Two years ago, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization that runs the Internet, launched a controversial program to expand the number of top-level domain names (TLDs).
Until recently, the real estate on the Internet was confined to traditional TLDs like .com, .net and .org; country code TLDs like .fr for France and .es for Spain; and a small number of sponsored TLDs like .xxx for adult entertainment and .aero for the airline industry.
Under ICANN’s new gTLD program, any company willing to shell out $185,000 USD in evaluation fees (plus a substantial amount more in legal fees and ongoing compliance fees and operating costs) could apply to register its own top level domain name. The new gTLD could be generic (.book), branded (.google) or geographic (.nyc).
Despite widespread skepticism about the necessity for the expansion of the Internet, nearly 2000 applications were submitted, many by businesses established for the express purpose of exploiting new gTLDs as a business opportunity. ICANN is still in the midst of reviewing the applications, but as of last month, it had approved and delegated more than 500 new gTLDs, many of which are now open for registration through various domain name registrars.
One of the most controversial of the new gTLDs is .SUCKS, and its early registration period starts today, March 30. Of all of the new gTLDs, .SUCKS has caused the most consternation.
The business behind .SUCKS, Vox Populi, initially planned to charge brand owners $25,000 dollars per year to pre-register their <brand.sucks> – to take advantage of the domain as a forum for consumer dialogue, and to and keep the domain out of the hands of a third party, who might register and use the domain in an unsavory manner. Former Senator Jay Rockefeller called Vox Populi’s business model “little more than a predatory shakedown scheme” designed to take advantage of companies who might buy their own names to defend against gripe sites and ill-meaning cybersquatters.
Faced with sharp criticism, Vox Populi lowered the sunrise registration rate to $2,499 for brand owners, which is still substantially more than the average cost of a domain name. Brand owners who included their brands in the trademark clearinghouse will have the “opportunity” to register domains in the .SUCKS registry during the sunrise period, which lasts from March 30 to June 1. After that, registration will be open to the general public.
Should trademark owners pay $2499 a year to own their <brand.sucks>? This author doesn’t think so. Here are a few reasons why:
– It may be possible to pay substantially less than $2499 per year to “block” your brand from being registered in the .SUCKS registry. Eligible domains can be blocked for $199 per year.
– You may be able to register your <brand.sucks> during the general registration period for $249 per year, if you care to.
– If somebody registers your <brand.sucks> and uses it in an unlawful matter (e.g.: cybersquatting), you may be able to take down the site and acquire ownership of the URL pursuant to an administrative proceeding, which would be a fraction of the cost of paying the sunrise rate for 10 years.
– Though it is possible that a third party will register and use a <brand.sucks> URL as a genuine gripe site that cannot be taken down because it is protected by the First Amendment, that party can create a grip site anywhere (e.g.: <YourBrandSucks.com> or <YourBrandSucks.net>). They could also write a scathing review on Yelp, or start a Twitter campaign – acts which may have a larger impact than a gripe site.
It is still too early to tell whether .SUCKS domains will be the great forum for consumer grievances that Vox Populi CEO John Berard sees it as, or just a way for Vox Populi to make money off of cautious trademark owners.
I lean in favor of the latter prediction. Two years in to ICANN’s new gTLD program, it seems that the big winners are the domainers — people and companies whose main business is the buying and selling of domain names. Many brand owners feared that the new top level domain names impose high costs and little benefit, and many commentators and brand owners definitely see this in .SUCKS.
* Thanks to Christoffer Stromstedt for his contribution to this article.