Top Level Spectrum, the new .feedback registry, has painted a second gigantic target on itself by registering to itself a .feedback domain matching one of the world’s largest media brands.
The company has registered fox.feedback and put up a web site soliciting comment on Fox Broadcasting Company.
This has happened whilst .feedback is still in its sunrise period.
The intellectual property community is, I gather, not particularly happy about the move.
The domain fox.feedback points to a web site that uses TLS’ standard feedback platform, enabling visitors to rate and comment on Fox.
The site has a footnote: “Disclaimer: This site is provided to facilitate free speech regarding fox. No direct endorsement or association should be conferred.”
Fox had no involvement with the registration, which Whois records show is registered to Top Level Spectrum itself.
Registry CEO Jay Westerdal said that the domain is one of the 100 “promotional” domains that new gTLD registries are allowed to set aside for their own use under the terms of their ICANN contracts.
Registries usually register names like “buy.example” or “go.example”, along with the names of early adopter anchor tenant registrants, using this mechanism.
I’m not aware of any case where a registry has consciously registered a famous brand, without permission, as part of its promotional allotment.
“The website is hosted automatically by the Feedback platform,” Westerdal said. “Fox Television Network has raised no concerns and has not applied for the domain during sunrise. We are testing out promotion of the TLD with the domain as per our ICANN contract.”
Fox may still be able to buy the domain during sunrise, he said.
“This is a Registry Operation name. During sunrise, If we receive an application from a sunrise-eligible rights holders during sunrise for a Registry Operations name we may release the name for registration,” he said.
Fox’s usual registrar is MarkMonitor. Matt Serlin, VP there, said in an email that the TLS move could be raised with ICANN Compliance:
I find it curious that this branded domain name would have been registered to the registry prior to the sunrise period which is restricted to the 100 registry promotional names. The fact that the domain is actually resolving to a live site soliciting feedback for The Fox Broadcasting Company is even more troubling. MarkMonitor may look to raise this to ICANN Compliance once the registry is able to confirm how this domain was registered seemingly outside of the required process.
The IP community originally fought the introduction of the 100-domain pre-sunrise exception, saying unscrupulous registries would use it to stop trademark owners registering their brands.
While there have been some grumblings about registries reserving dictionary terms that match trademarks, this may be the first case of a registry unambiguously targeting a brand.
Top Level Spectrum courted controversy with the trademark community last week when it told DI that it plans to sell 5,000-brand match domains to a third party company after .feedback goes into general availability in January.
Westerdal told us this is not “cybersquatting”, as the sites contain disclaimers and are there to facilitate free speech.
What do you think about this use of brands as “promotional” domains?
It’s indisputably pushing the envelope of what is acceptable, but is it fair? Should registries be allowed to do this?
Top Level Spectrum, the new gTLD registry behind .feedback, plans to
give sell domains matching 5,000 of the world’s top brands to a third party that does not own the trademarks.
That’s one novel element of a .feedback business model that is guaranteed to drive the intellectual property community crazy in much the same way as .sucks did earlier this year.
The other piece of ‘innovation’ will see all .feedback domains — including the 5,000 brands — point by default to a hosted service that facilitates comment and criticism.
If you agree to use the hosted service with your domain, the domain and service combined will cost a minimum of just $20 per year.
However, if you want to turn off the hosted service and use your .feedback like a regular domain, pointing to the web site of your choice, the price will ratchet up to $50 a month, or $620 a year.
Those are the wholesale prices. Both services will be offered through registrars, where some markup is to be expected.
The hosted service is being offered by Feedback SAAS LLC, a company that, judging by its web site, appears to share ownership with Top Level Spectrum, though Westerdal says the two firms have different employees.
It’s not dissimilar to the model employed by .tel, where name servers by default point to a registry-hosted service.
Unlike .tel, .feedback registrants will be able to opt out of using the SAAS service and point their domains to whatever name servers they want.
Westerdal told DI that .feedback is in the process of making a deal with a “third party” he could not yet name to have 5,000 branded .feedback domains deployed during the Early Access Period of the .feedback launch. That’s scheduled to start January 6.
“We are striking a deal to get feedback sites out there. We want everything to have feedback,” he said. “We are signing an agreement to get the ball rolling by doing a founders program to get names out there. Your favorite shoe, your pizza place, your everything.”
“The sites are all geared towards free speech and giving reviews,” he said. He said:
No trademark infringement will occur though, the sites are all geared towards free speech and giving reviews. Confusing the public that the brand is running the site will not happen, each site has a disclaimer and makes it clear the brand is not running the site.
Asked whether we were talking about a genuine third party or a shell set up by the registry, he said: “A real third party. I am not playing games.”
He said the higher pricing for the naked domain registration is intended to discourage companies from turning off the domains matching their brands.
The whole point of .feedback is to solicit feedback.
The as-yet unspecified third-party taking possession of the 5,000 brand names would not be prevented from selling the domains to the matching brand owner, or to any third parties, he said, though he would not be in favor of such a move.
He said that $20 a year to run a configurable .feedback site, with moderator privileges, is a “great deal” compared to the $300-a-month service he said consumer review site Yelp offers.
The SAAS service will make additional revenue by selling added features, suitable for enterprises, he said.
.feedback went into its sunrise period last week with a $2,000 wholesale fee — the same high price that attracted criticism for .sucks.
The original Registry Service Evaluation Process for the .feedback service hit ICANN over a year ago (pdf).
I missed it then. Sorry.
I noticed it today after corporate registrar MarkMonitor blogged about it.
Matt Serlin, VP of MarkMonitor, who blogged his opinion on .feedback’s strategy earlier today, said in an email that the .feedback strategy was “more objectionable” than he had thought, and that “[W]e would most likely look to raise to ICANN if that is his stated intent.”
Commercial and non-commercial interests within ICANN have formed a rare alliance in order to oppose the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy in three new legacy gTLD contracts.
The groups want ICANN to delete URS from the .travel, .cat and .pro Registry Agreements, which were all renewed for 10-year terms last week.
The Business Constituency and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group put their names to a Request for Reconsideration filed with ICANN yesterday.
The Internet Commerce Association, a member of the BC, filed a separate RfR asking for the same thing yesterday too.
These groups believe that ICANN contracting staff are trying to create consensus policy by the back door, from the top down, by imposing URS on gTLDs that were delegated before the 2012 application round.
URS was created specifically for the new gTLD program and therefore should not apply to legacy gTLDs, they say. The BC/NCSG request states:
Our joint concern… is that a unilateral decision by ICANN contractual staff within the [Global Domains Division] to take the new gTLD registry agreement as the starting point for renewal RAs for legacy gTLDs has the effect of transforming the PDDRP [Post Delegation Dispute Resolution Process] and the URS into de facto Consensus Policies without following the procedures laid out in ICANN’s Bylaws for their creation. To be clear, we take no objection to a registry voluntarily agreeing to adopt RPMs in their contractual negotiations with ICANN.
The ICA has the same objections. It’s primarily concerned that the new contracts set a precedent that will ultimately force URS into the .com space, when Verisign’s contract comes up for renewal.
Both RfRs ask ICANN to delete the URS requirements from the just-signed .pro, .travel and .cat registry agreements.
The requesters suspect that rather than including URS as “the result of even-handed ‘bilateral negotiations'”, it was “staff insistence that the registries accept it to achieve timely registry agreement renewal.”
They want the ICANN board to demand to see the emails that were exchanged during negotiations in order to determine whether the registries were strong-armed into signing up for URS.
Vox Populi, the .sucks gTLD registry, has told DI that it is not involved with This.sucks, the company offering free .sucks domains, after evidence to the contrary was discovered.
Meanwhile, the president of ICANN’s intellectual property constituency says he’s concerned that the registry may be using This.sucks to try to misrepresent its prices.
This.sucks, as reported yesterday, is currently in pre-launch. It has said it plans to give away up to 10,000 .sucks domains to customers who want to run blog/forum sites commenting on companies, products and other general issues.
Its standard pricing would be $1 per month, a massive discount on the regular $200+ annual registry fee, which would require it to make substantial additional revenue to cover its costs.
That’s assuming it is really an independent company, of course.
Some people think it’s just a front for Vox Pop, and there are compelling reasons to believe they’re correct.
Rob Hall paid for the web site
The most compelling piece of evidence, for me, is that somebody called Robert Hall paid for design of the This.sucks web site.
The one-page launch site was created by a designer responding to an ad on the crowdsourcing web site DesignCrowd.
The title of the solicitation page is “Modern, Bold Web design job. Web brief for Robert Hall, a company in Turks and Caicos Islands”.
Rob Hall is the CEO of Momentous, the company that founded Vox Pop and as far as I know still owns most of it.
He’s the technical contact for .sucks in the IANA database, albeit with a Barbados, rather than Turks and Caicos, address.
The DesignCrowd contest seems to have been submitted around August 26 this year, two days before This.sucks existed as a legal entity in New York state.
Hall seems to have paid $370 for the winning design and $10 to five runners-up.
The site is/was hosted on Vox Pop’s server
Another compelling link between Vox Pop and This.sucks is the server on which their respective domains are hosted — it’s the same box.
According to DomainTools, this.sucks is hosted on a server with just 16 other domains. Four of those — everything.sucks and that.sucks, as well as sister sites this.rocks and that.rocks — belong to This.sucks Inc.
The remaining 12 domains — including buy.sucks, register.sucks, search.sucks — are all .sucks promotional sites owned and operated by Vox Populi.
Berard told DI in an email that Vox Pop has never hosted This.sucks sites:
I suspect that in doing the deal for the premium domain names they wanted, some remained pointed at one of our forwarding servers to which they were first assigned. But, as with the other names they have registered, that will sort itself out over time. We have never hosted their website.
It’s true that DomainTools warns that domains may still be listed for up to two weeks after they have been removed from an IP address.
But I don’t think Vox Pop’s explanation explains how this.rocks and that.rocks wound up listed as hosted on the same IP address as the .sucks domains.
The .rocks gTLD is run by Rightside, not Vox Pop, so I can’t see an obvious reason why they started out pointing to a Vox Pop box.
I asked Berard for clarification on this point but have yet to receive a reply. A This.sucks spokesperson has not responded to an inquiry about the apparently shared hosting.
It also turns out that somebody formed a Cayman Islands company called This.sucks Ltd on August 25 this year, three days before the New York-based This.sucks Inc was registered.
The Cayman company’s registered address is the Georgetown PO Box number for Cayman Law Group Ltd, a boutique law firm with a half-finished web site.
As far as ICANN is concerned, Vox Pop’s legal address is the same address as the new This.sucks Ltd entity.
The New York entity’s official address is a PO Box at a strip-mall UPS store in small-town New York state.
I asked Berard if Vox Pop had any links to the Cayman company but have not yet received a reply.
This.sucks has the same business model as was proposed by Vox Populi under its “Consumer Advocate Subsidy” program, which it proposed at the start of the year.
The company had planned to find an independent partner that would subsidize .sucks registrations in cases where the registrant was a genuine third-party critic (rather than the company itself).
The price was to be around $10 a year, the domains would be tied to a hosted forum service, and the name of the service would be Everything.sucks.
That domain, as I reported yesterday, now belongs to This.sucks Inc.
But Berard said This.sucks is not the Consumer Advocate Subsidy, for which a partner has not yet been found. He said:
This is not the consumer subsidy program we have hoped to foster with a non-profit, but it certainly is in keeping with the spirit of our effort. An effort, I must note, that continues. Somethings are harder to do than we’d like!
Why does this matter?
Whether This.sucks is a cloaked registry effort is important to intellectual property interests, which have claimed that subsidized .sucks prices are part of a “shakedown scheme” targeting trademark owners.
The IPC has long suspected that Everything.sucks was just going to be a case of Vox Pop hiding a registry service in a supposedly, but not actually, independent third-party company.
Brand owners that want to register their brand.sucks domain often have to pay over $2,000 a year, but the proposed subsidy would bring that price down to $10 as long as the registrant was not the trademark owner.
IPC president Greg Shatan told DI yesterday:
Any inkling that Vox Pop and This.sucks were linked and pretending not to be, and actively denying it, would be of great concern, not just to the IPC but to the ICANN community at large. It’s all highly suspicious. It’s very hard to believe that it is what they are claiming it is.
The concern centers on an apparent attempt to misrepresent their pricing and hide how much Vox Pop is actually being paid by brand owners vs. other registrants for domain registrations.
Any plans to monetize this.sucks sites would also be of considerable interest. The non-commercial nature of “sucks” sites (generically speaking) is often cited in response to cybersquatting concerns. I’m not sure how this would change that equation.
Back in March, as .sucks was getting ready to launch, the IPC wrote to ICANN to say Vox Pop was trying to “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 wrote (pdf):
Through this “subsidy,” Vox Populi effectively shows brand owners that, if they fail to register at an exorbitant price, a third party will be able to register for a pittance. This is an essential element of Vox Populi’s coercive scheme.
The IPC also claimed that the proposed subsidy would count as a “registry service” under the terms of Vox Pop’s contract and would therefore need approval by ICANN.
Berard told DI on Thursday, quite unambiguously, that This.sucks is “not a registry service”.
If This.sucks isn’t being financially supported by Vox Pop, it’s going to have to find a lot of revenue.
With a $199 basic registry fee, a 10,000-domain giveaway would cost almost $2 million.
Given that This.sucks is actively courting registrants of brand names — many of which are likely to appear on Vox Pop’s premium list — the cost could be literally 10 times as much.
Vox Pop has made it clear that it’s a subsidy, not a registry discount.
In a July blog post addressing perceived inaccuracies in the media coverage of .sucks, Berard wrote:
Whether a registration is subsidized, the price to the registrar and registry is unaffected. That is the nature of a subsidy. Neither is the program to be offered by the registry. We are talking to a number of free speech advocates and domain name companies to find the right partner.
When we do, likely sometime in the Fall, we will make sure that the information is clear and available so that, well, you can look it up.
(Thanks to George Kirikos for the tip about the existence of the Cayman company)
A new company says it is going to sell .sucks domain names, which usually retail for around $250, for as little as $12 a year.
This.sucks Inc, which says it is not affiliated with the registry, is even planning to give away 10,000 names for free.
That’s a hell of a cost to cover — the .sucks registry fee is $199 for most names or $1,999 for names, including brands, that have been marked as premium.
A 10,000-name giveaway would cost close to $2 million per year, in other words.
But This.sucks isn’t a registrar. Instead, it wants to tie its customers in to its forum and blogging platform, which will be monetized in some way.
Spokesperson Phil Armstrong told us “our plan is to create new revenue streams from different sources, including possibly advertising.” He said:
Our goal is to build a business around giving consumers affordable and easy access to these expressive web addresses, and we’ll work with different registrars to get the best price. We think we can create a large, sustainable community that over time will generate income well above the initial costs of the registrations.
There are good reasons to believe that the company is in fact the “Consumer Advocate Subsidy” provider that .sucks registry Vox Populi promised would be launching in September.
Vox Pop said in March that the subsidizing entity — which would be an unaffiliated company — would offer .sucks domains with attached forum sites for around $10 a year.
The proposed name of the service was “Everything.sucks” — a domain now owned by This.sucks Inc that redirects to this.sucks.
But Vox Pop CEO John Berard said that This.sucks was “just another registrant” and that it was “not a registry service”.
Armstrong said: “We are not related to anything Vox Populi is doing. Not sure what they are up to, but hopefully they’ll be excited about what we are doing.”
The company’s mailing address appears to be a UPS store at a small strip mall in New York state.
The this.sucks service is currently in invitation-only beta testing “for individuals with a passion”.
There’s a sister site with a virtually identical design and mission statement at this.rocks.
In a fact sheet, This.sucks says:
At both This.Rocks and This.Sucks consumers will be able to pick the name of companies, products, people and causes they want to be the focus of the commentary and conversation. With the web address of their choosing, they will be able to moderate a blog or forum to talk about the issues, initiatives and interests that stir their passions.
The goal is to encourage individual consumers to give voice to their points-of-view and make it easy for like‐minded people to join the conversation, much like Reddit for general topics, Slash/Dot for technology, CafePharma in the ethical drug industry, and Glassdoor for job seekers and employers.