U.S. Senators Still Sceptical .ORG Sale To Private Equity Firm Won't Harm Nonprofits

US Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, speaks to reporters as he walks to the chamber to go for a vote on July 17, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds (Getty)

In a letter last month, a group of U.S. lawmakers voice concerns about the proposed sale of the .ORG top-level domain to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm founded last year. Announced in November by ICANN, the organisation that manages all internet domain names, the sale has worried nonprofits, which have traditionally made the .org domain their home.

ICANN and Ethos Capital responded to those concerns this week, saying they believe the sale will “enhance and support .ORG’s continued growth,” making the domain “even more reliable and useful” for nonprofits. “We embraced this acquisition precisely because we have long recognised that .ORG is a special domain,” they said.

Those assurances may prove insufficient to forestall a handful of sceptical lawmakers from exploring ways to halt the sale.

Digital rights advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have called on the Internet Society, which runs the Public Interest Registry (PIR)—the entity that maintains the .ORG domain—to halt the sale. The deal has been orchestrated largely behind closed doors and without the nonprofit community being consulted, they said. Given that, the EFF has publicly shed doubt on whether the Internet Society remains a “trusted community leader” capable of representing the interests of non-governmental organisations online.

Most concerns revolve around pricing. In a letter last month cosigned by, among others, Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Elizabeth Warren, stated that .ORG “must provide reliable and affordable” services to the nonprofit community. “It must protect the free-speech rights of all users, even for those with unpopular viewpoints that governments or corporations may not like,” it said.

In a joint response, the CEOs of Ethos Capital, the Internet Society, and PIR—Erik Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, and Jon Nevett, respectively—stated that Ethos intended to uphold commitments to freedom of expression and human rights more broadly. “PIR and Ethos take the preservation of freedom of expression seriously, and the registry’s commitment to free speech will continue unabated,” they said.

Ethos likewise reinforced its commitment to “maintain PIR’s historical practices on pricing,” noting that, “.ORG remains one of the most affordable domains in the marketplace,” while promising to limit any increase in price to no more than 10 per cent per year “on average.”

“Ethos is committed to investing in the long-term vitality of .ORG and its users, and intends to serve the needs of the community for many years to come. For all of these reasons, we believe this acquisition serves the public interest,” Ethos, PIR, and Internet Society said jointly.

These assurances proved little comfort to Wyden, who told Gizmodo by email that the letter from Ethos boils down to “trust us” and that’s simply “not good enough.”

“Nothing in this response addresses my concerns that selling .org to a private equity firm would be a real blow to internet users and nonprofits,” he said, while promising to explore every avenue in Congress “to step in and ensure users and nonprofits are protected.”

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