A recently minted private equity firm called Ethos Capital wants to buy the entity that oversees and administers the .org top-level domain (TLD). That’s worrying because .org is the TLD of choice for non-profits, charities, educational outlets and the sorts of websites that do good but don’t usually make much money in the process.
Not only could the acquisition eventually see them priced out of their domains through increased fees, but could also enable censorship or imperil site owners and users if data about them is sold or leaked.
Domains are strange relics of the early internet. They’re a lot like phone numbers, insofar as you no longer need to remember them to use them. People don’t type out domains any more than they do phone numbers, the put the name of the website into a search bar the same way they search for a contact in their smartphone. But behind the scenes, domains are still split into categories and managed by a central body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Some parts of the internet need protecting — The .org domain is home to big-name sites like Wikipedia, Mozilla, WordPress, Khan Academy, and NPR, less famous but still important ones like petitions site change.org, the Mayo Clinic, and the JSTOR academic library. It’s also home to humorous but no less deserving of protection sites like metric-conversions.org and emojipedia.org.
The overarching problem if ICANN sells control of .org to Ethos Capital is that the buyer is going to want to recoup its purchase price. That’s reasonable, but there’d be nothing stopping it from being unreasonable in its methods of doing so. It could hike domain prices. It could sell user data to whomever it pleases. And it could, as The American Prospect explains in detail, exert pressure in various explicit or implicit ways on domain owners should it be inclined to, whether of its own volition or because of pressure from partners.
ICANN has the final say — ICANN needs to sign off on the deal for it to go through. As it stands, despite calls for it not to from a slew of lobbyists, politicians and the public, there’s no reason it won’t. If that seems mad to you, you’re in L.A., and you’re free on Friday, January 24, you can join the protest against the proposed sale that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is spearheading.
Ultimately, ICANN has to be the gatekeeper that protects a cornerstone of the fabric that underpins the internet. It’s “a public-benefit corporation with participants from all over the world dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable, and interoperable.” Let’s hope it doesn’t forget that.