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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, January 26th, 2020

NPI’s Gael Tarleton warns proposed sale of .ORG domain registry could harm nonprofits

Back in the fall of 2019, the pri­vate equi­ty firm Ethos Cap­i­tal announced its plans to buy the Pub­lic Inter­est Reg­istry (PIR) for more than $1 bil­lion.

PIR is owned by the Inter­net Soci­ety and man­ages the .ORG domain reg­istry, which since 1985 has been used by non­prof­its and non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions (NGOs) like the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute (NPI).

Dot org is what is known as top lay­er domain… the last part of a uni­form resource loca­tor (URL), or web address. For exam­ple, nwprogressive.org.

PIR is a non­prof­it enti­ty that has been man­ag­ing the reg­istry and set­ting the prices that own­ers pay when they reg­is­ter .ORG domains.

After the announce­ment, many orga­ni­za­tions came out in oppo­si­tion all over the world, argu­ing that if the Inter­net Soci­ety no longer want­ed to man­age PIR, it should be hand­ed over to an insti­tu­tion the non­prof­it com­mu­ni­ty can trust.

In a let­ter to the Inter­net Soci­ety from the Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, an ally of NPI that oppos­es the sale, it was explained that this move could cause sig­nif­i­cant harm to non­prof­its and NGOs. They argue that with­out over­sight from an appro­pri­ate place­ment, the reg­istry would have the pow­er to make pol­i­cy changes that would detri­men­tal to .ORG stake­hold­ers, includ­ing:

  • The pow­er to raise .org reg­is­tra­tion fees with­out the approval of the Inter­net Cor­po­ra­tion for Assigned Names and Num­bers (ICANN) or the .ORG com­mu­ni­ty. A .ORG price hike would put many cash-strapped NGOs in the dif­fi­cult posi­tion of either pay­ing the increased fees or los­ing the legit­i­ma­cy and brand recog­ni­tion of a .ORG domain.
  • The pow­er to devel­op and imple­ment Rights Pro­tec­tion Mech­a­nisms uni­lat­er­al­ly, with­out con­sult­ing the .org com­mu­ni­ty. If such mech­a­nisms are not care­ful­ly craft­ed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the NGO com­mu­ni­ty, they risk cen­sor­ing com­plete­ly legal non­prof­it activ­i­ties.
  • The pow­er to imple­ment process­es to sus­pend domain names based on accu­sa­tions of “activ­i­ty con­trary to applic­a­ble law. ”The .ORG reg­istry should not imple­ment such process­es with­out under­stand­ing how state actors fre­quent­ly tar­get NGOs with alle­ga­tions of ille­gal activ­i­ty.

NPI cosigned EFF’s let­ter, with NPI’s founder and Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Andrew Vil­leneuve explain­ing: “The pend­ing sale is of great con­cern to NPI because we own a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of .org domains. We could be affect­ed by price hikes and bad poli­cies imposed by the pro­posed new own­er.”

Year­ly fees for .ORG sites are, on aver­age, between $10 to $20.

Oth­er larg­er sites that pur­chase mul­ti­ple domains and who pay larg­er fees are eli­gi­ble for oth­er ser­vices like increased cyber secu­ri­ty.

Law­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton State are also alarmed at the prospect of the .ORG reg­istry being con­trolled by a prof­it-dri­ven, pri­vate equi­ty firm.

Senior NPI board­mem­ber Gael Tar­leton, a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the 36th Dis­trict and a 2020 can­di­date for the posi­tion of Sec­re­tary of State, told me that a free and open inter­net is the “lifeblood of every com­mu­ni­ty and econ­o­my, and every school and health care sys­tem in this coun­try.”

“It is offen­sive,” said Tar­leton, “that the Inter­net, devel­oped by pub­lic tax dol­lars and by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, for the pur­pos­es of serv­ing the pub­lic research com­mu­ni­ties and the pub­lic good, would fall into the hands of a pri­vate equi­ty firm just because [Don­ald] Trump is in the White House.”

She not­ed that Wash­ing­ton does have laws that pro­tect dig­i­tal lib­er­ties at the state lev­el, like our ground­break­ing net neu­tral­i­ty law, but that there are still thou­sands of non­prof­its reg­is­tered in the state that could be neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by the pro­posed sale of the .ORG reg­istry to Ethos Cap­i­tal.

Tim Bern­ers-Lee, the inven­tor of the World Wide Web, was among those express­ing grave con­cern and oppo­si­tion at the time the sale was announced.

So was ICAN­N’s found­ing chair Esther Dyson.

The Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion also made the point in their let­ter oppos­ing the sale, that back in 2002, amid sim­i­lar talks of sell­ing the .ORG reg­istry, ISOC’s then pres­i­dent and CEO Lynn St. Amour assured the NGOs world­wide that the reg­istry would con­tin­ue to be account­able to the non­prof­it sec­tor.

Erik Brooks, founder and CEO of Ethos Cap­i­tal, stat­ed in a pub­lic blog post that the firm is invest­ing in “the long-term vital­i­ty of .ORG and its users” and that “PIR’s part­ner­ship with Ethos will cre­ate new oppor­tu­ni­ties for PIR to pro­vide enhanced ser­vices and sup­port to the .ORG com­mu­ni­ty.”

He also promised that these enhanced ser­vices will be devel­oped “in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the com­mu­ni­ty.” But last month, ICANN pub­lished doc­u­ments with the names of three direc­tors of Ethos Cap­i­tal involved in the sale redact­ed, which only deep­ened the con­cerns of non­prof­its and NGOs.

The doc­u­ments also seem to sug­gest that ICANN had been posi­tion­ing the reg­istry for sale near­ly a year before the offi­cial announce­ment was made.

With so much on the line and a lack of trans­paren­cy on the part of ICANN, it’s unfor­tu­nate we’re not see­ing more wide­spread aware­ness and oppo­si­tion.

Tar­leton argued the Wash­ing­ton Sec­re­tary of State’s office should be force­ful­ly oppos­ing the sale and call­ing atten­tion to it. “This is the slip­pery slope of pri­va­ti­za­tion that hap­pens when no one is pay­ing atten­tion,” she warned.

Tar­leton plans to con­tin­ue speak­ing out against the pro­posed Ethos takeover.

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One Comment

  1. Hi. Along with Esther, and a num­ber of oth­er vol­un­teers rep­re­sent­ing non-prof­its, I serve on the board of the Coop­er­a­tive Cor­po­ra­tion of .ORG Reg­is­trants, which was orga­nized as an alter­na­tive to the pri­vate equi­ty takeover. There’s a lot more con­tin­u­ing to hap­pen on this sto­ry, and spe­cif­ic action is need­ed to pre­vent the takeover… Non-prof­its need to under­stand the con­se­quences of a takeover, par­tic­u­lar­ly as regards com­mu­ni­ca­tions down-time and third-par­ty sale of con­stituent per­son­al infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions meta­da­ta, and they need to write to ICAN­N’s board of direc­tors, who are the ones cur­rent­ly decid­ing whether to allow Ethos Cap­i­tal to pay-to-bypass the com­pet­i­tive mul­ti­stake­hold­er process that would nor­mal­ly apply here.

    Any of all of us are hap­py to talk with any­one who wants to help. info@ccor.org

    Thanks,

    ‑Bill Wood­cock

    # by Bill Woodcock :: January 27th, 2020 at 8:38 PM