For .sucks Web domains, the currency seems to be paid in reputations

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To tens of thousands of Massachusetts Turnpike commuters, the “NewYork.sucks” billboard recently erected outside Fenway Park is a mere statement of the obvious. To visiting natives of the Big Apple, it’s a fifth-grade taunt to be returned in kind, ideally during the next Red Sox-Yankees matchup.

In fact, the billboard is an advertisement for John Berard’s business: selling Internet addresses with the new domain name, .sucks.

Hundreds of these new domains have rolled out in the past couple of years, as supplements for the .com found in millions of Internet addresses.

The .sucks domain is for websites that want to launch snarky, savage attacks on a target — stupid politicians, corrupt corporations, or a certain East Coast city. Typing newyork.sucks into your Web browser takes you to the website of Berard’s company, Vox Populi Registry, where you can buy a .sucks address aimed at the victim of your choice.

It’s a clever, creepy scheme that’s got corporations and celebrities scrambling to buy up .sucks addresses to fend off online assaults on their reputations. Some critics have labeled it a form of extortion. Berard, however, sees himself as a public benefactor, promoting the free exchange of ideas.

“Companies have been confronted often with unfounded and unfair criticism, made worse by the advent of the Internet, with all its dark corners,” said Berard.

“There ought to be a place where criticism can be seen in the full light of day,” said Berard, “a clean, well-lighted place.”

But the very Internet organization that authorized Vox Populi to sell .sucks addresses has now turned on Berard with a vengeance. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, cut a lucrative deal with Vox Populi — $100,000 up front and $1 each for the first 900,000 .sucks addresses sold. But in April, ICANN asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Vox Populi, saying that ICANN’s intellectual properties division considered the company’s practices “predatory, exploitive, and coercive.”

That sounds about right, as Vox Populi’s revenues mainly come from celebrities and corporations who are paying $2,499 or more per year for .sucks addresses.

The whole seamy story began with ICANN’s effort to cope with a shortage of good Internet addresses. As of December, there were about 115.6 million addresses in the most popular .com domain — Amazon.com, Bostonglobe.com, CNN.com, and the like. But nearly all the appealing .com addresses have been taken.

So starting in 2012, ICANN set up a system to create more domains, to be owned and operated by commercial domain registries worldwide. About 700 have been issued so far; The Boston Globe is supposed to get control of the .boston domain. A local pizzeria website could be pizza.boston, or pizza.party or, heaven forbid, pizza.porn. And thanks to ICANN’s deal with Vox Populi, someone who hates pepperoni might create a site called pizza.sucks.

Before the public launch of any new domain, trademark holders get first crack at buying up addresses, to protect their good names. Pop singer Taylor Swift, for instance, snapped up a number of new addresses to prevent the haters from setting up sites like Taylorswift.porn or taylorswift.sucks. Microsoft Corp. has done the same, snapping up Xbox.sucks, Windows.sucks, and the like.

But while most domain addresses sell for a few dozen dollars, or a few hundred, Vox Populi set a price of $2,499 for trademark  holders who want to buy their versions of the .sucks address. Berard has said he originally wanted to charge $25,000. After all, big trademark holders can easily afford it. Still, Vox Populi’s pricing has infuriated ICANN, corporate leaders, and lawmakers. Republican US Representative Darrell Issa of California called it “legalized extortion.”

So far, about 6,000 .sucks addresses have been sold, according to the research site Namestat.org. But only a couple dozen websites with the .sucks domain address are live on the Internet, suggesting most were purchased just to keep them off the air forever.

The .sucks addresses available to the public went on sale in June, at around $200 per year. Berard is looking to command a premium for 500 particularly repellent addresses: Christianity.sucks is available at $50.000; just the thing for arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, or the Pope. Whichever check clears first.

Meanwhile, there is little demand for hundreds of other new domains that ICANN created, including .zip or .dad or .eat. ICANN had predicted some 33 million buyers would queue up for the new domains by mid-2015; so far it’s sold just 6.7 million addresses.

But Vox Populi’s .sucks domain is targeted like a cruise missile at celebrities and businesses with reputations to protect. Far from encouraging public debate, Berard is selling silence, by marketing Internet addresses born to be buried.

If any of this bothers you, forget about setting up a VoxPopuli.sucks website. The company hasn’t put that particular address up for sale. Too bad; it could probably make a fortune.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to trademarks as copyrights.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at h_bray@globe.com.
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