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'Stop This Sale': 11 NGO Leaders at Davos Warn Against Pending Private Equity Takeover of .Org Domain

"The security of civil society should not be entrusted to private equity."

save.org

Leaders of top NGOs are protesting the pending sale of the registry that operates the .org domain to a private equity firm. (Image: Andrew Stroehlein/Human Rights Watch/Twitter)

The executive directors of 11 major international nongovernmental organizations on Wednesday added their voices to a swelling chorus opposed to the pending sale of the nonprofit registry that operates the .org top-level domain to a recently established private equity firm.

"This proposed sale presents an additional danger to civil society and undermines the safety and stability of the digital space for countless nongovernmental organizations, their partners, and their broader communities."
—letter

The NGO leaders came together at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland to unveil a letter (pdf) they sent Tuesday to Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society (ISOC), and Göran Marby, president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

ISOC established the Public Interest Registry (PIR), which operates the .org domain and could soon be sold to the private equity firm Ethos Capital. The $1.135 billion deal, announced in November 2019, must be approved by ICANN. Last week, amid growing public outrage, ICANN and PIR extended the review period until Feb. 17.

Critics of the sale include NGOs, tech leaders, U.S. lawmakers, U.N. special rapporteurs, and more than 21,000 people worldwide who have signed the "SaveDotOrg" petition. They have expressed concerns that Ethos' possible takeover of .org—which was created to serve nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations but is an open domain—could increase costs, create service problems, and lead to censorship by powerful corporate interests.

The new letter was signed by heads of Greenpeace International, Access Now, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, the International Trade Union Confederation, Sierra Club, Amnesty International, Consumer Reports, 350.org, Color of Change, and Transparency International.

"Free expression around the world is increasingly endangered by government and corporate players, which is why we are joining other civil society organizations in making public our concerns over the .org sale," the ACLU's Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. "The internet is crucial to the integrity of civil liberties and human rights work, and also the safety of those doing it. The security of civil society should not be entrusted to private equity."

Brett Solomon of Access Now warned that "if .org is transferred to the private sector, it would inevitably make its way into the hands of those who stand to gain from its control and are willing the pay the price to have it—that could be, for example, the Saudi or Chinese government, or surveillance tech investors like Novalpina Capital."

"Certain public goods should never be for sale," according to Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. As he put it: "We don't auction off the town square. Similarly, ICANN shouldn't approve the sale of .org, which is the essential haven where civic groups gather the world over."

NGO leaders emphasized in the letter that their groups "depend on stable and affordable .org domains" because ".org is the place where civil society and NGOs reside in the digital environment," and called on the heads of ISOC and ICANN to "stop this sale."

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The letter explained:

Both the physical and virtual world have become increasingly inhospitable and risky for civil society organizations who face constant surveillance, online censorship, and even more physical risks and legal restrictions on their operations and personnel. This proposed sale presents an additional danger to civil society and undermines the safety and stability of the digital space for countless nongovernmental organizations, their partners, and their broader communities.

[...]

We believe the ownership and management of .org is a significant human rights and social justice issue because this unique address is a critical channel for civil society to seek and receive information about human rights and other environmental and social justice issues, and to hold institutions accountable. The sale of .org could have generational impacts, should the governance and stewardship of .org end up under the control of private or other actors that could lead to financial or other barriers that would irreparably harm global civil society.

In addition to preventing the sale, the letter urged ISOC and ICANN leadership to "facilitate an open and transparent review of the circumstances that led to this proposal" and "adopt and implement safeguards to ensure that should there be any change in the ownership of .org in the future, that it not lead to increased barriers to entry online or instability for nonprofit civil society organizations."

Echoing those demands Wednesday, Patricia Moreira of Transparency International encouraged "those involved in this potential transaction to handle it in the open with maximum transparency and integrity."

The leaders of PIR, ISOC, and Ethos have all presented the potential sale in positive terms. BuzzFeed, which obtained and reported on the letter late Tuesday, published a lengthy response from the private equity firm which said that "Ethos, PIR, and the Internet Society stand firmly behind the merits of this transaction" and reiterated its claims that "this transaction serves the public interest in several important ways."

Ethos added that "prices will stay low," pointing to its previous promise that "any annual price increase could be no more than 10% on average," honoring a longtime cap that ICANN scrapped last year despite widespread opposition. However, as Domain Name Wire pointed out Monday, "PIR rarely increased prices, let alone by 10%," and "had PIR increased its prices by 10% a year starting in 2007, wholesale .org prices would currently be $20.71, more than twice the current cost."

Despite reassurances from those pushing for the deal that the Ethos takeover would benefit .org owners, critics continue to organize in opposition to it. David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect—which has a .org domain and signed the "SaveDotOrg" petition—wrote Wednesday that "if the country has an interest in a vibrant internet, especially for nonprofits operating as a public service, registries should be public and impervious to this kind of capture. Even the threat of a .org takeover should never have occurred."

As Dayen highlighted, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, and other nonprofits are planning a Friday morning rally outside ICANN's offices in Los Angeles to protest the sale. At the event, organizers plan to deliver the "SaveDotOrg" petition, which declares that ".org must be managed by a leader that puts the needs of NGOs over profits."

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