Many of my friends in the civil-liberties and Internet-law communities have been criticizing the Internet Society’s agreement to sell the Public Interest Registry, which administers the .ORG top-level domain. I’m a free-speech guy, so I support their right to raise all these criticisms. But they often ask me directly — knowing that my track record  as an Internet civil-libertarian is longer than most — why as a member of the Internet Society (a.k.a. ISOC) board  I decided to join the board’s unanimous approval of the deal. A key reason is this: I believe this deal is absolutely the best way to ensure that .ORG grows and thrives in the rest of this century.
But this consideration — which I’ll explain in a moment — is obscured by the fact that the deal also results in the equivalent of an endowment that could guarantee the Internet Society’s long-term economic independence. Still, the reality is that this “endowment” thing, big as it is, wasn’t enough to make me vote yes.
True, I started out with the recognition that the sale of the Public Interest Registry (PIR), especially for an endowment-sized sale price, has great potential to improve ISOC’s stability and prospects for the future — probably indefinitely. Even our critics acknowledge that the sale would be good for us. The sale gets ISOC out of the domain-name business, which may be helpful since it is unclear whether that business, in its current form, is central to where the Internet is going to be 10 or 20 or 50 years from now. Still, ISOC’s charitable mission requires that we think that far ahead — not just in terms of coming years, but in terms of coming decades. It would be weird indeed if the Internet needed to evolve past the current domain-name system, yet ISOC had a monetary interest in sticking with a 1990s model that predates all modern search engines. (It was originally thought that top-level domains, known as TLDs, would be super-important in locating Internet resources. First AltaVista, then Yahoo!, Google, and Bing, altered that assumption.)
But even if the TLD framework will continue to change, and even though it’s less necessary than ever when it comes to finding web resources, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily static or should be allowed to waste away. Part of the controversy centering on .ORG is that this TLD has grown to have a powerful symbolic value, as well as a powerful branding value. That’s why I figured it would be bad stewardship to approve a deal that produces a super-excellent outcome for ISOC at the expense of reducing or eliminating or damaging PIR (and .ORG). It would be better if any deal could guarantee to leave PIR in good shape (or, ideally, in better and improving shape). We helped build PIR into the success it is today — it would be silly to do anything that would undermine or destroy what we’ve built. Far better instead if we put PIR in a position superior to the one it’s in right now, in order for it to thrive and adapt to an evolving Internet landscape.
Still, you may ask, what’s wrong with things as they are right now? In a nutshell, it’s this — both ISOC and PIR are legally organized as non-profits with specified charitable missions that we both have to follow and that neither can ignore. ISOC’s mission, oversimplified, is to protect, promote, and advocate for a healthy Internet — but not necessarily to defend current conventions like the domain-name system. PIR’s mission centers on administering, protecting, and securing .ORG … but also on turning over its profits to fund ISOC. It is no more ISOC’s mission to support today’s (or, more accurately, yesterday’s) TLD system as such than it would have been ISOC’s mission years ago to support the bang path  email routing that preceded it. At the same time, PIR’s mission — as a non-profit project of a non-profit ISOC — isn’t to invest in its own adaptation to evolutions of .ORG and related services. Instead, PIR is stuck with maintaining its 1990s-era asset and handing over any surplus (revenue minus costs) at the end of the day to ISOC.
This relationship seemed short-sighted to me. Running PIR as a for-profit enterprise that doesn’t have to send most or all of its surplus to ISOC might give PIR the flexibility to reinvest in itself and adapt to a changing marketplace — in fact, it’s probably the only credible path for doing that. Plus, there’s nothing inherently bad for .ORG in being operated by for-profit companies, if history is any guide — Network Solutions, SAIC, and Verisign did just fine doing that job as for-profit companies. Nor is non-profit status any inherent blessing for .ORG — if anything, the hobbling of PIR by its non-profit status has limited investment in .ORG services. I know the current relationship between ISOC and PIR wasn’t ever intended to be any kind of parasitism, but it seems to be functioning that way now. So I found myself more open to a solution that freed both organizations to grow and do better, and not at each other’s expense.
But could it be at the public’s expense? What about the argument that the prices for domain-name renewals will soar? This argument ignores common sense — you don’t take over a successful business and price most of your customers out of the market or spur a mass migration to an alternative product. Not only would that permanently destroy any faith in .ORG — the business you just bought — but it also would undermine TLDs generally. (I’ve suggested, not entirely jokingly, that the proper response if anybody tries to extort huge renewal fees for .ORG is to launch a mass one-time conversion to the .WTF top-level domain. I’d happily lead any charge in the .WTF Resistance.) In any case, demand for TLDs isn’t inelastic, despite what the deal’s critics say — there are hundreds of TLDs and customers aren’t locked in. It takes only a few minutes of studying PIR’s year-by-year financials to see that jacking up domain-name renewal prices in the way the critics fear would be suicidal for PIR or any other registry that depends primarily on predictable renewal rates, and it would destroy the value of .ORG as well. I don’t think any of the companies that sought to buy PIR were dumb enough to invest a billion dollars in buying the .ORG business in order to destroy it.
That said, I’ve also been haunted by my uncertainty as to how long we will have today’s domain-name system with us. I’m 63, but it seems possible that even within my lifetime, the TLD system will grow, change unrecognizably, or even fade away entirely. Certain choices by ICANN leading to proliferating TLDs plus the growth of search engines and mobile device apps that don’t need TLDs to find things (plus, also, the possibility that Internet-of-Things and other developments may marginalize TLDs altogether) make the future of TLDs hard to predict no matter what we choose today. Most likely, in my view, is that if we have TLDs around in 20 years or 50 years, they may serve different purposes above and beyond the branding purpose they serve for most domain-name holders now. A for-profit PIR has far more capital and far more flexibility to decide what new things can be done to maintain and improve .ORG and make it meaningful and helpful for generations of future Internet users.
That’s the future I see that has the greatest potential to #SaveDotOrg — to increase the likelihood that the symbolic value of the TLD we’ve built adapts and stays strong and has the muscle to resist attempts to co-opt or erode it. Plus, thanks to the network of contracts that binds .ORG to the larger TLD system, it would be challenging for even the most foolhardy investor with a billion dollars to throw away to intentionally buy it up and destroy it.
There are other futures, however, that look less good for .ORG. Some critics propose that ICANN (or someone else) simply kill the deal, freezing .ORG into an already outdated setup and starving the registry that manages it of the ability to adapt and evolve. I have to object to this “austerity” approach — I believe that as an ISOC trustee I can’t preside over decisions that lead to the decline of ISOC over time, and that as an ethical person I can’t support committing PIR to float off as a non-profit on the possibly melting ice floe of the current domain-name system.
Another alternative future (other critics have embraced) would be for ICANN somehow to extra-legally end its contract with ISOC and hand over management of .ORG to a new consortium with even less capital (and that would deliberately accumulate less) and even less experience in stewardship of .ORG — transitioning .ORG from one parasitical relationship to a worse one, with less money to improve and maintain .ORG. The disadvantages of this second model also seem to me self-evident, but there does seem to be agreement between both models that it’s somehow better for PIR to be less profitable and less able to invest in itself. Because we live in an evolving, challenging world rather than a static and predictable one, and because I am 100-percent dedicated to #SaveDotOrg, and — most important — because I want to maximize the chances that .ORG serves Internet registrants and users 100 years from now, I am compelled to respectfully disagree. I prefer that we #SaveDotOrg not as something that we’ve gotten used to, but instead as something that our children and grandchildren may find useful.
- “my track record”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Godwin
- “a member of the Internet Society (a.k.a. ISOC) board”: https://www.internetsociety.org/blog/2019/04/2019-internet-society-board-of-trustees-final-election-results-ietf-appointment/
- “bang path”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UUCP#Bang_path