Nominet is back to 'the same old sh*t' says Public Benefit campaign chief as EGM actions grind to halt

Second public meeting threatened unless dot-UK registry plays ball


The founder of a campaign to return dot-UK registry Nominet to its public benefit roots has raised the threat of a second EGM if Nominet doesn't “heed the will of [its] members."

Simon Blackler, founder of the Public Benefit (PB) campaign to overhaul Nominet, was scathing about what he saw as the registry's inaction in the wake of a extraordinary general meeting in March which saw five directors dumped from the 11-strong board. The move was described as "a clear rejection of their efforts to push the company in a more commercial direction."

“We have been incredibly reasonable,” Blackler, who runs Krystal Hosting, told us. "We've been incredibly patient, we've given them the benefit of the doubt. And we have been saying, look, this isn't acceptable, you need to change. And they've been trying to do the same old shit.”

Since the dust settled from the March EGM, little has happened, Blackler told us, in spite of a clear appetite from Nominet’s membership for real and lasting change. Instead, he claimed, acting chairman Rob Binns has refused to engage with proposals to appoint new directors.

Blackler opined:

It's kind of the autocratic playbook, it must be said. There's very little difference between what Nominet do, what the Nominet board do and autocratic, despotic regimes around the world do. First of all, you lie, you ignore your opposition, then you paint them as small. Then you paint them as wild or somehow untrustworthy. And then you win. And that is what they have done every time until this last EGM.

The not-for-profit outfit has, at its members’ expense, been operating as if it were a commercial enterprise. It was founded to run the .UK top-level domain and put the money from that to good causes. However, the Public Benefit Group argues, in recent years, Nominet raised the price of .uk domain names, scaled back its charitable donations, and increased the pay of its most senior executives, all while toying with for-profit ventures - some of which have been dismal failures.

Although the PB campaign successfully edged out just under half of Nominet’s board in March, Blackler said he believed the remaining directors are trying to quietly restore the status quo instead of embracing change. Indeed, those very directors campaigned hard against the vote, which ultimately saw their colleagues thrown overboard, as we reported.

Last week Blackler published a stinging letter [PDF] on the Public Benefit website castigating Binns for failing to put in place board directors the Nominet membership could trust to push through organisational changes at the registry. Blackler had tried to put the installation of two specific reformers on the board to a membership vote at the March EGM, and the registry's management was able to prevent that resolution from even being considered.

The PB group had “sought to remove five people and replace them with two better people,” Blackler told The Register in an interview last week. “[Nominet] recognised the existential threat that presented, so they hobbled the EGM, and they wanted to tie me up in legal battles so that I couldn't proceed quickly against them.”

Those two better people the reformers had hoped to install were ex-BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons, who previously reviewed Nominet’s corporate structure and was largely ignored for his pains, and Axel Pawlik, an industry veteran who spent two decades running regional IP-and-DNS overseer RIPE NCC. Nominet’s current management rejected bringing the pair onboard out of hand. Blackler said he didn’t want to name the other prospective directors in case Nominet nobbled them, telling the world via the Public Benefit campaign’s letter:

Nominet has a chequered past when it comes to putting pressure on individuals it believes are acting against the company’s interests, so you can appreciate why I wanted to keep board candidates’ names CONFIDENTIAL.

Nominet, meanwhile, isn't taking all this lying down.

Nominet: Firm is 'run consistently with its articles of association'

A spokesman told us, in response to the general criticism of Nominet levelled at it by the Public Benefit campaign: "We are confident that Nominet is run consistently with its articles of association. This recognises that the company must be run on a commercial basis and gives a reasonable degree of latitude in terms of the activities the company can undertake. As we have done since 1996, we run the business along commercial lines, invest in the business and profits are used for public benefit."

The spokesman added: "We have doubled our public benefit spend from last year."

Back in 2018 Nominet abandoned its charitable trust, which used to donate £5m-£6m annually to good causes. In 2019 the parent company donated all of £500,000 to charity, as we reported, with most of the rest ending up in commercial wheezes and those ever-expanding directorial paycheques.

Public Benefit also accused Nominet of surveilling members' live votes during March's EGM, with a view to pressuring voters into changing their votes. Nominet told us the EGM voting was "not a secret ballot vote", confirming that it has "access to voting information" - and that it had "a calling campaign to encourage members to participate in the vote". But nobody was pressured to change their vote after casting it, said the spokesman. So that's OK then.

Something else from the AGM has been causing increasing public unease: Nominet's handing of EGM voting data to a market research agency, Savanta.

"We shared our register of members plus voting data with Savanta on a confidential basis to ensure they would have representation across the full membership for focus groups," said Nominet's spokesman, adding: "We feel that the listening process (the project where we are seeking to get detailed feedback from members following the EGM) is a legitimate purpose for data protection law. The data has not been shared with any other third parties."

In his parting shot Blackler said, addressing Nominet: “You run the dot-UK domain name and that's what you need to do, you need to protect that, you need to secure that, that's your remit. That's what we want you to do, and nothing else… if there is a second EGM, it will be because you've given the membership no other choice.” ®

Bootnotes

Eleanor Bradley Bradley, who ran Nominet's registry operations, was dismissed from her boardroom seat in the March EGM only to be immediately appointed Nominet’s interim CEO. Previous chief exec Russell Haworth (he of the fake news) jumped before the membership pushed him.

Kieren McCarthy is away.

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