In the world of open-source software, a .org top-level domain – think linux.org and bitcoin.org – has always been an imprimatur of philosophical adherence and, to a degree, quality. Now, however, the .org top-level domain (TLD) is going into private hands, a move that is frustrating both traditional and blockchain open-source developers.

The news that Ethos Capital, a secretive group of investors, bought the TLD caused a minor firestorm in the open-source ecosystem. The fact that the group bought the TLD for a reported $1.135 billion added fuel to the flames.

The complaint? That a private .org TLD would lock out open source creators and non-profits. With blockchain projects depending more and more on open source contributions, the move could also affect the crypto industry.

“.Org is usually the namespace for non-profits, foundations, governmental research institutes, and others. Being owned by a private equity firm usually stands for maximizing profits and revenue. The big problem is that non-profits have limited funds and they fear that the domain prices will rise beyond a level that they can afford,” said Peter Wilfahrt, co-founder of Versangigant.

While not many open-source blockchain projects depend on the .org TLD, the move from the non-profit Internet Society (INSO) to the for-profit Ethos could hasten the end of the public-domain Internet. In fact, INSO’s parent, the so-called PIR – which stands for Public Interest Registry – “has confirmed it will discard the non-profit status it has held since 2003 as a result of the sale,” according to a Register report.

Although moving the TLD into private hands shouldn’t change much technically, it effectively removes the price cap associated with .org domains, allowing squatters to set outlandish prices for sought-after domains.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICAAN) is currently investigating the decision after public outcry, noting:

We acknowledge the questions and concerns that are being raised and directed to ISOC, PIR, and ICANN relating to this change. To ease those concerns and maintain trust in the .ORG community, we urge PIR, ISOC, and Ethos Capital to act in an open and transparent manner throughout this process. We have sent a letter to both ISOC and PIR today, asking them to please be clear and open in all of their communications. We have indicated our willingness to publish the request and related materials involved in ICANN’s review including the request for approval, the request for additional information, and PIR’s responses.

ICANN takes its responsibility in evaluating this proposed transaction very seriously. We will thoughtfully and thoroughly evaluate the proposed acquisition to ensure that the .ORG registry remains secure, reliable, and stable.

Rick Cohen, COO of National Council of Nonprofits, said that the move will take money out of non-profits’ accounts and dump it into the hands of a private rent-seeking organization.

“There are a number of grave concerns about this transaction, especially as it happened in close proximity to ICANN’s decision to remove price increase caps on .org domains. For the nonprofits that rely on those domains as part of their brand, these two events may prove to be disastrous,” said Cohen. “Even taking Ethos Capital at their word that they will only seek to increase prices by an average of 10 percent each year, over 10 years that would mean more than $750 million diverted from the work of nonprofits in communities around the world, right into the pockets of investors in this private equity firm (which happens to count multiple former ICANN executives among its staff and advisors).”

Decentralized DNS?

A number of blockchain devs are concerned with the .org sale primarily because they see it as a typical move by a centralized organization. That said, they hope to change it with new projects.

“DNS is an antiquated artifact of the early internet. It cedes control to privileged entities and unnecessarily extracts value from companies and individuals,” said Matt Branton, CTO of Neutral.

“The .org sale should be a wake-up call that ICANN is largely concerned with ICANN, and we should ask ourselves some hard questions about what value they are really providing. The technology exists to replace them, we should do that,” he said.

Some projects like Namecoin are attempting to decentralize the domain-name system, ensuring that bad actors couldn’t disrupt the fair market. Few of these projects have gotten much traction. In fact, some open-source blockchain developers won’t pay for expensive domain names simply because their stakeholders won’t allow it.

“I’m not sure the Decred stakeholders would go along with a significant increase in the cost of domain registration,” said Decred head of Research & Strategy, RichardRed0x. “The role that stakeholders play in voting on the network means that control of a particular website doesn’t have the power it might otherwise have.”

Open-source proponents maintain that as long as there is upwards of $30 million to be made on a single domain name there is very little incentive for ICANN and domain brokers to want to change the system. And that, they argue, is exactly why it needs to be changed.

“The ideal registrar is an app that connects to a decentralized system, probably a blockchain,” said Branton. “Namecoin was heading in the right direction but lacked easy integration with existing DNS resolvers at launch, and didn’t adequately address squatting. This would put control directly into the hands of domain owners, and also remove our reliance on centralized certificate infrastructure.”

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

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