In November 2019, the Public Interest Registry, the nonprofit that maintains the .org domain, announced the internet domain would be acquired by Ethos Capital, a California-based private equity firm. Now, some of the world’s most prominent nonprofits, including Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, are protesting the sale in a scathing letter obtained by BuzzFeed News.
“The sale of .ORG could have generational impacts,” the letter said. “Should the governance and stewardship of .ORG end up under the control of private or other actors that could lead to financial or other barriers that would irreparably harm global civil society.”
Brett Solomon, the executive director of digital rights nonprofit Access Now, told BuzzFeed News the nonprofits do not want their websites and registration costs to be subject to a private fund. The 11 signatories keep their sites on .org domains, Solomon said, along with their plans, data, history, strategy, and communication. They worry that putting these domains in the hands of a private equity firm, as opposed to a nonprofit, could put all that at risk.
“This is where we live,” Solomon said of .org. “To have it move from a not-for-profit stewarding that to a private equity firm causes us great concern.”
The letter, addressed to the heads of Internet Society and Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which steward .org, was signed by Solomon along with the executive directors of Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Sierra Club, among others.
“This proposed sale,” the letter said, “undermines the safety and stability of the digital space for countless non-governmental organizations, their partners, and their broader communities.”
Chief among their concerns is that a private equity firm could raise the price for maintaining a .org website. But the groups are also concerned about the safety of their data and control of their sites. “If a government is able to put significant pressure on the Public Interest Registry to actually remove content, remove organizations, censor them, surveil them — it’s very concerning from a human rights perspective,” Solomon said. “The issue of pricing is a symptom of a question about control.”
A spokesperson for Ethos Capital defend the sale: “As the Internet landscape continues to change, Ethos’ investment in .ORG will be vital to ensure the domain can keep pace with this evolution, both now and over the long-term. Together, PIR and Ethos will provide the resources to grow .ORG and develop innovative products and services that will strengthen the ability of mission-driven organizations and others to do good around the world.”
Here’s the full text of the letter:
Dear Andrew and Göran, and the boards of both ISOC and ICANN:
We would like to thank you for your ongoing stewardship of .ORG and the governance of the non-commercial sphere of the internet.
However, as executive directors of some of the world’s leading international NGOs, whose websites and services depend on stable and affordable .ORG domains, we are writing to express our deep concern about the proposed sale of the .ORG top-level domain and the process by which that proposed sale is occurring.
.ORG is the place where civil society and NGOs reside in the digital environment. Both the physical and virtual world have become increasingly inhospitable and risky for civil society organizations who face constant surveillance, online censorship, and even more physical risks and legal restrictions on their operations and personnel. This proposed sale presents an additional danger to civil society and undermines the safety and stability of the digital space for countless non-governmental organizations, their partners, and their broader communities.
Given the potential risks of privatizing the allocation of .ORG addresses, we urge you to stop the sale of .ORG to Ethos Capital, in your respective capacities, and to facilitate an open and transparent review of the circumstances that led to this proposal. We would also urge you to adopt and implement safeguards to ensure that should there be any change in the ownership of .ORG in the future, that it not lead to increased barriers to entry online or instability for non-profit civil society organizations.
We believe the ownership and management of .ORG is a significant human rights and social justice issue because this unique address is a critical channel for civil society to seek and receive information about human rights and other environmental and social justice issues, and to hold institutions accountable. The sale of .ORG could have generational impacts, should the governance and stewardship of .ORG end up under the control of private or other actors that could lead to financial or other barriers that would irreparably harm global civil society.
Proper due diligence must be done to assess any potential adverse impacts on civil society and ensure proper safeguards are in place to mitigate those risks and prevent any harms. At this time, we therefore call upon you to stop this sale.
Human Rights Watch
International Trade Union Confederation
Acting Secretary General
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Marta L. Tellado
President & CEO
Color Of Change
And here is Ethos Capital's full response:
Ethos, PIR and the Internet Society stand firmly behind the merits of this transaction, namely the immense opportunities it will enable for PIR and the Internet Society to advance their important work for the public benefit and the Internet at large. PIR – which will remain the registry operator and has successfully operated .ORG for 16 years – has the proven resources to ensure the registry continues to be secure, reliable, and stable, and Ethos’ investment in PIR will further strengthen .ORG moving forward.
As we have stated previously, this transaction serves the public interest in several important ways. First, it will ensure the long-term growth and development of the .ORG domain by enabling PIR to expand its work and the services it provides to the nonprofit community and other .ORG users in innovative and socially responsible ways. Second, it will provide essential support for the ongoing work of the Internet Society by providing a substantial endowment that will ensure its ability to continue its efforts to build a more accessible, inclusive and secure Internet around the world.
In addition, Ethos has announced it will maintain the same technology, and will keep PIR’s management team in place, so that .ORG will remain secure, reliable and stable. And the Internet Society, Ethos and PIR have taken the unprecedented step of publishing the registry transfer request, as well as the answers to ICANN’s questions, in what has been the most transparent change of indirect control process in ICANN’s history.
Ethos also has outlined pricing guidelines it will implement for .ORG, which do not contractually exist today, so that prices will stay low. Ethos has stated it will enshrine these pricing commitments into the founding documents governing the operation of .ORG moving forward.
Ethos has also made commitments with respect to freedom of expression and upholding human rights more broadly. PIR and Ethos take the preservation of freedom of expression seriously, and the registry’s commitment to free speech will continue unabated.
As the Internet landscape continues to change, Ethos’ investment in .ORG will be vital to ensure the domain can keep pace with this evolution, both now and over the long-term. Together, PIR and Ethos will provide the resources to grow .ORG and develop innovative products and services that will strengthen the ability of mission-driven organizations and others to do good around the world.