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Big names shunned as Nominet names first registrar council members

Nominet has named the first six members of UK Registrar Advisory Council, and I think it’s fair to say there’s a definite tilt towards the grassroots/activist end of the ballot.

Major registrars Tucows, Markmonitor and Web.com (Newfold Digital) were shunned, as members elected Rex Wickham of TwentyTwentyMedia and Arnaud Franquinet of Gandi, both smaller, lesser-known registrars, for two years and one year respectively.

From the mid-to-small registrar segment, two members who had vocally supported the PublicBenefit.uk campaign earlier this year were voted in — Andrew Bennett of Netistrar for two years and Dan Rodgers of Domain Registrar Services for one year.

The independent segment directors will be Susannah Clark, who trades as “Girl Next Door” for two years and Ciprian Cucuruz, Webber Multimedia for one year. Both had run unopposed.

The terms are different length for the first two years so they can be eventually staggered for continuity.

The UKRAC was introduced following the member revolt this March, which saw executives and staff removed and a promised overhaul with how Nominet conducts business and interacts with its members.

The panel will be chaired by member-elected non-executive director Anne Taylor. No date has been set for its first meeting.

Nominet names new chair, slashes exec pay, promises reforms and more boardroom exits

Nominet has named its new chair as former BT Openworld CEO Andy Green, who has already laid out a suite of measures — including more blood on the boardroom floor — to address the barrage of criticisms from members who ousted his predecessor earlier this year.

Green is a serial director, with previous board and advisory positions at over a dozen other companies and organizations, mostly in technology and telecommunications.

Nominet, in announcing his appointment, highlighted that he’s a National Infrastructure Commissioner, chair of WaterAid UK, and vice chair of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

He’s got a foot in both the worlds of internet infrastructure and public-benefit causes, in other words — a CV seemingly ideal for the role at this time in Nominet’s troubled history.

In an email to members last week, Green said:

The EGM in March showed that Nominet has failed over a number of years to sufficiently engage with members about the scope and direction of the company. I start my term as Chairman committed to controlling costs (including executive pay), delivering value to members, restoring Nominet’s reputation for great public benefit work at scale and communicating transparently with members about the future direction of Nominet.

March’s Emergency General Meeting was called by members that Nominet seemed to be acting more as a commercial player rather than a public-benefit member organization, more concerned with branching out into new markets and stuffing its directors wallets than focusing on .uk and giving profits to charitable causes.

The EGM saw members narrowly vote to kick out almost half of the board, including the chair. Then-CEO Russel Haworth had quit just a few days earlier, before he too could be ejected.

Green said he wants to “reset the relationship with members starting now”.

He announced six reviews covering controversial areas including registry fees, executive/director compensation, charitable giving, member engagement and non-core services.

He also said that he expects that, following its Annual General Meeting on September 22, more than half of the board of directors will comprise people who were not in place prior to the March EGM.

By next year’s AGM, the board would be “substantially replenished”, he said.

Executives are also getting a battering — Green announced that Nominet has closed its long-term incentives scheme, “which will mean significantly reduced remuneration overall for senior executives”.

The company has named another new director, Eva Lindqvist, who as new chair of the board’s Remuneration Committee will oversee who gets paid what.

Pirate Bay founder among candidates for Nominet advisory council

Nominet has opened up the voting for its inaugural UK Registrar Advisory Council, and there’s at least one eyebrow-raising candidate.

Peter Sunde, who founded the Pirate Bay file-sharing web site and served time for copyright infringement, has put his name forward to be one of six members who will ultimately serve on the council.

The UKRAC is a new creation of Nominet, part of its effort to make peace with members who conducted a coup in March.

The council will comprise two members from the larger registrars, two from the medium-small registrars, and two independents/domainers.

Sunde has put himself forward as a member of the small-medium category, through Sarek, one of two registrars he’s known to be involved in.

He recently told DI that ICANN won’t give Sarek a formal accreditation in the gTLD space because the org is worried that he’ll be a “pain in the ass”.

He told Nominet members he is “from the activist community” and has a love for “the influence that comes with being a registrar”.

He’ll be competing for a seat with an eclectic array of other hopefuls.

There’s Lesley Moody MBE, managing director of AES Digital, who I think it’s fair to say is a much more establishment figure, focused as much on the responsibilities of members to the company as vice versa.

Likewise, Benedict Addis of the Registrar of Last Resort Foundation is also on the ballot. He’s a security guy and former UK cyber-cop, who has for a long time been a voice of law enforcement in the ICANN community.

One of Addis’ proposers, Andrew Bennett, is also standing in his own capactiy. He’s from Netistrar and has been a vocal critic of Nominet over multiple administrations for well over a decade.

Rounding out the ballot of Sunde’s opponents are John Richards of Watchet Web Design, Dan Rodgers of Domain Registrar Services Ltd and Stephen Yarrow of Driver Information Systems.

In the large registrar category the nominations are Arnaud Franquinet of Gandi, Ashley La Bolle of Tucows, Prudence Malinki of MarkMonitor, Barbara Sher of Register.com (part of Newfold Digital) and Rex Wickham of TwentyTwentyMedia.

In separate blog posts today, La Bolle and Wickham have both expressed support for the PublicBenefit.uk campaign that led to the current Nominet reforms.

In the independent registrar category, which is for members who are accredited mainly to register names more cheaply for their own use, the candidates are relative newcomer Ciprian Cucuruz of Webber Multimedia and Susannah Clark, who does business as “Girl Next Door” and expresses skepticism that the UKRAC is much more than a Nominet PR exercise.

Given they’re the only two candidates for the two available seats, they both appear to be shoo-ins.

The election will be run using a single transferable vote system, with each member getting a single vote unrelated to the size of their .uk installed base. Voting closes July 22 and results announced a few days later.

The full list of candidates and all their personal statements can be found here (pdf).

Nominet throws money at member-chosen charities

Nominet is to make up to £600,000 ($830,000) a year available to charities nominated by its members.

The upcoming GiveHub platform comes as part of the .uk registry’s ongoing effort to appease members who believe the company has not being doing enough to live up to its public interest mandate in recent year.

Nominet said yesterday that it will make up to 10 grants available each month, up to a total value of £50,000.

Recipients will be nominated by members and vetted by a panel of five volunteer members. They’ll have to be UK-based registered charities “whose work aligns with our commitment to making the world more connected, inclusive and secure”, Nominet said.

GiveHub is expected to launch for a six-month pilot on August 2 and Nominet is currently looking for volunteers to serve on its grants panel.

The move comes a few months after a huge shakeup of the company caused by a member revolt that narrowly saw half of its board of directors, including its CEO and chair, culled amid calls for lower prices and more money given to good causes.

Nominet had committed £4 million to public benefit in the first half of this year, double the amount it has been giving for the last few years under previous management.

No more acquisitions for Nominet

Nominet isn’t in the market for buying up other companies any more.

The .uk registry said today that its board of directors has dissolved its mergers and acquisitions committee, which means no more deals in the rapidly consolidating domain name space for the foreseeable future.

The company said the board has “agreed to a proposal to dissolve the M&A Committee in recognition that this type of activity is unlikely to form a central component in the corporate strategy moving forward.”

It’s also dissolved its Cyber Advisory Panel, which looked for potential business opportunities in the internet security space.

The moves come a couple of months after member pressure forced the resignation or sacking of five members of Nominet’s board, including its CEO, in part because of a perception that diversification was harming the core .uk domains business.

But a spokesperson confirmed that the M&A ban is “across the board”, including core and non-core sectors. The decision may be revisited in future, but there are no plans to do so right now.

The PublicBenefit.uk campaign that forced the change of strategic direction had also called for lower .uk prices, more profit sent to public benefit causes, and for greater member engagement.

At its May board meeting, Nominet also agreed to an as-yet-unspecified pricing promotion, an emphasis on public benefit contributions in its budget, and the creation of a UK Registry Advisory Council.

A call for applications for seats on this Council will go out next week.

Anger as Nominet rejects coup’s pick for chair

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2021, Domain Registries

.uk registry Nominet has rejected its members’ favorite for chair of the board, causing no small amount of irritation among those who backed last month’s boardroom coup.

Company acting chair Rob Binns yesterday told members that Sir Michael Lyons, who headed a review of Nominet a few years ago, will not be asked to be chair, after they failed to reach agreement on terms.

The company has posted an application form (pdf) for would-be chairs.

It seems Lyons was only looking for a short-term gig to help transition Nominet to a new operating model in line with the demands of the PublicBenefit.uk campaign, but Nominet wanted a commitment of at least three years.

Binns wrote (pdf) to members:

After much careful consideration, the Board has decided not to invite Sir Michael to be acting Chair. There was much in common between the current path the board is committed to, and Sir Michael’s view. However, the Board wants and needs a long-term Chair appointment to steer the company’s future and that did not align with Sir Michael’s conditions. We did explore a non-executive director seat but it was clear Sir Michael did not want such a role.

Binns had previously informed members their pick for deputy chair, Axel Pawlik, had also declined a consulting role at the registry.

Lyons and Pawlik had been put forward, with their cooperation, as replacement directors in last month’s Emergency General Meeting, which saw chair Mark Wood and three other directors fired by a slim majority of member votes.

CEO Russell Haworth resigned from both his executive and board roles shortly before the EGM rather that face the vote.

While PublicBenefit’s effort to slash the board almost in half was successful, a second motion to install Lyons and Pawlik did not make it to the agenda, with Nominet’s previous leadership claiming it broke company rules on member-selected directors.

Both Lyons and Pawlik signed a letter to Nominet yesterday expressing disappointment that they failed to come to an agreement and dripping with grim foreshadowing of future member action.

It (pdf) reads a little like a preemptive told-you-so.

We do not believe that you are currently in a strong enough position to begin recruiting new board members or a new CEO. Both require clarity about future mission and stability.

From the very beginning of our discussions, I have consistently underlined my concern to avoid a continuing period of uncertainty or to inherit a divided board, trying to fight the battles of the past. I wish you well with the task you have taken on.

The PublicBenefit campaign, spearheaded by Simon Blackler of the registrar Krystal Hosting, wants Nominet to eschew the diversification of its recent years under Haworth and return to its domain name registry roots, with lower wholesale prices and more money returned to public benefit causes.

The remaining board, under Binns and now supplemented by two newly appointed members of Nominet’s executive suite, has put forward a plan that addresses some of the campaign’s concerns, but many members do not believe quite enough humble pie has been eaten yet.

Members were angered last week when head of registry Eleanor Bradley, one of the ousted directors, was made interim CEO, a move one member today described as “taking the piss”.

Today, most of the member sentiment on social media has been critical of Nominet’s post-EGM choices, with rumblings of a second EGM to finish off the job.

But there was some appreciation that Nominet has been heavily engaging in discussions on Twitter today, which marks a switch from the pre-EGM hands-off approach to member engagement.

The company will hold a members-only meeting on Friday morning to discuss its plan for the future and, unlike the EGM, listen-only passes for the media appear to be available.

Motion to fire five Nominet directors passes in tight vote

Kevin Murphy, March 22, 2021, Domain Registries

Nominet’s members this afternoon voted to fire five of the .uk registry’s directors, including its chair and CEO, in an unexpectedly tight poll.

There were 2,432,105 votes in favor of the motion to fire Mark Wood, Eleanor Bradley, Ben Hill and Jane Tozer, compared to 2,179,477 against, which works out to 52.74% for and 47.26% against.

Members get allotted votes according to how many domains under management they have, capped at 3% of the total cross-membership vote count.

In the end, it appears that the vote was swung by a small handful of larger registrars. Tucows and Namecheap were the largest registrars to say they would vote for the board cull.

Turnout was 53.5% of eligible voters, which I gather is extraordinarily high for a Nominet member vote. The full results are here (pdf).

The original motion also named CEO Russell Haworth, but he quit his board seat and executive role yesterday.

Bradley and Hill, respectively managing director of the registry and CFO, have left the board but keep their staff jobs.

Rob Binns is now acting chair, Nominet said.

The vote took place at an Extraordinary General Meeting held virtually this afternoon, which was called for after 5% of Nominet’s registrar/domainer members signed a petition at PublicBenefit.uk.

The campaign was orchestrated by Simon Blacker of the registrar Krystal Hosting, reflecting growing displeasure among members about Nominet’s strategic direction and lack of member engagement.

After the result was announced this hour, Blackler was quick to hail it as “a watershed moment in Nominet’s history”, saying that it “demonstrates the resolve of the membership to restore its original purpose”, in a letter (pdf) to the “remnant” board.

He went on to call for the campaign’s original two picks for chair and vice-chair replacements — Sir Michael Lyons and Axel Pawlik — to be appointed to the board on an interim basis.

The EGM, which lasted for about an hour, saw directors repeatedly acknowledge and occasionally apologize for taking too long to recognize the breadth and depth of members’ concerns, promising to turn things around.

The key theme to emerge was that the company is now on the same page as its members and is committed to addressing their concerns, but that eliminating almost half of the 11-person board would delay these actions by months.

Wood also reiterated that the threat of UK government intervention is real, should it be perceived that Nominet — a piece of critical infrastructure in all but name — was becoming unstable.

The EGM result was due around 1800 UTC but was delayed by more than three hours, apparently due to the higher than expected turnout.

Nominet boss jumps before he is pushed

Kevin Murphy, March 22, 2021, Domain Registries

With the almost inevitable prospect of being fired by Nominet’s membership this afternoon, CEO Russell Haworth yesterday quit the company.

He will leave both the board of directors and the corner office after a “short transition” and by “mutual consent”, the board announced. Interim leadership will be announced later.

Chair Mark Wood said in a statement: “The board appreciates his decision to step down now at a time when it is clear the company needs to consider its future direction.”

The announcement came a day before Nominet, the .uk registry, holds an Emergency General Meeting called by its membership of registrars and domainers, unhappy with the direction the company has taken over the five years of Haworth’s leadership.

He has faced criticism for diversifying the business outside of core registry services, inflating his own salary, increasing domain prices, ignoring member input, and slashing the amount of money given to public benefit causes.

Wood’s own position is still precarious — the EGM, which came about after a petition at PublicBenefit.uk secured the support of 5% of Nominet’s members, will in a matter of hours consider a motion to fire Haworth, Wood and three other directors.

A second motion, to install two new hand-picked directors who promised to reconfigure the registry’s strategy, did not make the agenda as Nominet says it is not compatible with the company’s own rules on director selection.

With Haworth’s departure evidently some kind of 11th-hour queen sacrifice, Wood made one last public plea to the PublicBenefit.uk campaign, which is led by Krystal Hosting’s Simon Blackler, to back off.

He told members that Nominet has already moved to address many of their concerns: freezing (although not lowering) domain prices, freezing board/executive compensation, donating more profit to worthy causes, and creating new channels for membership engagement. He wrote:

Nominet is not a standard company. It is a membership organisation, and the members need to buy into the company’s strategy. It is clear many do not.

Simon Blackler’s campaign tapped into this discontent, and we have seen his support grow. At the same time, I have also had the opportunity to speak with a large number of members of different types and sizes all around the world. I have heard consistently that Nominet should focus on registry, that they want better member involvement in decision-making, and that more of our financial reserves should be devoted to public benefit activity. That input should set the framework for where Nominet moves next. And the journey should begin at once.

With the vote now upon us, I think it no longer really matters which way the result goes. The campaign has had its desired impact, reinforced by the dialogue we have had with so many members. We are all moving in the same direction and aiming to achieve the same objectives.

He went on to double-down on claims that the UK government may exercise its decade-old statutory powers to step in and take over the registry, if it detects the company has been destabilized.

I was not scaremongering in warning that government are also watching developments very closely. The .UK registry and our cyber platforms are key parts of critical national infrastructure, and they cannot be put at risk from internal upheaval at Nominet. We have been questioned in detail about developments and have been told bluntly that the government is dusting off its intervention powers under the 2010 Digital Communications Act. We must tread carefully.

The last-minute olive branch and warning combo is probably not enough to save Wood’s bacon, however.

On Twitter, the PublicBenefit.uk campaign this morning continued to call for “the immediate appointment of Sir Michael and Axel Pawlik”, the two men it backs to become chair and vice-chair respectively.

The members-only EGM will be held at 1500 UTC today. PublicBenefit has secured the support of almost 30% of members’ voting rights, including those of large registrars Tucows and Namecheap, but it only needs a simple majority of those who actually show up to the (virtual) meeting today in order to get its resolution passed. Such meetings are historically lightly attended.

Watch: the exact moment Nominet’s CEO sealed his fate

Kevin Murphy, March 19, 2021, Domain Registries

With Nominet CEO Russell Haworth set to lose his job on Monday, the chain of events that led to his ouster can probably be traced back to a single statement made last year, which was happily caught on camera.

At the company’s Annual General Meeting last September, Haworth announced the closure of the member discussion forum it had hosted on its own web site for many years.

He said the forum was “dominated by a handful of posters, and has increasingly become aggressive and hostile, not least towards our staff”.

The plug was pulled on the site immediately, mid-speech, driving active members into a rage.

One unimpressed member was Simon Blackler, CEO of Krystal Hosting, who later went on to start the PublicBenefit.uk campaign, whose supporters are set to ouster five directors on Monday.

Blackler told The Register recently that the “deliberately spiteful” forum closure was the final straw after years of complaints about Haworth’s leadership.

Here’s the video of Haworth’s speech, cued up to the time-code when he seals his fate:

Restoring the old forum was one of a raft of measures Nominet recently said it would introduce in order to respond to member concerns and stave off the boardroom cull. But that was apparently too little too late.

Stick a fork in Nominet’s leadership. Tucows votes to fire half the board

Kevin Murphy, March 19, 2021, Domain Registries

Tucows has become the latest registrar to say it will vote to fire five of Nominet’s 11 directors, including its CEO and chair, making the success of the ongoing member-driven coup pretty much inevitable.

The company said yesterday that it has already voted for the PublicBenefit.uk campaign’s motion, to be considered at the .uk registry’s Emergency General Meeting on Monday.

Tucows is Nominet’s fourth-largest registrar, with 381,468 domains under management. Its voting rights are capped at 3% of the total.

PublicBenefit.uk now says it has 29.1% of all votes backing its campaign, with 473 members signed up.

Because the threshold to pass its resolution is a simple majority of those who actually turn out to vote on the day, the likelihood of the five directors surviving the EGM are now surely negligible.

The first motion kicks out CEO Russell Haworth, chair Mark Wood, CFO Ben Hill, registry managing director Eleanor Bradley and appointed non-executive director Jane Tozer.

The second, which Nominet refused to put on the ballot, would have appointed two new directors: Sir Michael Lyons, who will serve as chair, and Axel Pawlik, deputy chair. Lyons is a former chair of the BBC Trust, who in 2015 oversaw a review into Nominet’s corporate governance. Pawlik is a former MD of European IP address registry RIPE-NCC.

Both have promised to refocus Nominet by abandoning its attempts to diversify into commercial areas such as cybersecurity, while also reducing .uk wholesale prices and donating more of its profits to public benefit causes.

In throwing its weight behind the resolution, Tucows’ director of domains Ashley La Bolle said in a blog post:

Most registries, but particularly country code registries are, or should be, very profitable operations. A country code TLD is also a public asset and an important component of a nation’s critical infrastructure. The registry should have a narrow and focused mandate, deliver a stable and secure service, operate in a risk-averse manner, and manage costs appropriately. As a public asset, surplus funds from the operation of a registry should be delivered to thoughtful and relevant public benefit initiatives, while also containing and reducing costs for the millions of businesses and consumers that use and rely on the domain names.

It’s the second of Nominet’s top 10 registrars to back PublicBenefit.uk, after #7 Namecheap, which has 201,355 .uk names under management.

The Internet Commerce Association, which represents the interest of domain investors but is not a Nominet member, said it took no position on the resolution, but broadly supported the overarching goals:

The ICA urges Nominet members to support efforts to restore Nominet’s core mission to operate the registry at cost as a not-for profit. Nominet’s management should never raise registration fees beyond what it takes to operate the registry in a prudent manner, with any excess revenue being directed to worthy causes and not to growing the breadth of Nominet’s limited mandate.

Those Nominet members who have pledged support for the board shakeup are being urged to give their voting proxy to Simon Blackler, who runs the registrar Krystal Hosting and initiated the PublicBenefit.uk campaign, before close of business UK time today.

Blackler says that almost all of these members have already voted.

It’s going to take an unprecedented turnout of Nominet’s remaining membership, with the vast majority opposed to the firings, to save these five directors at this point.

UPDATE: This article was updated shortly after its original posting to clarify that Nominet had refused to put the campaign’s second motion on the ballot.