Over the past year, we have learned to better appreciate our civic space online. When the Internet Society (ISOC) announced in November 2019 its intentions to sell Public Interest Registry (PIR) — the organization responsible for managing the .ORG domain — to a private equity firm, it sent shockwaves through the nonprofit community. Access Now organized an urgent town hall at the Internet Governance Forum in Berlin where many digital rights advocates were gathered, and a broad coalition led by our partners at NTEN and EFF issued an open letter calling on ISOC and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to stop the sale. Over the months that followed, 871 organizations and more than 27,000 individuals signed on to the letter, forming the foundation of a wide spectrum of opposition to the sale. On May 1, 2020, the ICANN Board announced its vitally important decision to uphold prior commitments to protect the public interest and prevent the transfer of control of .ORG.
Since ICANN’s decision, both ISOC and PIR have failed to acknowledge the threats the sale posed to online civic space. Both the lack of transparency around the deal’s initiation last year and the lack of accountability after the fact highlight just how important it is to ensure the protections .ORG community members were seeking for any potential change in control are now integrated into the Registry Agreement between ICANN and .ORG’s current owners. That contract could be updated to better protect human rights and community interests. Together with our partner organizations, we recommend several immediate steps ISOC and PIR should take to rebuild trust and to invest in .ORG’s long-term stability and well-being:
- Adopting robust protections for free expression and privacy,
- Committing to affordable pricing for .ORG domains, and
- Strengthening governance structures around .ORG to avoid harms to the best interests of the NGO community going forward.
Today, NTEN, EFF, and Access Now delivered the following letter to the leaders of ISOC and PIR calling on them to reflect and to take immediate action to adopt the safeguards put forward by the #SaveDotOrg campaign. We look forward to their response, and to continuing this important dialogue, including at RightsCon (July 27-31, 2020) and the Internet Governance Forum (later in 2020).
June 24, 2020
Andrew Sullivan, CEO, Internet Society
Gonzalo Camarillo, Chair, Board of Directors, Internet Society
Jon Nevett, CEO, Public Interest Registry
Lise Fur, Chair, Board of Directors, Public Interest Registry
Dear Internet Society and Public Interest Registry leadership,
We write to you during a global pandemic that has impacted every facet of work and communities around the world. A pandemic that has affirmed the need for the types of services, support and information provided by nonprofits and scientific and news websites that use .ORG domains.
We write to you as massive numbers of people throughout the U.S. and many other countries are protesting against police brutality and white supremacist policies and systems. Community organizing work that is led by Black leaders and their organizations, movements, and campaigns use .ORG domains to inform, engage, and call for change.
We write to you because the protections needed for the .ORG top-level domain are still unmet, leaving vulnerable the organizations working in society’s most critical areas of service and change.
On November 13, 2019, Internet Society (ISOC) and the Public Interest Registry (PIR) — the operator of the .ORG domain and its sole member organization — announced their intention to sell the .ORG domain to a hitherto unknown private equity firm for $1.1 billion. This was announced as a “new era of opportunity” for .ORG.
The nonprofits and community-based organizations that rely on .ORG as a domain run by and for nonprofits were outraged. A letter sent on November 22, 2019, called for the sale to be stopped. This grassroots campaign to save .ORG quickly grew to global significance. It now includes 871 organizations and over 27,000 individuals from around the world, from African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) to YWCA. It is the largest coalition of nonprofits ever assembled in support of a voice for nonprofit organizations within .ORG.
On April 30, 2020, the ICANN Board responded to the groundswell of opposition by rejecting the change of control of the .ORG domain. ISOC and PIR now appear to want to continue as if nothing happened, saying that .ORG is “not for sale.”
More Protections Needed
While we are pleased that .ORG is not being sold to Ethos Capital, there’s nothing in their recent announcement that addresses the unilateral decision-making that led to the ISOC Board of Directors deciding in secrecy over a matter of weeks to sell the .ORG domain.
The SaveDotOrg coalition letter is clear: decisions affecting .ORG must be made with the consultation of the NGO community, overseen by a trusted community leader. Trust is earned, not given. And once lost, it must be earned anew. During the effort to sell .ORG, ISOC leadership repeatedly denied that it was bound by commitments to protect the public interest that ISOC explicitly made to the nonprofit community in 2002, and which ICANN ultimately upheld. They repeatedly described the .ORG registry as a commodity and a business to be disposed of at will. ISOC made no effort to conduct its own community consultations, and even disregarded the significant disapproval from many of its own chapters.
Meanwhile, PIR and ISoc actively supported Ethos Capital in standing up “community engagement” events that were in fact nothing more than a public relations campaign, offering no meaningful dialogue with the community.
These actions and the leadership behind them remain a matter of serious concern to those who rely on .ORG as a stable and secure online home for nonprofit organizations around the world. These breaches of trust make it clear that stronger accountability measures are necessary for maintaining the long-term health of .ORG, even without a change in ownership. The commitments that ISOC made to the world in 2002 when it was selected to operate .ORG by ICANN should be clearly updated and reinforced within the .ORG Registry Agreement.
As we stated in our November 22, 2019 letter, ISOC and PIR should amend the .ORG registry agreement to include commitments to:
- Respect human rights, including privacy and freedom of expression, in policy and practice, including by complying with the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights;
- Commit to avoiding censorship, including by implementing domain suspension policies that uphold the nonprofit community’s values and protect nonprofits from their abuse by allowing domain suspensions only for narrow, well-defined categories of harmful conduct; and
- Ensure affordability and fair pricing, including by committing to maintaining .ORG registration fees at or below the current level.
In order to build trust, ISOC and PIR should take the following actions:
- Conduct a transparent, independent, third-party review of
- The process, actions, and decision points that led to the sale’s initiation, proposal, evaluation, and approval, and
- The processes, actions, and decision points after the sale was announced, including specifically:
- The decision to ignore input from Chapters,
- The decision to disregard broad community mobilization, and
- Failures in due diligence on the sale’s human rights impacts, including with regard to the harm the sale posed to the NGO community.
- Report the findings of that review to the NGO community.
- Engage in robust, inclusive consultations with the NGO community to amend ISOC and PIR processes, policies, governing structures, and any other structural or cultural challenges surfaced in the above review, in order to ensure .ORG users have a meaningful say in the governance and decision-making of both organizations regarding all matters that impact or influence .ORG now and into the future.
We look forward to your response and your actions to ensure real protections and safeguards for the .ORG domain.
The coalition understands that the Internet Society and the Public Interest Registry want to continue to run the .ORG domain, along with the right to spend the tens of millions of dollars in revenue that NGOs provide to support and fund you every year as you choose. The question now is: what meaningful steps are you willing to take in order to earn that right?
In service of all the organizations who signed on with this campaign and the communities around the world they serve,
CC: Goran Marby, CEO & President, ICANN
Maarten Botterman, Chair, Board of Directors, ICANN