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April 24, 2020; Guardian and The Register

The nonprofit subsidiary Public Interest Registry (PIR) has been the operator of the top-level .ORG internet domain since 2003. Internet addresses whose URLs terminate in “.org” are meant for nonprofits or “organizations of a non-commercial character.” Because of this, they’ve had a certain amount of safe harbor, including a cap on how much domain names of this kind can cost. (Up until last summer, that cap was $8.25. ICANN [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], the international nonprofit organization that handles the assignation of internet addresses, lifted that restriction on June 30, 2019.)

The founder and current owner of PIR is the Internet Society (ISOC), a 501c3 nonprofit that seeks to support and promote “the development of the Internet as a global technical infrastructure, a resource to enrich people’s lives, and a force for good in society.” As of November 2019, ISOC has been trying to sell PIR, and stewardship of the .org domain, to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm, for $1.13 billion. (Ethos is backed by some prominent Republican families, including the Perots, the Romneys, and the Johnsons who are behind Fidelity Investments.) Under this plan, PIR will be converted from a nonprofit into a for-profit B corporation. In theory, the “B corporation” designation indicates a commitment to a social vision (i.e., be of benefit to workers and the environment) while earning profits for its owners.

This proposed sale has caused no small amount of consternation among people who care about nonprofits and the causes they champion. Some are concerned that with the lifting of price caps, acquiring a .org domain will become prohibitively expensive for the small organizations who need them. (Of the 3,252 public comments left on ICANN’s move to lift the price cap, only six were in favor.)

Others, including four US senators and one US representative, find that Ethos and PIR have been less than transparent about the purchase itself, including having redacted the information about the LLCs that will actually end up owning the Registry. They also fear that after this sale takes place, the Registry will end up burdened with debt as it tries to pay off the costs of its own acquisition. (This isn’t unusual for entities acquired by private equity firms—like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, for example.)

Lastly, some groups, including nonprofit advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), believe that private ownership of this top-level domain opens site owners up to efforts to censor or delist sites that don’t align with the interests of Ethos or its backers. In this way, the EFF’s aims here align with their support of net neutrality and other efforts to keep the internet open.

Then, there’s the matter of time for public commentary. EFF has been active in making sure that this sale has been subject to enough official scrutiny and sufficient time has been left for invested parties to weigh in. Among them was California’s state attorney general Xavier Becerra, who writes, “ISOC purports to support the Internet, yet its actions, from the secretive nature of the transaction, to actively seeking to transfer the .ORG registry to an unknown entity, are contrary to its mission and potentially disruptive to the same system it claims to champion and support.” It’s the intervention of Attorney General Becerra that appears to have gotten the delay we’re currently in.

Ethos, naturally, has been working overtime to assuage these fears. (Here’s their response to Becerra’s letter.) In the updated Public Interest Comments statement from April 6, they lay out the terms of how they plan to raise the prices on .org domains—a year-upon-year increase from the current maximum of $9.93 until 2027, when the cap is lifted completely. (Asked about the possibility of domain registrations costs skyrocketing, former ISOC president Vint Cerf said, “Hard to imagine that $60/year would be a deal breaker for even small nonprofits.” True in the Unites States, perhaps, but not around the globe.)

Applicable Maximum

Fee Time Period

$9.93 June 30, 2019 to June 29, 2020
$10.92 June 30, 2020 to June 29, 2021
$12.02 June 30, 2021 to June 29, 2022
$13.22 June 30, 2022 to June 29, 2023
$14.54 June 30, 2023 to June 29, 2024
$15.99 June 30, 2024 to June 29, 2025
$17.59 June 30, 2025 to June 29, 2026
$19.35 June 30, 2026 to June 29, 2027

Applicable Maximum Fee = $9.93 x (1.10n) Where n is equal to the whole number of years elapsed since the Effective Date.

No person who is a Registry Operator employee, officer, director, LLC member or equity owner [or immediate family member of any of the foregoing] shall serve on the .ORG Stewardship Council.”) As for the censorship question:

Registry Operator will produce and publish annually a report that assesses Registry Operator’s compliance with Section 4 of these Public Interest Commitments and the ways in which Registry Operator pursued activities for the benefit of the registrants of .ORG domain names during the preceding year. This report will also include a transparency report setting forth the number of .ORG domain name registrations that have been suspended or terminated by Registry Operator during the preceding year under Registry Operator’s Anti-Abuse Policy or pursuant to court order.

So, although we may never know which sites got taken down or why, we will certainly know how many.

Although a new deadline of May 4th was set, there’s a special meeting of the board set for today on the ICANN calendar, with an agenda item of “PIR Change of Control.” If you’d like to add your name to those in opposition, EFF is still running an email campaign at—naturally.—Jason Schneiderman