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Thoughts of an ICANN Public Interest Stakeholder on the Intended Sale of the .ORG Registry

The announcement of the intended Internet Society (ISOC) sale of the .ORG registry to Ethos Capital has caused a lot of frustration and anger while raising a lot of questions.

• It’s more than just about the money
• It’s more than who is behind it
• It’s about the soul of the DNS and the ICANN community with its multi-stakeholder model.

Let’s remember that the Public Interest Registry (PIR) was created, with ISOC as its sole legal owner, to provide ISOC with the funds to operate and to run the registry more-or-less as a Social Business. ISOC was essentially the only more or less effective global structure to represent the global internet’s non-governmental and non-profit user community.

Since its inception, PIR had to serve two masters. First, there where the public interests of the Internet users, and it did so, for example, by taking a strong stance on important issues such as intellectual property rights and consumer protection. Secondly, it had to sustain ISOC as an organization. This was not an easy task, and this is abundantly demonstrated when one looks at PIR’s failed efforts to establish OnGood with the .NGO and .ONG domains. These domain efforts failed miserably because they were packaged and offered with conditions that served the needs of the registry, and not the needs of the organizations that were targeted as customers. With .NGO and .ONG there was little motive to “serve,” but a very strong motive to open up another revenue stream. Not surprisingly, there was weak buy-in by the global not-for-profit community.

Here we go again. This deal is sold to us as a registry handoff that secures the work of ISOC. It might contribute to secure the future for ISOC, a future independent of its PIR-based social business commitment to the global user community. However, it takes away one of the last real powers internet users had over the DNS: how the .ORG domain is managed.

The work of many of ISOC’s chapters is admirable and exemplary. As it happens, ISOC currently seeks Nominations for the 2020 Board of Trustees. It’s time for the chapters to re-take control of the ISOC mothership. Chapters should consider coordinating to apply for board seats en masse!

Whatever ISOC or Ethos Capital try to do to convey that they continue to be committed to a social business involvement with the global user community, the canary in the coal mine will be registration fees, which now unregulated are likely to rise without reason. Watch, as well, for another advisory board complete with travel and per diems, to buy the support of strategic community leaders.

The Internet community’s NGO and private users will not be fooled again. What changes is that the institutional survival interests of ISOC are replaced by the institutional profit motives of Ethos Capital. While it might be preferable to face an honest profit motive than to live with the pretext that ISOC has the interests of the global internet community at heart, the recent removal of the .ORG price cap suggests that .ORG fees are likely in for an increase and this is a profit grab.

There is a special caveat to this sale: PIR had a perpetual non-bid contract to operate the .ORG registry. In a situation where it could pretend that the provision was created to protect the interests of internet users, such a provision might be justified, but still may be problematic. In the context of granting the registry to a private equity firm, this is ethically and, perhaps, legally suspect. The terms of the deal should be fully disclosed and open to community consultation before the transfer takes place, as it perpetually subjects the internet users to the risk of predatory (or whatever) business practices in the name of a free marketplace. Every pretense about this corner of the DNS being governed by a social business ethic is likely about to be destroyed forever.

ICANN’s multi-stakeholder community and ISOC’s chapters know very little about the details of the deal, other than the fact that the purchasing entity was hastily assembled by what can only be described as ICANN insiders. I guess that ICANN org will follow its usual policy of the “disclosure of facts only under severe pressure, and hiding behind its lawyers.” But what we do know is enough to predict that the public interest will not be the winner in this story.

If the ICANN board agrees to this deal, it will commit a historical blunder and underwrite a historic plunder. It will strip away any pretense of the Board acting in the interest of a safe and secure DNS that ultimately serves the global public interest. Would one consider buying a used car from an ICANN org that runs the DNS in this manner? Has the moment come where the ICANN community should consider exercising its power to remove the ICANN board if the Board approves this deal? If the sale goes through and the ICANN community does nothing, it will lose its credibility as a functional multi-stakeholder body.

ISOC should be encouraged to give PIR .ORG back to the people it belongs to, the ICANN community. If ISOC does no longer wants to exercise their stewardship of the .ORG domain that was ultimately granted to them by the ICANN community, that’s fine, give it back, but it does not mean that ISOC should be able to sell something that they morally do not own. The future of the .ORG domain should be dependent on community discussion and approval on how the domain can be used in the future to strengthen the multi-stakeholder model. The big goal must be to significantly strengthen the multi-stakeholder processes to enable those who so far could not participate. This would also end the unholy dependence of large sectors of the community on ICANN funding to participate at all in the IG policy-making processes. It would give at least some power back to the people. Maybe that’s the way something good will come out of all of this!

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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