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A Better PIR Deal – Maintaining Trust Is Good Business

Andrew Mack

I run a business. For years I've been in the ICANN Business Constituency, holding a series of different positions including Chair. Suffice it to say, I'm absolutely ok with making money and generally speaking, letting markets work.

I also care about NGOs. For years our firm worked with PIR on the .NGO project. We got to see up close the role PIR has played as a supporter of NGOs online — encouraging best practice, helping push out DNSSEC to a global audience, working on DNS abuse issues, supporting the sector. The PIR/ISOC relationship may have been a bit convoluted, but generally, it worked in favor of NGOs — and the ICANN community as a whole.

When I look at the proposed sale of PIR to Ethos Capital, however, my NGO and Business sides both get queasy.

As a banker back in the day, they taught me to look for "red flags," and in this deal, I see a lot of them. No public comment or public bid. No clear contractual commitments or in-depth plans to support the sector. A radical change of ownership overnight from a non-profit with a demonstrated knowledge of the sector to a not-quite-sure-who de novo entity with a lawyer-crafted website and no track record with NGOs. Magical timing of the deal following contract renewal. The connection with former (recent) ICANN management… Red flags like at the bullfights, or so it seems.

Now I'm not saying that the NGO community should be a walled garden outside of the market. A few months ago, I supported the removal of price caps for .ORG. I don't think ICANN should be a price regulator, and I know from first-hand experience that the cost of a domain name isn't the issue for NGOs around the world who mostly use the small number of domains they buy. The real value for NGOs is in the trust their sites bring — conveying their reputations as trusted organizations, backed by a trusted registry, in an ecosystem with rules and a focus on transparency. And there's the rub. This kind of deal shakes my trust.

The ICANN ecosystem isn't perfect. It's slow and clunky. But in an era where trust online is being eroded daily by a variety of bad actors and the occasional government, our cooperative model of community management is a true asset. If the one real gathering point for NGOs online can be sold out almost overnight to a VC, what's next? What might a sudden change of ownership mean to banking or to e-commerce, growing fast across the developing world with a less experienced user base?

As a businessman, I know that a functioning system of rules makes for better business. ICANN's Board needs to do real due diligence, get the details, consider the impacts short and long term — especially if former senior managers are involved. If Ethos Capital is truly interested in supporting the NGO sector, let's see those commitments in meaningful, enforceable contracts. If that's too much, maybe they're not right to be the home for .ORG.

Trust is hard to come by and easy to lose. Let's not rush to approval — and risk trust in our system — until we know what we're getting into.

By Andrew Mack, Principal at AMGlobal Consulting
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