Public interest victory on the Internet

February 22, 2021

Published in the N.B. Media Co-op, May 7, 2020

https://nbmediacoop.org/2020/05/07/public-interest-victory-on-the-internet/

 The public interest won a major battle last week. A part of the Internet set aside to operate in the interests of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations was about to be sold to a private equity firm. The last vestige of a dream of early adopters who wanted to preserve some non-commercial space on the Internet appeared to be headed into the sunset. It would have been a sad footnote in Internet history. So, what happened?

After six months of controversy, the corporation managing the top level or root domains on the Internet rejected a proposal to transfer ownership of one of those domains from a non-profit to a private equity firm. The domain in question was .ORG (dot org), one of the original generic top level domains (.com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org) and the only one tied to a public interest commitment. It is the home of 10.5 million non-profits, NGOs and community organizations, including the NB Media Co-op. From the International Red Cross to your local community organization, these groups work to improve the lives of people around the world. .ORG is a community of users who share goals and objectives. It is civil society’s on-line home.

This story needs a bit of unpacking. .ORG is owned by the Internet Society (ISOC). ISOC is a non-profit organization founded in 1992 whose mission is “to promote the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world.” ISOC was given control of .ORG in 2003 by the organization that oversees all top level domain names — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). But the intention was that .ORG would always remain in the hands of the NGO and non-profit sector and be driven by the needs of that sector. The Public Interest Registry (PIR) was created by ISOC to run and manage the .ORG database. It was PIR that was being sold for 1.135 billion US dollars to Ethos, a newly created private equity firm.

The proposed sale was announced by ISOC without warning or consultation. Much of the Internet community cried “foul” and the mailing lists that had any interest in these matters exploded. Led by the SaveDotOrg coalition, petitions collected signatures and letters of opposition from 900 organizations and 64,000 individuals. Potential human rights impacts, negative effects on the governance of a free and open Internet, potential exploitation of the .ORG community through profit driven price hikes, and inability to challenge decisions made by Ethos were among the issues cited.

There was also opposition inside the ICANN community. ICANN is a non-profit and itself a member of the .org community (ICANN.org), which operates under a multi-stakeholder model. One of those stakeholders, At-Large, speaks on behalf of end-users. In a letter to the ICANN board, At- Large asked that the transaction not be approved unless the contract could reflect the imperative that .ORG be operated as a non-profit in the best interests of the NGO and non-profit sector.

The battle raged on with all parties holding webinars, posting press releases, engaging in real and virtual fora but Ethos was not responding to the pressure to incorporate as a non-profit, give its proposed stewardship council real power to challenge the board, or to open up its processes to public scrutiny. The buck stopped at ICANN which had to decide whether or not to renew the contract with PIR under the proposed new ownership model.

The deadline for the ICANN board to make a decision was looming when the Attorney General of California sent a letter on April 15 to the ICANN Board raising serious concerns about the proposed sale. The letter cited the need for the stability of the .ORG registry since some those affected, like the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations “are critical organizations dedicated to assist in times of crisis.” It pointed to the importance of accountability to the community stakeholders rather than accountability to investors in such situations. The letter also noted the intense public opposition from the end-user community.

Whether this was a trigger or not, ICANN quickly made a decision on April 30 that was never taken for granted. ICANN would not transfer the contract to a wholly different form of entity when the current contract was with the mission-based, not-for-profit with the protections for its own community embedded in its mission. Many concerned netizens breathed a sigh of relief.

It will be argued forever that the Attorney General of California forced ICANN’s hand and that this is a bad precedent for an organization that supports and coordinates the unique names and numbers across the world. But whatever the trigger, the public interest prevailed. So it is a moment to enjoy — before the inevitable appeals and lawsuits take hold.