Tech

Desperate Nominet chairman claims member vote to fire him would spark British government intervention

In what looks like a desperate last-minute attempt to keep his job, Mark Wood, the chairman of .uk internet registry operator Nominet, has claimed that a vote to fire him would cause the British government to intervene.

“We have been warned that instability will be of serious concern to government,” Wood wrote on Monday. “We know it would create a scenario which would make intervention more likely.”

His note, titled “A threat to independence,” concluded that “a vote for the EGM resolution will not preserve Nominet’s independence.” By EGM resolution, Wood means an upcoming extraordinary general meeting during which Nominet’s membership will vote whether or not to boot him and other non-elected members from its board.

The specter of government intervention was immediately dismissed by the PublicBenefit.uk campaign, which forced the vote, as “repetitious FUD in an attempt to scare the membership into extending their regime.” Other members have also taken exception to both the tone and the wording, with one noting that the statement about independence not being preserved “appears to be a statement of fact. There is no ‘could,’ ‘may,’ ‘probably,’ there is only ‘will not preserve’.”

Yet, it is not a given that Nominet would lose its independence if the vote goes against the registry operator’s management.

The chairman’s post comes one week before an EGM, triggered by Nominet members, seeks to get rid of Wood, Nominet CEO Russell Haworth, one other non-elected board member, as well as remove two additional staff members, from the board.

Members are angry over what they see as mismanagement of the company: at the same time that .uk prices have been increased by over 50 per cent, producing tens of millions of pounds in revenue, Nominet’s operating profits have dropped 38 per cent and charitable contributions have been slashed by 65 per cent.

Money, money, money

Where has all the money gone? To a series of failed commercial ventures spearheaded by Haworth and supported by the members of the board that the campaign wishes to evict. And while overseeing all of these flops, the campaign notes, the management team awarded itself huge salary increases and bonuses: director pay has increased by 70 per cent since 2016, with Haworth getting a 30 per cent pay bump in 2019 alone.

The snapping point for many came when Haworth responded to criticism from Nominet members by simply pulling the plug on the member’s online forum – the only official form of communication between the organisation and its domain-trading members – during the middle of his speech at an annual general meeting: an obvious abuse of power than both Haworth and Wood have since half-apologized for.

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In an effort to win votes, the Nominet board has offered some modest proposals including freezing domain prices and wage increases for two years, putting more money toward charitable causes, and creating a new communications channel for members. But the reforms would retain the existing board and structure, and has been seen as too little, too later by many in the UK domain industry.

The overall result of a successful vote would be to put the company back in the hands of its broader membership, with the six remaining board members largely accountable to them. For Wood and Haworth, however, a yes vote would not only see them kicked off the board, but led to an unraveling of their efforts over the past five years to turn Nominet into a for-profit company despite its legal status as a not-for-profit, member organisation with a public benefit remit.

Losing fight

Both have made several determined efforts to turn the vote in their favor over the past month, though the PublicBenefit.uk campaign continues to pick up support. As of Monday, it has the public support of 432 members, representing 75 per cent of the organisation’s largest 50 members and 25.1 per cent of all voting rights.

To win, the yes vote needs more than 50 per cent of the total votes cast – something that now looks like a virtual certainty given the fact that only on very rare occasions is member turnout on such votes higher than 10 per cent.

Having lost the support of the broader membership on a personal basis, Wood is gambling that enough members will worry about what comes next to stick with what they know. “We have been warned that instability will be of serious concern to government. We know it would create a scenario which would make intervention more likely,” Wood wrote.

“Some of our detractors seem not to care. Or perhaps they have just not appreciated the real risk of intervention and government control. This is a dangerous game. It would lead to an unpredictable future for the UK domain name industry and .UK pricing and policy.”

There have been no statements, comments or tweets from the relevant arm of the government – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) – on the EGM. ®


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