Three little letters are causing a big stir this month — sought-after ones at the end of a web URL that seemingly bless a site with the credibility of non-profit status: “.org.” While anyone can actually register a .org, it maintains a certain prestige because it has been the domain of choice for charities and non-profits over the years. Now the agency that manages domain names could be cashing in on that cachet after it removed a cap on how much could be charged to register a domain, clearing the way for the sale of the .org registry to private company for $1.1 billion.
Last summer, the Internet Corporation for Assigning Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit corporation that has overseen domains since the advent of the internet, removed a regulation that capped the price of .orgs at $10. The change made management of the registry an appealing asset — one that the Internet Society, the ICANN subsidiary responsible for .orgs, cashed in on by selling to the private equity firm Ethos Capital in the fall.
Sale of the domain registry has raised concern across the internet that demand for the domain will drive the price of .orgs to a level that is prohibitively high for non-profits. While the sale is still pending approval by ICANN, and is currently being delayed by an inquiry from California’s attorney general, it could be finalized as soon as April. Drexel University’s chief information security officer and renowned technology ethics expert, Pablo Molina, DLS, recently shed some light on the pros and cons of the sale and the challenge of preserving access to domain names.
What types of organizations can get a .org?
Pretty much any organization can get a .org domain name. In fact, many universities in the .edu domain and corporations in the .com domain also register .org domain names to prevent others from doing so.
What was different about the .org domain is that it was managed by the Public Interest Registry, a non-profit organization. This meant that it had a mission other than maximizing value for stockholders.
Indeed, the Public Interest Registry had a true service mission. The .org domain registration prices were capped by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Public Interest Registry honored those caps. For other domains, like .com, resellers could and can sell domain names at any price that the market would accept. Now the same is true about .org domain names. Whereas the new owners stated that they will keep prices reasonable, they have no economic incentives to do so. Also, they have no incentives to be transparent or accountable.
How has ICANN’s responsibility evolved as the internet has grown?
We cannot conceive society without internet. Business, health, education, entertainment, communication, transportation — almost every human activity depends on the internet. The role and the impact of ICANN has grown with the growth of the internet.
ICANN decides on many technical issues impacting how the internet works. ICANN also weighs in on non-technical issues about the internet. For example, ICANN determines whether the state of Pennsylvania can register for a top-level country domain.
What precipitated ICANN’s decision to recently remove caps on prices for .org and .info domain names?
The official version is that ICANN wanted to standardize its contracts with all the domain registries, including those that manage .org. Also, ICANN receives revenue from all domain registrations, so this move improves its revenue. In retrospect, it is possible that ICANN realized that such a move would entice the purchase of the Public Interest Registry by a corporation.
What are the ethical concerns associated with organizations like Internet Society and ICANN managing access to all domains?
ICANN is a global multi-stakeholder organization created by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its inception as a U.S.-backed organization has been a source of concern for other nations, particularly countries like Brazil, China, Russia, Iran, or Venezuela, which often have views on internet governance that differ from those of the U.S.
Over the years, ICANN has significantly improved its transparency and governance, promoting multi-stakeholder participation from representatives of different countries, corporations, and civil society organizations.
What concerns are raised by the sale of the Public Internet Registry to a private equity company?
The new owners of the .org domain can now charge different prices to non-profit organizations and to corporations who register a .org domain to protect their brand.
The owners could offer discounts to neighborhood associations and charge more to religious ones based on the perceived wealth of the registrant. Finally, the owners could raise renewal fees significantly for all or for a few customers. At the discretion of the new owners, it may become more expensive to start and run a non-profit organization in the future.
Could there be a benefit to private management of the Public Internet Registry?
The sale of the Public Internet Registry to Ethos Private Equity has one potential benefit. The firm has access to the capital necessary to scale operations and address cybersecurity risks in the long run. Without caps and controls, however, an important service to non-profit organizations, and therefore to society, could instead become more expensive and of lesser quality.
Are there lessons learned from the privatization of public utilities that could be applied here?
Corporations tend to be more economically efficient than non-profit or government organizations. However, public utilities are heavily regulated to ensure that citizens have access to critical services at reasonable prices. Without regulation or oversight, market forces influence domain registration services. If I were an investor in Ethos’ Private Equity, my focus would be to maximize my return on investment, not to be an altruist — so you can imagine how this could have negative ripple effects for the public, unless some regulation is imposed.
Molina is the founder and executive director of the International Applied Ethics and Technology Association and on the board of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He regularly comments on stories about privacy, ethics of tech companies, and laws related to technology and information management.
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