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Is auDA’s new marketing windfall working?

Kevin Murphy, October 5, 2018, Domain Registries

Australian ccTLD .au appears to be growing at a faster rate after registry auDA cut its wholesale prices and devoted millions of dollars to marketing.

While the numbers are by no means conclusive, in the three months after the new business model came into effect .au grew almost twice as much as in the comparable year-ago period.

At the end of June, auDA switch its back-end registry from Neustar to Afilias.

It cut its wholesale price by 10% and said it would invest AUD 8 million ($5.7 million) over four years into a marketing and innovation fund.

The fund offers financial incentives to registrars and resellers that promote .au domains.

Growing .au’s market share is one of the defined objectives of the program, and stats collected by DI show it might be working.

In the three months between June 28 (two days before the transition to Afilias) and September 28, the number of reported .au domains went up from 3,153,432 to 3,163,998, an increase of 10,566 domains.

In the immediately prior three months, registered domains actually declined by 1,150.

In the same period June-September period of 2017, domains were up by 5,734, about half the level of this year.

So is the new regime succeeding in growing numbers more rapidly? Maybe. It’s probably too early to tell for sure.

Any increase in DUM could be offset by declines from domain investors, if a proposed policy change about who is allowed to register domains comes into effect.

The numbers above have two caveats: 1) they’re based on the running total published more or less live on auDA’s web site, so should be considered ball-park as they may have been collected at different times during the day, and 2) it’s possible that Afilias and Neustar report numbers from their back-ends differently, which might mean comparisons of numbers reported before and after the transition are unfair.

Afilias gets Guinness record for .au migration

Kevin Murphy, September 18, 2018, Domain Registries

Afilias has got its recent takeover of .au recognized by Guinness as an official world record.

The company was given the title of “Largest Migration of an Internet Top-Level Domain in a Single Transition” at an event in New York today, according to a company press release.

It relates to its migration of .au from former registry provider Neustar to its own back-end a few months ago.

Australia’s .au ccTLD had about 3.1 million names under management at the time, about 400,000 names more than the previous record — the 2003 .org transition Afilias also handled.

I understand there’s a licensing fee due to Guinness for this kind of (let’s face it) shameless-but-effective PR stunt, but no guarantee the record will actually be printed in future editions of the annual Guinness Book of World Records.

I hope the fresh salt in Neustar’s wounds isn’t stinging too badly this evening.

auDA car crash continues as director quits over foreign members

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2018, Domain Policy

auDA director Tim Connell has quit the board over its decision to admit almost a thousand new members from the industry side of the house.

Connell, the only remaining elected “Demand class” director, said he believes auDA will now be controlled by registrars and the new back-end registry, Afilias.

In his resignation letter (pdf), Connell said: “I fear this potentially hands control of auDA over to industry and could ultimately create the situation where the independent governing body is no longer independent.”

The new member influx, which saw the ranks swell from about 320 to over 1,300 in the space of a few weeks, was largely due to three large registrars and the back-end encouraging their staff to sign up for membership.

One registrar, CrazyDomains owner Dreamscape Networks, now apparently employs almost 40% of auDA’s members.

auDA, which seems to have nudged the companies towards this membership drive, is under pressure from the Australian government to grow and diversify its membership.

Chief critic Josh Rowe, himself a former director, has calculated, based on a non-public member list, that most of the new members are based outside of Australia, a fact alluded to by Connell in his letter.

Rowe and his fellow “Grumpies” used last month’s extraordinary auDA meeting to demand that the new membership applications be rejected on the grounds that the new members are not a part of the Australian internet community that auDA is constitutionally bound to serve.

But auDA chair Chris Leptos responded that they are members of the community by virtue of their employment.

Connell’s primary concern appears to be that the swollen member base is now heavily tilted in favor of the supply-side of the community.

He noted that an AUD 12 million marketing fund distributed to registrars in the wake of the migration to cheaper back-end Afilias could be seen as an attempt to bribe the industry to side with the auDA party line.

Grumpies have accused auDA of “cartel-like” behavior in this regard.

At the special meeting two weeks ago, motions to fire three directors including Leptos (over unrelated disagreements) were rejected due to near-unanimous opposition from the Supply-class members, despite an overall majority of voters supporting their removal.

The new members were not eligible to vote at that meeting, so the Supply-class was considerably smaller.

At the same meeting, Connell revealed that his Demand-class directorship had recently come into question due to the fact that he acted as an affiliate of a registrar.

He said he’d rectified that situation, and Leptos seemed happy with that the situation had been resolved.

Despite this, Connell says in his letter that he no longer feels that information he receives as a director is “accurate or complete”, suggesting continued tensions on the board.

For all these reasons, he said he was resigning immediately.

In a statement, auDA thanked Connell for his service and said a replacement will be sought within three months.

I’ve actually lost count of how many auDA directors have quit recently. I’ve reported on at least five, including the last chair, since I started covering the unrest there a little over a year ago.

Chaotic scenes as ‘Grumpies’ lose auDA board fight

Three directors of .au registry auDA managed to keep their seats on the board despite losing the “popular vote” of members late last week.

The vote happened at the conclusion of an occasionally chaotic three-hour meeting that saw former AusRegistry chief Adrian Kinderis kicked out of the room barely a minute into proceedings.

The results in each of the three votes to fire directors Suzanne Ewart, Sandra Hook and chair Chris Leptos were 57 or 58 in favor and 51 or 52 against, which would have been a narrow win for the so-called “Grumpies” who originally called for the sackings.

However, auDA rules require, Leptos said, a simple majority of both “Supply” and “Demand” classes of members, and the Supply class (ie, registrars) voted against the motions by 30 to 2 or 31 to 1.

Therefore, all three directors get to keep their jobs.

auDA noted in a statement that a greater proportion of Supply class members (the substantially smaller constituency) turned out to vote compared to Demand class, adding:

It is time now for all members to get behind the reform of auDA as demanded by the federal government.

auDA is not the plaything of a small group of self-interested parties.

It can no longer be run as a club type organisation with a small membership who wield undue influence.

A “club type organization” was pretty much what came across during the meeting, which was audio-only webcast Friday morning. ICANN, auDA ain’t.

I was left with the impression of something a bit like Nominet circa 2010 or my first ICANN meeting back in 1999. Not so much herding cats, as [RACIST JOKE ALERT] herding wallabies.

At times it felt like an ICANN Public Forum, with an infinite number of Paul Foodys lining up at the mic.

At the same time, the meeting was chaired by somebody who, despite never losing his cool, seemed set on limiting criticism from members to the greatest extent possible.

There was controversy from the very outset, with the former CEO of former .au back-end provider AusRegistry (now part of Neustar) getting kicked out in the opening minute.

Kinderis, who no longer works for Neustar and has vowed publicly to be a thorn in auDA’s side, said he was “unlawfully removed” from the meeting by venue security, at the instruction of Leptos.

Leptos disputed Kinderis’ claim that he was there as a proxy for a legit member and said he believed he had acted “entirely appropriately” in ordering his removal.

There was no suggestion of physical force being used. His exit was recorded by chief Grumpy Josh Rowe, who then posted a brief video to Twitter.

Leptos then threatened to throw out fellow Grumpy Jim Stewart, who was protesting Kinderis’ removal, before warning non-member attendees that they would not be permitted to ask questions.

Forty-five minutes later, he repeatedly threatened to kick out Stewart for live-streaming video of the meeting from his phone, having apparently received complaints from other members.

Fifteen minutes later, the threats returned after Stewart and another member attempted to engage Leptos in an argument about auDA’s member recruitment policy.

The words “take a seat Mr…” were a recurring meme throughout the meeting.

The original reasons for the call for the directors to be fired were myriad, ranging from lack of transparency to projects such as the Neustar-Afilias registry transition and auDA’s desire to start selling direct second-level .au domains.

But the bulk of the meeting was taken up with discussions, and attempted discussions, about auDA’s recent membership spike.

The Grumpies have audited the new member list — which has grown from 300-odd to 1,345 in just a few weeks — and found that the vast majority of new members are employees of just three registrars and one registry (Afilias, the new back-end).

They reckon these new members, many of whom do not live in Australia, represent an attempt by auDA leadership to capture the voting community, and that foreigners are not technically members of the “Australian internet community” that auDA is supposed to represent.

Leptos responded to such criticisms by saying that employees of Australia-focused registrars are indeed members of the Australian internet community, regardless of their country of residence.

He added that auDA is under the instruction of the Australian government to diversify its membership — he said that registrars have no board representation currently — and that the recently added members are a first step on that path.

The Grumpies had shortly before the meeting started making accusations that the membership influx amounts to “potential cartel behaviour”.

Leptos addressed this directly during the meeting, saying they had “accused the CEO of criminal conduct” and categorically denying any wrongdoing.

auDA later issued a statement saying:

This is a very serious allegation to have been made and auDA strongly disagrees that by encouraging others to join the auDA membership, or by approving membership applications which satisfy its constitutional requirements, auDA or its officers have engaged in cartel behaviour or otherwise acted improperly.

Fight breaks out as Afilias eats Neustar’s Aussie baby

The transition of .au to Afilias’ registry platform over the weekend seems to have gone quite smoothly, but that hasn’t stopped Neustar and a former key executive from lashing back at what it says are the gaining company’s “misinformed” statements.

The war of words, which has got quite nasty, came as Afilias transferred all 3.1 million .au domains to its control, after 16 years with the former incumbent.

Neustar, which hadn’t said much about losing one of its most-lucrative TLD contracts, on Friday published a lengthy blog post in which it said it wanted to “set the record straight” about Afilias’ statements leading up to the switch.

Afilias, in a series of blog posts and press releases since it won the .au contract, has been bigging up its technical capabilities.

While it’s not directly criticized Neustar and predecessor AusRegistry (which Neustar acquired for $87 million), the implication of many of these statements is that Neustar was, by comparison, a bit shit.

In Neustar’s latest post, Aussie VP George Pongas takes issue with several of these claims.

Any implications that the company did not offer 24/7 registrar support were incorrect, he wrote. Likewise, the idea that it did not have a DNS node in Western Australia was not true, he wrote.

He also took issue with claims that Afilias would offer improved security and a broader feature set for registrars, writing:

We’ve raised a number of concerns directly with auDA about what we considered to be inaccurate remarks comparing Neustar’s systems with the new Registry and implying that the new Registry will include “all previous functionality plus enhanced security and authentication measures”, as stated in recent auDA Member communications. We questioned auDA about this and were informed that the statement is comparing the various testing phases of Afilias’ Registry – so the latest version has “all previous functionality” of the earlier versions. It doesn’t mean the Registry will have “all previous functionality” of Neustar’s platform – which we believe the statement implies. It is a fact that a number of the proprietary features and services that Neustar currently provides to Registrars will no longer be available under the new Registry system, and thus Registrars will likely notice a difference.

“We stand by our statements,” an Afilias spokesperson told DI today.

While Neustar’s corporate stance was fairly reserved, former AusRegistry boss Adrian Kinderis, never a shrinking violet, has been reacting in an almost presidential fashion, using Twitter to describe auDA CEO Cameron Boardman as “incompetent”, criticizing a reporter, and using the hashtag #crookedcameron.

Kinderis, who headed up AusRegistry for the whole of its 16-year run with .au, left Neustar in April, three years after the acquisition. He’s now running something called MadBarry Enterprises and is still associated with the new gTLD .film.

He reckons Neustar lost the .au contract purely for financial reasons.

While Neustar is believed to have lowered its registry fee expectations when pitching to continue as the back end, auDA will save itself about AUD 9 million a year ($7 million) under Afilias, compared to the old regime.

auDA is not expected to hand this saving on to registrars and registrants, though I hear registrars have been offered marketing rebates recently.

auDA has previously told us that Afilias scored highest on the technical evaluation of the nine bidders, and that it was not the bidder with the lowest fee.

Kinderis is also of the opinion that Afilias is among those helping auDA stack its membership with compliant stooges.

Last month, auDA announced a dramatic four-fold increase in its membership — getting 955 new membership applications in just a month.

auDA thanked Afilias for this growth in membership, alongside three of the largest .au registrars: Ventra IP, Arq Group (formerly Melbourne IT), and CrazyDomains owner Dreamscape Networks.

An Afilias spokesperson said that the company had offered its staff the option to become auDA members and about half — I estimate at roughly 150 people based on Afilias’ previously published headcounts — had taken it up on the offer.

It sounds rather like Afilias footed the AUD 22 per-person “Demand-class” membership application fees.

The rapid increase in membership at auDA has raised eyebrows in the .au community, with some accusing the registry of “branch stacking”.

That’s an Australian term used to describe the practice of signing up large numbers of members of a local branch of a political party in order to swing important votes.

The 955-plus new members will not be approved in time to influence the outcome of the vote to oust the auDA chair and others later this month.

But they will have voting rights by the time auDA’s annual general meeting comes around later this year. The AGM is when auDA will attempt to reform itself in light of a harsh government review of its practices.

As for the migration to Afilias itself, it seems to have gone relatively smoothly. I’m not aware of any reports of any serious technical issues, despite the fact that it was the largest TLD migration ever.

Some members have pointed out that most of .au’s ops are now off-shore, and old auDA Whois service is now hosted on a .ltd domain (hey, somebody’s got to use it) which is itself protected by Whois privacy.

I also noticed that the auDA web site, which used to have a hook into the registry that published an updated domain count every day, is no longer working.