Let’s meet, then please move on – Reforming auDA

By LAURIE PATTON | 25 July 2018

“The process of registering and administering Internet domain names under the .au top level domain must be managed with full integrity and transparency of process and decision-making to ensure this public resource supports the needs of all Internet users and stakeholders”.

This statement from Internet Australia chair, Dr Paul Brooks, sums up why a number of Internet industry players are speaking out against a board spill at a Special General Meeting of auDA – the company managing our Internet domain names – to be held in Melbourne on Friday. If you have a website you’ll have dealt with one of the companies that sell domain names to the public. They all operate under the authority and supervision of auDA.

The battle for control of auDA has so far received relatively little media attention. This is perhaps a good thing. Airing family squabbles in public seldom achieves much. And let’s face it, this week’s showdown is largely about long standing interpersonal grievances, an ongoing power struggle over who determines auDA’s operating policies, and who benefits. It was forced on the organisation by a small but aggressive group of dissenters known as The Grumpies using the provisions of the corporations law.

Sam Varghese from iTWire has written a couple of yarns about the current dispute. His most illuminating observation, made in an article published yesterday, is that it’s “doubtful that the SGM on Friday will bring some measure of peace to the auDA ranks”. I’ll go further. Friday’s SGM will have little effect, if any. It looks like the board has the numbers. However, the outcome will be moot in any case. A new constitution will be in place later in the year, courtesy of a Government demand for governance reform. This will hopefully bring some long term stability to auDA, although the Grumpies will no doubt stay grumpy.

auDA, which has been given three months by the Government to get its house in order, has been mired in controversy in recent years. For quite some time it had been seen as a tightly controlled fiefdom with a board of directors elected from within the industry and fraught with conflicts of interest.

Based on a report from his department, the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, has placed some non-negotiable requirements on a new auDA governance model. One of these is a majority of independent directors. So in future a dissident member group will not be able to capture control of the board – one of the risks under the current arrangements that was highlighted in the departmental report.

It’s difficult to identify exactly what the Grumpies want or what’s motivating them, except that one lost his job in the recent registry transition process that saw a new company – Afilias – take on the role of physically overseeing the allocation of domain names, as did another who worked for auDA until relatively recently. The rest seem to have been around for a very long time and presumably liked things the way they were, for whatever personal or professional reasons.

Digital strategist Marty Drill has also been around for some time, including a stint on the auDA board. Marty wants so see “cohesion amongst the members and a way forward that allows for a model that represents us all and ensures that the Government is not forced to step in and take over. An eventuality that none of us want, including the Government”.  He notes that auDA “was setup to provide a model for industry self-regulation to ensure that the industry was dynamic and not hindered by legislation”.

Anne Hurley is a former chair of Internet Australia and the founding CEO of the Communications Alliance. Anne reckons the behaviour of the Grumpies is “foul” and argues it is counterproductive. “I’ve been involved in some pretty robust debates over the years but the way this group is behaving amazes me. It’s so personal and so destructive”.

Both Marty and Anne belong to a 16-member team formed “to help ensure community-wide consultation for changes to the .au namespace”, according to auDA’s announcement to members when establishing a Consultation Model Working Group.

auDA CEO, Cameron Boardman, says the CMWG “is a reflection of auDA’s commitment to a multi-stakeholder model of management for the .au namespace. This working group will be instrumental in creating a consultation model that enables all parts of the digital economy to have their say on these important issues”.

The likely outcome of the consultation process is that auDA will adopt a new process for appointing directors to the board. As Marty points out; “It was seemingly a good model when the organisation was set up, though it has passed its use-by date”.

auDA chair, Chris Leptos, recently wrote to members expressing “dismay” in relation to the online comments from some members, which by any standard have been way beyond robust and in some cases plainly false and defamatory. “They are entitled to have their views. However, we should also acknowledge that auDA does not exist just for some of its outspoken members… auDA is also a quasi-regulator of the .au namespace with over a million unique registrants, and many millions more who rely on a safe and stable .au domain”.

Lawyer John Swinson is a partner at King & Wood Mallesons. John heads up the auDA Policy Review Committee. He, too, sees the ongoing dispute among members as counterproductive and disputes claims the organisation’s policy making process is flawed. “We are charged with making sure that auDA delivers for the entire Australian online community. For everyone who uses the Internet, and not just for those who make their living from it”.

Nikki Scholes works for Netfleet, one of Australia’s largest domain name trading platforms. Like many auDA members Nikki is concerned that the current controversy is only damaging the organisation. “Am I in the twilight zone where this reasoning isn’t obvious?”

BTW, I’ll be attending the SGM and will write more next week.

(Laurie Patton is a member of auDA and the former CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia. He is currently advising Afilias Australia, the company appointed to take over the management of the .au registry for auDA from 1 July 2018. However, the views expressed here are his own and have not been endorsed by Afilias.)