Well That was a Surprise! Why ISOC’s domain is Not Worth Giving Up.
The .org domain is attached to the brand of every major group that is trying to make the world a better place. Medicines Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, The United Nations, The Red Cross all carry .ORG.
Perhaps because of the all the groups like these who use it, .ORG has come to be seen by the world as representative of their ideals. It’s become like the Internet’s conscience.
But, in my two years at ICANN, I learned that the multi-stakeholder model has another, darker side. It’s not the model’s fault. I blame the money. Paul Twomey always used to tell me: “Follow the Money”. You see, the Internet did something no one expected. It turned words into real estate.
Think about that for a second. People now own words. They trade them just like a commodity. Words — at least online — have become units. A startup friend once said to me that your website is literally the only thing you can truly own online.
And these word-traders and investors have become fabulously rich. They buy and trade domain names. There are huge conferences. Billion dollar companies that have been built. All from owning and trading words. And what happened along the way was that the word-traders forgot that the thing that gives words value is their meaning. They came to believe that this is an industry just like any other. A factory with units.
This is a terrible ignorance. Nothing is more powerful than words. Humans are social animals. Stories are what connect us, they are what drives our economies, what gives our lives meaning. And stories are made of words. When we say the pen is mightier than the sword, what we mean is words are mightier than the sword.
And to me, .ECO was a mighty sword. It had the potential to unite the governance model of the Internet with the challenge of fighting climate change. So I left ICANN to start .ECO. We closed our first funding round in October 2008 in the middle of the financial crisis.
We also did a couple of things most founders don’t do. We said no to money we didn’t trust. And we told our investors that they would have to give up the control of the asset that they would be investing in, but that there was no other way to win. We had to do it right or not at all. That became our clarion call. We said to skeptical nonprofits, listen we will embed you right in the contract with the regulator. You will be baked in. Regardless of ownership change, if we win you will always have a voice in .ECO.
Then we went further. We engaged them in an 18 month long independently mediated consultation on how .ECO should be run. We agreed policies for all aspects of how .ECO could be run in a way that prioritized the values of the environmental community. We did it by engaging people in an honest and open way. The way ICANN taught me to do it. Eventually over 50 of the world’s leading environmental groups signed on, from WWF, to Greenpeace to even the United Nations. And you know what? We won.
And then I took some time off. After a decade of running a start-up, a global community coalition, and launching a top-level domain, it was a pretty darn blissful summer. But, it’s also true I’m not good at sitting around. I put the word out to a few friends about getting involved in the working world again.
Shortly after, a friend called and said, “Hey there’s a new foundation getting started up at the Internet Society, I think you’d be great for it. You should apply. I’ll put in a good word for you”.
I wasn’t exactly looking for work at the time. I was thinking about doing something local, after a two decade career working on things no one knows about, understands, or regularly even sees.
But starting a new foundation is not an opportunity you walk away from. So I threw my hat in the ring. I had an exploratory chat with Andrew Sullivan. A fellow Canadian, Andrew seemed to get that my totally weird blend of start-up experience, non-profit coalition building, and ICANN proselytizing might be helpful in staring up a new Foundation for ISOC. Now I knew ISOC had issues. It’s well known in the Internet space.
ISOC has a reputation for being a bit of a hammer looking around for nails. But I’m of the mind that this is an opportunity, a challenge. And I really liked the speeches Andrew had been giving. To me, people and leadership really matters, the captain sets the course.
I got through two interviews, and in the second one I was up against four ISOC Board members. All engineers. My presentation was all blended alliances, lateral thinking and partnerships. Here it is if you’re curious. Anyway it fell totally flat. We just didn’t connect.
Now, i’m not 20 anymore. I’m 42. I have the scars to prove it. Back in the day I would have felt like I’d failed. Now I just thought, well it’s a good thing they made the call. We didn’t connect. And if you don’t connect, then you shouldn’t work together. It’s not personal.
So why am I telling you all this. After nearly two decades of fighting for the principle that “nobody Internets alone”, I discover that .ORG has been sold to a private equity fund. Moreover, it has been sold to a private equity fund with no prior consultation.
There was a burden of trust that goes beyond money. When .org started, perhaps it was simply a designation. No different from .gov or .mil. But today, decades later, with 10 million domains and nearly all the world’s nonprofits using it, .ORG has become something different. It has become a meaningful symbol. A word.
This is a tremendous burden and honor. The Internet Society has stewarded .ORG via the Public Interest Registry for a long time. It has gained a reputation as a careful manager of a resource that truly is the global home for nonprofits.
Selling that reputation, without engaging ISOC members, the Internet Community or the .ORG community does not live up to the expectations of any of these communities.