UK’s Internet future to be decided tomorrow

Tomorrow at 10am at the Kassam football stadium in Oxford, the future of the UK’s Internet, and the future of the UK on the Internet, will be decided.

Nominet – the company that runs the .uk domain registry – is holding an extraordinary general meeting where it will ask its shareholders to approve a radical overhaul of the company’s structure. The changes are very big, very significant and they require a hefty 90 percent approval of the people there.

It’s difficult to boil all the changes down, but basically the company rules are being rewritten to let Nominet enter the bigger, wider Internet world.

Nominet was constructed in the early days of the commercial Internet and its corporate structure was designed by Internet old hands, including Net legend Dr Willie Black, to retain the Internet’s uinque culture at a time when the vast possibilities of this new media were seeing savvy manipulators profit by abusing companies charged with control of important sections of the Net.

The result of that design has been two-found. Nominet has survived where many others died, and it has built up a head of steam thanks to carefully focussed expertise. But at the same time, the same rules (which include the 90 percent vote rule, and a restriction on Nominet to do anything but .uk registry work) have been constraining the company of late and risk tying it up unnecessarily as the Internet continues to run off in different directions.

Not all bad

The important thing to note is that the vast majority of Nominet’s “members” are in favour of some of the changes. The membership has grown to such an extent that the rule that the company has to consult with all members before making even small changes, is now in no-one’s interests. Equally, the DNS system has less importance in a world of search engines so it’s daft to restrict Nominet to this when it is in the perfect position to see the future of Net infrastructure and go out there and act as Britain’s main force against the American giants (VeriSign et al).

The argument however is over how far those changes should go.

Nominet chief exec (as she re-organised herself from the more British “managing director”) Lesley Cowley is ambitious, and everybody knows it. Although she often does a good job of hiding the fact. She has brought in alot of excellent changes at Nominet, and actually infused the global Internet market with a healthy dose of British fair-play, to the more cutthroat American commercialism and more European state-control.

But Cowley has her eyes on bigger prizes – global infrastructure contracts. With them come more power, more money and the opportunity to define the next generation of the Internet.

She brought in the other key member behind the proposed structural changes – chairman Bob Gilbert. Gilbert is a specialist lawyer in corporate law and readily admits he has little technical knowledge about the Internet. Everyone sees Gilbert arrival – quite correctly – as a way of opening Nominet up to more commercial routes.

The problem with all this is that it is Nominet’s members that get to choose whether the changes go ahead. And the members want to know why they should let Nominet launch into the wider commercial world when they stand to gain relatively little from it. All Nominet members want is for the .uk registry to run as cheaply, efficiently and effectively as possible. With wider commercial exposure comes the risk that Nominet will not focus as much on the registry. Or even that it will raise prices in the registry in order to fund other activities.

At the same time, however, Nominet has proven itself to be extremely good and trustworthy, so why try to control an organisation that is asking for a little freedom? Members could be shooting themselves in the foot if they vote against the changes.

Another fundamental element that is not said publicly but is without a doubt the elephant in the room is that people aren’t sure they trust Cowley and Gilbert.

The elephant in the room

There remains a strong belief that Cowley elbowed out previous chairman Willie Black, who was a much loved and trusted figure, because he was in her way. And there is a fear that Gilbert is “not one of us” because he hasn’t come from the Internet world.

Because of this, the argument that Cowley and Gilbert are pushing Nominet too commercial too fast has found a comfortable bed. There’s no doubt at this stage that with the extremely high 90 percent hurdle to jump over, Nominet has not communicated closely enough with its membership, and that error may well force it to go back to the drawing board.

Most vocal in opposition to the changes has been Nominet PAB (Policy Advisory Board) member Hazel Pegg. Hazel welcomes alot of the changes but feels the overall package is wrong.

In fact, I’ve just spoken to Hazel and she remains against the agreement. She has around 500 proxy votes – which is roughly five percent of the overall vote. So it all depends on how many people turn up in person tomorrow to the EGM and how they vote. It is going to be a very tight squeeze for Nominet to reach 90 percent approval. It looks however as though the changes that only require 75 percent approval will go through.

All happens on the day

Ah, I’ve just spoken to Bob Gilbert as well and he’s not all sure the 90 percent vote will get through. You’d expect him to be bullish but he offered instead a “we’ll have to wait and see” answer. My gut feeling is that it won’t go through, and that Nominet will pledge to hold a more open consultation in the next few weeks where it will discuss with members the logic behind its proposed changes, reach a compromise, and then put the changes through a second time.

Either way, it should prove interesting. Bob Gilbert has promised me he will ask the meeting to accept the press into proceedings, and that he will recommend that it should be allowed, so I should be able to report what goes on.

You can read all about the meeting in a series of articles I wrote for The Register and The Times. And there is also Hazel Pegg’s NotNominet site outling the changes in great detail and her comment piece in The Times to review as well.

I also have a recording of an interview I had with Lesley Cowley and Bob Gilbert where they answered all my questions and argued their perspective. If I hadn’t been so busy with other stuff lately I would have done a podcast. It may be a bit too late now. Instead, here is Nominet FAQ on the changes and why they think members should vote for them.

The Register
Nominet responds to rule-change concerns
Nominet faces rebellion over rule changes

The Times
Nominet readies itself for next decade
Internet registry in trouble over status

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