EFF and 26 other organizations just sent a letter to the Internet Society (ISOC) urging it to stop the sale of the Public Interest Registry (PIR)—the organization that manages the .ORG top-level domain—to private equity firm Ethos Capital. Our message is clear: .ORG is extremely important to the non-governmental organization (NGO) community, and our community should have a voice in decisions affecting the future of .ORG. From our letter:
Non-governmental organizations all over the world rely on the .ORG top-level domain. Decisions affecting .ORG must be made with the consultation of the NGO community, overseen by a trusted community leader. If the Internet Society (ISOC) can no longer be that leader, it should work with the NGO community and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to find an appropriate replacement.
New .ORG Agreement Spells Danger for NGOs
EFF was stunned when ISOC announced the sale last week. We’ve spent the last six months voicing our concerns to Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) about several terms in the 2019 .ORG Registry Agreement, urging ICANN to remove provisions that would make it easier for people in power to censor NGOs’ websites. Other organizations objected to ICANN’s removal of the price cap on .ORG domains, which allows the owners of .ORG to charge NGOs unlimited fees for continuing to keep their .ORG domains.
Throughout that six-month process, none of us knew that ISOC would soon be selling PIR to a private equity firm. Suddenly, those fears about the registry abusing the new powers ICANN was handing it became a little more palpable. Without the oversight of a trusted nonprofit organization like ISOC, a registry could abuse those rules to take advantage of the NGO sector.
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.
A registry could abuse these powers to do significant harm to the global NGO sector, intentionally or not. We cannot afford to put them into the hands of a private equity firm that has not earned the trust of the NGO community. .ORG must be managed by a leader that puts the needs of NGOs over profits.
Community Oversight Is Essential for .ORG
The sale is especially troubling because PIR was never supposed to be a for-profit venture. ISOC created PIR expressly for the purpose of managing .ORG, with ISOC’s continued oversight. When ISOC made its proposal to the ICANN board in 2002 to transfer management of .ORG to PIR, part of the pitch was that ISOC would continue to ensure that the NGO sector had a say in policy decisions affecting the .ORG ecosystem. In the words of ISOC’s then-president and CEO Lynn St. Amour:
We’re proposing [to] set up a separate non-profit company called Public Interest Registry that will draw upon the resources of ISOC’s extended global network to drive policy and management. [...]
We propose that the Public Interest Registry will be able to avail itself of the resources of the Internet Society, which provides an existing and globally extensive network of contacts with noncommercial Internet users.
ICANN and PIR let down that global network of noncommercial Internet users when they disregarded the NGO sector’s feedback on a major change to the .ORG Registry Agreement. The new agreement lets the registry in charge of .ORG do significant harm to NGOs—not just to their pocketbooks, but also to their right to speak out, organize, and criticize people in power.
Today, the NGO community is standing together to urge ISOC not to hand that authority to a for-profit company.
For more information, visit savedotorg.org.