Dissidents risk government intervention in domain names battle

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Problems are ongoing for troubled domain administrator auDA (Image via pixabay)

Recent controversy surrounding Australia's internet domain name administration has gone from bad to worse, writes Laurie Patton.

.au DOMAIN ADMINISTRATION LIMITED, commonly known as auDA, is the organisation charged with overseeing the internet domain name space in Australia. If you have a website, you’ll have dealt with one of the numerous companies that sell domain names to the public. They all operate under the authority and supervision of auDA.

auDA, in turn, exists under a delegation from the Federal Government. Similar organisations run the domain names system in most countries. Apart from monitoring the sale of domain names, auDA is responsible for ensuring the overall integrity of the process. So it plays an essential role in how the internet functions in this country.

auDA has been mired in controversy in recent years. For a long time, it was seen as a tightly-held fiefdom under the control of a board of directors elected from within the industry. Several years ago there was an abrupt changing of the guard, with long time chairman and former Coalition communications minister, Tony Staley, making way for a new chair — Ballarat businessman Stuart Benjamin.

As Benjamin came in, out went long time CEO Chris Disspain. His replacement, Cameron Boardman, brought in a new team and this, of course, meant other long timers left the organisation.

Benjamin was subsequently replaced by current chair Chris Leptos A.M., who was recruited via a nationwide search process. Leptos, a Professorial Fellow at Monash University’s Business School, is regarded as a steady hand from the corporate world.

Change inevitably brings controversy and so it has at auDA. A group of former directors and members are now seeking to dislodge the current administration, and have them replaced with some of the old guard. The change is being led by industry veteran Josh Rowe, who was on the auDA board for 14 years. Another leader of this group is former auDA staff member Paul Szyndler.

Rowe and Szyndler, along with auDA member Jim Stewart, have created a blog site called Grumpier and called for the removal of three independent auDA board members — chairman Leptos, and directors Sandra Hook and Suzanne Ewart. A special general meeting is scheduled for 27 July 2018. Members will be asked to vote on a resolution to oust the three board members.

Meanwhile, the registry operations carried out by a third party have been put up for tender, with a global firm specialising in domain administration, Afilias, about to take over on 1 July this year. Dispassionate observers might think this is a time for unity not further internal strife.

The machinations at auDA have naturally not gone unnoticed in Canberra. The Federal Government has given the company three months to prove it has improved governance processes in place. Last week, auDA appointed three new directors to the board as part of the renewal process, including Nigel Phair, who heads up the Centre for Internet Safety at the University of Canberra.

Leptos believes that, with an expanded board, auDA is in a good position to deliver the outcomes required by the Government. The director appointments were announced in a letter to members, along with a description of the skills the board believes they bring to auDA. The new directors were also recruited via a nationwide process, with 30 candidates offering their services.

The “grumpies” don’t appear to have the numbers in the battle for control at this point, but they are working hard to influence the 300-odd auDA members. However, their activities will doubtless only add difficulty to the task of auDA meeting the Government’s demands for stability and reform. It’s hard to see how any further controversy is going to help soothe the nerves of a clearly concerned minister, Senator Mitch Fifield. In fact, further board turmoil is more likely to hasten the potential demise of auDA and a mooted Government takeover — one thing both sides would presumably prefer not to see happen.

Shortly after assuming the chair’s role, Leptos and the board referred an independent report on the group’s past financial and administrative practices to the police, with rumours now of possible criminal charges being considered. This garnered the interest of mainstream media, of course, and has industry participants wondering what else made the Department of Communications and the Arts recommend a clean-up of past practices.

Yesterday saw the first meeting of what auDA calls a Consultation Model Working Group. This 16-member group "has been formed to help ensure community-wide consultation for changes to the .au namespace", according to auDA.

auDA is a member-based organisation that employs a “multi-stakeholder” model as part of its governance arrangements. Such models have their strengths and their weaknesses. Right now we’re arguably seeing the weaknesses on public display.

Laurie Patton is a member of auDA and a former CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. He is currently advising Afilias Australia, the company appointed to provide registry services for auDA from 1 July 2018.

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