In a move celebrated by advocacy groups across the globe as "a major victory for the millions of nonprofits, civil society organizations, and individuals who make .org their home online," a body that oversees web addresses on Thursday blocked a takeover of the top-level domain by the private equity firm Ethos Capital.
The decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) board to reject the $1.1 billion deal, announced in November 2019, came ahead of a May 4 deadline and followed months of mounting concerns that the takeover could lead to censorship from corporate interests, increased costs, and service issues.
The group Access Now—which works to protect privacy, free expression, digital security, and human rights among internet users—welcomed the news on Twitter:
Thank you to the thousands around the world who stood up to #SaveDotOrg. Thank you to @ICANN for hearing us. Thank you to our friends and partners who have fought tirelessly to get this far, and we'll be standing together as this work continues.https://t.co/VTGnSUCoGb https://t.co/yKzR1k7yx9
— Access Now (@accessnow) May 1, 2020
Access Now global campaign strategist Carolyn Tackett had warned earlier this week that "human rights defenders around the world are fighting an uphill battle against censorship, surveillance, reputational attacks, and other online threats, not to mention threats to their physical safety. Handing over .org—the backbone of online civic space—to investors only puts all of us at further risk, now and for decades to come."
Under the deal, Ethos Capital would have acquired the Public Interest Registry (PIR) created by the Internet Society (ISOC) in 2002 to manage the .org domain, primarily used by nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations. All three entities claimed the acquisition would "ensure a bright future for PIR and .org registrants and users."
ICANN's board explained the decision with a blog post which said in part that "after completing its evaluation, the ICANN board finds that the public interest is better served in withholding consent as a result of various factors that create unacceptable uncertainty over the future of the third largest [generic top-level domain] registry."
Critics of the attempted private equity takeover—who came together for a global #SaveDotOrg campaign—included NGOs, tech leaders, U.S. lawmakers, and U.N. special rapporteurs. According to the tech nonprofit NTEN, which managed SaveDotOrg.org, nearly 900 groups and 64,000 individuals signed various petitions opposing the sale.
Woke up to the most amazing news this morning. The @ICANN Board and community have rejected the dot-org sale to private equity, describing it - accurately - as not in the public interest. https://t.co/qaFKCxXUeo
— Jacob Malthouse (@jacobmalthouse) May 1, 2020
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Access Now executive director Brett Solomon on Friday wrote about ICANN's decision to block the deal in a op-ed for the Los Angeles Times:
Around the world, people and organizations are using 10.5 million .org domains to host their websites, run campaigns, share educational content, collaborate on open-source development, and much more. We all knew it was of critical importance that we maintain .org as a space insulated from private sector interests—and stewarded by people who prioritize the needs of civil society, including nonprofit groups, charities, and foundations.
From downloading government health guidelines to online learning to connecting with isolated friends and family, the internet has become a lifeline. It has become the town square, the hospital, and the schoolyard all at once. Now was clearly the time to protect it, not sell it off to private equity.
As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, "it has been left to civil society organizations, and individual volunteers, to step up and fill in the gaps left by governments and corporations," wrote Solomon. "Privatizing resources established for the public good has a poor track record—think hospitals, prison systems, aged-care facilities, postal services—and privatizing control of the .org domain would have been catastrophic."
The Web Foundation, founded by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, also referenced the pandemic while applauding ICANN's decision:
More than ever, the web is a lifeline. And a critical force in curbing the spread of #COVID19.
The non-profits working tirelessly — providing accurate health information, mental health support and raising funds for emergency aid — need a domain they can depend on.
— The Web Foundation (@webfoundation) May 1, 2020
Karen Gullo and Mitch Stoltz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called ICANN's move "a stunning victory for nonprofits and NGOs around the world working in the public interest," but noted that PIR "still needs a faithful steward, because the Internet Society has made clear it no longer wants that responsibility."
In a blog post for EFF—which helped lead the fight against the blocked deal—Gullo and Stoltz wrote that "ICANN should hold an open consultation, as they did in 2002, to select a new operator of the .org domain that will give nonprofits a real voice in its governance, and a real guarantee against censorship and financial exploitation."