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3 Billionaire Republican Families Are About to Buy the Dot-Org Domain. That’s Terrifying Nonprofits.

A private equity fund backed by three prominent Republican billionaire families is expected to buy the dot-org domain, throwing into question whether the online safe haven for rights organizations and nonprofits could now face censorship or spiralling costs. Ethos Capital has offered $1 billion for the domain, which is currently operated by a nonprofit. But…

3 Billionaire Republican Families Are About to Buy the Dot-Org Domain. That’s Terrifying Nonprofits.

A private equity fund backed by three prominent Republican billionaire families is expected to buy the dot-org domain, throwing into question whether the online safe haven for rights organizations and nonprofits could now face censorship or spiralling costs.

Ethos Capital has offered $1 billion for the domain, which is currently operated by a nonprofit.

But a small and vociferous group of nonprofits, charities, and human rights organizations have banded together to make a last-ditch attempt to block the sale.

Organizations across the globe rely on the .org domain space to share information without government censorship and surveillance. And with authoritarian regimes increasingly looking to repress online freedoms by censoring and blocking internet access, some of these groups told VICE News they fear the domain being controlled by a for-profit entity will expose them to those efforts and ultimately put more lives in danger.

In Venezuela, human rights group RedesAyuda says it “faces many threats in our work, and independence online is one of those things where we need to feel safe.”

“Imagine Goldman Sachs buying the New York water supply.”

And many stressed that their work is becoming even more critical in many places around the world. “With increasingly dangerous conditions for human rights defenders on the ground, online spaces enable us to safely and widely disseminate information about the human rights situation in the Philippines,” Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan, executive director of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center, told VICE News. The Philippines government of President Rodrigo Duterte is increasingly threatening legal action against websites critical of his regime.

READ: Zimbabwe is trying to build a China style surveillance state.

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The controversial sale will be discussed Friday at a board meeting of the group that keeps the internet running: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Those backing the sale say this is the best option to secure the future of the dot-org domain. And Ethos Capital, which is backed by the Perot, Romney, and Johnson families, has pledged to safeguard the domain for all those who use it at the moment.

“We’re confident that this is in the best interests of the registry, in the best interests of the registrants, and in the best interest of the whole internet,” Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the Internet Society, a nonprofit that oversees the domain, told VICE News.

But critics of the move say the promises made by Ethos Capital are not backed by any legal obligations. They also say there’s a problematic lack of transparency about the sale and who will be running the new organization overseeing the domain.

So a group of respected internet pioneers and nonprofit leaders have come forward to offer an alternative proposition. But they don’t have $1 billion to offer.

What is dot-org?

Dot-org was one of the original top-level domains, with com, us, edu, gov, mil and net, established in January 1985. The domain was designed as an online home for nonprofit groups or noncommercial organizations that did not meet the requirements for other top-level domains.

Dot-org is home to over 10 million URLs, making it the third-largest domain on the internet today. A huge variety of organizations use the domain ending, from massive multinational organizations like UNICEF to local libraries and animal shelters. Since 2003, it’s been managed by the Public Interest Registry (PIR), a nonprofit overseen by the Internet Society.

READ: Facebook Is forcing its moderators to log every second of their days — even in the bathroom.

Despite its popularity, the annual price for registering the domain has been capped at $9.05, making it much more accessible than most other domain endings.

“From the Red Cross to the Girl Scouts, all of the world’s leading nonprofits rely on dot-org domains for websites, email and fundraising,” Jacob Malthouse, a former vice president with ICANN and a critic of the sale, told VICE News.

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“Imagine Goldman Sachs buying the New York water supply.”

So, what are the concerns?

Charities and human rights organizations around the globe that rely on the dot-org domain told VICE News the sale could threaten their missions, or even their very existence.

“We’re a small nonprofit with limited resources that we prefer to use to further our mission than spend on administrative costs,” Keri Peyton from Guatemala United for Animals said, echoing the views of many smaller nonprofits. And many also expressed fears specific to the country they operate in.

GreatFire, a nonprofit that monitors the status of websites censored in China, worries that Ethos will “strike a financially lucrative deal with the Cyberspace Administration of China that included a clause to cancel all dot-org domains held by ‘anti-China’ organizations.”

Digital rights group Encrypt Uganda is worried about Ethos selling off its data for profit.

And in Israel, community activist group Zazim is concerned that the sale to an unknown group “raises the risk of fraud” because anyone will be able to disguise themselves as a nonprofit.

“In the current political environment, allowing anyone to hold a dot-org domain, without the current regulations and transparency, will instantly cause the creation of a myriad of fake organizations and dot-org websites,” Benjy Cook, Zazim’s director of technology, told VICE News.

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