The old dream of an internet run in the public interest has long dissipated under pressure from huge firms seeking to profit from what has become a worldwide information utility.
But one corner of the web seemed to maintain its character as a preserve for public service - the dot-org domain, which since its creation has been reserved for non-profit organizations.
That's why many were startled by the announcement on November 13 that the .org registry had been sold to a private equity firm, Ethos Capital. The seller was the Internet Society, a non-profit that creates and maintains internet engineering standards, but has been mostly the guardian of the .org domain. The price was a stunning US$1.13 billion (HK$8.85 billion).
In the announcement, Internet Society chief executive Andrew Sullivan described Ethos as "a strong strategic partner that understands the intricacies of the domain industry."
Others are not so sure. Ethos didn't even exist until earlier this year, and has only two employees, including Erik Brooks, its founder.
Brooks describes his investment principles as "intellectual honesty, humility and respect and believing that prosperity can be built together."
But a week after the sale announcement, it emerged that the financial backers of Ethos included several firms with more conventional investment approaches, including funds associated with the families of Ross Perot, Mitt Romney and the Johnsons, owners of Fidelity Investments.
Brooks says Ethos is committed to running the .org registry in accordance with principles followed by the Internet Society, but hasn't made that commitment in writing.
At stake are internet addresses ending in ".org" used by some 10 million organizations. The .org domain is one of the oldest on the internet, along with .com (for commercial businesses), .edu (educational institutions), .gov (government agencies) and a handful of others.
It's traditionally reserved for non-profit organizations devoted to the public interest, such as the Red Cross, the Girl Scouts, and the United Way.
The domain holds a special place in the hearts of internet users; environmentalist and internet activist Jacob Malthouse calls .org a "digital Yosemite," evoking the reverence naturalists such as John Muir felt for the real thing.
The sale, which is expected to close in the first quarter of next year, has drawn brickbats from several internet luminaries. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, tweeted that "it would be a travesty" if the .org domain were no longer operated in the public interest.
Also weighing in was Esther Dyson, the founding chairman of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the web's Playa Vista-based governing body. She tweeted that she was "appalled" at what she called "the great .org heist."
The dot-org community has two main concerns about the sale. One is that Ethos will jack up the registration fee for .org websites, currently about US$10 per year and subject to a traditional limit on increases of 10 percent a year.
More important may be Ethos' ability to facilitate more censorship of .org websites by allowing third parties more latitude to object to content on those sites and prompt their shutdown.
"The .org registry is a point of control on the internet," says Mitch Stoltz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has launched a campaign protesting the deal. "A private equity firm has an incentive to sell censorship as a service."
The Internet Society said it had not been planning to put the Public Interest Registry, the unit that manages .org and is the entity being sold to Ethos, up for sale, but Ethos's bid was so large "we couldn't just say no without considering" it.
One open question is what Ethos expects to gain from its purchase. Domain registries such as PIR are responsible chiefly for maintaining a database of registrations and collecting annual fees.
That makes the job "pretty much a license to print money," Stoltz says.
Will Ethos be satisfied with running a demure internet registry in the public interest, as opposed to squeezing their investment for every penny?
As for the Internet Society, its interest seemed to be stabilizing its finances by replacing the revenue from .org fees - which reached US$44.4 million last year, about 85 percent of its total revenue - with income from a US$1.135-billion endowment. "Responsibly invested and managed," Sullivan said, the society could replicate its annual take from .org fees "in perpetuity."
Sullivan's words point to what may really be roiling the .org community about the deal: the transformation of what was one of the last vestiges of the web's image as a public utility managed informally in the public interest into just another asset to be monetized.
Los Angeles Times (TNS)