Why we should care about changes to our internet domain names system

Laurie Patton explains the shifts currently at play within Australia's internet domain names system, and what it means for the future of Australian websites.

Australia is a country in transition. Although we don’t hear as much about the “innovation nation” these days as we did a few years back, the reality is our future prosperity still lies in embracing a digitally enabled world. As the problems plaguing the National Broadband Network remain unresolved, another critical debate is reaching a climax.

At stake is the management of all our internet domain names. Not-for-profit company .au Domain Administration Limited (auDA) currently manages our internet domain names system. It is endorsed by the federal government and ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

auDA will hold a general meeting of members later this week in order to secure approval for a new constitution and other consequential changes to its governance arrangements. This follows a demand for reform after a review by the Department of Communications and the Arts found the organisation no longer fit-for-purpose.

auDA has been mired in controversy for many years, with the overall impression being it was subject to too much influence by vested interests. The DoCA report highlighted the risk of board “capture” and the communications minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, has insisted on a majority of independent directors on future boards.

A campaign waged by a group known as the ‘Grumpies’ has led to concerns the government could decide to withdraw its support for the current ‘multi-stakeholder’ model and place control of our domain names system in the hands of its bureaucrats. The successful adoption of the new constitution is one of a number of governance changes aimed at providing the minister with the confidence to allow auDA to continue in its role.

Despite their at-times highly sensationalised protests, the Grumpies have not actually provided any substantive proposals for operational changes to how auDA manages the allocation of domain names. They have refused to answer a list of questions put to them three months ago. 

A new auDA independent chair, Chris Leptos, and his CEO Cameron Boardman, have committed auDA to investing $12 million in marketing, innovation and security programs over four years.

This includes initiatives designed to increase the awareness and use of .au. A range of technical improvements, including the establishment of dedicated servers in each of our capital cities, is under way. In addition, there has been a ten percent reduction in wholesale fees for .au names. This is all as a consequence of new contractual arrangements after auDA recently engaged Afilias to take over the day to day management of the Australian domain names service.

The not-for-profit Spamhaus Project – which tracks spam and related cyber threats such as phishing, malware and botnets – ranks the .au names space with an index score of 0.01, making it one of the safest of the 25 leading top level domains in the world. This reinforces the fact that despite auDA’s long-running internal squabbles, the actual management of our domain names system is not an issue.

So, if the new constitution is adopted on Thursday, auDA will be well on the way to meeting the government’s reform requirements. Hopefully this will result in an end to the destabilising efforts of the Grumpies. Board members appointed at the next AGM – expected to be held later in the year – will no doubt be conscious of the need to continue the healing now underway. For the rest of us, it’s really a case of business-as-usual.

Laurie Patton is a member of auDA and the former CEO / executive director of Internet Australia. He has been advising Afilias Australia, the company appointed to take over the management of the .au registry for auDA from 1 July 2018. However, the views expressed here are his own and have not been endorsed by auDA or Afilias.


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