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Nominet 'sought govt protection from takeover by domain hawkers'

'Plan G' revealed at ex-policy chief's tribunal

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Nominet, the .uk address registry, sought government help to protect its board of directors from a takeover by domain name speculators, according to its former policy chief.

The claims, which Nominet denies, are documented in the findings of an employment tribunal, which found the company guilty of constructive dismissal and disability discrimination against Emily Taylor, who was director of policy from 2005 to 2009.

Tribunal documents seen by The Register shed new light on the fallout of a fierce boardroom battle in 2008 that ultimately led to the Digital Economy Act giving the government powers to take over the .uk registry.

A Nominet initiative known as “Plan G” was a last-ditch attempt to prevent the member-owned company from being take over by “domainers” – people who speculatively buy and sell domain names for profit – according to these documents.

Plan G was “essentially a scheme to involve the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) in applying pressure for a constitutional change to Nominet if domainers gained control of the board”, according to the tribunal's judgment.

Back in May 2008, Nominet was rocked when Jim Davies, a solicitor with a history of cybersquatting who specialized in representing domainers, was elected to its board of directors, despite a campaign by executives to keep him out.

A few months later, when Nominet CEO Lesley Cowley returned from a period of stress-related sick leave, Plan G was put in motion, according to tribunal documents.

Nominet has always denied that it had actively asked for the intervention of BERR, which has since been replaced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

According to an official time-line published by Nominet, the company commissioned an Independent Governance Review, carried out by Professor Bob Garratt, after receiving a letter of concern from BERR in October 2008.

However, the documents obtained by El Reg reveal that talks about Plan G within Nominet were already under way at least as early as August 2008, with BERR being brought in a month later.

The employment tribunal wrote in its ruling against Nominet:

On Lesley Cowley's return to work, an initiative was developed which became known as 'Plan G'. This was essentially a scheme to involve the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in applying pressure for a constitutional change to Nominet if domainers gained control of the board. She discussed her thoughts about this proposal with [Nominet chairman] Bob Gilbert and with Mrs Taylor at a 1:l with her on 5 August 2008. There was a 2.5 hour off site meeting in September devoted to developing thinking on Plan G. It was not of course shared with the two hostile board members, Angus [Hanton] and Jim Davies. As a consequence of Plan G, and at the suggestion of DBERR, a governance review project was initiated. This was undertaken by Professor Bob Garratt and became known as the 'Garratt Report'.

Nominet denies there was a Plan G

Nominet said in a statement yesterday that it is “not the case” that Nominet instigated the government calls for review.

“Two major organisations (an ISP and a major British trade body) had already been in contact with BERR prior to any discussions between Nominet and the government,” it said.

Taylor, who left Nominet due to an illness-related constructive dismissal in late 2009, characterised Nominet's version of events was “disingenuous and misleading”, however.

The major ISP and trade bodies raising concerns with the BERR were BT and the Confederation of British Industry, but their concerns were “fed by” Taylor and her colleagues at Nominet, she claimed.

“They were manufactured by us,” she claimed.

The tribunal documents also reveal that Nominet had more input into the Garratt report than it was prepared to admit to its members.

The tribunal found that a recommendation in an early draft of the report to the effect that Taylor's policy role should also include a seat on the board was removed at the suggestion of Nominet executives.

Nominet's board was instructed at its 2009 Annual General Meeting to answer questions about the report with the reply that its input was limited to factual and stylistic points, but senior legal counsel Nick Wenban-Smith admitted under cross-examination that this was not fully accurate.

The tribunal stated: “The Tribunal is satisfied having heard the evidence in this case that the amendments made were not simply factual accuracies or stylistic there was a specific movement of the recommendation that the head of policy be made a director.”

Nominet said in its statement yesterday:

It was always the intention that the Board would be involved in helping Professor Garratt - who had no previous knowledge of the sector, or of Nominet - understand the complexities of the sector and Nominet as an organisation.

It would have been impossible for the report to have been written in isolation from the Board. Professor Garratt always had the final say on any suggestions or corrections that came from the Nominet Board and has since confirmed again that the report conclusions were his own.

Taylor, who joined Nominet full-time in 2000, was forced to quit her senior role there after a long period of stress-related sick leave, according to the employment tribunal.

According to the documents, Taylor's stress was apparently exacerbated by the election of openly hostile "domainer-friendly" directors Davies and Hanton, and by a Nominet member mailing list called Nomsteer which it was claimed was regularly used by domainers to abuse Nominet staff.

After Taylor filed an official 35-page grievance against her colleagues she was removed from Nominet mailing lists by executives who no longer trusted her and feared legal action, the tribunal found.

The grievance described Taylor's belief that she, Cowley and chairman Bob Gilbert had been “bullied” by Hanton and Davies, and that she lacked the support of fellow Nominet staff.

Nominet was told to pay over £100,000 in damages to Taylor as a result of constructive dismissal and disability discrimination. The case concluded a year ago, but reporting restrictions were only recently lifted.

Nomsteer has since been closed, and Nominet recently introduced a new code of conduct that would sanction abusive members.

“We have always prided ourselves on being an organisation that looks after its staff,” Nominet said yesterday. “It’s unfortunate that this dispute has happened at all, but now we have a decision we can draw a line under it and move on.” ®

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