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Nominet declares member coup “invalid”

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2021, Domain Registries

Nominet has stared fighting back against a plot by some of its members to kick out the CEO, chair and three other directors, declaring part of the plan “invalid”.

The PublicBenefit.uk campaign, which currently has the backing of over 17% of members’ voting rights, wants to replace these five directors with two of its own choosing: former BBC Trust chair Sir Michael Lyons and former RIPE NCC managing director Axel Pawlik.

Nominet confirmed yesterday that it will shortly call the demanded Extraordinary General Meeting, as required by its bylaws, and that the resolution calling for the board cull will be voted on.

But it said it cannot allow the second resolution, which would bring in the two new directors, to go ahead. Chair Mark Wood wrote that such a move would be illegal under Nominet’s own rules on director selection:

we have unequivocal advice that the second resolution, seeking to designate Sir Michael Lyons and Axel Pawlik as Directors is invalid and cannot be put before members. We have reviewed this carefully with our legal advisors, and independent counsel, who have all advised us that this is the case. This is because Members may appoint directors only through the elections process specified by our constitution, articles and bylaws, and the maximum number of member-elected Board seats are already filled.

Wood goes on to say that to remove so many key directors and leave their seats empty would be a further destabilizing factor on the company, which runs the .uk registry.

The risk of leaving Nominet rudderless has been a key theme of the company’s response to PublicBenefit.uk since its petition first emerged last month. Nominet wants the EGM request withdrawn.

The campaign, which is fronted by Simon Blackler of Krystal Hosting, tweeted in response:

We sought legal advice before we started and believe both resolutions are valid.

If you’re truly worried about stability resign and appoint the Directors the members want?

The campaign wants a clean slate on the board in order to have Nominet reduce its wholesale prices, rein in its efforts at product diversification, and start returning more of its profits to public benefit causes.

Wood last week committed to pay £4 million to such causes in the first half of this year, double its 2020 contribution and a return to 2016 levels.

Nominet boss has epiphany and calls for calm as his job hangs by a thread

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2021, Domain Registries

Nominet’s CEO has abruptly taken a conciliatory tone with members in a new blog post, as support grows for his ouster.

Russell Haworth today posted that the organization and its members need to change the tone of their often-hostile arguments, and agreed to play his part in doing that in future.

In the next several weeks, Nominet will be forced to hold an Extraordinary General Meeting in which members will try to fire Haworth and most of the board of directors.

He also called for members to be “pragmatic” about Nominet’s strategy, reminding them that the internet is a very different and more dangerous place than the idealistic technology Eden that birthed it 25 years ago:

Nominet was founded at a time when the Internet was a palpable source of hope and optimism, long before it was considered critical national infrastructure, and before the very real challenges all of us now face keeping things running and safe.

We try to manage Nominet for the Internet that we have, even as we keep striving for the world where technology continues to deliver on its potential as a force for good.

As we know, today’s Internet sadly has too many bad actors bent on destruction and equipped with increasingly complex digital weaponry. Managing crucial elements of the UK’s Internet infrastructure requires that we bring a cold realism to the challenge and that we equip ourselves professionally and commercially to succeed.

This appears to be a justification for the company’s venture into commercial network security services, which Nominet’s critics believe is non-core, eating up resources that could otherwise be diverted to public benefit causes.

Simon Blackler of the registrar Krystal Hosting, who launched the petition for the EGM at PublicBenefit.uk, told DI:

He seems to be saying that Nominet needs to protect against bad actors; something we’ve not disagreed with. Of course Nominet should secure critical .UK infrastructure. That’s just a part of the core business. It’s more questionable whether it needs to be making forays in to commercial “cyber defence”, something that’s being covered by the private sector (and presumably Government) already.

One of PublicBenefit’s criticisms has been that spending on board compensation, and Haworth’s pay in particular, has risen even while operating profits have declined.

Haworth’s post goes on to say that Nominet staff are regularly headhunted by other tech firms, which may or may not be a response to this criticism.

Addressing the “tone” of the debate, Haworth acknowledges that Nominet has been at odds with some members for a very long time. Members have been angered by changes such as the decision six years ago to allow direct, second-level registrations, he notes.

Perhaps as a result of the length of some of these disagreements, we all may have found ourselves approaching our interactions with the wrong tone.

In order to make progress, that needs to change. I commit to playing my part to make that happen. Starting now.

The post comes as the PublicBenefit.uk campaign hits 176 supporting members representing 13% of all potential votes.

That not may not seem like a lot, but due to Nominet’s complicated system of vote caps and the fact that EGN turnout is not usually very high, it could well be enough to get the 50%+1 of votes cast required to ouster Haworth and the other targeted board members.

On the “tone” question, Blackler disputes Haworth’s narrative, telling us:

I find it surprising that he feels the need to address “tone”. The campaign I’ve put together is based on fact and where there’s emotion from me it’s to do with the staggering waste of an opportunity with regards to Nominet’s public benefit mandate

He said he talked this week to chairman Mark Wood, who’s also on the EGM hit-list, and the tone was “entirely civil”.

An impetus for the current campaign was Nominet’s decision to close down its age-old web-based member discussion forum, which happened live during the company’s Annual General Meeting last year.

While Haworth described the forum at the time “increasingly become aggressive and hostile” towards Nominet staff, many members took the move as a deliberate slap in the face and an indication the company was no longer interested in engaging with members.

It is now.

Fire the board! Registrars attempt a coup at Nominet

Kevin Murphy, February 3, 2021, Domain Registries

The registrars are revolting — again — at Nominet.

Members representing 12.2% of the .uk registry’s voting rights have put their names to a call for five of the company’s unelected directors, including CEO Russell Haworth, to be fired and replaced with two hand-picked alternatives.

The plan is to shake up the company by slashing wholesale .uk prices and donating more money to worthy “public benefit” causes.

Nominet has warned in response that such a move would be “highly disruptive to our work and our team”.

The campaign, which can be found at PublicBenefit.uk, was kicked off by the registrar Krystal Hosting, which has about 45,000 .uk domains under management.

Signatories want to call an Extraordinary General Meeting that would vote on kicking out Haworth, along with chair Mark Wood, registry managing director Eleanor Bradley and directors Benjamin Hill and Jane Tozer.

Four elected non-exec directors and two non-elected directors would remain.

A second resolution would replace these directors with former BBC Trust chair Sir Michael Lyons and former RIPE NCC managing director Axel Pawlik, who have both confirmed their interest in the positions. Lyons would be chair.

Only 5% of Nominet’s voting rights — calculated largely from how many domains each member manages — are needed to call an EGM. At 12.2%, the campaign has already succeeded in passing that threshold. It would need 50%+1 of those attending the EGM to actually carry the resolutions.

The campaign claims that Nominet has gone downhill ever since Haworth was appoint five years ago.

It claims that the amount of money Nominet donates to “public benefit” causes has shrunk from £26 million ($35.5 million) in the preceding five years to £9.8 million in the five years since. That’s even while its wholesale prices for .uk domains increased 50% from £2.50 to £3.75 a year.

Director pay has gone up by 70% over the same period, it claims.

The registry also stands accused of frittering away money on acquisitions and pointless diversification into non-core businesses. Krystal founder Simon Blackler wrote:

This is not a VC-backed Silicon Valley startup that needs to take risks, make speculative acquisitions, “pivot” or worry about unnecessary diversifications. This is Nominet, the guardian of the .UK namespace and we’d like it back, please.

A second — and arguably more-important, if you’re a cynic — goal is to get the price of .uk domains to come down. This would reduce the carrying cost of portfolios held for resale by some Nominet members.

In response, Haworth has blogged that “an EGM and change of board at this time would be highly destabilising to Nominet and disrupt a range of fantastic programmes that are currently underway or planned”. He wrote:

I understand that there are frustrations and disagreements about how we run the business, and we are open to looking at those and making any adjustments that are in the interests of the company and the wider stakeholder community we serve. More on that to come.

The company has just approved a pricey multi-year investment in improving the registry infrastructure, he wrote.

The board has also approved a new Registry Advisory Council, which would be made up of members and have the ability to make recommendations on pricing, which could address concerns that Nominet has not been especially responsive to its members, he wrote.

Nominet came under fire last year when it unilaterally closed down the discussion forums on its web site, announcing and executing the move during its Annual General Meeting, saying posters had become “increasingly aggressive and hostile” towards Nominet staff.

At time of writing, 153 Nominet members, including four of the top 20 by .uk domain volume, have signed up to the campaign.

UPDATE: This article was updated 1248 UTC to correct the composition of the board and voting thresholds.

“Criminal” domain suspensions drop again in .uk but thousands of pandemic domains frozen

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet suspended thousands fewer suspected criminal domains in 2020 than last year, according to the registry’s latest annual update.

For the 12 months to the end of October, Nominet took down 22,158 domains, is down from 28,937 in the year-ago period.

As usual, suspected intellectual property crime made up almost all the takedowns — the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit was behind 21,632 requests, down from 28,606.

Notably, despite the reported uptick in scams related to the coronavirus pandemic, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency made just 13 takedown requests, down from 31.

This is perhaps due to Nominet taking a proactive approach, putting domains containing certain related keywords on hold at the point of registration. It froze 3,811 such domains this year, later releasing 1,568.

Eight domains were suspended for criminal activity related to Covid-19, the company said.

There were no suspensions related to banned “rape” domains, despite over a thousand new registrations being flagged for manual review. Nor were there any takedowns of domains hosting child sexual abuse material.

It’s the second year in a row that suspensions have been down. In the 2017/18 period Nominet took down 32,813 domains.

Domain growth dropped off in Q3, says Verisign

Kevin Murphy, November 24, 2020, Domain Registries

The third quarter saw the worldwide domain industry base of registrations increase by 600,000 names over the second quarter, according to Verisign’s latest Domain Name Industry Brief.

September ended with 370.7 million names registered across all TLDs, up 0.2% sequentially and 3% year over year.

Annual growth of 10.8 million names is a sharp drop off from the 15.3 million growth seen in Q2, during which many nations were under coronavirus lockdown.

Breaking it down by sector, it’s a case of .com growth being offset by shrinkages in new gTLDs and ccTLD, at least on an annual basis.

.com ended the quarter with 150.3 million names, up from 148.7 million three months earlier, which .net was flat at 13.4 million.

ccTLDs as a whole were at 160.6 million, up by 500,000 sequentially but down by 1.2 million compared to Q3 2019.

Unusually, the ccTLD numbers were not affected one way or the other by free extension .tk, where domains are never deleted. Verisign reports the TLD flat in Q3, but I suspect that’s due to a lack of fresh data rather than anything else.

In the top 10 largest ccTLDs, most grew or were flat sequentially. The notable standout was .uk, which lost a full million domains compared to Q2 due to the expiry of a million second-level names in September.

New gTLDs declined by 1.5 million names to settle at 30.2 million at the end of the quarter, according to the DNIB.

The report can by downloaded from this page.

Nominet shuts down “hostile” discussion forum

Kevin Murphy, September 23, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet has angered members by unilaterally shutting down a discussion forum that has been for many years the main place for discussions about .uk policy.

The forum, which Nominet hosted on its web site, went dark abruptly during the company’s annual general meeting yesterday.

Speaking to members tuning in to the live webcast, CEO Russell Haworth said that the forum was “dominated by a handful of posters, and has increasingly become aggressive and hostile, not least towards our staff”.

And then it was gone.

Haworth said he expected criticism over the move, which was “fine”, adding that posters have plenty of other venues to air their grievances.

He also suggested periodic Zoom calls to communicate with members.

The decision to close the forum is being greeted poorly by affected members (presumably the ones who most actively used it) on social media and seen as a way for power to be further consolidated among Nominet’s biggest revenue-generators.

Nominet recently came in for criticism for its efforts to grab a slice of the drop-catching pie by charging registrars an extra £600 a year (now, members note, up to £1,000) for additional EPP tunnels.

It also recently admitted privately to members that it last year miscalculated how many votes members they should get in directorship elections, but insisted the error did not have an effect on the outcome of the most recent poll.

The move is not entirely without precedent. Those of you with as many grey hairs as me may recall the old Domain-Policy mailing list, once the central hub for community discussions, going dark back in 2001.

But Verisign, which hosted the list and its archives, explained that move as a measure to reduce redundancy, rather than straight-up admitting that it was a PR move to silence its legion of critics.

Told us so? Nominet ditches auctions plan, will charge drop-catchers higher fees instead

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2020, Domain Registries

Nominet has ruled out auctioning off expired .uk domains names, after a member rebellion.

The .uk registry said last Thursday that it “will not pursue an auction model”, despite previously indicating that it was the best option for how to reform the dropping domains market.

This means the most likely model in future is going to be a huge increase in fees for registrars that aggressively engage in drop-catching.

A month ago, Nominet said that it was considering changing how it handles dropping domains, with either a system of registry-managed auctions or a system of increased fees for drop-catchers.

It appeared to many (yours truly included), based on a Nominet scoring system for each available option, that auctions were the preferred choice.

The registry originally denied that auctions were a shoo-in and now, apparently responding to critics, has ruled that option out completely.

Registry MD Eleanor Bradley wrote:

we will not pursue an auction model. While a proportion of responses from a wide range of sectors including the drop–catching market supported this approach, the prevailing view was this is not the role of the Registry.

Introducing a new approach for those that wish to drop–catch names where participants can purchase connections is the option we will pursue further.

Nominet says that some kind of change is “necessary” because currently .uk drop-catchers are sometimes in the habit of creating spurious Nominet memberships in order to increase the number of simultaneous EPP connections they can use, maximizing their chances of securing drops.

The registry calls this “collusion” and against its acceptable use policies.

In future, it seems drop-catchers will instead have to directly buy extra connections from Nominet. An annual price of £600 ($800) for a batch of six connections, up to a maximum of £6,000 for 60, has previously been floated.

Bradley said that the final details of the plan have yet to be determined.

The decision follows a consultation which received 107 comments and a member petition.

Drop auctions not a slam-dunk, says Nominet

Nominet has responded to criticism of its plans to introduce registry-level .uk drop auctions by saying it’s not about money-grabbing and is not guaranteed to even happen.

Registry MD Eleanor Bradley today blogged:

In some quarters the commentary suggests the driver for change is financial, or to make life more difficult for some business models. It is not.

As commercial gain was not our objective, we have suggested that any additional funds raised by changing the policy would be directed towards public benefit activity or used to provide specific services to registrars. Indeed, how to best spend additional funds that result from any policy change is part of the consultation.

The consultation referred to here was launched earlier this month. It suggests replacing the current drop-catching system, in which Nominet suspects some members “collude” to pool their EPP connections, with one of two new processes.

One would be a straightforward auction of desirable dropping names. The other would be to charge drop-catchers up to £6,000 a year for extra concurrent registry connections.

Bradley wrote that “the assumption in some quarters that an auction approach is our preferred option — a fait accompli –- are wide of the mark”.

As I’m one of the people who reported that auctions were Nominet’s “apparently preferred” option, I’ll note that my take was based on the company’s own consultation document, which scores auctions more highly than the alternative on a five-point scale of its own devising.

And a preferred option is not the same as a fait accompli, of course.

The consultation is open for a couple more weeks. A group of disgruntled members plan to petition the board to retain the status quo at its AGM in September.

Nominet members revolt over “deepest pockets wins” auction plans

A group of Nominet members and registrars have launched a petition to prevent Nominet from introducing registry-level auctions for dropping .uk domain names.

The petition, organized by Netistrar, reads: “We the undersigned members request that Nominet maintains equal registrar access to expired domain names on a first come first served basis.”

Nominet recently launched a policy consultation that lays out plans to essentially kill off the existing system of drop-catching expired domains and replace it with either registry auctions or a pay-to-play model asking fees of up to £6,000 a year.

The petition says that “these proposals technically and financially restrict a registrars ability to access expired domains”, noting that other ccTLDs “manage an expiry process without an expensive and centralized auction system.”

So far, 70 registrars and individuals (out of the about 3,000 Nominet members) have signed the petition, but they account for more than 400,000 .uk domains.

The petition will be presented at Nominet’s annual general meeting in September. The current policy consultation ends August 14.

Nominet wants to kill off the .uk drop-catching market

Nominet has revealed a sweeping set of policy proposals that would totally revamp how expired domains are deleted and could essentially kill off drop-catching in the .uk domains market.

The company is thinking about auctioning off expired domains at the registry level, or charging drop-catchers up to £6,000 ($7,500) a year to carry on more or less as normal.

Currently, expired .uk domains are deleted at an undisclosed time each day, leading drop-catch registrars to spam the registry back-end with availability checks on the best names.

Upon finding a desired domain has dropped, they then attempt to register it immediately by spamming EPP create commands.

About 0.7% of the domains deleted each year, about 12,000 of the 1.76 million names dropped in 2018, are re-registered within a second of release, Nominet says.

The system as it stands bothers the registry due to the technical load it creates and the fact that it means the most desirable names are snapped up by small number of domainers for resale.

It also does not like the fact the current system encourages collusion between Nominet members and the creation of dummy memberships by drop-catchers.

So it’s proposing two main options for rejiggering the economics.

The first and apparently preferred solution would be for Nominet to auction off the names, rather than deleting them. It would look a lot like auctions often seen in newly launching TLDs.

The second option is to charge drop-catchers extra fees for a greater number of simultaneous EPP connections.

Currently, each registrar gets six. Under the proposal, called “Economically controlled access to expiring domains”, they’d be able to buy additional batches of six for £600 a pop, up to a maximum of 10 batches or £6,000.

Regardless of which option is chosen, Nominet also wants to make drop times more predictable, by publishing a daily drop-list available to all.

Nominet knows there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be accused of profiteering, and says in the paper:

If either of the options proposed are implemented, we envisage that any profits derived from the auction or economically controlled access models will be directed towards public benefit activity and/or ringfenced to provide specific services to registrars e.g. a training fund. However, we are also seeking ideas on how any profits would be best spent to benefit the .UK namespace in this consultation.

The consultation can be found here. Interested parties have until August 14 to submit comments.