Trevor Little

Earlier this week, we reported on a letter from Vox Populi Registry, the company behind ‘.sucks’, challenging the referral of the Intellectual Property Constituency’s (IPC) concerns over its pricing policies to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Canada's Office of Consumer Affairs. In response, the president of the IPC has told WTR: “I for one do not intend to be muzzled”. Meanwhile, in DC a US Congress judiciary committee hearing has given stakeholders a forum to discuss the string, as well as plans to shift oversight of the Domain Name System (DNS) away from the US Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Today’s hearing, titled “Stakeholder perspectives on ICANN: the ‘.sucks’ domain and essential steps to guarantee trust and accountability in the Internet’s operation”, heard from Mei-lan Stark, immediate past president of INTA, whose written statement pointed to “evidence of rampant abuse of the [new gTLD] system including reserving trademarks from sale to trademark owners without apparent reason or redress, use of the Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH) to exploit the trademarks that have been validated for protection, and designating trademarks as premium names subject to higher pricing. All of these problems were foreseeable and could have been prevented.”

Expanding on how this has been achieved, the Internet Commerce Association’s Phil Corwin explained: “It seems that some parties began making registrations not with intent of registering domain names but to receive a trademark claims notice so they can see what names are in the TMCH and then set these as premium names.”

Turning specifically to ‘.sucks’, Stark charged Vox Populi with “confusing consumer advocacy with unfair business practice”, arguing that “providing consumers with a forum for their concerns cannot be predicated on exploiting the legitimate rights of trademark owners”. On the transition of DNS oversight, she concluded: “We support a transition but not on an accelerated timeframe and not until we are assured of accountability and transparency. Keeping the US government engaged through the affirmation of commitments and the IANA contract provides assurances that ICANN will continue to improve its operations and accountability structure until such time as a comprehensive and reliable framework for transition is developed and implemented.”

Much of the subsequent testimony focused on the IANA transition rather than ‘.sucks’, with the sentiment of “transition is positive but needs to be carefully managed” repeatedly echoed (a majority of speakers were pessimistic about the September 30 deadline, at which the current IANA functions contract expires, and identified the need for more time).

While Vox Populi’s voice was missing from today’s hearing in DC, earlier this week it sent a letter to ICANN, hitting back at allegations that the company had engaged in "illicit" activities, and that its practices are "predatory, exploitive and coercive", and raising the spectre of a defamation action against ICANN and legal action against ICANN or any of its constituent bodies that “engages in any further wrongful activity that prevents the company from fulfilling its contractual obligations and operating the ‘.sucks’ registry as both ICANN and Vox Populi envisioned”.

Asked for his reaction to the letter, Gregory S Shatan, partner at Abelman Frayne & Schwab and president of the IPC, told WTR: “I find it beyond ironic that the self-styled champion of ‘raw’ free speech about commercial activities is now sending cease and desist letters seeking to silence exactly that type of expression. It's particularly troubling that Vox Populi has threatened to go after ICANN's ‘constituent bodies (or any directly responsible member thereof)’. To my knowledge, it is unprecedented for an ICANN stakeholder to threaten to sue ICANN stakeholder groups, much less individual stakeholders acting within the multi-stakeholder model. In my opinion, this seems intended to have a chilling effect on speech within the ICANN community and particularly to intimidate individual volunteers - the lifeblood of the multi-stakeholder community, without which ICANN could not even exist.”

On Vox Populi’s statement that its “concerns are heightened by the fact that the ICANN IPC is made up, in part, of owners of other registries that will be competing with the ‘.sucks’ registry”, Shatan responds: “I take exception to the implication that the IPC acted as it did because a few of our members are also registries (for the most part, ‘.brand’ registries). While this is absurd on its face, I still want to reject it in no uncertain terms. I take the IPC's mission very seriously, and I'm sure all of our members do as well. We speak for the creators, owners and consumers of intellectual property, full stop. Our letter - like all IPC activities - comes solely from this perspective. Any implication otherwise is offensive and untrue.”

Today’s session will not be the last held at the House of Representatives, with Congressman John Conyers arguing: “The hearing today should be the first of many we hold during the transition”. The ‘.sucks’ discussion will also continue, with the FTC’s response to the IPC’s concerns likely to be the next major development. 

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