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.sucks and ICANN not invited to Congressional hearing on .sucks and ICANN

Kevin Murphy, May 8, 2015, Domain Policy

The witness list in next week’s US Congressional hearing into .sucks and ICANN accountability does not feature .sucks or ICANN.

The eight witnesses are largely drawn from outspoken critics of both ICANN and Vox Populi, either companies or trade associations and lobby groups. It’s stacked heavily in favor of intellectual property interests.

The hearing is titled “Stakeholder Perspectives on ICANN: The .sucks Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation”.

With hindsight, the “Stakeholder Perspectives” bit gives away the fact that the judiciary subcommittee holding the hearing is more concerned with listening to ICANN’s critics than ICANN itself.

Mei-lan Stark, a senior intellectual property lawyer from Fox and 2014 president of the International Trademark Association, tops the list.

A critic of the new gTLD program, in 2011 Stark told Congress that the first round of new gTLDs would cost Fox “conservatively” $12 million in defensive registration fees.

It will be interesting to see if any Congresspeople confront Stark about that claim, which appeared like a gross overstatement even at the time.

One company that has been enthusiastically embracing new gTLDs — as an applicant, registry, defensive and non-defensive registrant — is Amazon, which has VP of global public policy Paul Misener on the panel.

Amazon has beef with ICANN for siding with the Governmental Advisory Committee over the battle for .amazon, which Amazon has been banned from obtaining, so it’s difficult to see the company as an overly friendly witness.

Next up is John Horton, president of LegitScript, the company that certifies legitimate online pharmacies and backs the .pharmacy new gTLD.

LegitScript is in favor of greater regulation of the domain name industry in order to make it easier to shut down potentially dangerous web sites (though opponents say it’s more often more interested in protecting Big Pharma’s profit margins). This month it called for a ban on Whois privacy for e-commerce sites.

Steve Metalitz, counsel for the Coalition for Online Accountability (a lobbyist for the movie and music industries) and six-term president of the ICANN Intellectual Property Constituency, is also on the list.

Jonathan Zuck, president of ACT The App Association (aka the Association for Competitive Technology, backed by Verisign and other tech firms) is on the list.

NetChoice director Steve DelBianco is also showing up again. He’s an ICANN hearing mainstay and I gather with this appearance he’ll be getting the final stamp on his Rayburn Building Starbucks loyalty card. That means a free latte, which is always nice.

Internet Commerce Association counsel Phil Corwin is a surprise invitee. ICA represents big domainers and is not a natural ally of the IP side of the house.

Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House, rounds off the list. PCH might not have instant name recognition but it provides Anycast DNS infrastructure services for scores of ccTLDs and gTLDs.

The committee hearing will take place at 10am local time next Wednesday.

A second hearing, entitled “Stakeholder Perspectives on the IANA Transition” will be held four hours later by a subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce committee. The witnesses for that one have not yet been announced.

It’s going to be a busy day for ICANN bods on Capitol Hill.

Congress to put .sucks on trial

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2015, Domain Policy

The US Congress is to hold a hearing to look into the .sucks gTLD and ICANN accountability.

A hearing entitled “Stakeholder Perspectives on ICANN: The .sucks Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation” has been scheduled by the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet

It will take place in Washington DC next Wednesday, May 13.

The list of witnesses does not yet appear to have been published.

I would guess we’d be looking at, at the very least, somebody senior from ICANN, somebody senior from .sucks registry Vox Populi, and an intellectual property lawyer.

It was ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency that complained about .sucks’ sunrise policies and fees, causing ICANN to refer the matter to US and Canadian trade regulators.

The title of the House hearing suggests that the .sucks controversy will be inextricably tied to the broader issue of ICANN accountability, which is currently undergoing a significant review as ICANN seeks to split permanently from US government oversight.

That’s not great optics for ICANN; I’m sure the organization would rather not have its performance judged on what is quite an unusual edge case emerging from the new gTLD program.

“Naked aggression” or genius? .sucks trolls trademark event

.sucks registry Vox Populi has annoyed intellectual property interests by trolling a trademark conference with a .sucks mobile billboard.

As tweeted by corporate registrar Marksmen, which described the move as “naked aggression”, attendees to the International Trademark Association conference in San Diego, California saw this roaming the streets this weekend.

Vox Pop also has a booth at INTA 2015.

The company says .sucks is an opportunity for brands to engage more effectively with their customers, but most IP interests think it looks more like extortion.

The high annual $2,000+ sunrise fee has a lot to do with that, as does the special “Sunrise Premium” list of trademarks that will always incur similarly high prices.

Update: According to a reader, who submitted this photo, Vox Pop is also giving out free .sucks-branded condoms.

ICANN reports .sucks to the FTC over “predatory” pricing

ICANN has referred .sucks registry Vox Populi to the US Federal Trade Commission over concerns from intellectual property owners that its pricing is “predatory”.

The organization has asked the FTC and the Canadian Office of Consumer Affairs to determine whether Vox Pop is breaking any laws.

It asks both agencies to “consider assessing and determining whether Vox Populi is violating any laws or regulations enforced by your respective offices”.

If it is determined that laws are being broken, ICANN said it would be able to “enforce remedies” in the .sucks registry agreement.

ICANN goes on to say that it is “evaluating other remedies” in the registry’s contract.

The shock news comes two weeks after the Intellectual Property Constituency of ICANN complained that Vox Pop’s $2,000 sunrise fee is just a “shakedown scheme”.

The IPC said March 27 it was:

formally asking ICANN to halt the rollout of the .SUCKS new gTLD operated by Vox Populi Registry Inc. (“Vox Populi”), so that the community can examine the validity of Vox Populi’s recently announced plans to: (1) to categorize TMCH-registered marks as “premium names,” (2) charge exorbitant sums to brand owners who seek to secure a registration in .SUCKS, and (3) conspire with an (alleged) third party to “subsidize” a complaint site should brand owners fail to cooperate in Vox Populi’s shakedown scheme.

The IPC is also pissed off that there’s a Sunrise Premium fee that applies to the most famous brands, regardless of when they register.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI tonight that the company’s pricing and policies are “well within the rules”, meaning both ICANN’s rules and North American laws.

He asked why ICANN has referred the matter to the FTC, given that Vox Populi is a Canadian company.

He said that a senior ICANN executive had told him it was because many IPC members are US-based. He described this as “appeasement” of the IPC interests.

Greg Shatan, president of the IPC, whose letter sparked ICANN’s outreach to the FTC and OCA, said that the word “justice” is more appropriate than “appeasement”. He told DI tonight:

We’re looking forward to the FTC and OCA taking a look at Vox Populi’s behavior. And there’s lots to look at. The punitive TMCH Sunrise, where a “rights protection mechanism” intended to protect trademark owners has been turned into a scheme to extort $2,500 and up… The eternal Sunrise Premium of the far-from-spotless .SUCKS registry. The mysterious “everybody.sucks” — purportedly a third party, purportedly providing a “subsidy” to registrant — would anyone be surprised if that was a sham?

With reference to the FTC referral, Shatan also told DI tonight:

I don’t think ICANN wants to waste the FTC’s time. It’s far more rational to think that ICANN informed the FTC because Vox Populi’s activities are within the jurisdiction of the FTC. Mr. Berard’s remarks seem to indicate that he believes that Vox Populi operates beyond the reach of US laws.

With a tech contact in Bermuda and an admin contact in the Caymans, that may have been Vox Pop’s intention. Vox Pop may be operating outside US laws, but I doubt they are operating beyond their reach.

Vox Populi is incorporated in Canada, hence ICANN’s outreach to the Canadian regulator. According to its gTLD application, its only 15%+ owner is Momentous, another Canadian company.

But its IANA record lists an address in Bermuda for its technical contact and Uniregistry’s office in Grand Cayman as its administrative address.

There’s been rumors for months that Uniregistry or CEO Frank Schilling helped bankroll Vox Populi’s participation in the .sucks auction, which saw it splash out over $3 million.

ICANN is asking the US and Canadian agencies to respond to its letter with “urgency”, as .sucks is currently in sunrise and is due to go to general availability May 29.

Trademark owners and celebrities are already registering their names in the .sucks sunrise period.

ICANN confirmed in a separate letter today to IPC chair Greg Shatan that Vox Pop has paid ICANN a unique $100,000 start-up fee, and has promised to pay an extra $1 per transaction, due to now-defunct Momentous subsidiaries defaulting on “substantial payments”.

As DI reported last week, ICANN says that the fee is “not related to the nature” of .sucks, but it could give the appearance that ICANN is a beneficiary of the .sucks business model.

This article was published quite quickly after the news broke. It was updated several times on April 9, 2015. It was updated with background material. It was then updated with comments from Vox Pop. It was then updated with comments from the IPC. Later commenters had the benefit of reading earlier versions of this post before they submitted their comments.

Kevin Spacey among first .sucks buyers

Kevin Spacey, Google, Apple and Microsoft are among the first to buy .sucks domains in apparent attempts to protect their reputations.

Vox Populi Registry, which took .sucks to its sunrise period on Monday, has started publishing the names of sunrise registrants on its web site.

Names scrolling past on a ticker stream this morning include kevinspacey.sucks, gmail.sucks, siri.sucks and windowsphone.sucks.

Other brands to register so far include Instagram, WordPress, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Wal-Mart.

The dominant registrars on the ticker are MarkMonitor, CSC and LexSynergy, which all specialize in brand protection.

It’s notable that some of the registered strings are secondary brands covering products and services, rather than merely the company’s name.

That could suggest that trademark owners are being somewhat aggressive in their defensive registrations in .sucks.

Actor Kevin Spacey, the only celebrity I spotted on the ticker, has a track record of protecting his personal brand online.

In 2002, he won a cybersquatting complaint over kevinspacey.com, which is now his official web site.

Spacey… well, let’s just say he has been the subject of many speculative media reports over the years. We have mutual acquaintances and from what I hear I can see why he wouldn’t want his brand in third-party hands.

UPDATE: Taylor Swift’s people, who made headelines a few weeks ago by buying taylorswift.porn, have also acquired taylorswift.sucks via MarkMonitor.

AIDS.sucks at $1.5 million and other .sucks premium weirdness

The new .sucks gTLD has some interesting pricing for its reserved premium names. Notably aids.sucks, which currently carries a $1.5 million first-year fee at one registrar.

As far as I can tell, 101domain is the only registrar that is currently publishing its prices for .sucks premium names.

I had a bit of a play around with its web site, to see if I could discover which strings the registry has flagged as premium and which appear to be blocked by the registry.

aids.sucks was the most expensive domain I found, by some margin, at $1.5 million.

The presumably puts it within the pocketbook of, say, a pharmaceuticals company, but probably not a support group.

101domain confirmed that the published price was not an error and is based on the registry’s pricing, but said it was considering lowering it.

That price, and all the other prices cited in this article, are retail prices that would include the registrar’s mark-up.

The next-highest price I could find was $450,000 for sex.sucks.

The string “sex” is usually highly priced on registries’ reserved lists. It’s a slightly different story for .sucks, however, because registry policy states that all pornography is banned. The registrant would have to find a different use.

porn.sucks does not appear to carry a premium fee.

I could not find any other physical diseases carrying premium fees, and it seems that cancer.sucks is not available to register.

However, anxiety.sucks is $4,500, depression.sucks is $12,000, and suicide.sucks is available for $16,500.

It’s worth noting at this point that .sucks is not alone in putting premium prices on domains such as these — suicide.club and aids.club both carry $5,500 fees, for example.

Sports domains baseball.sucks, football.sucks, soccer.sucks, basketball.sucks and hockey.sucks all carry $75,000 fees.

On the vices: poker.sucks is also $75,000, gambling.sucks is $42,000, beer.sucks is $27,000 and alcohol.sucks is $4,500. Other strings, such as casino.sucks, do not appear to be premiums.

This patchy premium coverage goes for entertainment too. While television.sucks ($88,500) and music.sucks ($15,000) are premiums, internet.sucks and radio.sucks are not.

In relationships, gay.sucks is listed at $27,000 (lesbian.sucks does not appear to be premium) and dating.sucks is $15,000.

I tried a few common racial slurs and found them to be unavailable. Vox Pop has a policy against cyber-bullying, which may account for that.

racism.sucks costs $52,500, however.

Religious terms blocked?

Some religious terms are considered premium, while others are not available to register.

.sucks is currently in its sunrise period, so unavailable names have presumably been blocked by the registry for some reason.

I found that christianity.sucks carries a premium price tag of $75,000, while church.sucks is $30,000 and christian.sucks is $34,500.

catholic.sucks is not available, nor are jesus.sucks, christ.sucks and moses.sucks.

But catholicism.sucks, protestant.sucks, methodist.sucks baptist.sucks, can be bought for the regular reg fee.

hindu.sucks, hinduism.sucks, buddhist.sucks and buddhism.sucks are all for sale at the usual price.

judaism.sucks and jews.sucks are available at the regular reg fee, but jew.sucks is not available.

islam.sucks, muslim.sucks and muslims.sucks are not currently available. Nor is muhammed.sucks. But mohammed.sucks and muhammad.sucks are available.

I wonder what we can fairly infer from these apparent discrepancies.

Registry defensives?

As you might expect, the name of the registry is reserved — that happens in pretty much ever gTLD.

It remains to be seen whether Vox Pop will eat its own dog food and allow third-party criticism on its site.

It turns out johnberard.sucks (Vox Populi CEO) is not available. Neither are the names of Rob Hall, CEO of Vox Pop parent Momentous, and Uniregistry CEO Frank Schilling, who is involved in the TLD is some currently undisclosed capacity.

rob.sucks, john.sucks and frank.sucks are all not available to register.

As controls, I checked out other common male first names and the full names of other major registry/registrar CEOs and found them all available.

It will be interesting to see if any of these names are ever developed into criticism web sites by their owners.

That mystery $1 million .sucks fee explained, and it’s probably not what you thought

Vox Populi has agreed to pay ICANN up to $1 million in extra fees in order to pay off the debts of affiliated deadbeat registrars, I can reveal.

The formerly mysterious fees, which comprise a $100,000 start-up payment and $1 for each of its first 900,000 .sucks transactions, were discovered by ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency, as I reported Friday.

I speculated that the payments may have related to ICANN padding out its legal defense fund, rather like it did with .xxx a few years ago, but it turns out that guess was dead wrong.

ICANN has told DI:

Some affiliates of Momentous, the majority owners of Vox Populi Registry, had previously defaulted on substantial payments to ICANN. Given this previous experience, ICANN negotiated special contract provisions in the Vox Populi Registry Agreement to provide additional financial assurances. Those provisions were added solely for that reason and were not related to the nature of this specific TLD.

I gather that the affiliated companies in question were shell registrars that went out of business a while ago.

Momentous company Pool.com used large numbers of empty registrar accreditations in order to drop-catch expiring domain names. Fairly standard practice in the drop-catching game.

But many of these entities were shut down, owing ICANN a whole bunch of cash in unpaid registrar fees.

ICANN has now chosen to recoup the money by extracting it from the .sucks registry, which according to its new gTLD application is majority-owned by Momentous.

The .sucks contract calls the $100,000 a “registry access fee” and the $1-a-name charge as “registry administration fee”.

For avoidance of doubt, this post is not an April Fool joke.

.sucks launches despite trademark lobby outrage

Kevin Murphy, March 30, 2015, Domain Registries

Vox Populi took its .sucks new gTLD into its sunrise period as planned today, despite an 11th-hour outcry from trademark lawyers.

Pricing varies wildly between registrars.

Registry CEO John Berard told DI today that the TLD became available to trademark owners at a minute after midnight UTC this morning as scheduled.

ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency had asked ICANN’s top brass late Friday (mid-way through California’s final working day before the sunrise was due to begin) to “halt” the launch.

I’ve yet to hear confirmation from ICANN that it will not take action as a result of the IPC’s letter, but it has evidently not so far chosen to intervene.

The IPC described .sucks, with its suggested $2,500 sunrise fee, as a “shakedown” and a “perversion” of the new gTLD program’s rights protection mechanisms.

Vox Pop has also published its registry-level fees.

It turns out its sunrise fee is $1,999, with a suggested retail price of $2,499.

That’s an attractive mark-up for registrars, but it’s not clear from the registry’s web site how many of its 30-plus contracted registrars have chosen to participate in the sunrise phase.

With the current volume of sunrise registrations running at fewer than 1,000 per TLD, and most registrations coming via a small number of brand protection registrars, it’s debateable whether it’s worthwhile for most registrars to bother with the extra implementation work.

Several retail registrars I checked are not currently offering sunrise names.

One corporate registrar, IPC member MarkMonitor, has promised to only mark up registrations by $25 per name, saying it refuses to profit from .sucks. Presumably, therefore, it is selling sunrise names for $2,024.

Of the registrars I checked that publish their prices on their web sites, Marcaria and 101domain are selling for $2,199. LexSynergy is priced in GBP that works out to $2,533 a year. Rebel.com has gone for $2,600 (including a $100 non-refundable application fee).

Will Vox Populi eat its own .sucks dog food?

Kevin Murphy, March 30, 2015, Domain Registries

Vox Populi has yet to decide whether it will put its mouth where its money is and open up its own brand for the .sucks treatment.

In a radio interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Day 6 show broadcast on Friday, registry CEO John Berard was asked whether the company would register voxpopuli.sucks and allow it to be used as a third-party criticism site.

Vox Populi is positioning .sucks as a space where big brands and others register names in order to solicit useful commentary, criticism and conversation from their customers.

So the correct answer to the question would have been: “Yes, of course we will do that.”

But Berard was more ambiguous in his response:

HOST: What will you do with the voxpopuli.sucks web site? Will you put it up or will you hold it?

BERARD: My instinct would be to put it up.

HOST: But there’s a possibility that you won’t?

BERARD: It’s a business decision we’ll have to make and I think it’s probably the smarter business decision to put it up.

In my view, the company would be mad to sit on voxpopuli.sucks and related names.

By eating its own dog food, it would send the message that it actually believes its own marketing line.

I’m frankly surprised that Vox Pop has not already enthusiastically confirmed it will open itself up to the same kind of treatment as its sunrise period customers.

The full 15-minute CBC piece, which includes four minutes of yours truly busting his radio cherry and five of domain investor Rick Schwartz bitching about how “corrupt” ICANN is, can be streamed here.

The .sucks sunrise period begins today, with a controversial recommended retail price of $2,500 per year.

“Halt perverted .sucks shakedown now!” demands IPC

Kevin Murphy, March 27, 2015, Domain Registries

Intellectual property interests have asked ICANN to put an immediate stop to the roll-out of the .sucks new gTLD.

A letter to Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah, sent by the Intellectual Property Constituency this evening and seen by DI, calls the registry’s plans, which include an “exorbitant” $2,500 sunrise fee, a “shakedown scheme”.

It’s also emerged that Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, has agreed to pay ICANN up to a million dollars in mysterious fees that apply to no other new gTLD registry.

The IPC letter states.

the Intellectual Property Constituency is formally asking ICANN to halt the rollout of the .SUCKS new gTLD operated by Vox Populi Registry Inc. (“Vox Populi”), so that the community can examine the validity of Vox Populi’s recently announced plans to: (1) to categorize TMCH-registered marks as “premium names,” (2) charge exorbitant sums to brand owners who seek to secure a registration in .SUCKS, and (3) conspire with an (alleged) third party to “subsidize” a complaint site should brand owners fail to cooperate in Vox Populi’s shakedown scheme.

Vox Populi intends to take .sucks to sunrise on Monday, so the IPC wants ICANN to take immediate action.

The high price of registration, the IPC believes, will discourage trademark owners from using the sunrise period to defensively register their marks.

Meanwhile, the registry’s plan to make the domains available for $10 under a “Consumer Advocate Subsidy”, will encourage cybersquatting, the IPC says.

by discouraging trademark owners from using a key RPM, we believe that the registry operator’s actions in establishing this predatory scheme are complicit in, and encourage bad faith registrations by third parties at the second level of the .SUCKS gTLD, and thus drastically increase the likelihood of trademark infringement, all for commercial gain

The letter goes on to say that Vox Populi may be in violation of its registry contract and the Post-Delegation Dispute Resolution Policy, which was created to prevent registries turning a blind eye to mass cybersquatting.

There’s also a vague threat of legal action for contributory trademark infringement.

The IPC has particular beef with the registry’s Sunrise Premium program. This is a list of strings — mostly trademarks — that have been defensively registered in earlier sunrise periods.

Sunrise Premium names will always cost $2,500, even after sunrise, when registered by the trademark owner.

The IPC says:

Vox Populi is targeting and punishing brand owners who have availed themselves of the RPMs or shown that they are susceptible to purchasing defensive registrations… This will have a chilling effect on TMCH registrations and consequently discredit all of the New gTLD Program RPMs in the eyes of brand owners, whose buy-in and adoption of new gTLDs is widely acknowledged to be critical to the success of the new gTLD program.

Finally, and perhaps more disturbingly, the IPC has discovered that the .sucks registry agreement calls for Vox Populi to pay ICANN up to a million dollars in extra fees.

As well as the usual $25,000-a-year fee and $0.25 per-transaction fee, .sucks has already paid ICANN a $100,000 “registry access fee” and has promised to pay a $1 “registry administration fee” per transaction on its first 900,000 domains.

Its contract states:

Registry Operator shall also pay ICANN (i) a one-time fixed registry access fee of US$100,000 as of the Effective Date of this Agreement, and (ii) a registry administration fee of US$1.00 for each of the first 900,000 Transactions. For the avoidance of doubt, the registry administration fee shall not be subject to the limitations of the Transaction Threshold.

This makes ICANN look absolutely terrible.

What the hell is a “registry access fee”? What’s a “registry administration fee”?

One guess would be that it’s ICANN stocking up its legal defense fund, suspecting the kerfuffle .sucks is going to cause.

But by taking the Vox Pop shilling, ICANN has opened itself up to accusations that it’s complicit in the “shakedown”.

If it does not block .sucks (which was probably the most likely outcome even without mysterious fees) the IPC and other .sucks critics will be able to point to the $1 million as a “bribe”.

The behavior is not without precedent, however.

There’s a reason ICM Registry pays ICANN a $2 fee for every .xxx registration, rather than the much lower fees charged to other gTLD registries.

Read the IPC letter here.