December 23, 2019

Wyden, Blumenthal, Warren and Eshoo Question Sale of .ORG Domains to Private Equity Firm

Senators Ask How Non-Profits, Free Speech and Internet Users Will Be Impacted By Sale

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., questioned whether nonprofit groups, free speech and internet users would be harmed selling control of .ORG domains to a private equity firm, in a letter sent today.

Currently, the Internet Society, a non-profit group, controls how website names ending in .ORG are allocated. In November, the Society announced that it would sell control of the .ORG registry and its parent organization, Public Interest Registry, to the private equity firm Ethos Capital for more than $1 billion.

“The registry that controls .ORG must provide reliable and affordable domain services to nonprofits. It must protect the free-speech rights of all users, even for those with unpopular viewpoints that governments or corporations may not like. At the same time, it must protect internet users from phishing, malware and denial-of-service attacks,” the members wrote to the leaders of Ethos, the Internet Society and the Public Interest Registry.

“The nonprofit community is understandably concerned about whether Ethos Capital, a private equity firm that has existed for less than six months, will act as a responsible steward over this core component of internet infrastructure,” they continued.

Read the full letter here.

The members requested answers to the following questions by January 6, 2020:

  1. Will you disclose the content of your registry transfer request to ICANN and any filings with Pennsylvania courts or other government authorities? Will PIR make its articles of incorporation and bylaws public?
  2. On December 9, ICANN requested additional information from PIR. Will you commit to publishing your answers to any information requests by ICANN? If there is information in your answers that you will not publish, please explain why.
  3. How will each of you ensure that any price increases for .ORG domains are reasonable and reviewed by the nonprofit community the registry serves? What steps will you be taking to formalize these processes, and otherwise clearly indicate to the public and to .ORG registrants that Ethos Capital, and any subsequent buyers of .ORG, will be expected to continue involving the nonprofit community in the stewardship of .ORG? 
  4. In 2002, ISOC and PIR were entrusted by ICANN with the operation of the .ORG registry because they met the requirement that “policies and practices should strive to be responsive to and supportive of the noncommercial Internet user community.” How does the sale of .ORG to Ethos Capital ensure that this commitment continues to be met?
  5. How will you protect the content neutrality of the registry, both while it is managed by Ethos Capital and after any subsequent sale of the registry?
  6. In the wake of public criticism of this deal, PIR created a new website on which it responded to critics, There, you state that PIR and Ethos Capital will create a stewardship council “that will serve to uphold PIR’s core founding values,” but do not describe its responsibilities, authority, or membership.
    1. How will you formalize the council’s bylaws and how can the nonprofit community be assured that they are enforceable?
    2. How will you guarantee that this stewardship council will be independent and community-driven?
    3. Will the members of the council be selected by PIR, by the council itself, through designated organizations or by some other mechanism?
    4. Will domain registrants be able to appeal any domain take-down decisions to the council?
    5. What authority will the council have to review or veto price increases, changes in service providers critical to the reliability of the .ORG domain or other major registry policy changes?
    6. Will the stewardship council be able to replace the leadership of PIR if it makes a determination that it does not serve the interests of the nonprofit community?
    7. How will you ensure that the council is indeed truly independent and has the appropriate authority and resources?
    8. How will you make it difficult for Ethos Capital or a future registry owner to ignore or disband this council?
  7. Will ISOC and PIR provide the nonprofit community with the ability to comment on proposed and final bylaws, stewardship council responsibilities and structure, and other relevant governance matters? If so, how?
  8. What specific processes do you commit to implement to ensure that .ORG domain take-downs are only used to stop phishing, malware, and denial-of-service attacks, to remove child sexual abuse material or to have otherwise been ordered by a court in the United States and are not used to suppress lawful content that foreign governments or the new registry owners do not like?
    1. Will these commitments extend to Cyrillic and Chinese-simplified generic TLDs managed by PIR?
  9. PIR is currently incorporated in Pennsylvania. As such, PIR has informed my office that it only responds to domain take-down orders issued by courts in the United States. Will the new for-profit PIR remain incorporated in Pennsylvania? What assurances can you provide that Ethos Capital or any subsequent buyer of the .ORG registry will not relocate its place of incorporation to a foreign country with a history of suppressing speech or violating human rights?