Dot-org is the top-level domain that is most used by nonprofits and civil society organizations around the world. The nonprofit that is in charge of the dot-org domain, Internet Society, has agreed to sell its subsidiary, Public Interest Registry (which operates and distributes dot-org domains), to a new private equity firm, Ethos Capital. TechSoup has signed the #SaveDotOrg letter protesting this sale, and we invite our members to sign it as well.
What Is Dot-Org Actually?
Dot-org was one of the original top-level Internet domains (like dot-com) that were established in 1985. It has been operated by the nonprofit Public Interest Registry (PIR) since 2003 after having been owned by two commercial companies before that.
The domain was originally intended for nonprofits, but this restriction was not enforced, and it became an open domain available to anyone. Even commercial sites can be dot-orgs. Famously, Craigslist, among the world’s largest for-profit ad websites, is at craigslist.org. Dot-org is marketed as a powerful signal that your site serves a greater good — rather than just a bottom line.
Despite being technically an open domain, dot-org is mostly used by noncommercial entities and is generally associated with nonprofits. The domain is quite valuable now with over 10 million active dot-org domains.
The Sale of Dot-Org
In November 2019, PIR was sold by its owner, the nonprofit Internet Society, to Ethos Capital for an undisclosed amount, but which is estimated at just over $1 billion. Since 2003, PIR had capped the price of dot-org domains at $9.05 per year for each domain name, but in July 2019, the price cap was lifted. Soon after that, the Internet Society was approached by Ethos Capital with an offer to buy PIR and the rights to operate the dot-org domain. Internet Society quickly accepted the offer.
On December 5, 2019, NTEN organized a conference call so nonprofit stakeholders could ask questions of the CEOs of PIR and Ethos Capital. Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society, said that Internet Society had not had any intention of selling PIR and dot-org. They had not put dot-org up for sale for open bids. The Ethos Capital offer was on a very short timeline, and they accepted it.
Sullivan said that the transaction will provide the Internet Society with the sustainable funding and resources to advance its mission. He assured us that all of its domain operations and educational initiatives will continue and that "there will be no disruption of service or support to the dot-org community." Interestingly, after the sale, PIR is expected to transition from being a nonprofit to become a commercial B Corp.
To quote accessnow.org, "This dubious deal was struck without consulting civil society groups that rely on .org to operate, without accounting for its impact on human rights, and without proper safeguards for the long-term health of online civic space."
Author Cory Doctorow adds that nonprofits will probably pay higher prices to maintain their domains, and the new commercial owner will be able to censor what gets posted to dot.org domains by kicking out any domain that it doesn't like.
Private equity firms like Ethos Capital are privately held investment funds that buy and restructure companies that are not publicly traded. Their financials and activities are largely unregulated and are publicly undisclosed. Ethos Capital's founder and CEO, Erik Brooks, assured everyone on the NTEN conference call that
- Ethos Capital's intentions are to keep price increases low at 10 percent per year.
- Dot-org will be operated within the spirit of how PIR has operated dot-org previously.
- Ethos Capital has no plans to impose any censorship on the dot-org community.
It is clear, however, that there is no binding obligation on the company to do any of those things.
Ethos Capital has stated that it will be establishing a Stewardship Council that will serve to uphold PIR's core founding values and provide support through a variety of community programs. As yet, we have no idea what if any role nonprofits will have in a new Stewardship Council.
Chris Worman, TechSoup's vice president of alliances and program development, sums up some of our concerns about the sale of PIR and dot-org.
"Like other #SaveDotOrg signatories, we are concerned the sale went ahead with no consultation, little transparency or option for civil society to perhaps put together a bid to keep PIR in the sector. Ethos may have the best intent, and a better-capitalized PIR may ultimately prove a good thing. The sale has, however, significant ramifications, and that there was no deliberation with the sector goes against the philosophical underpinnings and consultative nature of our community, seeding mistrust.
"This is serious when considering what a dot-org URL represents. For many who identify as civil society, dot-org is a badge of pride and identity. Handing control over it is similar to saying to someone who proudly identifies as American, 'You can keep identifying as an American for now, but we just bought the rights to "American" and will now determine how that part of your identity is governed.'"
We believe that signing the #SaveDotOrg letter protesting this sale can be effective in stopping the sale or adding nonprofit consultation to the operation of dot-org. The governing body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has the right to withhold approval of the proposed sale under Section 7.5 of the Dot-Org Registry Agreement. ICANN has 30 days after it receives the last requested information about such a sale to consent or explicitly withhold consent.