PIR, itself a non-profit, announced that it is selling itself to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm that was formed earlier this year.

.org, of course, is a global top-level domain (gTLD) that was intended to be used by non-profit organizations. Some 10m .org domain names are currently registered, many by non-profits.

In 2003, PIR, which was created by the non-profit Internet Society, took over the .org registry from Verisign. Under its contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the amount PIR could charge for .org domain registrations was capped, but in May of this year, ICANN removed the cap, effectively allowing PIR to charge whatever it wants.

Armed with that ability, PIR decided to sell itself in a secretive and apparently non-competitive process, sparking a firestorm when the sale was announced.

While Ethos Capital says that it is “committed to keeping .org accessible and reasonably priced for all”, a growing number of non-profits that use .org, including the YMCA, Girl Scouts of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Internet Archive, Creative Commons, Farm Aid and American Alliance of Museums are protesting the sale through a campaign, SaveDotOrg, that has been formed to try to stop the sale of PIR.

What’s at stake

Many non-profits rely heavily on their websites and email to distribute information about their organizations and raise money from donors. With that in mind, SaveDotOrg highlights three primary concerns about the .org sale: •

  1. Without price caps in place, Ethos Capital, a for-profit firm that ostensibly expects to earn a healthy return from its billion-dollar purchase, could increase prices significantly, “[putting] many cash-strapped NGOs in the difficult position of either paying the increased fees or losing the legitimacy and brand recognition of a .ORG domain.”
  2. Ethos Capital could move forward with implementing rights protections without feedback from the non-profit community, which could result in censorship of legal non-profit activity.
  3. The private equity firm could suspend domains for violations of “applicable law”, ignoring the fact that state actors often use allegations of illegal activity to disrupt the operations of nonprofits they don’t like.

According to SaveDotOrg, “A registry could abuse these powers to do significant harm to the global NGO sector, intentionally or not. We cannot afford to put them into the hands of a private equity firm that has not earned the trust of the NGO community. .ORG must be managed by a leader that puts the needs of NGOs over profits.”

Unfortunately, as ICANN has already approved the transaction, it seems very unlikely that it won’t close early next year as anticipated, leaving concerned .orgs with limited options.

Outside of hoping that Ethos Capital proves to be a responsible steward of .org, non-profits can consider alternative gTLDs, namely .ngo and .ong. Unlike .org domains, which can be freely registered by individuals and companies, both .ngo and .ong require registrants to prove their status.

Ironically, however, both of these gTLDs are also run by PIR and they’re obviously not nearly as wellrecognized by the public. Switching domains is never fun and it can even result in SEO disaster, so it’s unlikely that many non-profits will immediately choose to transition from .org.

But given the serious concerns SaveDotOrg has raised, non-profits will certainly want to keep a close eye on any moves that Ethos Capital makes once it takes ownership of .org and reevaluate accordingly.