Nominet’s chance to build a better Internet

This week, during Nominet’s EGM, Open Rights Group cast its organisational membership vote to change the current Board membership. The motion removed its CEO, Chairman, and three other Board members. This result is a clear mandate for Nominet to change the direction it has taken in recent years and reshape itself as an organisation working in the public interest, for a better UK Internet.

We know that this mandate is the first step to carrying out several critical reforms that, if done correctly, can bring greater stability and transparency to an organisation which holds substantial influence over Internet governance, and freedom of expression, across the UK.

Nevertheless, the direction of travel is not fully set yet. In particular, Nominet’s Board needs to include members who are fully committed to returning Nominet to a public-interest organisation centred on delivering the DNS system.

That said, these are the areas that we would like to see changes in:

The company structure and voting system

Currently, just three large registrars can block changes to the company structure with votes of 10% each. The sixteen largest members or so can control the appointment of directors, with votes of 3% each. We believe this system has been abused to remove accountability and transparency to the wider Nominet membership, and needs to be replaced by something clearly democratic, such as one member, one vote.

The current rigged voting structure which placed these decisions in the hands of the few has been used to undermine Nominet’s purpose, and could have resulted in unwanted fundamental change at Nominet, had the commercialisation process continued to proceed; it is not a guarantor of stability, but of narrow self-interest of those with substantial voting power.

However, the risk that Nominet’s structure could be taken over by people intent on asset stripping the organisation also needs to be taken into account. Measures should be put in place to prevent large numbers of new members pushing to commercialise, restructure or sell off Nominet assets for their own gain.

We believe the solution is to ensure that the company structure itself prevents this, for instance through articles guaranteeing its public purpose and non-commercial nature and requiring a super-majority. Particular consideration should be given to moving Nominet to a Community Interest Company (CIC), to lock the company into serving the public interest without burdening it with charity status.

Freedom of expression, takedowns, and oversight

We have considerable concerns about the operation of domain suspensions, as we highlighted in our second report on regulation of the UK Internet. These are improved by splash pages, which we recommended and were subsequently taken up by Nominet, but these continue to omit basic information about the specific reason for the suspension, and how an appeal can be made by the domain owner. There is also, as far as we know, no procedure formulated for an independent appeal rather than a check by the authority that made the request. The authorities themselves are not required by Nominet to be transparent about their work, and many provide no information about the basis or procedure for their requests.

Longer term, Nominet should consider how it works with the authorities and evaluate whether these suspensions should be subjected to initial oversight, or a legal process. We firmly believe that the state should only be able to aquire domain suspensions through a court or tribunal process, to protect due process, and ensure that evidence is properly required. Nominet is in a position to argue for such a process if it wishes.

International policy making

Nominet was a key contributor to the Country Code Names Supporting Organization, (ccNSO) an arms-length policy advisory committee at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (better known as ICANN). As ICANN cannot set policy for ccTLDs, country code organisations use ccNSO to coordinate, share best practice and do very light-touch policy-making. Nominet for many years contributed substantively, supporting human rights and the rule of law in that work. It had broad and benign influence on country codes in many less democratic countries. We would like Nominet commit to returning to this role.

Nominet also needs to re-engage with the Internet technical operations community, through bodies such as RIPE, IETF and NANOG, which it used to be a highly visible leader in.

Building the UK Internet

Nominet’s view of their charitable purposes should be wider than currently framed, but centred on a thriving UK Internet. In our view, this should include the current focus on safety issues and Internet access, but also expand to include work on developing human rights and relating to Open Source and Open Standards in technologies that after all have created the Internet that we know. Rights and open technologies are a critical part of how the UK Internet should develop in a balanced way, with many rather than few partners. Nominet should invest in work in these areas through its charity. With investment, code and talent from Nominet, it should be possible to encourage British open source successes, such as a British Mozilla or Apache.

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