Comment: Domainz is defeating even its own purpose

Domainz needs to think very hard about how it's CEO's new lawsuit is looking to its customers.

It is inevitable that the governance of the Internet will sometimes be controversial. There are a range of views on most governance issues, the demands of technical and legal interests are often in conflict - and the goalposts are usually shifting at the speed of light.

The passage of the domain name system from a system of stewardship given weight by the personal mana of individuals such as the late Jon Postel, to the new ICANN structure is a case in point. It has been fraught at times. But much less so, surely, than the four-year history of the Internet Society of New Zealand (Isocnz) and its registry business, Domainz.

Patrick O'Brien, the chief executive of Domainz, has filed a defamation suit against an Isocnz member, Alan Brown of Manawatu Internet, on the basis of comments made in the Isocnz members' mailing list. Domainz, using money raised from nameholders (including the author of this column) is funding O'Brien's private action.

The Isocnz council has announced it is supporting the action. Given that Isocnz was the publisher of the original alleged defamation - and runs the mail-to-news gateway that sends postings on the list to the publicly-accessible newsgroup isocnz.org.nz - this seems faintly bizarre.

Taken in context, the allegedly defamatory message reproduced in papers filed at the Palmerston North District Court, does not seem notably worse than numerous other messages posted to the Isocnz list, and carried in isocnz.org.nz, in the past four years. One must wonder why Brown has been singled out. (The plaintiff might be wondering the same thing now that Brown - predictably, to anyone who knows him - has responded by making the whole affair very public indeed.)

But the truly sad thing is that coming down hard on strong opinions of the kind long expressed in such lists and newsgroups transgresses the spirit of Internet itself. Certainly, those who defame by email are not immune from the law - but free speech is a principle worth defending.

The non-disclosure agreements imposed by Domainz on customers trying to get to grips with its forthcoming new registry system fall into the same bracket.

Traditionally, the Internet has benefited from co-operation between otherwise competing parties over technical matters. But Domainz has forbidden the country's ISPs from even discussing the system - in which there are acknowledged technical problems - with each other. It is very hard to determine who benefits from this.

The final irony is that the author of this column spent over an hour on Tuesday having O'Brien explain the structure and purpose of the new registry system. Later in the day, knowledge of the lawsuit became public - and that, instead, became the news. In trying so hard to manage perceptions, Domainz is defeating even its own purpose.

The registry would do well to think about how this legal action is looking to its customers and stakeholders right now.

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