What a Sale of the .org Registry to a For-Profit Private Equity Firm Could Mean for Your Nonprofit

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What does it mean to have a .org domain name? For nonprofits, that home on the web gives our donors, volunteers, and those we serve confidence that we have our community’s best interests at heart. For many years, we’ve all enjoyed that same confidence in our domain names because they’ve been administered by a charitable nonprofit, the Public Interest Registry. We could count on reliability. We could count on free speech. And we could count on price increases that were reasonable in size to maintain this critical internet infrastructure – essentially a public utility – without imposing unreasonable burdens on nonprofits. All that is now at risk as Public Interest Registry is in the process of being sold to a brand-new private equity firm known as Ethos Capital.

This all started in 2002 when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the entity then working as the agent of the U.S. Department of Commerce, sought to place the domain in a safe place dedicated to non-commercial entities. ICANN issued an RFP seeking a safe place for the .org domain and imposing certain criteria. Ultimately, ICANN awarded the new agreement to the nonprofit Internet Society, which created the nonprofit Public Interest Registry to manage it.

Then, early last year, ICANN suddenly removed longstanding caps on price increases for .org domains. For many years, prices could increase no more than 10 percent per year. Public Interest Registry rarely took advantage of its right to increase prices and generally kept those increases around 3 percent. During an open comment period regarding the possibility of removing the price caps in Spring 2019, ICANN received more than 3,200 comments about the proposed removal of price caps. Only 9 of those comments supported the action, and the other 3,200+ opposed the change. Yet ICANN still proceeded with removing the caps. At almost the exact same time, the private equity firm Ethos Capital was incorporated and, shortly thereafter, it swooped in to purchase Public Interest Registry for $1.1 billion. While Ethos has said (in a non-binding manner) that it intends to keep with the spirit of those past caps, even if they kept increases to 10 percent per year, over the next decade more than $750 million would be diverted from the work of nonprofits into the pockets of their investors.

Among the other risks, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation details at-length, are potential censorship and “takedowns” of .org sites that are critical of businesses or governments (something that would affect many nonprofits around the world working toward change on vital issues), the sale of browsing data from people visiting .org websites, and cutting costs by scaling back infrastructure upkeep (which could lead to downtime for .org websites and email).

Everyone who's looked at this pending sale with any independence has found reason for concern, including: 

A protest, led by our partners at NTEN and Electronic Frontier Foundation, is planned for this Friday, January 24,  at ICANN's headquarters in Los Angeles.

So, what can your nonprofit do? First, we encourage you and your nonprofit both to sign on at Save Dot Org before forwarding it to your contacts. Second, stay up-to-date on the latest developments by watching the hashtag #SaveDotOrg. This is a fast-moving issue, so social media will be able to keep you more up-to-date. If this sale goes through, your organization may want to contact its web registrar to renew its domain name for the maximum ten years. This would help insulate your organization (at least for a while) against steep price hikes. For now, stay tuned. We’ll share more information as this situation continues to develop.

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