New Nominet Registrant terms

If you have a domain name ending in .uk it’s probably administered by Nominet (exceptions being .gov.uk etc). Nominet is a not-for-profit outfit set up in 1996 to manage UK domain names as the Internet expanded. Unlike certain other countries, our domain registration service as traditionally operated for the benefit of Internet users, which is as it should be.

Right now Nominet is holding a public consultation on changes to the terms and conditions for anyone registering a domain name. It’s mostly sensible stuff, like dropping the need for a fax number. But there are a couple of changes that do worry me.

First off, there is a provision in the old terms that if Nominet changed the T+C of the contract once it had started, the owner of the domain could cancel and get a refund. This is only fair; people registering direct with Nominet could be paying hundreds of pounds in advance and you can’t change the rules of the game once it’s started without consequences.

The plan is to drop this provision, with the apparent stated justification that they can’t remember anyone ever invoking it. Lack of use doesn’t mean the provision is wrong; it simply means that they haven’t upset anyone with a change in T+C enough to make invoking it necessary. One likely reason for this is the requirement for a public consultation before changing T+C.

The second problem is that they want to drop the need for a public consultation before changing T+C. This is all in line with “industry practices”, apparently.

Hang on Nominet, what have industry practices got to do with you? You’re not an industry; you’re a service run for the benefit of, and paid for, by Internet users in the UK. Other countries have domain registration services run on commercial lines, for the benefit of shareholders, and the last thing you should do is follow suit on their sharp practices. So why ask for permission to do so?

Nominet has been a beacon of how the Internet should be run, setting the highest standards in fairness and transparency. It should continue this way by setting an example of the highest standard.

Eroding the power of the stakeholders may be convenient from an operational point of view, and doing things properly may cost money (not something Nominet is short of). Dropping these awkward provisions may seem like a good idea at first glance. But for the sake of the wider picture, eroding the rights of domain owners would hardly be their finest hour. Unless, of course, the public consultation tells them to back off!

Here’s a link to the consultation. If you’re in the UK, your views count.

The Future of Nominet (AGM report)

Nominet, the not-for-profit company that manages most of the .uk domain space, has been worrying me of late. It replaced a naming committee in 1996 as the volunteers that run it started to become overwhelmed by the workload, and was set up be self-sustaining by charging for domain name registrations. Based in Oxford, it now employs 140 people.

They’re worried. Anyone who wants a domain name pretty much has it – or it’s being sat on by a cybersquatter. Either way, Nominet’s getting the residual income from having registered it in the first place, and this is now fixed. Or worse, as the enthusiasm for registering names in the hope of making money from it later wanes, their income may fall.

As well as Nominet employees being kept in the manner to which they’re accustoming, this presents a problem for those dealing in domain names commercially. Call them cybersquatters, domainers or parasites as you wish – domain dealers are making money out of buying and selling domain names. Their portfolio losing value could be problematic for them. With new top-level-domains now available, and the importance of a particular domain name falling, this is inevitable.

So, unsurprisingly, Nominet has been talking about expanding in other ways. At today’s AGM, new CEO Russel Harworth, was taking about expanding in to adjacent markets. What could this mean? As well as providing domain names, the obvious answer is hosting or other Internet services. Nominet members are going to have a problem with that: Nominet has a monopoly position issuing domain names, a big pile of cash and no way would be be good for anyone if they started competing with UK Internet businesses.

I pushed Russell Haworth on his choice of words. “I have no intention of competing with the channel”, was the emphatic reply. He explicitly rejected the idea of hosting: “It’s not our core business and never will be. The margins are very tight anyway.” This will be a relief to the hosting companies, who know all about tough margins. He continued “I’d like to see us add value to the channel. For example, we sit on a lot of data. We can aggregate that data. There is an opportunity to look at big data. [and derive value from it]”.

Basically, the plan seems to be to analyse domain registration data and DNS traffic, and use it to target areas such as SMEs with a view to selling them something. Quite what they were selling wasn’t spelled out exactly, but domain name registrations seemed to be the only example.

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It seems that the current thinking is to sell DNS products, which won’t compete with anyone much (apart from people selling DNS products). Why anyone should pay for DNS products is beyond me; but if you can’t manage your own DNS I suppose its possible. I really don’t see this replacing the revenue stream as domain name registration income stops rising.

Rob Golding from Astutium asked what many of us were thinking – what’s so wrong with the status quo? Why not stick with one revenue streme. Nominet isn’t supposed to be a business and has no need to expand; it’d be okay to contract. Unsurprisingly, Nominet’s view was similar top that of turkeys to Christmas. “It would be foolish not to look at opportunities to diversify”. Speaking about the saturation of the .uk. Namespace and future projections, Haworth continued “It’s Darwinian – we’ re not going to sit and watch things fall apart. If we see domains trending downwards, Nominet can add value to adjacent markets.”

This is an interesting situation, especially when you see who controls Nominet. Things are voted on, ultimately, by its members. This is weighted to the number of names they have registered. It’s pretty obvious that the large domain name registration businesses are going to have a far greater say than the majority of small members; those that represent the general Internet industry and general public. The big domain dealers will have millions of votes; a normal small ISP might have a few dozen. To counteract this, Nominet limits the votes of any one member to 3%, and has mechanisms in place to stop the big companies simply joining once and splitting their domain portfolios to get multiple 3% blocks. However, still suspect that, although there appears to be no evidence that the domain dealers don’t collude in their voting, they’re all going to have the same interests and will naturally vote together – this effectively tending to control Nominet in to policies that support their business model.

Unfortunately there’s no easy way around this. Even if it was one-member-one-vote, large organisations could swamp the membership with their friends. So what keeps Nominet working in the public interest? Ultimately, scrutiny. If it went too far, an outcry could get the Government involved.

It’s also hard to see what Nominet can do in other fields. Their charter requires them to engage only in worthy projects. But according to Haworth, “This doesn’t mean yo can’t be commercial.” However, given that Nominet has a huge, secure revenue stream for investment, it clearly does have a commercial advantage over anyone else who has to raise funding through normal channels. We’ve heard this before – Bill Gates famously said that Microsoft was about making the world a better place. Whether that’s his personal philosophy or not, from a corporate perspective it has a hollow ring.

In the mean time, Nominet is intent on expanding its revenue streams. The supposed block votes of the domain dealers (all those 3%s added together) is going to limit Nominet’s ability to compete with them. 123-Reg is never going to allow Nominet to start hosting web sites and damage their own business. So what next? I, for one, will be keeping a close eye on it. I was very much heartened to see that was the general consensus of those present, including Trustees and the board.

Nominet’s AGM venue fail – almost

I decided to miss out on the first day of Infosec to attend the Nominet AGM, which this year took place in their home town of Oxford. In the Said Business School, to be precise. I’d never heard of this, but it’s a very nice place and right next to the railway station. But I was driving.

Had I known this was in the centre I might have made other transport arrangements, but getting to Oxford by public transport is difficult for me. Had I known that one of the main Thames bridges had been closed and the city centre was grid-locked, I would definitely left the car behind.

Given that most of those in attendance were from Nominet (only a dozen members were listed as expected), it does make sense to hold a meeting close to home. But the city centre?

As you approach, it’s obvious that Oxford has plenty of Parks. There’s he normal park, of course. There’s are also Business Parks, Retail Parks, Leisure Parks, Science Parks. In fact, every kind of park you can think of other than a Car Park.

I managed to stop in the short-term station car park, without a ticket as the machine was out-of-order, while I negotiated the use of the Said Business School’s underground one. I said it was a nice place.

Nominet – please don’t do this again! Or at least, put out in the AGM details that parking is a nightmare at the venue, if you do.

Blackbushe Cybersquatting Club

Today the nice people at Blackbushe Flying Club decided to register the ICAO airfield designator for Popham Airfield in Hampshire (eghp.co.uk) and redirect it to their flying school at Blackbushe. Nominet claims to have validated Blackbushe Flying Club Ltd as the rightful owners, which is interesting.

I used to be a member of the flying club at Popham for many years, but I’m not now. Still friendly though. I’m also a member of Nominet. If anyone from Popham would like to get in touch for backup in getting these juvenile scallywags at Blackbushe dealt with appropriately, I should be flying in some time tomorrow morning.

FWIW, here’s chapter and verse:

Domain name:
 eghp.co.uk
Registrant:
 Blackbushe Flying Club
Registrant type:
 UK Limited Company, (Company number: 00000)
Registrant's address:
 11 The Close
 College Town
 Sandhurst
 Berkshire
 GU47 0RE
 United Kingdom
Data validation:
 Registrant contact details validated by Nominet on 08-Apr-2015
Registrar:
 Mesh Digital Limited t/a Domainmonster.com [Tag = MONSTER]
 URL: http://www.domainmonster.com
Relevant dates:
 Registered on: 08-Apr-2015
 Expiry date: 08-Apr-2017
 Last updated: 08-Apr-2015

Update 13-Apr-2015

I did some investigating and I know exactly who is behind this, and it was nothing to do with Popham or a joke. It looks like something that seemed like a good idea at the time to someone. It’s not actually Blackbushe airfield that’s behind it, it’s an outfit calling itself Blackbushe Flying Group (and I won’t get personal by naming the individual).

Judging from the hit-count on this page, and a the result of a few phone calls, “someone” has realised the error of his ways and changed it to a redirect sending all traffic to Popham’s real web site. If that someone wishes to get in touch I can help make it right permanently, at least as far as Popham is concerned. His landlord, Blackbushe Airport Ltd, may be less forgiving as, in addition to associating the Blackbushe name in some skulduggery, he’s only gone and registered eglk.co.uk too. Ouch.

If the idea behind the wheeze was there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I’d say that was only partly true.

 

Nominet finally goes to court

Nominet Logo

If you’ve never heard of Nominet, you should have. It’s the organisation that manages most of the domain names

ending in .uk. It was set up in

1996 as a company when the previous arrangements (known as the Naming Committee) became overwhelmed. The Naming Committee granted the use of domain names to their rightful owners for no charge, but only their rightful owners. Nominet charged, and was more relaxed about who it sold things too – being too picky meant less income, and it needed income to cope with the increased demand for Internet services.

The snag with this new arrangement was that it allowed speculators to register as many domain names as they wished, with a view to charging end users money to use something they’d pre-registered. This is known as cyber-squatting, although people in this business prefer to call themselves “domainers”.

Nominet was created for the benefit of Internet users in the UK, not cyber-squatters. Unfortunately, cyber-squatters register more domain names than anyone else (as they would), and started to get an undue influence based on their size. Cyber-squatters make various claims about how they’re important for a “vibrant market” in domain names, but there’s no benefit to society in such a market. You could say they’re trading in something that should be free to legitimate users. Some would go as far as to call them parasites. If any cyber-squatters or domainers wish to explain exactly why the label is unfair, please enlighten me.

Anyway, Nominet board isn’t stupid and has, in recent years, done a lot to skew things in favour of UK Internet users. Not enough as far as I’m concerned, but they’re trying to look after the majority. The cyber-squatters don’t like this, and have started personal attacks on Nominet’s CEO, Lesley Cowley in an attempt to get rid of her with a view to installing someone more of their liking. What’s really upset them was a consultation to allow people to register names directly under .uk, without a .co.uk or .org.uk. For example, Tesco could have been tesco.uk, as is often the case in other countries. Legitimate UK ownership would have been verified, like in the old days, but they would also have cost more. Cyber-squatters hated the idea, because their current stock-pile of .co.uk names would have been somewhat devalued! They had to defeat Nominet in order to preserve their “investment”. The rest of us would have quite like to see the speculators clobbered, although I’ve never had the feeling that was Nominet’s intention.

Nominet has finally had enough, and late this afternoon launched a High Court action against Graeme Wingate and his company That Internet Ltd, citing “[unacceptable] harassment and victimisation of our staff”. What this is really about is whether Nominet is run for the benefit of everyone, or the cyber-squatters.

 

Nominet announces consultation on new .uk domains

Nominet is starting a three-month consultation on issuing domain names directly under the .uk TLD. According to Eleanor Bradley, Nominet’s Director of Operations, this development will allow new companies to purchase domain names (presumably because the .co.uk is in the hands of cyber squatters), and also be more secure by checking that the registrant has a UK address and providing daily monitoring for malicious software on the domain (presumably they mean associated web site here).

Nominet is justifying this because they say their new domain space will help to guard the UK against cyber crime, which costs the UK £27B per year.

Nominet is supposed to ensure that UK registrants are okay in any case – although it’s currently based on public complains when an anomaly is found. Their claim about ensuring that such web sites will be monitored and malware free is just about the craziest promise Nominet could be making. Whoever dreamt this up clearly has no idea about the risks and mechanisms that are used to pervert web sites for malware delivery – there is no way Nominet can check.

What I’ve heard so far is just another scheme for Nominet and cyber squatters (or domainers as they prefer to be called) to make more money. Nominet should be concentrating on the interests of Internet users in the UK, not “vibrant domain name spaces”, which basically means people trading in domain names as a commodity.

The road to hell…

I’m not a communist, but it’s pretty obvious to me that there are some things that are best not left to the free market. The management of Internet domain names is one of them. And no, I’m not about to discuss the pigs breakfast that the American’s have made involving Network Solutions. This problem’s home grown, and fortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.

Nominet is the not-for-profit company that manages the allocation of most of the .uk domain names (notable exceptions being .gov.uk and .ac.uk). By and large it does a pretty good job; and anyone who thinks otherwise should look across the Atlantic and think again.

But this, apparently, is not enough. The management wants to widen its terms of reference to allow it to undertake new projects such as the allocation of telephone numbers. Now I don’t have a problem with this – Nominet has proved it can allocate domain names, so they’re a sensible choice to take on this new role. However, the terms of reference they are asking for allows them to offer ‘consultancy’ services. According to the document, they’re being asked for this and turning potential customers away. I say ‘Good!’

Nominet has a ‘public service’ charter. It’s a monopoly because we need one. The Internet community in the UK effectively owns Nominet, and it represents everyone’s interests. This is why it was set up with such narrow terms of reference – it’s a one-trick pony. It does what it does, and it does it well. It’s not competing in the marketplace for anything else, and no one can compete with Nominet.

But what if it could complete with other companies? It wouldn’t be doing so on equal terms – it holds the levers of control for the whole UK DNS. It has a guaranteed income stream form issuing domain names. It can take risks and lose money without worrying because it has a goose laying golden eggs. It’d make one hell of a player! But it would do so at the expense of everyone else.

Is the management of Nominet actually bent on world domination? Well I’ve had a chat with the people responsible and they insist that they only wanted to bid of the telephone number allocation business and while they were at it they wanted some general clauses added to cover future eventualities without having to change their terms of reference again. They had no intention of competing with their members or anyone else. That’s great, but will it remain so for the rest of time? I doubt it. With nothing in the terms of reference to hold them back, sooner or later someone would take advantage. What’s the point of having power and not using it.

If you’re going to have a non-profit organisation managing a monopoly for the public good then it should do just that. No more, no less.

For more information take a look at Nominet’s web site under consultations.

For Nominet’s Consultation Document click here.