Company buying .org offers to sign a contract banning price hikes

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Ethos Capital, the company controversially buying the .org top-level domain, is trying to appease critics with a set of new rules. The legally binding agreements would ban steep fee increases for nonprofit domain holders, and they would establish an independent “stewardship council” that could veto attempts at censorship or inappropriate data use. The rules would kick in if Ethos successfully acquires Public Interest Registry (PIR), a nonprofit organization that manages .org.

ICANN, which oversees the internet’s top-level domains, is currently scrutinizing the acquisition. President and CEO Göran Marby previously expressed discomfort with the deal, and PIR announced today that it’s extending the review period until March 20th.

ICANN hasn’t yet taken a position on the latest proposal. “We are in the process [of] analyzing the information we have received and therefore have no comment beyond the fact that we welcome Ethos’ efforts to engage with the Internet Society community and .org customers, and look forward to the outcome of those discussions,” said Marby in a statement to The Verge. California’s attorney general requested information from ICANN last month regarding the sale and so have a group of lawmakers, including presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

PIR said it would “continue to work collaboratively” to address any outstanding issues with ICANN. In addition to the details above, Ethos and PIR committed to creating a “Community Enablement Fund” to support .org initiatives, and PIR promised to publish an annual transparency report. The price restrictions, meanwhile, would forbid Ethos from raising domain registration and renewal fees by more than 10 percent per year (on average) for the next eight years.

PIR and Ethos announced their deal last year, and the Internet Society (ISOC) — which founded PIR — says the billion-dollar sale will provide much-needed funding. But critics have raised concerns about a private equity firm controlling a valuable resource for nonprofit groups.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other nonprofits petitioned ISOC to stop the sale. In a statement, EFF senior staff attorney Mitch Stoltz cast doubt on the new promises. “The handpicked ‘stewardship council’ will have no real authority or practical ability to override the wishes of PIR’s new private equity owners,” said Stoltz. “And based on what we know about the financial structure of this deal and the practices of many private equity fund managers, the sale risks bankrupting PIR, leaving millions of nonprofit and other non-commercial website owners in the lurch.”

A recently founded group called the “Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants,” which includes ICANN founding chairman Esther Dyson and Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher, has asked for control of .org instead. Even ISOC’s president, Andrew Sullivan, said he was “uncomfortable” with a lack of transparency.

Ethos and PIR’s press release quotes Sullivan praising the new agreements. “Ethos shows that it has been listening to the questions some have raised. Ethos has responded by embedding its commitments on pricing, censorship and data use policies in a legally-binding contract, and giving ICANN and the community the ability to hold Ethos to its commitments,” says the statement.

Update 4:40PM ET: Added statement from EFF.

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