auDA has great opportunity to reinforce its role in our digitally-enabled future, but needs to understand that disunity is death

By ANNE HURLEY | 27 May 2018

Having watched with interest the unfolding debate over the future of auDA – the organisation charged with managing the Internet domain name space here on behalf of the federal government – I was delighted to recently be invited to join its new Consultation Model Working Group.

auDA has drawn together a group of 16 members, which includes a broad range of people with knowledge and expertise in the running of the Internet in this country over many years. 

As the former CEO of the Communications Alliance and later chair of Internet Australia I’m accustomed to dealing with disparate players with differing agendas. I led the transformation of the self-regulatory body, first called ACIF, into a new organisation now known as Comms Alliance. This involved the merger of a number of related associations. It also involved re-naming and re-badging, new vision and mission statements, an amended Constitution, a revised Board structure, and a major focus on enhancing stakeholder engagement across government and non-government spheres. 

Critical to the success of any self-regulatory organisation is a commitment by its members to optimising that function as opposed to risking government intervention. So I watch with concern and question how a few disgruntled auDA members think they are helping the greater cause by attempting to force a board spill. It seems to me this is simply going to reinforce the view in government circles that some kind of intervention will eventually be needed. The Government has given auDA three months to get its house in order. The new working group I’ve joined is a significant element in that initiative.

One of my former colleagues from Internet Australia, Laurie Patton, summed things up pretty well in an article he penned last year about boards in the not-for-profit sector. Laurie wrote: “Boards should also be required to pay greater attention to conflicts of interest on the part of their directors. They owe this to their members and to all those who benefit from or rely on the services they provide”.

Governance has long been a thorny issue for auDA, with accusations flowing freely about the way things have been managed over a very long period. A ticket-to-ride on the “auDA express” is much coveted. Involvement with auDA represents a great opportunity to influence many aspects of Internet management, governance and oversight. It also helps secure sought-after opportunities for international travel and the ability to develop valuable global contacts.

Perversely, while they continue to agitate for change the auDA dissidents have apparently declined to join the working group. Again, I struggle to see how they can sit on the sidelines waging a destructive war against the current board and yet decline a perfect opportunity to help improve prospects for auDA to continue its self-regulatory role in the contemporary domain name space

At the first meeting of the working group auDA CEO, Cameron Boardman, did not shy away from conceding the need for change in the organisation. In fact a report prepared for the Communications and the Arts minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, is being used as a primary guide in identifying the gaps that must be filled. Among the changes mooted include a major revision of the process for soliciting members and the role that they and other stakeholders should play. 

Some auDA members have attempted to use a proposal to introduce a major change that would allow so-called “direct registration” in their destructive campaign. Direct registration is something that has been introduced in other countries and dispenses with the subsets of dot com, dot org, etc. Ironically it was proposed by a previous board. The current board and its chair, Chris Leptos, have decided to defer any decision on direct registration until the second half of 2019. So what is there to complain about now? 

Meanwhile, following a retender for the provision of registry services – the physical management of the domain names space architecture – a new company is gearing up to take over the processes from July. 

From my point of view, auDA has been handed the perfect opportunity to move into the more contemporary digital space. And as with all organisations that need to change – as did ACIF back in 2005 – collaboration amongst all members is needed, and this is largely happening. Particularly is this collaboration required in the development of a new constitution which will be put to members later in the year. 

It seems to me that notwithstanding any previous disunity at board level auDA has continued to function without any serious problems that have affected Internet users. Domain names have been allocated and operationally at least the Internet has worked quite fine. Now it can bring greater prominence to this important role in the digital eco-sphere through enhancement of the industry’s self-regulation of the domain names function. 

(Anne Hurley is a former Chair of Internet Australia, former CEO of Communications Alliance and current owner of a global e-commerce business. This article first appeared in John Menadue’s “Pearls and Irritations”.)