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Leading NGOs attack sale of .org domain to private equity

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A group of influential non-governmental organisations have launched a fresh attack against the sale of the .org domain name to private equity firm Ethos Capital.

It comes amid mounting concerns that the Internet Society’s (Isoc) plans to offload its Public Interest Registry (PIR) to Ethos – a newly-formed buyout group – for $1.1bn could drive up the price of using the popular domain for the world’s leading not-for-profit organisations.

Isoc was set up in the early 1990s to promote standards for, and access to, the worldwide web. It created the PIR in 2002 to manage the rights of the .org suffix, which is used by NGOs including Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch.

Critics of the Ethos deal, which was announced in November 2019, have also argued that private equity ownership could lead to potentially damaging levels of censorship.

A group of 11 NGOs published an open letter at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, asking the Isoc and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to step in and prevent the sale.

They wrote: “As executive directors of some of the world’s leading international NGOs, whose websites and services depend on stable and affordable .org domains, we are writing to express our deep concern about the proposed sale of the .org top-level domain and the process by which that proposed sale is occurring.”

Last year, Icann removed a price cap that prevented the PIR from charging more than $8.25 per domain.

The signatories, which included Greenpeace, HRW and Amnesty International, added: “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.”

There are further fears that new private equity owners could agree deals, for profit, with governments and other third parties to suppress content in their jurisdictions.

“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,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “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.”

In their letter to Isoc and Icann, the NGOs wrote: “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.”

The Netherlands chapter of Isoc has already raised concerns over censorship, while Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the worldwide web, has said he is “very concerned” about the sale.

Icann in December requested further information from PIR to have a “full understanding” of the proposed acquisition and decide if it will provide or withhold its consent. Last week Icann extended the deadline for the review by 30 days.

Icann has been contacted for comment.

In a joint statement Ethos and Isoc said they understand the concerns of the NGOs, however argued that “many facts have been misconstrued in the public discourse about the acquisition”.

They added that any annual price increase will not be more than 10% on average – equating to approximately $1 per year – and that Ethos is committed to the long-term growth and development of the .ORG domain.

“We also understand the concerns that have been expressed around censorship and data handling – these are concerns that the Internet Society shares. We work with some of these groups and have partnered with them on Internet-related initiatives. However, it’s important to understand how registries work and how their agreements are governed by Icann,” the statement reads.

“We welcome different views and opinions of the sale from the wider community, but we are also concerned that some of the entities opposing the sale are having one-sided conversations.”

Update: This article has been updated to include the response from Ethos and Isoc

To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Selin Bucak

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