auDA Quietly Shelves Registry Ambitions After Blowing $200K; Now Seeking To Avoid Government Oversight

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Last week a couple of domain names relating to auDA’s grand ambition to become the registry for Australia’s ccTLD, in addition to its ongoing role of policy and regulatory body, slipped off the radar when the domain names related to its proposed rebrand quietly appeared on the expiring domains drop list, and then were locked by the registry. Though they did allow the commercial auhq.com.au to drop, and this was acquired privately.

In 2016/17 auDA began preparations to become the .au registry at the end of the contract of then operator AusRegistry. Sources have told Domain Pulse they estimate auDA spent as much as A$200,000 (about US$139,000 today) on consultant fees for its failed rebranding exercise to change the organisation’s name to auHQ, including trademarks, and registered the domain names auhq.com.au, auhq.org.au and auhq.net.au. But when news came to light, including some negative publicity (which was one of the factors leading to a members revolt which forced resignation of the then Chair Stuart Benjamin), auDA were forced to shelve their grand ambitions and put the registry out to tender.

Also this week it emerged auDA is seeking to avoid government oversight. Since its inception, the Department of Communications, or its predecessors, have regularly had an observer at auDA board meetings. The observer has had auDA under more scrutiny since a government review in 2018 found “urgent reforms are necessary” and that auDA’s current management framework is no longer fit-for-purpose and reform is necessary if the company is to perform effectively and meet the needs of Australia’s internet community.” Since then controversial reforms have been underway.

In a letter from current auDA Chair Chris Leptos dated 8 May to the Department of Communication and the Arts, Leptos seeks the discontinuation of the Department’s Board observer, a request that could be read to seek to rid itself of government oversight. In his letter, Leptos raises concerns, none of which have previously been raised by auDA management, that the government representative could be considered a “shadow director”.

Leptos’ letter is in response to an earlier letter dated 7 May from the Department of Communications and the Arts laying out the ongoing role of their observer, and suggesting that “once auDA has successfully completed its reforms that there could be further changes” to the role of the observer or even that the “observer role may no longer be required.” Obviously this wasn’t good enough for auDA and their Chair.

Throughout auDA’s history, an observer from the Department was a conduit between government and auDA, providing advice occasionally, reported back to the Department and ensured the organisation kept to their stated goals.

auDA, like most “independent” bodies running country code top level domains, is “endorsed” by their government. As per a letter from the then Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in 2001 advising ICANN of the government’s endorsement of auDA, the government said it was expected a representative would attend “all auDA Board meetings as an observer and [maintain] a close working relationship with the auDA Board and its administrative staff.”

So what now for auDA? Based on the previous actions of the Department of Communications and the Arts and their lack of any definitive actions, it’s highly likely auDA will once again get their way calling the department’s bluff. So after almost 20 years of government oversight, which has kept auDA accountable and transparent, auDA will be free. Free of any remaining accountability they had.