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.sucks explains Sunrise Premium name change

Vox Populi Registry abandonment of the .sucks “Sunrise Premium” brand in favor of a new “Market Premium” service is just a renaming, designed to reduce confusion among trademark owners, according to the company.

As we reported Sunday, all mentions of Sunrise Premium — a list of .sucks domains that will always carry a recommended $2,499 a year fee — have been expunged from the Vox Pop web site.

They were replaced with references to Market Premium, which appeared to carry all the characteristics of Sunrise Premium albeit under a new name.

Now, CEO John Berard has confirmed to DI that the program has not changed.

Rather, the new name is an effort to distance it from the regular sunrise period, which is linked to the Trademark Clearinghouse.

The decision was made following last week’s International Trademark Association conference, Berard said:

It was an insight gained from talking to people at INTA15. The intellectual property people there asked us so many times about the sunrise premium list of names that we realized we had allowed a mis-perception to take hold. This is no and never has been a relationship between that list and the TradeMark ClearingHouse. It was surprising how many people thought we had access to the TMCH (we don’t) and merely cut-and-pasted its names.

That is why we renamed it. Now called Market Premium and more clearly presented as a set of names that over time have been viewed as valuable (because they have been registered before). Names on this list will carry a suggested price of $2,499 (yes, the same as was suggested in Sunrise). Given the list is of names that the market has decided has value, it is likely it will contain trademarks.

The change may also be an attempt to head off a contractual squabble with ICANN.

Last Friday, the ICANN Business Constituency told ICANN management that if the Sunrise Premium list had been populated by names drawn from the TMCH, that would have been a breach of the .sucks Registry Agreement.

Businesses call on regulators to stop .sucks “extortion”

ICANN’s Business Constituency wants US and Canadian regulators to intervene to prevent Vox Populi Registry, which runs .sucks, “extorting” businesses with its high sunrise fees.

The BC wrote to ICANN, the US Federal Trade Commission and the Canadian Office for Consumer Affairs on Friday, saying .sucks has employed “exploitive [sic] pricing and unfair marketing practices”.

The constituency adds its voice to Intellectual Property Constituency, which complained last month, causing ICANN to refer the matter to US and Canadian regulators.

Now, the BC has told the OCA and FTC:

We do not believe that exploitative and unfair business practices are conducive either to promoting end-user confidence in the Internet or to fair competition in the domain name space. On the contrary, the pricing structure adopted by Vox Populi for .sucks domain names is predicated purely on expecting the businesses and brands that drive global growth to pay extortionate fees for no consumer or market benefit.

Vox Populi’s tactics exploit businesses that neither want nor need these domain name registrations but feel unfairly pressured to register purely for defensive purposes.

The BC’s letter chooses to focus on saying sunrise names cost “$2,499 and up” (original emphasis). That’s based on the MSRP Vox Pop publishes on its web site.

In reality, Vox Pop is charging a registry fee of $1,999 per year for .sucks sunrise registrations.

Retail registrars can add hundreds of dollars in mark-up fees, but the leading corporate registrars that are selling the most .sucks sunrise names — MarkMonitor, CSC and Com Laude among them — have said that as a matter of principle they are only charging a nominal $20 to $25 processing fee.

It’s not the highest sunrise fee I’ve come across. The Chinese registry behind .top asked for $3,500 during its sunrise.

But the semantics of the .sucks TLD makes brand owners nervous and makes many of them feel that a defensive registration is a must-have.

The BC now write to regulators to “urge the FTC and OCA to expeditiously determine whether these practices constitute unfair trade practices”.

The letter points to US and Canadian regulations covering consumer protection for examples of where Vox Pop’s practices may fall short of the law.

The free speech opportunities afforded by .sucks do not outweigh the harms, the BC says.

It’s also interesting to note that while the BC appears to be running to regulators for assistance, it notes that it still fully supports the ICANN model.

There may be a degree of cognitive dissonance within the BC.

In a separate letter to ICANN, also signed by BC chair Elisa Cooper and sent yesterday, the BC seems to take issue with the fact that ICANN felt the need to report .sucks to regulators in the first place, writing:

We would like to understand the rationale for doing so. ICANN has ample authority, a clear obligation and the resources available to stop rogue practices through its contractual agreements with registries, its Compliance Department, and its broad duty to protect the public interest and the security and stability of the Internet, particularly for issues with global reach. Like all other gTLDs launched under ICANN’s program, .sucks has a global reach. It is not clear why ICANN feels it should seek clarification from these two North American agencies.

It’s worth noting that Vox Pop CEO Berard is a member of the BC via his PR agency, Credible Context. He was Cooper’s immediate predecessor as BC chair, leaving the post last year.

Correction: Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that Berard was actually the BC’s representative to the GNSO, not its chair. Apologies for the error.

The letter tells Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah that “viewed in its entirety, Vox Populi’s pricing scheme is a violation of the Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs)” developed for the new gTLD program, alleging it discourages use of the RPMs and encourages cybersquatting.

It claims that if Vox Pop populated its Sunrise Premium list (now known as Market Premium, it seems) with data from the Trademark Clearinghouse it could be in violation of its Registry Agreement with ICANN.

My sense has been that the names on that list were actually culled from zone files. Vox Pop has said it was compiled from lists of names that have previously been defensively registered. Most of the names in the TMCH have not been defensively registered.

The BC asks for ICANN “to take strong action”, but does not specify what, exactly, it wants.

The letter to the OCA and FTC can be read here. The letter to ICANN is here. Both are PDF files.

Has .sucks abandoned its Sunrise Premium program?

Vox Populi Registry has done away with the “Sunrise Premium” part of its .sucks launch strategy, if only in name.

The pricing page of the company’s web site no longer makes any reference to Sunrise Premium, the controversial, trademark-heavy list of .sucks domains that would cost over $2,000 a year to register and renew.

Instead, there are two new categories of names: Registry Premium and Market Premium.

Registry Premium appears to be what it was previously just calling “Premium” — individually priced high-value domains such as divorce.sucks and life.sucks. That’s in tune with standard registry practice.

The new Market Premium category appears to be the replacement for Sunrise Premium. The web site describes it like this:

In General Availability, dotSucks has created a list of domains called Market Premium names. These are names that the market over time have designated as having a high value.

Previously, Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI and other reporters that the Sunrise Premium list had been compiled from names registered or blocked in previous sunrise periods in other TLDs.

It was characterized as an additional protection against cybersquatting, but intellectual property interests saw it as a shakedown.

It’s not obvious from the updated Vox Pop web site whether Market Premium is a ground-up rethink of the Sunrise Premium concept, or is merely an empty re-branding.

The name “Sunrise Premium” was confusing, given that such domains are not actually available during the formal sunrise period. Also, the name inextricably suggested that it was a list of trademarks.

Market Premium names are priced exactly the same as Sunrise Premium — that is, $1,999 at the registry level, with a suggested retail price of $2,499.

Market Premium names will also not be eligible for the discounted “Block” service but will “likely” be eligible for the Consumer Subsidy program. That’s no change from the policies governing the Sunrise Premium incarnation.

The registry web site now also states that purchasers of the Block service, which carries a $149 registry fee, will be able to unblock their domains if they wish to actively use them, but doing so will convert the domain into a $1,999 Market Premium name.

Defensive blocking could therefore have the eventual effect of stuffing the Market Premium list with trademarks anyway (assuming any trademark holders with blocks wish to activate their .sucks names, which seems unlikely).

I’ve put in a request for clarification about Market Premium with the registry and will provide updates when I get them.

Other updates on the .sucks price list include a removal of the $9.95 suggested retail price for Consumer Subsidy names.

Consumer Subsidy names are supposedly going to be run by a third party consumer advocacy group from Everything.sucks, but that group has not been identified by Vox Pop yet.

The fact that the registry seemingly had no deal in place but already knew the price suggested to many that Everything.sucks would just be another shell company managed by Vox Pop owner Momentous. Berard reportedly denied this publicly at the INTA 2015 conference last week.

The Vox Pop web site now states “dotSucks is hopeful that this will bring the individual consumer price below 10 dollars.”

Dot-brand gTLD guilty of domain name hijacking

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2015, Domain Policy

Fashion retailer Mango, which owns its own dot-brand gTLD, has been found guilty of Reverse Domain Name Hijacking after allegedly doctoring evidence in a .uk cybersquatting case.

The company, which runs .mango, lost a Nominet Dispute Resolution Service complaint against New Zealand-based domain investor Garth Piesse over mango.co.uk and mango.uk.

It’s only the sixth RDNH finding in 13 years of DRS history.

Mango tried to buy the domain using a pseudonym and, when Piesse asked for “six figures”, filed the DRS instead.

Piesse claimed in what appears to have been a well-argued defense that the person attempting to buy the domain on Mango’s behalf did not identify Mango as the would-be buyer.

Further, he claimed that Mango deliberately tried to hide this fact from the DRS panel by scrubbing its negotiator’s email address from evidence it submitted.

While DRS panelist Tim Brown did not agree that this omission alone was enough to find RNDH, he agreed that Mango did not have “entirely clean hands”. He ruled:

The sequence of events in the present case appears to show that the Complainant attempted to buy from the Respondent. When these negotiations failed the Complainant started proceedings under the DRS. As I have noted, the Complainant has relied on bare assertion and has provided a paucity of evidence to support its arguments.

Even a cursory reading of the Policy, Procedure and extensive guidance on Nominet’s website would quickly show that a matter concerning a clearly generic, dictionary term would require a higher standard of argument and evidence than is perhaps common. That the Complainant has failed to come anywhere close to providing sufficient argument or evidence is, in my view, strongly indicative that the Complainant pursued this dispute in frustration at the Respondent’s unwillingness to sell for a price it was willing to pay, rather than because of the merits of its position in terms of the Policy’s requirements.

I conclude that the Complainant brought a speculative complaint in bad faith in an attempt to deprive the Respondent of the Domain Names. I therefore determine that the Complainant has engaged in Reverse Domain Name Hijacking.

Spain-based Mango has owned its trademarks for well over a decade, and Piesse only got his hands on the domains in question in 2013 and 2014.

Piesse, who owns about 18,000 domains, was able to show that Mango the brand is unheard of in New Zealand and that he has a track record of buying fruit-based .uk domain names.

ICANN in “fact-finding” mode over potential .sucks breach

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2015, Domain Registries

ICANN is playing its cards close to its chest when pressed on what it thinks Vox Populi may have done wrong with its .sucks launch pricing and policies.

The organization told DI in a statement that it is currently “fact-finding”, and will not speculate on what parts of the Registry Agreement may have been breached.

ICANN on Thursday reported Vox Pop to the US and Canadian trade regulators, asking them to judge whether the registry’s $2,000 sunrise fee broke any laws.

Its Intellectual Property Constituency reckons the launch, which also places thousands of trademarks on permanent, high-priced “Sunrise Premium” list amounts to nothing more than a “shakedown” of brand owners.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI last week that the referral to the US Federal Trade Commission, despite that fact that the company and its owners are Canadian, amounted to “appeasement” of the IPC.

In response, ICANN told DI in a statement:

The registry is offering domain name registrations to registrants located in jurisdictions around the world. It¹s possible that a registry’s activities could violate the law in the registry’s own jurisdiction; it is also possible that a registry’s activities could violate the law in the jurisdiction of a registrar or registrant where the registry offers domain name registrations. In this case, the IPC letter was signed by an attorney based in New York City, and ICANN thought it appropriate to ask both U.S. and Canadian authorities to consider the IPC allegations.

ICANN seems to be saying on the one hand that registries are beholden to the laws of wherever their registrants are based and on the other hand that the jurisdiction of the IPC’s current president, Greg Shatan, somehow has a bearing on what laws gTLD registries are obliged to obey.

I await correction from more knowledgeable readers, but I don’t think either of those statements is accurate.

If the latter is true, then perhaps the IPC should in future elect its leaders from only the countries with the most trademark-friendly regimes.

In ICANN’s letters to the FTC and IPC, the organization said it was “evaluating other remedies”. From the context, it seems that ICANN is thinking it could initiate some kind of compliance action against .sucks regardless of the what governmental regulators say.

Asked to explain this, ICANN told DI:

We¹re currently doing some fact-finding and analysis to assess whether there has been any breach by the registry of its obligations, and, based on the results of that analysis, we will try to determine what remedies, if any, may be available. Obviously, it will depend on all the facts and circumstances. Beyond that, since we haven¹t finished that evaluation process it would be inappropriate to speculate about possible remedies.

That’s not saying much, but it leaves the door open for ICANN Compliance to do something even if the FTC and Office of Consumer Affairs deem that no laws have been broken.

One possible “breach” that has been floated relates to the differential pricing created by the Sunrise Premium list. However, my take on this is that, under the new gTLD contracts, it’s not massively different to other kinds of premium pricing program.

Differential pricing protections only apply to renewal fees. If the registrant is told at the point of sale that their renewal fees will be high, that enables registries to put different fees on different domains.

There have also been theories put forward about ICANN’s motivation for referring .sucks to regulators.

The idea that ICANN can defer to the FTC and others on legal matter is not entirely new. In cases where registries intend to merge, ICANN is allowed under its contracts to refer the deals to regulators before approving them.

But this is the first time ICANN has referred new gTLD pricing to competition authorities.

Is it a case of ICANN ass-covering?

ICANN is taking unique fees worth up to $1 million extra from Vox Populi and, as I wrote two weeks ago, the optics of this are bad for ICANN, which could look like it is profiteering from .sucks.

ICANN has explained that the extra fees related to entities that were owned by Vox Pop parent Momentous, the Canadian registrar that had many subsidiaries go out of business owing ICANN a tonne of cash.

By punting the IPC’s complaint to regulators, ICANN could deflect criticism that it is not doing enough to protect rights holders and registrants while avoiding having to make a tricky decision itself.

Regardless, the FTC referral and the fact that ICANN is charging Vox Pop special fees sends a strong message that ICANN does not trust the registry one bit.