On November 13, the Internet Society announced that the .ORG domain registry will be sold to a for-profit private equity firm. Much of the community that pays attention to ICANN is in an uproar about it. There is now a movement to “Save .ORG;” there are claims that the sale was corrupt or unethical; there is loose talk about major price increases, wailings about “soulless capital” taking over the Internet, and a lot of interesting speculation about the role of former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadi in the sale.

Most of the basic facts about the sale have been reported elsewhere. A good summary from Samuel Klein is here. Not so clear is what should be done about it. We are still debating the appropriate response by ICANN, the Internet Society, and the noncommercial domain registrants for whom .ORG was supposed to be their special place. In this article, we outline what we think is the problem and the appropriate responses to it. IGP believes that there is cause for concern, but civil society groups are in danger of losing credibility with poorly thought out or ineffectual responses.

The players

The Internet Society is a global nonprofit formed by Vint Cerf and other Internet pioneers in 1992. It has always had a somewhat fuzzy mission. Originally it was intended to serve as the corporate umbrella for the IETF. Then it added to its mission policy and education oriented toward promoting the Internet. Until 2003, when it came into control of .ORG, it was small and always short of money.

Public Interest Registry (PIR) currently holds the delegation for .ORG. PIR was set up in 2002 by the Internet Society (ISOC) as a wholly owned subsidiary for the express purpose of applying for the .ORG domain. The .ORG domain was up for grabs because the US Commerce Department forced its previous owner, what is now Verisign Inc., to divest itself of .ORG in order to promote registry competition and diversity. When it applied for the domain, PIR made much of the fact that it was a nonprofit devoted to serving the Internet community. But the key fact about PIR is that the revenue it generates through the sale of .ORG domain names solved ISOC’s perpetually shaky financial condition. In recent years, PIR has turned over $45 – $60 million per annum in revenue to ISOC, supporting its worldwide presence, jobs and activities.

Ethos Capital is the entity that bought PIR. It is a shell corporation for which former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadi serves as an “informal advisor.” The company Ethos Capital was created in June 2019 and Chehadi is known to have registered the domain name for it on May 7 – just a week before ICANN removed the price caps on .ORG. Its sole employee is Nora Abusitta-Ouri, someone that Chehadi employed at ICANN in a high-level but not very productive position when he was CEO.

ICANN enters the story as the governor (issuer of contracts) for top level domain name registries. Just this year, ICANN and PIR negotiated a modified contract (known as a Registry Agreement or RA). The new agreement was controversial because it removed price caps from .ORG and imposed on it a new dispute resolution policy (the URS) that did not go through the normal policy process. The new contract was greeted with hundreds of negative comments, yet ICANN ignored them, partly due to the fact that many of them could be attributed to domain name speculators and big DC-based nonprofits who had been mobilized by the domainers.  Domainers, who hold large portfolios of domains that they hope to sell in the secondary market, are strongly affected by the wholesale price of domains in ways that genuine registrant/users of domains are not. For example, a $2/year increase in the price of a .ORG domain really doesn’t matter much to an organization like ours. To a domainer sitting on 300 domains, it does matter. Don’t confuse domainer interests with nonprofit organizations.’

ICANN can intervene

ICANN will probably pretend that it has no ability to intervene in this process, but that is clearly not true. The Registry Agreement for .org gives PIR the delegation via a succession of presumptively renewable ten-year terms unless it commits an uncured, fundamental, and material breach or it goes bankrupt. However, under Article 7.5, PIR has to provide ICANN with 30 days’ notice of any change in control, and ICANN can respond by terminating the agreement, if termination is a reasonable response under the circumstances to the change of control. Additionally, there is an elaborate Registry Continuity Process already defined in ICANN’s procedures. That process could be triggered by a sale of the Registry. One of the considerations in this process is an assessment of whether the new registry operator has the support of the community it is supposed to serve.

What now?

What is the appropriate response to this by the .org community? Our view is direct and simple. Stop focusing on whether .ORG is run by a purported non-profit or a for-profit. Focus instead on the contractual protections in the Registry Agreement and the policies that govern .ORG.  Under the .ORG Registry Agreement (7.5), ICANN has to approve the transfer of the domain to a new owner. We are calling upon ICANN to withhold its approval until some modifications are made to the .ORG registry contract. Yes, we are asking for a quid pro quo!

Are Price Caps Necessary?

We did not support price caps, for a variety of reasons set out in our earlier blog post. But PIR’s movement from nonprofit to for-profit makes the elimination of price caps more concerning to entities with .ORG domains, who fear exploitation by a profit-maximizing company. The most ardent critics of the new contract claim that without price caps embedded in .ORG’s Registry Agreement the new “Private Interest Registry” would be able to jack up prices at will. One article has even claimed that renewing a .ORG domain could cost $50,000.

That’s an absurd claim. The .ORG registry would self-destruct if it tried anything like that, losing millions of existing registrations and scaring away new registrants. Even if new registrants were enticed with a lower price, who would trust .ORG after such opportunistic behavior?

But while there is an intensely competitive market for new registrations, the same cannot be said for renewals. High switching costs affect any attempt to move an organization with an established domain from one domain to another. Domain names are the basis of URLs, the web links that allow users to access a web site with a click. Linkages to URLs from other sites are what make a domain rise in search engine listings. Search engines and links are the key to public visibility on the internet. Changing a domain name suddenly is not an option unless one wants to piss away years of search engine mojo and years of embedded linkages and email addresses.[1]

What we need: Long term contracts

Price caps were instituted as a way to handle the switching cost problem, but they are not the best way. Price caps get ICANN into the business of price regulation, which in the long term is bound to cause it and the domain name registration market more trouble than it is worth. It is best to let the market regulate prices insofar as that is workable.

The best way to deal with the hold-up problem in domain name renewals is to allow registrants to register names for longer periods. Require significant notice of price changes (the current contract provides 6 month notice, which is acceptable), and then allow registrants to register at the old price for as long as they like. Right now, the maximum period of registration ICANN allows is 10 years. The availability of longer term contracts, and even contracts in perpetuity, can prevent opportunistic behavior by the registry. It can also give organizations stability and certainty in a critical piece of Internet infrastructure. Consumers have been given similar rights in other identifiers – no one says you can only have an email address for 10 years; mobile phone numbers are portable across providers and thus are in effect a property right of the consumer.

The 10 year limit is arbitrary. It has no basis in supply constraints or demand. It was, in fact, a regulation imposed on registrants by external special interests, but that’s another story for another time. So for those concerned about potential price gouging by the new PIR, the answer is clear: allow us to lock in a rate by registering .ORG names for whatever period we want. If you have a problem with “in perpetuity,” then at least allow 20, 30 and 40 year contracts.

Getting rid of the URS

As we argued before, once we are modifying the .ORG contract we also need to get rid of the Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) procedure. As argued by EFF and the Domain Name Rights Coalition, URS was designed on the premise that new TLDs posed special risks to trademark holders (risks that never really materialized, by the way) and so special protections would be needed. The same risks simply do not exist in legacy TLDs. There is simply no justification for including URS in the .ORG contract.

Protecting ORG registrants from content discrimination

ORG registrants could also use stronger contractual protections against content regulation initiatives by the registry. Although we have succeeded in banning content regulation by ICANN as part of the accountability reforms associated with the transition, pressure has been placed on registries to regulate content on their own. The instrument of these regulations is usually the so-called “Public Interest Commitment” (PIC). In a PICs a registry promises to regulate certain things that some external party wants them to regulate. Although the pressures for these things come from the broader ICANN process (e.g., trademark owners or GAC), ICANN can claim it is not doing content regulation.  Noncommercial entities need stronger assurances that the domain name infrastructure will not be used to regulate speech. It would be good if these assurances were built into the new .ORG Registry Agreement.

What matters and what doesn’t

Overall, the theme we would like to promote is that the ownership of PIR is much less important that the contractual protections embodied in the .ORG contract. We need longer term and perpetual renewals, and end to the URS, and stronger guarantees that whoever runs .ORG will not engage in various forms of content regulation that registries have recently said they might do using so-called Public Interest Commitments (PICs).

To bemoan the fact that .ORG is no longer run by a nonprofit is a bit of a joke, as the profit generated by this “nonprofit” registry funded ISOC to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. It actually makes a great deal of sense for the Internet Society to capture the value embedded in PIR through a sale so that it can get out of the business of being a highly profitable nonprofit, and create an endowment that stabilizes its funding. The purchase of .ORG by a cabal of ICANN insiders shortly after the price caps were removed is more problematic, but registrants of .ORG need to focus on their own interests and make use of the leverage that exists in existing contracts and procedures to enact changes in the .ORG RA.

[1] IGP itself is in that situation. We have held internetgovernance.org since 2004, and igp.org since 200X. After years of hard work and good publications, type “Internet governance” into Google or some other search engine, and our site is sure to be in the top five. Change the URL, however, and we would instantly lose all that SE mojo and sink into obscurity for some time. Old links would persist all over the internet and lead nowhere, turning away attention and traffic.

11 thoughts on “What to do about .ORG

  1. Jon Postel set up the .US registry as a totally free domain system. There was no money at all to pay people to maintain it. It got sold to Neustar as nobody wanted to put in the work to maintain it for free. Why are you surprised that the .ORG has gone the same way?

    1. We are not surprised. If you read the post, we say repeatedly that who the owner is matters much less, if at all, than the contractual protections contained in the ICANN Registry Agreement. We also point out that .ORG has been a money-maker for years

  2. “Stop focusing on whether .ORG is run by a purported non-profit or a for-profit. Focus instead on the contractual protections in the Registry Agreement and the policies that govern .ORG. ”

    Personally I agree that NPO and FP are equally problematic. But in this case it is an insider deal and the required minimum resolution would be a swift resignation of the Internet Society CEO, Mr. Sullivan, himself an ICANN Insider. H

    e is not worth the money in his position anyway and failed to internationalise ISOC. ICANN hides its imperial rudeness and greed under an umbrella of committees. It is in the true sense of the word a “soviet” governance in the spirit of 1918. Its technocratic rules, I can tell you, when felt necessary, all these rules get bend. Their rules are for hiding. They talk for optimal election rules ad nauseam and then kick out elected members.

    I am sick and tired of cosing up to celebrate ICANN “freedom fighters” as a former Mubarak Minister and at ICANN I expect my notoriously corrupt European MEP to end up in a position. I have no trust in these people. I don’t understand what justifies their excessive salaries. The way how they avoid debate at the IGF is just another indication that Internet governance is a complete farce. Hiding behind committees and procedures, a narrative of universal community participation and evading scrutiny about factual systematic corruption.

    Their argument against Price cap: “We don’t want to be a Price Regulator.”

  3. Carsten and all: If you want to make a difference in ISOC, email me daveb at dslprime.com. Things are happening inside but we need more people willing to, for example, write a note like yours to the internal member list.
    ISOC is the best funded advocate for the Internet. It’s worth fighting to get it right. If your not a member, it’s free and takes 5 minutes to join. If there’s no local chapter where you are, the NY chapter (mine) welcomes you. About a third of the NY members are not local. Dave Burstein

  4. Excellent comments for the community Milton! In my view the delegation of new TLDs made the wholesale model of PIR basically unsustainable over the long term and TLD became just another commodity. Some Registries/Registrars integrated vertically and nobody complained about this concentration. Some platform operators bought whole portfolios of new gTLDs and nobody complained about this concentration. I agree that it is not so important who owns it, but most important is what the business strategy for the very reputable .org TLD will be under changed/changing market structure & conditions. The chances for Ethos to implement a successful one are as good as for anybody else’s.

  5. I like a lot of the points made. I have issues with price caps argument. There is a better solution and it could involve removing price caps. It would be make the .ORG contract public bid. Registry service providers already bid for backending .ORG, why are we letting an external organization capture these extra profits at all? In that bid would be a commitment to a certain price, there’s no price cap necessary. It would be a free market, this is what a domain name costs. You can put in the other clauses into the new registry agreement.

    ICANN preaches it’s not a price regulator, let a real free market price .ORG then. In fact, the .COM/.NET contracts should get the same treatment. There is no reason these gifted monopolies should be allowed to arbitrarily extort money from people. If you’re going to continue to let VeriSign and PIR run the COM/NET/ORG, then price caps should be in place to prevent abuse. The incentive to profit maximize should only be going one direction – them reducing costs. Not charging more for something they didn’t create and are simply stewards of.

  6. I think if the longer-term registrations was a viable solution, we would see substantially more people register for multiple years than we currently do, and we currently see less than 1% choose that option.

    1. Graeme:
      Thanks for your comment. But I find your logic to be hard to fathom. There have been no major increases in the wholesale price of .ORG for many years (perhaps none at all?). Therefore, the current rate of 10 year registrations proves exactly nothing about how many people would use long-term registrations to protect themselves against rate increases. Also, we are advocating that registrants be able to make permanent registrations, which is not an option now.

  7. Your argument against price caps is that Ethos will not be able to raise the prices “too much”, because new registrants will be able to choose other TLDs. It’s true up to a point — the price probably won’t get to $5,000 / year. But your view of TLDs as perfectly substitutable commodities is totally wrong. .ORG has become associated with non-profit organizations. .ORG and .COM are viewed as more reputable than the new TLDs. If you want to collect donations as a non-profit, you will inspire more trust if you’re at .ORG rather than, say, .INFO or .WEBSITE. Because of this, Ethos and Verisign will be able to charge more.

    Now the question is, why should two private corporations be able to capture this value that they had no hand in creating? Why should the money flow from registrants to their pockets?

    All the risks you’ve mentioned — price gouging, excessive trademark enforcement, censorship — are excellent arguments against a system in which control of a public good is given to a private entity. When you’re dealing with a chain of entities, it’s harder to exert public pressure and assign blame. This is how you get accountability problems. If Ethos starts curtailing free speech in some way, there’s no one to blame. You can’t blame ICANN — you see, they didn’t curtail free speech; they “just” picked an operator. And you can’t blame Ethos, after all, they’re acting in their own interest, like any corporation would. You are helpless.

    If ICANN were managing all the TLDs themselves, the responsibility would be clearly concentrated in one place. It would be much harder for them to get away with price gouging or censorship. They could subcontract the actual running of the root servers etc. to private companies in a public tender, as Kevin Ohashi wrote above. But external companies must be technical subcontractors only, not “lords” of the TLDs.

    The prices charged to registrants must be closely related to the actual cost of these contracts. Which means they should be FALLING, not rising. The fact that they are rising suggests that operators are extracting value they do not deserve (due to the entrenched “brand value” of some TLDs, oligopolistic market structure, ICANN-given exclusivity, etc.).

  8. To be accurate, there were over 3,200 objections to the removal of price caps and implementation of URS earlier this year, not “hundreds.” Had ICANN been required to notify the 10 million registrants of the pending contract changes and concurrent comment period, untold thousands more would have voiced their disapproval of the contract changes.

    Thus, there is little apparent dissent when registrant-unfriendly changes are made simply because those registrants who are negatively-impacted by the changes don’t know about them. Maybe that’s the way the beneficiaries of these changes like it to be.

    Then there are folks who besmirch reasonable efforts to make the registrant base aware of such changes. Such as ICANN’s ombudsman or article writers. Informing the public is called “mobilizing,” with its negative connotations. This, registrants who have opposing viewpoints and interests that differ from the registry/ICANN agenda are thus minimized or cast aside as worthless.

    You can’t “mobilize” big DC nonprofits to do something that they don’t want to do or is not in their interests. Once they were made aware of the price cap removals, they made their voices heard that they were against it.

    Let’s be fair.

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