Websites using .org domain names fear they could lose their web addresses as intense backlash over the domain registry’s proposed sale continues.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the not-for-profit organization that coordinates the internet’s domain name system, is deciding whether control of .org will be sold to a private equity firm about which little is known.
The change of hands has raised concerns about censorship and how internet infrastructure affects free speech.
Websites using .org can be registered by anybody, but over the past decade the suffix has become the go-to domain term for not-for-profits and charities. The transfer of control of .org domains has left many concerned that a new owner could raise the price of addresses on the .org registry, making it prohibitively expensive for not-for-profits that have come to rely on its name recognition.
The not-for-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), along with the Domain Name Rights Coalition, Access Now, and others, wrote to Icann last week urging it to stop the sale.
“Essentially it means selling censorship,” Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney at EFF focusing on free speech and trademark issues, said of the sale. “It could mean suspending domain names, causing websites to go dark when some other powerful interest wants them gone.”
These concerns were exacerbated when in 2019, Icann removed the cap on the price for a .org domain, having previously prohibited registrars from being charged more than $8.25.
Until now, .org has been managed by the not-for-profit Public Interest Registry (PIR) – created by the Internet Society exclusively for the purpose. Icann awarded control of .org to the Internet Society, another not-for-profit, in 2002.
Icann is deciding if it will approve the sale of the domain registry to Ethos Capital, a private firm that emerged recently. Ethos has stated that it will keep prices low, but critics say because it is a for-profit company, it has no economic incentive to do so.
Attorneys general weigh in
Icann abruptly delayed its decision on Monday after receiving a scathing letter from the California attorney general, Xavier Becerra, on 15 April about the potential sale of .org.
Becerra’s letter came after not-for-profits and other internet freedom advocates said privatizing the domain registry would saddle it with more than $300m in debt.
Because Icann is incorporated in California, Becerra is in charge of ensuring it is “living up to its commitments”. It will provide an update on 4 May.
“There is mounting concern that ICANN is no longer responsive to the needs of its stakeholders,” Becerra wrote.
The attorney general of Pennsylvania is also reportedly investigating the deal. Because PIR, the organization selling .org, is incorporated there, the state would have the power to stop it from happening.
The Internet Society defends itself
Andrew Sullivan, the CEO of the Internet Society, said those using the .org domain registry would be better served by Ethos, which would have more resources than a not-for-profit to fund them.
He noted that the firm had been making changes responsive to criticism about the potential sale. Commitments include a cap on price increases for eight years from the start of the current contract and a “stewardship council” that will have a say over policies affecting .org sites.
“This shows Ethos is trying very hard to be a good steward of this resource,” he said.
Former members of Icann disagree. On Monday, its former CEO, Michael Roberts, and other former members wrote a letter criticizing the decision and imploring his successors to delay the transaction for six months.
“We write to express our deep dismay at ICANN’s rejection of its defining public-interest regulatory purpose as demonstrated in the totally inappropriate proposed sale of the .org delegation,” they wrote. “ICANN has not meaningfully acted to address the likely proposed service cuts, increase in prices or trafficking of data of non-profits to obtain additional revenue.”
Coronavirus changes the course
The debate has taken on new life amid the coronavirus pandemic. Advocates for not-for-profits are concerned about the debt incurred by the sale as coronavirus creates economic uncertainty.
In his letter to Icann, Becerra said the $300m in debt will change the relationship .org has with its sites.
“If the sale goes through and PIR’s business model fails to meet expectations, it may have to make significant cuts in operations,” Becerra said. “Such cuts would undoubtedly affect the stability of the .org registry.”
This is of particular concern as not-for-profit sites have become more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, said Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the technology not-for-profit NTEN.
“Most of the entities leading in data and information aggregation, scientific investigation and developments, community resourcing and response are all non-profits with .org websites,” she said. “Those organizations also stand to lose a great deal if this deal proceeds.”