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California .org probe — existential crisis or blessed relief for ICANN?

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2020, Domain Policy

Does the California attorney general’s probe into ICANN’s relationship with the .org registry represent an existential crisis for ICANN, or could it be better seen as a great opportunity to palm off responsibility to a higher power?

It was recently revealed that AG Xavier Becerra is looking into ICANN’s actions related to not only the proposed acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital, but also the removal of price caps from the .org registry contract.

The AG’s office says it wants to “to analyze the impact to the nonprofit community, including to ICANN, of this proposed transfer”.

Because ICANN is a California-based non-profit, the AG says he has the power to levy penalties or revoke ICANN’s corporate registration.

Becerra’s office sent ICANN a list of 35 searching questions (pdf) related to both deals on January 23, demanding a response by February 7.

While many of the questions demand documentation already in the public domain, published on ICANN’s web site, Becerra also wants to get his hands on redacted portions of PIR’s communications with ICANN, as well as all emails between ICANN, Ethos, PIR and the Internet Society, which currently owns PIR.

At the very least, the investigation complicates ICANN’s own probe of the acquisition. ICANN has to approve transfers of control of gTLD registries, and it’s currently poring over documentation provided by PIR detailing the structure of the deal.

It’s already delayed approval once, saying last month (pdf) that it expected to give a yay or nay to PIR by February 17.

Following the AG’s letter, ICANN asked PIR (pdf) to extend that deadline to April 20, to allow it time to deal with the new concerns.

It emerged yesterday that PIR has told ICANN to get (partially) stuffed (pdf), allowing an extension only to February 29, saying further delay “is neither necessary nor warranted at this time”.

But PIR did give its reluctant consent to ICANN disclosing previously confidential information to the AG, despite taking issue with ICANN’s opinion that AG letters are arguably equivalent to subpoenas, so it was under a legal obligation to do so.

It’s not entirely clear what could come of this predicament.

PIR says that while ICANN is able to approve or decline changes of control, it has no authority under the .org Registry Agreement to deny PIR changing its legal status from non-profit to for-profit entity.

And while California no doubt has jurisdiction over ICANN, PIR is based in Pennsylvania, so it would be up to Becerra’s counterpart in that state (a fellow Democrat, as it happens) to attempt to obstruct PIR’s planned conversion.

If that were to happen, it would interfere with Ethos’ somewhat convoluted acquisition plan.

Some of the AG’s 35 questions are pretty basic, stuff like “describe in detail the authority ICANN has to regulate, license, and/or oversee the domain name system” and “provide an explanation of ICANN’s authority to regulate the registration fees charged for .org domains”.

That’s either coming from a place of ignorance, or from somebody who’s deliberately questioning ICANN’s very existence as the central coordinating body of the DNS.

That would be frightening indeed.

But at the same time, this intervention from a governmental body may come as a relief to ICANN.

ICANN doesn’t like making difficult decisions when it comes to the big legal questions, or indeed anything with the potential to be controversial and ergo litigation bait.

Take, for example, its ongoing pleas to European data protection authorities to fix its GDPR problem, or its longstanding deferment to US competition authorities when it comes to issues such as the price of a .com domain and the introduction of new registry services, or its outsourcing to expert third parties of almost every potential wedge issue to be found the new gTLD program.

An opinion on .org one way or the other from the California AG could provide a lovely smokescreen for ICANN to approve or reject the .org deal without actually taking responsibility for the decision, a prospect I suspect would we well-received by the Org.

Whether it will actually receive this blessing is an open question.

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.

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.

#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.

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.

Petition launched to fight .org deal

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2019, Domain Registries

A petition has been opened on Change.org calling for the acquisition of Public Interest Registry by Ethos Capital.

The petition calls on ICANN, the Internet Society and PIR to “suspend” the sale “pending an open, transparent and multi-stakeholder public process about the future of .ORG.”

It was started by Jacob Malthouse, who worked at ICANN over a decade ago but is perhaps better known more recently as a founder and co-CEO of Big Room, the .eco gTLD registry. He appears to have left that company in August.

He blogged last week expressing his dismay with the news of the acquisition.

“This is a very sad day for the progressive movement. We need infrastructure like this and we need it to stay run by and for nonprofits, where it can be managed in a transparent and accountable fashion,” he wrote.

Almost two days in, the petition has attracted a piddling 32 signatures. That’s about 1% of the number of people who chose to email ICANN to protest .org price increases earlier this year, voices that ICANN nevertheless found unpersuasive.

The acquisition, for an undisclosed sum believed to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars at the least, was announced last week.

ICANN board meets to consider PIR acquisition TODAY

Kevin Murphy, November 21, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors will gather today to consider whether the acquisition of Public Interest Registry by a private equity company means that it should reverse its own decision to allow PIR to raise .org prices arbitrarily.

Don’t get too excited. It looks like it’s largely a process formality that won’t lead to any big reversals, at least in the short term.

But I’ve also learned that the controversy could ultimately be heading to an Independent Review Process case, the final form of appeal under ICANN rules.

The board is due to meet today with just two named agenda items: Reconsideration Request 19-2 and Reconsideration Request 19-3.

Those are the appeals filed by the registrar Namecheap in July and rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation in August.

Namecheap and EFF respectively wanted ICANN to reverse its decisions to remove PIR’s 10%-a-year price-raising caps and to oblige the registry to enforce the Uniform Rapid Suspension anti-cybersquatting policy.

Both parties now claim that the sale by the Internet Society of PIR to private equity firm Ethos Capital, announced last week, casts new light on the .org contract renewal.

The deal means PIR will change from being a non-profit to being a commercial venture, though PIR says it will stick to its founding principles of supporting the non-profit community.

I reported a couple of weeks ago that the board had thrown out both RfRs, but it turns out that was not technically correct.

The full ICANN board did in fact consider both appeals, but it was doing so in only a “preliminary” fashion, according to an ICANN spokesperson. ICANN told me:

On 3 November the Board considered “proposed determinations” for both reconsideration request 19-2 and 19-3. In essence, the Board was taking up the Board Accountability Mechanism Committee (BAMC) role, as the BAMC had not been able to reach quorum in early November due to certain recusals by BAMC members.

Once the Board adopted the proposed determinations (in lieu of the BAMC issuing a recommendation to the Board) the parties that submitted the reconsideration requests had 15 days to submit a rebuttal, for the Board’s full consideration of the matter, which is now on the agenda.

Normally, RfRs are considered first by the four-person BAMC, but in this case three of the members — Sarah Deutsch, Nigel Roberts, and Becky Burr — recused themselves out of the fear of appearing to present conflicts of interest.

The committee obviously failed to hit a quorum, so the full board took over its remit to give the RfRs their first pass.

The board decided that there had been no oversights or wrongdoing. Reconsideration always presents a high bar for requestors. The .org contract was negotiated, commented on, approved, and signed completely in compliance with ICANN’s governing rules, the board decided.

But the ICANN bylaws allow for a 15-day period following a BAMC recommendation during which rejected RfR appellants can submit a rebuttal.

And, guess what, both of them did just that, and both rebuttals raise the PIR acquisition as a key reason ICANN should think again about the .org contract changes.

The acquisition was announced a week ago, and it appears to have come as much of a surprise to ICANN as to everyone else. It’s a new fact that the ICANN board has not previously taken into account when considering the two RfRs, which could prove important.

Namecheap reckons that the deal means that PIR is now almost certain to raise .org prices. New gTLD registry Donuts was bough by Ethos affiliate Abry Partners last year, and this year set about raising prices across the large majority of its 200-odd gTLDs. Namecheap wrote in its rebuttal:

Within months of be acquired by Abry Partners, it raised prices in 2019 for 220 out of its 241 TLDs. Any statements by PIR now to not raise prices unreasonably are just words, and without price caps, there is no way that .org registrants are not used a source to generate revenue for acquisitions or to pay dividends to its shareholders.

It also said:

The timing and the nature of this entire process is suspicious, and in a well-regulated industry, would draw significant scrutiny from regulators. For ICANN not to scrutinize this transaction closely in a completely transparent and accountable fashion (including public disclosure of pertinent information regarding the nature, cost, the terms of any debt associated with the acquisition, timeline of all parties involved, and the principals involved) would demonstrate that ICANN org and the ICANN Board do not function as a trusted or reliable internet steward.

Namecheap also takes issue with the fact that ICANN’s ruling on its RfR (pdf) draws heavily on a 2009 economic analysis by Professor Dennis Carlton, which concluded that price caps were unnecessary in the new gTLD program.

The registrar trashes this analysis as being based on more opinion than fact, and says it is based on outdated market data.

Meanwhile, the EFF’s rebuttal makes the acquisition one of four reasons why it thinks ICANN should reverse course. It said;

ICANN must carefully reexamine the .ORG Registry Agreement in light of this news. Without the oversight and participation of the nonprofit community, measures that give the registry authority to institute new [Rights Protection Mechanisms] or make other major policy changes invite management decisions that conflict with the needs of the .ORG community.

Quite often, RfRs are declined by ICANN because the requestor does not present any new information that the board has not already considered. But in this case, the fact of the PIR acquisition is empirically new information, as it’s only week-old news.

Will this help Namecheap and the EFF with their cause? The board will certainly have to consider this new information, but I still think it’s unlikely that it will change its mind.

But I’ve also learned that Namecheap has filed with ICANN to trigger a Cooperative Engagement Process procedure.

The CEP is an often-lengthy bilateral process where ICANN and an aggrieved party attempt to resolve their differences in closed-door talks.

When CEP fails, it often leads to an Independent Review Process complaint, when both sides lawyer up and three retired judges are roped in to adjudicate. These typically cost both sides hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

CEP and IRP cases are usually measured in years rather than months, so the PIR acquisition could be under scrutiny for a long time to come.

I attempt to answer ICA’s questions about the “terrible blunder” .org acquisition

Kevin Murphy, November 19, 2019, Domain Policy

The Internet Commerce Association launched a withering attack on ICANN late last week, accusing the organization of a “terrible blunder” by lifting pricing restrictions on .org domain names.

As by now you’re no doubt aware, .org manager Public Interest Registry was acquired last week by a private equity firm with ties to ICANN’s former CEO, in a deal likely to have delivered hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, to former owner the Internet Society.

The deal means PIR is now almost certain to exercise its newfound right to raise its prices arbitrarily, adding tens of millions to its annual top line at the expense of .org registrants.

While such a price increase is likely to have little impact on most registrants — an annual increase of even 100% would only add about $10 to the per-domain cost — it would certainly prove onerous to many of the high-volume domain investors ICA represents.

So ICA chief Zak Muscovitch whipped off a letter to ICANN (pdf) on Friday, demanding that ICANN use its contractual powers to terminate PIR’s registry agreement and put .org out for open tender. He wrote:

If you were led to believe that removing price caps on .Org domain names was a sound approach because the registry would remain in the hands of a nonprofit foundation, you have clearly been misled. If you were led to believe that despite being the effective owner of the .org registry, you were somehow forced to let your service providers tell you how much they can charge, instead of the other way around, you have been led astray. If you have been told that .Org does not have market power within the nonprofit sector, you have been led astray. If you have been told that competition from other gTLDs will constrain .org prices, you have been led astray.

I think the letter has about as much chance of working as an ice sculptor in hell, but Muscovitch does include a list of seven questions for ICANN that I’m going to attempt to answer to the best of my ability here.

First, he asks:

Were you aware whether ISOC was in talks to sell the registry when you approved the removal of the price caps?

I put the same question to PIR CEO Jon Nevett last week, and he told me: “I don’t know when the talks started with ISOC and the buyer, but neither ICANN nor PIR knew about it when finalizing the .ORG [Registry Agreement].”

I’ve no particular reason to believe he’s lying.

If ISOC was in such talks at that time, why was this material fact not disclosed to you by the registry operator, prior to you approving the renewal agreement?

The acquisition talks between ISOC and Ethos Capital certainly could have been going on prior to the .org contract being signed, which happened June 30 this year.

The main piece of evidence here is that Fadi Chehadé of private equity firm and presumed Ethos affiliate Abry Partners registered the domain ethoscapital.org on May 7, according to Whois records. A company of the same name was formed in Delaware a week later.

Given that Ethos appears to be an Abry vehicle set up purely to acquire PIR, it seems likely that talks were already underway at this point.

The domain ethoscapital.com, which Ethos is currently using as its primary, seems to have been acquired on the secondary market around August. The acquisition was announced November 13.

To Muscovitch’s question, though, I return to Nevett’s line that PIR knew nothing about the acquisition talks before the RA was finalized.

The RA was finalized and opened to public comment in March.

It’s quite possible Ethos and ISOC entered talks in the three months after the deal had been finalized but before it had been signed.

When did you first learn of the negotiations to sell the .Org registry?

An excellent question I’ve also posed but as yet have no answer to.

Did you base your decision to approve the removal of price caps, at least in part, on the expectation or belief that the registry would continue to be operated by a nonprofit organization with a public commitment to maintaining a stable pricing environment, instead of on behalf of a private equity firm whose objective is to maximize profits for its funders?

Cheekily, I’m going to take ICANN at its word and say the answer is “yes”.

One of the controversies concerning the .org renewal was that ICANN seemingly ignored thousands of comments calling for the retention of price caps.

This, ICANN has denied, saying that it “reviewed and evaluated” every comment.

Among the very few comments that weren’t outright condemnations of the decision to remove price caps were two nuanced, arguably ambivalent, analyses from two influential ICANN structures — the At-Large Advisory Committee and the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group.

ALAC’s eight-page comment (pdf) was very much of the “on the one hand…” variety, but it paid special attention to ISOC’s public interest works when putting forward the view that uncapped pricing might be a good thing, noting (and quoting itself):

a significant portion of .ORG registration fees “are returned to serve the Internet community [through] redistribution of .org funds into the community by the Internet Society, to support Internet development.”… ISOC’s goals and priorities, while far broader than At-Large (and even ICANN), parallel those of At-Large and the interests of end-users. Many At-Large Structures are also ISOC Chapters, further demonstrating the commonality of interests.

NCSG, meanwhile, said in its comments (pdf) that price caps should remain, but increased from the 10%-per-year level. It acknowledged that some .org money flows into funding NCSG.

So there’s two influential groups, both with organizational and/or funding ties to ISOC, saying price increases may be a good thing because ISOC acts in the public interest.

And ICANN said it read and absorbed all the comments, so I’m cheekily going to say that yes, ICANN at least in part renewed the .org contract in the belief that PIR would continue to be a non-profit and act in the public interest.

Had you been aware of the planned sale of the .Org registry to a private equity firm, would you have treated the renewal of the .Org registry agreement and the removal of price caps as worthy of robust discussion and a vote by the Board, such that perhaps the terms of the agreement would have been modified?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say hell, no. ICANN doesn’t want to be a pricing regulator, regardless of the registry operator, in my view. It’s only the US government that’s preventing it lifting price restrictions on .com, I reckon.

What involvement did your former CEO, Mr. Chehade and your former SVP, Ms. Abusitta-Ouri, have in the decision to employ the base gTLD registry agreement for legacy TLDs during their tenure, if any?

In Chehadé’s case, the answer is fairly clear. Even if he did not have a hands-on role in the decision to cajole legacy gTLD registries toward the 2012 agreement, it all happened on his watch so he bears ultimate responsibility.

It’s worth noting, perhaps, that most of the legacy gTLD agreements that migrated over to the new gTLD agreement’s standard language happened not only while Chehadé was at the helm, but also after he’d already accepted his new job at Abry.

He announced his early resignation in May 2015, telling the AFP at the time that he already had a job lined up in the commercial sector, but he declined to give specifics.

He’d probably made his mind up to quit some time before the announcement. He registered the domain name chehade.company, which he now uses for his investment vehicle Chehadé & Company, in the April.

He revealed he was joining Abry as senior advisor on digital strategy in August that year, but didn’t actually leave until March 2016.

During that interim, lame-duck period ICANN negotiated and signed (all in October 2015) renewals for 2003-round gTLDs .pro, .cat and .travel, all of which incorporated 2012 contract language related to, for example, the Uniform Rapid Suspension process.

Three months before Chehadé’s resignation announcement, ICANN signed a very similar deal with .jobs, the first time it had incorporated 2012 language into a legacy gTLD contract.

These contracts were all signed for ICANN not by Chehadé but by his long-time buddy, frequent co-worker and then-president of the Global Domains Division, Akram Atallah (who is now CEO of Donuts, which is owned by Abry).

Since Chehadé’s departure, ICANN has also taken the same contract renewal stance with TLDs including .xxx, .mobi, .museum and .aero.

By 2016 it had become standard operating practice at ICANN to nudge registries towards the 2012-round contract, as Atallah explained to then-ICA lead Phil Corwin at ICANN’s Hyderabad meeting in November 2016. Atallah stated (pdf):

So basically the negotiations are — the registries come and ask for something, and we tell them please adopt the new gTLD contract. And if they push back on it and they say they don’t want something, we can’t force them to take it. It’s a negotiation between two parties. And I think it’s within the remit of the corporation to negotiate its contracts. If the policy comes back and says that the URS is not something that we want to have as a policy, of course, we would support that.

As regards Nora Abusitta-Ouri, Ethos’s “chief purpose officer”, her former job title of “senior VP for development and public responsibility programs” suggests she had little to no involvement in gTLD contractual issues.

While her LinkedIn profile doesn’t mention it, she appears to have become chief engagement officer at Chehadé & Company after her stint at ICANN ended in July 2016.

What restrictions do you have in place with respect to cooling-off periods for former executives?

Fuck all, clearly.

Selling off PIR, did ISOC just throw .org registrants under a bus?

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2019, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry is to lose its not-for-profit status, dramatically increasing the chances of .org price increases, under an acquisition deal announced this evening.

The Internet Society is selling PIR to a brand-new private investment firm called Ethos Capital Investors, which is run by two people with ties to the domain industry.

PIR CEO Jon Nevett told DI today that the company is no longer a non-profit following the transaction, and that ISOC will no longer receive a slice of every .org registration fee.

There’s a lot to unpick here.

The biggest concern is arguably that the deal substantially increases risk for .org registrants.

PIR was recently, and very controversially, granted the right to raise its prices from $9.93 per year to whatever-the-hell-it-wants per year, due to a renegotiation of its ICANN contract that scrapped its longstanding 10%-per-year price increase caps.

Many domain investors and non-profits called for the caps to remain. Uncontrolled pricing could lead to smaller charities, for example, being priced out of their decades-held domains, it was claimed.

But PIR repeatedly assured concerned registrants that it was “a mission driven non-profit registry and currently has no specific plans for any price changes”.

That tune has changed, if only a little, today. Nevett told us:

Our goal has always been to make .ORG accessible and reasonably priced — and that will continue under our new ownership. PIR has made reasonable decisions on price in the past, and we will uphold this spirit going forward. We would never make dramatic price increases as we know it would harm our registrants, as well as our registrars.

PIR also says it plans to establish an advisory council and fund to ensure its founding principles are upheld, and to apply for “B Corporation” certification.

B Corp is a private program run by a non-profit called B Lab that certifies companies that meet certain social, environmental and transparency standards, but it has no legal recognition in, for example, the US tax code.

Nevett told us today that he does not know how long ISOC was negotiating the sale, but that neither PIR nor ICANN knew of it during their contract talks.

We know very little about the new owner. Its web site, which appears to have been created very recently, merely provides bios of its two principals.

These are founder and CEO Erik Brooks, who this year quit the private equity firm Abry Partners after 20 years.

Abry, you may recall, is the company that hired former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade in 2016 and gobbled up new gTLD registry Donuts in September last year.

His second is Nora Abusitta-Ouri, named as “chief purpose officer”, who’s apparently tasked with overseeing the moral “ethos” of the company’s investments.

Abusitta-Ouri is a former ICANN staffer who most recently held the role of senior VP for development and public responsibility programs until her 2016 departure. She’s also executive director of the Digital Ethos Foundation.

In short, based on what little information is publicly available, it appears that Ethos was set up purely for the purpose of acquiring PIR. It’s not at all clear where the money to fund the deal is coming from.

The acquisition price has not been disclosed, but given that PIR was grossing over $90 million a year at the last count, I doubt Brooks and Abusitta-Ouri are paying out of their own pockets.

Whoever’s backing this is going to want a return, and the best way to quickly soup up PIR’s growth would be to take advantage of its newfound ability to raise .org prices arbitrarily.

More than half of PIR’s revenue before today — close to $50 million a year — was handed directly to ISOC, to fund its capacity-building and education projects worldwide.

That’s all over now, which begs the question of how it will continue to fund itself in future. My guess is that, now that it has hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, and is talking about an “endowment”, it’s going to stash its windfall in high-interest accounts and live off that income.

Meanwhile, whatever assurances .org registrants had that PIR was going to remain a non-profit concern have been utterly trashed.

UPDATE: Thanks to domain lawyer John Berryhill for pointing out in the comments that the domain name ethoscapital.org was registered by Abry’s Fadi Chehadé on May 7 this year. Additionally, a commenter on Domain Name Wire tonight noted that a company called Ethos Capital LLC was formed in Delaware on May 14, a day after ICANN published its summary of the .org contract renewal’s public comment period.

Surprise! ICANN throws out complaints about .org price caps

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN has rejected two appeals against its decision to lift price caps and introduce new anti-cybersquatting measures in the .org space.

In other news, gambling is going on in Rick’s Cafe.

NameCheap and the Electronic Frontier Foundation both filed Requests for Reconsideration with ICANN back in July and August concerning the .org contract renewal.

NameCheap argued that ICANN should have listened to the deluge of public comments complaining about the removal of price caps in Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, while EFF complained about the inclusion of the Uniform Rapid Suspension rights protection mechanism.

Reconsideration requests are usually handled by the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee but this time around three of its four members (Sarah Deutsch, Nigel Roberts, and Becky Burr) decided to recuse themselves due to the possibility of perception of conflicts of interest.

That meant the committee couldn’t reach a quorum and the RfRs went to ICANN’s outside lawyers for review instead, before heading to the full ICANN board.

This hasn’t happened before, to my recollection.

Also unprecedented, the board’s full discussion of both requests was webcast live (and archived here), which negates the need for NameCheap or the EFF to demand recordings, which is their right under the bylaws.

But the upshot is basically the same as if the BAMC had considered the requests in private — both were denied in a unanimous (with the three recusals) vote.

Briefing the board yesterday, ICANN associate general counsel Elizabeth Le said:

There was no evidence to support that ICANN Org ignored public consultation. Indeed both renewals went out for public comments and there were over 3,700 comments received, all of which ICANN reviewed and evaluated and it was discussed in not only the report of public comments, but it was discussed through extensive briefings with the ICANN board…

Ultimately, the fact that the removal of the price caps was part of the Registry Agreements does not render the public comment process a sham or that ICANN failed to act in the public benefit or that ICANN Org ignored material information.

General counsel John Jeffrey and director Avri Doria both noted that the board may not have looked at each individual comment, but rather grouped together based on similarity. Doria said:

Whether one listens to the content once or listens to it 3,000 times, they have understood the same content. And so I really just wanted to emphasize the point that it’s not the number of comments, it’s the content of the comments.

This seems to prove the point I made back in April, when this controversy first emerged, that letter-writing campaigns don’t work on ICANN.

As if to add insult to injury, the board at the same meeting yesterday approved paying an annual bonus to the ICANN Ombudsman, who attracted criticism from NameCheap and the Internet Commerce Association after dismissing many of the public comments as “more akin to spam”.