Change in .org ownership may be a canary in the coalmine – or a sign of the times

Yesterday I met with local chapter of Cycling Without Age about building a website. (I’m only name dropping because I think they do cool work matching modified rickshaws with bikers and people with mobility issues.) Anyways – we talked about a .com versus a .org domain name and I explained that you didn’t need to be a nonprofit now to get the .org (In the 90s you did need a nonprofit affiliation.) but that it still has some gravitas. It looks like that may be changing.

The LA Times reports that a private company just bought the .org registry…

many in the nonprofit world were startled by the announcement on Nov. 13 that the .org registry had been sold to a private equity firm, Ethos Capital. The seller was the Internet Society, a nonprofit that plays an important role in creating and maintaining internet engineering standards, but has been mostly the guardian of the .org domain. The price, as was revealed more than two weeks later, was a stunning $1.135 billion.

The new owners are Ethos Capital, a private equity firm…

Ethos didn’t even exist until earlier this year, and currently appears to have only two employees, including Erik Brooks, its founder.

Brooks listed his investment principles for me as “intellectual honesty, humility and respect and believing that prosperity can be built together.” But a week after the sale announcement, it emerged that the financial backers of Ethos included several firms with more conventional investment approaches, including funds associated with the families of H. Ross Perot, Mitt Romney and the Johnsons, owners of Fidelity Investments.

Brooks says Ethos is committed to running the .org registry in accordance with principles followed by the Internet Society, but hasn’t made that commitment in writing.

Back in the day, I did a lot of digital literacy training. And back in the day .org meant something. It was helpful to teach kids and folks new to the online world that .org spoke to an organization’s purpose and motive; .edu was the gold standard but .org was pretty good. I also told people to look at the publisher, author and funder to determine perspective and potential bias. It feels like the funders behind Ethos have a strong perspective. Following the digital literacy method for assessing information that means I should start asking questions.

Smarter people are way ahead of me, as the LA Times notes…

In the meantime, the deal has drawn brickbats from several internet luminaries.

They include Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who tweeted that “it would be a travesty” if the .org domain were no longer operated in the public interest. Also weighing in was Esther Dyson, the founding chairwoman of ICANN, who tweeted that she was “appalled” at what she called “the great .ORG heist.”

Here are their concerns…

The dot-org community has two main concerns about the sale. One is that Ethos will jack up the registration fee for .org websites, which is currently about $10 per year and has been subject to a traditional limit on increases of 10% a year.

More important may be Ethos’ ability to facilitate more censorship of .org websites by allowing third parties more latitude to object to content on those sites and prompt their shutdown.

The sale isn’t complete, so this discussion is important…

The sale, which is expected to close in the first quarter of next year, could be derailed only by two entities. One is the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the web’s Playa Vista-based governing body, which could rule on the transfer any day now. The other is Pennsylvania Orphans Court, which has jurisdiction because PIR is a nonprofit incorporated in that state.

Learn more…

“The .org registry is a point of control on the internet,” says Mitch Stoltz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has launched a campaign protesting the deal. “A private equity firm has an incentive to sell censorship as a service.”

This entry was posted in Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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