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UK net registry battles coup d'etat

The power struggle at the heart of Nominet

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Updated Nominet, the not-for-profit registry for .co.uk web addresses, is facing an attempted coup by a group of members who want to force its bosses to hand back millions of pounds in surplus fees.

The company took the rearguard step on Monday of writing to all its 3,000 members encouraging them to turn out to vote in ongoing elections for two non-executive board members. The official communication (pdf) goes as far as campaigning against the three would-be usurpers: Darren Brown, Jim Davies, and Robert Fox.

The results of the postal and online ballot will be revealed at Nominet's AGM on 30 May. In a telephone interview today, Fox described Nominet's campaign as "outrageous". "I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's certainly entertaining," he said.

A Fox and Brown-backed website set up to counter Nominet's campaign, states: "Nominet are actively telephone canvassing the membership now asking them to vote in favour of the resolution by voting online, or return their postal vote. Nominet employees have been instructed to ask members 'can we rely on your support?' Some people are uncomfortable with the organisation canvassing in this way.

"They see us as people who want to break Nominet, but that's just not true; we want to preserve it. But they're really panicking."

He rejected any suggestion of a conspiracy, saying: "I only spoke to Jim Davies for the first time yesterday. Darren is an old friend of mine."

Victory for the trio would effectively mean they could block board decisions and push for price cuts and for the millions of pounds held in surplus to be paid back. the current board would like very much to maintain the status quo.

The spooked Nominet executive provoked anger from some members with a proposal made even before the rebels decided to stand for election. It is pushing new rules (via "special resolution 6") granting it powers to appoint two extra non-executive directors. Detractors believe it plans to squash opposition by appointing patsies to counter any rebellious member-elected directors.

Fox said it was actually opposition to special resolution 6 that prompted him and Brown "to get off our arses".

If passed, opponents argue that special resolution 6 would grant autocratic power to the current ruling group. The board replies that the appointees would be independent, elected, and that it is duty-bound to ensure that Nominet is governed by qualified people.

"They [our opponents] are effectively saying they disagree with the idea of independent directors," the company's chief executive Lesley Cowley charged yesterday. "We are legally obliged to ensure the right level of skills and experience on the board."

Nevertheless, she believes that the Nominet board's current structure "does make [it] vulnerable to capture". She said the organisation's role fostering the development of the UK internet needs to be safeguarded.

The fear of a coup d'etat by domainers or others has led the executive to engage in some fairly political tactics to mobilise its supporters. The "urgent call to action" challenges Brown, Davies, and Fox to reveal more about their records in the domain business ahead of the election. The three board-friendly candidates have all released details in addition to their initial election statements.

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