ISOC’s sale of .org

Jordan Carter16 December 2019
A blog from Jordan Carter, Chief Executive of InternetNZ

Since the news broke about the Internet Society’s decision to sell Public Interest Registry (PIR), the operator of the .org top level domain, I’ve been asked about InternetNZ’s take on the issue a number of times.

The short answer is that we don’t have a stance per se, but the long answer is more interesting — so read on.

What has happened?

Last month, the Internet Society sold PIR, the operator of .org. ISOC has controlled .org through PIR since the early 2000s. The sale is for $1.135bn United States dollars. ISOC plans to invest the funds in an endowment to give it a permanent income to pursue its mission. 

This is seen by some as a big deal, and by others as no problem. 

What are the upsides for ISOC?

I think I can see why ISOC would want to establish itself in a way that was not dependent on the domain name industry. The Internet is far broader than the DNS, and the possibility of a capital endowment must have been impossible to say no to for ISOC’s Board. In fact, they’ve pretty much said as much publicly.

In the upbeat version of this story, this will allow ISOC to plan and make a longer run impact without the year to year uncertainty about how much money PIR will send across. They also won’t have to worry that a possible replacement of the DNS by some future technology would cut or eliminate ISOC’s main source of income. 

Reduced involvement for ISOC in the core of  the Internet

This deal means ISOC is removing itself from one aspect of active participation in the core infrastructure of the Internet. ISOC is subtly changing from a key player in the Internet arena to something else. It won’t be as much of a participant any more. In some ways, it’ll be more a think tank or a commentator. (The work ISOC does on community networks and IXPs does remain quite operational, but the sale of PIR is a definite narrowing of operational involvement.)

So how will ISOC ensure it doesn’t simply become a spectator? How will it develop its capacity to make a positive impact on the Internet’s evolution from a position of less structural influence and authority? To be a little more direct, as ISOC ceases to be a stakeholder in some of these key areas, why will the rest of us pay attention to their views?

What will happen to .org?

So what happens to .org? It’s a generic name for use by whoever, for whatever. I’ve watched some of the discussion following this news about it being some kind of sacred non-profit space with some curiosity. It does seem likely, given the price paid, that the new owners will push prices up over time, but the wholesale price of a domain name is a trivial part of the cost of having an online presence. Competition from other options, including .com, means that there isn’t an endless ability to raise prices.

More interesting will be the evolution of PIR’s approach about dispute resolution, compliance and so on. I recognise some of the concerns that have been raised that .org might become a less inclusive space. I’m going to closely follow that side of things, while recognising that much of how .org operates is controlled by ICANN’s consensus policymaking process. 

Managing the politics — why not share the possibility of a .org sale more clearly?

Most surprising to me in this whole affair is the way that ISOC didn’t flag the possibility of a PIR sale. The level of shock and anger in the various communities around the organisation seems pretty real to me, and I myself was highly surprised. 

If ISOC thought it would ever sell PIR under any circumstances, to help solve its financial sustainability challenges, it would have been better to flag it up front, have that argument, and then if such a transaction came along, people would have responded differently to how they have.

It’s a truism but still true — people hate surprises, and I'm sure that’s driving a lot of the passion and critique that’s happening. It’s a shame, because more skillful management of this issue could have meant the positives of the deal for ISOC got a better hearing.

Does the sale of .org affect or .nz?

There is no impact on InternetNZ or any part of the domain name space in .nz from this change with .org. 

InternetNZ does not own .nz, and could not sell it even if we wanted to — which we do not. We manage it on trust for the local Internet community, and if we do a bad job (I’d say trying to sell it would be a good definition of a bad job), InternetNZ’s role in managing .nz would be transferred to a different organisation that had the confidence of the community. Our MoU with the New Zealand Government sets this out nicely.

So or .nz registrants have nothing to worry about. 

Should ISOC have done this sale of .org?

I’ve carefully not offered a view about whether ISOC should or should not have made the call. To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t have the data, don’t have experience of ISOC’s governance culture or goals, don’t know the details of the deal. 

What I see is that the way this has come about, and the lack of preparation of the ground, has created a real problem. ISOC will need to resolve that carefully to repair the damage to its reputation with those stakeholders who are most upset about this. 

I have no view on the regulatory processes of ICANN or others that might shape whether the deal happens or not. That might be for another day.

A last thought

The global, interoperable Internet is under threat as never before. It could use a capable global voice, operating at the highest levels of politics and governance, to shape emerging policy and regulation in ways that are friendly to the Internet.

If ISOC stood up for that challenge, I’d be impressed. That is something an organisation of its history and standing could really make a difference in.

It would be a shame if instead, the proceeds of this deal are mainly directed into low key network investments in trying to help connect the next billions. ISOC will never have the money to make a major difference here, but it could persuade others with more money and more clout —think governments, or regional organisations — to invest in closing the connectivity gap.