Internet Society, remember your embarrassing .org flub? The actual internet society would like to talk about it

Non-profits call for independent probe into disastrous effort to sell TLD registry

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The non-profit organizations that fought to halt the sale of the .org registry to a newly created private equity firm are demanding an independent review into the fiasco, which pitted charities against domain registrars over the billion-dollar aborted deal.

“While we are pleased that .org is not being sold to Ethos Capital, there’s nothing in [the] recent announcement that addresses the unilateral decision-making that led to the Internet Society (ISOC) board of directors deciding in secrecy over a matter of weeks to sell the .org domain,” noted a letter [PDF] today from NTEN, the EFF, and AccessNow to the Internet Society, which runs the dot-org top-level domain name.

“Decisions affecting .ORG must be made with the consultation of the NGO community, overseen by a trusted community leader. Trust is earned, not given. And once lost, it must be earned anew.”

It’s been nearly three months since the controversial sale of the domain-name registry was vetoed by DNS overlord ICANN, following campaigning by netizens and a massive campaign by non-profits and a terse demand by California’s attorney general that the sale be called off.

The proposed sale was extraordinary: the .org registry is operated by the Public Interest Registry (PIR), which is controlled by the Internet Society (ISOC), both non-profits, for more than 20 years. It has been recognized globally as the main online home for non-profit and charitable organizations for decades.

Despite that, both PIR and ISOC’s boards unanimously approved the sale of their ownership of .org, in secret and with no consultation with the internet community, to a for-profit private equity firm, Ethos Capital, that had been established only a few months earlier.

The deal would have required PIR to turn itself from a non-profit to a for-profit. And the deal only came about after price caps for domain ownership had been eliminated, at PIR’s request, on .org domains.

Well, it was a lot of money

The only real explanation given for the proposed sale was that the large sum offered – over a billion dollars – would give ISOC a massive financial foundation for the future. To the hundred of thousands of non-profits that were blindsided by the decision and were certain that the deal would mean large increases in annual registration fees, however, that self-interested explanation represented a gross abuse of trust.

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But despite the issue propelling the usually staid world of domain names into the global spotlight, the organizations behind the ill-fated deal have failed to respond publicly since the deal was struck down.

A letter from the registry operator PIR to ICANN, following the latter's decision to halt the TLD handover, stated simply that it was in receipt of the decision and had terminated its purchase agreement.

“Rest assured and as has been pointed out by the community, PIR has been and will continue to serve as an exemplary registry operator and responsible steward of .ORG,” it concluded [PDF].

That’s not good enough, say the non-profits that noted there is nothing to stop ISOC-PIR from trying to sell the .org registry again tomorrow – though not to Ethos as its relationship with PIR is now officially over. In any case, the non-profits remain furious that both ISOC and PIR actively supported and promoted the sale rather than stay neutral in the matter.

“PIR and ISOC actively supported Ethos Capital in standing up ‘community engagement’ events that were in fact nothing more than a public relations campaign, offering no meaningful dialogue with the community,” the letter complained.

“These actions and the leadership behind them remain a matter of serious concern… These breaches of trust make it clear that stronger accountability measures are necessary.”

Resign? Whatever for?

A widely held view in the internet community is that the executives at the heart of the matter, and the boards of directors for both PIR and ISOC, failed to do their jobs.

In response to what has been a catastrophic impact on ISOC’s reputation and standing, its board has attempted to punt the issue into the long grass by establishing a new Governance Reform Working Group. But that group will remain firmly under the control of the ISOC board, and can only make recommendations. No scope or remit has been provided.

That blatant effort to provide the appearance of accountability, while ensuring that no real changes are made, is thought to have triggered the main demand in the non-profits' letter: a “transparent, independent, third-party review” of the decision to approve and push the sale to Ethos Capital.

Dig out the rot

The non-profits want a review of the process and decision points that led up to the sale’s approval by ISOC-PIR, and how the decision was made not to consult with Internet Society chapters, and then to ignore the wave of complaints and criticism directed at the decision when it was made public.

It also wants there to be “robust, inclusive consultations with the NGO community to amend ISOC and PIR processes, policies, governing structures, and any other structural or cultural challenges ... in order to ensure .org users have a meaningful say in the governance and decision-making of both organizations regarding all matters that impact or influence .ORG now and into the future.”

So far, ISOC and PIR’s response has silence. We have also asked both organizations for comment, and have heard nothing back at the time of going to press. ®

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