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Brands don't like .sucks? Not our problem, FTC says

Uma tela exibe os nomes de domínios durante uma conferência de imprensa da ICANN em Londres, em 13 junho de 2012 (AFP/Arquivos)

A lot of big brands are furious about the introduction of a new .sucks Internet domain but regulators at the Federal Trade Commission declined to come to their rescue.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which oversees the domain name system, last month asked the FTC to look into complaints about the rules for .sucks. In particular, brands had to pre-register for $2,000 or more a year to prevent others from acquiring a .sucks web address with their names. A group representing big brands had dubbed the rules "predatory, coercive and exploitive."

However, the FTC tossed the issue back to ICANN in a letter from Chairwoman Edith Ramirez that was released on Thursday. Noting that the issues raised in the case of .sucks could apply to some of the other hundreds of new "generic top level domains," or gTLDs, ICANN has approved, Ramirez suggested that ICANN tighten some of its own rules to address the complaints.

"In view of the exponential expansion of gTLDs, these are not issues that can be feasibly addressed on a case-by-case basis," Ramirez wrote. "I therefore urge ICANN to consider ways in which it can address the concerns raised with respect to .sucks, as well as consumer protection issues more generally, on a broader basis."

The new .sucks Internet address is one of the most controversial among hundreds of new suffixes approved by ICANN. The group established a procedure for adding new suffixes in 2011 and has been slowly working its way through almost 2,000 initial applications. So far, it has approved more than 500, with new additions released daily.

Ramirez suggested that ICANN should require people to clearly label a .sucks web site not run by a company or brand in its name. ICANN should also consider giving brand owners stronger rights in the registration process. And the group should verify that people registering names in regulated industries like banking are what they purport to be before opening for business online.

Top companies such as Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT) and Home Depot (HD) along with celebrities like Taylor Swift and Oprah Winfrey have been registering .sucks domains in the pre-registration period. Taylor Swift and others already dealt with another controversial new suffix, .porn, and preregistered their names earlier this year. Celebrities have more experience with the problems that may arise, having dealt with a barrage of new web site names when the .xxx suffix opened for business four years ago.

The new suffixes are intended to unleash a barrage of creative energy, and perhaps a few marketing dollars, by breaking free of the crowded .com space. Over 100 million names have already been taken in .com, including almost every word in the dictionary. Most of the new additions are uncontroversial and inoffensive, such as .cafe, .gold and .tennis.

But companies and their allies in Congress have been protesting the .sucks domains, so far without much success.

Vox Populi Registry Inc., the Canadian firm that was awarded a contract to run the .sucks domain, is charging Internet registrars a wholesale price of $2,000 for .sucks names during the early preregistration period, with a recommended retail price of $2,500. Once general registration opens in a few weeks, the .sucks names will cost $250 for consumers. There's also a limited $10-a-year option if a consumer agrees to make the site part of Vox Populi's discussion network.

"I've long thought that any prudent review of our behavior would see that we're operating well within the lines," Vox CEO John Berard said. "We believe we're doing everything the way it should be done."

Berard said Vox had not been contacted by the FTC. He declined to say how many companies had pre-registered .sucks names so far. Early registration was scheduled to end June 1 but has been extended for a few more weeks.

ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey thanked the FTC for the response but made no commitments about Ramirez's suggestions. "The FTC’s comments on consumer protection issues throughout the new gTLD program have been an important part of the dialogue of the ICANN community relating to these topics," he said.

In an April 9 letter, ICANN asked the FTC to determine whether any laws had been broken. "ICANN is concerned about the contentions of illicit actions being expressed, but notes that ICANN has limited expertise or authority to determine the legality of Vox Populi's positions, which we believe would fall in your respective regulatory regimes," the group said in the letter.