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A ‘symbol of public good’ on the internet is under attack

An organization intends to sell the .org domain name, predominantly used by nonprofits, to a private equity group—and nonprofits are protesting.

A ‘symbol of public good’ on the internet is under attack
[Photo: strizhakov/iStock]

In an era of powerful search engines, you seldom need to type in or remember the addresses of the websites you’re visiting. Often, you may not even remember if a business’s website ends in .com, .biz, or something zanier—like .pizza.

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For many nonprofit organizations, though, having a .org domain name is still a matter of prestige, conveying a sense of credibility to the public. For years, the organization that manages .org names, called the Public Interest Registry, has been in the hands of a nonprofit called the Internet Society.

But last fall, the Internet Society announced that it intended to sell the registry to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm, for more than $1.1 billion. (The registry brought in just shy of $93 million in registration fees for 2018, according to public IRS filings). The move raised fears that what many charitable groups see as a vital part of internet infrastructure would suddenly be moved from a nonprofit into the hands of a business with an interest in recouping a significant investment.

As a result, hundreds of nonprofits from the YMCA to the American Alliance of Museums urged a stop to the sale. And while organizations could potentially switch to another domain if things go awry, that could mean big costs for reprinting literature, changing email addresses, and reconfiguring servers. And choosing a non-.org domain could be a hard choice, when the suffix is so associated with nonprofits in the public mind.

It has come to mean so much as a symbol of public good.”

Sarah Roth-Gaudette

“It has come to mean so much as a symbol of public good,” says Sarah Roth-Gaudette, executive director of the internet freedom nonprofit Fight for the Future.

Last week, protesters rallied in Los Angeles calling upon an organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the domain name system that maps human-readable names to numeric IP addresses, to effectively block the transfer, expressing concerns about pricing, reliability, and privacy. Under its contract with the Public Interest Registry, ICANN has the right to consent to changes in ownership of the registry and can take away its right to manage .org if it “reasonably determines to withhold its consent.”

In response to the backlash, Ethos officials say they’ll take steps to keep .org names affordable and the service reliable. The Internet Society has announced plans to use the money from the sale for an endowment to fund its other operations supporting internet technology.

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A group of Congressional Democrats including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon have gone on record in opposition to the sale, warning that Ethos could track who is accessing which .org domains to sell ads or for other purposes. That could potentially violate the privacy of people who access websites for sensitive reasons, such as for healthcare information, or who visit sites in authoritarian countries. They also warned that the company could censor nonprofits by threatening to take away their domain names based on the content of their websites—possibly as a means to enforce harsh overseas laws designed to stifle speech.

For its part, Ethos has said it has no intention of censoring or monitoring .org domain names and their users. “This notion is baseless and, frankly, a demonstration of the type of speculation that has taken the discussion surrounding the future of .org irresponsibly out of context,” according to a statement from the company, which has said it would set up a stewardship council to advise it on policy issues. “Ethos and PIR take freedom of expression very seriously, and the registry’s commitment to free speech will continue unabated.”

Critics also worry that Ethos, looking to recoup its investment, wouldn’t put enough resources into the domain name operations to keep systems running smoothly, potentially making it difficult for people to access websites, email, and other online resources for nonprofit groups around the world.

“Nonprofits are right at the core of most of our critical infrastructure,” says Bill Woodcock, the executive director of Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit that currently does some technical work managing the .org system, and a founding board member of a cooperative group that proposes to take over the .org domain. “A lot of people imagine nonprofits to be these sort of trivial things operating outside the mainstream economy, but that’s not the case at all.”

Nonprofits are right at the core of most of our critical infrastructure.”

Bill Woodcock

Ethos said it would invest in the technical infrastructure to keep .org operations running and would cap price increases to register .org domains at no more than 10% per year. Domains are currently priced at about $10 per year.

“Ethos has stated it will enshrine these pricing commitments into the founding documents governing the operation of .org moving forward,” the company said in a statement.

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But the opponents of the sale say even a 10% annual increase could be a burden for small nonprofits, particularly in less affluent countries.

“We’re talking about a global domain and a global nonprofit sector,” says Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the nonprofit tech organization NTEN, which is one of the groups opposing the sale.

One argument for the sale, made in a blog post by Internet Society board member Mike Godwin, is that a for-profit registry may be able to pivot more nimbly as the role of top-level domain names such as .org continues to shift. Already, in a world of apps and search-driven browsing, domain names are arguably less important than they were in the web’s early days. Plenty of browsing sessions begin with a search engine query or a click on a link in social media, not typing an address directly into a browser window, and apps for smartphones, smart speakers, and other new internet-enabled devices often don’t display domain names at all.

Still, some nonprofits, including internet heavyweights like the Mozilla Foundation, Wikimedia, and the Internet Archive, have rallied behind a counterproposal, calling for a nonprofit cooperative, owned by the organizations with .org domain names, to take over registry operations.

We spent a lot of time with really good lawyers trying to figure out how to best enshrine protections.”

Bill Woodcock

The cooperative, called the Cooperative Corporation of dot-org Registrants, has articles of incorporation that ban it from selling data, aiding in censorship, or raising prices beyond the current ratio to the cost of operations. Cooperative board member Esther Dyson, a former ICANN chair, says the founding board would likely resign in favor of a new board or other structure elected by the nonprofits.

“We spent a lot of time with really good lawyers trying to figure out how to best enshrine protections,” says Woodcock, who is also on the cooperative’s board. The cooperative’s bylaws, and a legal tradition upholding rights of cooperative members, should help protect the nonprofits that rely on .org, he argues.

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Whether either Ethos or the cooperative will get a chance to manage .org remains to be seen. ICANN, which held a board meeting this past weekend, didn’t respond to inquiries from Fast Company, and it’s so far unclear whether the organization will take steps to block the sale. The organization said in a statement last month that it had requested further information from the Internet Society and Ethos.

“ICANN takes its responsibility in evaluating this proposed transaction very seriously,” according to the statement. “We will thoughtfully and thoroughly evaluate the proposed acquisition to ensure that the .org registry remains secure, reliable, and stable.”

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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