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What to know (and do) about the sale of .org

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As a member of the nonprofit community, chances are you are very familiar with the web’s .org designation. For over 30 years, many of the world’s most respected nonprofits have been using the domain to promote their work and signal their public interest mission to the world. Today, an estimated 10 million users are registered under a .org address, with organizations ranging from Amnesty International and the Red Cross all the way to local community groups. For many, .org has become “the online conscience of the Internet… a symbol of doing good, doing better, aspiring for something”. Which is why, when news of its sale spread on November 13th 2019, it sent shock waves through the web. For many, the decision to sell the domain to a private equity firm called Ethos Capital--which has offered a whopping US$ 1.135 billion for the registry--raises several concerns about the future of .org and its impact on nonprofits.

The first concern is that registration fees for .org sites—which currently hover around $10 CAD/year—will increase more than the traditional 10% annual limit, significantly affecting the operational costs of nonprofits. The second is the possibility of censorship and other restrictions that may affect the ability to be active online. Charlie Cray, a political and business strategist at Greenpeace, recently explained to the CBC how civil society groups that use "tactics like non-violent, direct civil disobedience protests" could become vulnerable to crackdowns from governments. "Conceivably, there might be countries where non-violent public protesting is illegal," he said. "A government in such a circumstance might petition the company and say: 'This is an organization that regularly breaks the law, and you shouldn't allow them to be registered on the internet.'" (Others have pointed to concerns that partnerships with private entities may limit freedom of expression more broadly, as in the case from a few years ago of the controversial SOPA and PIPA legislations).

Ethos Capital has stated that they intend to keep .org accessible and affordable, but the firm has not yet committed to a legally binding agreement in support of that statement. So what can your organization do to prepare for this potential sea change?

1. Stay Informed

ICANN--the nonprofit entity that regulates the domain name system—has received increasing pressure to reject the sale. So far, expressions of concern have come from members of Congress, two UN Special Rapporteurs, as well as nonprofit representatives speaking at a joint press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. California Attorney General’s Office has also reached out to ICANN to ask they release more information about the sale.

A group of nonprofit leaders and internet pioneers has formed The Cooperative Corporation of dot-org Registrants, or CCOR, to buy the .org registry. The cooperative is committed to redistributing up to 25% of annual revenues (i.e., the fees collected from registration of .org domains) to distribute the savings back to its members and support key nonprofit Internet infrastructure, so keep an eye on the media to see how the story develops.

2. Plan Ahead

While the sale of .org continues to unfold, take some time to think about your internal strategy. Review your communications and brand strategies, and consider forming a Plan B if the sale to Ethos goes through. How may your organization be impacted? How would you alert your community to a possible web address change? How much time would you need to prepare for this transition? Who in your team should be involved?

3. Consider Switching Domains

There are a few reasons to consider switching domain names if the sale goes through as planned. You may wish to register with a local provider, for example by choosing a .ca extension if you are a Canadian nonprofit. You may also want to choose an alternate domain extension that more closely represents the needs and values of nonprofits. As Nonprofit Tech for Good reports, there are over 6 million .org domains registered in the United States alone, but only 1.5 million of those belong to registered nonprofits. The .ngo and .ong extensions require a validation process complete with legal paperwork that proves an organization’s standing as a nonprofit. As their article points out, there may be several advantages to switching to a .ngo or .ong domain:

  • It enhances the credibility of your organization and that of the sector as a whole by belonging to a verified registry reserved solely for official nonprofits. This, in turn, signals your trustworthiness to donors and supporters;
  • These extensions are relatively recent, so registering early ensures that you can grab your organization’s URL name while it is still available –– not only are NGO and ONG the most popular ways to refer to nonprofits around the world, but when you register you automatically get your domain name in both extensions (.ngo and .ngo);
  • Switching to this domain gets your organization added to the OnGood Global Directory, which periodically showcases the work of members in its registry and is quickly becoming the largest database of legally recognized nonprofits worldwide.

4. Join the SaveDotOrg Movement

To date, over 24,000 individuals and 800 organizations have signed a petition calling for .org’s sale to be halted. If you are the representative of an organization, you can add your group’s name to the signatories of this letter spearheaded by NTEN and the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. You can also stay in touch with the campaign by visiting the Save Dot Org website.


Are you concerned by the sale of .org? What steps are you taking to prepare? Drop us a note in the comments to share your experience with TechSoup Canada’s community, we’d love to hear from you!

Further reading: 

Charitable Web Leaders Launch Cooperative Alternative for .Org Domain (Medium, January 10, 2020)
Column: The Internet’s .Org Registry Is Snatched Up By A Private Equity Firm, Provoking Outrage (LA Times, December 12, 2019) 
Why Choose .Ngo and .Ong? (Public Internet Registry, n.d.)

May 1, 2020 update: 

Following weeks of campaigning and mounting pressure, the ICANN Board made the decision to reject the proposed changes to the control of the .org registry. As announced in a recent press release, "the ICANN Board finds that withholding consent of the transfer of PIR from the Internet Society (ISOC) to Ethos Capital is reasonable, and the right thing to do." Read the full statement online on ICANN's website.