Celebrities and companies complain they're getting extorted to prevent embarrassing websites.
Brand-owners are clamoring to halt the rollout of new website addresses ending in ".sucks," but they won't get any help from U.S. regulators.
Companies and celebrities fear that their names could be used in .sucks websites to ridicule them. The owner of the .sucks domain, Vox Populi, is letting brand-owners get the first chance to buy sites associated with their names—but that privilege comes with a hefty price tag: $2,499 per year.
Taylor Swift, Kevin Spacey, Oprah Winfrey, Apple, Google, Yahoo, the San Diego Chargers, and other companies and individuals have already agreed to pay the fee to defend their brands, according to Vox Populi.
But in a letter this week, the Federal Trade Commission declined to say that the new Internet domain violates any laws or regulations. That leaves the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the nonprofit group that controls the Web's address system, on its own to sort out the dispute.
At a recent congressional hearing, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte called the roll-out of the .sucks domain a "multi-faceted debacle" that has "resulted in trademark owners being shaken down."
ICANN plans to allow more than 1,300 new domains, including other controversial ones, such as .wtf and .fail. But .sucks has attracted particular criticism because of how much Vox Populi is charging brands for the rights to their own names.
ICANN reached out to the FTC last month for help addressing the controversy over the domain. In a letter, the international nonprofit group pointed to accusations that Vox Populi's behavior is "predatory, exploitive and coercive."
The group said that it was "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."
But FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez essentially told ICANN that it's on its own, although adding that the agency will continue to police the domain name industry for illegal activity. She also noted that ICANN declined to adopt recommendations that the FTC made in 2011 to protect brands and prevent abuse.
The controversy comes at a sensitive time for ICANN, as the U.S. prepares to give up its authority over the organization.
"We greatly appreciate the chairwoman's stated understanding and appreciation of the importance of the concerns ICANN had conveyed regarding the .SUCKS [generic top-level domain] rollout, as well as the broader set of consumer protection issues relating to the new gTLD program that the FTC has restated in the Chairwoman's letter," John Jeffrey, ICANN's general counsel, said in a statement.
John Berard, the CEO of Vox Populi, said he feels vindicated by the FTC's letter, but that he wasn't surprised.
"I was confident that any prudent person taking a look at Vox Populi would see that we are well within the lines of ICANN's rules and national laws," he said.
He argued that the .sucks domain gives consumers a centralized place to complain about companies, and that $2,499 is a bargain for giving companies the ability to control that criticism.
"What we're offering," he said, "is a clean, well-lighted place for criticism. The value of that to companies would be extraordinary."