The top-level domain .sucks will launch later this month, sparking a fresh round of controversy over what is rapidly becoming the most notorious internet registry.
Even before the current owner, Vox Populi, won the rights to run all .sucks domains in an auction – paying an estimated $3m for the pleasure – the domain was the subject of complaints by both the Australian government and US Senator Jay Rockefeller, who described [PDF] .sucks as a "predatory shakedown scheme."
And this week, brand protection company Mark Monitor complained in a blog post that it would be expected to pay $2,500 to register its clients' trademarks under the dot-sucks name. The registry "appears to be taking advantage of brand owners," the company grumbled.
The "sunrise" period for dot-sucks domains, when trademark owners will be able to register their marks, will open on March 30. To highlight this fact, Vox Populi produced a promotional ad featuring archive footage of Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, as well as a contemporary and explicit endorsement of dot-sucks by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Vox Populi CEO John Berard is having none of it, however. He readily acknowledges it is a "cheeky domain space" and argues that dot-sucks represents a key aspect of the modern internet: the ability of consumers to speak and be heard about the products they buy and the companies they support.
Asked about the pricing scheme – which has annoyed some, since it charges just $9.95 for general domains but $2,499 for many "premium" names, most of which are trademarks – Berard points to the original plan for dot-sucks, as outlined back in 2000 by Ralph Nader himself.
Back then, more than a decade before domain name overseer ICANN finally opened up the domain name system to all-comers, Nader lobbied for the creation of a number of new top-level domains, including dot-union, dot-customers and dot-complaints.
But dot-sucks would exist, the plan explained, "to facilitate criticism of a firm or organization, such as aol.sucks, wipo.sucks, or even greenpeace.sucks."
Critically, companies would be actively prevented from owning their own name. "We would not permit the organization that owned an associated domain to also own .sucks, so it would expand the name space in an important way. The domain would also be available for other uses, such as work.sucks, life.sucks or television.sucks."
Foreseeing the current controversy, the letter noted: "We recognize the .sucks TLD will be offensive to some persons, but we do not think that this should exclude .sucks from being approved by ICANN. We believe the .sucks domain will be popular in the marketplace, and also generate important funding for the free speech rights of individuals and small organizations."
Corporations are people
The idea is a novel one and in 2015 it seems almost quaint that there would be an area of the internet in which large corporations do not have overweening power.
Berard has tried to keep the basic concept alive while also reflecting today's realities and so he says the registry is "very supportive of brands. It’s smart for a brand to register and manage their domain."
He also notes that the word "sucks" is no longer purely a pejorative term, highlighting the memo written by Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and then "leaked" to news outlets shortly before the company announced a new abuse program. "We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," Costolo wrote.
And while companies may balk at the $2,499 annual fee it will cost them to prevent their names from being used online to criticize them, it is a far cry from the original plan to charge companies $25,000 – basically, as an incentive for them to not get their names.
Rather than a very determinedly pro-consumer registry to the point of being anti-corporate, as was originally envisioned, Berard hopes that dot-sucks will become the "town hall" of the internet where there is an exchange of views that benefit both companies and their customers: a whole piece of the internet that acts as a kind-of Yelp.
Trademark holders are not happy with that plan, but as Mark Monitor noted, they will probably buy in. Not only will they not want others to get their name with "sucks" at the end, but more importantly, it will likely be difficult to win their names back from someone else in the courts because there is a clear free speech defense to be mounted.
"I believe that recovery of these domains using traditional methods will be extremely difficult," noted Mark Monitor's domain expert.
What dot-sucks represents in the bigger scheme of things is that the top level of the internet is no longer immune to the – shall we say – "lively" nature of online discourse.
Dot-sucks domains will be open to "general availability" on 1 June. ®