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“Whistleblower” accuses Nominet of trying to dodge freedom of information law

Kevin Murphy, September 11, 2012, 17:24:08 (UTC), Domain Policy

Nominet, the .uk registry, tried to evade the Freedom Of Information Act by using private email addresses to communicate with the British government, according to emails leaked by a disgruntled former executive.

Copies of the emails provided to DI by former policy director Emily Taylor appear to show that Nominet and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform worked secretly in 2008 to invite government regulatory oversight of the .uk namespace.

Back then, Nominet’s elected board of directors was seen as being in danger of being taken over by domainers who were hostile to Nominet’s management and the rest of its board.

The company was ultimately restructured following an independent review, and Parliament passed legislation that enables the government to take over .uk if it appears to be in danger of capture.

The party line to date has been that the review was commissioned in October 2008, only after BERR wrote to Nominet to express concerns about its governance problems.

That position is looking increasingly open to question, however.

As I reported for The Register last month, an employment tribunal seemed to agree with Taylor that Nominet had approached BERR to discuss this so-called “Plan G” first.

The latest leaked emails, assuming they’re genuine, also make the Nominet position appear less believable.

This is the text of an email apparently sent from the personal email account of BERR civil servant Geoff Smith to the personal email account of Nominet senior policy adviser Martin Boyle:

Martin

Thanks. It was helpful to talk earlier. I have had a look at your mark up and the additional point by Emily. All good stuff but – as I said – I think the heart of our letter has to be a set of reasonable and intelligent questions that a senior civil servant, not familiar with the inner workings of the company, might ask. As I said earlier, if it needs translation from the Mandarin, then it has failed. Equally, if it reads like a Nominet management position paper on BERR letterhead then it has also failed. I will look seriously at your amendments and try and produce a version for David’s signature over the next two days.

It feels wonderful to work free from fear of FOI !!

Geoff

The email is dated October 8, 2008, a week before the BERR letter (pdf) that kicked off the independent governance review.

The “fear of FOI” is of course a reference to the Freedom Of Information Act, which enables British citizens to request government documentation including emails.

By using personal email accounts, Nominet and BERR would have been able to keep their negotiations out of reach of the FOIA.

The emails, again assuming they’re genuine, also show that Mark Carvell, senior advisor at BERR and longstanding UK representative on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, was using his personal email account to communicate with Nominet executives during the same period.

In one email, Boyle encourages Carvell and Smith to delete emails in anticipation of a FOI request.

Sent: Fri, 31 October, 2008 18:55:18
Subject: FW: [nom-steer] Save Nom-steer!

Geoff, Mark

This e-mail (below) – posted on nom-steer – makes me think that a FoI is just around the corner!

Most obvious would be the e-mail from me asking when we might expect the letter, but Pauline used this as the mail to reply to with the signed letter from David.

You might wish to trawl over your mails – in and out – to do a bit of pruning and suggest to Pauline that a couple might need to be deleted, too.

I’ve spoken to Tom and he is aware, too.

Martin Boyle

Attached is a forwarded email from domainer Andrew Bennett, then a member of Nominet’s Policy Advisory Board, which appears to show Bennett researching relationships between the company and BERR.

There’s no evidence that Smith or Carvell did delete any emails.

BERR has changed names a couple of times under successive governments, and is now the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Carvell is now at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Taylor has provided her documents to Nominet’s local MP, Andrew Smith, who has referred the matter to the Head of the Home Civil Service and the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

Trying to avoid FOI is frowned upon.

Last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office said that “information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business”.

In addition to the FOIA claims, Taylor alleges that there is “an inappropriately close relationship between government officials in DCMS, BIS, and possibly Ofcom, and Nominet.”

Nominet told DI today that it is looking into the matter but declined to comment further.

Last month, when Taylor’s employment tribunal documents became public, the company issued a statement in which it denied instigating the government’s request for an independent review, saying:

This is not the case. Two major organisations (an ISP and a major British trade body) had already been in contact with BERR prior to any discussions between Nominet and the Government. Again, Nominet took actions focussed on supporting the ongoing trust in .uk and that we believed supported the goals of our membership as a whole. As you would expect of an organisation responsible for a piece of critical UK Internet infrastructure, we maintain a constant dialogue with the Government – but all conversations on this matter post-date the initial raising of concerns by stakeholders.

Taylor claims, however, that the ISP and the trade body (BT and the Confederation of British Industry) approached BERR at the behest of herself and other Nominet executives.

As previously reported, Taylor resigned from her position at Nominet in 2009, not long after returning to work following a period of stress-related sick leave.

An employment tribunal found last year that she had been constructively dismissed — that is, essentially forced out — by Nominet after she filed a grievance against her colleagues and they grew to distrust her. She’s currently an independent consultant.

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Comments (1)

  1. John Berryhill says:

    “There’s no evidence that Smith or Carvell did delete any emails”

    One bright night,
    Two dead boys got up to fight.
    Back to back they faced each other,
    Drew their swords and shot each other.

    A deaf policeman heard the noise,
    And came and shot the two dead boys.
    If you don’t believe this lie is true,
    Ask the blind man.
    He saw it too.

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