auDA – the body overseeing the management of our Internet domain names system – has released the details of a new governance model. This follows a review by the Department of Communications and the Arts that saw communications minister Mitch Fifield give the organisation three months to deal with a range of matters DoCA said meant it was no longer fit for purpose.
auDA has been mired in controversy for many years, with the overall impression being it was subject to too much influence by vested interests, including an inner circle of what are called ‘domainers’ – people who buy and sell domain names, often extracting large windfall profits by hoarding unique names that subsequently command a premium. For example, the peak accountants body recently paid $50K for cpa.com.au. Because this had been held by someone else they were previously forced to use cpaaustralia.com.au.
My purpose in pointing out the existence of domainers, for the benefit of those not aware, is to highlight the need for auDA to implement the Government’s demand for a majority of independent board members. Some people seem to see auDA as a kind of trade union for domainers. Its role is to oversee the allocation of domain names under a government mandate that requires it to act on behalf of all domain name owners and the broad Internet user community. DoCA identified the risk of “capture” by vested interests as one of the more significant flaws in the current structure.
In summary, under the new model there will be four directors elected by auDA members and six independent directors. It was a specific requirement of the Government that there be a majority of independent directors.
A transitional arrangement will be in place for three years, during which time a small group of ‘governing members’ will oversee the introduction of the new model. A ‘nominations committee’ – approved by the Government – will be responsible for vetting nominations for board positions. This will involve the creation of a ‘skills matrix’ to foster greater board diversity.
As part of the reform process a Consultation Model Working Group was created by auDA, involving a wide range of industry participants. According to auDA CEO Cameron Boardman: “Our starting point was a functional constituency model as stipulated in auDA’s submission to the DoCA review and which was highlighted in their report. However, throughout the course of the consultation process and based on CMWG feedback we have made some significant improvements. Understandably, we couldn’t please everyone but we got very close”.
According to auDA’s announcement, following the transitional period auDA will have a single membership class, open to any applicant who has a demonstrable link to Australia. A single membership group was also a Government requirement. In future auDA members must be eligible to register an open or closed existing ‘second level domain’. This will require most members to either operate an Australian business or be a permanent resident.
“This approach, which is similar to the model of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, will broaden the membership base to give a greater voice to all Australians who rely on or benefit from a strong .au domain space”, auDA says.
At the heart of the recent controversy surrounding auDA is the influence some insiders are perceived to have traditionally exercised. The fundamental question here is should auDA operate on behalf of all the owners of domain names and the broader Internet user community, or is it merely there to represent the interests of a small inner circle?
auDA’s recently appointed independent chair Chris Leptos summed up the situation well when he pointed out: “The (DoCA) review highlighted that management and governance practices had not significantly changed over the past 17 years, and had become an impediment to auDA performing its role effectively”.
The key to a successful implementation of the new governance model will be the board’s resolve, along with the support of DoCA and the Government, in rebuffing any further disruptive efforts by a small group of dissidents known as the ‘Grumpies’. Having been invited to join the CMWG (which some did) they have had ample opportunity to air their point of view.
Over recent weeks the Grumpies have shown their colours in their actions. They have attacked anyone who disagrees with them, using questionable language and, in some cases, sledging people on social media under the cloak of anonymity. An exchange recorded on an industry forum –domainer.com.au – last week demonstrates the depths to which they have descended. In his own words, the editor of Domainer feels it was an attempt “to intimidate me into steering this website in a certain direction”.
Friday’s Australian Financial Review ran a public apology from one of the lead Grumpies, Josh Rowe, who has been forced to concede he had “no basis” for alleging that auDA officers and staff “engaged in criminal cartel conduct in relation to applications for auDA membership”.