https://www.accessnow.org:443/why-us-congress-should-investigate-sale-of-org/

Dear U.S. Congress: Here’s why you should investigate the sale of .ORG

Access Now calls on the following U.S. congressional committee leadership to investigate Internet Society’s plans to sell control of the .ORG top-level domain — civil society’s home online — to a private venture capital firm.

December 12, 2019

The Honorable Roger Wicker
Chairman
U.S. Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science, & Transportation
The Honorable Maria Cantwell
Ranking Member
U.S. Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science, & Transportation
The Honorable Ron Johnson
Chairman
U.S. Senate Committee on
Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs
 The Honorable Gary C. Peters
Ranking Member
U.S. Senate Committee on
Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs
The Honorable Frank Pallone, Jr.
Chairman
U.S. House Committee on
Energy & Commerce
 The Honorable Greg Walden
Ranking Member
U.S. House Committee on
Energy & Commerce
The Honorable Carolyn B. Maloney
Chairwoman
U.S. House Committee on
Oversight & Reform
The Honorable Jim Jordan
Ranking Member
U.S. House Committee on
Oversight & Reform

 

Dear Senators Wicker, Cantwell, Johnson, and Peters; Representatives Pallone, Walden, Maloney, and Jordan:

The Internet Society (ISOC) recently announced its plans to sell Public Interest Registry (PIR) — and with it, control of the .ORG top-level domain — to Ethos Capital, a private venture capital firm, for over $1 billion. 

The sale threatens civil society’s right to exist online. We call on Congress to initiate an investigation into the proposed transaction.

The Sale of Public Interest Registry to Ethos Capital

For decades, civil society organizations around the world have used .ORG as their home. Over 10 million .ORG domains exist, many of which are registered by nonprofit organizations that use their domains to host their websites, run campaigns, share educational content, collaborate on open-source development, and so much more. Organizations like Access Now have built their reputations and online presence using a .ORG domain. 

Transferring ownership of PIR to Ethos Capital could cause great harm to the civil society community. First, a private venture capital firm has little incentive to keep domain costs at an affordable price for the nonprofit sector. (In fact, ICANN1 recently renegotiated its agreement with PIR to lift the long-standing cap on prices for registering .ORG domains.) Second, privatizing .ORG threatens the security of registration data for civil society organizations globally, including those working to defend human rights, which jeopardizes the services they offer and the safety of the people they are trying to protect.2 Third, it opens new risks for freedom of expression online because registries can suspend or prevent certain registrations, which allows them to “exert influence over speech on the Internet in much the same way that social networks, search engines, and other well-placed intermediaries can do.”3

The sale of PIR is even more concerning given the fact that civil society is already under attack globally, both online and off. Governments, corporate actors, and others who feel threatened by the work of human rights defenders have continued to expand their toolkit of violence, targeted surveillance, misinformation, reputational attacks, shutdowns and other censorship, and beyond. At a moment when the nonprofit community is desperately in need of stability and support, ISOC has undermined its commitment to the public good and threatens to further shrink civic space. 

Congress Should Investigate

Congress should investigate and convene a public hearing. ISOC and Ethos Capital penned this deal without consulting the stakeholders it is most likely to affect: civil society organizations that rely on .ORG to operate. ISOC and Ethos also failed to account for the sale’s impact on human rights, and have inadequately addressed what safeguards are appropriate for the long-term health of online civic space. 

Congress can get real answers to civil society’s questions and make that information public. Questions include the following: 1) What safeguards exist to prevent exploitation of .ORG registrants by a private, for-profit firm?; 2) Would anyone, including ICANN, exercise meaningful oversight of Ethos Capital?; 3) What are the complaint mechanisms to challenge Ethos Capital’s management decisions?4 Mozilla has also sought answers from the parties about the transaction.5

The sale should not move forward without a robust public review to determine the fate of .ORG’s management. We call on Congress to conduct an investigation and convene a hearing about the suspicious deal. Nonprofit organizations in the United States and around the world deserve a safe space to raise their voices online.

Sincerely,

Eric Null
U.S. Policy Manager
Access Now
Jennifer Brody
Legislative Manager
Access Now

 

1 The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the organization responsible for overseeing top-level domain names and IP addresses, charged with maintaining a stable and secure global internet.
2 “Warning: proposed sale of the TLD puts .ORG registrant data at risk.” Gustaf Björksten. Access Now. 11 December 2019. https://www.accessnow.org/warning-proposed-sale-of-the-tld-puts-org-registrant-data-at-risk/.
3 “We need to save .org from arbitrary censorship by halting the private equity buy-out.” Mitch Stoltz. Electronic Frontier Foundation. 5 December 2019. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/12/we-need-save-org-arbitrary-censorship-halting-private-equity-buy-out.
4 We were pleased to see ICANN seek further information from PIR. But Congress should still investigate, especially as that dialogue may never be made public. “.ORG update.” ICANN blog. 9 December 2019. https://www.icann.org/news/blog/org-update.
5 “Questions About .org.” Mark Surman. The Mozilla Blog. 3 December 2019. https://blog.mozilla.org/blog/2019/12/03/questions-about-org/.

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