CALIFORNIA — A catastrophe for anybody with a .org domain was narrowly averted when the nonprofit that currently manages all the .org domains on the planet decided against selling them to a for-profit corporation.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, better known as ICANN, announced that it received the offer in November. Private investment firm Ethos Capital, based in Pennsylvania, offered ICANN a $1 billion endowment in exchange for the Public Interest Registry, also known as PIR, which operates the .org domain.
When ICANN announced they’d received this offer, it opened a flood gate of opposition letters from both the tech community and pretty much anybody with a .org domain, including a letter from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a letter from Elizabeth Warren and other congress members.
“I’m glad ICANN listened to our concerns and blocked a private equity takeover of the .org domain registry, which would have raised costs on .org websites and threatened them with censorship. This is good news for nonprofits and everyone who relies on a free and open internet,” Warren wrote in the letter.
But most of the opposition was grassroots—people who pay for .org domains and don’t want to see them fall into the hands of an organization they don’t trust.
"We were... concerned about passing on the price hikes to customers who have registered .org domains," said Perry Toone, CEO of thexyz.com, an email service based in Toronto. He was so concerned about the sale, he started SaveDotOrg, a website that aims to raise awareness of the sale. "These (organizations that would be affected) are often charities or non-profit organizations. They were mostly unaware about the sale,” he said.
Most of the organizations that operate .org domains are not for profit, such as nonprofit organizations, clubs, community groups and non-traditional educational institutions, though there’s currently no rule that dictates who can and cannot use a .org domain.
This avalanche of opposition with "virtually no counterbalancing support" from anyone except from Ethos Capital is a big reason ICANN decided against the sale, which they made on April 30, according to their board minutes.
Also, the sale would have thrown the world’s .org domains into “unacceptable uncertainty,” mostly because of the night-and-day difference between for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations. For-profit businesses measure their success by how much money they make, but nonprofits measure their success by how well they fulfill their mission statement. Or, in ICANN’s words, the sale would “change from the fundamental public interest nature of PIR to an entity that is bound to serve the interests of its corporate stakeholders, and which has no meaningful plan to protect or serve the .ORG community."
Not to mention the $360 million of debt ICANN would be stuck with, even with the $1 billion endowment. This much debt would likely destabilize ICANN’s operation, the organization stated in an announcement.
As the helmsman of several .org domains myself—including my own coding boot camp’s URL—I was not only worried about a price increase, but the uncertainty of what Ethos Capital might do with it. The corporation could institute new rules, or even censor the content. They could cause organizations that have been using their .org domain for years to abandon it. Not appealing prospects.
Such organizations often run on a paltry budget, and though many industry professionals are predicting the technology sector to do better than most other sectors in the coming economic downturn, this might not apply to nonprofits. I’ve been managing the website for the Insurance Educational Association for several years now, but this week they had to announce that they’re dissolving their organization after 140 years. The organization runs on a lean budget and couldn’t withstand the COVID-19 economic hit. So clearly, an increase in costs for the .org domain, or worse yet, new rules that would have forced them to abandon the URL, thus confusing their clientele and losing students, could be quite harmful.
I’m not the only tech professional who applauded the decision to turn down the sales offer. Take for example Max Harland, the CEO of Dentaly, a free, online resource for dental care information. He runs his website at a .org domain, and he felt threatened by the sale. "Sites with .org domains are known for being reputable sources of information as they're often used by non-profits," Harland said. "If private companies started to take over all the .org addresses because non-profits and reputable, independent sites like ours were priced out, we worry what that would mean for people seeking honest information."
Even a small price hike—$2 or $3—would add up to a lot for those who own a lot of .org domains, such as Colin Ma, an El Segundo, California-based computer engineer. He runs freestylecreative.org among others ending in .org. "I was really hoping it wouldn’t go through. I’m glad it didn’t as I didn’t want to potentially spend hundreds of dollars in renewals for just a few .org websites," he said. "Depending on the renewal difference (if any), I would strongly have to reconsider keeping some of my .org extensions."
The mission of a nonprofit and a for-profit are too different, and control of a nonprofit by a for-profit can only be harmful, said Stacy Caprio, founder of Her.CEO who also runs websites at numerous .org domains. "I don't think there is any reason to sell it to a equity firm or for-profit company, because all they will do is everything they can to strip expenses, raise costs and increase their own profit, even if it means tearing apart or harming the non-profit organization and its mission," she said.
Not everyone with a .org domain was overtly concerned. Michael Alexis, CEO of teambuilding.com, for example, said his company owns a few .org domains, and if the price went up $2–3 per year, it wouldn't be a big hit to his company, though the uncertainty left him apprehensive. "People were talking about how prices for .org domains were going to go up and so you should lock in the current price for five years of registration," he said.
As you might expect, Ethos Capital wasn't happy that the sale fell through. "Today’s action opens the door for ICANN to unilaterally reject future transfer requests based on agenda-driven pressure by outside parties," the organization stated. "It allows ICANN to base its decisions on a subjective interpretation of what it deems to be relevant in these transactions, rather than following its own clear and specified legal directive."
10.5 million domain names .org domain names are registered.
The Internet Society (ISOC) founded PIR in 2003 to handle the .org domain.
The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) handled this duty under a government contract before PIR.