What should normally be a quiet administrative service, the registration and management of Ireland’s .ie domain name system is now under a spotlight because of a set of problems and industry complaints.
The most visible and immediate problem is the fact that the chief executive of the .ie Domain Registry (IEDR), Mike Fagan (pictured), has been suspended from his position since 2 October, effectively leaving the organisation without a leader for over two months.
The next problem looming is that on foot of this highly unsatisfactory state of affairs at the heart of Ireland's e-business infrastructure – and our pretensions to becoming a digital hub for e-commerce – Minister for Communications and Natural Resources and Marine, Dermot Ahern TD, is actively considering using his powers under The E-Commerce Act, 2000, to remove the domain registry function from the IEDR by ministerial order.
According to a spokesperson for the Minister, the department regards the .ie domain as "a critical national resource", which must have its "integrity and operational functionality protected on behalf of Ireland Inc". The blunt threat is that firm action will be taken in January if the IEDR has resolved its problems by then.
That timescale seems unlikely at this stage, given that there is a legal impasse since 13 November when Mike Fagan obtained a temporary High Court order restraining the IEDR from acting on foot of the report it commissioned from KPMG. The latter firm is not the regular auditor, but was called in to inspect the financial and other affairs of the organisation at the same time that Fagan was suspended. In the meantime, the IEDR board's legal response is not yet known.
In the context of these weightier matters, it seems almost mundane to refer to the fact that the IEDR website was off the air for six hours during the working day on Thursday, 5 December. The trouble is that this halted all online registration, name checking and other such activity by the authorised domain registrars – commercial companies with reseller status from the IEDR – and indeed the entire Irish internet industry.
The reason for the outage was certainly an act of God – freak storm conditions in the US that left over 1.8 million homes and businesses without electricity for up to five days.
Which begs the question: what did that have to do with our national domain administration? In the answer lies also one of the many gripes of members of that same internet business community. Although the actual data (much of it necessarily confidential) resides on a server in the IEDR itself, since September the content management system of the website was supplied by Easiwebmaker.ie. This Irish company is partnered with a North Carolina company (yes, where those storms were centred) and that part of the website was hosted on the other side of the Atlantic. So far, fair enough. But there was no mirror site to back it up, which would be normal for any e-commerce or mission-critical function.
Easiwebmaker.ie is a sister company of Easireg.ie, a domain reseller and consultancy, and shares a director in the person of Guy Fagan, a son of IEDR CEO Mike Fagan. While the trade may grumble about the personal connection there is no suggestion that these two suppliers were in any way at fault. Mirror sites, alternative routing and so on are matters for the client to decide and there are considerable cost implications. The real complaint here centres on the IEDR not protecting its core responsibilities in this way while finding finance over the past few years for promotional activities that many believe were beyond its competence. Sponsoring golf outings was one example cited as well as an advertising campaign to encourage domain registration that included a half page in the RTE Guide. However, as of 6pm Friday, 6 December hosting of the website reverted to the IEDR itself with, a spokesperson insists, 'full contingency plans' so that it will not be off the air again.
Despite our national e-business aspirations, trumpeted loudly by successive governments, Ireland has the lowest penetration of its own domains of any EU nation. According to IEDR figures, there are currently 32,000 .ie domains, but Denmark, for example, has just twice our population but 260,000 registered domains. Industry sources in fact suspect the accuracy of the Irish total because of perceived slowness in de-listing cancelled domains.
Similarly, popular wisdom in the trade asserts that there are far more Irish-owned .com domains than .ie – perhaps as many as 70,000 – although accurate figures would be impossible to establish. The reasons, of course, relate to the costs and cumbersome regulations governing .ie registration as opposed to the 'first come, first served' philosophy of .com registration.
"It currently costs €167 retail to register a .ie domain as opposed to just Ł6 sterling for two years in the UK," Cormac Callanan, director of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI), points out. Both it and the Internet Industry Association (IIA) have been largely unhappy with the IEDR for the past two years or more. Both groups criticise "a lack of transparency and openness", while Frank Murray, CEO of Hawaiian Tropic and board member of the IIA, says: "Despite our best efforts to support the IEDR and our participation in the advisory group it formed, we still have failed to get openness in communications."
He points out that this advisory group, which the IEDR has frequently pointed to as an example of co-operation with the industry, met just three times in the 30 months between IEDR's formation as a company and the suspension of its CEO in October.
From the outset, the ISPAI has criticised the lack of industry representation on the IEDR board and declined to participate in the advisory group. It has had meetings and correspondence on behalf of its sector of the internet industry with successive government ministers and departments in recent years, voicing its concerns about the IEDR's attitude and performance amongst other matters.
Cormac Callanan says Minister Dermot Ahern has agreed to a meeting with his senior officials again this month: "We are expressing grave concern about recent developments and stressing the importance for the industry – and for Ireland – that the situation be resolved as quickly and as openly as possible."
What's wrong with the IEDR?
Where do you start? The ongoing areas of contention and complaint between the IEDR and its clients – registration companies and ordinary business – form a long list, headed by fee levels, but also including:
· Cumbersome and heavy-handed administration amounting to a disincentive, eg original company or business name registration documents to be produced
· Domains still 'available' after valid applications until IEDR processes completed
· "Protracted and painful process just to change name server details"
· Nearly two years to get its online registration systems to a reasonable performance level
· Constant problems and errors in its billing system
· Very strict in chasing its debtors (with the threat of de-listing domains), but slow to resolve administrative problems at its own end
· Very slow (especially in recent months) to pay its debts
· Slow to de-list domains when requested and billing for domains after cancellation orders
· Particularly high turnover of staff
· Very little internet expertise or experience on its team.
The registry story
The IEDR is a not-for-profit company set up by UCD in 2000 as an independent body to administer Irish domain registration, which is still technically the university's prerogative – and monopoly – under the international authority of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
The .ie domain covers the island of Ireland. It has four UCD faculty members on its board: Chairman Professor John O Scanlan of the engineering school, Patrick Frain (University Industry Centre), Professor Mark Keane (computer science) and secretary John Coman. Its other directors are Frances Buggy (Corevalue.ie), Ron Bolger (former Eircom chairman and KPMG partner) and Canice Lambe, chief technical officer of NewWorldIQ.
Mike Fagan, chief executive of the IEDR, was general manager of the registry as a UCD operation and was appointed CEO when the new company was formed. He was suspended on full pay on 2 October. There are several other administrative and technical staff members based in the organisation's offices in Sandycove, Co Dublin. The most senior currently is financial controller David Curtin, who has held the position for just a few weeks and reports directly to the chairman. He is believed to be on secondment from KPMG.
The only IEDR financial report so far is for the 18 months to the end of 2001, for which it reported revenue from registrations of €1.94m. Some €1.85m in costs was incurred by normal overheads and 'certain exceptional fees and relocation costs', leaving a surplus of €70,000 after tax.