Public Interest Registry
|Industry||Internet, Domain registry|
|Founded||2002 in Reston, Virginia|
|Founder||Lynn St.Amour, Hal Lubsen, Ram Mohan, David Maher|
|Jon Nevett, Judy Song-Marshall, Paul Diaz, Brian Cimbolic, Laurie Tarpey, Anand Vora, Mary Cornwell, Joe Abley|
Public Interest Registry is a Reston, Virginia-based not-for-profit created by the Internet Society in 2002 to manage the .ORG top-level domain. It took over operation of .ORG in January 2003 and launched the .NGO and .ONG top-level domains in March 2015.
In November 2019, it was announced the Public Interest Registry would be sold by the Internet Society to private equity investment firm Ethos Capital for 1.135 billion USD, but in April 2020, ICANN decided to reject the sale.
The Domain Name System was created in 1983 to create a more stable and redundant network of networks and to make the internet simpler for more people to use.
.ORG was one of the original top-level domains (along with .COM, .EDU, .MIL, and .GOV) that launched a year later in 1984. .ORG was intended to be the home for organizations of a non-commercial character that did not meet the requirements for the other top-level domains.
From 1984 to 1992, .ORG was managed by the Stanford Research Institute under a grant from the United States government. At this time, .ORG domain names were issued free of charge upon request.
In 1993, the operations of .ORG were privatized and transferred from the Stanford Research Institute to Network Solutions – the single-bidder for further developing the domain name registration service for the internet – under a five-year agreement with the National Science Foundation. Network Solutions charged $100 per .ORG domain name for a two-year registration, a rate that was subsequently lowered to $70 following a 1997 lawsuit charging Network Solutions with antitrust violations.
In 1998, the United States Department of Commerce issued the white paper that resulted in the formation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). One early decision that ICANN made was to create a vertical separation of registries (the party that manages the underlying database of domain names) and registrars (the party that acts as a retail provider of domain names).
The creation of ICANN brought some competition to the domain name industry when new generic top-level domains like .BIZ, .INFO, and .MUSEUM launched in 2001. Network Solutions, however, retained its monopoly over .ORG, as well as .COM and .NET. Network Solutions was acquired by Verisign in 2000.
In 2001, in order to keep .COM and .NET (the most financially lucrative of the legacy top-level domains), Verisign voluntarily agreed to surrender its control of .ORG by 2003. At the time, ICANN stated that transferring .ORG away from Verisign and to a new, purpose-built registry would “return the .ORG registry to its original purpose,” and enable .ORG to return “to its originally intended function as a registry operated by and for non-profit organizations.”
Furthermore, article 5.1.4 of the 2001 .ORG Registry Agreement between ICANN and Verisign required that Verisign “pay to ICANN or ICANN’s designee the sum of US $5 million, to be used by ICANN in it [sic] sole discretion to establish an endowment to be used to fund future operating costs of the non-profit entity designated by ICANN as successor operator of the .ORG registry.”
The criteria for re-assigning .ORG included:
- Criteria 4 (differentiation): “A key objective is differentiation of the .ORG TLD from TLDs intended for commercial purposes. … Proposals should include detailed planned marketing practices designed to … promote and attract registrations from the global noncommercial community”
- Criteria 5 (responsiveness to the noncommercial community): “The successor operator’s policies and practices should strive to be responsive to and supportive of the noncommercial Internet user community”;
- Criteria 6 (public support among noncommercial users): “Demonstrated support among registrants in the .ORG TLD, particularly those actually using .ORG domain names for noncommercial purposes” and
- Criteria 7 (affordability): “In view of the noncommercial character of many present and future .ORG registrants, affordability is important. A significant consideration will be the price at which the proposal commits to provide initial and renewal registrations.”
Eleven bids for .ORG were received from operators who were assessed as being qualified to manage the registry.
The Internet Society was among the 11 bidders. Though the Internet Society did not receive the absolute highest score out of the 11 bids, as assessed by independent and staff evaluators, it was nonetheless awarded a perpetual contract to manage .ORG. Articles 4.1 and 4.2 of the .ORG Registry Agreement outline that, provided there have not been breaches of payment obligations to ICANN and there have not been three or more “fundamental and material breach[es]” of the contract, the contract will automatically renew for a further 10 years – in perpetuity. The reason for awarding the contract to the Internet Society included the Internet Society’s global membership, important mission, and non-profit status.
In 2002, the Internet Society was in a dire financial position. There were significant concerns that the Internet Society’s financial position could sink .ORG. In order to address these concerns, the Internet Society proposed creating the Public Interest Registry as a separate 501(c)3 non-profit to manage .ORG and to insulate it from the Internet Society. The Public Interest Registry was established with a membership of one, the Internet Society, governed by a separate board.
The decision made by the ICANN Board to allocate .ORG to the Internet Society was consistent with RFC 1591, which states that “a designated manager for a domain” is a “trustee for the delegated domain, and ha[s] a duty to serve the community.”
The community that .ORG was intended to serve is non-profit organizations, and Lynn St. Armor, who was then President and CEO of the Internet Society, committed the Internet Society to working to ensure that the non-governmental sector shaped any decisions affecting the .ORG ecosystem.
Afilias was selected as the back-end technical provider for .ORG under contract with the Public Interest Registry. The then-largest domain transfer in history occurred on January 1, 2003, when ICANN had VeriSign delegate 2.6 million domains to Public Interest Registry. An Internet Society Vice President, David Maher, became the chairman. The following month, Ed Viltz became the organization's first CEO.
Marc Rotenberg, the founding Board Chair of the Public Interest Registry, stated in an op-ed that when the Public Interest Registry was established, “our aim was to promote the non-commercial use of the internet … We believed there should be a space of the Internet to promote non-commercial use and that the governance of the .ORG domain should respect the essential character of the users of the domain.”
On June 23, 2010, Public Interest Registry's technology provider Afilias implemented the Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) protocol for .ORG, making .ORG the first open gTLD to sign its zone. DNSSEC is intended to prevent cache poisoning attacks by making sure internet users arrive at the URL they intended. The implementation began in test environments in mid-2009. The protocol was  implemented by Public Interest Registry's technical partner Afilias during the tenure of former CEO, Alexa Raad, who played a role in creating the DNSSEC Industry Coalition. Raad resigned from Public Interest Registry in late 2010. The non-profit had an interim CEO, until it recruited former Afilias executive Brian Cute as its third chief executive officer on January 14, 2011. After a successful tenure, Brian Cute stepped down as CEO in May 2018.
In 2017, PIR renegotiated their agreement with Afilias to manage their registrations, reducing their overhead.
On 17 December 2018, Jon Nevett became CEO of the Public Interest Registry.
On 13 May 2019, ICANN announced that they would remove the price cap on .ORG registrations.
Sale of the Public Interest Registry
Events leading up to the sale
In October 2017, the Internet Society established the Internet Society Foundation as a separate legal entity. It received a favorable determination letter issued by the IRS in April 2018. There were no public announcements about the creation of this organization until November 2018.
In fiscal year 2017, the Public Interest Registry transmitted $43m to the Internet Society Foundation from its securities holdings in order for the Internet Society Foundation to establish an endowment. These are the first indications that the Internet Society may have been looking to divest itself of the Public Interest Registry.
The Internet Society appointed three new trustees to the Public Interest Registry Board for terms beginning 1 May 2018. Brian Cute, who had been CEO of the Public Interest Registry for seven years, abruptly resigned a week later, with no explanation offered for his departure. He was replaced on an interim basis by one of the new trustees, Jay Daley.
Andrew Sullivan joined the Internet Society as President and CEO in September 2018. Earlier in his career, Sullivan worked for Afilias and supported ISOC in its bid to acquire .ORG. In ISOC’s original 2002 proposal, Sullivan is listed as the senior architect who would be responsible for the smooth transition of .ORG from Verisign’s backend to Afilias’ systems.
Removal of price caps on .ORG domains to increase value of asset
The Public Interest Registry has a perpetual contract to run .ORG. Articles 4.1 and 4.2 of the .ORG Registry Agreement outline that, provided there have not been breaches of payment obligations to ICANN and there have not been three or more “fundamental and material breach[es]” of the contract, the contract will automatically renew for a further 10 years in perpetuity.
There were a number of substantial modifications made to the .ORG Registry Agreement in 2019. Among the most significant changes to the .ORG Registry Agreement was the removal of consumer protection mechanisms such as price caps. Until this time, the Public Interest Registry had been unable to raise the wholesale price of a .ORG domain by more than 10% per annum.
The .ORG Registry Agreement was published on the ICANN website in March 2019 and opened for public comment. Over 3,000 public comments were submitted from non-profit and non-governmental organizations and individuals from around the world. An independent analysis found that fewer than 1% of commenters supported the decision. Nonetheless, on 13 May 2019, ICANN advised that it would not alter the .ORG Registry Agreement based upon the public input received.
The only justification that ICANN has provided for the removal of price caps is that it has sought to harmonize contracts in order to become a more efficient organization.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a reconsideration request to the ICANN Board, argued that the “efficiency of harmonized contracts” should not outweigh “ICANN’s mission of coordinating the allocation and assignment of names in the [Domain Name System] through policies developed through a bottom-up, consensus-based multistakeholder process.”
After public comments closed, the Public Interest Registry released an open letter on 1 May 2019, stating, “The .ORG Community always is considered in every decision we make here at Public Interest Registry. Rest assured, we will not raise prices unreasonably. In fact, we currently have no specific plans for any price increases for .ORG.” 
Sale is announced by the Internet Society
One week after public comments closed, former ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé registered the domain name EthosCapital.com. On 14 May 2019, Ethos Capital was incorporated in Delaware under file number 7418715.
On 13 November 2019 the Internet Society announced that it was divesting of the Public Interest Registry, and that Ethos Capital would be acquiring its assets, including its holdings of Registry Agreements. It would later be confirmed that Chehadé was an advisor to Ethos Capital, and that he was present at a meet-and-greet with the staff of the Public Interest Registry at their office in Virginia.
Following concerns that the sale could result in price gouging, given the elimination of price caps, Ethos Capital stated on their website, "Our plan is to live within the spirit of historic practice when it comes to pricing," which they later clarified to mean raising prices by an average of 10% per year. This is the maximum that the Public Interest Registry was allowed to raise prices starting in 2016, though it never chose to do so.
The sale led to a public outcry over PIR's transition to a for-profit venture, especially in view of the removal of price caps on .org registrations. People who came out in opposition to the sale included Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Rotenberg, the first chair of the Public Interest Registry, as well as previous Trustees along with the first Executive Director of the Internet Society.
The Internet Society later confirmed that no human rights impact assessment was carried out prior to the sale, no consultation with impacted stakeholders was completed, and no safeguards were in place to protect the interests of .ORG, .NGO, and .ONG registrants.
On 22 November 2019 NTEN launched a website savedotorg.org for organizations and others to express their opposition to the sale. Over 25,000 people signed a petition opposing the sale, and a demonstration was held outside ICANN's office in Los Angeles in January 2020.
On 29 November 2019, it was revealed that the purchase price is $1.135 billion. 
In late January 2020, ICANN halted its final approval of the sale after the Attorney General of California requested detailed documentation from all parties, citing concerns that both ICANN and the Internet Society had potentially violated their public interest missions as registered charities subject to the laws of California. In February, the Internet Society's Chapter Advisory Council (which represents its membership) began the process to adopt a motion rejecting the sale if certain conditions were not complied with.
On 30 April 2020, the ICANN Board, saying it was "the right thing to do," withheld its consent to the transfer of control of the Public Internet Registry to Ethos Capital, effectively killing the proposed deal.
.ORG is the third largest generic top-level domain of the Domain Name System used in the internet. .ORG domains have been registered by Public Interest Registry since 2003. Craigslist.org and Wikipedia.org are among the more popular .org users. Since 2009, Public Interest Registry has published a bi-annual report called "The Dashboard" on the number of registered .ORG domains. There were more than 8 million registered .ORG in 2009, 8.8 million in 2010, and 9.6 million in 2011. Public Interest Registry registered the ten millionth .org domain in June, 2012. In June 2015 there were 10.5 million .org domains registered.
Public Interest Registry promotes and publicizes the .ORG domain. While .ORG is an open domain, Public Interest Registry wants more people to view .ORG as a domain for communities and entities that serve the public good, rather than being perceived as directed to non-profits. In 2010, Public Interest Registry launched "WhyIChose.org" as part of campaign to promote the .ORG domain extension.
It conducted a survey of consumers in 2011 on how domain names are perceived by internet users. The survey found that 81 percent of Americans still rely on an organization's website before Twitter or Facebook. It also suggested .ORG sites were seen as more trustworthy. Respondents were more likely to turn to .ORG websites in a crisis, more likely to post content on .ORG sites and to trust information on a .ORG domain. It also found that younger age groups were almost twice as likely to register a .ORG as Americans age 55-64.
In July 2015, Public Interest Registry marked the 30th anniversary of the first .ORG registration, and launched a website featuring a timeline of .ORG registrations from 1985 to 2015 and a gallery of .ORG websites. The first .ORG domain name to be registered was mitre.org.
.NGO and .ONG
In June 2011, ICANN expanded the internet's naming system to allow applications for new top-level domain names. Public Interest Registry declared publicly an interest in the .NGO domain in August 2011 and applied for it in May 2012. It also applied for an equivalent domain, .ONG, which stands for "Organisation Non Gouvernementale" in French, and is also recognizable in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and other Romance languages. Unlike the .ORG domain, .NGO will require validation of the registrant's non-governmental status. Non-governmental organizations told Public Interest Registry they needed a closed domain that validated the legitimacy of websites accepting online donations to avoid fraud. Public Interest Registry plans to use the funds from selling .NGO domains to develop an "NGO Community Program" to reach out to NGOs in developing nations. It also intends to create a directory service of NGOs to support their SEO and visibility, and develop a closed community for NGOs to learn from each other. The new domains have been publicly available since May 6, 2015.
Public Interest Registry often supports ICANN on policy and privacy issues on the internet. In 2003, Public Interest Registry wrote a letter to ICANN supporting its opposition of wildcard redirection services that automatically redirect internet users to correct spelling errors and typos. The letter supported ICANN's request for VeriSign to voluntarily suspend a DNS wildcard service called Site Finder and asked ICANN to make a policy against similar services across the internet. Public Interest Registry and other organizations opposed the move by VeriSign, because automatic redirects may affect spam filters and mail servers that rely on error messages from non-existent domains.
Public Interest Registry reduced domain tasting by charging fees to registrars that cancel 90 percent of their domains in less than five days. In 2007, ICANN used that as a model for a similar proposal to curb domain tasting through non-refundable fees. Public Interest Registry supported ICANN's expansion of top-level domain names. The CEO, Brian Cute, commented that internet users will still gravitate towards established domain names, but new domains will target specific communities. Public Interest Registry has also urged ICANN to address privacy implications of the WHOIS database. The organization is critical of the security of DNS filtering techniques and supports the DNSSEC protocol. It also shuts down .org-based phishing scams.
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