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It’s Time for a Referendum on Orgxit

The worst thing about Brexit wasn’t the referendum. It was the fallout. David Cameron decided that the best way to manage a small risk was to take a big one. Finally, over three agonizing years later, the UK looks set to move on. The Internet Society—which has run the .ORG domain since 2002—was in the same position as Cameron. They became convinced that it was worth dealing with a small risk by taking a huge one.

Bernie Madoff would have been jealous of . ORG’s annuity. Revenues have grown at an average of 12 percent per year for the past 12 years [1]. There are now over 10 million .ORG domains [2]. The renewal rate is an astonishing 77% [3].

But Internet Society’s Board was nervous. They believed that their annuity was at risk. So they decided to sell it to a hitherto unknown private equity fund, Ethos Capital [4], for $1.1 billion dollars [5].

The big difference between Brexit and Orgxit is that with Brexit, there was a referendum. Imagine the fallout if David Cameron had unilaterally decided to leave the European Union. Orgxit is just such an event. It is impossible to overstate its impact. The reaction has been swift.

In under a month, the #SaveDotOrg Campaign has written over 17,000 letters and won pledges from more than 250 nonprofits to stop the sale, including most recently the International Trade Union Confederation, with over 200 million members [6].

Orgxit, like Brexit, just doesn’t make any sense. For over 20 years, more than half the time the Internet has existed, .ORG has stood for the public interest. It was purposefully marketed as such [7]. There was bound to be surprise when the sale was announced. But to make things worse, it was done in secret and then announced as a fait accompli [8].

Both the sale and the way it was done will do irreparable damage to one of the most respected Internet brands. A partisan pall is already being cast over this formerly neutral brand. At least three of the investors are political, Mitt Romney, Ross Perot Jr. and Abigail Johnson [9].

Had the Internet Society Board consulted with its membership, perhaps there would have been a different outcome. The Board has a huge brain trust that it can draw on. But Ethos Capital prevented them from doing so by making confidentiality a condition of their offer.

In trying to save themselves from drowning, the Internet Society has capsized the whole boat. We’ll be spending the next few years in Internet Governance dealing with the fallout from Orgxit. We must all come to terms with tandem failures of governance on multiple levels.

The least Internet Society can do now is make a show of supporting the regime they have benefited so greatly from. With the sale now public, they should hire a trusted third-party provider to survey their membership on the sale.

Internet Governance claims to be a model of multi-stakeholder, consensus-based decision making. Right now, most nonprofits would happily settle for some good old fashioned democracy. At least David Cameron had that right.

* * *

Jacob Malthouse helped start the #SaveDotOrg Campaign. He is Co-founder and former Co-CEO and Director of the .ECO domain, and is a former VP at ICANN.

[1] https://medium.com/@jacobmalthouse/over-the-past-12-years-org-has-delivered-average-annual-growth-of-12-4-528aec270fc3

[2] https://icannwiki.org/.org

[3] https://twitter.com/jacobmalthouse/status/1204133436438368256

[4] https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20191113005661/en/Ethos-Capital-Acquire-Public-Interest-Registry-Internet

[5] https://domainnamewire.com/2019/11/29/ethos-paid-1-135-billion-for-org/

[6] https://twitter.com/ituc/status/1205121034640330752

[7] https://archive.icann.org/en/tlds/org/applications/isoc/section8.html#c38E1

[8] https://www.internetsociety.org/news/press-releases/2019/ethos-capital-to-acquire-public-interest-registry-from-the-internet-society/

[9] https://medium.com/savedotorg/whos-going-to-run-org-in-a-word-the-gop-8809ef6f9679

By Jacob Malthouse, Fmr UNEP Staffer, Ex ICANN VP, Co-founder dot-eco domain registry.

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