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Are ISOC’s claims about .org’s history bogus?

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2019, 21:29:27 (UTC), Domain Registries

The Internet Society has started to fight back against those trying to put a stop to its $1.13 billion sale of Public Interest Registry to Ethos Capital.

Among the tactics being deployed appears to be an attempt to play down the notion that .org has always been considered as a home for non-profits run by a non-profit.

Apparently, it’s perfectly fine for .org to transition back into commercial hands, because not-for-profit ISOC was never intended as its forever home and the TLD was never intended for non-profits anyway.

Is that bullshit?

Yes and no. Mostly yes. It turns out you get a different answer depending on when you look in .org’s storied history.

ISOC, it seems, is starting in 1994, in an internet standard written by Jon Postel (who was ICANN before there was an ICANN).

A statement published by ISOC last week tries to characterize .org as a home for the “miscellaneous”, quoting from RFC 1591

I also want to address some other misconceptions about .ORG. Although .ORG has often been thought of as a “home of non-profits”, the domain was not actually defined that way. In 1994, RFC 1591 described it this way: “ORG – This domain is intended as the miscellaneous TLD for organizations that didn’t fit anywhere else. Some non-government organizations may fit here.”

It’s an accurate quote.

.org is described in other RFCs in a similar way. The earliest reference is 1984’s RFC 920 which says .org means “Organization, any other domains meeting the second level requirements.”

RFC 1032 says:

“ORG” exists as a parent to subdomains that do not clearly fall within the other top-level domains. This may include technical-support groups, professional societies, or similar organizations.

I can’t find any mention of non-profits in any of the relevant DNS RFCs.

ISOC goes on to note that .org was managed by a for-profit entity — Network Solutions, then Verisign — from 1993 until PIR took over in 2003.

Again, that’s true, but while it might have been managed by a commercial entity, NetSol was pretty clear about who .org was for.

When it went public in 1997, the company told would-be investors in its S-1 registration statement:

The most common TLDs include .com, used primarily by commercial entities, .org for nonprofit organizations, .net for network service providers, .edu for universities and .gov for United States governmental entities

That’s pretty unambiguous: the .org registry in 1997 said that .org was for non-profits.

In 2001, when ICANN inked a deal with Verisign to spin off .org into a new registry, there was no ambiguity whatsoever.

In announcing the deal, ICANN said that it would “return the .org registry to its original purpose” and .org would return to “to its originally intended function as a registry operated by and for non-profit organizations” (my emphasis).

The price ICANN paid for extracting .org from Verisign’s clutches was the very first “presumptive renewal” clause being inserted into the .com contract, which has seen Verisign reap billions with no risk of ever losing its golden goose.

The prize was so potentially lucrative that Verisign even agreed to give a $5 million endowment — no questions asked — to the successor registry, for use relaunching or promoting .org.

The only catch was that the new registry had to be a non-profit. Commercial registries — Verisign competitors such as Neustar — wouldn’t get the money.

ICANN and its community spent the remainder of 2001 and most of 2002 devising an RFP, accepting proposals from 11 would-be .org registries, and picking a winner.

The multistakeholder Domain Names Supporting Organization — roughly equivalent to today’s GNSO — was tasked with coming up with a set of principles governing who should get to run .org and how.

It came up with a report in January 2002 that stated, as its first bullet point:

The initial delegation of the .org TLD should be to a non-profit organization that is noncommercial in orientation and the initial board of which includes substantial representation of noncommercial .org registrants.

It went on to say that applicants “should be recognized non-profit entities” and to suggest a few measures to attract such entities to the bidding process.

These recommendations, which secured consensus support of the DNSO’s diverse stakeholders and a unanimous vote of the Names Council (the 2002 equivalent of the GNSO Council), nevertheless never made it into ICANN’s final RFP.

At some point during this process, ICANN decided that it would be unfair to exclude for-profit bidders, so there was no non-profit requirement in the final RFP.

As far as I can tell from the public record and my increasingly unreliable memory, it was Vint Cerf — father of the internet, creator of ISOC, then-chair of ICANN, and one of the few people currently cool with PIR being sold into commercial hands — that opened it up to for-profit bidders.

The decision was made at ICANN’s board meeting in Accra, Ghana, at ICANN 12. Back then, the board did its thinking aloud, in front of an audience, so we have a transcript.

The transcript shows that Cerf recommended that ICANN remain neutral on whether the successor registry was non-profit or for-profit. He put forward the idea that a commercial registry could quite easily create a non-profit entity in order to bid anyway, so it would be a kinda pointless restriction. The board agreed.

So in 2002, 11 entities, some of them commercial, submitted proposals to take over .org.

In ISOC’s bid, it stated that it would use the $5 million Verisign endowment “primarily to expanding outreach to non-commercial organizations on behalf of .ORG”.

ISOC/PIR took Verisign’s millions, as a non-profit, in order to pitch .org at other non-profits, in other words.

The evaluation process to pick Verisign’s successor was conducted by consultancy Gartner, a team of “academic CIOs” and ICANN’s Noncommercial Domain Name Holders’ Constituency (roughly equivalent to today’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group).

The NCDNHC was under strict instructions from ICANN management to not give consideration to whether the applicants were commercial or non-commercial, but its report (pdf) did “take notice of longstanding relationships between the bidders (whether for-profit or non-profit) and the noncommercial community available in the public record”.

It ranked the PIR bid as third of the 11 applicants, on the basis that .org money would go to support ISOC and the IETF, which NCDNHC considered “good works”.

ICANN’s preliminary and final evaluation reports were both opened for public comment, and comment from the applicants themselves, and on both occasions ISOC sought to play up its not-for-profit status. In August 2002, it said:

Overall, we believe ISOC’s experience as a not-for-profit, Internet-focused organization, combined with Afilias’ expertise as a stable and proven back end provider, enables us to fully meet all the criteria set forth by the ICANN Board.

In October 2002, it said:

We believe strongly that the voice of the non-commercial community is critical to the long-term success of .ORG. ISOC’s global membership and heritage and PIR’s non-profit status will ensure the registry remains sensitive to non-commercial concerns. Should the ICANN Board select ISOC’s proposal, PIR will execute extensive plans to ensure that this voice is heard.

ISOC’s application was of course ultimately determined to be the best of the bunch, and in October 2002 ICANN decided to award it the contract.

Then there was the small matter of the IANA redelegation. IANA is the arm of ICANN that deals with changes to the root zone. Whenever a TLD changes hands, IANA issues a report explaining how the redelegation came about.

In the case of .org, IANA echoed the previous feelings about .org’s “intended” purpose, stating:

the Internet Society is a long-established organization that is particularly knowledgeable about the needs of the organizations for which the .org top-level domain was intended. By establishing PIR as a subsidiary to serve as the successor operator of .org, the Internet Society has created a structure that can operate the .org TLD in a manner that will be sensitive to the needs of its intended users

So, does history tell us that .org is meant to be a TLD by and for non-profits?

Mostly, yes, I think it does.

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Comments (8)

  1. John says:

    Vint Cerf was on the ICANN board between 1999 and 2007 – and was the Chair of the ICANN board from 2000 to 2007

    General Counsel’s Report on Proposals for Reassignemnt of the .ORG Registry:

    Some comments have expressed concern that members of the ICANN Board might have a conflict of interest concerning the Internet Society bid. Ten of the ICANN Directors are members of the Internet Society, but none of them would financially benefit in any way, directly or indirectly, from the selection of the Internet Society as the successor .org operator. ICANN’s conflicts-of-interest policy prohibits each ICANN Director from participating in decisions on “any matter in which he or she has a material and direct financial interest that will be affected by the outcome of the vote.” It does not prohibit Directors from voting on matters merely because those matters involve a philanthropic society which the Directors may philosophically support. Conflicts-of-interest principles are intended to prevent improper personal financial gain, not to negate the philosophies of ICANN’s Directors. Directors are not expected to discard their philosophies and past experiences when they undertake their service at ICANN, but instead are expected to incorporate those philosophies and experiences in formulating well-reasoned decisions. (For similar reasons, the fact that the Usage Evaluation Team may have included some ISOC members does not constitute a conflict of interest.)
    …..
    ISOC’s back-end provider, Afilias, also has VeriSign as an investor. Afilias is organized as a consortium of eighteen gTLD registrars. VeriSign is a minority (5.6%) shareholder of Afilias as one of these registrars. Because the other Afilias shareholders are VeriSign’s competitors, however, VeriSign’s ability to exercise control over Afilias is effectively minimized and, indeed, no VeriSign employee has ever been elected to Afilias Board of Trustees/Directors. In these circumstances, it does not appear that this investment relationship undercuts the competitive benefits of reassignment of .org, particularly in view of the fact that the .org registry would be assigned to ISOC, not Afilias.

    https://archive.icann.org/en/tlds/org/general-counsels-report-22sep02.htm

    Notice Vint Cerf voted to award .ORG to The Internet Society, despite being a FOUNDER of the Internet Society!

    https://archive.icann.org/en/minutes/minutes-14oct02.htm

    “Cerf also served as founding president of the Internet Society from 1992-1995 and in 1999 served a term as chairman of the Board.”

    When the .org (and .biz/info) were renewed in 2006:

    http://www.icann.org/en/minutes/minutes-08dec06.htm

    with the 10% annual price increases, Vint Cerf once again voted for it.

    Now, all of these years later, Vint just said the following “Hard to imagine $60/year [for a .org domain] would be a deal breaker for even small non-profits”

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      The conflict of interest issue was looked into at the time and it was determined that because no directors would financially benefit by awarding .org to ISOC then there was no conflict of interest.

      The report of then-general-counsel Louis Touton gets into it.

      https://archive.icann.org/en/tlds/org/general-counsels-report-22sep02.htm

      Some comments have expressed concern that members of the ICANN Board might have a conflict of interest concerning the Internet Society bid. Ten of the ICANN Directors are members of the Internet Society, but none of them would financially benefit in any way, directly or indirectly, from the selection of the Internet Society as the successor .org operator. ICANN’s conflicts-of-interest policy prohibits each ICANN Director from participating in decisions on “any matter in which he or she has a material and direct financial interest that will be affected by the outcome of the vote.” It does not prohibit Directors from voting on matters merely because those matters involve a philanthropic society which the Directors may philosophically support. Conflicts-of-interest principles are intended to prevent improper personal financial gain, not to negate the philosophies of ICANN’s Directors. Directors are not expected to discard their philosophies and past experiences when they undertake their service at ICANN, but instead are expected to incorporate those philosophies and experiences in formulating well-reasoned decisions. (For similar reasons, the fact that the Usage Evaluation Team may have included some ISOC members does not constitute a conflict of interest.)

      • John says:

        While ICANN did not consider this a conflict of interest at the time (keep in mind Vint Cerf was Chairman of the ICANN board when this conflict statement was made), I can assure you most other entities and regulatory bodies throughout the world would have viewed this a serious conflict of interest.

        In 1992 – Vint Cerf FOUNDED ISOC. He created ISOC and this was his “baby”

        In 1999 – Vint Cerf joined the ICANN board of directors and served until 2007. He was Chairman of the ICANN board from November 2000 to his departure from the Board.

        The US Government forced Verisign to give up .org due to competition issues. Several companies submitted proposals to take over .org from Verisign.

        You would think Vint Cerf would have realized he was personally conflicted – and taken the responsible path – recused himself from voting to award .ORG to ISOC in 2002.

        You would also think Vint Cerf would have recused himself from voting to approve .org prices by 10% per year in 2006.

        But he participated and voted in both.

        There are direct conflicts of interest, as referred to above, and then there are issue or situational conflicts where one has an allegiance to one side or to one viewpoint prevailing. The ten ICANN directors who were members of ISOC all had severe situational conflicts of interest because they had an allegiance to ISOC and wanted what was best for ISOC, not necessarily for the public interest.

        Pretty remarkable Vint created a billion dollars plus out of thin air – considering ISOC had to pay no money upfront to be awarded the contract.

        Vint founded ISOC with no source of funds. He arranged for it to get the .org monopoly. And now that’s turned into a $1 billion+.

        And now he is saying “Hard to imagine $60/year [for a .org domain] would be a deal breaker for even small non-profits”

        What on earth is going on here?????

        • John says:

          Vint Cerf also inserted the “presumptive right of renewal” provision in the .org registry contract – which means PIR would operate .org forever.

          Going forward, PIR would never be subject to a competitive bidding process or ever risk losing its contract – ever – thus, excluding all forms of competition from operating .org in the future.

          Vint awarded .org to the organization he founded AND made sure that PIR would always operate .org for eternity. The contract would never be subject to a competitive bidding process.

          The problem is that ICANN has completely ignored its competition. ICANN handed out no-bid monopoly contracts that last forever.

          So in 2006 – ICANN voted to allow PIR to increase prices by 10% per year – without running a competitive bidding process (Vint voted)

          In 2019 – ICANN decided to remove all pricing caps – without running a competitive bidding process.

          These price increases cause a direct harm to consumers. How are consumers protected with the “presumptive right of renewal” clause? Thus, we have a system with market failure and consumers are forced to pay supracompetitive prices!

  2. Kevin,
    Nice job of digging up the relevant history!

    FYI I ran the NCDNHC evaluation study and the ISOC bid actually came in second under the more integrated evaluation method. It came in third in a more mechanical method that we didn’t really recommend.

    While the registry itself could be for-profit a clear criterion of our evaluation, as you point out, was its ties to and supportiveness of the noncommercial presence in ICANN.

    another thing to keep in mind is that all the older RFC materials describing .ORG as “miscellaneous” _predated” the commercialization of domain name registrations. After 1993 or 4, as the web made domains a hot commodity, registrants started to sort themselves into COM, NET and ORG based on imputed reputations and identities. And after 1995, when charging for domains was authorized, as you again nicely point out, NSI itself described ORG as a home for nonprofits.

    None of this necessarily challenges the sale of PIR, but it does highlight the responsibility of ICANN to maintain that commitment and the protections for free expression and noncommercial registrants in the ORG domain. ICANN has every reason to modify the RA now that the basic nature of the original delegation is undermined.

    • John says:

      Milton – are you suggesting that ISOC was not the lowest bidder?

      Why was .org awarded to ISOC if it came in second and third place?

  3. John says:

    in the Criteria for Assessing Proposals – “Reassignment of .org Top-Level Domain” ICANN said the following:

    “In view of the noncommercial character of many present and future .org registrants, affordability is important. A significant consideration will be the price at which the proposal commits to provide initial and renewal registrations and other registry services. The registry fee charged to accredited registrars should be as low as feasible consistent with the maintenance of good-quality service.”

    and

    “Enhancement of competition for registration services. One of ICANN’s core principles is the encouragement of competition in the provision of registration services at both the registry and registrar levels. Promotion of that principle will be a criterion. As one illustration of this criterion, a major purpose of the reassignment of the .org registry is to diversify the provision of registry services by placing the .org registry under different operation than the .com and .net registries. Consideration will be given to the extent to which proposed arrangements are consistent with this purpose. As another illustration, applicants are encouraged to refrain from prohibiting non-affiliated providers of backend services from offering their services in connection with other applications.”

  4. John says:

    So back in 2003 – when there were only 3 million .org registrants – ICANN placed a “significant consideration” on the price registrants would pay for domain names.

    But in June of 2019 – ICANN removed all pricing caps – allowing its operator to charge whatever amount it wants – without any restrictions whatsoever.

    Yea, this seems fair to end registrants.

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