Sale of .org Top Level Domain Delayed Again After Public Outcry

It looks like the controversial sale of the .org to level domain is going to be delayed again after public outcry over it’s sale to a private company.

The sale of the .org top level domain (TLD) is, to put it mildly, very controversial. Last year, non-profits learned that Ethos Capital is attempting to buy the TLD for $1.135 billion. The purchase would see ISOC (the Internet Society) relinquish control over the TLD.

Many non-profits were upset by the move because ISOC is a non-profit organization. One of the reasons why so many are opposed to the sale is the fact that a private for-profit firm would then be controlling the TLD meant for non-profit organizations. This goes against what has been the case for so long that a non-profit organization controlled a TLD meant for non-profits.

Another serious concern many raised is what this sale would mean for free speech. One point of contention is the possibility that prices for registering and/or maintaining a .org domain name would go up. That would put further strain on non-profit organizations – especially smaller ones. Another related fear is that if a non-profit were to speak out against a particular for-profit company, pressure could be exerted to suspend the domain in a scenario not familiar with non profit organizations operating online. Ethos Capital, for its part, denied that anything will change following the sale, but many fear some of this will eventually come to fruition.

Up until recently, the sale would take place on the 20th of April. On the lead up to the sale, the EFF sent a letter to ICANN to express concerns about the sale. From the EFF:

EFF’s letter asks ICANN to focus on the questionable finances of the deal, and Ethos’s steady resistance to answering questions about it:

PIR [has] not provided the names of the directors and officers who would control PIR, an explanation of how PIR will service the $360 million debt that Ethos plans to burden it with, nor information on how PIR will distribute capital to Ethos’s investors. This reluctance to provide relevant information should itself justify ICANN’s rejection of the change of control. If PIR and Ethos have resisted giving ICANN a complete picture of their financial and structural plans (even on a confidential basis) during ICANN’s review, how can the NGO community expect that PIR will be candid and transparent in the years to come?

We also pointed out the suspicious organizational structure that Ethos plans to create:

Ethos plans to place PIR within a tangled web of Delaware shell companies: Ethos Purpose GP, Purpose Domains Feeder I, Purpose Domains Direct, and Purpose Domains Holdings, in addition to Ethos Capital itself. This Byzantine structure, along with Ethos’s refusal to disclose the directors, officers, partnership agreements, or the allocation of control, suggests a concerted effort to hide the real parties who will control the .ORG domain post-transaction and insulate them from any real oversight by registrants and the multistakeholder community.

As for Ethos’s “stewardship council” proposal, we explained to ICANN that it’s a hollow promise. The council would have only one mechanism for responding to censorship-for-profit: a veto on “PIR policies proposed by PIR concerning appropriate limitations and safeguards regarding censorship of free expression.” But as we explained to ICANN, that power is so narrow as to be useless. An Ethos-owned PIR would get to determine which “policies” fall within the council’s review, and council could only act if PIR formally changes one of those policies. Since PIR’s existing “anti-abuse policy” already allows the registry to make websites go dark on the flimsiest of reasons, and without due process, if they choose to do that, the stewardship council could not stop PIR from selling censorship.

Even in the narrow circumstances where the stewardship council could act, a veto by the council would require a two-thirds supermajority. That means any three of the seven members could allow PIR and Ethos to do whatever they want with nonprofits’ freedom of expression. And because PIR would always have a veto over the appointment and re-appointment of new members, it will always be easy for them to get those three votes.

In short, the “stewardship council” proposal is toothless, and won’t stop Ethos from doing what it wants to do with nonprofits’ home on the Internet.

Now that we are past the April 20th deadline, the question is, what has become of the sale? As it turns out, the sale has been delayed yet again. The delay seems to be partly in response to what is being described as a “scathing letter” from the California Attorney General. From Ars Technica:

ICANN, the nonprofit that oversees the Internet’s domain name system, has given itself another two weeks to decide whether to allow control of the .org domain to be sold to private equity firm Ethos Capital. The decision comes after ICANN received a blizzard of letters from people opposed to the transaction, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Becerra’s letter was significant because ICANN is incorporated in California. That means it’s Becerra’s job to make sure that ICANN is living up to the commitments in its articles of incorporation, which promise that ICANN will operate “for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole.”

Becerra questioned whether ICANN was really doing that. “There is mounting concern that ICANN is no longer responsive to the needs of its stakeholders,” he wrote.

So, for the time being, this battle is far from over. The new deadline is now set at May 4, 2020. As a result, there is still time for non-profit organizations to pressure ICANN to stop the sale of .org. If anything, this shows that the campaign to at least slow the sale of .org is, in fact, working for the time being. So, this is no doubt great news for the non-profits who are viewing this as a threat to their very existence online.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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