After months of pressure, the federal government has launched a review into the administration of the .au top level domain name, as the regulatory body overseeing the domain name continues to consider changes that experts say could have million dollar implications for SMEs.
The investigation will look into whether the .au domain is being managed “consistent with Government and community expectations” and comes off the back of months of alleged upheaval and mismanagement at auDA, the self-regulatory body established to oversee and administer the .au domain name.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said in a statement that the .au domain was an “intrinsic” part of many Australian businesses’ identities and the government’s inquiry is to ensure the management of the domain would still fit the needs of Australian customers.
“The review will be undertaken by the Department of Communications and the Arts and will examine the most appropriate framework for the domain. The review will also identify risk and mitigation strategies for the security and stability of the .au domain,” Fifield said.
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The terms of reference for the review note the investigation will involve public consultation around the future of .au management and “mitigation strategies to address future risks to the security and stability of .au”.
AuDA is a self-regulatory body and is made up of members and is governed by an elected board and chief executive.
Earlier this year, auDA chair Stewart Benjamin resigned due to an upcoming extraordinary general meeting that was to consider a vote of no confidence for him, reports Fairfax.
“A total mixed bag” of governance
Speaking to SmartCompany, former auDA board member Josh Rowe says this recent focus on the .au domain is just one small part of a longer-running series of concerns about management at auDA, saying numerous board members and executive team members have left over the past 18 months.
“There seems to be a real issue happening with staff retention, and nearly every staff member on the board is brand new,” Rowe says.
“AuDA is also meant to be transparent and do things on behalf of its members, but under new management it has stopped doing that.”
According to auDA’s website, three of its board members were only appointed this year and four were appointed in 2015.
The self-regulatory body decided earlier this year to stop publishing board minutes on the organisation’s website, reports Fairfax, leading to a number of its members — including Rowe — crowdfunding a Freedom of Information request to have the unpublished minutes revealed.
After the request, Rowe says the board claimed to have changed its ways, but he claims members are having to “hassle” the board to receive minutes.
“AuDA’s governance has been a total mixed bag recently and it’s getting hard to keep a pin on it,” he says.
Proposed changes to .au domains could cost SMEs “literally millions”
Rowe says the government’s review comes at a critical time for the .au domain name, with auDA considering proposed changes to allow simple .au domain names without the need for .com or .net.
This would mean websites such as www.smartcompany.au would become available — a change which chief executive of StewArt Media Jim Stewart says would cost businesses “literally millions”.
“Making these .au domains available would cost businesses literally millions and cause a lot of grief in the process. Sites would lose traffic, and there’s no guarantee Australians will trust and recognise it as a result,” Stewart told SmartCompany.
“AuDA is still talking about doing it, and the decision was made without industry or member consultation. It will devalue existing [.com].au assets and provide another player in the field.”
Review “good practice”, says auDA
In response to the review, auDA interim board chair Erhan Karabardak told SmartCompany the organisation welcomes the inquiry, saying it’s been 17 years since the government first gave auDA the delegation for administering .au domains and it is “good practice” to review it at this time.
“In any contemporary governance structure, you need to review these things. We’ve also got our own set of governance reviews and strategic reviews going on at the moment to support it,” Karabardak says.
In response to the allegations surrounding auDA’s management structures, Karabardak says the organisation has been doing a number of things to improve member engagement, and “further improve transparency and accountability”.
“We’ve set up a policy panel to review all auDA public policies, which has a number of member representatives along with other internet users such as ACCAN and the Australian government,” he says.
“We have also got a member’s constitutional reform committee which is a 100% member group, which is reviewing our governance structure from the member’s perspective. We want to give members a real opportunity to be part of the organisation and the reform process.”
“This is a two-way conversation with members all the time, and we want this to be a member-driven process”.
While the review isn’t due to be completed until early 2018, Rowe and Stewart are hopeful it will mean auDA will return to being more member-focused.
“I hope it will come back to the way it was previously being run. Being more consultative with members and more transparent with what they’re doing. It needs to be an ask, not a tell,” says Rowe.
Stewart says more SMEs should be sitting up and taking notice of auDA, believing many business owners wouldn’t even know it exists.
“I’d like to see it become more member-driven and more involved in the space, with letting people know what they need to do to get involved with governance,” he says.
“People need to understand more about the domain name, what it means, and how they can have a say in big decisions.”