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Warnings of ‘online catastrophe’ in domain name shake-up

A long-simmering dispute between the .au Domain Administration (auDA), the industry self-regulatory body tasked with managing the country’s top-level domain, and its members has erupted this week, with some members calling for the resignation of the organisation’s CEO, Cameron Boardman, and three directors.

Jim Stewart, chief executive of digital marketing firm StewART Media and a signatory to the letter calling for Boardman’s resignation, said the situation has become untenable and demanded a special general meeting to discuss Boardman’s position.

The auDA in recent months has held public hearings and received submissions on the development of an implementation process to add a direct registration option to Australia’s domain space. This would allow website owners to register a domain ending in .au, rather than .com.au, .net.au, .org.au and so on.

However, some members say the auDA has failed to make a business case for direct registration, nor has it fully complied with its obligation to include a peak industry body representative on the review panel, despite repeated calls to do so.

“Business has not been consulted on this at all,” Stewart told Internet Retailing.

“The auDA were meant to have a peak industry body rep on a panel going over the .au proposals, but they only appointed someone last month, after submissions closed.

“And the person they appointed works for Canstar…you wouldn’t call Canstar a peak industry body,” he said.

Weighing up the costs and benefits

According to Stewart, the implementation of direct registration could result in businesses disappearing from Google searches, cybersquatters claiming desirable .au domains and holding them ransom, widespread confusion among consumers and internet users and potential security issues.

“Most people don’t fully understand the implications. For instance, a competitor may secure your domain name without the dot com. When the changes come into effect, any company can register say commbank.au or bhpcom.au causing confusion and cybersecurity issues. If a company was able to register their name.au and just switched it on that would be a disaster, you would lose all your Google search traffic,” he said.

“By switching your current domain name (for example ‘.com.au’ to ‘.au’) you’re effectively creating a new website.

“This means you run the risk of disappearing from Google searches. Imagine if you were an Australian retailer, what would that do to your business?”

Stewart said the benefits – shorter, more appealing and memorable domain names, according to the auDA – pale in comparison to the risks. He also questioned the need for the change, noting that more than 100 million .com domains have been registered, compared to only around three million .com.au domains.

Panel member resigns

A spokesperson for the auDA told Internet Retailing the reform is intended to preserve the value of the .au domain and pointed out that countries like Canada, the UK and New Zealand all offer direct registration.

“Currently, Australia is among only a minority of G20 nations that do not offer a direct registration option. There is a risk that […] .au could diminish in value and usefulness,” an auDA spokesperson said.

The auDA also said the review panel has consulted with a range of industry representatives and that the views and interests of business are always a leading consideration.

However, a member of the review panel, Luke Summers, owner of The Lucky Country, recently resigned his position, citing a lack of confidence in the panel’s ability to act in the best interest of the Australian internet community.

“The size and composition of the panel is entirely inappropriate for a policy review of this scale and significance,” he wrote in a letter of resignation to the panel chair, John Swinson, on 7 April.

“I am greatly concerned that the panel lacks objectivity, and that stakeholder feedback is being overwhelmingly overlooked in favour of personal views held by some panel members.

“Many of the policy reforms being pushed for by the panel are in direct opposition to the majority of views expressed by stakeholders; and should these reforms be implemented, then a large number of stakeholders’ concerns will ultimately be realised.”

Acting in whose interest?

There are two types of auDA members: domain name holders, which include internet users the general public, and domain name industry participants, which include registry operators, registrars and resellers.

According to Stewart, the push for direct registration is being driven by the industry participants to the detriment of the other members.

A law firm acting on behalf of the auDA responded on Tuesday to the letter signed by Stewart, saying the auDA is currently considering the request for a special general meeting.

The panel is due to present its findings to the auDA board by the end of this year.

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