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Opposition grows to private equity buy of .org domain registry

Associations and other nonprofits fear price hikes could follow sale of Public Interest Registry

Org graphic

Dec. 4, 2019
By Alison Bennett

Opposition is growing to a billion-dollar deal that would give responsibility for overseeing—and determining prices—for millions of .org domain names to a private equity firm.

More than 12,000 individuals and nongovernmental organizations have endorsed an online letter urging the Internet Society to cancel its plans to sell the Public Interest Registry—manager of the .org domain since 2002—to Ethos Capital for $1.135 billion.  The sale is expected to close in the first quarter of 2020.

Many associations and other nonprofit groups fear that the for-profit entity will hike prices significantly, especially now that a previous 10% cap on annual price increases was eliminated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers earlier this year. There are also concerns about protecting the rights of .org users.

NTEN is among the groups leading the charge against the sale. The Portland, Ore.-based membership organization for nonprofit technology professionals launched the SaveDotOrg.org website in November. NTEN is also organizing a “community call” for Thursday, Dec. 5, at noon PST (3 p.m. EST) about the pending sale. Expected call participants include representatives from NTEN, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Council of Nonprofits, Internet Society chapter leaders, the Public Interest Registry and Ethos Capital.  Information about joining the call is at SaveDotOrg.org.

Associations that have endorsed the online letter opposing the sale include ASAE (American Society of Association Executives), the National Council of Nonprofits and the American Alliance of Museums.

 “We’ve got our lawyers looking into it to see if there’s any reasonable way to challenge it,” said Bob Skelton, chief administrative officer at ASAE.

With pushback increasing, ICANN may be looking further into the deal, ICANN told CEO Update in a statement.

 “ICANN is reviewing the acquisition of PIR by Ethos Capital to see if it is necessary to acquire any additional information,” it said. ICANN did not respond to a request for further information.

Proponents of the sale rebut concerns about .org price hikes and other issues. Internet Society CEO Andrew Sullivan told CEO Update it is his understanding that Ethos only intends to raise the price about 10% a year. Sullivan noted that with a general $10 price tag for a .org domain, that would mean only a $1 price raise a year, something “most people wouldn’t even notice.” There are about 10 million registered .org names.

Ethos, the Internet Society and PIR created also created a page—keypointsabout.org—to address questions about the sale.  The page notes that the plan is “to live within the spirit of historic practice when it comes to pricing.”

Sullivan said competition would also keep prices down.

But associations and other organizations with a .org address aren’t happy.

Rick Cohen, chief communications officer and COO for the National Council of Nonprofits, said organizations are afraid that Ethos will take advantage of the freedom it has to raise tens of millions more in revenue.

“There’s not anything to stop them from doing that once the sale closes,” Cohen said.

Laura Lott, CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, said any cost increase would be an issue for her members because a vast majority of museums rely on the .org top-level domain.

“Anything that has the potential to divert critical resources away from the core educational mission of museums in service to their communities is a concern,” she said.

Read more about the .org registry sale in the Dec. 13 issue of CEO Update.