Let’s check in on the .org sale fiasco: Senators say No, internet grandees say Yes – and ICANN pretends there's absolutely nothing to see here

'Ethos Capital, ISOC, and PIR have failed to provide clear and transparent information'

People arguing with each other in an office

Analysis A quick hypothetical for you: if your organization received a letter from six senior politicians urging you not to move forward with a controversial decision, and you looked out your windows to see dozens of protesters insisting on the same, would you…

  1. Call an emergency meeting of your board/staff
  2. Release a public statement making it clear you have heard the concerns
  3. Arrange a series of public meetings, or
  4. All of the above

Well, if you run the internet’s domain name system on which the entire world relies on for information, the correct answer apparently is e) Bury your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening.

Meeting? What meeting?

Every year, in January, DNS overseer ICANN has a multi-day in-person meeting for its board at its headquarters in Los Angeles, USA, in which it discusses the most pressing issues for the organization.

The meeting is usually announced weeks in advance with an agenda published online, and – depending on how generous the organization is feeling – parts of the meeting are sometimes streamed over the web, occasionally with the ability to ask questions of the high and mighty leaders.

This year it’s different. Until four days ago – following a request from The Register – there was no mention of any meetings at all. There are now very limited details of meetings on 26 and 27 January, but no mention of the three days of meetings being held prior to that. The same day that the limited details went up, ICANN’s chairman published a blog post outlining the topics that its board would be discussing.

“It’s amazing how quickly time flies!” Maarten Botterman cheerfully announced. “The new decade is finally upon us, and after a well-deserved break, we’re ready to pick up where we left off in 2019. As you have become accustomed, we share with you our plans for the workshop, and we look forward to sharing our findings shortly after.”

Which all sounds very jolly if it weren’t somewhat delusional. Of the 981 words in the post, just 9 of them cover the most important decision that ICANN may ever make.

The same day as that post, ICANN received a letter [PDF] from six US lawmakers, including presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren and some of the most tech-savvy congressfolk in Washington DC: House Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).

The politicians warned ICANN that a decision it is due to make – approving the sale of .org to private equity – would be “against the public interest and would violate ICANN's commitment to ‘preserve and enhance ... the operational stability, reliability, security ... and openness of the DNS and the Internet’.”

Debt burden

The letter wasn’t a short or misinformed one, either: it contained eight pages of in-depth review, referencing not only The Register's coverage of the .org saga, but also drawing upon recently released details of the proposed sale. For those unaware, the Internet Society (ISOC) and its subsidiary PIR are trying to sell the .org registry to an unknown private equity firm, a move that is causing uproar.

The letter tackles two recent revelations: the fact that the purchase is 32 percent funded by over $300m in debt, and that a company that no one had ever heard of before – Purpose Domains Direct – is going to be the final owner of the registry, despite a company called Ethos Capital having previously represented itself as the purchaser.

“Ethos Capital, ISOC, and PIR have failed to provide clear and transparent information about how they intend to satisfy the new substantial financial burdens,” the lawmakers’ letter notes.

As well as the high debt burden, it also highlights the fact that “commitments” that the would-be purchasers have made in response to public pressure “lack enforceability and contain numerous loopholes,” and notes that the deal will almost certainly lead to a huge increase in fees, the sale of data from .org owners and possible censorship of the internet.

In addition to the letter, a number of non-profit groups that have banded together to find out about the deal – and which, as a result, increasingly oppose it – have announced plans to protest outside ICANN’s headquarters this week during the board meeting that ICANN has yet to admit is happening.

On top of that, several articles in national newspapers outlining concerns over the deal have been published, most recent an op-ed in The Washington Post written by the founding chair of ICANN, Esther Dyson, in which she begins: “One of the Internet’s most trusted assets — the dot-org domain used by nonprofits from UNICEF to your local food bank — is being hijacked.”

Transparent

Dyson outlines why the sale is a terrible idea and then notes: “We believe the ICANN Board of Directors will meet on Jan. 24 (though we can’t know for sure, since the board doesn't release such information anymore) to discuss whether to allow the deal."

"The dot-org community is entitled to a transparent process," she espoused. "This issue demands careful and deliberate consideration. We cannot afford, nor should we accept, a decision with such far-reaching implications to be made behind closed doors, void of any community input and without consideration of alternatives.”

In addition, one of the organizations tracking the situation – the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – has published an additional series of questions that it wants ICANN to get the answers to. This follows a series of questions from both ICANN and internet organizations that ISOC/PIR/Ethos Capital have half-answered and also redacted. Amazingly, we still don’t know who the actual people will be who get to decide the future of the .org registry, which boasts more than 10 million addresses.

Clearly faced with all of this, any right-thinking organization in charge of overseeing an enormous public good would go out of its way to make sure that everyone knows what is going on, what it intends to do about it and provide a way to hear their input.

But we are talking about ICANN here: an organization that extracted $20m from dot-com operator Verisign to sign its contract extension for no reason other than it could; an organization that has dragged out the issue of .amazon for nearly a decade despite a panel of independent judges informing it that it no single justifiable reason for doing so; and an organization that continues to pay its staff and board several times what they would net on the open market.

Faced with global attention and serious concerns from former executives, top politicians, and a huge swathe of non-profit organizations across the globe, the organization has decided to... simply ignore everyone.

Silenced

ICANN’s legal department – which got the organization into this mess in the first place by repeatedly ignoring internet community concerns and by drawing up contracts that define the market without undertaking any economic or market analysis – is insisting that it is in charge of the situation and no Board action is necessary.

Notably, the fact that it was ICANN’s staff and not the board that made a decision to lift price caps on .org domains – which sparked the sale in the first place – was so unusual in itself that it is now subject to a formal complaint.

We understand that despite the protestations of several board members, ICANN’s chair – he of the “It’s amazing how quickly time flies!” – is refusing to give more than an hour to discussion of .org fiasco during its three-day meeting.

That means that the biggest issue facing the organization in years will have less time spent on it than a “team-building exercise aimed at recognizing and understanding the unique qualities each Board member brings to the table, so that we can work more effectively as a team.”

skeptical

ICANN finally reveals who’s behind purchase of .org: It’s ███████ and ██████ – you don't need to know any more

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Meanwhile, ISOC has continue to push out tone-deaf defenses of its decision to sell out millions of non-profits and other dot-org domain owners by selling up to a secretive for-profit, roping in “father of the internet” Vint Cerf and board member Mike Godwin – he of Godwin’s Law fame – to write articles in defense of the move.

It is an indication of just how wrong ISOC has got it – and how far it has become separated from the community it purports to represent – that those articles have sparked their own responses, with people openly critical of these formerly revered figures.

It isn’t complicated: millions of non-profit organizations, and other .org domain owners, who have consciously built their online brand using a dot-org address because of what it represents and knowing that it is operated by the Internet Society are stunned to find that that organization is prepared to sell those properties to an unknown organization that exists solely to profit from them and whose directors it won’t even announce.

The fact that ISOC continues to argue in favor of a clearly flawed decision, and the fact that ICANN – in the very moment it is being asked to stand up for the internet’s core principles of openness, transparency and accountability – has decided to literally refuse to acknowledge the existence of any concerns, is perhaps the purest sign that the organizations charged with protecting the internet from malign influence have completely lost their way. ®

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