January 30, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
A recent NPR program on the selling of nonprofit .org domain, coming off the heels of MLK Day, underscores the importance of embracing civil discourse and platforms of communication. This is especially true, considering the spokeswoman for the opposition to the sale said something that makes a mockery of Dr. King’s efforts to fight the vestiges of slavery. I’ll get to that later.
For those new to this debate, it is important to note that mission-oriented, nonprofit organizations often purchase .org as their primary domain to differentiate their enterprise from that of a commercial entity (though this differentiation is often blurry at best).
The .org domain is run by the nonprofit group the Public Interest Registry which was created by the Internet Society . In November 2019, the Internet Society announced the sale of PIR (and the .org domain) to a private equity firm, Ethos Capital, for $1.135 billion.
This sale is being hotly opposed by some nonprofits who view the sale of PIR (a nonprofit) to Ethos (a for-profit company) as anathema to the intent of a free and open internet. PIR, which will re-constitute itself as a triple bottom-line B-corporation through this process, stresses that the sale is needed to invest in more pronounced programming to support global nonprofits struggling to access the internet. From my perspective, these goals are admirable. In a global world, nonprofits in the developing world have much to gain with this change.
The primary concern of the nonprofit community seems to be over the perceived notion that a private company will maximize returns by increasing costs for .org domains. As a community leader and champion of the nonprofit community, I can attest to the fact that profit margins are thin and struggling nonprofits don’t need the additional burden of higher fees.
However, what the NPR podcast and other media statements have made clear, is that Ethos has agreed to price caps rendering the price hike argument specious at best. Most .org domain names can be purchased for approximately $10. An annual price hike of 10 percent roughly equates to less than the cost of a pastry.
An additional concern I noted from the podcast is the perceived notion that a private equity firm will now have access to personal information. One should certainly question a private company’s utilization of personal data (Facebook comes to mind), but what level of personal data is really being co-opted? When registering as a .org the only personal data required on a domain site such as GoDaddy is your name, credit card and address – things we entrust to Amazon on a daily basis. Though data security is always a valid concern, in this instance it seems misdirected.
I am an active community/nonprofit leader who relies on an open and accessible internet to further the mission of my various organizations. Given this, I believe the debate over the sale of .org should be less about the fact that a private entity (Ethos) may be benefiting, and more about opportunities for enhancing global access and partnerships, especially for mission-oriented organizations and communities struggling to amplify their voice and respective mission (often against oppression).
To me, the cost-benefit analysis is clear: Innovating and strengthening participation of internet users, especially for minority, women and rural people outweighs the status quo. Lest we forget history – much is lost when we fail to engage unheard voices.
While I understand the nonprofit vitriol surrounding privatization, those critics are failing to see the bigger picture of what this transaction may foster – a stronger, more accessible internet where profits are used to innovate and strengthen connections between people, so that we can better tackle global concerns plaguing all platform users.
Perhaps there can be no greater proof that opposition to the sale has gotten out of hand, than the fact that during the NPR interview, Esther Dyson, a leader in the opposition of the sale, proclaimed: “I think it offends our sense of justice and rightness. … You don’t take a person and sell them. … It’s not the same as slavery, but it is in that same direction.”
Now, I’ve been a fan of Esther Dyson since I read her 1997 book, “Release 2.0: A design for living in the digital age.” So, I was extremely disappointed at the absurd analogy, equating enslavement to the sale of .org. We live in an age when tempers are short and discussion is often acrimonious. In this case, Dyson has crossed the line and her words are hurtful, insulting and racially offensive.
These types of discussion should stay focused on the merits of the issue, I am pleased she did the right thing, and publicly apologized.
In conclusion, rather than debating the evils of private equity, we should instead focus on ways in which we can strengthen the .org domain through unique partnerships and more pronounced engagement of the nonprofit community.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, media contributor and educator; her latest project, MALVEAUX! On UDCTV, is available on youtube.com.
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This op-ed has been updated to include Dyson’s apology.