Minister may act over .ie dispute

13 Dec 2002

In today’s internet age, a nation’s domain name should reflect its reputation as a place to conduct business.

Unfortunately, the .ie domain name appears to lack the stature that should be attached to a country that for some time now has successfully endeavoured to present itself as a good international location to conduct business.

Instead, the IEDR, (.ie Domain Registry) has become embroiled in a series of disputes that have led to calls for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern TD, to implement powers under Section 31 of the E-Commerce Act, 2000 to revoke the powers of the IEDR and replace it with a different institution.

Concerns over its financial stability as well as the way the organisation is managed, sources say, have led to the Department of Communications ‘reluctantly’ stepping in to change the management of the domain, with a decision on the matter imminent in January. It is understood that the department is engaging in dialogue with the IEDR’s chairman, John Scanlan, over the matter.

Under Section 31 of the E-Commerce Act, 2000, the Communications Minister may, after consultation with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and other public bodies, including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), ‘authorise, prohibit or regulate the registration and use of the .ie domain name in the State’.

The IEDR began life as a department within University College Dublin (UCD). However, the organisation was spun out of UCD in July 2000 and is now based near Dun Laoghaire. The organisation for some time has been courting controversy, particularly over issues such as lack of transparency in its decision-making and claims of excessive bureaucracy in terms of a perceived difficulty amongst Irish internet users obtaining domain names. The controversies came to a head in October when the IEDR’s CEO Mike Fagan was suspended amidst claims that he was bringing a lawsuit against the organisation for harassment. It is understood a stand-off ensued when appointed executives from KPMG came to inspect the not-for-profit company’s books.

The gardaí were called, but were subsequently told they weren’t needed. Fagan is understood to have secured a temporary High Court order last month restraining the IEDR from acting on a report prepared by KPMG in the context of disciplinary proceedings related to him.

Fagan accused the IEDR of having too much influence from UCD on its board, as well as from former Eircom interests. Board member Ron Bolger and chairman John Scanlan are former senior executives at Eircom, whilst other board members Mark Keane, Pat Frain and John Coman all hold senior positions at UCD. Two other board members Frances Buggy and Canus Lambe, were appointed from the internet and software sector respectively. A spokesman for the IEDR refused to comment on the situation.

While the IEDR and Fagan work out their differences, however, an entire Irish internet industry appears anxious for change. At present, only 32,000 domain names have been registered under the .ie domain.

Denmark, a country with a population size not far removed from that of Ireland, has over 260,000 domains registered. The root of the matter is that many believe the process obtaining an .ie domain name is too rigorous and bureaucratic. Individuals may not obtain an .ie domain name unless they are doing so on behalf of a registered company, nor may they register a generic name. Many complain of the need to repeatedly provide documentary evidence in this regard.

The other burning issue is price. To get a domain name, users must pay €120 as well as a further €25 per year to hold onto the name. In the UK, which itself experienced accusations of bureaucracy in its domain naming system, many of these issues have been resolved and the cost of obtaining a domain name is €6 for two years. Many businesses are known to have simply given up on obtaining an .ie domain and opted instead for the more common .com domain.

“The .ie domain name is key to running the Irish internet,” said Cormac Callanan, chairman of the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland (ISPAI). “The question we are asking is ‘who is running this show?’ For a long time we have been asking for more transparency about the running of our national domain. At present, 85pc of the IEDR’s business comes from internet service providers and yet the industry does not have representation at board level.

“When the IEDR came into being, it opted for the philosophy of ‘managed regulation’. However, it has gone too far. It insists that to gain an .ie domain name, you must prove you have a bricks and mortar business. However, it is an internet industry and it is not all about bricks and mortar. Individuals must be catered for too. The UK’s domain registry had similar issues about its rigorous bureaucratic management and when it freed itself up, it saw a 500pc increase in domain name subscriptions,” he said.

Whilst the future of the IEDR has come under such scrutiny of late, Callanan said that measures must be taken to put key registration of domain name data in ‘escrow’ under the Department of Communications’ authority for safekeeping. Questioned in relation to the implementation of Section 31 by the Minister, Callanan was reluctant to comment, but said: “It is a very serious decision to make. I would support more openness and transparency in the management of Irish domain names. Going forward, we need to have an organisation that is cost effective, open and transparent, that represents the broad interests of Ireland and sells domain names at a price that will support the growth of internet services in Ireland.”

By John Kennedy