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Vint Cerf’s Comments on the ISOC Sale of PIR and the .ORG Registry

Vint Cerf has posted comments in support of the pending sale of PIR and the .org registry to Ethos Capital. Vint is a respected member of the Internet community, and his comments need close attention and careful assessment.

Some of his comments have been discussed here earlier. Other comments, posted here and elsewhere, have either supported the sale or raised questions. In what follows, I select some of Vint’s comments and use them to raise and explore several of the key questions that lay at the heart of the proposed sale, questions to which stakeholders involved with the deal should be able to provide answers, and who deserve answers.

Vint has commented: “Over the past several weeks, I have watched with disappointment the controversy surrounding Ethos Capital’s proposed acquisition of the Public Interest Registry—which runs the .org domain—from the Internet Society. I am in favor of this acquisition and would like to explain why.”

Vint argues that the ISOC sale to Ethos Capital is a win-win. It certainly is for ISOC since ISOC ends up with a substantial endowment to do what it wishes to do, and no obligations to, or complications around, the .org registry.

Vent argues that “PIR becomes a for-profit operation, and its investors can establish a policy of investing profits back into the company in addition to distributing earnings to shareholders.” The new .org registry owners are certainly looking for a win, but what is totally unclear is where is the win (or protection) for the public interest?

About Ethos Capital’s intentions, Vint basically says, “Trust them” since it is in their market interests to behave well in their business strategy. Some of us have observed that the $1B+ purchase price looks to be a multiple of what PIR’s current revenues would suggest. This poses the question: What business model is this price based on?

Vint comments on Ethos Capital’s propose Stewardship Council. Given that PIR kept its own advisory council in the dark about the proposed sale, we are again asked to “Trust them.” That leaves the stakeholder community, ISOC org, and the ISOC board with a challenge, one that should apply no matter who buys PIR and takes control of the .org registry.

What exactly is the form of the ownership being proposed? Is it a benefit corporation, an LLC with a B Labs Certification? What is it? Is there a way for ICANN to insist on a form of ownership where public interest responsibilities are built-in and not based on trusting a new entity created for the sole purpose of buying PIR and the .org registry?

It would be useful if both Ethos Capital and ICANN (both ICANN org and the Board) entered the discussion. We (the ICANN community) are supposed to be in favor of multistakeholder processes. Lastly, and this is a call to lawyers, is there any way to word the .org registry contract to address some of these concerns.

Lastly, Vint states that ISOC “did not seek this transaction.” We need some clarity here. Some have suggested that ISOC’s desire to sell PIR developed over time. There are other statements saying that ISOC had multiple purchase offers. There are new interested buyers on the horizon. ISOC knows the history here. It would help if ISOC laid out the history and the timelines so that all parties have the facts.

The greater the transparency and multistakeholder engagement in the dialogue, the better is the likely outcome.

By Sam Lanfranco, Prof Emeritus & Senior Scholar, York University

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