Sale of the ‘.org’ Domain Registry Sparks Concerns About Privatisation of the Internet Commons

The administration of the World Wide Web’s ‘.org’ domain registry has been handed over from a non-profit organisation to a private equity organisation, sparking concerns and backlash about the privatization of internet commons and possibly increased censorship owing to the change in the non-profit status of the domain name registrar.

Domain name registrars are responsible for the allocation of domain names (the naming system of the world wide web) and also set the policies for acceptable uses of Top Level Domains (TLD’s), which includes the ‘.org’ domain name, which has traditionally been used for websites by non-profit organisations, and had been managed by a non-profit corporation under the Internet Society, the Public Interest Registry. On November 13, the PIR sold the right to the domain registry, including the right to pricing of ‘.org’ domains, to a private equity firm Ethos Capital, reportedly for a sum upwards of 1 Billion USD.

The move has sparked concerns from various organisations, who have seen this as a precursor to increased domain name registration prices, particularly in light of ICANN (the organisation responsible for administering the DNS system and its policies as a whole) making changes to the .org Registry Agreement. In June, 2019, the new .org agreement lifted price caps and allowed unilateral price increases for .org domain registrations and made changes to the level of mandatory scrutiny and processes for rights protection mechanisms.

The sale is also significant in the context of increasing pressure from rightsholders for domain name registrars to be more actively involved in trademark (and increasingly, copyright) disputes. A concern I have raised in this blog in the past is whether and to what extent organisations dealing with the internet’s infrastructural backbone should be involved in settling private and often ultra-legal disputes concerning intellectual property rights management. The trend is quite apparent – rights holders as well as national courts (including in India) are increasingly petitioning domain name registrars to suspend or remove domain names which are found to be infringing upon intellectual property law. These mechanisms have also found their way into the operational process of the Domain Name System administration, such as through expedited processes for suspension of trademark-infringing domain names including the Trademark Clearinghouse. While the .org domain name system has reportedly been more ‘hands-off’ under the management and policies of the non-profit PIR, this may be set to change under its new management. More fundamentally, this decision serves to highlight yet again the opacity of decision-making processes at the highest levels of the management of the DNS by ICANN, which has been the subject of repeated criticism in this regard.

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