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Save the .ORG domain and all it symbolizes

Save the .ORG domain and all it symbolizes
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Today an internet suffix that signals a commitment to public interest ideals is in danger. The organization that manages the domain system has said it will okay the sale of the non-commercial .ORG domain to a private equity fund for over 1 billion dollars. The fund has made certain statements about future activities but once the transfer occurs, the domain and it all its assets will move from the public realm to the private.

For the Internet Society and Ethos Capitol this looks like a very good deal. The Internet Society receives a substantial endowment that could support its work for many years; Ethos Capitol obtains one of the most valuable Internet registries in the world, knowing also that millions of non-profits organizations that have included ‘.ORG” in their branding will have few options if prices go up or service quality goes down.

When the Public Interest Registry was established in 2002 our aim was to promote the non-commercial use of the internet. We fully respected the other domain extensions, such as .COM, the default for most businesses, .EDU for educational institutions, .GOV for the U.S. government, and the many country codes, such as .FR and .EU. But we believed there should be a space of the internet to promote noncommercial use and that the governance of the .ORG domain should respect the essential character of the users of the domain.

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The transition of .ORG from the previous operator to Public Interest Registry was the largest transfer of domains in Internet history. More than 2.6 million domains were transferred in about a day without disruption. And when the new home for .ORG was established, we were described as an exemplary registry to “meet the unique needs and interests of noncommercial organizations around the world.”

We established a non-profit corporation, subject to the transparency and accountability rules of other non-profit organizations, selected a vendor to manage the registration process, and hired a full-time CEO. The profits from the sale of domain names supported the work of the Internet Society, an organization committed to the growth of the internet. We also decided that there should be no gatekeeper for .ORG — any entity was free to register a .ORG domain, though the designation typically reflected a commitment to promote non-commercial use.

Millions of organizations, from small community groups to international associations, purchased .ORG domains and promoted their internet domain as if it were their street address — aarp.org, redcross.org, unitedway.org, wwf.org, and many more. By 2012, there were more than 10 million unique .ORG domains. Over time, it became easier to reach nonprofits at their internet address than by postal mail or telephone.

The .ORG also signaled to internet users a certain type of online presence, with less advertising, better privacy practices, and a clear mission.

The public.resource.org, established to  “make government information more accessible,” was at the Supreme Court last week arguing for the public’s right to obtain access to state laws which they will then make available online.

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We introduced Internationalized Domain Names to promote non-Latin character sets and to make the internet more inclusive for non-English speaking countries. Later, the .ORG led the way with DNSSec, a protocol that helps reduce the risks of fraud and cyber attack. And throughout this time, the .ORG operated as a model registry, making decisions in the open, publishing annual financial reports, providing support for the Internet Society, and responding to concerns as they arose.

The internet has changed a lot since the founding of the .ORG. A small number of firms now dominate the internet. Facebook has pulled more than 2 billion users into its walled garden, captured much of the world’s advertising revenue, and determined the outcome of elections. Google dominates the protocols and the services of the internet, from the Domain Name Systems to most of the popular applications, including email, search, and streaming video.

The .ORG stands apart from both of the internet giants. In Facebook’s world — facebook.com — there is no clear identifier for non-profits, simply Facebook groups, and no opportunity to move group members out of Facebook’s fortress. Google has encouraged nonprofits to adopt Google’s services as an alternative to .ORG branded domains. A depressing number of nonprofit organizations have turned to gmail.com, Google groups, and Google docs rather than promote their own identities in the .ORG world. Once upon a time, we launched campaigns such as “indefenseoffreedom.org” and “thepublicvoice.org.” Now political groups in the U.S. often rally behind “googlegroups.com.”

And with a for-profit equity fund slated to take control of the .ORG the risk is real that the costs for domain registration will rise quickly. In fact, the proposal to sell .ORG followed not long after a controversial decision to remove price caps.

For those who care about the future of internet governance, the preservation of the .ORG domain should be a top priority. Not every piece of the internet should be privatized, not every domain put on the auction block.

ICANN should block this sale and if does not, national governments, including the United States, should weigh in.

This may be the last opportunity to preserve the internet that many of us still believe in. 

Marc Rotenberg is president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and a founding board member and former chair of the Public Interest Registry, which was established to manage the .ORG domain. Previously, he launched The Public Voice to promote civil society participation in decisions concerning the future of the internet.