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A New Internet Domain: Extortion Or Free Speech?

A rash of new Web domain suffixes have popped up in recent years to supplement .com or .net — terms such as .bargains or .dating.

Several new suffixes seem to invite negative feedback. There's .gripe and .fail. There's even .wtf — a colorful variation on "what the heck." And soon, there will be .sucks.

J. Scott Evans says his objection isn't that it sounds whiny. It's the price. Evans is associate general counsel at Adobe Systems, and for a trademark owner like his to claim Adobe.sucks would cost $2,500 a year. That's more than a hundred times the typical fee.

"I basically think it's extortion," Evans says.

Adobe purchased relevant suffixes like .photo, Evans says, but it will not buy defensively to protect the brand. "We are not going to participate in any sort of extortion scheme," he says.

Someone else may register the name. But, Evans says, there's a remedy:

"I told my people the best way not to get included is not to suck," he says.

But most companies don't want to risk giving up control, says Elisa Cooper, vice president at MarkMonitor, which helps monitor brand reputation. "If the brands have the concern, they're acquiring it," she says.

Some of the brands that block others from using their name include Wal-Mart, Hotmail, and insurance giant AIG.

By and large, Cooper says, these folks aren't pleased. "Oh, they are furious," she says.

They don't want their brands abused. But they're also aware that by paying up, they foster an unwanted industry.

"If it's shown that this is a profitable situation, you can imagine that there'll probably be others that copy it in the future," Cooper says.

The administrator of the new registry is a company called Vox Populi. Its CEO, John Berard, says the annual $2,500 fee is a relative steal.

"A little over year ago, we were contemplating a price of $25,000," he says.

He says Vox Populi, as the name suggests, gives the people a voice. Its ad includes rousing clips from Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches and an endorsement from political activist Ralph Nader:

"The word sucks is now a protest word. And it's up to people to give it more meaning," Nader says in the video.

Berard says he expects companies will use these sites to engage with their customers.

"It's our belief that if a company choses to register its name in the .sucks domain, that it will cultivate it as a clean well-lighted place for criticism, for better understanding," he says.

Independent activists who want to use the suffix and pledge to blog can pay as little as $10 a year.

But what if someone wants to claim another individual's name? Berard says the registry will police for cyberbullying. But if a person wants to preemptively block their name, that will cost $200 a year.

Berard admits the suffix itself may be controversial, but he says the content doesn't have to be.

"If you're trying to get someone's attention to make a point, or to be heard, it's possible that the sharper edge of a .sucks domain could be just the thing," he says.

Cyrus Namazi is vice president at ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which governs Web domains. He says when Vox Populi applied, it didn't draw any complaints.

"There were actually no objections," he says.

And, Namazi adds, curbing use of new domains is tricky. "We have to keep in mind that freedom of speech is actually one of the fundamental rules of the United States of America as well as the fundamental rule of what the Internet is supposed to enable," he says.

Sites ending in .sucks will go live in June.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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