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The Quest To Save .Org From Being Ruined By Private Equity

Broad efforts are underway to fix ICANN, preserve .org, and ensure the internet protects nonprofits and basic human rights.

by Karl Bode
Dec 3 2019, 7:05pm

Image: Getty Images

Experts, consumer groups, registrars and activists are working overtime to prevent the .org domain system—and the internet at large—from being undermined by greed.

Last month the Public Interest Registry (PIR), the agency that manages the .org domain, announced it would be selling itself to Ethos Capital, a private equity fund with links to Republican billionaire families like the Perots and Romneys.

And last June ICANN—the organization tasked with managing all internet domains—voted to eliminate all price caps on .org domain registrations and renewals. Just six of the more than 3,000 public comments received by the organization actually supported the move.

A coalition of opponents say the decisions in concert risk undermining the entire purpose of the .org system, driving up costs for nonprofits and businesses alike, all while undermining the internet’s capacity for transformative change.

Article 19, a nonprofit that works to ensure that basic human rights are protected online, is taking a bird’s eye approach to the problem. The group has been working with the Danish Institute of Human Rights to assess the domain space for the last few years, and is hopeful the efforts can help protect .org.

The group’s efforts include conducting human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) of domain management organizations (like the Dutch Internet domain registry SIDN, responsible for the .nl domain) then working with those organizations to highlight where they can do better.

“We work with groups who genuinely want to make their businesses better but are unclear of just what needs attention,” Article 19’s Mallory Knodel told Motherboard. She said the group had already scheduled an HRIA of the .org sale in 2020, and has been working with both Ethos and PIR to protect transparency and help protect nonprofits moving forward.

But she noted that ICANN’s recent behaviors highlight broader internet governance problems that go well beyond the .org debate.

“The removal of caps and the sale have complied with ICANN's current accountability structures

and therefore if PIR is to be governed in the public interest, those mechanisms need to go beyond what are currently in place,” Knodel said.

Knodel said the group recently helped pressure ICANN to include some basic human rights protections in its bylaws at last month’s ICANN 66 meeting in Montreal.

“This means that we have governance with teeth by which we can evaluation policy development processes in ICANN going forward,” she said. The result, she said, would help shift domain name management “towards best practices that not only comply with, but champion, human rights and user centric approaches to governance.”

That should prove helpful, given registrars say ICANN hasn’t been taking criticism of its recent decisions seriously.

“ICANN has not been receptive to any community feedback on maintaining the price caps,” Namecheap CEO Richard Kirkendall told Motherboard.

When Namecheap and other registrars filed a formal complaint last summer about the removal of price caps (and ICANN’s apathy to public input), the organization responded with a collective shrug, and has given no indication it intends to back off the move anytime soon.

Registrars like Namecheap are in the early stages of potential legal action against ICANN for ignoring the public interest on price caps, a move Kirkendall said could create additional problems for the .com domain and its users down the road.

“Removal of price caps, along with the conversion of PIR to a for profit company, creates the perfect storm for unchecked price increases for .org registrants—many who have limited resources, and have spent significant time and money in branding a .org domain,” he said.

“Looking at the bigger picture, this also opens up the door for price caps to be lifted from .com and .net domains in the future which will affect many more people,” he added.

But the Internet Society (ISOC), which operates PIR, seems just as unlikely to budge on the sale to Ethos. Despite criticism that Ethos was able to buy .org management for a song thanks to a lack of competitive bidding or transparency, ISOC president Andrew Sullivan has suggested that nothing but a court order could stop the transfer, and opposition is “overblown.”

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