Tuesday, January 7, 2020

ICANN’s founding chairman joins the battle to keep .org out of private hands

DLD Conference 2012 - Day 1Photo by Nadine Rupp/Getty Images

In November, the Internet Society (ISOC), which owns the Public Interest Registry (PIR), the group that maintains the .org top-level domain, announced it would sell PIR to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm — an ownership structure that would seem to be at odds with what .org represents. Today, a group of internet and nonprofit leaders formed a nonprofit cooperative corporation that’s trying to stop the sale and become the future stewards of the .org domain instead (via The New York Times).

The new non-profit cooperative corporation, officially called the Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants, is led by many people who currently have or have had influence over the inner workings of the Internet, including Esther Dyson, the founding chairman of ICANN (the non-profit that oversees domain names on the internet), Katherine Maher, the CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation (the parent company of Wikipedia), and William Woodcock, the executive director of Packet Clearing House (an organization that helps support internet infrastructure and the domain name system).

Directors of the new group are speaking strongly against the deal

Directors of the new group spoke strongly against the deal in interviews with The New York Times. Woodcock, of Packet Clearing House, for example, said that the PIR-Ethos deal could undermine a “common good.” And they’re positioning the group as a better steward of .org, because it would be a nonprofit. Dyson, the former ICANN chair, said that the new group’s incentive would be to “protect nonprofits and the public.” And Maher, the CEO of Wikimedia, said that the new cooperative corporation would offer “an alternative model with a long-term commitment to the open and noncommercial internet.”

However, it’s unclear if ICANN can actually stop the sale of PIR to Ethos. It seems that authority could fall to ICANN, even if ICANN isn’t a regulatory agency. Its primary job is to give official status to domain registrars and make sure they comply with domain ownership policies. ICANN is trying to learn more about the transaction, though, and wrote a letter on December 9th to ISOC and PIR asking for more info.

If, based on the answers provided, ICANN thinks Ethos shouldn’t be the group to operate .org, it’s unclear what happens next — but perhaps the new cooperative corporation can convince ICANN that it’s the better .org operator.

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