Master of Your Domain? Maybe in .Com But Not in .Sucks

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Apple Inc., Citigroup Inc. and the San Francisco 49ers are among companies rushing to protect their brands from critics and pranksters by buying up new Internet addresses that end in “.sucks.”

Through the end of the month, the new domain suffix is being made available by Vox Populi Registry Ltd. only to trademark holders, for about $2,500 a pop, as part of a wider expansion of Web names beyond the familiar “.com.” But starting June 1, Vox Populi will drop the price to $249 and let anybody attach the available word of their choice.

That’s left companies racing to buy up the new names -- which also include those ending in “.xxx” and “.wtf” -- to keep control of their reputations. Law firms and trademark associations active in Internet registry policy have called Vox Populi’s domain-name sale “illicit” and “predatory.”

At a U.S. congressional hearing Wednesday, lawmakers criticized Vox Populi. Trademark owners are “being shaken down,” said the Judiciary Committee chairman, Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.

“Most legitimate companies don’t want to have their names associated with that type of site,” said Dan Jaffe, group executive vice president for the Association of National Advertisers, a New York-based trade group representing more than 500 companies with 10,000 brands.

ICANN, the quasi-governmental nonprofit gatekeeper for web addresses, recently began approving new domains that resellers administer. Vox Populi and similar resellers are part of a growing problem for companies on the Web, Jaffe said.

‘Curate Criticism’

John Berard, Vox Populi’s chief executive officer, defended his business, saying the Web already is rife with scathing reviews of companies and the dot-sucks domain would allow companies to “curate criticism.”

“We are not breaking new ground in the terms of ability to criticize,” he said in an interview. “We are breaking new ground in the ability to learn from it.”

Trademarks can be registered with Vox Populi during the pre-public sale period only through a known Web name registrar, and they’re checked against a registry of trademarks at ICANN, Berard said. Trademarks associated with Apple, Citigroup and the National Football League 49ers all appeared in a listing of dot-sucks addresses on a Vox Populi website as of May 12. Berard wouldn’t say how many companies had registered.

Mark Costiglio, a Citigroup spokesman, declined to comment. Apple declined to comment. Bob Lange, a 49ers spokesman, said the organization couldn’t find an employee aware of the issue.

Free Speech

There’s not much governments or companies can do about “.sucks” because criticism is considered free speech, said Andrew Baum, a partner with the law firm Foley & Lardner who specializes in trademarks.

Trademark law applies only to something that could be confused with the real thing -- for example, no one would confuse McDonalds.sucks with the website for the hamburger chain.

“My advice to companies that are criticized on the Internet is that you sort of have to suck it up -- no pun intended,” said Baum. “First Amendment protection is broad. Trademark law only protects against confusion.”

FTC, Congress

ICANN, formally known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has written to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission reporting a complaint from the head of its intellectual property group describing Vox Populi as illicit.

ICANN said it may seek remedies through its contract with the registry if its actions are determined to be illegal.

A House Judiciary Committee panel on Wednesday has scheduled a hearing, focusing on how to guarantee trust and accountability in the Internet’s operation.

To Vox Populi, the critics who compare the dot-sucks domain pricing to cybersquatting -- the registration or sale of a domain name to make a profit off of someone else’s trademark -- are wrong. Trademark owners are protected by ICANN’s dispute resolution process.

“None of the letters in question identifies any manner in which any law might actually have been broken, ” R. David Hosp, of Fish & Richardson, Vox Populi’s attorney, wrote in a letter to ICANN on Monday.

Expanding Domains

The dot-sucks issue arises from ICANN’s expansion of domains beyond dot-coms, dot-orgs and dot-govs. More than 583 new domain suffixes have been added as of April and hundreds more are on the way. These include “.Republican,” “.vote,” “.movie” and of course, “.porn.”

Most are far less controversial than “.sucks.”

Vox Populi is marketing directly to corporations. Each domain “has the potential to become an essential part of every organization’s customer relationship management program,” according to the company’s website.

The political domains aren’t getting much attention, even though some U.S. presidential candidates have missed the opportunity to buy their own name in the most popular domain, “.com.” They include Rand Paul, who had to shell out $100,000 to a third-party firm to purchase randpaul.com, according to the National Journal.

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