The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t give your dot-org domain away to a private company

A reporter's laptop shows the blacked-out Wikipedia opening page in Brussels on Jan. 18, 2012. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Esther Dyson served as the founding chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers from 1998 to 2000. She serves on the boards for a number of nonprofit organizations that use dot-org domain names and is executive founder of the nonprofit Wellville.

One of the Internet’s most trusted assets — the dot-org domain used by nonprofits from UNICEF to your local food bank — is being hijacked. Dot-org, which was built to support nonprofits globally, is being sold to the highest bidder with almost no public discussion or consideration of alternatives. Organizations and their supporters who rely on dot-org for website and email access deserve an open process. The institutions that govern the Internet should be transparent. It is up to those of us who believe in a free and open Internet to demand this deal be reconsidered.

Twenty-two years ago, I was the founding chair of an organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN was designed to fill a vacuum that was enticing to all kinds of power, and thus to keep the Internet decentralized and free from any overbearing power center. Our mission was to keep outside interests, whether financial or political, from taking over a global public service.

ICANN holds the assets underpinning the Internet on behalf of the world. It also runs a system of checks and balances for Internet policymaking. While we succeeded in keeping any government from exerting outsize influence over the organization, ICANN’s policy decisions are largely influenced by the businesses that make money off the Internet, including online advertisers, lawyers and those who sell and manage domain names.

Dot-org, though, is special. Under the stewardship of the Public Interest Registry (PIR), the organization to which ICANN delegates control and operation of the dot-org domain, dot-org serves the nonprofit community as a trusted partner. Nonprofits provide websites and use email with confidence and peace of mind. Even while business interests captured most of the Internet’s policymaking, dot-org remained protected from profit-driven rulemaking.

Today, though, that independence is under threat. The Internet Society, a nonprofit to which ICANN delegated the duty to host PIR, announced a deal in November to sell PIR and its license to sell dot-org names for more than $1 billion. The buyer is Ethos Capital, a private-equity firm with investments in digital advertising, data brokering and other Internet services that has several former ICANN executives on its staff. If ICANN does not scuttle the deal, dot-org’s public-interest mission will inevitably be compromised by the buyer’s need to make a profit off its billion-dollar investment. The provision of dot-org domain names is a natural monopoly, regulated by ICANN, and it should not be sold into the hands of a profit-oriented owner.

Such an owner would need to earn more by, for example, selling data on dot-org registrants or perhaps upselling registrants to buy special security services, trademark protection or other versions of their dot-orgs — just as other providers encourage for-profit registrants to buy “protection” for their brands. Such profit-making is not inherently evil, but it’s not the purpose for which dot-org or its registrants were created. In the end, the profits should go back to dot-org members, not to some corporation.

I have joined a group of peers in philanthropic and Internet leadership to offer an alternative: a cooperative organization (the Cooperative Corporation for .ORG Registrants, or CCOR) with membership and voting power in the hands of the Internet’s 10 million-plus dot-org users. This new organization is designed to keep dot-org in the hands of its rightful owners: the user community. The co-op is committed to keeping dot-org safe, secure and free of any motivation to profit off its users’ data or to upsell them pricy add-ons.

The current, founding members of the board of CCOR, me included, are not interested in owning or even managing the dot-org registry. We have committed to stepping aside as soon as possible to allow democratically elected members to serve. Before that can happen, though, ICANN must exercise its authority to deny the sale and consider alternatives.

We believe the ICANN Board of Directors will meet on Jan. 24 (though we can’t know for sure, since the board doesn't release such information anymore) to discuss whether to allow the deal. The dot-org community is entitled to a transparent process. This issue demands careful and deliberate consideration. We cannot afford, nor should we accept, a decision with such far-reaching implications to be made behind closed doors, void of any community input and without consideration of alternatives.

I call on my successors at ICANN to honor the principles upon which the Internet and dot-org were founded and to commit to handling this matter in the open. This proposed transaction is murky, but nothing could be clearer than this principle: The future of a public-interest service — run by and serving nonprofits — is at stake.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Ethos Capital will best serve dot-orgs

David Ignatius: Let the geeks rule over the Internet

The Post’s View: Protect the Internet: Keep the contract with ICANN

Alexandra Petri: ICANN’s new domain suffix stampede

The Post’s View: If the Internet belongs to everyone, that includes Gab

Stephen Harrison: Happy 18th birthday, Wikipedia. Let’s celebrate the Internet’s good grown-up.