Save the .ORG registry!
Save the .ORG registry! (Graphic: Electronic Frontier Foundation)

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,

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.

Adjacent posts

One reply on “NPI’s Gael Tarleton warns proposed sale of .ORG domain registry could harm nonprofits”

  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.


    ‑Bill Woodcock

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