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ICANN Directors: Take a Close Look at the Dot Org Sale

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As outlined in two previous posts, we believe that the sale of the nonprofit Public Interest Registry (PIR) to Ethos Capital demands close and careful scrutiny. ICANN — the body that granted the dot org license to PIR and which must approve the sale — needs to engage in this kind of scrutiny.

When ICANN’s board meets in Los Angeles over the next few days, we urge directors to pay particular attention to the question of how the new PIR would steward and be accountable to the dot org ecosystem. We also encourage them to seriously consider the analysis and arguments being made by those who are proposing alternatives to the sale, including the members of the Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants.

As we’ve said before, there are high stakes behind this sale: Public interest groups around the world rely on the dot org registrar to ensure free expression protections and affordable digital real estate. Should this reliance fail under future ownership, a key part of the public interest internet infrastructure would be diminished — and so would the important offline work it fuels.

Late last year, we asked ISOC, PIR and Ethos to answer a series of questions about how the dot org ecosystem would be protected if the sale went through. They responded and we appreciate their engagement, but key questions remain unanswered.

In particular, the responses from Ethos and ISOC proposed a PIR stewardship council made up of representatives from the dot org community. However, no details about the structure, role or powers of this council have been shared publicly. Similarly, Ethos has promised to change PIR’s corporate structure to reinforce its public benefit orientation, but provided few details.

Ambiguous promises are not nearly enough given the stakes. A crystal-clear stewardship charter — and a chance to discuss and debate its contents — are needed before ICANN and the dot org community can even begin to consider whether the sale is a good idea.

One can imagine a charter that provides the council with broad scope, meaningful independence, and practical authority to ensure PIR continues to serve the public benefit. One that guarantees Ethos and PIR will keep their promises regarding price increases, and steer any additional revenue from higher prices back into the dot org ecosystem. One that enshrines quality service and strong rights safeguards for all dot orgs. And one that helps ensure these protections are durable, accounting for the possibility of a future resale.

At the ICANN board meeting tomorrow, directors should discuss and agree upon a set of criteria that would need to be satisfied before approving the sale. First and foremost, this list should include a stewardship charter of this nature, a B corp registration with a publicly posted charter, and a public process of feedback related to both. These things should be in place before ICANN considers approving the sale.

ICANN directors should also discuss whether alternatives to the current sale should be considered, including an open call for bidders. Internet stalwarts like Wikimedia, experts like Marietje Schaake and dozens of important non-profits have proposed other options, including the creation of a co-op of dot orgs. In a Washington Post op-ed, former ICANN chair Esther Dyson argues that such a co-op would “[keep] dot-org safe, secure and free of any motivation to profit off its users’ data or to upsell them pricy add-ons.”

Throughout this process, Mozilla will continue to ask tough questions, as we have on December 3 and December 19. And we’ll continue to push ICANN to hold the sale up against a high bar.

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