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.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.

.shop pricing sunrise renewals at $1,000

If you’ve spent over $40 million on a gTLD, you need to make your money back somehow, right?
It’s emerged that GMO Registry, which paid ICANN a record $41.5 million for .shop back in January, plans to charge $1,000 renewal fees, wholesale, on domains registered during its upcoming sunrise period.
Trademark owners will seemingly have to pay over the odds for domains matching their trademarks, while regular registrants will have a much more manageable annual fee of $24.
The prices were disclosed in a blog post from the registrar OpenProvider last week, in which the company urged GMO to lower its prices.
Sunrise is due to start June 30, running for 60 days, so there’s still a chance prices could change before then.
It’s not the first registry to charge more for sunrise renewals than regular renewals.
Any company that bought a .sucks domain during sunrise was lumbered with a recurring $2,499 registry fee.
.green also had a $50 annual sunrise renewal premium before Afilias took over the gTLD in April.
Others have charged higher non-recurring sunrise fees. With .cars, the sunrise fee was $3,000, which was $1,000 more than the regular GA price.

ICANN proposes pricing changes for new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, June 1, 2016, Domain Services

ICANN is to give gTLD registries greater power to change their pricing under a proposed new deal.
The organization also says it could accept reduced fees from registries under some circumstances.
These are among about 40 substantial changes appearing in a new version of the standard new gTLD Registry Agreement that has been put out for comment.
The proposed new RA was posted last night after ICANN and registries spent months negotiating the details behind closed doors.
The contract would apply to registries that have signed the base new gTLD contract, not legacy gTLDs such as .com (though, in the passage of time, leaks may occur).
Many of the changes seek to bring clarity to registries’ technical obligations, particularly during their launch phases, and their data reporting requirements.
But there are a few notable changes concerning fees.
First, it seems registrars are going to be stripped of their right to challenge registry fee increases through the ICANN process.
Currently, any substantial changes to their Registry-Registrar Agreements has to go through scrutiny by ICANN and the registrars, and the registrars are allowed to object to the changes.
We saw such objections at the start of the year with .sucks, but RRA changes usually happen a few times a month.
Under the proposed new RA, that process would no longer apply when the only change made to an RRA is to change the registry fee.
Registrars would still have to be provided with 30 to 180 days notice, depending on the extent of the fee change, but there would be no ICANN review or registrar challenge process.
ICANN reasons that this is sensible because, unlike legacy gTLDs, its new gTLD contracts don’t regulate prices anyway.
Second, ICANN has introduced a new “Fee Reduction Waiver” concept to the contract. The draft deal states:

In ICANN’s sole discretion, ICANN may reduce the amount of registry fees payable hereunder by Registry Operator for any period of time (“Fee Reduction Waiver”). Any such Fee Reduction Waiver may, as determined by ICANN in its sole discretion, be (a) limited in duration and (b) conditioned upon Registry Operator’s acceptance of the terms and conditions set forth in such waiver. A Fee Reduction Waiver shall not be effective unless executed in writing by ICANN as contemplated by Section 7.6(i). ICANN will provide notice of any Fee Reduction Waiver to Registry Operator in accordance with Section 7.9.

It’s not entirely clear who asked for this or why.
I can imagine scenarios in which struggling registries might seek a handout from cash-rich ICANN, or in which dot-brands whose registrations are not linked to revenue might ask for a waiver.
Dot-brands — that is, registries that have signed Specification 13 of the RA — also get some love in the new RA, including an effective right of veto over changes that could affect their special status.
If in future an RA change is proposed that would effectively amend Spec 13, it will not happen unless Spec 13 registries vote in favor of the change.
The vote would require a two-thirds majority, with registries voting power weighted according to how much they pay ICANN in registry fees.
The whole contract is now open for a 43-day public comment period, which you can find here.

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.

Anger as ICANN splashes out $160,000 on travel

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2016, Domain Policy

Should representatives of Facebook, Orange, Thomson Reuters, BT and the movie industry have thousands of ICANN dollars spent on their travel to policy meetings?
Angry registrars are saying “no”, after it emerged that ICANN last month spent $80,000 flying 38 community members to LA for a three-day intersessional meeting of the Non-Contracted Parties House.
It spent roughly the same on the 2015 meeting, newly released data shows.
ICANN paid for fewer than 10 registries and registrars — possibly as few as two — to attend the equivalent Global Domains Division Summit last year, a few registrars told DI.
The numbers were released after a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request by the Registrars Stakeholder Group a month ago, and published on Friday (pdf).
It appears from the DIDP release that every one of the 38 people who showed up in person was reimbursed for their expenses to the tune of, on average, $2,051 each.
The price tag covers flights, hotels, visa costs and a cash per diem allowance that worked out to an average of $265 per person.
ICANN also recorded travel expenses for another two people who ultimately couldn’t make it to the event.
The NCPH is made up of both commercial and non-commercial participants. Many are academics or work for non-profits.
However, representatives of huge corporations such as Facebook and BT also work in the NCPH and let ICANN pick up their expenses for the February meeting.
Lawyers from influential IP-focused trade groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America and International Trademark Association were also happy for ICANN to pay.
One oddity on the list is the CEO of .sucks registry Vox Populi, who is still inexplicably a member of the Business Constituency.
MarkMonitor, a corporate registrar and Thomson Reuters subsidiary that attends the Intellectual Property Constituency, also appears.
Despite $80,000 being a relatively piddling amount in terms of ICANN’s overall budget, members of the Contracted Parties House — registries and registrars — are not happy about this state of affairs as a matter of principle.
ICANN’s budget is, after all, primarily funded by the ICANN fees registries and registrars — ultimately registrants — must pay.
“CPH pays the bills and the non-CPH travels on our dime,” one registrar told DI today.
One RrSG member said only two registrars were reimbursed for their GDD Summit travel last year. Another put the number at five. Another said it was fewer than 10.
In any event, it seems to be far fewer than those in the NCPH letting ICANN pick up the tab.
It’s not entirely clear why the discrepancy exists — it might be just because fewer contracted parties apply for a free ride, rather than evidence of a defect in ICANN expenses policy.
The NCPH intersessional series was designed to give stakeholders “the opportunity, outside of the pressures and schedule strains of an ICANN Public Meeting to discuss longer-range substantial community issues and to collaborate with Senior ICANN Staff on strategic and operational issues that impact the community”, according to ICANN.

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.

TLS says .feedback will be “UDRP-proof”, will hire lawyers to defend registrants

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Services

Top Level Spectrum plans to make its .feedback domains dirt cheap for domainers during its forthcoming Early Access Period, and is claiming that its domains will be “UDRP-proof”.
CEO Jay Westerdal told DI today that the registry will even hire lawyers to defend its registrants if and when UDRP cases arise.
The company has also introduced a new $5,000 “claims” service that is guaranteed to drive the intellectual property community nuts.
.feedback is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating new gTLD launches to date.
The company’s original plan, to sell 5,000 trademark-match domains to a single entity after its sunrise period ends has been tweaked.
Now, it will instead offer huge rebates during its Early Access Period next month, which will bring the price to registrants down from as much as $1,815 to as little as $5.
It’s called the “Free Speech Partner Program”.
To qualify for the program rebate, registrants will have to agree to stick to using TLS’s specially designated name servers, which point to a hosted feedback service managed by the registry.
An example of such a site can be seen at donaldtrump.feedback, which is among several US presidential candidate names TLS has registered to itself recently.
That commitment will be passed on if the domain ever changes hands, and a $5,000 fee will be applicable if the registrant wants to switch to their own name servers.
A registry charging a lower fee during EAP than GA is unheard of, but that’s what TLS is planning.
Rebates will not be available during the first three days of EAP, which starts January 6 at $14,020 per name. Days two and three see domains priced at $7,020 and $3,520.
From January 9 to January 18, rebates will bring the prices down to $5 per domain.
That’s a quarter of the $20 registry fee it plans to charge during general availability.
“Our plan is to sell thousands of domains before normal GA,” Westerdal said.
“It is a great opportunity for domainers to register domains that will be UDRP proof,” he said. “As free speech sites they are going to improve the world and let anyone read reviews on any subject.”
“I think they are UDRP proof,” he said. “As a registry we will hire lawyers to fight cases that arise.”
Asked to confirm that TLS would pay for lawyers to defend its registrants in UDRP cases, he said: “Hell yes we will.”
The registry plans to give trademark owners a way to avoid UDRP, however, if they’re willing to pay $5,000 for the privilege.
“Free Speech” registrants will have to agree not only to use TLS’s feedback platform, but also to allow the owners of trademarks matching their domains to more or less unilaterally seize those domains for up to two years after registration.
This “claims period” is also unprecedented in new gTLD launches. It’s described like this:

The registry will accept trademarks for a period of 2 years after the initial registration on a “Free Speech Partner Program” domains. The cost is $5,000 to have the mark validated, if the trademark is found to be the first to successfully make a claim against a domain in the program the domain will be transferred to the mark holder. The mark holder will be allowed to change name servers and is not subject to the “Free Speech Partner Program” terms of service.
Domain registrants of the “Free Speech Partner Program” agree the outcome of a validated mark by the Registry have no further claim to the domain if it is transferred to a new registrant.

If TLS is trying to design a system that will enrage the trademark community to the maximum extent possible, it’s doing a fantastic job.
It even introduced a new clause (2.9, here) to its registration agreement earlier this month, obliging registrants to point their domains to a web page that collects feedback. That means nobody will be allowed to leave their .feedback domains dark.
Are these measures justifiable disincentives, or plain old extortion? Opinion will no doubt be split along the usual lines.