As the proposed sale of the .ORG domain registry to private equity firm Ethos Capital plays out, we see more and more why this sale was rushed through: the longer we have to look at it, the more questions we all have, and the fewer answers we get. For the second time, some of the people questioning the wisdom of this sale are members of the U.S. Congress.
On March 18, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, Richard Blumenthal, Edward Markey, and Representative Anna Eshoo sent a new letter [.pdf] to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), urging, for the second time, that ICANN reject the “private equity takeover of the .ORG registry.”
The members of Congress pointed out that their previous questions have still not gotten satisfactory answers from ICANN, Public Interest Registry (PIR, the currently-a-nonprofit entity that runs .ORG that will be converted to a for-profit if this sale goes forward), and Ethos Capital. What we do know is that, while PIR claimed that ICANN’s review of the deal is limited to whether the sale will keep .ORG “secure, reliable, and stable,” ICANN itself said, “This is wrong.” ICANN can, in fact, consider the impact of the sale on the “public interest and the interest of the .ORG community.”
Of course, the sale is against the interest of the .ORG community. More than 25,000 people and 858 organizations have signed a letter demanding a stop to the sale. The impact on the public interest is proved by, among other things, the weakness of the “stewardship council” that Ethos claims will prevent them from harming the nonprofit community. Among other problems, PIR has reserved for itself the ability to ignore the council, making its existence basically moot.
The deal loses even on PIR’s preferred home court of the security, reliability, and stability of the .ORG domain registry. Ethos Capital and PIR claim that the benefits of converting PIR from a nonprofit for a for-profit is that it will allow them to take “risks” and develop new “products and services.” The members of Congress point out that in a webinar held last month neither PIR’s CEO nor Ethos’s CEO could give “a single, clear example of a useful new product or service that would be offered in exchange for the private equity-funded takeover of the .ORG domain, or an explanation of how .ORG being operated by a company that is ‘in the business of taking risks’ would be in the public interest.”
Based on EFF’s and Americans for Financial Reform Education Fund’s analysis of what is publicly known about this deal, it seems like the outcome can only be a PIR burdened with debt that will likely be paid off by reducing investments in technical upkeep, which could hurt reliability, security, and stability of the domains; charging nonprofits higher fees, under a new rule that allows PIR to raise prices up to 10% every year; allowing PIR and Ethos Capital to double the registration fee within seven years; and offering unspecified “new products and services” that could harm the interests of nonprofits in .ORG.
Ethos Capital and PIR have tried to use Public Interest Commitments (PICs), in order to make the square peg of this deal fit in the round hole of what is wanted and needed by the .ORG community. One PIC concerns registration fees, but doesn’t address any other burden PIR could place on .ORG registrants, many of whom rely on their .ORG address and have spent years making it a safe and reliable site for people seeking information and help from a nonprofit to go and therefore are incredibly reluctant to give up the address. As the letter from the members of Congress states, “we remain concerned that, if the sale is approved, Ethos can and will impose unlimited additional fees on registrants or registrars, which would not be addressed by the PIC’s price limit on registration fees.”
It’s incredibly important that people looking for help from nonprofits are able to go to the established, stable website to ask for it. In emergencies, people looking for help or reliable information are under extreme stress and need to get to the exact organization they are seeking, without interruption. And if someone is looking to donate to nonprofits providing vital services, it’s equally important they give their money or other gift to the right place.
The important work of the .ORG community should not be interrupted by anything, and certainly not a sale which will wring money out of that community while risking the reliability and stability it needs.