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Editorial: Act in the public interest: Protect the integrity of the .org domain

The Editorial Board, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Op Eds

Nonprofits and organizations using a .org domain should have concerns over an impending sale that could threaten the stability of their digital operations.

The concerns are significant enough that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers should exercise its authority to intervene.

The Internet Society, or ISOC, a nonprofit group that operates the .org domain registry via Public Interest Registry, has proposed a sale of the PIR to the private equity firm Ethos Capital. The sale was announced just three months ago.

ISOC has agreed to hand over the PIR and its list of more than 10 million .org domains to Ethos Capital for the selling price of $1.135 billion. The speed with which the two parties are hoping to complete the transaction has thrown up many red flags, and there are many questions that have arisen as a result of the tentative deal.

Chief among these questions is this: How would the PIR sale affect the nonprofits for whom the .org domain was originally conceived? When ICANN gave ISOC the responsibility of managing the .org registry in 2002, it also provided for $5 million in funds to help. The idea was to keep the registry going at an affordable cost for nonprofits. This would ensure reliable access to their websites and services. The .org domain was meant to serve a greater good, something more important than a profit margin. The public interest was at the forefront of the project.

But now, ISOC is hoping to hand this important stewardship off to a private equity firm. And considering the role of a private equity firm, as well as the size of its $1.135 billion investment, Ethos Capital will be looking to squeeze every last dime out of the registry.

The firm could go about this in a number of ways: It could raise the annual registration fees on .org domains or sell user browsing data. It could even engage in censorship-for-profit -- taking money from special interests to suspend or transfer certain domains -- as other smaller registries have done in the past.

And because Ethos Capital has no experience in managing a domain registry, particularly one of the size or importance of the .org registry, it could also fail to provide the necessary technical services required to keep the domains operating smoothly. This could mean that vital services are offline when people need them.

 

Ethos Capital has offered vague and nonbinding statements about its commitment to the integrity of the .org registry, but no laws prevent it from enacting any of the aforementioned changes once it takes formal control.

ISOC has claimed that the $1.135 billion it would receive from the deal would be integral to its future work, including the creation of "new products and services" for those that use .org domains. But it is hard to imagine how those creations could be more valuable than a reliable caretaker of the registry.

This is where ICANN must step in. The group, which manages internet protocols and regulates the domain system, has the ability to stop the .org registry transaction. It should use this power, at least until it can receive concrete answers to the pertinent questions facing users of the .org domain. Public interest was at the heart of its decision to protect the .org registry in 2002, and it should guide its decision-making again in 2020.

(c)2020 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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