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ASO uses super powers to demand ICANN turn over .org buyout docs

Kevin Murphy, January 2, 2020, Domain Policy

In an unprecedented move, ICANN’s Address Supporting Organization has exercised its special powers to demand ICANN hand over documents relating to the Ethos Capital acquisition of .org’s Public Interest Registry.

There’s a possibility, however small, that this could be the first shot in a war that could see the PIR acquisition scrapped.

Fair warning, this story is going to get pretty nerdy, which may not be compatible with the fuzzy-headedness that usually accompanies the first working day of the year. We’re heading into the overgrown weeds of the ICANN bylaws here, for which I apologize in advance.

The ASO — the arm of the ICANN community concerned with IP address policy — has asked ICANN Org for access to records concerning the $1.135 billion acquisition of PIR, which has attracted lots of criticism from non-profits, domainers and others since it was announced.

It’s unprecedented, and of interest to ICANN watchers, for a few reasons.

First, this is the ASO making the request. The ASO comprises the five Regional Internet Registries, the bodies responsible for handing out chunks of IP address space to ISPs around the world. It doesn’t normally get involved in policy related to domain names such as .org.

Second, it’s invoking an hitherto untested part of ICANN’s new bylaws that allows the certain community entities that make up the “Empowered Community” to make “Inspection Requests” of ICANN Org.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there’s a hint of a threat that the ASO and other members of the EC may use their extraordinary powers to attempt to prevent the PIR acquisition from going ahead.

Before we unpick all of this, this is what the ASO has sent to ICANN, according to its December 31 statement:

As a Decisional Participant in the Empowered Community and pursuant to ICANN Bylaws section 22.7, the ASO hereby submits this Inspection Request to inspect the records of ICANN, including minutes of the Board or any Board Committee, for the purpose of determining whether the ASO’s may have need to use its empowered community powers in the near future relating to the potential assignment of the .org Registry Agreement. For this purpose, the ASO seeks to inspect any ICANN records which pertain to or provide relevant insight to the process by which ICANN will consider (and potentially approve) the assignment of the .org Registry Agreement, including the process by which input from the affected community will be obtained prior to ICANN’s consideration and potential approval of the assignment.

The Empowered Community is the entity that replaced the US government as ICANN’s primary overseer, following the IANA transition in late 2016.

Its members cover the breadth of the ICANN community, comprising the ASO, Generic Names Supporting Organization, Country Code Names Supporting Organization, Governmental Advisory Committee and At-Large Advisory Committee. Each member is a “Decisional Participant”.

Since the transition, its only real functions have been to approve appointments to the ICANN board of directors and to rubber-stamp the budget, but it does have some pretty powerful tools at its disposal, such as the nuclear ability to fire the entire board.

One of the powers enjoyed by each Decisional Participant, which has never been invoked publicly, is to make an Inspection Request — a demand to see ICANN’s accounts or documents related to the board’s decisions.

In this case, the ASO wants “records which pertain to or provide relevant insight to the process by which ICANN will consider (and potentially approve) the assignment of the .org Registry Agreement”.

But will it get this information? It seems the Inspection Request bylaw is a little bit like ICANN’s longstanding freedom-of-information commitment, the Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, with some key differences that arguably make the IR process less transparent.

Like DIDP, the IR process gives ICANN Org a whole buffet of rejection criteria to choose from. It can refuse requests for reasons of confidentiality or legal privilege, for example, or if it thinks the request is overly broad.

It can also reject a request if “is motivated by a Decisional Participant’s financial, commercial or political interests, or those of one or more of its constituents”, which makes the fact that this request is coming from the ASO particularly interesting.

If the GAC or the GNSO or the ccNSO, or even the ALAC, had made the request, ICANN could quite reasonably have thrown it out on the basis of “commercial or political interests”.

That’s not the case with the ASO, which makes me wonder (aloud, it seems) whether the ASO had received any nudges from other members of the EC before filing the request.

Inspection Requests also differ from DIDP in that any documents that are turned over are not necessarily published, and ICANN can also force the Decisional Participant to file a non-disclosure agreement covering their contents.

ICANN can even demand that an ASO member shows up at its Los Angeles headquarters in person to read (and, if they want, copy) the docs in question.

In short, ICANN has a lot of wriggle room to refuse or frustrate the ASO’s request, and it has a track record of not being particularly receptive to these kinds of demands.

The grey-hairs out there will recall that Karl Auerbach, one of its own directors, was forced to sue the organization back in 2002, just in order to have a look at its books.

But what’s perhaps most tantalizing about the ASO’s request is its excuse for wanting to inspect the documents in question.

It says it need the info “for the purpose of determining whether the ASO’s [sic] may have need to use its empowered community powers in the near future relating to the potential assignment of the .org Registry Agreement”.

One way of interpreting this is that the ASO needed to state a reason for its request and this is pretty much all it’s got.

But what powers does the Empowered Community have that could potentially cover the acquisition of PIR by Ethos? It certainly does not have the power to directly approve or reject the transfer of control of a gTLD contract.

The EC has nine bulleted powers in the ICANN bylaws. Some of them are explicitly about things like budgets and bylaws amendments, which could not possibly come into play here. I reckon only four could feasibly apply:

(i) Appoint and remove individual Directors (other than the President);

(ii) Recall the entire Board;

(viii) Initiate a Community Reconsideration Request, mediation or a Community IRP; and

(ix) Take necessary and appropriate action to enforce its powers and rights, including through the community mechanism contained in Annex D or an action filed in a court of competent jurisdiction.

Short of lawyering up or having the entire board taken out and shot, it seems like the most likely power that could be invoked at first would be the Community Reconsideration Request.

Judging by the bylaws, this is virtually identical to the normal Request for Reconsideration process, a process which very rarely results in ICANN actually reconsidering its decisions.

The major difference is that at least three of the five members of the Empowered Community has to vote in favor of filing such a request, and no more than one may object.

If they manage to muster up this consent — which could take many weeks — the fact that the reconsideration request comes from the “Community” rather than a single entity appears to make substantially no difference to how it is rejected considered by ICANN.

Threatening ICANN with a Community Reconsideration Request is a little like threatening to jump through an increasingly narrow series of hoops, only to find the last one leads into a pit filled with ICANN lawyers with laser beams attached to their heads.

A Community Independent Review Process, however, is a different kettle of snakes.

It’s substantially the same as a regular IRP — where ICANN’s fate is decided by a panel of three retired judges — except ICANN has to pay the complainant’s legal fees as well as its own.

ICANN’s track record with IRPs is not fantastic. It can and does lose them fairly regularly.

Could the ASO’s letter be the first portent of a community-led IRP bubbling up behind the scenes? Could such a move delay the PIR acquisition, putting Ethos’ plan for a profit-driven, price-raising .org on hold for a year or two? It’s certainly not impossible.

ICANN throws out second .org appeal, so URS stays

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2019, Domain Registries

The Uniform Rapid Suspension process is to stay in .org, after the ICANN board of directors rejected an appeal from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF had challenged the inclusion of URS in the recently renegotiated .org Registry Agreement, on the basis that the anti-cybersquatting system was designed for post-2012 new gTLDs and was never supposed to be deployed in legacy gTLDs such as .org.

In a Request for Reconsideration, the EFF had argued that ICANN had ignored the many commenters opposed to its inclusion in the contract, and that the board had shirked its duties by delegating the renegotiation to ICANN’s executive leadership.

But the board disagreed on both of these counts, saying in its resolution and accompanying 36-page analysis (pdf) that at no point had the organization broken its bylaws.

ICANN did not ignore the anti-URS comments, the board said, it simply decided that on balance the public interest was better served by having URS in the contract.

The Requestor has not demonstrated that ICANN Staff failed to seek or support broad participation, ascertain the global public interest, or act for the public benefit. To the contrary, ICANN org’s transparent processes reflect the Staff’s continuous efforts to ascertain and pursue the global public interest by migrating the legacy gTLDs to the Base RA.

Additionally, the board was well within its rights to delegate negotiation and approval of the RA to the CEO, the board decided. The fact that the EFF disagrees with that position does not amount to a basis of reconsideration, it found.

Since the EFF filed its RfR back in August, we’ve had the news of the $1.135 billion acquisition of .org manager Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital, which will see it convert from a non-profit to a for-profit concern.

The EFF has since had the chance to put allegations to ICANN that its staff was aware of the deal before it was announced, and that the acquisition should have factored into its consideration of the RA renewal.

But ICANN flatly denies that it knew about the deal, which was announced four months after the renewal:

Since neither the Board nor ICANN Staff were aware of the PIR acquisition when the decision to renew the .ORG RA was made, there was no material information not considered, and therefore this is not a proper basis for reconsideration.

The Ethos Capital acquisition of PIR, which was announced more than four months after the execution of the .ORG Renewed RA, did not impact ICANN Staff’s determination that ICANN’s Mission and Core Values were best served by migrating the .ORG RA to the Base RA.

In conclusion, like almost all filers of RfRs, the EFF is SOL.

Another RfR, filed by the registrar NameCheap and related primary to .org pricing, was similarly rejected by ICANN’s board a few weeks ago.

ICANN is, however, currently quizzing Ethos and PIR seller ISOC for more details about the acquisition before it approves the change of contractor.

Warning (or threat?) prices must go up or .org will suffer DAYS of downtime

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2019, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry’s new commercial owner will have to raise domain prices significantly, or .org web sites will suffer over three days of downtime every year, one of its subcontractors has warned.

The claim came in a surprising, confusing letter (pdf) to ICANN’s top brass from Packet Clearing House, a major provider of DNS Anycast services.

PCH claims that Ethos Capital, which is in the process of buying PIR from the Internet Society for $1.135 billion, can only make a profit on the deal if it significantly ups the price of .org domains while simultaneously cutting infrastructure spending.

But its numbers don’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense to me, unless you interpret them as a threat to throw .org under a bus.

PCH is a non-profit company in the business, partly, of selling DNS Anycast services. This is the technology that allows domain names to be resolved by a server as close to the end user as possible, cutting down on internet travel time and load-balancing resolution across the world.

For 15 years, it has been providing such services to Afilias, which is the back-end registry services provider for .org and hundreds of other TLDs. Some of the money PIR makes selling .org domains therefore flows from PIR to Afilias to PCH.

While PCH is hardly a household name, even in the domain name industry (in almost 10 years, I’ve mentioned its name once), the letter, sent last week and published by ICANN last night, attempts to open the kimono a little to reveal how much it costs to reliably resolve a major gTLD.

According to PCH, “annual operational cost necessary to ensure the reliable and performant availability of .ORG” has grown from $11 million in 2004 to $30 million today.

Does that mean Afilias pays PCH $30 million a year to help resolve .org? No.

PCH says that in 2019, $1.3 million will come “indirectly from .ORG registration revenue”, with the remaining $29 million “met through tax-deductible contributions from PCH’s many donors”.

As a non-profit, PCH accepts donations from more than 30 listed sponsors, including Afilias and ICANN, as well as household names such as Amazon, Google and Netflix.

According to PCH’s letter, if .org is transferred into for-profit control, this $29 million will dry up. The letter states:

Under IRS tax law, tax-deductible donations to non-profits cannot accrue to the benefit of a for-profit. Therefore if .ORG is transferred to a for-profit entity, we cannot ask our donors to continue to subsidize its operation, 96% of .ORG’s current operational funding will disappear, and the reliability of its operation will sink from that of .COM and .NET to the least-common-denominator of commodity domains, which generally suffer several days of outage per year.

It estimates .org’s potential downtime at 3.12 days per year. It’s not saying that would happen in one big 72-hour chunk, but it still averages out at about 12 minutes per day

This amount of interruption would put PIR firmly on ICANN’s naughty step when it comes to the registry’s contractual uptime commitments — it has to provide 100% DNS service availability every month, under pain of losing its contract.

But why would those PCH contributions dry up?

Is PCH seriously saying that its donors are chucking in $29 million a year specifically to subsidize .org resolution services? Why on Earth would they do that, when .org brings in revenue of over $90 million per year and PIR only pays Afilias $18 million for registry services?

PCH provides Anycast for 243 gTLDs and 120 ccTLDs. The vast majority of these are managed by for-profit entities. There simply are not 243 non-profit gTLDs out there. Not even close.

In fact, most of the gTLDs PCH serves appear to be for-profit Afilias clients, including many dot-brands.

Goodness knows how PCH segments its income and expenditure, but it seems very likely that PCH’s donors are already financially helping to provide resolution services for commercial registries.

Could we interpret this letter as a threat to deliberately degrade .org’s performance, should the Ethos transaction go through? I’m not sure, but I think it’s a plausible read.

Regardless, we have to take PCH’s claims about the loss of sponsorship money at face value if we want to follow the rest of its calculations.

If the .ORG domain is sold for USD 1.135B, wholesale price and number of domains remain unchanged over the remaining nine years of the delegation (USD 900M gross), and operational reliability is maintained (at a cost of USD 270M), the buyer would take a net loss of USD 470M, or -6.33% CAGR. Private equity does not purposefully enter into loss-making deals. We may therefore conclude that the above scenario is not the intended outcome of the proposed sale.

That calculation seems to assume that PIR/Ethos/Afilias picks up the slack caused by the loss of the purported $29 million subsidy, rather than continuing to pay $1.3 million per year.

But PCH goes on to calculate that Ethos could make a profit on the acquisition only if it raises prices at over 10% a year AND refuses to chip in the missing $29 million.

If the .ORG domain is sold for USD 1.135B, prices are increased by 10% annually (USD 1.357B gross), and operational spending is slashed by 99%, (USD 2.7M), the buyer would make a net gain of USD 220M, or 1.99% CAGR, while increasing down-time to more than three days per year.

1.99% CAGR is not a return for which private equity would typically take this magnitude of risk. The unavoidable conclusion is that any private equity buyer who spends $1.135B to buy the .ORG domain must not only increase prices by more than 10% annually, but also cut operational costs to the minimum levels we see available at the low end of the market, with disastrous consequences for .ORG registrants and the public who depend upon them.

Again, all of these calculations appear to rely upon the notion that $29 million of voluntary donations from Amazon, Netflix, IBM, et al disappear when the acquisition is finalized.

It’s difficult to say how much PCH spends on its DNS infrastructure across the board, or how it accounts for its donations. The company does not make any financial information available on its web site.

Wikipedia reports, in an edit apparently made by PCH executive director Bill Woodcock, that the company had revenue of $251 million last year.

I assume the vast majority of that comes from and supports its primary business, which is building and maintaining internet exchange points around the world.

The only 990 tax return I could find for a “Packet Clearing House” in the San Francisco bay area shows an entity with barely $2 million of revenue in 2018.

To return to the letter, PCH concludes:

Three days per year of interrupted communications for millions of not-for-profit organizations would unacceptably damage the stability and functionality of the Internet, and more broadly of society globally.

We believe that stability and functionality should be central to any consideration by ICANN of change of control or contract modifications in relation to the .ORG TLD. As we demonstrate, the proposed transaction, or any financially-similar one, guarantees a disastrous effect on stability. Please do not approve it.

It’s a pretty shocking request, coming from an organization with a 15-year relationship with .org.

Perhaps PCH is concerned that PIR, under new management, will dump Afilias as back-end provider, leading to a loss of business for itself? Maybe, but that only appears to be a piddling $1.3 million out of a $251 million budget.

A more pressing question is arguably whether ICANN, which is currently probing ISOC and Ethos for additional information about the acquisition, finds PCH’s arguments persuasive.

ICANN has so far proved unresponsive to community concerns about pricing, but technical stability is its absolute raison d’etre. If there’s any risk at all that .org will start regularly missing its uptime targets, ICANN is duty bound to take those concerns seriously.

Non-coms want .org’s future carved in stone

Kevin Murphy, December 12, 2019, Domain Registries

ICANN’s non-commercial stakeholders have “demanded” changes to Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, to protect registrants for the next couple of decades.

The NCSG sent a letter to ICANN chair Maarten Botterman this week which stopped short of demanding, as others have, that ICANN reverse its decision to unfetter PIR from the 10%-a-year cap on prices increases it has previously been subject to.

Instead, it asks ICANN to strengthen the already existing notification obligations PIR has when it increases prices.

Today, if PIR wants to up its fee it has to give its registrars six months notice, and registrants are allowed to lock in the current pricing by renewing for up to 10 years.

NCSG wants to ensure registrants get the same kind of advance notification, either from PIR or its registrars, and for the lock-in period doubled to 20 years.

The group is concerned that, now that PIR seems set to become a for-profit venture following its $1.135 billion acquisition by Ethos Capital, there’s a risk the registry may attempt to exploit the registrants of its over 10 million .org domains.

I think it unlikely that ICANN, should it pay any attention at all to the letter, will agree to the 20-year renewal ask, given that the contract only runs for 10 years and that gTLD registries are forbidden from selling domains for periods of longer than a decade.

It would require adjustments with other parts of the contract, such as transaction reporting requirements, and would probably need some industry-wide tinkering with the EPP registry protocols too.

In some respects, the stance on pricing could be seen as a softening of NCSG’s previous position.

In April, it said that price caps should remain, but that they should be increased from the 10% a year level. If that view remains, the letter does not restate it.

The NCSG also wants the oft-criticized Uniform Rapid Suspension policy removed from the .org contract, on the basis that it was only ever supposed to be applied to gTLDs applied for in the 2012 round and not legacy gTLDs.

URS has been incorporated in all but one of the legacy gTLD contracts that have been renewed since 2012.

Finally, NCSG asks that ICANN essentially write the US First Amendment into the .org agreement, writing that it wants:

A strong commitment that the administration of the ORG domain will remain content-neutral; that is, the registry will not suspend or take away domains based on their publication of political, cultural, social, ethnic, religious, and personal content, even untrue, offensive, indecent, or unethical material, like that protected under the U.S. First Amendment.

The fear that a .org in commercial hands will be more susceptible to censorship pressures is something that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has also recently raised.

The basis for the NCSG’s demands are rooted in the original redelegation of .org from Verisign to PIR in early 2003, which came after a competitive bidding process that saw PIR beat 10 rival applicants, partly on the basis of its commitment to non-profit registrants.

You may recall I did a deep-dive into .org’s history last week that covered what was said by whom during that process.

NCSG writes:

The ORG situation is unique because of its origins in a competitive RFP that was specifically earmarked for noncommercial registrants. How ICANN handles this case, however, will have enormous precedential consequences for the stability of the DNS and ICANN’s own reputation and status. Changes in ownership are likely to be increasingly common going forward. Domain name users want stability and predictability in their basic infrastructure, which means that the obligations, service commitments and pricing cannot be adjusted dramatically as ownership changes.

NCSG’s letter has not yet been published by ICANN, but the Internet Governance Project’s Milton Mueller has copied its text in a blog post here.

ICANN delays approval of .org acquisition

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2019, Domain Registries

Ethos Capital is going to have to wait a little longer for ICANN to sign off its acquisition of .org operator Public Interest Registry.

ICANN said today that it has asked PIR and the Internet Society, which currently owns the registry, for additional information about the proposed $1.13 billion deal.

This has the effect of delaying ICANN’s approval of the deal by up to 30 days, which could be extended by another 30 days if there’s another round of questioning.

Under PIR’s contract, ICANN gets to approve or reject any requests for transfer of control of gTLD registries. I’m not aware of any that have been rejected in the past, though hundreds have been approved.

ICANN’s CEO and chair jointly penned a blog post today, writing:

We have asked PIR to provide information related to the continuity of the operations of the .ORG registry, the nature of the proposed transaction, how the proposed new ownership structure would continue to adhere to the terms of our current agreement with PIR, and how they intend to act consistently with their promises to serve the .ORG community with more than 10 million domain name registrations.

This is perhaps an uncharacteristically assertive stance from the organization, which has so far not been seen as particularly responsive to the legions of critics that have appeared since the .org contract came up for public comment earlier this year.

The exact questions asked have not been published, and the responses may also remain sealed, due to a convention that such matters are handled privately.

PIR has already rejected ICANN’s request to publish its request for approval of the change of control.

But ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey who wrote to PIR and ISOC (pdf) yesterday to say that it is “critical” and “imperative” that PIR give permission for the correspondence to be published.

Jeffrey sneaked in a ‘gotcha’ by alluding to last week’s NTEN web conference, in which ISOC CEO Andrew Sullivan made noises about improving transparency.

The main concern with the deal is of course the fact that .org will once again become a commercial operation, having for 17 years been a non-profit that funneled hundreds of millions of .org dollars into ISOC’s coffers.

Coupled with PIR’s newfound contractual ability to raise prices indiscriminately, this has not sat well with many of the non-profits that call .org their home.

Promises from PIR and Ethos that price increases will be in line with the historical 10%-a-year cap have been met with some skepticism, and there have been calls for more transparency about Ethos’ plans.

Ethos promises to keep .org for many many many many years

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2019, Domain Services

Ethos Capital doesn’t plan to flip .org manager Public Interest Registry any time soon, according to its CEO.

Erik Brooks said that private equity firm Ethos, which intends to buy PIR from the Internet Society for over a billion dollars, plans to keep hold of the company for “many, many, many, many years”.

He was talking last night during a public conference call organized by NTEN, which also included the CEOs of ISOC and PIR, as well as critics from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the the National Council of Nonprofits and the Irish chapter of ISOC.

The call was set up because many believe .org’s transition back into for-profit hands, coupled with its recently gained ability to raise prices arbitrarily, means .org’s non-profit registrants are in for a hard time as Ethos profit-takes.

While Brooks and chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta made all the right noises to settle such concerns, promising to not unreasonably raise prices and to stick with PIR’s commitment to non-profits, some participants remained skeptical.

Brooks said that his vision for Ethos, which he founded earlier this year, is “fundamentally broader and more expansive than traditional investing” where “success is defined as success for all participants, success for customers, employees, vendors, the community impacted by the company”.

PIR CEO Jon Nevett said he was initially concerned about the deal — which was negotiated between ISOC and Ethos without PIR’s participation — he is now “convinced that they’re here to do the right thing”.

He said that rather than funneling all of PIR’s spare .org reg cash to ISOC as happens currently, it will now be able to invest some of it in improving .org instead.

Brooks said he understand the community concerns about price increase.

“We are absolutely committed to staying within the spirit of how PIR has operated with the price system they have operated with before,” he said. That means 10% a year on average, as Ethos has stated before.

He added that “working on some mechanisms and some ideas that will give registrants more assurance” that this is just not PR spin, and that these will be communicated publicly over the coming weeks.

The fact that ICANN lifted the previous 10% contractual price cap just a few months before the deal was sealed did not factor into Ethos’ thinking, he said.

While what Ethos is describing is all well and good, there’s no telling what a future owner of PIR would do, should Ethos sell it or float it on the public markets.

That looked like a possibility, especially given that some say that Ethos is under-paying by a considerable margin for the registry.

But Brooks, asked what Ethos’ exit runway for PIR looked like, said that the company was committed to owning the registry “for an extraordinarily long period of time… dramatically outside the normal window of somebody owning a business… many, many, many, many years”.

Ethos’ own backers — which apparently include investment vehicles linked to Mitt Romney and the late Ross Perot — are on board with this long-term plan, he said.

So, assuming Brooks is a man of his word, .org registrants only have to look forward to price increases of no more than 10% a year for some time to come, which is kinda the situation they were in at the start of the year.

But not everyone is as trusting/gullible as me.

The EFF’s Mitch Stoltz, who was on the call, later published a blog post that seemed to shift gears somewhat away from pricing concerns towards the potential for future censorship of .org domains.

“Ethos Capital has a financial incentive to engage in censorship—and, of course, in price increases,” he wrote.

He alluded to that PIR had briefly toyed with the idea of a “UDRP for copyright” a few years ago, but had backed down under community pressure, something that he doesn’t believe Ethos would necessarily do.

Asked about the censorship issue by Stotlz during the call, Brooks said he had not given the issue a great deal of consideration but that he expected PIR’s practices on this kind of thing to continue on as they are today.

Amid .org controversy, Cerf predicts the death of all domains

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2019, Domain Registries

As the debate about the sale by the Internet Society of .org registry PIR to a private equity company passionately continues, one reason put forward to defend the deal doesn’t appear to have been given much attention: it seems ISOC doesn’t have much confidence in the longevity of the domain name industry.

Reducing ISOC’s exposure to a single revenue source has been expressed as a pro for the deal by several supporters, but was perhaps best stated by Vint Cerf — ISOC founder, former ICANN chair, and Google’s chief internet evangelist — on an ISOC mailing list posting last week. Cerf wrote:

The domain name business started in 1992. There is not assurance that it will go one indefinitely — something new will likely come along. It would be good for ISOC to be able to continue its work without specific dependence on a single TLD’s commercial viability.

It’s perhaps not a particularly controversial statement. Nothing lasts forever. Everything dies. Whether it’s climate-related human extinction, a robot uprising, the zombie apocalypse, or the inevitable heat death of the universe, something’s definitely going to kill off DNS eventually.

I expect Cerf was more probably referring to a new technology that will come along to replace the need for domains altogether.

But is it a pressing reason to flog Public Interest Registry in 2019?

Maybe. It’s no secret that volume growth across the domain market is not great. Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief showed most growth in the second quarter driven by anomalies.

Even .org itself is struggling. Look at this chart, that tracks .org domains under management in the last few years.

.org chart

You’ll see that DUM peaked at 11.4 million names in early 2016. That was after a couple of anomalous spikes that I speculate were related to pricing promotions or marketing campaigns.

It only took a few years for the gTLD to shed these gains.

Before the spikes, .org was at 10.6 million DUM. By July this year, it was at 10.5 million. Not pictured, the just-published transaction reports for August show the loss of about 30,000 more domains, bringing the TLD to its lowest level since October 2014.

Roughly speaking, for every domain it loses, PIR’s top line shrinks by a little under $10. A million domains lost is $10 million in lost revenue.

And this is a period in which PIR did not increase its prices, despite being permitted to do so by 10% per year.

Some amount of recent shrinkage could be accounted for by PIR’s “Quality Performance Index”, which seeks to reduce abusive .org registrations. But that’s only been in place since this June.

So, ISOC and Cerf perhaps have a right to be pessimistic.

And if the decline in volumes continues, it is perhaps inevitable that PIR’s new owner will have to increase prices just to keep revenues from going down in line with DUM.

#SaveDotOrg to hold public web conference tomorrow with Ethos execs

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2019, Domain Registries

The two top executives at Ethos Capital are due to confront non-profits that want to stymie its $1.13 billion acquisition of Public Interest Registry on a public call tomorrow.

The call has been put together by NTEN, a conference organizer that focuses on the use of tech by non-profits.

According to NTEN, the call will feature speakers from anti-deal Electronic Frontier Foundation, The National Council of Nonprofits, and Internet Society chapter leaders (some of whom are against the deal).

PIR boss Jon Nevett, as well as Ethos CEO Erik Brooks and chief purpose office Nora Abusitta have also agreed to attend. Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society “has been invited but has not confirmed participation”, NTEN said.

It’s going to be the first time that those in favor of the deal will face off in public against those that want it scrapped.

The acquisition is controversial because it represents the .org gTLD going into private, for-profit hands for the first time in 17 years, with previous pricing restrictions removed.

So far, over 12,000 people have signed a petition at savedotorg.org to express their dismay with the deal.

You can find details about the call here, including an email address to submit questions in advance.

The call will happen online at 2000 UTC (1200 US Pacific Time) Thursday December 5. You may have to install some software in advance, though a browser-only option seems to be available too.

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

Kevin Murphy, December 2, 2019, 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.

Four big developments in the .org pricing scandal

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2019, Domain Registries

The renewal of Public Interest Registry’s .org contract and its subsequent acquisition by Ethos Capital is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of newsworthy developments, so I thought I’d bundle up the most important into a single article.

First, ICANN has thrown out the appeal filed by Namecheap and provided a (kinda) explanation of how the recent contract renewal came about.

The board of directors voted to reject Namecheap’s Request for Reconsideration on Thursday, as I reported last week, but the decision was not published until last night.

Namecheap had demanded ICANN reverse its decision to remove the 10%-a-year cap on price increases previously in the .org contract, enabling PIR to unilaterally raise its prices by however much it wants.

It said that ICANN had “ignored” the more then 3,000 people and organizations that had submitted comments opposing the lifting of caps.

But the board said:

ICANN org’s Core Values do not require it to accede to each request or demand made in public comments or otherwise asserted through ICANN’s various communication channels. ICANN org ultimately determined that ICANN’s Mission was best served by replacing price caps in the .ORG/.INFO Renewed RAs with other pricing protections to promote competition in the registration of domain names, afford the same “protections to existing registrants” that are afforded to registrants of other TLDs, and treat registry operators equitably.

The board also decided to describe, in a roundabout kinda way, how it conducts renewal talks with pre-2012 legacy gTLDs, explaining that ICANN “prefers” to move these registries to the 2012 contract, but that it cannot force them over. The resolution states:

All registry agreements include a presumptive right of renewal clause. This clause provides a registry operator the right to renew the agreement at its expiration provided the registry operator is in good standing (e.g., the registry operator does not have any uncured breaches), and subject to the terms of their presumptive renewal clauses.

In the course of engaging with a legacy registry operator on renewing its agreement, ICANN org prefers to and proposes that the registry operator adopts the new form of registry agreement that is used by new gTLDs as the starting point for the negotiations. This new form includes several enhancements that benefit the domain name ecosystem such as better safeguards in dealing with domain name infrastructure abuse, emergency backend support, as well as adoption of new bilaterally negotiated provisions that ICANN org and the gTLD Registries Stakeholder Group conduct from time to time for updates to the form agreement, and adoption of new services (e.g., RDAP) and procedures.

Although ICANN org proposes the new form of registry agreement as a starting place for the renewal, because of the registry operator’s presumptive right of renewal ICANN org is not in a position to mandate the new form as a condition of renewal. If a registry operator states a strong preference for maintaining its existing legacy agreement form, ICANN org would accommodate such a position, and has done so in at least one such instance.

I believe the gTLD referred to in the last sentence is Verisign’s .net, which renewed in 2017 without substantially transitioning to the 2012-round contract.

On the acquisition, the board notes:

the Board acknowledges (and the Requestor points out in its Rebuttal) the recently announced acquisition of PIR, the current .ORG registry operator, and the results of that transaction is something that ICANN organization will be evaluating as part of its normal process in such circumstances.

That appears to be a nod to the fact that ICANN has the power to reject changes of control under exceptional circumstances, per the .org contract.

Despite the wholly predictable rejection of Namecheap’s RfR, appeals against the contract’s new terms may not be over.

For some reason I have yet to ascertain, the very similar RfR filed around the same time by the Electronic Frontier Foundation was not considered, despite being on the agenda for last Thursday’s board meeting.

Additionally, I hear Namecheap has applied for Cooperative Engagement Process status, meaning it is contemplating filing an Independent Review Process appeal.

Second, Ethos Capital, PIR’s new owner, launched a web site in which it attempts to calm many of the concerns, criticisms and conspiracy theories leveled its way since the acquisition was announced.

Found at keypointsabout.org, the site tries to clarify the timing and motivation of the deal.

On timing, Ethos says:

Ethos Capital first approached the Internet Society in September 2019, well after PIR’s contract renewal with ICANN had finished… PIR was not for sale at the time the price caps were lifted on .ORG. The removal of .ORG’s price restrictions earlier this year was not unique to .ORG and was in no way motivated by a desire to sell PIR.

The .org contract was signed at the end of July, so while Ethos may well have been lusting after PIR before the renewal, it apparently did not run towards it with its trousers around its ankles until at least a month later.

On its pricing intentions, Ethos says:

The current price of a .ORG domain name is approximately $10 per year. Our plan is to live within the spirit of historic practice when it comes to pricing, which means, potentially, annual price increases of up to 10 percent on average — which today would equate to approximately $1 per year.

This sounds rather specific, but it’s vague enough to give PIR leeway to, say, introduce a 100% increase immediately and then freeze prices until it averages out at 10% per year. I don’t think the company will do something so extreme, but it would technically be possible the way it’s described here.

On the connections to Abry Partners and former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, Ethos says that while founder and CEO Erik Brooks is a 20-year veteran of Abry (which also owns Donuts) “Abry Partners is not involved in this transaction.”

It adds, however, that Chehade’s company, Chehade & Company, where Ethos chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta-Ouri has worked “is an adviser to Ethos”.

What this means, at the very least, is that the new owner of .org allowed an outside contractor to register the domain matching its name in the very gTLD it runs, which most domain veterans will recognize as a rookie mistake.

Ethos goes on to list VidMob Inc, Whistle Sports Inc, Adhark Inc and LiquidX Inc as other companies Ethos has invested in, perhaps rubbishing the hypothesis (which I, admittedly, have publicly floated) that Ethos was a vehicle created by Abry purely to buy up PIR.

Third, Ethos may be funded by “billionaire Republicans”.

.eco registry founder Jacob Malthouse, who’s trying to rouse up support for the #SaveDotOrg campaign, dug up an email apparently sent by ISOC CEO Andrew Sullivan to a members mailing list in the wake of the acquisition announcement, which names some of the backers of the deal.

They are: Perot Holdings, FMR LLC and Solamere Capital.

What they have in common is that they’re all — at least according to Malthouse’s since-amended original post — founded/owned/affiliated with prominent billionaire US Republicans. I’m not sure I’d fully agree with that characterization.

Perot was founded by Ross Perot, who stood for US president as an independent a few times but spent the last couple of decades of his life (which ended in July) as a Republican. I’d say his political affiliation died with him.

FMR, or Fidelity Investments, is run by Abigail Johnson, who inherited the role from her father and grandfather. While she’s made donations to Republicans including local senator, Mitt Romney, she also gave Hillary Clinton a tonne of cash to support her 2016 presidential election run, so I’m not sure I’d necessarily characterize her as die-hard GOP.

Romney himself was involved in the founding of Solamere Capital, the third apparent Ethos investor, but according to its web site he stepped down at the start of this year, long before Ethos was even founded, in order to re-join the US Senate.

I’m not sure what the big deal about these connections is anyway, unless you’re of the (often not unreasonable) belief that you don’t get to be a billionaire Republican without being just a little bit Evil.

Fourth, a bunch of non-profits are campaigning to get the deal scrapped.

The #SaveDotOrg campaign now has its matching .org address and web site, savedotorg.org.

It appears to have been set up by the EFF, but its supporters also include the non-profits American Alliance of Museums, American Society of Association Executives, Aspiration, Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc., Creative Commons, Crisis Text Line, Demand Progress Education Fund, DoSomething.org, European Climate Foundation, Free Software Foundation, Girl Scouts of the USA, Independent Sector, Internet Archive, Meals on Wheels America, National Council of Nonprofits, National Human Services Assembly, NTEN, Palante Technology Cooperative, Public Knowledge, R Street Institute, TechSoup, VolunteerMatch, Volunteers of America, Wikimedia Foundation, YMCA of the USA and YWCA USA.

The letter (pdf) states:

Non-governmental organizations all over the world rely on the .ORG top-level domain. Decisions affecting .ORG must be made with the consultation of the NGO community, overseen by a trusted community leader. If the Internet Society (ISOC) can no longer be that leader, it should work with the NGO community and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to find an appropriate replacement.

It claims that the new .org contract gives PIR powers to “do significant harm” to non-profits, should they be abused.

The campaign has had a little traction on social media and so far has over 8,000 signatures.