Tip Sheet: Proposed sale of .ORG poses serious threat to online civic space

BREAKING: Late Thursday, April 30th, the ICANN Board announced its decision to withhold consent to the transfer of PIR from ISOC to Ethos Capital.

Civil society organizations and other concerned stakeholders around the world have been standing in solidarity against the proposal for the Internet Society (ISOC) to sell the registry overseeing .ORG — civil society’s home online — to private equity firm Ethos Capital.

This proposal presents a severe threat to online civic space, raising concerns about censorship, security, affordability, and stability at a time when human rights defenders around the world are already increasingly under attack, and when civil society organizations are leading the charge to meet their communities’ needs during the global COVID-19 health crisis.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has oversight over all top-level domains, including .ORG, and it now must decide whether it will allow .ORG’s management to change hands. ICANN’s board is scheduled to discuss the matter on Thursday, and it has a deadline of Monday, 4 May, to make a decision. ICANN’s decision is an important — but not the final — step in an ongoing process to determine .ORG’s future.

Find below quotes from civil society representatives, as well as additional resources for background:

“Civil society is under attack around the world – from governments, private markets, and now from within its own domain.” – Brett Solomon, Executive Director at Access Now.

“.ORG is a common resource that belongs to civil society, activists, and community groups. It cannot be governed by a private entity that conducts shady business dealings behind closed doors.” – Brett Solomon, Executive Director at Access Now.

“Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google decide what happens to the stories we share — while also profiting off our data. Internet service providers decide what you can access online and at what cost — and in some places, prevent access to the internet altogether. Can we really afford to let a private equity firm like Ethos Capital decide who deserves a .ORG domain, at what profit margin, and with what level of stability and security?” – Carolyn Tackett, Global Campaign Strategist at Access Now.

“There are very few spaces run by civil society, for civil society, with the public interest at their very center. .ORG has been the rock upon which online civic space is built, and there is far too much at stake to shake that foundation.” – Carolyn Tackett, Global Campaign Strategist at Access Now.

“Human rights defenders around the world are fighting an uphill battle against censorship, surveillance, reputational attacks, and other online threats, not to mention threats to their physical safety. Handing over .ORG — the backbone of online civic space — to investors only puts all of us at further risk, now and for decades to come.” – Carolyn Tackett, Global Campaign Strategist at Access Now.

“Right now, ICANN has an important opportunity to stand up in defense of .ORG and all those who depend on it. Monday’s deadline is by no means the end of the road in this process to determine .ORG’s future, but it is the last chance for ICANN to stay true to its commitments to defend the public interest by saying no to this deal.” – Carolyn Tackett, Global Campaign Strategist at Access Now.

“Government officials, from the California Attorney General to the French and German governments, are rightly taking a hard look at this proposal. It’s wholly appropriate for officials to step up and protect civic space from threats posed by private equity. Artists in Pennsylvania, healthcare practitioners in Berlin, and climate activists in Brazil all depend on the .ORG domain. Pressure from policymakers may unfortunately be necessary to save their spaces from rapacious capital.” – Peter Micek, General Counsel, Access Now, and Adjunct Professor, Columbia-SIPA 

“As the Chinese government intensifies efforts to stifle any criticism of its disastrous early response to the coronavirus in Wuhan, ICANN is considering handing over the DotOrg domain to a private equity firm whose investors will inevitably have commercial interests that are subject to Beijing’s censorship extortion.” – Ken Roth, Executive Director at Human Rights Watch 

“Internet freedoms are declining around the world, further shrinking civil society space. As we collectively tackle Covid-19 and the climate emergency, people need even greater access to trusted safe information and the .ORG domain is where NGOs, healthcare providers and many communities digitally operate. The potential implications of this sale are enormous – ICANN must do the right thing and shut this deal down.” Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director at Greenpeace International

“The internet is built on trust, and the .ORG domain is an embodiment of that trust. 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.” – Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation

“We believe the sale of .ORG is a significant issue of social justice. And as such, it presents a severe threat to civil society’s essential role in this critical moment, when we need to pave the way towards a just recovery from the two global crises we face now: the COVID-19 pandemic and climate breakdown. We must guarantee that the needs of the most vulnerable communities are met, not corporate executives. If .ORG is transferred to the private sector, it can easily end up in the hands of companies that will pay any price to take advantage of its control, which means that the same immoral companies that we fight against in our movements may very well be the ones controlling what we say and how we organize, just at a time when human rights and climate defenders around the world are increasingly under threat.” – May Boeve, Executive Director at 350.org

Additional Resources:

Save Dot Org campaign site with signatures from more than 800 organizations and 25,000 individuals

Letter from California Attorney General to ICANN recommending that ICANN withhold its consent to the transfer

Letter from members of U.S. Congress expressing concerns that the sale would not be in the public interest

Preserving ICANN’s Independence Through Bold Action — Not Inaction, Mitch Stoltz, CircleID

It’s time for ICANN to #SaveDotOrg, Carolyn Tackett and Peter Micek, Access Now

Advice from ISOC Chapter Advisory Council that the sale should not proceed