ICANN votes down controversial .org sale proposal

The organization that oversees internet domain names has rejected a proposal to transfer management of the .org top-level domain from a nonprofit to a private equity group. ICANN said it wouldn’t approve the sale of .org operator Public Interest Registry because it would create “unacceptable uncertainty” for the domain, citing concerns about debt and the intentions of the for-profit firm Ethos Capital.

In a blog post, ICANN’s board said the sale would have given up the current focus of PIR in favor of “an entity that is bound to serve the interests of its corporate stakeholders, and which has no meaningful plan to protect or serve the .org community.” It also noted that the sale would leave PIR with a $360 million debt that could destabilize its operation in the future.

PIR was founded by the Internet Society (or ISOC) to handle the .org domain in 2003. But in late 2019, ISOC announced that it would transfer control of .org to Ethos in exchange for a $1 billion endowment. The move immediately drew criticism from advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as some original members of ICANN, including its first chair Esther Dyson. Opponents took issue with the prospect of an equity firm managing nonprofit domains, despite promises that it wouldn’t implement price hikes or act as a censor.

The .org controversy has put a generally low-profile organization in the spotlight, especially as ICANN’s decision has been delayed multiple times as it requested more information about the deal. Earlier this month, California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra urged ICANN to reject the sale, warning that it “may place at risk the operational stability of the .org registry.” The board echoed Becerra’s complaints in its decision.

The EFF praised ICANN’s move, calling it “a major victory for the millions of nonprofits, civil society organizations, and individuals who make .org their home online.”