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.sucks registry probably “connected” to mass cybersquatter, panel rules

Kevin Murphy, August 19, 2021, Domain Registries

Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, is probably affiliated with and financially benefiting from a mass cybersquatter, a panel of domain experts has said.

In the UDRP case of Euromaster v Honey Salt, a three-person panel handed the complainant the domain euromaster.sucks, ruling that it was a case of cybersquatting.

It’s one of 21 .sucks UDRP complaints filed against Honey Salt, a Turks & Caicos company operating under unknown ownership believed to own hundreds or thousands of brand-match .sucks domains.

It’s lost 17 of the 19 so-far decided cases. It also won one case on a technicality and another early case on the merits after mounting a free-speech defense that subsequent panels have not bought.

What’s new about this one is that the WIPO panel — Lawrence Nodine, Douglas Isenberg and Stephanie Hartung — is the first to follow the money and openly infer a connection between Honey Salt and Vox Pop.

The panel said that it “infer[s] that the Respondent [Honey Salt] and Registry [Vox Pop] are connected”, and that Vox is probably trying to make money by charging trademark owners premium fees for their own brands.

Vox Pop has previously denied such a connection, when I first made the same inference last October.

Regular readers will recall that Honey Salt has registered hundreds of .sucks domains and pointed them to a wiki-style web site called Everything.sucks, ostensibly run by a third-party, US-based non-profit.

Rather than containing original “gripe” content, which could easily enable it to win a free-speech UDRP defense, Everything.sucks simply populates its site with poor-quality, context-free content scraped by bots from social media and third-party web sites such as TrustPilot and GlassDoor.

Originally, each page carried a banner linking to a secondary market page at Uniregistry or Sedo where the domains could be purchased, often at cost price.

That quickly disappeared when the first UDRP cases started rolling in, and earlier this year Everything.sucks said on each page that it refused to sell its domains to anyone, instead offering a free transfer.

It even published the pre-authorized transfer codes on each page, meaning literally anyone could seize control of the domain in question without asking permission from or negotiating with Honey Salt in advance.

The problem with that is that transfers are not free. Some domains are flagged as premium — including lots of brand-matches — and have transfer fees in the thousands of dollars. Even the cheapest still carry the base registry fee.

Many registrars steer well clear of this model, disallowing any .sucks transfers.

One registrar that reliably does allow .sucks transfers is Rebel, which is sister company to Vox Pop under the Momentous group of companies. It offers .sucks domains at the registry wholesale fee, which is $200 for an non-premium.

It’s been painfully obvious since the outset that the only parties that stand to make a profit on the Everything.sucks business model are the registry and its affiliated companies — it simply doesn’t make sense that Honey Salt would invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in trademark-infringing domains, simply to hand them over at cost.

But the Euromaster panel is the first to infer the connection, or at least the first to publicly infer the connection.

Euromaster had filed a supplemental document in its complaint pointing out that the “free” transfer of euromaster.sucks would in fact cost a “premium” fee of $2418.79. The registrar quoting that fee is not revealed.

The WIPO panel asked Honey Salt for an explanation and it sounds like it got a bunch of procedural waffle in response.

This led to the following discussion, to which I’ve added some emphasis:

The Panel also finds that Respondent [Honey Salt] has failed to show that it has no financial interest in the Disputed Domain Name. Complainant’s Supplemental submissions demonstrate that Complainant’s chosen registrar quoted a fee of USD 2418.79 to transfer the Disputed Domain Name. Complainant’s report is consistent with M and M Direct Limited v. Pat Honey Salt, Honey Salt Limited, WIPO Case No. D2020-2545, where a different panel conducted an independent investigation and reported that the domain name at issue in that case was not offered “free” as promised, but instead that registrars classified the domain names at issue as “premium” and quoted transfer fees of USD 3,198 and USD 4,270 respectively.

This directly contradicts any claim to be offering a free and noncommercial service, and given that any registration would result in a fee being paid to the Registry by a registrar, leads the Panel to infer that the Respondent [Honey Salt] and Registry [Vox Pop] are connected.

Given the prior decision in M and M Direct, and the evidence that Complainant’s Supplemental submissions, the Panel afforded Respondent an opportunity to submit additional argument and evidence to explain the inconsistency. Respondent made no effort to do so, but instead only opposed consideration of Complainant’s supplemental evidence and repeated its previous contentions. The Panel rejects the objections to Complainant’s Supplemental submission, and emphasizes that Respondent was given an opportunity fully to respond.

The Panel finds that Complainant’s evidence raises substantial questions about the credibility of Respondent’s assertion that it has no financial interest in the Disputed Domain Name and whether Respondent’s offer to transfer the Disputed Domain might, directly or indirectly, financially benefit Respondent. Accordingly, the Panel finds that Respondent has not carried its burden to show that its use is noncommercial

In other words, the panel suspects that Vox Pop is in on Honey Salt’s bulk-cybersquatting game.

The closest any other UDRP panel has come to making this link was in a recent case filed by multiple, unrelated trademark owners, where the panel, while denying the complaint on procedural grounds, suggested that aggrieved trademark owners instead invoke ICANN’s Trademark Post Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure.

The Trademark PDDRP is a mechanism — so far unused and untested — that allows trademark owners to allege registry complicity in cybersquatting schemes. Think of it like UDRP for cybersquatting registries.

Frankly, I’m amazed it hasn’t been used yet.

Panel hands .sucks squatter a WIN, but encourages action against the registry

A UDRP panel has denied a complaint against .sucks cybersquatter Honey Salt on a technicality, but suggested that aggrieved trademark holders instead sic their lawyers at the .sucks registry itself.

The three-person World Intellectual Property Organization panel threw out a complaint about six domains — covestro.sucks, lundbeck.sucks, rockwool.sucks, rockfon.sucks, grodan.sucks, tedbaker.sucks, tedbaker-london.sucks, and tedbakerlondon.sucks — filed jointly by four separate and unrelated companies.

The domains were part of the same operation, in which Turks & Caicos-based Honey Salt registers trademarks as .sucks domains and points them at Everything.sucks, a wiki-style site filled with content scraped from third-party sites.

Honey Salt has lost over a dozen UDRP cases since Everything.sucks emerged last year.

But the WIPO panel dismissed the latest case without even considering the merits, due to the fact that the four complainants had consolidated their grievances into a single complaint in an apparent attempt at a “class action”.

The decision reads:

although the Complainants may have established that the Respondent has engaged in similar conduct as to the individual Complainants, which has broadly-speaking affected their legal rights in a similar fashion, the Complainants do not appear to have any apparent connection between the Complainants. Rather it appears that a number of what can only realistically be described as separate parties have filed a single claim (in the nature of a purported class-action) against the Respondent, arising from similar conduct. As the Panel sees it, the Policy does not support such class actions

The panel decided that to force the respondent to file a common response to these complaints would be unfair, even if it is on the face of it up to no good.

Making a slippery-slope argument, the panel suggested that to allow class actions might open up the possibility of mass UDRP complaints against, for example, domain parking companies.

So the case was tossed without the merits being formally considered (though the panel certainly seemed sympathetic to the complainants).

But the sting in the tale comes at the end: the panel allowed that the complainants may re-file separate complaints, but also suggested they invoke the Trademark Post Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure.

That’s interesting because the Trademark PDDRP, an ICANN policy administered by WIPO and others, is a way to complain about the behavior of the registry, not the registrant.

It’s basically UDRP for registries.

The registry for .sucks domains is Vox Populi, part of the Momentous group of companies. It’s denied a connection to Honey Salt, which uses Vox sister company Rebel for its registrations.

According to ICANN: “The Trademark PDDRP generally addresses a Registry Operator’s complicity in trademark infringement on the first or second level of a New gTLD.”

Complainants under the policy much show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the registry operator or its affiliates are either doing the cybersquatting themselves or encouraging others to do so.

There’s no hiding behind shell companies in tax havens — the policy accounts for that.

The trick here would be to prove that Honey Salt is connected to Vox Pop or the Momentous group.

Nothing is known about the ownership of Honey Salt, though Whois records and UDRP decisions identify a person, quite possibly a bogus name, as one “Pat Honeysalt”, who has no digital fingerprint to speak of.

The most compelling piece of evidence linking Honey Salt to Vox is gleaned by following the money.

The current business model is for Everything.sucks to offer Honey Salt’s domains for “free” by publishing transfer authorization codes right there on the squatted domain.

But anyone attempting to claim these names will still have to pay a registrar — such as Rebel — a transfer/registration fee that could be in excess of $2,000, most or all of which flows through to Vox Pop.

If we ignore the mark-up charged by non-Rebel registrars, the only party that appears to be profiting from Honey Salt’s activities appears to be the .sucks registry itself, in other words.

On its web site, Everything.sucks says it’s a non-profit and makes the implausible claim that it’s just a big fan of .sucks domains. Apparently it’s a fan to the extent that it’s prepared to spend millions registering the names and giving them away for free.

An earlier Everything.sucks model saw the domains listed at cost price on secondary market web sites.

The Trademark PDDRP, which appears to be tailor-made for this kind of scenario, has not to my knowledge been used to date. Neither WIPO nor ICANN have ever published any decisions delivered under it.

It costs complainants as much as $30,500 for a three-person panel with WIPO and has a mandatory 30-day period during which the would-be complainant has to attempt to resolve the issue privately with the registry.

The six domains in the UDRP case appear to have all gone into early “pending delete” status since the decision was delivered and do not resolve.

ICANN issues new gTLD dispute RFPs

ICANN has issued two requests for proposals for providers to administer dispute resolution services for the new gTLD program.

It’s looking for outfits to manage the Registry Restrictions Dispute Resolution Procedure (RRDRP) and Trademark Post-Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure (Trademark PDDRP).

The former is for people who think a Community gTLD registry is mishandling its registration restrictions, the latter for trademark owners who believe a registry is turning a blind eye to cybersquatting.

ICANN has a requirement that the respondents to the RFPs must have experience with dispute resolution, so expect the usual suspects (ie UDRP providers) to wind up on the shortlist.