Human Rights and the Internet

Private equity firm procures .org from the Internet Society, or: How the public interest got sold-out (again)

ISOC has sold off something that was not theirs to sell off in the first place; a domain run by a not-for-profit based on the public interest, supporting the public interest.

Niels ten Oever
28 November 2019
Vint Cerf, 'father of the internet' and founder of ISOC at UN HQ, June, 2019.
Vint Cerf, 'father of the internet' and founding president of ISOC at UN HQ, June, 2019.
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Albin Lohr-Jones/PA.All rights reserved.

The Internet Society (ISOC) has sold .org to Ethos, a brand new private equity company, after the price caps for the domain were removed. With this move ISOC both betrays its own mission and .org website holders. The role of ISOC is to promote a public interest internet: instead it has contributed to the excessive commercialization of the Internet.

Some of you might not be familiar with the acronym soup of Internet governance: PIR, ISOC, DNS, ICANN, TLDs. But all of you are familiar with one acronym: .org. Since the establishment of the Domain Name System, .org – the part of the Internet infrastructure that translated domain names (such as https://opendemocracy.net) into IP addresses (such as 104.18.36.32) – has been the home for not-for-profit organizations, hence its name. This Top Level Domain has been managed by the Public Internet Registry since 2003, which was established to funnel part of the revenues to sustain The Internet Society (ISOC). With this funding, The Internet Society is supposed to act like a guardian of the free and open Internet.

ISOC's mission, according to its website, is to 'support and promote the development of the Internet as a global technical infrastructure, a resource to enrich people’s lives, and a force for good in society.' Selling off a part of the Internet aimed at not-for-profits, to private equity, right after the limitation to increase the costs for such domains has been removed, hardly seems 'for the good of society'. And if it were so, why did this deal take place in secret? Aside from that, ISOC has also severed the direct link that it has had with non-proft organizations.

ISOC has been the guardian of one of the last parts of the Internet that has not yet been commercialized (like .com or other generic Top Level Domains) or aligned with particular national identities (such as Country Code Top Level Domains like .br, .cn, .uk, etc). And what has ISOC done? Sold .org to a newly founded private equity firm with no track record in running Top Level Domains, or running anything for that matter. The private equity firm only got registered in May 2019 in the state of Delaware in the United States (US). Furthermore, ISOC did not consult .org users, or active for-profit or not-for profit members of the Internet governance community (such as the Association for Progressive Communications or ARTICLE19.)

Commercialisation

The sad thing is that this move is paradigmatic for the development of the Internet. The internet was established with funding mostly originating from US and European governments. Until the beginning of the 1990s, commercial content was not even allowed on the Internet (as regulated per the Acceptable Use Policy of the main Internet backbone which was run by the National Science Foundation.) Only when the risky invention period of high investments and low yields was over and growth had set in, was Internet infrastructure commercialized. Part of this commercialization, and the retreat of direct US government intervention, was the formal establishment of several Internet governance institutions: the Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF), the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

These bodies have succeeded in facilitating industry coordination, but have failed to uphold the founding values of the first-generation internet, such as decentralized and distributed control, end-to-end connectivity, and permission-less innovation; core values for both internet design, and these organizations. What is left now is a privately owned, consolidation, middlebox infested, global communication network that prioritizes the needs of transnational corporations over the needs of people and governments.

Deregulation

It is sad to see founding Internet governance bodies, such as ISOC, undermine their own legitimacy and claim to represent the public interest, while selling off key assets such as .org. It is true that ISOC has been a fervent support of deregulation, yet they have failed to provide a strong framework that can serve as an alternative to government regulation. They have left the interests of end-users to the whims of the market, reducing them to consumers, instead of participants in a global commons.

On every technical layer of the Internet we see a few companies getting more and more consolidated that determine the rules of the road, and therefore the rules for our information societies. They do this with hardly any democratic oversight or scrutiny, partially because the nature of infrastructure is that it is invisible. Furthermore, up to now, no Internet governance body has operationalized structural considerations of the societal impact of their work, even though this was brought up as early as 2003. Scholars like Sandra Braman have shown that the societal implications of technology have been taken into account and keenly discussed since the earliest Internet designs. Most of these considerations have just simply never been implemented, because it they were not obligatory or profitable. The sale of .org is another sad example where profit overtakes any other purpose.

Breaking trust

I am sure ISOC is planning to do great things with the money it earned. It will continue its great work on community networks, providing global connectivity, and promoting best secure and open source practices. But it has sold off something that was not theirs to sell-off in the first place; a domain run by a not-for-profit based on the public interest, supporting the public interest. In doing so, they have undermined the implicit trust that many non-profits and other civil society networks have in a medium we all so dearly love, but are slowly learning to love to hate.

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