Australia's .au internet registry chair quits amid no-confidence vote

Peculiar goings-on at auDA – we look under the covers and follow the money

Money problems

While auDA is in charge of the registry, it has outsourced the actual technical running of it to a third party. Since 2002, that company has been AusRegistry.

In recent years, the relationship between AusRegistry and auDA has been the subject of some speculation, particularly when it was awarded the contract to run .au for a further five years back in 2009 without a public tender. Previously the contract had always been put out to open tender.

With more than three million .au domains registered, auDA has found itself in the same situation as some other large registries – like Nominet in the UK – with a significant surplus of funds.

That abundance of money has led to all sorts of questionable decisions, most notably the awarding of very high salaries and extravagant expense accounts to senior executives and board directors at auDA as well as Nominet and DNS overseer ICANN.

When auDA's board unceremoniously fired its former CEO Chris Disspain – also a board member at ICANN – in March 2016, it repeatedly implied that what the organization spent its money on was a significant factor in the decision.

"In recent years, the relationship between the CEO and some Directors became increasingly strained over issues of process, transparency and accountability," said a formal report [PDF] on the issue. Later, new chair Stuart Benjamin made a similar guarded accusation when he wrote: "Compared to what I inherited, the organization is now meeting its legislative and governmental obligations."

I see

So with the profitable contract with AusRegistry coming up for renewal, what did the new, secretive, member-threatening auDA board decide to do?

First, it ended negotiations with AusRegistry and said it would have an open tender. Then, two weeks later, it decided it would be a "restricted tender" and auDA would actually build and run its own registry – rather than pay a third party to do so.

It hired another long-term ICANN director, Bruce Tonkin, to head up the project and announced a new Registry Transformation Project team. Then, on May 29, while members were complaining about the lack of board minutes and new code of conduct, it announced an "expressions of interest" process to build a new .au registry.

Despite the enormity of the shift, the process closed less than a month later. Then earlier this week, auDA announced a new tender process that will close in September and be decided in October.

All of this has left many auDA members wary about what is going on at the organization and so a number of them banded together to represent five per cent of the membership and so legally oblige the organization to hold a special general meeting.

It sent a formal request to auDA to hold that meeting to discuss their concerns, and even set up a protest site at the very-Australian Grumpy.com.au.

Resolution

That group also put forward four resolutions to be voted on by the membership that hit each major concern on the nose:

  • That all board minutes, agenda and reports be put back online and all future board documents be published.
  • That the new code of conduct be suspended until approved by a member vote.
  • That auDA stop its plan to run its own registry and put the issue to a member vote.
  • "That Stuart Benjamin be removed as a director of the Company with immediate effect."

Amazingly, auDA's response on July 13 was to refuse to allow three of the resolutions to go ahead, citing "legal advice that invalid motions cannot lawfully be put to a meeting of members."

A clearly panicked CEO then wrote a letter [PDF] explaining the decision to refuse to allow the resolutions that basically said "the board is in charge." It couldn't refuse to a vote on the future of its chair, however, since the chair is the representative of the members.

Faced with its refusal to allow a member voice on issues of real concern, attention turned to chair Stuart Benjamin and momentum quickly built around using the only allowed resolution at the special meeting as a way to register a protest vote.

One more

Then the news broke that CEO Cameron Boardman had installed an old work colleague as a new director following the unexpected resignation of a director last year, and not disclosed the relationship.

Members were already suspicious of the arrival of Michaella Richards because she had no history or relevant experience with the organization. Some journalistic digging revealed that both Boardman and Richards have worked together at the Innovation, Technology & Industry Programs department of the Australian government.

Amid a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity, the final turning point appears to have been when the president of Linux Australia went public on Thursday with the organization's intention to vote in favor of getting rid of Benjamin.

The writing was clearly on the wall and the next day, Benjamin quit – posting his resignation letter online.

In it, Benjamin paints himself as a victim of cyber bullying and personal attacks, and notes that he doesn't "want my experiences to discourage others from running for election, or accepting an appointment, to this important organization."

He goes on to insist that the board will continue with its plans to build its own registry and Benjamin points to an "increase in policy generation, in effective oversight, and in good governance" as his legacy.

Many will beg to differ. ®

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