Now is not the time to destabilize .ORG, putting civil society and healthcare providers at risk

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.

Here at Access Now, we’ve been closely following developments around the proposal for the Internet Society (ISOC) to sell Public Interest Registry (PIR) — which controls the .ORG top-level domain that civil society around the world relies on — to private equity firm Ethos Capital. In short, it’s a bad deal, even with the recent concessions, and you can find out more here about the #SaveDotOrg coalition’s work to stop it.

Right now, while our communities are focused on staying safe, PIR so far is still holding ICANN to the current March 20 deadline to decide whether it will consent to the transition of control of the .ORG registry. 

“Far from routine, this transfer would further imperil crucial channels of trusted information in a precarious time,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel for Access Now. “From Médecins Sans Frontières to Wikipedia to many of the world’s hospitals, organizations that disseminate accurate health information and connect affected communities with public resources depend on the .ORG domain. Now is not the time to shift the ground beneath their online activities.” 

Given the current global crisis around COVID-19, and what is at stake for all who depend on .ORG — including civil society and many healthcare providers around the world — to reach people in urgent need of assistance, PIR should immediately extend the deadline.

“Ethos and PIR have consistently said they have the public interest at heart in pursuing this sale. Forcing a decision from ICANN when those most affected are facing the urgent and unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic very clearly demonstrates otherwise,” said Carolyn Tackett, Global Campaign Strategist at Access Now.

Last month, in an attempt to temper public backlash against the sale, Ethos said it would add Public Interest Commitments (PICs) to the .ORG Registry Agreement to put in place temporary restrictions on price increases and to form a Stewardship Council, arguing these changes should address civil society’s concerns. 

Access Now has responded to ICANN’s CEO and Board directly to address why the proposed PICs are insufficient to protect .ORG registrants and why ICANN should withhold its consent for the change of control. 

We join a broad spectrum of opposition to the sale, including a group of 11 of the world’s leading NGOs who launched an open letter to ICANN and ISOC from Davos at this year’s World Economic Forum. 

“The internet is built on trust, and the .ORG domain is an embodiment of that trust,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, and one of the open letter’s signers. “This backdoor deal to sell the domain to a secretive private equity company would allow it to gouge profit from the nonprofit sector and give it unparalleled power over civil society, including ICANN itself as a .ORG entity. Belated and inadequate promises from Ethos Capital have failed to address the concerns of civil society. ICANN should refuse to allow .ORG to become a source of profit for any profit-making entity and thereby restore vital trust. The ITUC will support all efforts, including through the courts, to stop this ill-advised deal going ahead.”

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, another signer, said, “The Chinese government routinely uses economic pressure to censor critics or inconvenient information, such as about its disastrous early cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak. Investors in the private equity firm that wants to buy the .ORG domain inevitably will have economic interests that Beijing could threaten. The firm’s promise to create a ‘Stewardship Council’ to impose ‘appropriate’ limits on censorship efforts is hardly reassuring.”

“If this transfer goes ahead during the current crisis as planned, we’ll look back on it as an example of vested interests taking advantage of the extraordinary situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic to further their own concerns at the expense of the broader good of society,” added Daniel Eriksson, Head of Technology at Transparency International. “We need to be vigilant against any such actions, and this is precisely the role of many civil society organizations that have a watchdog function. We need maximum transparency and integrity around the sale of .ORG, and that is simply not possible if the sale is rushed through at a moment when peoples’ attention is elsewhere.”


Follow our work on the protection of digital rights in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.