Access Now calls on Internet Society to halt the sale of .ORG

UPDATE: (1 May, 2020) Following widespread community calls, ICANN’s board voted to reject the proposed sale of the .ORG domain to private equity firm Ethos Capital.

Berlin, Germany: While the internet community gathered at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to debate better internet governance structures, we learned that the Internet Society (ISOC), with no warning or public input, intends to sell the control of the .ORG domain registry (called the Public Interest Registry, or PIR) for an undisclosed amount to a for-profit private equity firm called Ethos Capital. Little is known about this firm, though it was founded six months ago, combines the money of several prominent Republican families in the United States, and includes former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadi as an adviser.

This opaque decision was made without consulting civil society groups that rely on .ORG to operate, without taking into consideration the human rights impacts of the business deal, and without taking into account the sale’s deleterious effects on the governance of the open and free internet. It follows closely on the heels of the removal of price caps in the .ORG Registry Agreement, despite overwhelming community opposition. With this sale, the Internet Society has pulled the rug out from under civil society around the world to allow a sale that stands to benefit only a few.

The nonprofit community’s grave concerns about this deal manifested into a town hall gathering at IGF in Berlin today, showing the importance that this issue has for organizations big and small.

We call on ISOC to stop the sale of .ORG until we get answers to the important and fundamental questions this agreement presents. For instance:

  • Did the parties involved consider the potential human rights impacts of this sale?
  • What safeguards exist to protect against the exploitation of the non-profit .ORG domain registrants? 
  • What type of oversight will ICANN engage in to help protect against bad behavior by Ethos and ensure the business respects human rights? 
  • Will there be complaint mechanisms to allow for non-profit registrants to challenge decisions by Ethos? 

A public process would allow the relevant stakeholders to ask and answer these questions, yet ISOC have so far refused to engage in such a process. The lack of information and transparency around the sale has contributed to its perception as corrupt and shady.

.ORG domains are civil society’s own space on the internet; it is where many of us were born and grew out of. There are over 10 million .ORG domain registrations worldwide, and our community has spent decades building trust in our brands and in the .ORG domain. To disrupt that space would be to cause significant harm for entities least able to handle it. A change in ownership and practices of the registry could be very disruptive, as nonprofits may have to migrate their websites, email addresses, and their entire online presences to other TLDs, which would likely cause chaos.

Taken together, the removal of price caps and this opaque sale process reinforce the marginalization of civil society, who are already facing restrictions and shrinking space to operate, online and off. We create the value of .ORG daily through our dedicated attention to our web spaces and the security and health of our online communities. Many organizations using .ORG belong to communities at risk, and, it appears, with the least voice. By excluding us from the decision process, ISOC ignored and alienated us.

As core actors and defenders of the open and free internet, civil society deserve better than this disrespectful back-door deal. We urge Internet Society to open a dialogue with civil society, publicly assess and address the potential human rights impacts of this proposal, and find a common way forward. Until this has happened, ISOC must halt the transfer of .ORG. Should ISOC fail to halt the sale, ICANN must engage in proper due diligence and use its powers to prevent the transfer of PIR from happening. 

This statement was amended at 6.30pm CET to clarify the role of ICANN.

More on this issue

Access Now joins other organizations in a letter to ISOC urging it to stop the sale of the Public Interest Registry (PIR) to Ethos Capital.

Minutes from the town hall meeting that took place during IGF 2019 are available here.