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Domainers could lose their names as .au loophole closes

Kevin Murphy, June 14, 2018, Domain Policy

Domain investors dabbling in the .au space could face losing their names under new policies set to be proposed.

The .au Policy Review Panel, which helps set policy for Australian ccTLD registry auDA, said this week it is thinking about closing a loophole related to domain monetization that has allowed “speculation and warehousing” in violation of longstanding rules.

Monetized domains are “largely detrimental” to .au and rules permitting the practice should be scrapped, the panel is expected to formally conclude.

Anyone currently monetizing domains could be given as little as a day to comply with the new rules or face losing their names.

The expected recommendations were outlined in a memo (pdf) penned by panel chair John Swinson, an intellectual property lawyer, who wrote:

the Panel received a lot of feedback and information from the public that Domain Monetisation is largely detrimental to the name space. Feedback, including from sophisticated businesses, domain brokers and portfolio owners, was one could register almost any domain name under the Domain Monetisation rule, and that the current rules were unclear, and that domain names were being registered under the cover of Monetisation primarily for the purposes of resale or warehousing (which is contrary to the current policy).

Current auDA policy on domaining, dating from 2012, is pretty clear when it comes to domainers: “A registrant may not register a domain name for the sole purpose of resale or transfer to another entity.”

However, there’s a loophole when it comes to domains that are monetized with ad links. If a domain is monetized, reselling no longer becomes its “sole purpose”.

Another auDA policy also from 2012 specifically permits monetization as a valid reason for owning a .com.au or .net.au name.

It says that monetized domains must carry ad content relevant to the topic of the domain, and that there should be no brand infringement in the domain itself.

Swinson’s panel agreed in a May 1 meeting (pdf) that this rule should be scrapped.

It’s not entirely clear what would come to replace it, as the panel doesn’t seem likely to actually ban monetization as such. Swinson wrote:

Because the current rules are outdated, inconsistent and unclear, it is difficult to enforce the current rules that prevent the registration of domain names for domain speculation and warehousing.

The Panel’ s current view is that Domain Monetisation will not be banned, but of itself will not be a basis to meet the allocation criteria.

The “allocation criteria” refers to the eligibility requirements for .au domains, which currently require a “close and substantial” link between the registrant and the name.

The panel’s memo states that there would be a “grandfathering” period during which domainers whose sites do not comply with the new policy would have time to update them:

The Panel’s current view is to recommend that any new eligibility and allocation rules should apply on the next renewal of a domain name license. This will give domain name licensees who meet the current rules, but who will not meet any new rules, time to deal with the non-compliance.

The problem here of course is that the “next renewal” could be anywhere from a day to two years away, depending on the domain. That’s probably an area the panel needs to look at.

The monetization issue is one of several addressed in the panel’s interim report (pdf), which also looks at the possibility of direct, second-level domain registration.

Any new policy on either issue is still many months away.

auDA wins brief reprieve from boardroom battle

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2018, Domain Registries

Australian ccTLD registry auDA has managed get a small delay, smaller than it wanted, to the deadline for a special member meeting at which the fate of its chair, CEO and two directors will be decided.

After more than 5% of its membership signed a petition calling for the vote, it had until June 7 to open the polls.

But then it was stung by the findings of a governmental review of its structure, which concluded it was “no longer fit for purpose” and ordering a board shake-up of its own.

Deciding that it had to prioritize the government review, auDA last week sued the main organizer of the petition and former board member Josh Rowe, asking a court to allow it to delay the meeting from June 7 until mid-September, to coincide with its annual general meeting.

But the court told the organization it instead has until July 27 to hold the meeting.

auDA said it was “pleased” with the ruling, but Rowe wrote that auDA had “in effect lost” the case.

Rowe called the brief litigation a “disgraceful waste of tens of thousands of dollars of .au domain name registrant’s money”.

auDA may sue to delay boardroom bloodbath

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2018, Domain Registries

auDA is thinking about taking its membership to court in order to delay a vote on the jobs of four of its directors.

The Australian ccTLD registry has also delayed further consideration of its policy to introduce direct, second-level registrations in .au until late 2019.

Both announcements came in the wake of a government review of the organization, which found it “no longer fit-for-purpose”.

auDA last week asked its members to agree to a postponement of the special general meeting, called for by a petition of more than 5% of its members, at which there would be votes on whether to fire the CEO, its chair, and two independent directors.

Under the law, auDA has to hold the SGM by June 7 at the latest, according to a letter (pdf) sent to members on Friday.

But auDA wants to delay the meeting until mid-September, at the earliest, to coincide with its regular Annual General Meeting.

If its members do not consent to the delay — it gave them a deadline of 4pm local time today, meaning responses would have to be drafted over the weekend — auDA said it “intends to apply for a court order… extending the time for calling the requested SGM”.

The delay is needed, auDA said, in order to give the organization the breathing space to start to implement the reforms called for by the government review.

The government wants the makeup of the auDA board substantially overhauled within a year to better reflect the stakeholder community and to ensure directors have the necessary skills and experience.

In response, auDA has told the government (pdf) that it agrees with the need for reform, but that it will not be able to hit its deadlines unlesss the SGM is delayed.

It also said calling the SGM on time would cost it somewhere in the region of AUD 70,000, based on the cost of a similar meeting last year.

auDA announced separately last week that it is delaying any more discussion on second-level registrations — something the reform campaigners largely are opposed to — “until the second half of 2019 at the earliest”.

Josh Rowe, coordinator of the Grumpier.com.au petitioners, said in his response that he found the request for the SGM delay “extremely disappointing”, adding:

auDA is at an important juncture following the Australian Government’s review. However, it is critical that people with the right skills and experience lead auDA through its reform.

Members have lost confidence in the auDA CEO, and the three auDA independent directors. They do not have the right skills and experience to lead auDA through its reform.

He noted that members do not have the resources to fight auDA in court.

Government gives auDA reform-or-die ultimatum

Kevin Murphy, April 18, 2018, Domain Registries

auDA has just months to either implement sweeping reforms or risk being dissolved and replaced.

That’s the outcome of a review of the Australian ccTLD administrator by the Department of Communications and Arts, published today, that found the organization as it stands today is “no longer fit-for-purpose”.

Among its 29 recommendations, the government is demanding that auDA refresh its board of directors within a year and scrap its “outdated” membership structure.

Minister Mitch Fifield said in a statement:

The central finding of the review is that auDA’s current management framework is no longer fit-for-purpose and reform is necessary if the company is to perform effectively and meet the needs of Australia’s internet community.

He added in a letter to auDA chair Chris Leptos:

In the event that auDA fails to demonstrate progress in achieving the necessary reforms, I will instruct my Department to undertake a public expression of interest process in the future to identify other entities that could administer .au

A failure to reform could even lead to the government itself taking over .au, the report says.

The review did not look at the claims of lavish spending by staff and directors, reported on earlier this week.

Nor does it express any views on the controversial decision to start selling direct second-level .au domains, or to transition the back-end from Neustar to Afilias.

What it does say is that the board of directors needs to be be replaced within a year, using a new membership structure that gets rid of the current “supply” and “demand” classes of member, which differentiate between those who sell domains and those who buy them.

The current system is open to capture or “stacking”, the review says, with it being too easy for individuals to move seamlessly between classes and a lack of clarity on whether domainers should be supply or demand-class members.

Today, the 12-person board comprises the non-voting CEO, three independent directors and four directors elected by each class.

The review states that the board should not get any bigger, but that the majority of directors should be independent, selected by a new six-person Nomination Committee modeled slightly on ICANN’s Nominating Committee.

Directors should be picked on the basis on their experience and skills, limited to two three-year terms, and subject to background screening, the review states.

The government also says that auDA should either replace its current membership classes with either a single membership class open to all or a “functional constituency model” reflecting groups such as consumers, registrars, government, etc.

Fifield said he expects to see “significant” progress on implementing these reforms in the next three to six months.

In a statement, auDA said it welcomed the report and has already begun work on an implementation plan.

Former CEO Chris Disspain, who was fired by the board in 2016, after running the company for 16 years, a move that arguably catalyzed the last two years of chaos at auDA, told DI:

I am pleased that the review has called out a number of important structural issues especially the matter of membership stacking, something that I had raised with the board on a number of occasions towards the end of my tenure and that may have led, at least in part, to my departure.

Leaked memo alleges lavish travel spending at auDA

Kevin Murphy, April 16, 2018, Domain Registries

A report into .au registry auDA’s historical travel expenses has leaked to the Australian media, the latest apparent salvo in the organization’s increasingly personal civil war.

The Sydney Morning Herald this evening reports on “allegations of lavish spending and misuse of expense accounts by some former directors and employees”.

The primary individual targeted (for want of a better word) by the story is Paul Szyndler, former head of public affairs at auDA and one of the three people behind the Grumpier.com.au campaign to ouster auDA’s current CEO and chair.

It seems the Herald has managed to scoop a leaked copy of an audit compiled by PPB Advisory, which has been looking into spending practices at auDA under its previous management.

The existence of this report has been known for some time, but little about its contents had made it into the public domain beyond a slide deck (pdf) alluding to slack controls on travel expenditure.

The newspaper reports that PPB claims Szyndler racked up several thousand dollars of expenses on a family trip to Disneyland to coincide with ICANN 51 in Los Angeles in 2014.

Shortly before the Herald published (overnight in Australia), Szyndler took to an Aussie domainer forum to admit the truth of the allegation, but explain that it was fully compliant with auDA’s expenses policy at the time.

“auDA had a very clear and well understood policy at the time, whereby staff — after receiving best-available business class airfare and accommodation quotes, could spend up to, but NOT MORE THAN that figure on personal arrangements,” Szyndler wrote.

“My family joined me on a number of international trips. None cost any more than it would have cost to send me alone,” he said.

In other words, if he’d left his family at home and skipped Disneyland, he would have spent the exact same amount on a business-class flight for himself.

The Herald also says that PPB identified thousands of dollars being spent on family member travel to exotic locations, credit card cash withdrawals, expensive restaurants and even a “butler service”.

It does not say which specific staffers or directors are alleged to have spent auDA money on those things.

Indeed, Szyndler is the only person connected to specific spending in the Herald’s report.

There’s no mention of any allegations against former CEO and current ICANN vice-chair Chris Disspain — under whose watch these expenses will have been incurred — though the piece does include his blanket denial of wrongdoing.

auDA’s new chair Chris Leptos — who also sits on the PPB board — revealed last week that “several” former directors have been referred to state police over “a number of practices” upon which he did not elaborate.

Szyndler and his other Grumpier auDA members have managed to rack up enough signatures on their petition to force auDA into a special members meeting, date to be determined, that will vote on whether to get rid of Leptos, CEO Cameron Boardman and two other independent directors.

The Australian government has also been probing the organization’s antics since October, and the Herald reports that its findings could be published as soon as tomorrow (today in Australia).

Could auDA be about to get Nominetted?

auDA refers former directors to police

Kevin Murphy, April 14, 2018, Domain Registries

Imploding Australian ccTLD registry auDA has ratted out “several” of its former directors to the local cops, it was revealed this week.

In a message to its community to mark Chris Leptos’ 150th day as chair of the organization, he wrote:

I am disappointed to advise you that in my first week as Independent Chair I was briefed on a number of practices of several former auDA directors. Your Board concluded that those practices warranted referral to the Victoria Police. As you would appreciate, it is not appropriate at this stage to provide further details regarding this matter.

I’m told there are 48 former auDA directors, and auDA has not said which of them have been referred to the police.

Josh Rowe, a former director who’s orchestrating a campaign to oust Leptos, auDA CEO Cameron Boardman, and two other directors, called the move a “heinous act of bullying against all 48 ex auDA directors”.

Another former director, the Aussie domain industry blogger David Goldstein, has suggested that the timing of the revelation was designed to “silence” critics including Rowe.

The Grumpier.com.au petition organized by Rowe and others has forced auDA to hold a members meeting at which the four directors’ future employment will be voted on.

auDA lawyers contacted Grumpier earlier this week to warn that any defamatory or confidential information posted on the site could lead to litigation.

But Leptos has now seemingly confirmed that the special members meeting will in fact go ahead.

Goldstein also suggested that the police referrals are related to insinuations contained within a pair of Freedom of Information Act requests filed late last year by domain consultant Ron Andruff.

In one of Andruff’s FOIA requests, he suggests that auDA may have paid legal fees of up to AUD 120,000 incurred by Rowe when he was sued almost a decade ago by a alleged domain slammer he had regularly criticized.

Rowe has called these inferences “grossly inaccurate” and “defamatory”.

In the other, which we have reported on previously, Andruff has asked for records of expenses incurred by former auDA CEO Chris Disspain, current vice-chair of ICANN.

Both FOIA requests have been denied by the Aussie government and subsequently appealed by Andruff.

Andruff is known to have beef with Disspain after he was passed over for a prominent ICANN volunteer role.

I should note for the record that, for all of the allegations swirling around, I have not seen any evidence directly connecting any individual to any wrongdoing.

Grumpier Aussies call for more blood on the auDA boardroom floor

A group of pissed-off members of the Australian domain name industry are calling for the heads of auDA’s CEO, its new chair, and two other members of its board.

A triumvirate of long-time participants in the auDA community say they have secured enough signatures on a petition to force the organization to call the meeting under Aussie law.

They want a vote of no confidence in the CEO, Cameron Boardman, and the firing of all three “independent” directors: Chris Leptos (also chair), Sandra Hook and Suzanne Ewart.

Their list of beefs is long, but high on it is auDA’s plan to open up .au to direct, second-level registrations for the first time, enabling folk to register example.au instead of example.com.au.

If this all sounds worryingly familiar, it’s because it’s the second year in a row members have called a special meeting in order to oust its top brass.

A campaign orchestrated at Grumpy.com.au last year resulted in chair Stuart Benjamin quitting ahead of a member vote to fire him.

This year’s campaign is being coordinated, with a nod and a wink but none of Grumpy’s original leaders, at Grumpier.com.au.

Entrepreneur Josh Rowe appears to have held the pen on the petition, backed up by former head of auDA public affairs Paul Szyndler and businessman Jim Stewart.

As well as the direct registration issue, which the three men think is merely a cash-grab with no benefits for registrants, the petitioners have some harsh things to say about auDA’s governance and transparency.

The organization has promised to be more open in the wake of last year’s carnage, but Grumpier thinks “things have only got worse”.

The petition also alludes to rumors of “whispering campaigns” against former staff and “possible financial irregularities”.

Rowe recently complained on his blog about a freedom of information request related to his own conduct, filed by the same person pursing form auDA CEO (and current ICANN vice chair) Chris Disspain with FOIA requests.

They also unhappy that auDA is switching .au’s registry service provider from Neustar to Afilias, gaining a rumored 60% discount of which only 10% will be passed on to registrars.

It’s all getting rather nasty, and I’ve not even mentioned some of the rumors of shenanigans that I seem to find in my inbox on an almost daily basis.

To force a special member meeting under Australian law, Grumpier says it had to secure signatures of 5% of the members, which it says it has done.

That’s not much of a threshold, given that auDA only has about 320 members at the moment.

Assuming auDA agrees that it has to hold a meeting, it has a couple of months to do so.

auDA role “could have killed me” says resigning domainer

Domainer and activist blogger Ned O’Meara has resigned from the auDA board of directors, about four months after being elected.

He said in an apologetic blog post that the “negative stress” caused by being on the .au registry’s board had sent his blood pressure up, making him worry about having a third heart attack.

“[I]f I continued slugging it out at auDA, I believe it could have killed me,” he wrote.

He went on to say that he expected to be sidelined on key votes such as auDA’s decision to sell domains directly at the second level, due to perceived “conflicts of interest”, which he disputed.

O’Meara was elected in November as a “demand-class” member of the board, after using his blog to spearhead a campaign for greater transparency at the organization.

It sounds to me like he’s made the correct decision in stepping aside. No matter how important you believe a domain policy to be, it’s not worth your health. I wish him well.

auDA said it is now looking for two demand-class directors, to fill O’Meara’s vacant seat and another seat that is opening up due to the end of another director’s term.

auDA probably won’t pass on full Afilias savings to registrants

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2018, Domain Registries

Switching .au’s back-end to Afilias will cut auDA’s per-domain costs by more than half, but registrants are not likely to benefit from the full impact of the savings.

auDA’s Bruce Tonkin, who led the committee that selected Afilias to replace incumbent Neustar, told DI this week that the organization is likely to take a bigger cut of .au registration fees in future, in order to invest in marketing.

That would include marketing the ability of Aussies to register .au domains at the second level for the first time — a controversial, yet-to-roll-out proposal.

Tonkin confirmed that the back-end fee auDA will be paying Afilias is less than half of what it is currently paying Neustar — the unconfirmed rumor is that it’s 40% of the current rate — but said that Afilias was not the cheapest of the nine bidders.

While .au names are sold for a minimum of two years, the current wholesale price charged to registrars works out to AUD 8.75 ($6.85) per year, of which Neustar gets AUD 6.33; auDA receives the other AUD 2.42.

A back-end fee of roughly $5 (US) per domain per year is well above market rates, so it’s pretty clear why auDA chose to open the contract to competition.

Tonkin explained the process by which Afilias was selected:

We first considered scoring without price, and Afilias received the highest score for non-financial criteria.

We then considered pricing information to form an assessment of value for money. The average pricing across the 9 [Request For Tender] responses was less than half of the present registry back-end fee ($6.33). Afilias was close to the average pricing, and while it was not the cheapest price — it was considered best value for money when taking into account the highest score in non-financial criteria.

I asked Afilias for comment on rumors that its price was 60% down on the current rate and received this statement:

Afilias believes auDA chose us based on the best overall value for the Australian internet community. The evaluation heavily weighted expertise, quality and breadth of service over price. While we don’t know what others bid, Afilias works to be competitive in today’s market. Attempts to price significantly higher than market without a value proposition are unrealistic and could even be considered price gouging.

It’s not known what price Neustar bid for the continuation of the contract, but I expect it will have also offered a deep discount to its current rate.

By switching, auDA is basically going to be saving itself over AUD 3 per domain per year, which works out to a total of AUD 9 million ($7 million) per year at least.

But the organization has yet to decide how much of that money, if any, to pass on to its registrars and ultimately registrants.

The auDA board of directors will meet in March to discuss this, Tonkin (who is in charge of the registry transition project but not on the board) said.

“We don’t want to set expectations that the wholesale price is going to change massively,” he said.

“I don’t expect it’s going to be any higher than the current wholesale price,” he said.

But he said he expects auDA to increase its slice of the pie in order to raise more money for marketing. The organization does “basically no marketing” now, he said.

“There’s certainly strong interest in doing more to market and grow the namespace,” he said. “One option is that more money is put into marketing the namespace and growing awareness of .au… That AUD 2.42, I expect that to change.”

This would include marketing direct second-level registrations, an incoming change to how .au names are sold that has domain investors worried about confusion and market dilution.

Outrage over the 2LD proposal — it appears to be a done deal, even if the details and timeline have yet to be finalized — has started attracting the attention of business media in Australia recently.

But auDA’s own research shows that opposition is not that substantial outside of these “special interests”.

A survey last year showed that 40% of .com.au registrants “support” or “strongly support” the direct registration proposal, with 18% “opposed” or “strongly opposed” Another 42% were completely unaware of the changes.

Support among .org.au registrants was lower, and it was higher among .net.au registrants.

But 36% of “special interests” — which appears to mean people who discovered the survey due to their close involvement in the domain industry — were opposed to the plan.

There’s no current timeline for the introduction of direct registrations, but the back-end handover from Neustar to Afilias is set to happen July 1 this year.

Neustar acquired AusRegistry, which has been running .au since 2002, for $87 million a couple of years ago.

Hundreds of words and acronyms banned from .au, domains frozen

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2018, Domain Policy

auDA has added hundreds of words, phrases and acronyms to its list of strings that are banned in .au and locked domains containing those strings.

There were only about 40 strings on the old banned list; now it’s closer to 300.

auDA has added to the list the names of brands protected by direct legislation, such as “Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix” and “Australian Defence Force Reserves”.

Also, phrases such as “What a Great Place for the Great Race” and “Commonwealth games Bronze”.

But what will be most concerning for non-cybersquatter .au registrants will be the acronyms and dictionary words that have been added.

These include the word “university” and acronyms such as “ran”, “adi” and “ara”, which could quite easily appear as substrings of legitimate words such as “grandma”, “radio” and “karate”.

Registrants of domains that exactly match the newly banned strings will find themselves unable to renew those domains, according to an auDA FAQ:

All words, phrases or acronyms on the list at Schedule A have been blocked from registration at the Registry. If you believe that you should be able to renew the domain name, you will need to demonstrate to your Registrar and auDA that you have Ministerial consent to use the domain name or your use of the domain name does not attract the restriction.

If there’s only a partial, substring match, registrants won’t be able to transfer the domain to a different registrant, according to the FAQ:

auDA has placed a lock on domain names that contain words, phrases or acronyms which appear on the list in Schedule A to prevent the transfer of these names to third parties. auDA will remove the lock where registrants can provide the requisite consent, or demonstrate that the use of the domain name does not attract the restriction.

The list was expanded following an auDA policy review that looked at what words are protected under Australian legislation.

The review itself acknowledged that the banned list is a bit of a blunt instrument, as in many cases it’s not the string that is banned but rather the use of the string.

Presumably, if you own “karate.com.au” it will be fairly straightforward to show you’re not infringing the rights of the Australian Regular Army.

The registry’s advice to registrants who believe their names are affected is to lawyer up:

Registrants are encouraged to check whether their domain name/s contain any words, abbreviations, acronyms or phrases appearing on the Schedule. If a name appears on the Schedule, registrants should seek independent legal advice on appropriate action. auDA cannot provide legal advice.

The new list of banned words can be found here. I’ve taken a screen capture of the old list from Google’s cache of January 20, here.