NGOs want to block the sale of the .org domain to Ethos Capital. Photo by: Descrier / CC BY

DAVOS, Switzerland — Plans to sell the .org domain to a private equity firm have international NGOs worried that civil society, which is already faced with a closing civic space, will lose its digital commons.

The executive directors of 11 international NGOs released an open letter Wednesday calling on the leaders of two nonprofits — the Internet Society and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — to stop the sale of the .org domain.

“Certain public goods should never be for sale. You would never sell the town square — .org is the town square for civil society.”

— Kenneth Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch

The deal to sell the domain to Ethos Capital, a young private equity firm, was first announced last year and immediately caused concern among NGOs. This week, a group of them took the occasion of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, to draw attention to the issue. While they call on the Internet Society and ICANN to stop the sale, they are also looking at potential legal challenges and trying to get governments to intervene, according to Brett Solomon, executive director of Access Now.

Saying that hundreds of thousands of organizations are not even aware of the potential sale, the group of NGOs at Davos raised a number of concerns, including how the change in ownership might impact pricing, censorship, and data access.

“Certain public goods should never be for sale. You would never sell the town square — .org is the town square for civil society,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

One of the concerns he highlighted was that a commercial organization could be “subject to economic blackmail,” such as if China tried to use its economic clout to influence censorship of the domain.

“This is a scandal of enormous proportion,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. The domain is already expensive for small NGOs, she said, adding that she doesn’t think private equity will be a good actor. “It is a joke against democratic rights and freedoms.”

Another concern is that eliminating the .org domain could limit people’s access to information, said Delia Ferreira Rubio, chair of Transparency International.

The organizations said at a press conference Wednesday that the domain should not be owned by a commercial entity and that they didn’t believe Ethos Capital’s assurances on pricing and other concerns. ICANN could step in to block the sale, which is expected to be finalized soon.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.

Join the Discussion