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Groups seek to ‘set the record straight’ as domain controversies continue

The self-rgulatory body for Australia’s domain space, auDA, has found itself at the centre of another controversy over its decision to change management of the .au name space and introduce a new pricing model.

The changes went into effect on Sunday, July 1, following the auDA board’s decision last December to end its 16-year-long relationship with Australia’s previous registry operator AusRegistry, a Melbourne-based subsidiary of Neustar, a US company owned by Golden Gate Capital.

The registry operator sells commercial domain names to secondary sellers which then sell them to the general public, and is responsible for ensuring uptime and responding to complaints.

The auDA selected the new registry operator, Afilias, an Irish business based in the US with a small team on the ground Down Under, after what it called an “exhaustive” tender process.

The auDA said Afilias offered a better deal than AusRegistry, which it expects will benefit domain holders.

$12 million marketing budget

Under Afilias, secondary sellers can purchase domain names for $8.67 per year, with $2.54 going to Afilias and $6.13 going to auDA. Under AusRegistry, secondary sellers could purchase domain names for $9.63 per year, with $6.97 going to AusRegistry and $2.66 going to auDA.

The auDA said the fee change will fund a $12 million “marketing and innovation” budget to grow and improve the domain name space in Australia.

However, Adrian Kinderis, former CEO of AusRegistry, has questioned the suitability of auDA conducting these initiatives, rather than, say, the registry operator or secondary sellers, and said the lack of clarity of specific marketing and innovation initiatives is worrisome.

“When you ask them what they’ll spend the money on, they say ‘marketing and innovation’ and that’s as vague as an answer can get,” Kinderis told Internet Retailing.

The auDA has run into trouble in the past for inappropriate use of expense accounts by some former directors and employees, including an $11,500 stay in Bali with a family member, according to a report by The Age.

Kinderis believes the increased fees now flowing into auDA are vulnerable to similar misuse.

“I had a direct conversation with Chris [Leptos], the chairman, about the marketing plan and he said the details would be announced as they were rolled out,” he said.

“If I were to create a slush fund to spend money in any way I saw fit, I would call it ‘marketing and innovation’,” he said.

Attempts to ‘set the record straight’

The auDA said it could not provide more details about its marketing strategy, given the competitive environment in which it operates, and noted that Kinderis is not exactly an impartial observer, since the transition to a new registry operator has cost him his job.

The more pertinent question for domain holders, however, is whether Afilias will provide a better service than AusRegistry, which some users at least say was excellent.

But that has not stopped Afilias and AusRegistry from publishing articles on their websites refuting each other’s critiques of their performance records, security benchmarks and Australian bonafides.

In fact, both organisations are foreign-owned with local offices. Afilias currently has a mix of permanent employees and Australian contractors in its Melbourne office and is actively recruiting more permanent employees.

Under both AusRegistry and Afilias, domain registry data is housed on servers in Australia. And while AusRegistry was vetted and approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board, auDA said Afilias underwent thorough checks by a security expert appointed by the Department of Communications and the Arts, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australia Cyber Security Centre and ASIO.

Reform needed

So far, domain holders seem to be non-plussed by the registry change, though they have noted some user experience issues with Afilias particularly around the process to reset passwords.

The one thing on which almost everyone can agree is that auDA has needed reform for some time. The misuse of funds is just one example of the organisation’s failure to act in the public interest. A government review completed in April declared the body was no longer “fit for purpose” and recommended 29 changes be completed within the next two years.

The auDA said it is making progress on the reforms recommended by the Department of Communications and the Arts, but critics remain sceptical. Some auDA members have called for the second special general meeting in as many years to kick out the board.

“Overall, I think the biggest issue is that auDA should be a bottom-up multi-stakeholder organisation and should be there to execute on the will of the membership,” said Kinderis.

“Sadly, largely due to egos and power seekers, it’s become a top-down organisation. That’s why [Stuart] Benjamin was removed as chairman [last year]. That’s why everyone is getting mad again – we were promised a new regime.

“Whilst Cameron Boardman is CEO, I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”

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