The .Org Domain Will No Longer Be Sold to Private Equity Vultures

ICANN scraps the sale of .org in a 'stunning' win for activists and the internet.
May 1, 2020, 3:18pm
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Image: Iliescu Victor 

After a massive backlash among experts, activists, and internet users, a controversial plan to sell management of the .org domain system has been cancelled.

Late last year the Public Interest Registry (PIR), the agency that has managed the .org domain since 2003, announced it would be selling itself to Ethos Capital, a private equity fund with links to Republican billionaire families like the Perots and Romneys. The move was quickly criticized by activists and experts alike, who insisted it would undermine the entire purpose of the .org domain and drive up costs for nonprofits. After a lengthy review and months of debate, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced this week it would be scrapping the sale entirely.

“After completing extensive due diligence, the ICANN Board finds that withholding consent of the transfer of PIR from the Internet Society to Ethos Capital is reasonable, and the right thing to do,” ICANN said.

Under the plan, PIR would have been converted from a nonprofit under the Internet Society (ISOC) to a for-profit company under Ethos Capital. This new entity, ICANN’s board concluded, would be “bound to serve the interests of its corporate stakeholders” yet had “no meaningful plan to protect or serve the .org community.”

Registrars like NameCheap previously told Motherboard they were considering legal action against ICANN for ignoring the public interest. Especially in the wake of a decision last June by ICANN to eliminate all price caps on .org domain registrations, a move supported by just six of the more than 3,000 public comments received by ICANN at the time. PIR and Ethos Capital previously announced the creation of a “Stewardship Council” they claimed would protect the integrity of the .org system post-sale. But ICANN’s board stated there was no guarantee that this board would be “properly independent” and act in the public interest. ICANN also argued that the $350 million in debt created by the sale would have potentially left PIR on unstable footing, resulting in “unacceptable uncertainty” for the .org system in the years to come. A recent letter from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra urging ICANN to scuttle the scale likely played an integral role in California nonprofit’s decision. Given PIR is registered in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania’s AG had also been reviewing the sale. A massive coalition of activist groups, nonprofits, and experts—including ICANN’s first chair Esther Dyson—had also opposed the sale.

“While recognizing the disappointment for some, we call upon all involved to find a healthy way forward, with a keen eye to provide the best possible support to the .ORG community,” ICANN said. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which led the charge against the sale, called it a “stunning” victory for nonprofits and NGOs working around the globe in the public interest. “We’re glad ICANN listened to the many voices in the nonprofit world urging it not to support the sale of Public Interest Registry,” the EFF said. “The proposed buyout was an attempt by domain name industry insiders to profit off of thousands of nonprofits and NGOs around the world.” The EFF had previously warned that the sale would have also increased censorship on the internet, since a private equity-owned registry would have the financial incentive to suspend domain names and shutter websites at the request of corporations and governments. “This decision by ICANN is a hard-fought victory for nonprofit Internet users,” the EFF said. “But the .org registry still needs a faithful steward, because the Internet Society has made clear it no longer wants that responsibility.”