A private equity fund backed by three prominent Republican billionaire families is expected to buy the dot-org domain, throwing into question whether the online safe haven for rights organizations and nonprofits could now face censorship or spiralling costs.
Ethos Capital has offered $1 billion for the domain, which is currently operated by a nonprofit.
But a small and vociferous group of nonprofits, charities, and human rights organizations have banded together to make a last-ditch attempt to block the sale.
Organizations across the globe rely on the .org domain space to share information without government censorship and surveillance. And with authoritarian regimes increasingly looking to repress online freedoms by censoring and blocking internet access, some of these groups told VICE News they fear the domain being controlled by a for-profit entity will expose them to those efforts and ultimately put more lives in danger.
In Venezuela, human rights group RedesAyuda says it “faces many threats in our work, and independence online is one of those things where we need to feel safe.”
“Imagine Goldman Sachs buying the New York water supply.”
And many stressed that their work is becoming even more critical in many places around the world. “With increasingly dangerous conditions for human rights defenders on the ground, online spaces enable us to safely and widely disseminate information about the human rights situation in the Philippines,” Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan, executive director of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center, told VICE News. The Philippines government of President Rodrigo Duterte is increasingly threatening legal action against websites critical of his regime.
The controversial sale will be discussed Friday at a board meeting of the group that keeps the internet running: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Those backing the sale say this is the best option to secure the future of the dot-org domain. And Ethos Capital, which is backed by the Perot, Romney, and Johnson families, has pledged to safeguard the domain for all those who use it at the moment.
“We're confident that this is in the best interests of the registry, in the best interests of the registrants, and in the best interest of the whole internet,” Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society, a nonprofit that oversees the domain, told VICE News.
But critics of the move say the promises made by Ethos Capital are not backed by any legal obligations. They also say there’s a problematic lack of transparency about the sale and who will be running the new organization overseeing the domain.
So a group of respected internet pioneers and nonprofit leaders have come forward to offer an alternative proposition. But they don’t have $1 billion to offer.
What is dot-org?
Dot-org was one of the original top-level domains, with com, us, edu, gov, mil and net, established in January 1985. The domain was designed as an online home for nonprofit groups or noncommercial organizations that did not meet the requirements for other top-level domains.
Dot-org is home to over 10 million URLs, making it the third-largest domain on the internet today. A huge variety of organizations use the domain ending, from massive multinational organizations like UNICEF to local libraries and animal shelters. Since 2003, it’s been managed by the Public Interest Registry (PIR), a nonprofit overseen by the Internet Society.
Despite its popularity, the annual price for registering the domain has been capped at $9.05, making it much more accessible than most other domain endings.
“From the Red Cross to the Girl Scouts, all of the world’s leading nonprofits rely on dot-org domains for websites, email and fundraising,” Jacob Malthouse, a former vice president with ICANN and a critic of the sale, told VICE News.
“Imagine Goldman Sachs buying the New York water supply.”
So, what are the concerns?
Charities and human rights organizations around the globe that rely on the dot-org domain told VICE News the sale could threaten their missions, or even their very existence.
“We’re a small nonprofit with limited resources that we prefer to use to further our mission than spend on administrative costs,” Keri Peyton from Guatemala United for Animals said, echoing the views of many smaller nonprofits. And many also expressed fears specific to the country they operate in.
GreatFire, a nonprofit that monitors the status of websites censored in China, worries that Ethos will “strike a financially lucrative deal with the Cyberspace Administration of China that included a clause to cancel all dot-org domains held by ‘anti-China’ organizations.”
Digital rights group Encrypt Uganda is worried about Ethos selling off its data for profit.
And in Israel, community activist group Zazim is concerned that the sale to an unknown group “raises the risk of fraud” because anyone will be able to disguise themselves as a nonprofit.
“In the current political environment, allowing anyone to hold a dot-org domain, without the current regulations and transparency, will instantly cause the creation of a myriad of fake organizations and dot-org websites,” Benjy Cook, Zazim’s director of technology, told VICE News.
Why is it being sold?
Sullivan told VICE News that dot-org was “not really the core” of the mission of the Internet Society, which is more focused on access issues. “We work on community networks, we work on making sure that internet shutdowns are less attractive to governments.”
Since he took over as CEO in August 2018, Sullivan said, he has always received interest from different groups looking to buy the dot-org domain, but none of them were of any interest — until Ethos Capital contacted him last September.
What set Ethos Capital apart is the amount of money they were offering — $1.135 billion. But Sullivan says there were other considerations as well, including the plans the group outlined for the future of the dot-org brand.
“Ethos has talked about how they want to invest in PIR and keep the same management team,” Sullivan told VICE News. “And they've got a number of ideas about how the traditions in dot-org can be developed and built upon. They have an advisory council, they want to develop a stewardship council, and they want to build new services on top of this registry.”
Who is leading the backlash?
Many in the human rights and nonprofit space were furious at the surprise announcement in November that dot-org was being sold without any public consultation.
“This proposed sale presents an additional danger to civil society and undermines the safety and stability of the digital space for countless nongovernmental organizations, their partners, and their broader communities,” the executive directors of 11 international NGOs said in an open letter to ICANN and the Internet Society, published Wednesday.
So far, almost 700 groups and over 20,000 individuals have signed a petition to stop the sale, and on Friday the group will hold a protest outside of the ICANN offices where the board is expected to discuss the sale.
Ethos founder Erik Brooks said in a December blog post attempting to assuage people’s fears that it would limit increases for dot-org domain registration prices to no more than 10%, per year, on average.
He promised to continue PIR’s work to protect freedom of speech and expression.
An Ethos spokesperson told VICE News, “Many facts have been misconstrued in the public discourse about the acquisition, and some people have been misled to believe this transaction would negatively affect service or undermine the public benefit. We have a mix of U.S. investors, with an array of political views. We do not have a political litmus test. They are passive, non-controlling investors that have no role in management. PIR and Ethos take the preservation of freedom of expression and the upholding of human rights extremely seriously, and the registry’s commitment to free speech will continue unabated.”
But such promises ring hollow to those who oppose the sale.
“Ethos has refused to put any of these commitments into the ICANN contract,” Malthouse said. “Even if they agreed to do that, there is no window into their decision-making. We don’t even know who’s on their board. Nonprofits have no recourse and no insight. Ethos is a black box.”
Ethos this month released additional information about the purchase of dot-org, but PIR redacted the names of three of the board members who would be overseeing the new organization administering dot-org.
What happens next?
Earlier this month, a group including former ICANN executives and internet pioneers called the Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants filed incorporation papers in California. Their goal is to persuade ICANN to cancel the sale to Ethos and allow them to run dot-org instead.
“Dot-org is the open internet’s most essential noncommercial infrastructure,” Esther Dyson, who served as the first chair of ICANN from 1998 to 2000 said in a blog post. “CCOR will ensure that dot-org will be kept free of commercial pressures, is mandated by law to uphold its public service purpose, and remains exceptionally well-positioned to advance the missions of the organizations it serves.”
But ICANN has not responded publicly to the call.
It is holding a three-day board meeting in Los Angeles beginning Friday, where the topic of the dot-org sale will be among the primary topics up for discussion. This week the Internet Society and ICANN approved a 30-day extension to the process, giving both sides until Feb. 20 to approve the sale.
Sullivan says he doesn’t believe a final decision will be given on the sale this week, but it is expected to be approved soon.
In order for the sale to be finalized, it also has to be approved by a court in Pennsylvania, because that is where PIR is incorporated. The legal process is underway, but Sullivan could not give a date for when it will be concluded.
Despite the loud backlash from lawmakers, human rights organizations, and hundreds of nonprofits, the Internet Society and ICANN have given no indication that they are about to reverse their decision on selling dot-org.
But those spearheading the opposition are not giving up:
“This is by far the largest outpouring of public concern ICANN has ever seen,” Malthouse said. “It’s a huge opportunity for ICANN to prove it has the courage to stand behind its founding principles.”
Cover: Getty Images.