Private Equity's Billion-Dollar-Bid to Control Dot.Org Website Domains Faces Sharp Criticism

A private equity firm that's trying to purchase control of all dot-org domains for more than $1 billion said Friday that it is planning to put in place legally-binding measures to address concerns and ongoing criticisms about the deal by lawmakers, nonprofits and activists.


The latest announcement is the most recent turn of events in a complex, technical but important discussion over the future of a critical segment of the internet. In November, Boston-based Ethos Capital publicly announced the deal to acquire the nonprofit Public Interest Registry (PIR), which manages the dot-org domain, setting off public debate over the appropriateness of such a deal. The purchase would give The Internet Society, a nonprofit that controls and created PIR, a $1.135-billion endowment to continue its other good works it engages in to strengthen the internet, without having to rely solely on fees from dot-org registry users.

Earlier this month, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra stepped into the fray. His office said it wanted to review such a deal's potential impact to the nonprofit community. Though you don't need to be a nonprofit to own a dot-org domain, the registry is the online home to more than 10 million domain names registered worldwide including to well known organizations, nonprofits and media like Farm Aid, The Sierra Club, Amnesty International, Girl Scouts of the USA, The Associated Press and ProPublica.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees what's essentially the address book of the internet from its Playa Vista, California offices, still needs to bless the deal. Ethos said Friday that PIR has agreed to push the deal back to March 20 to give ample time to review the additional terms.

Among the new initiatives announced jointly by Ethos, PIR and The Internet Society in a press release Friday are "legally-binding measures to enforce price limits, safeguard against censorship and protect personal data" by amending PIR's registry agreement with ICANN, which allows PIR to operate the dot-org domain. Such changes could not be unilaterally changed by PIR and would apply to dot-org regardless of who operates it, Ethos said.

"We have been listening closely to stakeholder feedback — both positive and negative — and have been working diligently to address these specific issues head on," said Erik Brooks, founder and CEO of Ethos Capital. He said the private equity firm was trying to address requests for measures that were strongly enforceable to ensure Ethos is accountable.

Per Ethos, the legally-binding provisions in the amendment include the following:

  • Ensuring dot-org domains do not increase more than 10% annually on average for eight years under a formula that prevents "front-loading" of those increases. Right now it costs roughly $10 for an annual dot-org domain renewal fee.
  • Establishment of a "stewardship council" to provide independent advice plus a binding right to veto modifications proposed by PIR to its policies regarding censorship, freedom of expression and use of user data.
  • Creation of a $10-million "community enablement fund," contributed by PIR over the life of the current registry agreement, to support initiatives to benefit dot-org registrations that would be approved by the Stewardship Council
  • PIR will publish an annual report on its own compliance with the above commitments and account for how it pursued activities to benefit dot-org registrants that year.

A review by dot.LA of the stewardship council's charter makes it clear that it serves as an independent body for advice and that its duties are to be requested and assigned by the PIR board, rather than proactively reviewed by the council.

More than 21,000 people, 660 organizations and six members of Congress have written letters to say they oppose the deal, which internet governance experts have worried will lead to unsavory efforts to make back the more than $1 billion to please investors at the expense of nonprofits doing good or monetize the data's registry at the expense of the public.

ICANN's President and CEO Göran Marby said that the nonprofit is in the process of analyzing information it has received and has no comment. The AG's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Representatives for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit defending digital privacy, did not immediately comment.

Ethos, PIR and The Internet Society will have representatives available to discuss and provide additional details on Feb. 27.

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