.uk registry operator Nominet responds to renewed criticism – by silencing its critics

It’s always important for us to understand your views. That's why we’re shutting them down

In an extraordinary display of raw political power, the organisation in charge of the .uk internet registry has responded to growing criticism of its actions by silencing critics.

Speaking at Nominet’s annual general meeting (AGM) on Tuesday morning, the organisation’s CEO Russell Haworth shocked members by announcing he was shutting down its internal web forum – the only means of independent communication between members – effective immediately.

The meeting was held virtually, and members were communicating with one another on the forum at the time, including putting together a list of questions to ask the Nominet board and executive team during the Q&A portion of the AGM... when it suddenly went dead.

In a sign of just how dysfunctional the relationship has become between Nominet and its members, Haworth clearly relished the moment.

“As a member organisation, we rely on the engagement, insight and support of our members,” he said. “Robust multi-stakeholder discussions and debates are a critical part of what we do and member voices are key.”

He went on: “However, I believe we will benefit from resetting our relationship with a small minority of members. It is important the voices of a few are heard but not to the exclusion of the many… the forum is dominated by a handful of posters and it’s increasingly become aggressive and hostile, not least toward our staff… we don’t feel as though we need a Nominet forum. So with immediate effect we are closing it down.”

In its place, Haworth suggested occasional Zoom calls, arranged and run by Nominet, “so we can interact on key issues that are important to you and engage in constructive dialogue.”

Information control

Aside from the fact Nominet has faced severe criticism in the past for holding meetings to which it only invited and briefed a select few companies in order to push ideas it knew other members would oppose, the Nominet message board was the only form of direct public communication that members had with themselves and their organisation after the company shut down its mailing lists in preference to the online forum.

And just for good measure, Nominet then used this year’s virtual AGM, something its chairman said at the start of the meeting was legally allowed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to vote to run all future AGM as virtual meetings, thereby removing the ability of members to make their views known in future.

Thanks to a decision pushed by Haworth in 2017, members can also no longer rely on reading board-of-directors minutes and reports to find out what the organisation is doing because it has stopped sharing them online.

What makes the decision to kill any form of independent communication that much worse, however, is the fact that recent criticism leveled at Nominet has been entirely justified.

In recent weeks, it has been accused of repeatedly failing in its job as custodian of the .uk space, and of putting its commercial interests ahead of those of its members and the broader UK public. Last week, the organisation was forced to admit it had wrongly calculated election results for the past two years yet continues to refuse to provide any more details.

That same week, the illicit sale of valuable domain names by the second largest retailer of .uk names, Fasthosts, which coincidentally supplies Nominet with around half of its annual revenue, was exposed yet Nominet refused to carry out an investigation.

All about the money

The week before that, Nominet was forced to backtrack on a plan to take over the resale market for .uk names after a member revolt. The plan would have brought the company an extra £4m a year; its consultation paper that pushed the approach was fundamentally flawed and may also have undermined its legal status as a non-profit member organisation.

The week before that, Nominet was accused of actively misleading British punters by sending emails warning them about the need to renew domain names they never ordered and didn’t want.

And earlier this month, Nominet’s annual report revealed that the organisation continues to take money from the UK registry business, over which it holds a monopoly, and pump it into failed efforts to enter commercial markets, loaning £4.1m to prop up those plans while at the same time increasing executive and director pay by double-digit percentages. CEO Haworth was awarded a 30 per cent pay rise to £593,000.

Also in that report, Nominet acknowledged in a single line of text that it was abandoning its multi-year effort to break into the spectrum management and autonomous vehicles markets; an effort it had wasted millions on.

In these actions, many members saw an executive team and board of directors that has become increasingly unaccountable for its actions, and so took to Nominet’s internal forum to raise their concerns as well as ask for explanations from staff.

With the AGM coming up, many Nominet members who do not normally engage with the organisation took to the message board where they heard about many of these issues for the first time.

As such, the forum was literally the last line for members to raise issues within what remains, legally, a member-based non-profit organisation.

And, in the clearest possible way, the management made plain how they feel about being held accountable for their actions: by shutting it down. ®

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