The .ORG top-level domain and all of the nonprofit organizations that depend on it are at risk if a private equity firm is allowed to buy control of it. EFF has joined with over 250 respected nonprofits to oppose the sale of Public Interest Registry, the (currently) nonprofit entity that operates the .ORG domain, to Ethos Capital. Internet pioneers including Esther Dyson and Tim Berners-Lee have spoken out against this secretive deal. And 12,000 Internet users and counting have added their voices to the opposition.
What’s the harm in this $1.135 billion deal? In short, it would give Ethos Capital the power to censor the speech of nonprofit organizations (NGOs) to advance commercial interests, and to extract ever-growing monopoly rents from those same nonprofits. Ethos Capital has a financial incentive to engage in censorship—and, of course, in price increases. And the contracts that .ORG operates under don’t create enough accountability or limits on Ethos’s conduct.
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Domain Registries Have Censorship Power
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.
As the new operator of .ORG, Ethos Capital would have the ability to engage in these and other forms of censorship. It could enforce any limitations on nonprofits’ speech, including selective enforcement of particular national laws. For intermediaries with power over speech, such conduct can be lucrative, if it wins the favor of a powerful industry like the U.S. movie studios or of the government of an authoritarian country where the intermediary wishes to do business. Since many NGOs are engaged in speech that seeks to hold governments and industry to account, those powerful interests have every incentive to buy the cooperation of a well-placed intermediary, including an Ethos-owned PIR.
Not Enough Safeguards
The sale of PIR to Ethos Capital erodes the safeguards against this form of censorship.
First, the .ORG TLD has a unique meaning. A new NGO website or project may be able to use a different top-level domain, but none carries the same message. A domain name ending in .ORG is the key signifier of non-commercial, public-minded organizations on the Internet. Even the new top-level domains .NGO and .ONG (also run by PIR), which would appear to be substitutes for .ORG, have seen little use.
Established NGOs are in even more of a bind. The .ORG top-level domain is 34 years old, and many of the world’s most important NGOs have used .ORG names for decades. For established NGOs, changing domain names is scarcely an option. Changing from .ORG to a .INFO or .US domain, for example, means disrupting email communications, losing search engine placement, and incurring massive expenses to change an organization’s basic online identity. Established NGOs are effectively a captive audience for the policies and prices set by PIR.
Second, the top-level domain for nonprofits should itself be run by a nonprofit. Today, PIR is a subsidiary of the Internet Society (ISOC), which also promotes Internet access worldwide and oversees the Internet’s basic technical standards. ISOC is a longstanding part of the community of Internet governance organizations. When ISOC created PIR in 2002, it touted its nonprofit status and position in the community as the reasons it should run .ORG. And those community ties help explain why, when PIR proposed building its own copyright enforcement system in 2016, outcry from the community caused it to back down. If PIR is operated for private profit, it will inevitably be less attentive to the Internet governance community.
Third, ICANN, the organization that sets policy for the domain name system, has been busy removing the legal guardrails that could protect nonprofit users of .ORG. Earlier this year, ICANN removed caps on registration fees for .ORG names, allowing PIR to raise prices at will on its captive customer base of nonprofits. And ICANN also gave PIR explicit permission to create new “protections for the rights of third parties”—often used as a justification and legal cover for censorship—without community input or accountability.
Without these safeguards, the sale of PIR to Ethos raises unacceptable risks of censorship and financial exploitation for nonprofits the world over. Yet Ethos and ISOC insist on completing the sale as quickly as possible, without addressing the community’s concerns. Their only response to the massive public outcry against the deal has been vague, unenforceable promises of good behavior.
The sale needs to be halted, and a process begun to guarantee the rights of nonprofit Internet users. You can help by signing the petition: