Private Equity Firm to Buy “.org” Registry, Raising Censorship Concerns

(Associated Press) A private equity firm announced Friday what it calls legally binding commitments designed to ease concerns that its proposed $1.1 billion private takeover of the dot-org domain-setting registry would lead to price gouging and censorship.

Ethos Capital wants to buy the Public Interest Registry, the nonprofit corporation that controls more than 10 million dot-org names registered worldwide.

Organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts of the USA and Consumer Reports to the American Bible Society have opposed the registry’s sale to a private firm.

Some critics fear a new owner could change policies — such as hiking the $10 annual fees the registry collects for each registered name — and reduce protections for domain name owners, including nongovernmental organizations that operate in authoritarian countries. A website can suddenly become unreachable, for instance, if the suffix owner decides to suspend a registration.

Domain names such as apnews.com have historically been used by computers to find websites and send email, and their value grew as companies and groups adopted them for branding. The Associated Press, a nonprofit, also uses a dot-org domain, ap.org.

Speculators have registered a variety of names under popular domain suffixes such as dot-com and dot-org. An easy-to-remember name can fetch millions of dollars in the resell market.

Though domain names are less prominent these days as more people reach websites using search engines and apps, they are still important for email addresses, billboards and other non-digital advertising.

Ethos said it will deal with concerns by amending an agreement that the registry has with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Los Angeles-based ICANN, another nonprofit, coordinates the distribution of internet addresses and owns the database that stores domain names.

The amendment would include public-interest commitments that would be legally binding and the registry couldn’t modify, Ethos said in a statement.

It would cap registration cost increases at 10% per year for eight years and permit a stewardship council to veto proposed modifications to registry policies on censorship, freedom of expression and use of dot-org registration and user data.

Ethos also said the registry will create a Community Enablement Fund that will contribute $10 million “to provide support for initiatives” benefiting dot-org registrants.

“We have been listening closely to stakeholder feedback – both positive and negative – and have been working diligently to address these specific issues head on,” said Erik Brooks, Ethos founder and chief executive. “We are taking these actions to show that we stand firmly behind the commitments we’ve made – and most importantly – behind the registrants and users.”

ICANN was expected to rule by mid-February on Ethos’ bid. But Ethos said the registry has granted the organization an extension to March 20.