Last month, the Internet Society (ISOC) announced plans to sell the Public Interest Registry (PIR) — the organization that manages all the dot org domain names in the world — to a private equity firm named Ethos. This caught the attention of Mozilla and other public benefit orgs.
Many have called for the deal to be stopped. It’s not clear that this kind of sale is inherently bad. It is possible that with the right safeguards a private company could act as a good steward of the dot org ecosystem. However, it is clear that the stakes are high — and that anyone with the power to do so should urgently step in to slow things down and ask some hard questions.
For example: Is this deal a good thing for orgs that use these domains? Is it structured to ensure that dot org will retain its unique character as a home for non-commercial organizations online? What accountability measures will be put in place?
In a letter to ISOC, the EFF and others summarize why the stakes are high. Whoever runs the dot org registry has the power to: set (and raise) prices; define rights protection rules; and suspend or take down domains that are unlawful, a standard that varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. It is critical that whoever runs the dot org registry is a reliable steward who can be held accountable for exercising these powers fairly and effectively.
ISOC and Ethos put up a site last week called keypointsabout.org which argues that the newly privatized PIR will be just such a steward. Measures outlined on the site include the creation of a stewardship council, price caps, and the incorporation of the new PIR as a B Corp. These sound like good plans at first read, but they need much more scrutiny and detail given what is at stake.
ICANN and the ISOC board are both in a position to slow things down and offer greater scrutiny and public transparency. We urge them to step back and provide public answers to questions of interest to the public and the millions of orgs that have made dot org their home online for the last 15 years. Specific questions should include:
- Are the stewardship measures proposed for the new PIR sufficient to protect the interests of the dot org community? What is missing?
- What level of scope, authority and independence will the proposed Stewardship Council possess? Will dot org stakeholders have opportunities to weigh in on the selection of the Council and development of its bylaws and its relationship to PIR and Ethos?
- What assurances can the dot org community have that Ethos and PIR will keep their promises regarding price increases? Will there be any remedy if these promises are not kept?
- What mechanisms does PIR currently have in place to implement measures to protect free speech and other rights of domain holders under its revised contract, and will those mechanisms change in any way with the transfer of ownership and control? In particular, how will PIR handle requests from government actors?
- When is the planned incorporation of PIR as a B corp? Are there any repercussions for Ethos and/or PIR if this incorporation does not take place?
- What guarantees are in place to retain the unique character of the dot org as a home for non-commercial organizations, one of the important stewardship promises made by PIR when it was granted the registry?
- Did ISOC receive multiple bids for PIR? If yes, what criteria in addition to price were used to review the bids? Were the ICANN criteria originally applied to dot org bidders in 2002 considered? If no, would ISOC consider other bids should the current proposal be rejected?
- How long has Ethos committed to stay invested in PIR? Are there measures in place to ensure continued commitment to the answers above in the event of a resale?
- What changes to ICANN’s agreement with PIR should be made to ensure that dot org is maintained in a manner that serves the public interest, and that ICANN has recourse to act swiftly if it is not?
In terms of process, ICANN needs to approve or reject the transfer of control over the dot org contract. And, presumably, the ISOC board has the power to go back and ask further questions about the deal before it is finalized. We urge these groups to step up to ask questions like the ones above — and not finalize the deal until they and a broad cross section of the dot org community are satisfied with the answers. As they address these questions, we urge them to post their answers publicly.
Also, the state attorneys general of the relevant jurisdictions may be in a position to ask questions about the conversion of PIR into a for profit or about whether ISOCs sale of PIR represents fair market value. If they feel these questions are in their purview, we urge them to share the results of their findings publicly.
One of Mozilla’s principles is the idea that “a balance between commercial profit and public benefit is critical” to maintaining a healthy internet. Yes, much of the internet is and should be commercial — but it is important that significant parts of the internet also remain dedicated to the public interest. The current dot org ecosystem is clearly one of these parts.
The organization that maintains the underpinnings of this ecosystem needs to be a fair and responsible steward. One way to ensure this is to entrust this role to a publicly accountable non-profit, as ICANN did when it picked ISOC as a steward in 2002. While it’s also possible that a for-profit company could effectively play this stewardship role, extra steps would need to be taken to ensure that the company is accountable to dot org stakeholders and not just investors, now and for the long run. It is urgent that we take such steps if the sale of PIR is to go through.
A small postscript: We have sent a letter to ICANN encouraging them to ask the questions above.