It’s rather less common for them to then list them for sale, with buy-now prices, on domain marketplaces.

Looks dodgy to me.

Did a university just pay $3,000 for its .xxx domain?

Kevin Murphy, April 18, 2012, Domain Sales

The domain name sju.xxx has changed hands for $3,000 on Sedo.

It’s the first .xxx domain I recall popping up in Sedo’s sales feed.

However, I think there’s a pretty good chance it’s a damage-mitigation move by an American university.

SJU is the acronym used by Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. The college uses sju.edu as its primary domain.

Knowing how paranoid universities have been about protecting their reputations in .xxx, and given that the sale came in just below the price of a cheap UDRP, I suspect we’re looking at a defensive move.

The Whois record for the domain is currently under privacy protection. Until recently, it belonged to one Jay Camina. It resolves to a suggestive Go Daddy parking page.

DomainTools.co sells for $2,500

Kevin Murphy, February 23, 2012, Domain Sales

Somebody has just paid out $2,500 for the domain name domaintools.co, according to Sedo.

I guess not even the most savvy domain name industry companies are immune to typosquatting.

Given that the price is just below what you might expect to pay for a cheap UDRP complaint, but more than the domain is probably worth alone, I assume the buyer is DomainTools itself.

According to DomainTools (the historical Whois service, not the company), domaintools.co has been in the hands of a Chinese registrant since .co went live in July 2010.

The domain, which is parked, is currently in escrow.