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New rules could stop registries ripping off big brands

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2021, Domain Policy

New gTLD registries could be banned from unfairly reaching into the deep pockets of famous brands, under proposed rules soon to be considered by ICANN.

A recommendation approved by the GNSO Council last Thursday targets practices such as using reserved and premium lists to block trademark owners from registering their brands during sunrise periods, or charging them exorbitant fees.

It’s believed to target new TLDs that hope to copy controversial practices deployed by the likes of .sucks, .feedback and .top in the 2012 gTLD round.

The recommendations came in the final report of Review of All Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs) in All gTLDs working group, which suggests over 30 tweaks to policies such as Sunrise, Trademark Claims, Trademark Clearinghouse and Uniform Rapid Suspension.

While the recommendations almost all received full consensus of the working group, that’s largely because the group could not agree to any of the major changes that had been demanded by the intellectual property lobby.

The aforementioned RPMs will therefore not change a great deal for the next batch of new gTLD applicants.

Even the recommendation about not ripping off big brands is fairly weak, and may well be watered down to homeopathic levels by the forthcoming Implementation Review Team, which will be tasked with turning policy into practice.

This is the recommendation:

Sunrise Final Recommendation #1

The Working Group recommends that the Registry Agreement for future new gTLDs include a provision stating that a Registry Operator shall not operate its TLD in such a way as to have the effect of intentionally circumventing the mandatory RPMs imposed by ICANN or restricting brand owners’ reasonable use of the Sunrise RPM.

Implementation Guidance:

The Working Group agrees that this recommendation and its implementation are not intended to preclude or restrict a Registry Operator’s legitimate business practices that are otherwise compliant with ICANN policies and procedures.

The idea is that ICANN Compliance could come down on registries deploying unfair rules designed to rip off trademark owners.

Practices that have come in for criticism in the past, and are cited in the report, include:

.top’s attempt to charge Facebook $30,000 for facebook.top

.feedback registering thousands of brand-match domains to itself

.sucks placing brand-match domains in an expensive premium pricing tier

Famous Four Media doing the same thing

The working group could not agree on whether any of these should be banned, and it looks like the IRT will have a lot of wriggle room when it comes to interpret the recommendation.

Now that the GNSO Council has approved the RPM working group’s final report (pdf), it will be passed to the ICANN board of directors for consideration before the nitty-gritty work of translating words into reality begins.

GoDaddy has a secret weapon in its push into corporate domains

Kevin Murphy, November 19, 2020, Domain Registrars

While GoDaddy has been focused for the last two decades on small and microbusiness customers, its entry this year into the corporate domains management space should not be dismissed — the company has one huge advantage.

Earlier this week, the company announced the launch of GoDaddy Corporate Domains, really just a rebranding of the company Brandsight, which it acquired back in February.

The move pits GoDaddy against industry leaders such as MarkMonitor, CSC, Com Laude, Safenames et al.

But the company has one huge advantage that its new competitors do not have: cybersquatters and criminals.

Buried at the bottom of this week’s press release is the announcement of a new service, the Verified Intellectual Property program, which “provides pre-vetted, well-known and famous brands an escalation path to address IP abuse”.

It sounds basically like a trusted notifier service not unlike those offered at the registry level by the likes of Donuts and Radix.

VIP clients will be able to get sites and domains hosted on GoDaddy taken down much quicker, via a special escalation email address, a spokesperson said. Takedown requests will still be subject to manual review, he said.

VIP is currently invitation-only, but I assume being a Corporate Domains customer would help expedite an invitation.

This kind of service is something GoDaddy’s new rivals cannot offer — they generally have no retail channel or hosting, so have no cyberquatters, pirates or counterfeiters as customers. If they want to take down a domain or web site, it’s not a simple matter of flipping a switch.

They also don’t have tens of millions of domains under management, many of which, through no fault of GoDaddy, will be maliciously registered.

This is potentially a pretty cool USP for GoDaddy, which could have rivals worried.

That .sucks weirdness? Worse than I thought

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2020, Domain Registries

A business plan to turn .sucks into a massive Wikipedia-style gripe site, described by trademark lawyers five years ago as a “shakedown”, has reared it ugly head again.

You may recall that earlier this week I reported how somebody had registered many hundreds of .sucks domain names and listed them for sale on secondary market web sites at cost price. It looked weird, almost as if the registry or an affiliate was the registrant, which the registry denied.

It turns out I only told you half the story, for which I can only apologize.

At the time, the domains in question were not resolving for me, probably due to my terrible, block-happy ISP. But now they are resolving, and they reveal the return of Everything.sucks, a plan first floated by the .sucks registry in 2015.

It’s a network of hundreds of .sucks micro gripe-sites, each targeted to a specific brand and each each populated with content scraped, usually without citation, from Wikipedia, social media, and consumer-review aggregator web sites.

Here’s where jackdaniels.sucks takes you, for example (click to enlarge).

Jack Daniels sucks

The description of the company is taken from Wikipedia. The customer comments below are taken from reviews of an apparently unrelated company called The Whisky Exchange published by TrustPilot, and the social media posts have been pulled from Instagram users deploying the hashtag #jackdanielssucks.

Other pages on the site seem to scrape content from GlassDoor, a site where employees review their employers.

While there’s nothing wrong with gripe sites, automating their creation over hundreds or even thousands of brands that you don’t genuinely have gripes with seems, charitably, churlish.

And these gripe sites are — or at least were — being monetized.

You’ll see a banner ad in the top-right corner of the above screen-grab, offering jackdaniels.sucks for sale. The link took you to a page on Sedo that offers the domain for sale with a buy-now price of $199 (the same as the registry’s wholesale fee).

Banners on other pages led to landers on GoDaddy-owned Uniregistry.com with prices of $599.

These banners, which appeared on every brand’s page that I checked, seem to have disappeared at some point over the last two days. I’m sure the change is unrelated to the fact that I started asking .sucks registry Vox Populi and parent Momentous difficult questions about these trademark-match domains on Wednesday.

While UDRP panels have disagreed over the years, there’s precedent dating back two decades that “trademarksucks.tld” domains with sites that contain genuine, non-commercial criticism can confer legitimate rights to the registrant and are therefore NOT cybersquatting.

I doubt a site that actively tries to sell the domain name in question for above out-of-pocket costs could be considered non-commercial.

Still, it looks like those banners are gone now, and I can’t find any other examples of obvious monetization.

I use jackdaniels.sucks as an example here as it’s the site I took a screenshot of before the changes, but there are many hundreds of similar trademark-match domains being used to feed traffic to Everything.sucks.

I note that unitedinternet.sucks, named after the parent company of Sedo, is for sale for $199 on Sedo and leads to a gripe site on Everything.sucks containing less-than-complimentary remarks. It’s for sale at $599 on Uniregistry.

But who is Everything.sucks?

The concept itself originates with the .sucks registry itself. Before the TLD launched in 2015, it floated the idea to a tsunami of criticism from trademark owners.

The plan back then was to sell .sucks domains for .com prices — a discount of a couple hundred dollars — but only to registrants unaffiliated with the trademark owner. These registrants would have had to forward their domains to an Everything.sucks-branded discussion forum.

Back then, Vox Pop said it planned to work with a non-for-profit third party on this initiative.

That third party never materialized, and later in 2015 appeared to mutate into a system called This.sucks, operated by a company called This.sucks Ltd, which took over the Everything.sucks domain name.

This.sucks sold .sucks domains for $12 a year, with the domains pointing to a forum/blogging platform that the company hoped to monetize.

Both This.sucks and Vox Pop denied there was any link between the two companies, but I later uncovered a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence linking the two companies, including the fact that Rob Hall, CEO of Vox Pop parent Momentous, paid for This.sucks’ web site design.

This.sucks appears to have fizzled out in the intervening years, but now Everything.sucks is back with a mystery registrant snapping up thousands of domains, at a cost of at least half a million bucks, under the Everything.sucks brand.

Public Whois is useless nowadays, of course.

But the front page of Everything.sucks describes it as “a non-profit organization and communications forum for social activism”.

Many of the domains that redirect to its site appear to be registered to a Turks and Caicos company called Honey Salt Ltd, a name that does not naturally suggest a non-profit entity.

Others use Momentous’ domain privacy service. All appear to be registered via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, which sells .sucks domains at cost and is therefore one of the cheapest registrars on the market.

Back in 2015, intellectual property interests expressed doubt that the proposed Everything.sucks third party and the This.sucks third party were not in fact just smokescreens, fronts for the registry itself.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard on Wednesday denied to DI that the company had any involvement in the recent spurt of trademark-match registrations being used by Everything.sucks and expressed a lack of knowledge about the registrant’s intent.

I’ve not yet received comment from Momentous, but I’d be very surprised if the company does not know who is behind Everything.sucks.

At the very least, Vox Pop and Rebel are both privy to the unexpurgated Whois and/or customer records for whoever is running Everything.sucks and whoever it is that has grown the .sucks zone file by about 50% since June.

Could .cpa be the most successful new gTLD sunrise yet?

Kevin Murphy, September 25, 2020, Domain Registries

The registry for the new .cpa gTLD reckons it has received “thousands” of applications for domains during its current launch period, potentially making it the most successful gTLD sunrise since 2012.

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which manages the TLD, said today:

Well over half of the 100 biggest U.S. firms — as well as an equally large percentage of the next 400 — have begun advancing their applications as part of the early phase of the .cpa registration process, which launched on Sept. 1.

Assuming “thousands” means at least 2,000, this would make .cpa a top three or four sunrise, judging by figures collected by ICANN showing Google’s .app the current volume leader at 2,908.

But we can’t assume that all the .cpa domains boasted of are trademark-verified sunrise period applications under ICANN’s rules.

AICPA is running a simultaneous Limited Registration Period during which any CPA firm can apply for domains that are “most consistent with their current digital branding” — ie, no trademark required.

Both of these periods end October 31, after which the registry will dole out domains in a batch, presumably giving preference to the sunrise applicants.

We have to assume the amount of purely defensive registrations will be relatively low, due to AICPA’s policies.

Not only are registrants limited to licensed CPA companies and individuals, but registrants have to commit to redirect their .cpa domain to their existing web site within a month and deploy a full web site within a year.

.cpa domains sell for $225 a year, according to the registry. General availability is scheduled for January 15.

Floodgates, open! Trademark Clearinghouse now supports .com

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2020, Domain Services

The Trademark Clearinghouse has added .com to the roster of TLDs supported by its infringement notification service.

The Deloitte-managed service recently announced the change to its Ongoing Notification Service, which came into effect late last month.

The update means TMCH subscribers will receive alerts whenever a .com domain is registered that contains their trademark, helping them to decide whether to pursue enforcement actions such as UDRP.

Unlike the ICANN-mandated 90-day Trademark Claims period that accompanies the launch of each new gTLD, the registrant herself does not receive an alert of possible infringement at point of registration.

The service, which is not regulated by ICANN, is still free to companies that have their marks registered in the TMCH, which charges an extra dollar for every variation of a mark the holder wishes to monitor.

Such services have been commercially available from the likes of MarkMonitor for 20 years or more. The TMCH has been offering it for new gTLDs since they started launching at the end of 2013.

With the .com-shaped gaping hole now plugged, two things could happen.

First, clients may find a steep increase in the number of alerts they receive — .com is still the biggest-selling and in volume terms the most-abused TLD.

Second, commercial providers of similar services now find themselves competing against a free rival with an ICANN-enabled captive audience.

The upgrade comes at the tail end of the current wave of the new gTLD program. With the .gay launch out of the way and other desirable open TLDs tied up in litigation, there won’t be much call for TMCH’s core services for the next few years.

It also comes just a couple months after the .com zone file started being published on ICANN’s Centralized Zone Data Service, but I expect that’s just a coincidence.

No .sex please, we’re infected!

MMX saw poorer-than-expected sales of porn-related defensive registrations in the first half of the year, the only blip in what was otherwise a strong period for the company.

The registry updated the market today to say that its domain name base grew by 31% year over year during the half, ending June with 2.38 million names under management. It only grew by 19% in the same period last year.

Billings for H1 were up 7% at $7.9 million, MMX said.

But because the mix shifted away from one-off brokered sales, which are registered on the earnings report as a lump sum, and towards regular automated registrations, which are recognized over the lifetime of the reg, MMX expects to report revenue 5% down on last year.

While that’s all fair enough, the company said that it didn’t sell as many defensive blocks in .xxx, .sex, .porn and .adult as it had expected, which it blamed on coronavirus:

Management also notes that expected H1 channel sales from the Company’s brand protection activity were held back due to the impact of COVID-19, but anticipates those brand protection initiatives that were delayed in Q2 will resume in H2.

It’s a reference to the AdultBlock and AdultBlock Plus services launched last year, which enable trademark owners to block (and not use) their marks in all four adult TLDs for about $350 to $800 a year.

$11 billion dot-brand blames coronavirus as it self-euthanizes

Another new gTLD you’ve never heard of and don’t care about has asked ICANN to terminate its registry contract, but it has a rather peculiar reason for doing so.

The registry is Shriram Capital, the financial services arm of a very rich Indian conglomerate, and the gTLD is .shriram.

In its termination notice, Shriram said: “Due to unprecedented Covid-19 effect on the business, we have no other option but to terminate the registry agreement with effect from 3lst March 2020.”

Weird because the letter was sent in May, and weird because Shriram Group reportedly had revenue of $11 billion in 2017. The carrying cost of a dot-brand isn’t that much.

Registries don’t actually need an excuse to terminate their contracts, so the spin from Shriram is a bit of a mystery.

Shriram had actually been using .shriram, with a handful of domains either redirecting to .com sites or actually hosting sites of their own.

It’s the 79th dot-brand to self-terminate. ICANN expects to lose 62 in the fiscal year that started three weeks ago.

Donuts rolls out free phishing attack protection for all registrants

Donuts is offering registrants of domains in its suite of new gTLDs free protection from homograph-based phishing attacks.

These are the attacks where a a bad guy registers a domain name visually similar or identical to an existing domain, with one or more characters replaced with an identical character in a different script.

An example would be xn--ggle-0nda.com, which can display in browser address bars as “gοοgle.com”, despite having two Cyrillic characters that look like the letter O.

These domains are then used in phishing attacks, with bad actors attempting to farm passwords from unsuspecting victims.

Under Donuts’ new service, called TrueNames, such homographs would be blocked at the registry level at point of sale at no extra cost.

Donuts said earlier this year that it intended to apply this technology to all current and future registrations across its 250-odd TLDs.

The company has been testing the system at its registrar, Name.com, and reckons the TrueNames branding in the shopping cart can lead to increased conversions and bigger sales of add-on services.

It now wants other registrars to sign up to the offering.

It’s not Donuts’ first foray into this space. Its trademark-protection service, Domain Protected Marks List, which has about 3,500 brands in it, has had homograph protection for a few years.

But now it appears it will be free for all customers, not just deep-pocketed defensive registrants.

Amazon finally gets its dot-brands despite last-minute government plea

Amazon’s three long-sought dot-brand gTLDs were added to the DNS root last night, despite an eleventh-hour attempt by South American governments to drag the company back to the negotiating table.

.amazon, along with the Japanese and Chinese translations — .アマゾン (.xn--cckwcxetd) and .亚马逊 (.xn--jlq480n2rg) — and its NIC sites have already gone live.

Visiting nic.amazon today will present you with a brief corporate blurb and a link to Amazon’s saccharine social-responsibility blog. As a dot-brand, only Amazon will be allowed to use .amazon domains.

The delegations come despite a last-minute plea to ICANN by the eight-government Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, which unsuccessfully tried to insert itself into the role of “joint manager” of the gTLDs.

ACTO believes its historical cultural right to the string outweighs the e-commerce giant’s trademark, and that its should have a more or less equal role in the gTLD’s management.

This position was untenable to Amazon, which countered with a collection of safeguards protecting culturally sensitive strings and various other baubles.

Talks fell through last year and ICANN approved the gTLDs over ACTO’s objections.

ACTO’s secretary-general, Alexandra Moreira, wrote to ICANN (pdf) May 21 to take one last stab at getting Amazon back in talks, telling CEO Göran Marby:

the name “Amazon” pertains to a geographical region constituting an integral part of the heritage of its countries. Therefore, we Amazonians have the right to participate in the governance of the “.amazon” TLD.

Our side is ready to resume negotiations on the TLD’s governance with the Amazon Corporation., from the point where their side interrupted it, with a view to arriving at a satisfactory agreement.

Her letter came in response to an earlier Marby missive (pdf) that extensively set out ICANN’s case that talks fell apart due to ACTO repeatedly postponing and cancelling scheduled meetings.

Despite the fact that Amazon’s basically got what it wanted, seven years after filing its gTLD applications, ACTO’s members didn’t get nothing.

The contracts Amazon signed with ICANN back in December have Public Interest Commitments in them that allow the governments to reserve up to 1,500 culturally sensitive strings from registration, as well as giving each nation its own .amazon domain.

World’s youngest country launches its Nazi-risk TLD next week

South Sudan is gearing up to launch its controversial top-level domain, .ss, on Monday.

It’s being run by the National Communication Authority for the country, which was founded in 2011 after its split from Sudan and is the world’s youngest nation.

As I noted back then, while SS was the natural and obvious choice of ISO country code, it’s potentially controversial due to the risk of it being used by modern-day Nazis in honor of Hitler’s Schutzstaffel.

Arguably, the risk nine years later is even greater due to the rise of the populist, nationalist right around the world.

So some readers may be pleased to hear that the registry is playing its launch by the book, starting with a sunrise period from June 1 to July 15. Trademark owners will have to show proof of ownership.

I’m sure Hugo Boss already has an intern with a checkbook, trademark certificate and sleeping bag outside the registry’s HQ, to be sure to be first in line on Monday.

Sunrise will be followed by a landrush period from July 17 to August 17, during which names can be acquired for a premium fee.

Immediately after that there’ll be an early access period, from August 19 to August 29, with more premium fees. General availability will begin September 1.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the direction other ccTLDs have been taking over the last decade, South Sudan has opted for a three-level structure, with registrations possible under .com.ss, .net.ss, .biz.ss, .org.ss, .gov.ss, .edu.ss, .sch.ss and .me.ss.

The com/net/biz/me versions are open to all. The others require some proof that the registrant belongs to the specific category.

The registry says it plans to make direct second-level regs available “at a later date”.

Getting your hands on a .ss domain may prove difficult.

Trademark owners won’t be able to use their regular corporate registrar (at least not directly) as NCA is only currently accredited South Sudan-based registrars. So far, only two have been accredited. Neither are also ICANN-accredited.

One is rather unfortunately called JuHub. It’s apparently using a free domain from Freenom’s .ml (Mali) and is listed as having its email at Gmail, which may not inspire confidence. Its web site does not resolve for me.

The other is NamesForUs, which is already taking pre-registration requests. No pricing is available.

The registry’s web site has also been down for most of today, and appears to have been hacked by a CBD splogger at some point, neither of which bodes well.