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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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IP lobby demands halt to Whois reform

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2021, Domain Policy

Trademark interests in the ICANN community have called on the Org to freeze implementation of the latest Whois access policy proposals, saying it’s “not yet fit for purpose”.

The Intellectual Property Constituency’s president, Heather Forrest, has written (pdf) to ICANN chair Maarten Botterman to ask that the so-called SSAD system (for Standardized System for Access and Disclosure) be put on hold.

SSAD gives interested parties such as brands a standardized pathway to get access to private Whois data, which has been redacted by registries and registrars since the EU’s Generic Data Protection Regulation came into force in 2018.

But the proposed policy, approved by the GNSO Council last September, still leaves a great deal of discretion to contracted parties when it comes to disclosure requests, falling short of the IPC’s demands for a Whois that looks a lot more like the automated pre-GDPR system.

Registries and registrars argue that they have to manually verify disclosure requests, or risk liability — and huge fines — under GDPR.

The IPC has a few reasons why it reckons ICANN should slam the brakes on SSAD before implementation begins.

First, it says the recommendations sent to the GNSO Council lacked the consensus of the working group that created them.

Intellectual property, law enforcement and security interests — the likely end users of SSAD — did not agree with big, important chucks of the working group’s report. The IPC reckons eight of the 18 recommendations lacked a sufficient degree of consensus.

Second, the IPC claims that SSAD is not in the public interest. If the entities responsible for “policing the DNS” don’t think they will use SSAD due to its limitations, then why spend millions of ICANN’s money to implement it?

Third, Forrest writes that emerging legislation out of the EU — the so-called NIS2, a draft of a revised information security directive —- puts a greater emphasis on Whois accuracy

Forrest concludes:

We respectfully request and advise that the Board and ICANN Org pause any further work relating to the SSAD recommendations in light of NIS2 and given their lack of community consensus and furtherance of the global public interest. In light of these issues, the Board should remand the SSAD recommendations to the GNSO Council for the development of modified SSAD recommendations that meet the needs of users, with the aim of integrating further EU guidance.

It seems the SSAD proposals will be getting more formal scrutiny than previous GNSO outputs.

When the GNSO Council approved the recommendations in September, it did so with a footnote asking ICANN to figure out whether it would be cost-effective to implement an expensive — $9 million to build, $9 million a year to run — system that may wind up being lightly used.

ICANN has now confirmed that SSAD and the other Whois policy recommendations will be one of the first recipients of the Operational Design Phase (pdf) treatment.

The ODP is a new, additional layer of red tape in the ICANN policy-making sausage machine that slots in between GNSO Council approval and ICANN board consideration, in which the Org, in collaboration with the community, tries to figure out how complex GNSO recommendations could be implemented and what it would cost.

ICANN said this week that the SSAD/Whois recommendations will be subject to a formal ODP in “the coming months”.

Any question about the feasibility of SSAD would be referred back to the GNSO, because ICANN Org is technically not supposed to make policy.

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Donuts adds another TLD to its stable as Richemont finally bows out of new gTLD program

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2021, Domain Registries

Luxury goods maker Richemont, an early and strong proponent of the new gTLD concept, has got rid of the final string of the 14 it originally applied for.

According to ICANN records, the registry agreement for .watches was officially transferred to Afilias at the end of December, one day before it was in turn acquired by Donuts.

The domain nic.watches current resolves to a placeholder bearing the Afilias branding.

Richemont, the company behind luxury brands such as Cartier and Piaget, now has no TLDs left.

It had applied for nine dot-brands, along with five generic dictionary terms that it at first intended to maintain as single-registrant spaces, before that use case was banned by ICANN.

At the start of the decade, the company was an enthusiastic endorser of new gTLDs, even sending speakers to conferences to promote the concept.

Richemont was also the first registrant of second-level domains in third-party new gTLDs, when it registered Arabic versions of some of its famous brands in December 2013.

But its enthusiasm waned gradually over the last eight years.

Its dot-brands were discarded in tranches, either during the application process or after contracting. Donuts beat it to .jewelry at auction, and it terminated its contracts for Chinese versions of .jewelry and .watches last year.

There’s not much money in internationalized domain names, so now it seems likely these Chinese IDNs were shopped around but failed to find a buyer.

.watches, however, is right in Donuts’ wheelhouse, a niche generic English string related to a specific product or service.

Last month, I reported that Donuts had acquired .markets, .forex, .broker and .trading from Boston Ivy as it exited the new gTLD game, while letting the less-attractive .spreadbetting die on the vine.

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NamesCon Europe cancelled — “pandemics suck”

Kevin Murphy, March 17, 2021, Domain Services

The year’s NamesCon Europe conference has been cancelled.

The organizers said today that the 2021 event, which had been due to take place in Budapest this June, will not go ahead due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic:

Since Hungary still has a high rate of COVID infections and in-person gatherings are not allowed, we cannot produce NamesCon Europe in Budapest in July. Nobody can predict when things will improve and our recent NamesCon survey showed a high reluctance to travel, so planning this intimate in-person gathering didn’t make sense. Pandemics suck.

Unlike ICANN 71, which was last week rescheduled from The Hague to Zoom, NamesCon is not moving to the bespoke online platform it used last year.

Organizers said that they’re not setting a new date yet, but there appears to be the possibility of other online events in future.

Hungary currently ranks 4th-worst in terms of deaths per capita, according to Statista, sandwiched between the UK and Italy, two of the earliest and hardest-hit countries.

It’s currently seeing more daily cases and deaths than the UK in absolute numbers, despite having less than a sixth of the population.

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As .gov changes hands, would Verisign run it for free?

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2021, Domain Registries

The .gov top-level domain is moving for the first time since 1997, and the new owner is promising some pricing changes from next year.

The US General Services Administration has been running .gov, one of the original gTLDs, for almost a quarter-century, but next month it will be taken over by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

No changes have been made at IANA yet, but CISA is talking of the handover as if it is a done deal.

It will be the first time ICANN has been asked to redelegate what is essentially an uncontracted gTLD with some of the characteristics of a ccTLD. To be honest, I’ve no idea what rules even apply here.

The move was mandated by the DOTGOV Act of 2019, which was incorporated in a recently passed US spending bill.

Legislators wanted to improve .gov’s usefulness by increasing its public profile and security.

The bill was quite adamant that .gov domains should be priced at “no cost or a negligible cost”, but there’s a catch — Verisign runs the technical infrastructure for the domain, and currently charges $400 per domain per year.

According to CISA, “The way .gov domains are priced is tied closely with the service contract to operate the TLD, and change in the price of a domain is not expected until next year.”

So we’re looking at either a contract renegotiation or a rebid.

Frankly, given the really rather generous money-printing machine the US government has granted Verisign with its perpetual right to run .com and increase its profit margins in most years, it seems to me the company should be running it for free.

The .gov zone currently has domains measured in the low thousand.

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Nominet warns of government takeover as Namecheap backs fire-the-directors campaign

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2021, Domain Policy

Nominet has raised the specter of a government takeover of the .uk registry, should members vote to oust five of its top directors at an Emergency General Meeting a week from now.

The warning came as part of the company’s anti-EGM publicity, and at a time when the campaign for a Yes vote has passed 25% of eligible votes, with Namecheap becoming the biggest name yet to support the ouster.

In a blog post, the company refers readers back to the Digital Economy Act of 2010, which in part gives the UK government the ability to unilaterally take over .uk, should Nominet seriously mess up:

It means that the government can step in, if Nominet is ever considered unstable or not capable of governing itself.

Removing five directors, including two of the four independents, and pressuring the remaining directors to install candidates outside normal procedures, as the EGM petitioners seek to do, would be a huge step backwards in terms of good governance. We have been warned that instability will be of serious concern to government. We know it would create a scenario which would make intervention more likely.

That part of the Act was brought in because at the time Nominet was perceived to be at risk of capture by domain investors. It has since reformed its constitution to make this less likely.

The current situation could be seen as a replay of the situation 11 years ago, with many of those most unhappy with Nominet’s recent strategy among the domainer community.

The campaign, PublicBenefit.uk, wants to fire five directors including the chair and CEO and replace them with two new appointments who have promised to lower .uk domain prices and direct more profit to public benefit causes.

As of today, the campaign has 429 member signatories, representing 25.1% of voting rights. This is probably enough to pass its resolutions, which call for a simple majority of members attending the EGM.

Namecheap has become the largest registrar so far to sign up. It’s the seventh-largest .uk registrar, with 201,355 domains under management. GoDaddy, 1&1 Ionos, Tucows, and the others in the top 10 are so-far undecided. Google has said it will abstain.

It’s debatable whether the Digital Economy Act applies here. The Act deems that a registry has failed under two quite narrow circumstances:

(a)the registry, or any of its registrars or end-users, engages in prescribed practices that are unfair or involve the misuse of internet domain names, or

(b)the arrangements made by the registry for dealing with complaints in connection with internet domain names do not comply with prescribed requirements.

Do either of those apply to PublicBenefit.uk’s demands? It looks like a stretch.

The EGM will take place March 22, next Monday, and right now it’s not looking great for Nominet’s top brass.

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ICANN 71 is online-only, because of course it is

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN has called off plans to conduct its 71st public meeting in the Netherlands this June.

Blaming the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the risk to safety and travel restrictions, ICANN confirmed last week that the venue will again be Zoom, rather than The Hague.

It will be the fifth consecutive meeting to go online-only.

The dates will remain the same — June 14 to June 17 — and the European time zone of course means that folks at ICANN HQ in Los Angeles will once again be working throughout the night.

ICANN 70, relocated from Cancun, begins next Monday.

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