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Prominent internet leaders form entity to tackle .ORG’s sale to private firm

Courtesy: Pixabay

After the sale of Public Interest Registry (PIR), the nonprofit corporation which maintains the .ORG domain to private equity firm Ethos Capital in November 2019, a group of internet and non-profit leaders have filed incorporation papers to form a new entity to stop the sale. Called the Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants, the non-profit will demand the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees internet domain names, to hand over the management of the .ORG domain to the group. This was first reported by The New York Times.

Members: The new non-profit entity reportedly has 7 directors, including Esther Dyson, the former founding chairman of ICANN, Katherine Maher, CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation (the non-profit group that operates Wikipedia), and William Woodcock, the executive director of Packet Clearing House (a non-profit that provides operational support for domains). Former founding president of ICANN, Michael Roberts, Jeff Ubois (a philanthropist) are also among the directors, according to Reuters. Advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is also reportedly supporting the initiative.

What they said:

  • Maher told Reuters that the objective of the new non-profit entity isn’t to make a competing bid to acquire .ORG, but to manage the domain for security and to ensure that it doesn’t become a tool of censorship.
  • Dyson told NY Tīmes that the non-profit cooperative corporation’s aim is to “serve and protect nonprofits and the public,” whereas being owned by a private entity means that making profit is an incentive. “This is a better alternative,” she added.
  • Woodcock reportedly said that “there is a common good here,” which “is at risk of being undermined”. EFF’s executive director Cindy Cohen said that it is inappropriate to convert .ORG into a commercial venture.

Can the sale still stop? ICANN has the veto power to stop the sale of .ORG to Ethos Capital in case security, reliability or security concerns arise, according to Reuters. It can reportedly either approve the sale, reject it, or “ask more questions” by the end of this month. ICANN hasn’t sought comments from the public on the sale yet. The new non-profit entity has meanwhile reportedly briefed US Congress members to urge ISOC to reconsider the sale.

ISOC questions financial backing of the non-profit: In an emailed response, ISOC’s chief communications officer, James Wood told MediaNama that no one is raising questions about the financial backing or experience of the newly formed non-profit in running the .ORG domain. Wood said:

“We respect the right of parties to express a point of view on the sale of PIR to Ethos Capital. But .ORG users are right to wonder how this new group, organized by a couple of ex-ICANN executives, which has no financial backing or experience running a registry business, represents a more stable and safer operator of .ORG than Ethos and PIR. No one seems to be asking this question. No evidence has been presented as to how it could run .ORG better than PIR – or what it would invest in PIR to run a world-class registry and offer new services. This is in sharp contrast to what has been laid out as part of our transaction with Ethos, and what it would accomplish for .ORG users and the Internet Society.”

Sale of .ORG had raised several concerns: The sale of .ORG domain to a for-profit company had raised concerns among domain registrars and customers that domain renewal prices could potentially increase over time.

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  • Later in November 2019, Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web had said that he was “very concerned” about the sale of .ORG domain to a private company. Asking for an “urgent explanation” about the deal, he had said that if the Public Interest Registry ends up not being required to act in the public interest, it would be a “travesty”.
  • Mozilla Foundation’s executive director, Mark Surman, had also raised questions about the sale because the “stakes are high”.

At the time, the Internet Society’s (ISOC) James Wood had told MediaNama that the .ORG domain will continue to be accessible and reasonably priced despite being sold to a private entity.  He had also said that ISOC “determined that Ethos Capital was the ideal partner and owner to help lead PIR (Public Interest Registry, which manages .ORG) into its next chapter”. We have reached out to ISOC to understand how they view the formation of this non-profit entity.

Ethos Capital’s response to the concerns: In a blog post in December 2019, while responding to Surman’s questions, Ethos Capital’s founder and CEO, Erik Brooks, had said that domain registration prices for .ORG would be limited to “no more than 10 percent, per year, on average”. Any changes to these pricing commitments would be subject to a formal process involving both the PIR Board and the PIR Stewardship Council, he had said.

  • The PIR Stewardship Council will “seek input from the .ORG community,” and members would be selected from “authorities knowledgeable in the fields of mission-driven, charitable and non-profit organization management across a spectrum, including but not limited to, social entrepreneurship, community development, economic empowerment, social advocacy, human rights, and general philanthropy,” Brookes had written.
  • He had also said that freedom of expression will not be hampered and that PIR will continue taking action against security and speech issues according to its existing anti-abuse policy. However, Surman had also asked how PIR will handle government requests, and Brooks did not specifically answer that.
  • Brooks had also clarified that Ethos will invest in PIR for “the long haul,” without specifying for exactly how long it will remain invested in the non-profit.

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