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auDA chair quits days before vote to fire him

The chair of .au registry auDA has quit the job just three days before members were due to vote on a motion to fire him.

Stuart Benjamin, who took on the role in late 2015, faced a special member meeting on Monday that had just one resolution on its agenda:

That Stuart Benjamin be removed as a director of the Company with immediate effect.

Benjamin said today: “I have reached the view that there is no possible positive outcome for the organisation from the vote planned for Monday.”

That could mean he anticipated losing the vote, but it could also mean that he viewed a narrow victory as just as bad an outcome, optically, for auDA.

The confidence vote had been on the agenda due to a campaign at Grumpy.com.au organized by domainer/blogger Ned O’Meara.

Grumpy’s supporters reckon auDA has gone to the dogs over the last couple of years, with staff quitting or being fired en masse and an unwelcome culture of secrecy being imposed.

But Benjamin wrote:

As Chair I have overseen an increase in policy generation, in effective oversight, and in good governance.

We have also commissioned some of the largest member consultation projects in auDA’s history.

However, the auDA Board and members need to forge a different way of working together and I think there is a better chance for that to happen if I step away.

One bone of contention had been a new “code of conduct” that allowed auDA to revoke membership from any member who harassed or bullied staff.

Grumpy had opposed this measure because the code also included a gag order barring members from criticizing auDA in the media.

Benjamin took the opportunity to address this in his resignation announcement today, saying:

Everyone at auDA is open to robust criticism on strategy, policy and decision-making – that interaction makes us stronger. When that healthy engagement devolves into personal attacks on board members, the capacity of the organisation to attract and retain good people is affected.

I will continue to take a stand against cyber bullying and will not be deterred in standing up to anyone who thinks it is acceptable to personally attack staff and directors. I do not want my experiences to discourage others from running for election, or accepting an appointment, to this important organisation.

Another fractious issue, auDA’s decision to build a new in-house registry infrastructure, appears to have softened this week also.

The special general meeting is to proceed as planned on Monday. The only other items on the agenda are a CEO’s report and “any other business”.

Benjamin’s resignation letter to the .au community can be read here.

auDA now looking to outsource .au registry

Australian ccTLD overseer auDA appears to have softened its approach to overhauling the management of .au.

The organization said today that it’s now planning to look for an “outsourced registry operation” that will come online in July 2018.

In recent months, the company had been looking for suppliers to help it build a dedicated, in-house, .au infrastructure, in addition to keeping its outsourcing options open.

Today, auDA said that its recent request for expressions of interest had concluded. It said:

The [Registry Transformation Project] team have been very pleased with the strength of responses received and recommended to the auDA Board that auDA should proceed to the next stage of the project. The auDA Board subsequently resolved to undertake a formal Request for Tender (RFT) process. The RFT will be restricted to the respondents of the REOI with a scope to deliver an outsourced registry operation, based on auDA’s updated specifications, by July 2018.

It looks like any registry providers that did not get their foot in the door with the REOI are now permanently shut out of the process.

Additionally, it appears as though auDA has settled on an outsourced, rather than in-house, solution. Given the fact that the majority of the industry is based on service-based registry solutions, that had always seemed like a strong possibility.

auDA now plans to post a draft technical spec for comment August 14 and a formal request for tenders August 28, with a view to picking a winner in October/November for a July 2018 launch.

The company currently uses Neustar as its back-end due to Neustar’s 2015 acquisition of 15-year incumbent AusRegistry.

The names of the companies responding to the REOI, and their number, have not been disclosed.

auDA is currently facing a member revolt, partly but by no means exclusively over its decision to build an in-house registry. The company’s chair finds out whether members want him fired or not on Monday.

auDA explains secretive new regime in bid to save chair

auDA has explained why it has refused to put controversial new policies to a vote, as it recommended that members vote to save the job of chairman Stuart Benjamin.

In a letter to members published this week, the .au ccTLD administrator said it was not legally obliged to allow members to vote on its directors’ decisions to stop publishing their meeting minutes and to gag members from bad-mouthing auDA in the press.

As we reported earlier in the week, a group of domainers and others had signed a petition calling for four resolutions to be put to a vote of auDA’s members (largely domainers and registrars), but auDA only accepted one of them.

That resolution was to fire Benjamin. Members will vote July 31.

The new letter (pdf) seeks to explain why the other three resolutions were rejected.

The campaigners, organized by domainer/blogger Ned O’Meara at Grumpy.com.au, had demanded that auDA reverse its new policy of not publishing the minutes of its board meetings.

In response, auDA stated that it is under no legal obligation under Aussie corporation law or its own constitution to publish minutes and therefore under no obligation to put this policy to a member vote.

It did, however, agree to reinstate previously published and deleted minutes of meetings up to February 2017.

The Grumpy gang also wanted auDA to put is new member code of conduct, apparently unilaterally imposed by its board this May, to a member vote.

The code of conduct contains some innocuous policies about having a zero tolerance for members who abuse and harass auDA staff, but it also prevents members from saying bad things about the organization in public.

Members must agree:

In any forum, including in the media, where acting as an auDA member or identifiable as an auDA member, I will conduct myself in a manner that will not bring the organisation, Directors or staff, into disrepute.

This basically would prevent any member from criticizing auDA when talking to a journalist, under pain of having their membership suspended or revoked. Clearly uncool.

In auDA’s new letter, CEO Cameron Boardman explains that the ability of the board to suspend memberships has been removed from the policy, in response to feedback. Memberships can still be revoked by the board, however.

This U-turn appears to be a legal technicality designed to ensure that the policy does not change the organization’s constitution — which allows the board to revoke but not suspend memberships — and therefore does not need to be put to a member vote.

Finally, the Grumpy coalition had asked for auDa’s decision to create its own in-house registry — and to stop outsourcing its back-end to Neustar — to be put to a vote.

Boardman’s letter says that this decision was “a matter of management exclusively vested in the directors” and therefore legally not something it has to put out for member approval.

O’Meara and company were given the chance to recant on their fourth resolution — that Benjamin be fired — and apparently had indicated initially that they wished to do so.

However, they were so appalled by Boardman’s letter than they decided to go ahead with it anyway.

auDA’s recommendation that Benjamin keeps his job can be read in full here.

Domainers want the head of auDA’s chair

Disgruntled domainers have managed to arrange for a vote on whether auDA chair Stuart Benjamin should be fired.

auDA, the .au ccTLD administrator, has been under fire for many months from registrants who believe the organization is being managed in an increasingly erratic and secretive manner.

Now, a campaign and petition at Grumpy.com.au, run by Domainer.com.au publisher Ned O’Meara, has led to auDA calling a special meeting July 31 with a single resolution on the agenda:

That Stuart Benjamin be removed as a director of the Company with immediate effect.

Benjamin will therefore lose his job with simple majority votes of both classes of auDA members — “supply” class, meaning registrars, and “demand” class, meaning registrants.

O’Meara blogged yesterday that he believes there is “a slightly less than even chance” of the resolution being carried due to the possible lack of votes from supply class members.

But auDA rejected as legally “invalid” three additional resolutions that had been proposed.

Grumpy members had also wanted auDA to restore all of its board’s meeting minutes that were inexplicably deleted from the organization’s web site.

They’d wanted a recently instituted member code of conduct to be scrapped, rewritten, and then put to members for a vote.

The code of conduct bans “harassment” and “bullying” of auDA staff, but it also prevents members from talking to the media about auDA in disparaging terms.

Finally, they’d also wanted auDA to abandon its plan to build an in-house registry infrastructure (replacing current provider Neustar) without first putting the plan to a member vote.

But all of these resolutions have been taken off the table on the basis of unspecified “legal advice” provided to auDA.

According to O’Meara and others, dissatisfaction with the organization has been brewing for some time, ever since late 2015 when Benjamin was brought in as a “demand” class director and appointed chair, only to be quickly dismissed and immediately reinstated as an “independent” director and reappointed chair.

In March 2016, 16-year CEO Chris Disspain was fired and replaced by Cameron Boardman.

I’m told auDa has been hemorrhaging staff for months — 10 of its 13 employees have apparently left the organization this year.

Three-million-domain .au deal up for grabs

auDA has formally launched the process that will could see it replace .au back-end provider Neustar with an in-house registry by the end of June 2018.

The Australian ccTLD operator has opened a “Request for Expressions of Interest” as the first stage of a procurement process for software and/or services to support its recently announced Registry Transformation Project.

It’s looking for companies that can provide all the major pieces of a domain name registry — EPP registry, Whois, DNS, etc — and my reading of the REOI reveals a preference towards a system owned and operated by auDA.

Respondents can respond with products, technology and / or services for all or part of the elements of the Registry Transformation Project, and are free to partner with other respondents to put together combined proposals.

auDA intends to establish a dedicated .au registry, and have all arrangements in place to support this, by 30 June 2018.

The organization even talks about eventually becoming one of ICANN’s approved Emergency Back-End Registry Operators.

.au has grown to over 3 million domains over the 15 years it was being managed by AusRegistry, which was acquired by US-based Neustar in 2015. This deal is due to expire next year.

So it’s a big contract, and one that is likely to attract a lot of interest from players big and small.

That said, registry solutions are typically offered very much on a service basis. The market for licensed registry software is not exactly bustling, and auDA also requires source code access as a condition of any deal.

auDA said the deadline for responses to the REOI is June 26. It will decide upon its next steps, which could be a formal request for proposals, in the last week of July.

Further details can be found here.