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Delay .org deal because of… coronavirus? Gimme a break

Kevin Murphy, March 18, 2020, 08:14:55 (UTC), Domain Policy

Opponents of Public Interest Registry’s proposed acquisition by Ethos Capital are now claiming that ICANN should delay approval of the deal due to coronavirus.

A statement, released yesterday by digital rights group Access Now with the apparent approval of several other like-minded groups, outlines a few reasons why coronavirus means ICANN should reject, or at least delay its consideration of, the deal.

ICANN is currently working towards a March 20 deadline to deliver its verdict.

Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now, said in the statement:

Far from routine, this transfer would further imperil crucial channels of trusted information in a precarious time. From Médecins Sans Frontières to Wikipedia to many of the world’s hospitals, organizations that disseminate accurate health information and connect affected communities with public resources depend on the .ORG domain. Now is not the time to shift the ground beneath their online activities.

Could a $0.97 increase in the cost of wikipedia.org this year see Wikipedia’s hive mind crumble and turn into the digital equivalent of Jenny McCarthy’s brain? Will it prompt MSF volunteers to retreat, screaming, from the front lines? I don’t think so.

The statement goes on to suggest that China would be able to use its substantial financial and political clout to lean on Ethos’ secretive backers to something something something coronavirus. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said:

The Chinese government routinely uses economic pressure to censor critics or inconvenient information, such as about its disastrous early cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak. Investors in the private equity firm that wants to buy the .ORG domain inevitably will have economic interests that Beijing could threaten.

While there may well be a nugget of truth in there, I fail to see how it applies to the current pandemic. Is the argument that China will pressure Ethos’ billionaire money men to close down domains belonging to organizations disseminating accurate Covid-19 information? It seems a stretch.

China already has substantial powers to shut down domains within its own borders, and requires registries operating in the country to comply with Draconian censorship rules. I’m not aware of any cases of these existing powers being exercised against domains globally.

A third argument is that ICANN is using coronavirus as a convenient smokescreen to quietly approve the acquisition while everyone else is busy ram-raiding corner stores for toilet paper.

Daniel Eriksson, head of technology at Transparency International, said in the statement:

If this transfer goes ahead during the current crisis as planned, we’ll look back on it as an example of vested interests taking advantage of the extraordinary situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic to further their own concerns at the expense of the broader good of society. We need to be vigilant against any such actions, and this is precisely the role of many civil society organizations that have a watchdog function. We need maximum transparency and integrity around the sale of .ORG, and that is simply not possible if the sale is rushed through at a moment when peoples’ attention is elsewhere.

Again, this seems like a stretch. The announcement of the acquisition predates the discovery of Covid-19 by weeks, and it has been subject to intense scrutiny, engagement, comment and unprecedented — albeit imperfect — levels of transparency ever since. This is an acquisition being negotiated to a large extent in the public square.

I’ll be generous and suggest a fourth explanation: this is probably just a poor-taste (but, let’s face it, successful) attempt to grab headlines by linking the #SaveDotOrg campaign, however thinly, to the pandemic currently occupying the world’s collective conscious.

There are plenty of good arguments that could be — and are being — made in favor of further delay and scrutiny of the deal, but I don’t think coronavirus is one of them.

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