You may have heard that celebrities like Taylor Swift are buying up new Web site names such as TaylorSwift.porn in an effort to keep bad guys from using those sites against them. This type of preemptive buying is set to explode this year with hundreds of new Web address endings, such as .actor and .city, coming onto the market. But now, the international organization behind them all is poised to put the brakes on an intensely controversial one: .sucks.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is asking the U.S. and Canadian governments to determine whether the private company that manages .sucks is breaking the law by jacking up the prices brand owners must pay for their own .sucks sites.
For some of the world's biggest brands, such a ruling would be a huge deal. Imagine if Wal-Mart were offered the chance to buy WalMart.sucks before anyone else, but had to pay a premium of $2,499 a year. Those are the prices the manager of .sucks, Vox Populi, has offered to trademark owners. But those rates reflect a 250-fold markup over typical prices, according to Vox Populi's critics, who have argued the tactics are "predatory, exploitive and coercive."
A ruling against Vox Populi could open up the company to federal prosecution or other legal action, according to ICANN officials.
ICANN said Thursday that it is considering steps to sanction Vox Populi. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission and Canada's Office of Consumer Affairs, ICANN's top lawyer John Jeffrey said the organization "may seek remedies against Vox Populi if the registry's actions are determined to be illegal" by federal authorities.
Jeffrey added that ICANN was independently "evaluating other remedies available" under the terms of ICANN's contract with Vox Populi to manage the .sucks domain ending.
But ICANN's ability to act against Vox Populi is limited, officials said, because ICANN is not a regulatory agency and its agreement with Vox Populi does not address its pricing or business model.
Vox Populi's chief executive, John Berard, has defended his company's approach as a way to give disgruntled consumers a voice. A recent ad for the .sucks domain argued that "'sucks' is now a protest word":
Akram Atallah, the president of ICANN's global domains division, said ICANN is not looking to regulate the Internet more heavily, nor to crack down on Vox Populi — unless the federal government finds the company violated the law with its behavior.
"There are two sides to each point, and we are not going to be the judge on the legal foundations," said Atallah. "We will let the legal authorities determine these things. These are issues that are not in ICANN's remit."