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“Whistleblower” accuses Nominet of trying to dodge freedom of information law

Kevin Murphy, September 11, 2012, Domain Policy

Nominet, the .uk registry, tried to evade the Freedom Of Information Act by using private email addresses to communicate with the British government, according to emails leaked by a disgruntled former executive.

Copies of the emails provided to DI by former policy director Emily Taylor appear to show that Nominet and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform worked secretly in 2008 to invite government regulatory oversight of the .uk namespace.

Back then, Nominet’s elected board of directors was seen as being in danger of being taken over by domainers who were hostile to Nominet’s management and the rest of its board.

The company was ultimately restructured following an independent review, and Parliament passed legislation that enables the government to take over .uk if it appears to be in danger of capture.

The party line to date has been that the review was commissioned in October 2008, only after BERR wrote to Nominet to express concerns about its governance problems.

That position is looking increasingly open to question, however.

As I reported for The Register last month, an employment tribunal seemed to agree with Taylor that Nominet had approached BERR to discuss this so-called “Plan G” first.

The latest leaked emails, assuming they’re genuine, also make the Nominet position appear less believable.

This is the text of an email apparently sent from the personal email account of BERR civil servant Geoff Smith to the personal email account of Nominet senior policy adviser Martin Boyle:

Martin

Thanks. It was helpful to talk earlier. I have had a look at your mark up and the additional point by Emily. All good stuff but – as I said – I think the heart of our letter has to be a set of reasonable and intelligent questions that a senior civil servant, not familiar with the inner workings of the company, might ask. As I said earlier, if it needs translation from the Mandarin, then it has failed. Equally, if it reads like a Nominet management position paper on BERR letterhead then it has also failed. I will look seriously at your amendments and try and produce a version for David’s signature over the next two days.

It feels wonderful to work free from fear of FOI !!

Geoff

The email is dated October 8, 2008, a week before the BERR letter (pdf) that kicked off the independent governance review.

The “fear of FOI” is of course a reference to the Freedom Of Information Act, which enables British citizens to request government documentation including emails.

By using personal email accounts, Nominet and BERR would have been able to keep their negotiations out of reach of the FOIA.

The emails, again assuming they’re genuine, also show that Mark Carvell, senior advisor at BERR and longstanding UK representative on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, was using his personal email account to communicate with Nominet executives during the same period.

In one email, Boyle encourages Carvell and Smith to delete emails in anticipation of a FOI request.

Sent: Fri, 31 October, 2008 18:55:18
Subject: FW: [nom-steer] Save Nom-steer!

Geoff, Mark

This e-mail (below) – posted on nom-steer – makes me think that a FoI is just around the corner!

Most obvious would be the e-mail from me asking when we might expect the letter, but Pauline used this as the mail to reply to with the signed letter from David.

You might wish to trawl over your mails – in and out – to do a bit of pruning and suggest to Pauline that a couple might need to be deleted, too.

I’ve spoken to Tom and he is aware, too.

Martin Boyle

Attached is a forwarded email from domainer Andrew Bennett, then a member of Nominet’s Policy Advisory Board, which appears to show Bennett researching relationships between the company and BERR.

There’s no evidence that Smith or Carvell did delete any emails.

BERR has changed names a couple of times under successive governments, and is now the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Carvell is now at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Taylor has provided her documents to Nominet’s local MP, Andrew Smith, who has referred the matter to the Head of the Home Civil Service and the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

Trying to avoid FOI is frowned upon.

Last year, the Information Commissioner’s Office said that “information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business”.

In addition to the FOIA claims, Taylor alleges that there is “an inappropriately close relationship between government officials in DCMS, BIS, and possibly Ofcom, and Nominet.”

Nominet told DI today that it is looking into the matter but declined to comment further.

Last month, when Taylor’s employment tribunal documents became public, the company issued a statement in which it denied instigating the government’s request for an independent review, saying:

This is not the case. Two major organisations (an ISP and a major British trade body) had already been in contact with BERR prior to any discussions between Nominet and the Government. Again, Nominet took actions focussed on supporting the ongoing trust in .uk and that we believed supported the goals of our membership as a whole. As you would expect of an organisation responsible for a piece of critical UK Internet infrastructure, we maintain a constant dialogue with the Government – but all conversations on this matter post-date the initial raising of concerns by stakeholders.

Taylor claims, however, that the ISP and the trade body (BT and the Confederation of British Industry) approached BERR at the behest of herself and other Nominet executives.

As previously reported, Taylor resigned from her position at Nominet in 2009, not long after returning to work following a period of stress-related sick leave.

An employment tribunal found last year that she had been constructively dismissed — that is, essentially forced out — by Nominet after she filed a grievance against her colleagues and they grew to distrust her. She’s currently an independent consultant.

Nominet involved in seven gTLD applications

Nominet, the .uk registry, is providing registry services for seven new generic top-level domain applications, according to CEO Lesley Cowley.

Cowley told Nominet’s Annual General Meeting today that five of the applications are for dot-brands, a Nominet spokesperson said.

The identities of the clients are currently protected by non-disclosure agreements.

The other two bids are for .wales and .cymru, which Nominet is applying for with the approval of the Welsh government.

The other big European ccTLD operator to already announce its applications, Austria’s Nic.at, said recently that it has submitted 11 applications, six of which were geographic.

One-year .co.uk domains will be more expensive

Kevin Murphy, January 23, 2012, Domain Registries

Single-year .co.uk domain name registrations will cost more per year than multi-year registrations, under plans outlined by .uk registry Nominet today.

The registry announced back in November that it intended to loosen up its registration policies to bring them into line with other top-level domains.

From May 1, a one-year .uk domain will have a registry fee of £3.50 ($5.44). The price of a multi-year registration will stay the same as current two-year pricing, at £2.50 (£3.88) per year.

Previously, registrants acquired .uk domains in two-year blocks.

Under the new policy regime, registrations can be for as little as a year or for as many as 10 years. Renewals can be for multiple years, albeit capped at 10 overall.

There was a worry that the changes could lead to more people buying throwaway, abusive or speculative .uk domains. A higher fee could go a little way to offset that.

Nominet approves .judiciary.uk

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2011, Domain Registries

Nominet has approved a request to clutter up the second level under .uk with another government-oriented domain, .judiciary.uk, bringing the total number of SLDs to 15.

As you may know, the UK equivalent of .com is .co.uk, but there are other suffixes such as .org.uk, .me.uk, .plc.uk, .ltd.uk and .net.uk, each with varying restrictions.

There are also several SLDs reserved for public sector use: .gov.uk, .police.uk, .nhs.uk (National Health Service), .sch.uk (schools), .ac.uk (universities) .mod.uk (Ministry of Defence) and .parliament.uk.

The new .judiciary.uk will of course be closed, restricted to the institutions of the UK judiciary. Nominet is proposing to migrate affected registrants from their existing .gov.uk domains.

“Creating judiciary.uk will ensure that the domain name reflects the judiciary’s independence from government, as enshrined in the Constitutional Reform Act, 2005,” Nominet said.

The request was made by the Judicial Office and the Cabinet Office and “due to the unique nature of the request” did not follow the usual Nominet policy for SLD creation.

Another 2,000 .uk fraud domains taken down

Kevin Murphy, November 18, 2011, Domain Policy

Nominet has suspended over 2,000 .uk domain names allegedly being used to sell counterfeit goods on the instruction of the Metropolitan Police.

The Met said in a statement today that the crackdown was designed to protect online shoppers in the run-up to Christmas. It did something similar last year and the year before.

The sites were allegedly selling bootleg products purportedly from brands such as Ugg, Nike and Tiffany.

Nominet said that it worked with is registrars to coordinate the suspensions, and that the registrants were all informed before their domains were taken down.

All the registrants were in breach of terms and conditions, it said.

A Nominet working group is currently in the final stages of creating a policy that will streamline the process of law enforcement domain suspensions, as I reported for The Register today.

Over 7,500 .uk cybersquatting cases heard

Kevin Murphy, November 7, 2011, Domain Registries

Nominet is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its Dispute Resolution Service this week, saying that it has settled over 7,500 cybersquatting cases.

Based on a £15,000 estimated cost of legal action, the .uk registry reckons DRS has saved companies about £110 million ($176 million) over the last decade.

DRS has similarities but differences to UDRP. Notably, DRS has a formal mediation phase and an appeals process for registrants who believe their domains were wrongly taken from them.

The .uk zone currently has fewer than 10 million registrations, compared to the 135 million gTLD domains to which the UDRP applies.

WIPO and the National Arbitration Forum have settled about 35,000 UDRP complaints over the last decade. With that in mind, cybersquatting enforcement in .uk appears to have been relatively heavy.

Short .uk domain landrush opens

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2011, Domain Services

Nominet opened the landrush phase of its one and two-character .uk domain names within the last hour.

The landrush will see the remaining 2,640 super-short domains that have not already been claimed by trademark holders start to become available.

It costs £10 ($16) to apply, plus the cost of the registration. All contested domains will head to auction, the proceeds of which will be donated to the Nominet Trust.

The available domains are all in the .co.uk, .me.uk, .net.uk and .org.uk spaces. Restrictions may apply – for example .me.uk domains are reserved for individuals.

The landrush will run until June 15. Uncontested domains will be allocated June 23, at which point all unclaimed domains will be released into the available pool. The auctions will kick off July 20.

Six short .uk domains sold for $40,000

Kevin Murphy, April 15, 2011, Domain Sales

Nominet has auctioned off six one and two-letter .uk domain names for a total of almost £24,000 ($40,000).

The domains were all sold to trademark holders, for an average of £4,000 ($6,500) each, according to the auction house, NFPAS Auctions.

The domain e.co.uk went to E! Entertainment Television, while u.co.uk was sold to Ubrands.

Of the contested two-letter domains, aa.co.uk was won by American Airlines, presumably beating out other qualified bidders such as the Automobile Association.

Oddly, aa.org.uk went to Andrews & Arnold, an ISP, which already owns aa.net.uk.

Finally, lv.co.uk went to the insurance company Liverpool Victoria, which already owns lv.com, and cc.co.uk went to Country Casuals, a women’s clothing retailer.

A second auction among brand owners, expected to be similarly small, will be held a month from now. The proceeds of both go to the Nominet Trust.

With only a couple hundred single and double character .uk names currently accounted for, hundreds remain for the next stage of the release: landrush.

Nominet plans to announce the details of that phase on Monday.

Nominet gives away 79 more super-short .uk names

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2011, Domain Sales

Nominet has handed out more single and double-character .uk domain names to holders of intellectual property rights.

The 79 assignments include 4.co.uk, a.co.uk, c.co.uk, j.co.uk and u.co.uk, as well as dozens of two-letter combinations such as bt.org.uk and bq.co.uk.

The domains were given out as the latest stage of Nominet’s roll-out of short domains, to “unregistered rights holders”. Another 99 were assigned to registered rights holders in February.

Where the organization has received more than one application for a domain, it will go to auction, with the proceeds aiding the charitable Nominet Trust.

Nominet says only a “small number” of domains are heading to auction. Whatever remains will be released in a landrush, details of which will be announced on Monday.

Of the domains released so far, o.co.uk, which I previously speculated would go to Overstock, the retailer that recently rebranded as o.co, has not yet been claimed.

99 super-short .uk domains registered

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2011, Domain Sales

Nominet, the .uk registry, has allocated 99 one and two-letter .uk domain names to trademark holders including the Financial Times and Manchester United.

Most of the companies successfully applying for short .co.uk, .org.uk and .net.uk domains under Nominet’s recently closed sunrise period are household names.

Most also chose to acquire both .org.uk and .co.uk variants of their trademark. Only ten of the single-letter and two of the single-number options were claimed. Yahoo managed to get y.co.uk.

Overstock.com, which is currently branding itself as o.co, did not receive o.co.uk, despite having a trademark on the term, possibly for the reasons I outlined here.

One of the big winners appears to be a domainer. Scott Jones acquired 3.org.uk, s.co.uk, s.org.uk, pc.co.uk and pc.org.uk.

Nominet said: “A small number of contested domains will be involved in an auction phase to determine the successful registrant.”

The first sunrise was for owners of UK registered trademarks. The next round, set to kick off February 14, is for owners of “unregistered” rights.

The full list of domains registered can be downloaded here.