Mandelson's dept mulls UK internet power grab

Dark Lord to Nominet: Justify thyself


Exclusive Ministers led by Peter Mandelson are considering a power grab at the independent company at the centre of UK's internet infrastructure, The Register can reveal.

Mandelson's Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has asked Nominet, which is in charge of the .co.uk registry, to justify its independence from Whitehall.

In a letter dated October 15, senior civil servant David Hendon, BERR's Director of Business Relations, asked Nominet chairman Bob Gilbert: "What arguments would you employ to convince my Ministers that the present relationship between government and the company is appropriate in ensuring that public policy objectives in relation to the management of the domain name system and the standing of the UK in the internet community are understood and taken into account?"

'Unresolved concerns'

The letter followed a meeting on September 8, when BERR said it was worried about Nominet's constitution. It puts key decisions to vote by the non-profit's domain industry membership. Hendon wrote: "At the conclusion of our meeting I was left with unresolved concerns about how Nominet's constitution and structure addressed its responsibility to stakeholders other than its membership."

As well as day-to-day running of the .co.uk registry, Nominet represents the UK at ICANN meetings. The US organisation exercises overall control over the internet's naming systems, and so has a very significant role in policy and development debates in which governments demand a voice.

Nominet also coordinates the UK's presence at the UN's Internet Governance Forum, an annual discussion of internet policy independent of ICANN.

In response to BERR's letter, Nominet today announced it will conduct an "independent corporate governance review", as suggested by Hendon. Gilbert said: "We've been actively looking to enhance corporate governance in line with best practice for some time now. Our recent discussions with BERR have bought this desire to the fore once more and we feel that a rigorous, independent review will help us to achieve compliance with best practice efficiently and effectively."

In a telephone interview, Gilbert told The Register he hoped the review will be completed by Christmas. It will be conducted by an individual independent of Nominet and "someone very well respected by BERR", but yet to be decided.

Power struggle

The issue of how Nominet should be run has long been a cause of divisions between its leaders and members. At this year's AGM in May, the executive proposed "special resolution 6" for new powers that would let it appoint two extra board members without member approval. The proposal failed to win the 75 per cent of votes required to change Nominet's constitution.

Critics of the executive argued special resolution 6 would grant it autocratic control of the board by outnumbering the member-elected seats. Chief executive Lesley Cowley said the measure was necessary as control of Nominet was "vulnerable to capture" by so-called domainers, who buy and sell web addresses for profit, and who Cowley said would not act in the interests of the wider UK internet.

Following the vote, the Nominet executive promised its structure would remain under review. Sources familiar with debates over Nominet's structure, on both sides, suggested BERR's letter shows that the government would consider appointing people to unelected seats.

Any government involvement in Nominet affairs would mean wholesale reconstruction of the basis the company trades upon. "It would require a complete rewriting of the constitution, or legislation," Gilbert said.

One Nominet member, who asked not to be named, said: "They're saying this in such a way that 90 per cent of the members will take a glance and not realise what is going on. What concerns me is that the government has shown itself not competent to run the economy - what will happen if we put them in charge of DNS?"

Gilbert said Nominet's executive takes no position on whether it would want the government to take control. While conceding that the government now considers Nominet a critical part of national infrastructure, he said: "We would wish Nominet to continue as a members' organisation."

Although Hendon is not specific in the letter about how BERR could increase its sway over Nominet, the intention is clear. He wrote: "The domain system is, of course, a crucial element in the internet economy. In this context I noted that many countries regarded their country code as a national asset, the management of which required the direct involvement of government."

A BERR spokeswoman said: "All I can say at the moment is we have no plans." She described the letter as a "fact-finding" exercise, adding that Nominet's interpretation that it could lead to a complete restructuring "is a matter for Nominet".

Boardroom split

Also at May's AGM, Jim Davies, a domain lawyer whose election the executive had campaigned against, was elected to Nominet's board. In its press release today, the non-profit appeared to allude to boardroom struggles caused by the appointment when it referred to "governance issues", "which include conflicts of interest, [and] demand immediate and proactive action".

Bob Gilbert said the allusion referred to complaints about "a board member" but refused to discuss his or her identity as it was "subject to a process yet to be completed". Jim Davies did not return a call requesting comment.

We're hosting a copy of the BERR letter here (pdf). ®

Update

While refusing to discuss its dispute with Jim Davies with us, Nominet has posted details here (pdf).

Similar topics

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021