The use of .org at the end of a Web site’s address has long been the accepted online shorthand to identify sites that are operated by nonprofits.
But now the key organization that manages nonprofit addresses wants charities to adopt the suffix .ngo. It also wants to implement a process that vets organizations to ensure that anybody with the .ngo address is a legitimate nonprofit, saying that now it’s too easy to commit fraud using a .org address because anyone can create one.
The effort to find an alternative to .org comes at a time of big changes in the way Internet addresses are patrolled.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees basic operations, is expanding the type of addresses that are available, going well beyond the traditional .edu for education, .com for businesses, and .org for non-commercial entities. At the same time, it will start accepting applications Thursday from the groups that want to manage the addresses for particular types of communities.
As a result, Public Interest Registry, which now manages the .org addresses, is vying against another organization, dotNGO, to control the process of assigning names to nonprofit groups.
DotNGO hopes nonprofits will transition to using .ngo, and also intends to establish a vetting process, so it seems likely that whoever takes charge of the assignment process will push an overhaul of how nonprofit Internet domains are named and approved.
“.Org is like .com and .net. Any individual without any checks can register a domain,” says Vicki Harris, chief executive of dotNGO.
The Public Interest Registry says it has also become increasingly concerned about fraud. “You’ve got to keep the bad guys out,” says Lance Wolak, the group’s vice president for marketing and sales.
What It Means
For charities, a change in address might be costly, as they would need to produce new promotional materials to steer people to new addresses.
Still, a new domain approach is especially appealing to small nonprofits, which could use the .ngo address to prove legitimacy to online visitors.
Lisa Vogt, director of marketing and communications at SOS Children’s Villages USA, which operates international children’s homes, compares a future .ngo domain to a Better Business Bureau accreditation—another tool to use in her communication with donors.
“We’re always looking for ways to demonstrate our credibility,” Ms. Vogt says.
But for the designation to have credibility, the group chosen to manage the domain will need to create a sound process for vetting organizations that use it.
Marnie Webb, co-chief executive of Techsoup Global, a nonprofit that provides technology consulting to other charities, says that process isn’t simple, especially since every country has different rules about what constitutes a legitimate nonprofit.
As a result, Ms. Webb says it would be shortsighted to adopt standards based largely on the laws of any one country.
“You certainly don’t want to impose [the U.S. standard] on everybody,” she says. “There are a lot of efforts that go on in any country that are for social good, that do not get legal status.”
Ms. Harris of dotNGO says a governing board made up of representatives from the nonprofit world would construct and oversee the guidelines that constitute a charity.
“That’s a solution that won’t be provided top-down,” she says, adding that her group would develop guidelines for removing a Web address “in case one of the sites isn’t conducting itself right.”
Ms. Webb says that such a procedure would require regular visits and inspections. In some places, the task of vetting would probably fall on local groups with more knowledge of nonprofits in their region.
On the other hand, making the process too cumbersome could dissuade established organizations from adopting new domain names right away.
“Our experience is that it’s a non-trivial task,” says Ms. Webb.
Mr. Wolak says Public Interest Registry would rely on existing associations that already do this type of vetting, However, he admits that these groups do not extend around the world and says his organization would establish these networks when necessary.
“Someone has to step up and begin facilitating this,” Mr. Wolak says.
It’s not just the move to .ngo that could change how nonprofits keep track of their Web addresses. Today many organizations register as both a .com and a .org to protect their online identities. For example, the American Red Cross is available at redcross.com and redcross.org.
Because the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers wants to offer far more options to help companies distinguish themselves, the Red Cross might have to decide if it also wants to buy redcross.coffee or redcross.bank. The money businesses, nonprofits, and others would have to spend to keep their addresses exclusive could grow prohibitive as the number of naming options expands, say some critics.
The Cost of Legitimacy
Meanwhile, it will probably be quite some time before Icann decides who will be in charge of managing nonprofit addresses.
The groups competing to do so must be well financed. Just applying costs $185,000, paid to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Applicants would then have to prove they have the hefty financial backing required to run a competent registry.
Even given these hurdles, either dotNGO or the Public Interest Registry could reap significant profits from winning Icann’s approval to manage the .ngo domain.
As the manager of the .org domain, the Public Interest Registry says it receives $7.21 each time someone buys a year of rights to use a .org domain name.
With more than 9 million sites registered in the .org domain, that means more than $65-million in annual revenue for the nonprofit, which divides the money among operating costs, .org’s upkeep, and donations to cover the operations of the Internet Society, a lobbying and research organization.
Both dotNGO and the Public Interest Registry have been working over the past few months to gather support from groups that would use the new domain.
Expressions of support from the nonprofit world may play a key role in deciding which group ultimately wins the right to manage the domain, says Karen Lentz, Icann’s director of operations and policy research.
According to Icann, the application process for a new top-level domain typically lasts at least nine months—though it could take much longer because two groups are competing.