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Will ICANN take a bigger slice of the .com pie, or will .domainers get URS?

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Will ICANN try to get its paws on some of Verisign’s .com windfall? Or might domainers get a second slap in the face by seeing URS imposed in .com?

With Verisign set to receive hundreds of millions of extra dollars due to the imminent lifting of .com price caps, it’s been suggested that ICANN may also financially benefit from the arrangement.

In a couple of blog posts Friday, filthy domain scalper Andrew Allemann said that ICANN will likely demand higher fees from Verisign in the new .com registry agreement.

Will it though? I guess it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty by any means.

Verisign currently pays ICANN $0.25 per transaction, the same as almost all other gTLDs. Technically, there’s no reason this could not be renegotiated.

Putting aside some of the legacy gTLD contracts, I can only think of two significant cases of ICANN imposing higher fees on a registry.

The first was .xxx, which was signed in 2011. That called for ICM Registry, now part of MMX, to pay $2 per transaction, eight times the norm.

The rationale for this was that ICANN thought (or at least said it thought) that .xxx was going to be a legal and compliance minefield. It said it envisaged higher costs for overseeing the then-controversial TLD.

There was a school of thought that ICANN was just interested in opportunistically boosting its own coffers, given that ICM was due to charge over $60 per domain per year — at the time a ludicrously high amount.

But risk largely failed to materialize, and the two parties last year renegotiated the fees down to $0.25.

The second instance was .sucks, another controversial TLD. In that case, ICANN charged registry Vox Populi a $100,000 upfront fee and per-transaction fees of $1 per domain for the first 900,000 transactions, four times more than the norm.

While some saw this as a repeat of the .xxx legal arse-covering tactic, ICANN said it was actually in place to recoup a bunch of money that Vox Pop owner Momentous still owed when it let a bunch of its drop-catch registrars go out of business a couple years earlier.

While the .sucks example clearly doesn’t apply to Verisign, one could make the case that the .xxx example might.

It’s possible, I guess, that ICANN could make the case that Verisign’s newly regained ability to raise prices opens it up to litigation risk — something I reckon is certainly true — and that it needs to increase its fees to cover that risk.

It might be tempting. ICANN has a bit of a budget crunch at the moment, and a bottomless cash pit like Verisign would be an easy source of funds. A transaction fee increase of four cents would have been enough to cover the $5 million budget shortfall it had to deal with earlier this year.

On the other hand, it could be argued that ICANN demanding more money from Verisign would unlevel the playing field, inviting endless litigation from Verisign itself.

ICANN’s track record with legacy gTLDs has been to reduce, rather than increase, their transaction fees.

Pre-2012 gTLDs such as .mobi, .jobs, .cat and .travel have all seen their fees reduced to the $0.25 baseline in recent years, sometimes from as high as $2.

In each of these cases, the registries concerned had to adopt many provisions of the standard 2012 new gTLD registry agreement including, controversially, the Uniform Rapid Suspension service.

Domainers hate the URS, which gives trademark owners greater powers to take away their domains, and the Internet Commerce Association (under the previous stewardship of general counsel Phil Corwin, since hired by Verisign) unsuccessfully fought against URS being added to .mobi et al over the last several years, on the basis that eventually it could worm its way into .com.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that ICANN might reduce Verisign’s fees, but what if URS is the price the registry has to pay for its massive .com windfall?

It’s not as if Verisign has any love for domainers, despite the substantial contribution they make to its top line.

Since the NTIA deal was announced, it’s already calling them “scalpers” and driving them crazy.

ICA lost the .com price freeze fight last week, could it also be about to lose the URS fight?

.radio set for November launch, weird tiered pricing

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2017, Domain Registries

The European Broadcasting Union plans to operate the forthcoming .radio gTLD in such a way as to discourage domain investors.

It yesterday set out its launch timetable, registration restrictions, and expects registrars to charge companies between €200 and €250 per domain per year ($213 to $266).

Interestingly, it’s also proposing to charge different, lower prices for individuals, though that pricing tier has not been disclosed.

I’m not sure I can think of another company that wants to charge different prices depending on the class of registrant and it seems like would be tough to enforce.

If I’m the domain manager at a radio company, can’t I just register the domain in my own name, rather than my employer’s, in order to secure the lower price?

Other registries, notably .sucks, have come under fire in the past for charging trademark owners higher fees. Isn’t basing pricing tiers on the legal status of the registrant pretty much the same thing?

That perception could be reinforced by the angle the EBU is taking in its marketing.

“We are proposing that the radio community may like to consider securing the integrity of their web presence by requesting appropriate .radio domains for defensive reasons initially,” .radio TLD Manager Alain Artero said in a blog post.

“The TLD will be focused on content and matters specific to radio and we want to prevent speculators and cybersquatting in this TLD,” he added.

The EBU is not planning to take the TLD to general availability until November, which is a long launch runway by any measure.

Before then, for two months starting May 3, there’ll be a qualified launch program in which radio stations (as opposed to “internet” radio stations) will be able to claim priority registration for their brand.

Sunrise will begin in August.

The EBU secured rights to .radio as a “Community” gTLD, meaning it has to enforce registration restrictions, after a 2014 Community Priority Evaluation ruling allowed it to win its contention set without an auction.

The eligibility criteria are somewhat broad, including: “Radio broadcasting stations. Unions of Broadcasters. Internet radios. Radio Amateurs. Radio professionals (journalists, radio hosts, DJs…) [and] Radio-related companies selling radio goods and services”.

DI implicated in .sucks “gag order” fight

Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, terminated Com Laude’s accreditation last week due to its belief that the brand protection registrar had leaked a “confidential” document to Domain Incite.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard tonight denied that the company he works for was carrying out a “grudge” against Com Laude, which in January led a charge against a Vox “gag order” on registrars.

As we reported on Friday, Vox terminated Com Laude‘s ability to sell .sucks domains directly, due to a then-unspecified alleged breach of the Registry-Registrar Agreement that binds all .sucks domain registrars.

It now turns out the “breach” was of the part of the .sucks RRA that states that Vox registrars “shall make no disclosures whatsoever” of “confidential informational”, where such confidential information is marked as such.

Berard told DI of the termination: “It was a specific act, violating a specific clause of the contract that had to do with breaching confidentiality, and that’s why the action was taken.”

The specific act was Com Laude allegedly sending DI — me, for avoidance of doubt — a confidential document.

“They have not said they didn’t do it,” Berard said.

He said that, given the amount of scrutiny Vox is under (due to the controversy it has created with its pricing and policies), “it would be crazy of us to ignore a contract breach”.

He declined to identify the document in question.

He said that Vox Pop deployed “forensic research” to discover the identity of the alleged leak.

“It was clear that something that was confidential was distributed, we wanted to know who distributed it,” he said. “We wanted to know who breached confidentiality.”

DI has only published one third-party document related to .sucks this year.

This is it (pdf). It’s a letter drafted by the Registrars Stakeholder Group and sent to ICANN. Here it is (pdf) as published on the ICANN web site.

DI has received other documents related to Vox Pop and .sucks from various parties that I have not published, but I’ve been unable to find any that contained the word “confidential” or that were marked as “confidential”.

According to the .sucks RRA (pdf), “confidential information” is documentation marked or identified “confidential”.

Everything I’ve ever written about .sucks can be found with this search.

.sucks terminates Com Laude as “gag order” row escalates

Vox Populi, the .sucks gTLD registry, has terminated the accreditation of brand protection registrar Com Laude as part of an ongoing dispute between the two companies.

Com Laude won’t be able to sell defensive .sucks registrations to its clients any more, at least not on its own accreditation, in other words.

The London-based registrar is transferring all of its .sucks domains to EnCirca as a result of the termination and says it is considering its options in how to proceed.

The shock move, which I believe to be unprecedented, is being linked to Com Laude’s long-time criticisms of Vox Populi’s pricing and policies.

The registrar today had some rather stern words for Vox Pop. Managing director Nick Wood said in a statement:

We have always been critical of this registry and particularly its sunrise pricing model which we regard as predatory. We have advised clients where possible to consider not registering such names. We hope that all brand owners will think twice before buying or renewing a .sucks domain. After all, it is not possible to block out every variation of a trademark under .sucks. In our view, fair criticism is preferable to dealing with Vox Populi.

Ouch!

The termination is believed to be linked to controversial changes to the .sucks Registry-Registrar Agreement, which Vox Pop managed to sneak past ICANN over Christmas.

One of the changes, some registrars believed, would prevent brand protection registrars from openly criticizing .sucks pricing and policies. They called it a “gag order”.

Com Laude SVP Jeff Neuman was one of the strongest critics. I believe he was a key influence on a Registrar Stakeholder Group letter (pdf) in January which essentially said registrars would boycott the new RRA.

That letter said:

It’s ironic for a Registry whose slogan is “Foster debate, Share opinions” has now essentially proposed implementing a gag order on the registrars that sell the .sucks TLD by preventing them from doing just that

While the RRA dispute was resolved more or less amicably following ICANN mediation, with Vox Pop backpedaling somewhat on its proposed changes, Com Laude now believes the registry has held a grudge.

Its statement does not say what part of the .sucks RRA it is alleged to have breached.

Vox Pop has not yet returned a request for comment. I’ll provide an update should I receive further information.

Com Laude said in a statement today:

Jeff Neuman, our SVP of our North American business, Com Laude USA, led the effort in the Registrar Stakeholder Group to quash proposed changes to Vox Populi’s registry-registrar agreement, in order to protect the interests of brand owners and the registrars who work with them. Since then, Vox Populi has accused Com Laude of breaching the terms of the registry-registrar agreement, a claim we take seriously and refute in its entirety. We are now considering our further options.

Wood added:

We have informed our clients of the action being taken and all have expressed their support for the manner in which we have handled it. We are pleased to have received messages of support from across the ICANN community including other registry operators. Clearly there is strong distaste at the practices of Vox Populi.

Strong stuff.

New .sucks logo actually kinda sucks

Vox Populi has revealed a new logo for its .sucks gTLD.

Here it is. What do you think?

In going for a retro, 8-bit vibe, has Vox deliberately gone for a look that actually kinda sucks? Is that the joke? Or do you like it?

The company said on its blog:

The program is designed to portray the tight link between the ubiquity of digital technology and the individual’s long-standing right of free expression. Moving from a softer blue image to a sharper black-and-white logo that evokes a computer’s font better honors the role the internet plays as a modern day soapbox

Previously, the .sucks logo was the brand inside a speech bubble. sucks logo

The logo comes with a relaunched web site at get.sucks and a billboard advertising campaign that has included a stint in New York’s Times Square, as seen in this registry-supplied photo.

Times Square ad

The gTLD has been in general availability since June 2015 and has about 7,500 names in its zone file today, growing at roughly three to four domains per day over the last few months.

.sucks “gag order” dropped, approved

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2016, Domain Registries

Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, has had controversial changes to its registrar contract approved after it softened language some had compared to a “gag order”.

ICANN approved changes to the .suck Registry-Registrar Agreement last week, after receiving no further complaints from registrar stakeholders.

Registrars had been upset by a proposed change that they said would prevent brand-protection registrars from publicly criticizing .sucks:

The purpose of this Agreement is to permit and promote the registration of domain names in the Vox Populi TLDs and to allow Registrar to offer the registration of the Vox Populi TLDs in partnership with Vox Populi. Neither party shall take action to frustrate or impair the purpose of this Agreement.

But Vox has now “clarified” the language to remove the requirement that registrars “promote” .sucks names. The new RRA will say “offer” instead.

Registrars had also complained that the new RRA would have allowed Vox to unilaterally impose new contractual terms with only 15 days notice.

Vox has amended that proposal too, to clarify that changes would come into effect 15 days after ICANN has given its approval.

Vox CEO John Berard told ICANN in a March 18 letter:

VoxPop’s intent was never to alter any material aspect of the Registry Registrar Agreement. Our intent was to clarify legal obligations that already exist in the Agreement, and conform the timeframes for any future amendments with those specified in our ICANN registry contract.

Registrars boycotting “gag order” .sucks contract

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2016, Domain Registries

Registrars are ignoring new provisions in their .sucks contracts that they say amount to a “gag order”.

In a letter (pdf) to ICANN from its Registrars Stakeholder Group, the registrars ask for ICANN to convene a face-to-face negotiation between themselves and .sucks registry Vox Populi, adding:

Until such time, the Registrars believe that the amendments are not yet in effect and will continue to operate under Vox Populi’s existing RRA.

That means they’re working on the assumption that the controversial changes to the .sucks Registry-Registrar Agreement, sent to ICANN by Vox in December, have not yet been approved.

Vox Pop, on the other hand, has told ICANN that the changes came into effect January 6.

As we reported at the weekend, the registry is taking ICANN to formal mediation, saying ICANN breached the .sucks Registry Agreement by failing to block the changes within the permitted 15-day window.

The registrars’ letter was sent January 20, one day before Vox Pop’s mediation demand. The Vox letter should probably be read in that context.

The registrars have a problem with two aspects of the changed RRA.

First, there’s a clause that allows Vox to change the contract unilaterally in future. Registrars say this makes it a contract of “adhesion”.

Second, there’s a clause forbidding registrars taking “action to frustrate or impair the purpose of this Agreement”. Registrars read this as a “gag order”, writing:

Many Registrars not only serve as retail outlets for the purchase of domain names, but also provide consultative services to their clients on TLD extensions and their domain name portfolios. In conjunction with the provision of those services, registrars often opine on new gTLD and ccTLD extensions, the TLDs policies, pricing methodologies, security provisions and overall utility. These provisions could easily be read to inhibit such activities and restrict a registrar’s ability to offer those valuable services.

That’s referring primarily to corporate registrars working in the brand protection space, which are kinda obliged to offer .sucks for their clients’ defensive purposes, but still want to be able to criticize its policies and pricing in public.

ICANN has yet to respond to the request for a sit-down meeting between the registry and registrars.

However, given that Vox has invoked its right to mediation, it seems likely that that process will be the focus for now.

Mediation lasts a maximum of 90 days, which means the problem could be sorted out before April 20.

.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.

.sucks “gagging” registrar critics?

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2016, Domain Registries

.sucks may be all about freedom of speech, but some registrars reckon the registry is trying to ban them from criticizing the new gTLD in public.

Vox Populi is proposing a change to its standard registrar contract that some say is an attempt to gag them.

A version of the Registry-Registrar Agreement dated December 18, seen by DI, contains the new section 2.1:

The purpose of this Agreement is to permit and promote the registration of domain names in the Vox Populi TLDs and to allow Registrar to offer the registration of the Vox Populi TLDs in partnership with Vox Populi. Neither party shall take action to frustrate or impair the purpose of this Agreement.

It’s broad and somewhat vague, but some registrars are reading it like a gagging order.

While many retail registrars are no doubt happy to sell .sucks domains as part of their catalogs, there is of course a subset of the registrar market that focuses on brand protection.

Brand protection registrars have been quite vocal in their criticism of .sucks.

MarkMonitor, for example, last year wrote about how it would refuse to make a profit on .sucks names, and was not keen on promoting the TLD to its clients.

Asked about the new RRA language, Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI that it was merely an attempt to clarify the agreement but provided no additional detail.

Registrars are also angry about a second substantial change to the contract, which would allow the registry to unilaterally make binding changes to the deal at will.

The new text in section 8.4 reads:

Vox Populi shall have the right, at any time and from time to time, to amend any or all terms and conditions of this Agreement. Any such amendment shall be binding and effective 15 days after Vox Populi gives notice of such amendment to the Registrar by email.

That’s the kind of thing that ICANN sometimes gets away with, but some registrars are saying that such a change would let Vox Pop do whatever the hell it likes and would therefore be legally unenforceable.

More on my Twitter.sucks reg

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Registries

If you were reading on Friday, you’ll know that I brought about the registration of the domain twitter.sucks and took charge of a web site hosted at that address.

I hinted that there was a little more to the story, but couldn’t get into it.

The first part of the story is here.

What I didn’t mention was that twitter.sucks was in my This.sucks account for probably less than 10 minutes before I removed it.

I have no beef with Twitter and no particular desire to moderate a .sucks discussion forum.

After removing twitter.sucks from my account, I noticed that This.sucks again gave me the option to “register” a free .sucks domain.

So I experimentally “registered” thisdotsucks.sucks too.

Again, the domain started resolving, showed up in Whois, and the associated WordPress site went live within seconds.

At this point, I discovered that I had admin privileges for both twitter.sucks and thisdotsucks.sucks sites simultaneously.

Suspecting that I may have found a bug that would allow anyone to register an essentially unlimited number of free and potentially trademark-matching .sucks domains, I informed This.sucks of my findings in the interest of responsible bug disclosure and ended my blog post prematurely.

Late Friday, This.sucks spokesperson Phil Armstrong told me that it wasn’t a bug after all.

He said that the company allows one “do-over”. So if you register a name for free, then delete it, you get another one for free.

He also said that WordPress admin privileges for domains removed from user accounts expire after a period (I had admin rights for the twitter.sucks web site for roughly 48 hours after I deleted it from my account.)

Right now, the domain twitter.sucks still exists, registered to This.sucks as before, as does the associated web site. I have no idea if another user has taken over its administration or if it’s in some kind of limbo state.

All I know is that it’s nothing to do with me any more.