Access Now questions Ethos Capital and PIR ahead of community webinar on .ORG stewardship

Last month, the Internet Society (ISOC) announced a proposal to transfer control of Public Interest Registry (PIR) — which oversees the .ORG top-level domain — to Ethos Capital. It was a backroom deal undertaken without any transparency to the .ORG community, and civil society has broadly opposed it moving forward.

On Thursday, December 19th at 11am ET, Ethos Capital and PIR will hold a community webinar to discuss how they intend to proceed if the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) approves the proposed transfer of control of .ORG. According to the webinar announcement, Ethos and PIR plan to discuss the “Stewardship Council” and “seek community input on its mandate, structure and mode of operation.” 

The proposed Council has been presented as the reason to trust Ethos as a credible guardian of the .ORG domain, upon which civil society around the world depends. However, the Council’s form would not be determined until after the sale, and thus far, it is only staged to play an advisory role rather than one of meaningful oversight. It would lack the authority to effectively protect the public interest, both now and in the future as unforeseen challenges arise, and by no means serves to legitimize the proposed sale of PIR from ISOC to Ethos Capital. 

Conciliatory conversations about the design of a toothless advisory council are a distraction from the many questions the .ORG community is raising about the inside dealings behind the proposed sale of PIR, and we — along with more than 175 organizations and thousands of individuals — continue to call on ISOC to immediately stop the transfer, and on ICANN to prevent it from moving forward.

We note Ethos Capital CEO Erik Brooks published a response on December 16th to questions Mozilla posed more than two weeks ago about the dubious transfer of ownership. However, the response was in large part inadequate, providing clarity on little else besides the fact that under Ethos’s management the necessary safeguards to protect civil society online would be lacking.  Many of the broader .ORG community’s questions remain unanswered.

In advance of the webinar, Access Now submits the following questions to Ethos and PIR that get to the heart of the problem:

Privacy & data security
Stewardship Council
  • Who would select the Stewardship Council members? What accountability would those Council members have to the .ORG community? What term would Council members serve, and how would their independence from Ethos and its investors be guaranteed?
  • What power would be given to the Stewardship Council to ensure it can effectively hold Ethos accountable and defend the interests of the .ORG community?
  • How do Ethos and PIR intend to consult and collaborate with .ORG community members in the drafting of the Stewardship Council charter? What transparency and accountability would be provided to the community throughout the process?
  • Would Ethos and PIR under its management refrain from implementing any substantive changes in PIR operations until a Stewardship Council with robust oversight authorities is in place?
.ORG domain registration price concerns
  • You mention that you are “committed to limit increases for .ORG domain registration prices to no more than 10 percent, per year, on average.” How would such an “average” be calculated? Over what period of time? What is to prevent discriminatory price increases based on, for example, language, geography, subject matter, or audience reach?
  • You state that you “plan to embed these pricing commitments in our Public Benefit LLC or other corporate governing documents.” Would these commitments be a prerequisite to completion of the domain transfer?
  • You mention that the Stewardship Council will play a role in reviewing changes to pricing commitments. What specific authority would the Council have to restrict price increases?
Non-profit to for-profit management
  • You state that you are “actively evaluating B Corporation Certification as well as other corporate forms including Public Benefit LLC.” How exactly do you aim to, in your words, “[continue] .ORG community engagement as [you] evaluate this option”? What concrete measures of accountability and transparency would be included in this process?
  • You argue that Ethos will defend the integrity, security, and accessibility of .ORG because it is the most profitable course of action. (To this end, you assert that “diminishing the value of the .ORG domain would be to diminish the value of PIR as a business.”) How would opportunities to sell registrant data, implement discriminatory price hikes (while staying below the promised “average” increase rate), or other pathways to profit change that calculus?
  • PIR has undertaken initiatives (such as anti-abuse, child protection, and security programs) under the management of a civil society organization. How can we expect Ethos, as a for-profit entity with very different interests than civil society reliant on .ORG, to seamlessly continue those initiatives?
  • You mention that ISOC selected Ethos “based on purchase price, the long-term commitment to continuing the mission-based values and principles of .ORG and its commitment to the management and staff of PIR.” What concrete evidence did Ethos provide to ISOC to substantiate those determinations?
Potential resale
  • You state that Ethos is “committed to invest in PIR for the long haul.” Has Ethos only made non-binding statements of intent to this end? Has Ethos made any formal commitment with ISOC or ICANN to refrain from a resale for any window of time?
  • In regards to a potential resale, you state that “paramount to any decision we make will be that it contributes to maintaining the value, integrity and purpose of the .ORG domain.” On whose evaluation will you base this calculus? Would Ethos be open to terms requiring that it return .ORG to the control of a civil society organization should it ever choose to divest? What protections are in place to prevent Ethos from undertaking a resale that is highly profitable but detrimental to the .ORG community?
  • You mention that you aim to balance “commercial profit and public benefit,” per Mozilla’s Principle 9. What does that look like in practice? Further, what would ensure that potential future buyers of PIR share this philosophy? How is it possible to avoid a fundamental shift in interests when moving from a peer-managed ecosystem to a business-customer model?
  • Would the perceived loss of value in PIR or .ORG result in an attempt to divest? If so, what protections are in place to ensure proper stewardship under a new owner?
Content governance
  • What controls are in place to avoid abuse of power and restrictions on speech? Who will be responsible for decisions on limiting access to the use of .ORG? How will those decisions be made, and what appeal or arbitration processes are available to challenge them?
  • While you mention the PIR Anti-Abuse policy will be maintained, you fail to address the Takedown Policy, which makes explicit reference to ISOC as an advisor and as the provider of governing principles. How would this policy be impacted under new management?