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.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.