Activists Protest Potential Sale of .Org Registry

Activists Protest Potential Sale of .Org Registry

Activists opposed to a private equity takeover of the registry that handles the .org domain are expected to protest the arrangement in the streets of Los Angeles on Friday, the American Prospect reports.

Ethos Capital, a recently formed private equity firm, is bidding to take control of the Public Interest Registry (PIR), a subsidiary of the Internet Society (ISOC). "The entire purpose of [PIR] is to stop this [kind of thing] from happening," Cory Doctorow, a special advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is leading the charge against the sale, told the magazine.

Neither ISOC nor PIR actually manages the .org database, but even after writing a check to PIR — which writes a check to a third party that does manage the database — ISOC earns tens of millions of dollars from the domain — money that supports a series of side projects focused on increasing the reach and reliability of the Internet and ensuring that the foundations for its continued growth remain in place. Last June, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit that oversees top-level domains, decided to lift the cap on price increases on .org addresses, allowing for unlimited price hikes. Although 98 percent of the comments on the ICANN website opposed the change and the ICANN board did not approve it, staff members negotiated and finalized the agreement in the form of a contract extension with PIR.

In November, Ethos Capital, which is run by former ICANN officials, announced that it was purchasing PIR for more than $1.1 billion. According to the American Prospect, Ethos will be able to raise prices on dot-orgs without restriction if the sale goes through, while domain registries might be tempted to impose restrictions on the addresses they manage, especially if pressured to do so by the private equity firms that fund Ethos. In such a scenario, a nonprofit investigative news outlet like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which produced the Panama Papers, might find itself battling wealthy backers of the registry interested in silencing it. Critics of the deal also worry that registries could start tracking user visits to .org websites and sell the data — data that, in the hands of an authoritarian government, could endanger the safety of website operators and visitors alike.

The sale was put on hold for thirty days in December amid a public outcry and concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the deal, and ICANN still must sign off on it for the deal to go through.

"[ISOC has] said that with all these new domain names out there, .org will be worth less," said Doctorow. "But if .org stops mattering, we don't need ISOC anymore. Handing them a billion dollars will not help nonprofits....This [sale] is the kind of boring, important thing where a lot of mischief happens."

David Dayen. "The Attempted Corporate Takeover of .Org." American Prospect 01/22/2020.