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Inside the Billion-Dollar Battle Over .Org

Two months ago, Ethos Capital, a private equity firm, announced that it planned to buy the rights to a tract of internet real estate for more than $1 billion.

But it wasn’t just any piece of digital property. It was dot-org, the cyber neighborhood that is home to big nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations like the United Nations (un.org) and NPR (npr.org), and to little ones like neighborhood clubs.

The deal was met with a fierce backlash. Critics argued that a less commercial corner of the internet should not be controlled by a profit-driven private equity firm, as a matter of both principle and practice. Online petitions and letters of concern came from hundreds of organizations, thousands of individuals and four Democrats in Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Rarely has the acronym-strewn realm of internet addresses — so-called domain names — stirred such passion.

Now, a group of respected internet pioneers and nonprofit leaders is offering an alternative to Ethos Capital’s bid: a nonprofit cooperative corporation. The incorporation papers for the new entity, the Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants, were filed this week in California.

The goal of the group is not only to persuade the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees internet domain names, to stop the sale. It is also to persuade ICANN to hand it the management of dot-org instead.

“This is a better alternative,” said Esther Dyson, who served as the first chair of ICANN, from 1998 to 2000, and is one of seven directors of the new cooperative. “If you’re owned by private equity, your incentive is to make a profit. Our incentive is to serve and protect nonprofits and the public.”

Since 2003, dot-org has been run by the Public Interest Registry, which is controlled by the Internet Society, a nonprofit that helps develop internet standards, education programs and policy. The registry holds a contract to manage dot-org, which was renewed last year for 10 more years. With a sale to Ethos Capital, the Internet Society would gain an endowment to fund its operations and get out of the business of operating dot-org.

In buying the Public Interest Registry, Ethos Capital would acquire the rights to run dot-org and collect annual fees from the nearly 10.5 million registered dot-org names, held by both nonprofits and domain-name speculators. Those yearly fees are $10 to $20 on average, but can be far higher for big sites that buy several names to protect their brand and get added services like security against online attacks.

Opponents of the private-equity sale said they feared that to make an attractive profit on its pricey deal, Ethos Capital would have to raise prices, cut expenses, skimp on service — and most likely sell users’ data.

Ethos Capital said those concerns were unfounded.

In a blog post in December, Erik Brooks, the firm’s founder, said that “we understand that change brings uncertainty and concern,” which was reflected in “alarmist statements.”

Ethos Capital, Mr. Brooks said, wants to invest in dot-org “for the reputation of the platform and the values it represents in the marketplace.” He said his firm planned to build on that asset.

Big price increases have been a major concern for critics of the deal. When ICANN renewed the 10-year contract with the Public Interest Registry last year, it removed a price cap that limited price increases to 10 percent a year at most. That move was part of a broader ICANN policy to ease price controls across all internet domains.

Ethos Capital has pledged to adhere to the 10 percent cap, though it would have no contractual obligation to do so. In blog posts, the private equity firm said it planned to invest in new services and clamp down on spam, security attacks and other abuse launched from some illicit dot-org domains.

Some nonprofits worry that any cleanup effort could result in censorship, even if inadvertently. As the owner of the registry for dot-org, Ethos Capital would manage the acceptable business practices and conduct for dot-org domains. The same freedoms that open the door to extremist groups on some dot-org sites, nonprofit leaders say, also help protect free speech on public-interest dot-org sites in developing countries with authoritarian governments.

Ethos Capital said it would never facilitate censorship. It has also vowed to set up an independent “stewardship council” to monitor its management of the dot-org network.

Since the deal was announced, Mr. Brooks and top executives of the Internet Society and the Public Interest Registry have spoken with skeptics in person, in web sessions and on conference calls, seeking to reassure them that dot-org would be in safe hands. And on Tuesday, they submitted a detailed response to the questions raised by the four members of Congress.

But whether the trust-building campaign has made progress is uncertain. Amy Sample Ward, the chief executive of NTEN, a nonprofit that assists other nonprofits with technology, is unconvinced.

“The internet was meant to be this democratizing force around the world, and nonprofits do that,” Ms. Sample Ward said. By contrast, she said, Ethos Capital is a creature of the “capitalist-based internet industrial complex.”

For the Ethos Capital deal to succeed, ICANN must give its approval. In December, it sent out a request for more information about the proposed transaction. ICANN has not indicated the timing of a decision, but one is expected early this year.

The newly formed cooperative group is hoping it can keep dot-org out of the for-profit economy. “There is a common good here that is at risk of being undermined,” said William Woodcock, a director of the cooperative, who is the executive director of the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit that provides internet operational support for domains.

The cooperative corporation, which would run dot-org, collect fees and distribute savings back to the nonprofit users, is an “alternative model with a long-term commitment to the open and noncommercial internet,” said Katherine Maher, a director who is the chief executive of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit parent of Wikipedia.

“There are some things that operate better noncommercially, and that’s O.K.,” she said.

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The 2019 Good Tech Awards

Two years ago, I started what has become one of my favorite annual traditions. Instead of a year-end column rounding up all the dubious and objectionable things technology companies did over the last year — a true fish-in-a-barrel assignment — I highlighted some examples of “good tech.” I wanted to give kudos to the kinds of tech projects that don’t always make headlines but that improve people’s lives in tangible ways.

I’ll admit, handing out awards for good technology in 2019 feels a little like congratulating Godzilla for not destroying all of Tokyo. There was plenty of bad tech news to write about this year: Facebook’s foibles, Amazon’s aggression, SoftBank’s stumbles. But to me, the tech industry’s very public shortfalls make celebrating its quieter successes even more important. The tech industry, after all, is not a monolith, and many engineers and entrepreneurs work on projects that help society. So here, with no further ado, are this year’s winners.

To OpenAQ, for educating us about the air we breathe.

Air pollution is a vastly underestimated problem. Polluted air is linked to one in eight deaths worldwide, and studies have shown that bad air quality can cause cognitive impairment in young people and increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly. But until recently, there was no good source of air quality data that researchers and activists could rely on.

Christa Hasenkopf, an atmospheric scientist, decided to fix that. She and a software developer started OpenAQ, an open-source platform that collects air quality data from governments and international organizations in a single place and makes it free and accessible. Want to know how the nitrogen dioxide levels in Hyderabad, India, compare with those in Kampala, Uganda? OpenAQ can tell you. Want to build an app that alerts people in your city when air quality dips below a healthy threshold? You can do that, too.

The company says it has processed 188 million air quality measurements this year, making it a powerful weapon for policymakers, environmental groups and concerned citizens trying to clean up the air.

To DynamiCare Health, Biobot Analytics and Pear Therapeutics, for using tech to address the opioid crisis.

Few public health problems in the United States have proved as intractable as the opioid epidemic. But in 2019, three Massachusetts start-ups used technology to chip away at it.

DynamiCare Health, based in Boston, has built a mobile app meant to help keep recovering users of opioids and other drugs on the wagon. The app — already in use in eight addiction treatment systems across the country — allows users to test their breath and saliva remotely, check into group meetings and therapy sessions, and earn money on an electronic debit card by meeting their sobriety goals.

Biobot, a company started by two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, analyzes sewage samples to determine the opioid use levels in a given neighborhood. (Opioid use leaves telltale byproducts called metabolites, which can be chemically detected in urine.) Once this data is collected, public health officials can use it to set priorities for treatment programs, detect spikes in use in a neighborhood and monitor the effectiveness of prevention programs over time.

Pear Therapeutics, another Boston outfit, makes “digital therapeutics” — essentially apps that use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to help recovering addicts stick with their treatment programs. Its anti-opioid program, Reset-O, was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration late last year and can now be prescribed by doctors in conjunction with other treatments.

To Lemontree, Goodr and Propel, for helping feed the hungry.

Lemontree, a nonprofit food-delivery app based in New York, was started by Alex Godin, an entrepreneur who sold a workplace collaboration start-up to Meetup several years ago. The company sells Blue Apron-style meal kits to low-income families for $3 apiece. Meal kits are packed by volunteers, and they can be bought with food stamps.

Goodr, described by its founder, Jasmine Crowe, as a “food delivery app in reverse,” is a platform based in Atlanta that helps save some of the 72 billion pounds of food wasted in the United States every year and give it to people in need. Restaurants sign up on the site to have their excess food picked up and donated to local nonprofits and homeless shelters. Goodr operates in six cities, including Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia, and says it has diverted 2.1 million pounds of food and provided 1.8 million meals since 2017.

Propel, a Brooklyn start-up, is the creator of Fresh EBT, a popular app that helps low-income users manage their food stamps and other benefits. After doing battle with a larger government contractor last year, Propel recovered this year and says more than two million households use it every month.

To Pinterest, for taking a stand against social media toxicity.

When you think of Pinterest, you probably picture mood boards, D.I.Y. hacks and mommy-bloggers. But the social network spent much of 2019 doing the kinds of tough, principled work that its bigger rivals often neglected.

In August, the company announced that users searching for vaccine-related information would be shown results from authoritative sources like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than being led down rabbit holes filled with misinformation. The company also introduced a “compassionate search” experience, which offers mental health advice and exercises to users whose behavior indicates they might be feeling anxious or depressed, such as people who search for things like “sad quotes” or who look up terms relating to self-harm. And in December, Pinterest joined other wedding websites in announcing that it would limit the promotion of wedding venues that were once slave plantations.

Pinterest hasn’t always operated flawlessly. But while its competitors were giving grandiose speeches and supplicating at the White House, the company’s content-moderation choices stood out as an example of a social network with a moral compass.

To Big Tech’s climate activists, for pressuring executives to walk the walk.

In a year when climate change was the subject of mass global demonstrations, Silicon Valley’s silence could have been deafening. Tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google count fossil fuel companies and anti-environmental groups among their customers — a fact that doesn’t sit well with some employees. Those employees made their dissatisfaction known this year, joining climate strikes and walkouts and publicly calling on their own executives to do more to fight climate change.

In April, more than 4,200 Amazon employees sent an open letter to Jeff Bezos, the company’s chief executive, urging him to end the company’s contracts with oil and gas companies and commit to ambitious carbon-reduction goals. Amazon later announced a plan to become carbon neutral by 2040.

To Gypsy Guide, for enlightening my summer road trip.

If I’m being honest, the best app I used in 2019 wasn’t TikTok or some new A.I.-powered facial recognition app. It was Gypsy Guide, a simple, understated app that gives guided audio tours of national parks and other tourist destinations. The app uses your phone’s GPS to track your route through a park, and it narrates relevant facts as you drive past them. My wife and I drove through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons this summer, and Gypsy Guide (which could really use a new name) quickly became our car soundtrack.

Gypsy Guide is not the slickest app in the world, and it’s not making anyone a billionaire. But it kept us entertained for hours, and it taught me things I wouldn’t have known. (Did you know that a concave depression in a mountain caused by a glacier’s erosion is called a “cirque”? Me neither.) It was a good reminder that not every tech start-up has to address some deep, existential need to be worthwhile. There are simpler pleasures, too.