Over the past two months, nonprofits have been stewing over forthcoming changes to .org, the domain term that internet users usually see affixed to the end of web addresses belonging to public interest organizations like UNICEF, the Humane Society, and the ACLU. The Public Interest Registry, the nonprofit that has operated the .org domain since 2003, announced in November that it was being acquired for $1.135 billion by a private equity firm called Ethos Capital. If the deal goes through, the for-profit company will be in charge of a domain that is generally assigned to nonprofit entities, which could have much wider ramifications for the state of the internet. Tech advocacy organizations are now planning a protest on Friday in front of the Los Angeles headquarters for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which helps to regulate web addresses, in an attempt to halt the sale.
Here’s a brief explainer on an arcane but potentially very consequential debate.
Why is .org so important?
In the realm of internet infrastructure, .org is what’s known as a top-level domain, which means that it’s the last section of an address that helps to categorize the nature of the website. The .org domain was one of the first created in 1985—alongside .com, .gov, .edu, .mil, .arpa, and .net—and was originally intended to signify nonprofit status. The .org domain has become one of the most widely recognized top-level domains over the course of its 35-year existence. There are currently about 10 million websites that have “.org” in their addresses, making it the third most popular top-level domain in the world, after .com and .net. “We have a global community that sees .org as synonymous with nonprofit NGO, do-good work,” says Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN, a nonprofit technology network that has been helping to lead a campaign against the privatization of the .org registry.* “It’s very helpful for organizations. It means that they’re able to be smaller or brand-new and have trust built in because of their domain.”
Who gets to be a .org?
Unlike .edu or .gov, .org is what’s known as an open domain, meaning that anyone can register for one. So even though .org is technically supposed to be reserved for nonprofits, some for-profit entities like Craigslist do have .org addresses. Astroturf, white supremacist, and climate denial organizations have also been able to attain .org status. The gradual dilution of the .org brand has led some to argue that it is no longer a meaningful seal of approval.
However, Sample Ward contends that the internet community has generally been keen to preserve the stature of the .org domain. “It’s actually the success of the PIR’s [Public Interest Registry] work over the last 18 years that’s really framed .org as being for nonprofits,” says Sample Ward. “Folks that are using .org that are actually for-profit are often called out for that. It’s a clear conflict that they’ve chosen versus internet users thinking that’s just the norm.”
What is Ethos Capital?
Ethos Capital is a private equity firm that was established in May, just months before the announcement that it would be buying the Public Interest Registry, and appears to have only two employees. Ethos has the backing of several established funds associated with Mitt Romney’s family as well as the Johnsons, who own Fidelity Investments. The firm’s CEO, Erik Brooks, spent the last two decades before founding Ethos at Abry Partners, another private equity fund that’s sought to monetize domain registries.
What happens if a private company is in charge of .org?
Apart from the symbolic dissonance of having a private company run a system designed to help nonprofits, it’s not exactly clear. NTEN, Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other nonprofits are concerned about a number of potential outcomes. Ethos has spent more than $1 billion on the registry and will probably have to sink about $30 million a year on the infrastructure to run it, so the firm will naturally want to recoup its losses and make a profit. The Internet Society, which created the Public Interest Registry, had in the past reinvested profits from the .org domain into improving the peoples’ access to the internet. But as a private company, Ethos won’t have that same interest in public good projects. In addition, Ethos does not have the same transparency obligations that the Internet Society does, so the firm wouldn’t have to publicly disclose its financial data.
How could Ethos try to profit off of .org?
According to advocates, Ethos’s profit seeking will likely make it more difficult for nonprofits to maintain their websites. Every year, websites that have a .org address have to pay a fee of around $10, though the price can fluctuate based on demand. The Public Interest Registry has traditionally capped fee increases at no more than 10 percent every year. ICANN removed the price cap in 2019, though, meaning that fees could dramatically rise for many cash-strapped nonprofits. Certain groups may also find that they have to pay a premium for domains that are particularly in demand. There’s also the possibility that Ethos could make deals with corporations that are seeking to shut down websites based on copyright claims or repressive governments that want to censor nonprofits that question their power.
Even if organizations do eventually decide that keeping their .org address is financially or ethically untenable, however, there might not be a lot they can do about it. The organizations that currently have a .org domain are essentially locked in; it would be prohibitively expensive to convert web and email addresses to another domain like .com.
Brooks, the founder of Ethos, has tried to assuage these fears by promising in a blog post that his firm will maintain “the value, integrity and purpose of the .ORG domain.” The post further states that Ethos will not exceed the traditional 10 percent average yearly price increase and refrain from using the domain name system to police website contents, except in cases that involve imminent violence and sexual abuse. Yet advocates have not found these assurances convincing, partly because there aren’t laws forcing the firm to keep its word. Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney at EFF, says that there needs to be “very firm guardrails on [Ethos’s] behavior that are legally enforceable, not just vague promises.”
How will this affect internet users?
Many nonprofit websites offer important resources to people around the world. Allowing a for-profit corporation or repressive government to convince the .org operator to shut down a website could affect how that nonprofit serves a certain population; for example, a nonprofit journalistic outlet might go dark when informing its readers about the misdoings of a particular regime. There’s also a chance Ethos could monetize .org through data collection. In controlling the domain, the firm would be able gather information on users who look up .org websites and send emails to .org addresses. “Whether someone is looking for an abortion or seeking spiritual counseling, that’s going to be a .org either way,” says Bill Woodcock, the executive director of Packet Clearing House, which is a nonprofit that offers technical support to the .org system. “There’s a vast amount of very private detail about people’s lives that is handled by nonprofits, precisely because people don’t regard that as an area subject to commercialization.”
Is this a done deal?
No. ICANN, which regulates all top-level domains, will ultimately have to approve or halt the sale. In fact, ICANN has already expressed some unease about the lack of transparency around the acquisition. The nonprofit community was not aware of negotiations surrounding the sale of the Public Interest Registry and did not have an opportunity to offer their input. ICANN has delayed approval by 30 days in order to review the deal. The review period will end Feb. 17.
If ICANN does reject the proposed acquisition, representatives from the likes of the Wikimedia Foundation and Packet Clearing House are instead proposing that multiple nonprofits come together to create a cooperative corporation that would make decisions on the .org domain, thus dispersing power to its members. The top-level domain for German websites, .de, operates using a similar cooperative model.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
Correction, Jan. 22, 2020: This article originally misidentified Amy Sample Ward as Amy Ward.