The Privatized Internet — Entire .ORG Domain Registry Sold to Investment Equity Firm “Ethos Capital”; Registration Fee Restrictions Removed

Yves here. Yet more privatization of the commons….this one via private equity playing rentier with domain names.

By Thomas Neuberger. Originally published at DownWithTyranny!

Cover of a 2015 book glorifying the privatization of the Internet via “a unique and vibrant interplay between government and private industry.” Nothing dollarable is safe.

The love of money is a sickness with these people.
—Attributed to an Indian chief as he watched the Europeans move west.

Nothing dollarable is safe.
—John Muir, 1908

Buried in the recent impeachment and campaign news was this announcement from the Internet Society and Public Interest Registry (emphasis mine):

Ethos Capital to Acquire Public Interest Registry from the Internet Society

Public Interest Registry Will Continue Management and Mission of .ORG Under New Ownership

Reston, VA (November 13, 2019) – The Internet Society and Public Interest Registry (PIR) today announced that they have reached an agreement with Ethos Capital, under which Ethos Capital will acquire PIR and all of its assets from the Internet Society.  The transaction is expected to close during the first quarter of next year.

“This is an important and exciting development for both the Internet Society and Public Interest Registry,” said Andrew Sullivan, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Internet Society, the organization that established Public Interest Registry.  “This transaction will provide the Internet Society with an endowment of sustainable funding and the resources to advance our mission on a broader scale as we continue our work to make the Internet more open, accessible and secure – for everyone.  It also aligns Public Interest Registry with Ethos Capital, a strong strategic partner that understands the intricacies of the domain industry and has the expertise, experience and shared values to further advance the goals of .ORG into the future.”

“Since the inception of Public Interest Registry, our mission has been to enable the .ORG Community to use the Internet more effectively and change the world for the better,” stated Jon Nevett, CEO of Public Interest Registry.  “That will not change. We have enjoyed a long and successful relationship with the Internet Society, and are thrilled that we will be able to continue – and expand – our important work with Ethos Capital while sustaining our commitment to the .ORG Community going forward.”

Internet names and numbers are controlled by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private non-profit corporation. ICANN has been subject to being “gamed” by corporate interests almost since its founding, especially but not exclusively with respect to trademarks versus the rights of non-corporate entities to purchase and register unused domain names.

Some top-level domain names (TLDs) — .COM is a TLD, as are .ORG and .EDU — are not administered directly by ICANN, but have been assigned to other administrators. For example, in May 2019 ICANN granted exclusive “administration rights” to amazon.com for the .AMAZON generic TLD “after a 7 year long dispute with the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO).”

This is true of the .ORG generic TLD, a TLD much used by non-profit public interest groups. .ORG has been operated by the Public Interest Registry (PIR) since 2003. PIR is a Virginia-based not-for-profit created by the Internet Society (ISOC) specifically to manage the .ORG top-level domain.

But, as you can see by the announcement above, the Internet Society — because it apparently needed the money — has sold all control of the .ORG top-level domain to Ethos Capital.

Has anyone ever heard of Ethos Capital?

Who Is Ethos Capital?

It’s a little difficult to get information about Ethos Capital, since they have such a small Web presence. They appear to be these guys, an African capital investment firm:

Ethos Capital offers investors long-term capital appreciation by investing in a diversified portfolio of unlisted investments managed by Ethos Private Equity, the largest private equity firm in sub-Saharan Africa.

So what is a sub-Sarahan Africa equity investment firm doing purchasing control of the whole of the .ORG registry? How does an African firm get into position to do this at all? And why are they doing it now?

To answer these question, we turn to The Register, a UK publication, which has looked into this story:

Who’s behind Ethos?

Despite stating that Ethos Capital “understands the intricacies of the domain industry” its founder and CEO Erik Brooks has no experience within that industry. The firm’s website lists only Brooks and one Nora Abusitta-Ouri – who joined the outfit last month as its “chief purpose officer” – as employees.

But there is a common thread between those two and it is Fadi Chehade, a former CEO of ICANN, the organization that oversees the domain-name system and awards the contracts to run internet registries.

It was under Chehade that ICANN radically changed its approach to internet registries, including a massive expansion of the internet namespace and a move toward a free market approach to internet addresses. Chehade’s actions as CEO led directly to the Ethos Capital buyout of .org but he is not listed as a part of Ethos Capital and the company has so far failed to respond to our questions about his connection to the firm.

More recent decisions by ICANN also had a significant bearing on the decision to sell the .org registry. At the end of June this year, in a controversial decision made despite significant and vocal opposition, ICANN decided to lift price caps on .org domains for the next 10 years, paving the way for unlimited price increases on the 10 million .org domain names. That decision massively increased the value of the .org registry from millions to potentially billions of dollars.

At the time, ICANN justified the decision by saying it was bringing the contract in line with the many new extensions that have been added to the internet in recent years. And this week, ICANN’s chairman Maarten Botterman told The Register in a statement that:

“The renewal agreement for .org removed the price cap and includes pricing provisions that are consistent with the base form registry agreement that is published and has been in public view for some time, essentially removing the role of ICANN in pricing restraints, where possible.”

So the order of events is:

  • ICANN, under Fadi Chehade, in a highly controversial move, massively expands top-level domain names, greatly multiplying profit opportunities for registrar and middlemen.
  • PIR, a non-profit entity tasked with managing the .ORG top-level domain, removes the price cap on .ORG registrations, meaning any price can be charged by any registrar.
  • A few months later, Ethos, an investment firm, buys the .ORG operation by purchasing PIR, the non-profit entity that controls it.

Sounds like a neoliberal wet dream come true to me.

The article emphasizes that so far no connection between Chehade and Ethos has been established or acknowledged, but note well that Ethos has not responded to requests for information on the connection — when a simple denial would have sufficed. I think The Register is right to smell a rat.

In the meantime, any poor, cash-strapped non-profit with a .ORG domain name — for example, sierraclub.org, to pick just one of literally millions — is best advised to renew its registration for the maximum time allowed, and do it now.

After all, there’s no telling when our noble billionaire job-creators will seize this new opportunity to milk yet another cow completely and utterly dry.

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21 comments

  1. timbers

    I always said Obama spoke like he had oatmeal stuck to the roof of his mouth because he usually stood for exactly nothing.

    Obama was such a parsed speaker devoid of conviction except to be in service to a dutiful fulfillment to neoliberal establishment policies, I’m surprised the headline doesn’t go something like:

    “Obama Privately Considered to Privately Consider Leading a Consideration to Consider a Stop Bernie Consideration…”

    Reply
  2. David

    Neoliberal Colonization appears to be proceeding at a breakneck pace.

    “The medium is the message”

    When considering the power of the medium at issue, McLuhan phrased the relevant questions for considering a medium’s use as,

    What does it enhance?
    What does it make obsolete?
    What does it retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
    What does it flip into when pushed to extremes?

    The ORG domain is too powerful a tool for private equity to own and manipulate. A reliable domain will need to be created to fill the void.

    Reply
  3. flora

    The early 20th century monopolists at least built railroads, steel mills, oil refineries, etc. ‘Ethos’ (some name) builds nothing and may well destroy .org as it grants itself monopoly pricing power.

    Thanks for this post.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      Would that remove below 50%, above 50% or 90% of the Human Genome, or just the parts of the Genome unique to the 0,1%?

      If unique to the 0.1% how will you get the offending part of the Genome?

      Reply
  4. Chauncey Gardiner

    Not just about stripping public assets for private gain. As with control of the FCC and overturning net neutrality, another chapter in their broader effort to de-fund progressive and environmental organizations, control the net and messaging, raise financial barriers to the voices of ordinary citizens, and concentrate media control and related power in their own hands.

    Reply
  5. fdr-fan

    I don’t think the domain suffix means much now. A lot of websites are nominally ORG but use a redirect from COM because everyone types COM first. Among the ORGs, there isn’t a consistent non-profitness. Many government bodies use ORG when they ideally should use GOV, and some ORGs are clearly commercial.

    It’s generally safer and easier to type COM. Less chance of getting a fake knockoff.

    Reply
  6. JEHR

    I wonder how long it will take before others decide they have to own some domain names too. Just think of how many billionaires the names will provide. John Muir was so right–Dollarization Forever!!

    Reply
  7. unhappyCakeEater

    usually the domain names i register for laughs and personal projects are very cheap at first. the renewals always go up substantially after the first term, sometimes by quite a lot. So i let them go and get another cheapie.

    This will be an existential problem for donation dependent nonprofits or targets of well funded private interests, of course.

    Reply
  8. drumlin woodchuckles

    I am an old analog refugee in this new digital world. I don’t understand about things like “protocols” and “programs” and stuff. Accepting that disability as a basic fact, I thought the “internet” was a nickname given to the whole realm and region of computer-enabled activity and behavior organized by bunches of programs-and-stuff that allowed every computer with communication outreach capability to be in touch with every other computer with communication outreach capability.

    I suppose it is that inbuilt capacity of the computer-machines and the cats-cradle spiderweb of wires and airborne frequencies allowing the computers to all reach out and touch eachother . . . which allows Mr. Berners Lee to think he can craft a “better World Wide Web” able to use these protocols and programs and stuff to keep the computers in touch with eachother while end-running around the privatizers’ tollbooth extortion checkpoints and chokepoints.

    I hope he gets all the help he needs to get the Free Public BetterNet running and populated by billions of users before the Privatistic Internet Enclosure-Lords use their control to program the current protocols out of existence for the Domain Name Plantations they purchase for their own private profit chokepoint control.

    A New Deal 2.0 Congress and Administration, if we can force them into existence, could perhaps legislate to keep any and every Free Public BetterNet forever Free and forever Public. And legislate the creation of permanent tax-funded Domain Name Creation and Management Agency(ies) to create Domain Names which would be forever Free and forever Public. They could even be re-spellings or mis-spellings of any current Cluster of Names like .Org or .org which gets privatised and toll-gate extortion-enginized.

    So, for example , the Department of Forever Free Public BetterNet could set up a Domain Name called
    .Orgg or .orgg. Anyone currently .Org or .org site which gets tired of having private extortionists standing between it and the computer-reading public . . . could create a Free Public site under the .Orgg or .orgg name and once it was up and running, they could take down their site under the .Org or .org name. ” .Org” and “.org” could become empty shells, neutron-bombed parking lots full of empty space nullifying every cent that this private poacher spent to enclose the .Org domain.

    Perhaps this process could go far enough to mispell/re-spell EVERY currently existing Domain Name and move EVERYTHING onto the re/mis spelled neo-Domain Names. Then ICANN and all the PIRs can themselves be exterminated from existence and wiped off the face of the earth.

    Reply
  9. oaf

    …if there’s a buck to be made by screwing people…neoliberals have it!!! They own the ball, the playing field, the rules, and the umpires! It is a sticky wicket, for sure!!!

    Reply

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