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The Company Using Martin Luther King Jr. to Sell .Sucks

Vox Populi is painting .sucks domains as a chance to give power to the people. So why do brands get first dibs?

Websites ending in .sucks are coming, and the company selling them wants you to believe their arrival is a victory for justice and free speech. At least, that's what its marketing strategy suggests, seeing as how it features a promotional video for .sucks featuring Martin Luther King Jr.

The video, posted last week, features clips of King's speeches playing over footage of past protests. Vox Populi Registry Inc., the domain name registrar, paints .sucks domains as an opportunity for consumers to buy websites to protest corporate misconduct. Think walmart.sucks, a protest site that might advocate for an increase in employee wages. Longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader also makes an appearance in the video, saying, in a jarringly inconsistent tone, "The word 'sucks' is now a protest word."

Vox Populi told Motherboard that Nader was interviewed for the ad, and his voice was not manipulated in any way. Nader did not respond to a request for comment.

Now, consumers won't be able to start culture jamming corporate baddies just yet—the companies that would be their targets get first dibs. Starting on March 30th, Vox Populi will begin selling the domain names exclusively to trademarked brands that might want to protect their trademarks from rabble rousers who want to tell them they "suck."

The price to avoid this potential PR disaster? $2,400 per year, per .sucks domain name. Brands will also have the option to block a domain name with their brand name in it from being purchased by "reserving" it on a yearly basis for $199. Vox Populi initially planned to sell branded .sucks domain names for an astounding $25,000.

This initial "sunrise" period is required by the general Top Level Domain (gTLD) program that allowed Vox Populi to sell .sucks domain names in the first palce, but the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—the organization that regulates domain name registrars like Vox Populi—certainly doesn't require that they cost thousands of dollars.

The general public will eventually be able to buy .sucks domain names. Starting on June 1st, you'll be able to snag one for $249. A special consumer-only price of $9.95 will also be offered through a "consumer advocacy site" called Everything.sucks. All domain names purchased at this price point will, however, redirect to that site. Currently, a Google search doesn't bring any results up for Everything.sucks.

So why invoke Dr. King's legacy in what is essentially an ad for a company's product? I called Vox Populi CEO John Berard to find out. But I had to do a bit of digging. He told me he lives in Portland, but his number hailed from San Francisco. The company is based in the Cayman islands, but its area code is in the Dominican Republic.

"First of all, I think the video does what it was designed to do," Berard told me. "Artistically, certainly you might want to argue with one or two or—for somebody artistic—four issues, but the idea here is that we wanted to create a video that would help balance the stage. This is not just a commercial enterprise."

"If we're successful in making .sucks a recognized location on the internet, not only will it give people the opportunity to say what they want to say, but it will increase the chance that what they have to say will be heard by the people they're saying it about," Berard continued.

The idea of domain names ending in .sucks actually has a legacy of being on the side of the people, not corporations. In 2000, Nader's consumer advocacy group, Consumer Project on Technology—now known as Knowledge Economy Internationalwrote a letter to ICANN advocating for the creation of a .sucks top level domain name for the sake of free speech and corporate criticism. An activist could start a McDonalds.sucks site, for example, in Nader's group's conception.

Brands can buy .Sucks domains before their critics, or block them

But it wasn't until December of 2014 that ICANN finally signed an agreement with Vox Populi to sell .sucks domain names, and the company applied for the rights to do so in 2012. Berardi also told me that he only discovered Nader's letter after he had already filed the bid to gain the rights to sell .sucks domains in the first place.

"Keep in mind that in 2000, [Nader] was arguing that the domain name should only be for consumers and unions, and that companies should be barred from being able to register," said Berard. "But we're 15 years into the internet being a global communications network, and it's a terrific platform for business. Most businesses have come to realize that rather than try to prevent exchange, they need to encourage exchange." This is a far cry from Nader's articulated vision.

According to Berard, .sucks domains are a malleable tool for everyone who can afford to get one—corporations can use it to silence criticism by blocking the .sucks domain with their name attached, or they can ironically use it to pre-empt criticism by using it themselves. Critics, too, can have their own go at poking fun.

The very idea of .sucks domains has critics of its own, however.

In March of 2014, after Vox Populi applied to sell .sucks domains, but before they were approved by ICANN, Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller spoke out on the issue in a letter to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, suggesting that any company that ends up with the rights to sell .sucks domains would only be using it to profit, and not benefit the public.

"A gTLD like 'sucks' has little or no socially redeeming value," Rockefeller wrote, "and it reinforces many people's fears that the purpose of gTLD expansion is to enrich the domain name industry rather than benefit the broader community of Internet users."

Some may disagree that .sucks has "no socially redeeming value," as Nader's consumer advocacy group certainly did in 2000. But it's difficult to see how charging $249 for a domain name—and $2,400 if you want to get the drop on critics—is forwarding the cause of free speech and corporate criticism. The business seems to cater first to the brands that can afford to shield themselves from everyday consumers, not those aggrieved by them.

A consumer has to really want to stick it to Starbucks or whoever else to shell out $2,400 just to tell a company they .suck.