Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

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.

Something weird’s going on at .sucks

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2020, Domain Registries

Ever heard of a domainer or cybersquatter putting their freshly-registered domains up for sale at cost?

Me neither, but that’s what seems to be going on at .sucks right now.

The sudden appearance of many hundreds of .sucks domains — many of them matching very famous trademarks — at Sedo and Uniregistry comes as the registry unveils plans to open up a secondary marketplace of its own.

.sucks registry Vox Populi, a part of the Momentous group of companies, wants to open its own marketplace, according to a letter it recently sent to ICANN.

The registry told ICANN it plans to launch a service “whereby a Registrant of a .sucks domain name can list their domain for resale with the Registry”, saying it will “allow our Registrars to show the domain as available for purchase by third parties at the price set by the current Registrant.”

It’s taking a somewhat confrontational approach from the outset, telling ICANN that it does not believe the service would constitute a “registry service” that would require ICANN’s approval under the Registry Service Evaluation Process.

It points to the fact that registrants can already list their .sucks names on existing marketplaces such as Sedo as proof that it’s not a “product or service that only a registry operator is capable of providing, by reason of its designation as the registry operator” requiring the RSEP.

This interpretation strikes me as open to debate, but I’m not going to get into that here.

What’s more interesting is that the vast majority of the domains listed on these competing platforms appear to have been registered relatively recently, in bulk, all via Momentous-owned registrar Rebel, and quite possibly by the same registrant.

What’s weird is that the majority of the .sucks names listed at Sedo have a buy-now price of $199. Some are priced higher. Some priced at $199 at Sedo are priced at $599 at Uniregistry.

$199 is the absolute cheapest you can buy a .sucks domain name anywhere. It’s Rebel’s retail price, and I believe it’s also Vox Pop’s wholesale price. Even the cheapest unaffiliated registrars slap a $50 markup on the registry fee.

The domains started being listed on the aftermarkets after a sharp spike in .sucks sales back in June, where my data shows that over 2,000 names were registered, via Rebel, in the space of about 24 hours.

The .sucks zone file has been growing ever since, swelling from 7,347 — where volume had been flattish and under 8,000 names for years — to 11,255 since June 16, the date of the first spike.

Almost every .sucks listing I spot-checked on Sedo has three things in common: the $199 price-tag, a recent registration date, and a seller who signed up for the service in 2020 submitting their home territory as Turks and Caicos.

Turks and Caicos, which is also where Rebel is legally based, is a British island territory in the Caribbean with fewer than 38,000 inhabitants. It’s often used for offshore company registrations.

Whois records for the domains I checked with June reg dates use Momentous privacy service Privacy Hero, while other more-recent regs list the registrant as Honey Salt Ltd, a company apparently also based in Turks and Caicos.

So what we seem to have here is a registrant willing to invest half a million dollars or more in .sucks domain names, a great many matching famous brands, and then list them for resale at the exact same price he paid for them.

Why would a cybersquatter pay $199 for jackdaniels.sucks or dolceandgabbana.sucks or unitedinternetmedia.sucks and then put them up for sale for $199? It makes no sense to me.

And it comes at a time when Vox Pop is trying to persuade ICANN that there’s a thriving aftermarket for .sucks domains.

I put all these observations to the CEOs of Momentous and the registry earlier today, and Vox Pop chief John Berard got back to us to say:

With regard to those 2,000 registered names, that was most welcome. I don’t know much more than that about Honey Salt… I am certainly not going to speculate on their plans.

That they are in the Turks and Caicos is interesting, for sure. But you know as well as I that the Caribbean is a hotbed of domain name innovation and investment.

He later added: “Yes, take it to the bank that VPR [Vox Populi Registry] is not behind the registrations.”

On the issue of the registry’s own secondary market plans, Berard said:

we are trying to catch up to others in the domain name industry who first saw the customer value of fostering a secondary market. I think we may be the first registry to do it, but we, i am sorry to say, weren’t the first to market.

If I receive more information or commentary on this weirdness I shall provide updates accordingly.

DI implicated in .sucks “gag order” fight

Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, terminated Com Laude’s accreditation last week due to its belief that the brand protection registrar had leaked a “confidential” document to Domain Incite.

Vox Pop CEO John Berard tonight denied that the company he works for was carrying out a “grudge” against Com Laude, which in January led a charge against a Vox “gag order” on registrars.

As we reported on Friday, Vox terminated Com Laude‘s ability to sell .sucks domains directly, due to a then-unspecified alleged breach of the Registry-Registrar Agreement that binds all .sucks domain registrars.

It now turns out the “breach” was of the part of the .sucks RRA that states that Vox registrars “shall make no disclosures whatsoever” of “confidential informational”, where such confidential information is marked as such.

Berard told DI of the termination: “It was a specific act, violating a specific clause of the contract that had to do with breaching confidentiality, and that’s why the action was taken.”

The specific act was Com Laude allegedly sending DI — me, for avoidance of doubt — a confidential document.

“They have not said they didn’t do it,” Berard said.

He said that, given the amount of scrutiny Vox is under (due to the controversy it has created with its pricing and policies), “it would be crazy of us to ignore a contract breach”.

He declined to identify the document in question.

He said that Vox Pop deployed “forensic research” to discover the identity of the alleged leak.

“It was clear that something that was confidential was distributed, we wanted to know who distributed it,” he said. “We wanted to know who breached confidentiality.”

DI has only published one third-party document related to .sucks this year.

This is it (pdf). It’s a letter drafted by the Registrars Stakeholder Group and sent to ICANN. Here it is (pdf) as published on the ICANN web site.

DI has received other documents related to Vox Pop and .sucks from various parties that I have not published, but I’ve been unable to find any that contained the word “confidential” or that were marked as “confidential”.

According to the .sucks RRA (pdf), “confidential information” is documentation marked or identified “confidential”.

Everything I’ve ever written about .sucks can be found with this search.

.sucks terminates Com Laude as “gag order” row escalates

Vox Populi, the .sucks gTLD registry, has terminated the accreditation of brand protection registrar Com Laude as part of an ongoing dispute between the two companies.

Com Laude won’t be able to sell defensive .sucks registrations to its clients any more, at least not on its own accreditation, in other words.

The London-based registrar is transferring all of its .sucks domains to EnCirca as a result of the termination and says it is considering its options in how to proceed.

The shock move, which I believe to be unprecedented, is being linked to Com Laude’s long-time criticisms of Vox Populi’s pricing and policies.

The registrar today had some rather stern words for Vox Pop. Managing director Nick Wood said in a statement:

We have always been critical of this registry and particularly its sunrise pricing model which we regard as predatory. We have advised clients where possible to consider not registering such names. We hope that all brand owners will think twice before buying or renewing a .sucks domain. After all, it is not possible to block out every variation of a trademark under .sucks. In our view, fair criticism is preferable to dealing with Vox Populi.

Ouch!

The termination is believed to be linked to controversial changes to the .sucks Registry-Registrar Agreement, which Vox Pop managed to sneak past ICANN over Christmas.

One of the changes, some registrars believed, would prevent brand protection registrars from openly criticizing .sucks pricing and policies. They called it a “gag order”.

Com Laude SVP Jeff Neuman was one of the strongest critics. I believe he was a key influence on a Registrar Stakeholder Group letter (pdf) in January which essentially said registrars would boycott the new RRA.

That letter said:

It’s ironic for a Registry whose slogan is “Foster debate, Share opinions” has now essentially proposed implementing a gag order on the registrars that sell the .sucks TLD by preventing them from doing just that

While the RRA dispute was resolved more or less amicably following ICANN mediation, with Vox Pop backpedaling somewhat on its proposed changes, Com Laude now believes the registry has held a grudge.

Its statement does not say what part of the .sucks RRA it is alleged to have breached.

Vox Pop has not yet returned a request for comment. I’ll provide an update should I receive further information.

Com Laude said in a statement today:

Jeff Neuman, our SVP of our North American business, Com Laude USA, led the effort in the Registrar Stakeholder Group to quash proposed changes to Vox Populi’s registry-registrar agreement, in order to protect the interests of brand owners and the registrars who work with them. Since then, Vox Populi has accused Com Laude of breaching the terms of the registry-registrar agreement, a claim we take seriously and refute in its entirety. We are now considering our further options.

Wood added:

We have informed our clients of the action being taken and all have expressed their support for the manner in which we have handled it. We are pleased to have received messages of support from across the ICANN community including other registry operators. Clearly there is strong distaste at the practices of Vox Populi.

Strong stuff.

New .sucks logo actually kinda sucks

Vox Populi has revealed a new logo for its .sucks gTLD.

Here it is. What do you think?

In going for a retro, 8-bit vibe, has Vox deliberately gone for a look that actually kinda sucks? Is that the joke? Or do you like it?

The company said on its blog:

The program is designed to portray the tight link between the ubiquity of digital technology and the individual’s long-standing right of free expression. Moving from a softer blue image to a sharper black-and-white logo that evokes a computer’s font better honors the role the internet plays as a modern day soapbox

Previously, the .sucks logo was the brand inside a speech bubble. sucks logo

The logo comes with a relaunched web site at get.sucks and a billboard advertising campaign that has included a stint in New York’s Times Square, as seen in this registry-supplied photo.

Times Square ad

The gTLD has been in general availability since June 2015 and has about 7,500 names in its zone file today, growing at roughly three to four domains per day over the last few months.

.sucks “gag order” dropped, approved

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2016, Domain Registries

Vox Populi, the .sucks registry, has had controversial changes to its registrar contract approved after it softened language some had compared to a “gag order”.

ICANN approved changes to the .suck Registry-Registrar Agreement last week, after receiving no further complaints from registrar stakeholders.

Registrars had been upset by a proposed change that they said would prevent brand-protection registrars from publicly criticizing .sucks:

The purpose of this Agreement is to permit and promote the registration of domain names in the Vox Populi TLDs and to allow Registrar to offer the registration of the Vox Populi TLDs in partnership with Vox Populi. Neither party shall take action to frustrate or impair the purpose of this Agreement.

But Vox has now “clarified” the language to remove the requirement that registrars “promote” .sucks names. The new RRA will say “offer” instead.

Registrars had also complained that the new RRA would have allowed Vox to unilaterally impose new contractual terms with only 15 days notice.

Vox has amended that proposal too, to clarify that changes would come into effect 15 days after ICANN has given its approval.

Vox CEO John Berard told ICANN in a March 18 letter:

VoxPop’s intent was never to alter any material aspect of the Registry Registrar Agreement. Our intent was to clarify legal obligations that already exist in the Agreement, and conform the timeframes for any future amendments with those specified in our ICANN registry contract.

Registrars boycotting “gag order” .sucks contract

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2016, Domain Registries

Registrars are ignoring new provisions in their .sucks contracts that they say amount to a “gag order”.

In a letter (pdf) to ICANN from its Registrars Stakeholder Group, the registrars ask for ICANN to convene a face-to-face negotiation between themselves and .sucks registry Vox Populi, adding:

Until such time, the Registrars believe that the amendments are not yet in effect and will continue to operate under Vox Populi’s existing RRA.

That means they’re working on the assumption that the controversial changes to the .sucks Registry-Registrar Agreement, sent to ICANN by Vox in December, have not yet been approved.

Vox Pop, on the other hand, has told ICANN that the changes came into effect January 6.

As we reported at the weekend, the registry is taking ICANN to formal mediation, saying ICANN breached the .sucks Registry Agreement by failing to block the changes within the permitted 15-day window.

The registrars’ letter was sent January 20, one day before Vox Pop’s mediation demand. The Vox letter should probably be read in that context.

The registrars have a problem with two aspects of the changed RRA.

First, there’s a clause that allows Vox to change the contract unilaterally in future. Registrars say this makes it a contract of “adhesion”.

Second, there’s a clause forbidding registrars taking “action to frustrate or impair the purpose of this Agreement”. Registrars read this as a “gag order”, writing:

Many Registrars not only serve as retail outlets for the purchase of domain names, but also provide consultative services to their clients on TLD extensions and their domain name portfolios. In conjunction with the provision of those services, registrars often opine on new gTLD and ccTLD extensions, the TLDs policies, pricing methodologies, security provisions and overall utility. These provisions could easily be read to inhibit such activities and restrict a registrar’s ability to offer those valuable services.

That’s referring primarily to corporate registrars working in the brand protection space, which are kinda obliged to offer .sucks for their clients’ defensive purposes, but still want to be able to criticize its policies and pricing in public.

ICANN has yet to respond to the request for a sit-down meeting between the registry and registrars.

However, given that Vox has invoked its right to mediation, it seems likely that that process will be the focus for now.

Mediation lasts a maximum of 90 days, which means the problem could be sorted out before April 20.

.sucks sends in the lawyers in “gag order” fight

Kevin Murphy, January 23, 2016, Domain Registries

Vox Populi is taking ICANN to mediation over a row about what some of its registrars call a “gag order” against them.

Its lawyers have sent ICANN a letter demanding mediation and claiming ICANN has breached the .sucks Registry Agreement.

I believe it’s the first time a new gTLD registry has done such a thing.

The clash concerns changes that Vox Populi proposed for its Registry-Registrar Agreement late last year.

Some registrars believe that the changes unfairly give the registry the unilateral right to amend the RRA in future, and that they prevent registrars opposed to .sucks in principle from criticizing the gTLD in public.

I understand that a draft letter that characterizes the latter change as a “gag order” has picked up quite a bit of support among registrars.

ICANN has referred the amended draft of the .sucks RRA to its Registrars Stakeholder Group for comment.

But Vox Pop now claims that it’s too late, that the new RRA has already come into force, and that this is merely the latest example of “a pattern on ICANN’s part to attempt to frustrate the purpose and intent of its contract with Vox Populi, and to prevent Vox Populi from operating reasonably”.

The registry claims that the changes are just intended to provide “clarity”.

Some legal commentators have said there’s nothing unusual or controversial about the “gag” clauses.

But the conflict between Vox and ICANN all basically boils down to a matter of timing.

Under the standard Registry Agreement for new gTLDs, registries such as Vox Pop are allowed to submit proposed RRA changes to ICANN whenever they like.

ICANN then has 15 calendar days to determine whether those changes are “immaterial, potentially material or material in nature.”

Changes are deemed to be “immaterial” by default, if ICANN does not rule otherwise within those 15 days.

If they’re deemed “material” or “potentially material”, a process called the RRA Amendment Procedure (pdf) kicks in.

That process gives the registrars an extra 21 days to review and potentially object to the changes, while ICANN conducts its own internal review.

In this case, there seems to be little doubt that ICANN missed the 15-day deadline imposed by the RA, but probably did so because of some clever timing by Vox.

Vox Pop submitted its changes on Friday, December 18. That meant 15 calendar days expired Monday, January 3.

However, ICANN was essentially closed for business for the Christmas and New Year holidays between December 24 and January 3, meaning there were only three business days — December 21 to 23 — in which its lawyers and staff could scrutinize Vox’s request.

Vox Pop’s timing could just be coincidental.

But if it had wanted to reduce the contractual 15 calendar days to as few business days as possible, then December 18 would be the absolute best day of the year to submit its changes.

As it transpired, January 3 came and went with no response from ICANN, so as far as Vox is concerned the new RRA with its controversial changes came into effect January 6.

However, on January 8, ICANN submitted the red-lined RRA to the RrSG, invoking the RRA Amendment Procedure and telling registrars they have until January 29 to provide feedback.

Vox Pop’s lawyer, demanding mediation, says the company was told January 9, six days after ICANN’s 15-day window was up, that its changes were “deemed material”.

Mediation is basically the least-suey dispute resolution process a registry can invoke under the RA.

The two parties now have a maximum of 90 days — until April 20 — to work out their differences more or less amicably via a mediator. If they fail to do so, they proceed to a slightly more-suey binding arbitration process.

In my opinion, ICANN finds itself in this position due to a combination of a) Vox Pop trying to sneak what it suspected could be controversial changes past its staff over Christmas, and b) ICANN staff, in the holiday spirit or off work entirely, dropping the ball by failing to react quickly enough.

While I believe this is the first time a 2012-round gTLD registry has gone to dispute resolution with ICANN, Vox did threaten to sue last year when ICANN referred its controversially “predatory” launch plans to US and Canadian trade regulators.

That ultimately came to nothing. The US Federal Trade Commission waffled and its Canadian counterpart just basically shrugged.

.sucks “gagging” registrar critics?

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2016, Domain Registries

.sucks may be all about freedom of speech, but some registrars reckon the registry is trying to ban them from criticizing the new gTLD in public.

Vox Populi is proposing a change to its standard registrar contract that some say is an attempt to gag them.

A version of the Registry-Registrar Agreement dated December 18, seen by DI, contains the new section 2.1:

The purpose of this Agreement is to permit and promote the registration of domain names in the Vox Populi TLDs and to allow Registrar to offer the registration of the Vox Populi TLDs in partnership with Vox Populi. Neither party shall take action to frustrate or impair the purpose of this Agreement.

It’s broad and somewhat vague, but some registrars are reading it like a gagging order.

While many retail registrars are no doubt happy to sell .sucks domains as part of their catalogs, there is of course a subset of the registrar market that focuses on brand protection.

Brand protection registrars have been quite vocal in their criticism of .sucks.

MarkMonitor, for example, last year wrote about how it would refuse to make a profit on .sucks names, and was not keen on promoting the TLD to its clients.

Asked about the new RRA language, Vox Pop CEO John Berard told DI that it was merely an attempt to clarify the agreement but provided no additional detail.

Registrars are also angry about a second substantial change to the contract, which would allow the registry to unilaterally make binding changes to the deal at will.

The new text in section 8.4 reads:

Vox Populi shall have the right, at any time and from time to time, to amend any or all terms and conditions of this Agreement. Any such amendment shall be binding and effective 15 days after Vox Populi gives notice of such amendment to the Registrar by email.

That’s the kind of thing that ICANN sometimes gets away with, but some registrars are saying that such a change would let Vox Pop do whatever the hell it likes and would therefore be legally unenforceable.

More on my Twitter.sucks reg

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Registries

If you were reading on Friday, you’ll know that I brought about the registration of the domain twitter.sucks and took charge of a web site hosted at that address.

I hinted that there was a little more to the story, but couldn’t get into it.

The first part of the story is here.

What I didn’t mention was that twitter.sucks was in my This.sucks account for probably less than 10 minutes before I removed it.

I have no beef with Twitter and no particular desire to moderate a .sucks discussion forum.

After removing twitter.sucks from my account, I noticed that This.sucks again gave me the option to “register” a free .sucks domain.

So I experimentally “registered” thisdotsucks.sucks too.

Again, the domain started resolving, showed up in Whois, and the associated WordPress site went live within seconds.

At this point, I discovered that I had admin privileges for both twitter.sucks and thisdotsucks.sucks sites simultaneously.

Suspecting that I may have found a bug that would allow anyone to register an essentially unlimited number of free and potentially trademark-matching .sucks domains, I informed This.sucks of my findings in the interest of responsible bug disclosure and ended my blog post prematurely.

Late Friday, This.sucks spokesperson Phil Armstrong told me that it wasn’t a bug after all.

He said that the company allows one “do-over”. So if you register a name for free, then delete it, you get another one for free.

He also said that WordPress admin privileges for domains removed from user accounts expire after a period (I had admin rights for the twitter.sucks web site for roughly 48 hours after I deleted it from my account.)

Right now, the domain twitter.sucks still exists, registered to This.sucks as before, as does the associated web site. I have no idea if another user has taken over its administration or if it’s in some kind of limbo state.

All I know is that it’s nothing to do with me any more.