Empty Promises Won’t Save the .ORG Takeover

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The Internet Society’s (ISOC) November announcement that it intended to sell the Public Interest Registry (PIR, the organization that oversees the .ORG domain name registry) to a private equity firm sent shockwaves through the global NGO sector. The announcement came just after a change to the .ORG registry agreement—the agreement that outlines how the registry operator must run the domain—that gives PIR significantly more power to raise registration fees and implement new measures to censor organizations’ speech.

It didn’t take long for the global NGO sector to put two and two together: take a new agreement that gives the registry owner power to hurt NGOs; combine it with a new owner whose primary obligation is to its investors, not its users; and you have a recipe for danger for nonprofits and NGOs all over the world that rely on .ORG. Since November, over 800 organizations and 24,000 individuals from all over the world have signed an open letter urging ISOC to stop the sale of PIR. Members of Congress, UN Special Rapporteurs, and US state charity regulators [pdf] have raised warning flags about the sale.

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The NGO community must have a real say in the direction of the .ORG registry, not a nominal rubber stamp exercised by people who owe their position to PIR.

Ethos Capital—the mysterious private equity firm trying to buy PIR—has heard the outcry. Ethos and PIR attempted last week to convene a secret meeting with NGO sector stakeholders to build support for the sale, and then abruptly canceled it. Ethos finally responded last Friday with an announcement that its promises to limit price increases and establish a “stewardship council” would be written into the registry agreement. But Ethos’s weak commitments don’t really address the NGO community’s concerns. Rather, they appear to be window-dressing: PIR would choose the initial council members itself and be able to veto future nominations, ensuring that the council remains in line with PIR’s management. And the limit on price increases still allows Ethos to double the fee over the next eight years, with no restrictions at all after that.

In a letter published today in the Nonprofit Times, EFF Executive Director Cindy Cohn and NTEN CEO Amy Sample Ward explain why the proposed measures wouldn’t solve the many problems with the sale of .ORG:

The proposed “Stewardship Council” would fail to protect the interests of the NGO community. First, the council is not independent. The Public Interest Registry (PIR) board’s ability to veto nominated members would ensure that the council will not include members willing to challenge Ethos’ decisions. PIR’s handpicked members are likely to retain their seats indefinitely. The NGO community must have a real say in the direction of the .ORG registry, not a nominal rubber stamp exercised by people who owe their position to PIR.

Moreover, your proposal gives the Stewardship Council authority only to veto changes to existing PIR policies concerning 1) use or disclosure of registration data or other personal data of .ORG domain name registrants and users, and, 2) appropriate limitations and safeguards regarding censorship of free expression in the .ORG domain name space. While these areas are important, they do not represent the universe of issues where PIR’s interest might diverge from the interest of .ORG domain registrants.

And even within these areas, PIR would “reserve the right at all times in [its] sole judgment to take actions consistent with PIR’s Anti-Abuse Policy and to ensure compliance with applicable laws, policies and regulations.” In other words, the Stewardship Council would be powerless to intervene so long as PIR maintained that a given act of censorship was consistent with its Anti-Abuse Policy or required by some government.

Cohn and Ward go on to explain that the limits on fee increases also fail to provide comfort to NGOs worried about price hikes: if Ethos raises prices as allowed by the proposed rules, the price of .ORG registrations would more than double over eight years. After those eight years, there would be no limits whatsoever, and the stewardship council would be expressly barred from trying to limit future increases. “The relevant question is not what registrants can afford; it’s why a for-profit company should siphon ever more value from the NGO sector year after year. The cost of operating a registry has gone down since 2002, not up.”

The sale of the .ORG registry affects every nonprofit and NGO you care about. If you believe that .ORG should listen to its users, not to investors, then please join us in demanding a stop to the sale.

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Author: Elliot Harmon

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