Non-Profit Organizations Line Up to Oppose the Sale of .org

Large private entity, Ethos Capital, is attempting to buy the .org domains for $1.135 billion. Non-profits, however, are opposing the deal.

There is a growing movement asking to save the .org top-level domain. Private company, Ethos Capital, is attempting to buy the top-level domain for $1.135 billion from the non profit organization, ISOC (Internet Society). The deal has non-profit organizations up in arms. They are doing everything they can to stop the sale.

The .org top-level domain is one of the earliest top-level domains around. It is meant for those who wish to create a website for non-profit organizations. So, if you want to run a charity or non-profit organization, a .org domain could be a great top-level domain for you.

A curious thing then began to develop. In late November, word began circulating that Ethos Capital is buying the top-level domain for $1.135 billion. From CNN:

In a move that could shake up the internet, private equity firm Ethos Capital is buying the company that owns every .org domain on the web.

Ethos, which was founded in May 2019, is expected to close its deal to acquire the Public Interest Registry (PIR) during the first quarter of 2020. The sale price has not been released.

At first, the response was that people were in agreement of the move. It didn’t take long, though, before non-profit organizations began opposing the decision to take the top-level domain private. That sparked an interesting response from both sides of the transaction. From MarketWatch:

Some critics of the deal say that without ISOC’s oversight, Ethos could abuse recently-changed rules to take advantage of the NGO sector. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – which is a non-profit in charge of the domain-name system – removed the price cap that banned the PIR from charging more than $8.25 per domain and gave permission to implement protections which may make it easier for some governments to censor NGO websites.

In a statement sent to MarketWatch, ISOC said: “The current price of a .org domain name is roughly $10 a year and Ethos has stated its plan to live within the spirit of this historic practice. This would result in annual price increases of up to 10% on average – which equates to approximately $1 per year meaning .org will continue to be one of the most affordable domain names on the market.”

The organization added that it understood the concerns over the sale, but said much of the criticism stemmed from the fact “that we weren’t as clear as we should have been” about what it would mean for .org.

Erik Brooks, founder and chief executive of Ethos, has pledged to set up a Stewardship Council to “uphold PIR’s core founding values and provide support through a variety of community programs”.

That response wasn’t enough for non-profit organizations. Many are now signing an open letter to stop the sale of the top-level domain. The open letter is signed by organizations such as Creative Commons, the Wikimedia Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Greenpeace, the Free Software Foundation, the Tor Project, and many many others. The open letter reads, in part:

The 2019 .ORG Registry Agreement represents a significant departure from .ORG’s 34-year history. It gives the registry the power to make several policy decisions that would be detrimental to the .ORG community:

  • The power to raise .ORG registration fees without the approval of 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.

The EFF offered further comments on the issue, saying that censorship is one of the biggest concerns about the sale:

Registries like PIR manage the Internet’s top-level domains under policies set out by ICANN, the governing body for the Internet’s domain name system. Registries have the power to suspend domain names, or even transfer them to other Internet users, subject to their contracts with ICANN. When a domain name is suspended, all of the Internet resources that use that name are disrupted, including websites, email addresses, and apps. That power lets registries exert influence over speech on the Internet in much the same way that social networks, search engines, and other well-placed intermediaries can do. And that power can be sold or bartered to other powerful groups, including repressive governments and corporate interests, giving them new powers of censorship.

Using the Internet’s chokepoints for censorship already happens far too often. For example:

  • The registry operators Donuts and Radix, who manage several hundred top-level domains, have private agreements with the Motion Picture Association of America to suspend domains based on accusations of copyright infringement from major movie studios, with no court order or right of appeal.
  • The search engine Bing, along with firewall maintainers and other intermediaries, has suppressed access to websites offering truthful information about obtaining prescription medicines from online pharmacies. They acted at the request of groups with close ties to U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers who seek to keep drug prices high. The same groups have sought cooperation from domain registries and their governing body, ICANN.
  • The governments of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, among others, regularly submit a flood of takedown requests to intermediaries, presumably in the hope that those intermediaries won’t examine those requests closely enough to reject the unjustified and illegal requests buried within them.
  • Saudi Arabia has relied on intermediaries like Medium, Snapchat, and Netflix to censor journalism it deems critical of the country’s totalitarian government.
  • DNA, a trade association for the domain name industry, has proposed a broad program of Internet speech regulation, to be enforced with domain suspensions, also with no accountability or due process guarantees for Internet users.

So, with plenty of history with domain name suspensions, it’s understandable why non-profit organizations are up in arms over this. The fear of increasing in pricing and censorship is two major reasons why they oppose the deal. A third is the fact that a private for-profit entity is taking over the domain name authority used by non-profit organizations. That, critics say, represents a philosophical conflict.

Many will no doubt be looking for developments early next year on this story. After all, a lot can be disrupted should things go sour.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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