Nearly ten years ago, the Government of Canada wrote a letter to the chair of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) that set out the framework for the management of the dot-ca domain. The government articulated a vision of the dot-ca domain as a "key public resource" and called on CIRA to act in an open and transparent manner. CIRA has long sought to live up to those standards, but in recent months the organization has shown an unmistakable shift toward prioritizing commercial gain over the public interest along with a troubling move toward secret decision making.
The first sign of this shift came from the decision to effectively terminate plans to create an external, public interest body to address "excess" funds. Unlike most not-for-profits, CIRA (along with many country-code domain name registries) is a cash machine with millions flowing from the annual renewals of domain name registrations. Recognizing that CIRA would eventually generate too much money, the board set in motion the prospect of creating a body that could give back some of that money to the Canadian public by supporting Internet-related activities (similar initiatives have been launched by other ccTLDs). The process included a public consultation, changes to CIRA's by-laws, and board approvals. Yet two years later, that approach is now seemingly dead – delayed last year due to other fiscal priorities and now (according to board minutes) replaced by "CIRA Labs" of which little is unknown other than it won't surface for at least another year.
Equally troubling is the apparent decision to expand CIRA's registry services to new generic top-level domains. With ICANN slated to begin a process for new gTLDs, CIRA's staff is "strongly committed to go down this path" and has asked the board to allocate $150,000 toward developing a business case that would open the door to CIRA applying for new domains to sell. All of this is puzzling – no public consultation, a huge change in approach, and significant expenditures for the development of new business models for an organization that already makes more money than it needs to meet its mandate. In fact, staff is so committed to aggressive new business models that the board was forced to overrule staff plans to change CIRA's investment policies that are designed to reduce current marketplace risk.
Most recently, the board killed a planned submission to the CRTC's net neutrality hearings. While the minutes indicate that board members raised concerns around the lack of notice and discussion with the members (funny that net neutrality requires membership consultation but moving into other domain names do not), the board ultimately decided to go in camera to make its decision. In other words, the board killed the submission but individual members will not be accountable for their decision.
The board minutes reveal an organization with board members that are paid thousands of dollars for their time that has become singularly focused on commercial metrics – domain name growth, market position compared to the dot-com domain, new commercial possibilities – with the public interest side of the domain that sits at the core of the dot-ca now a mere afterthought. A decade after the government set the expectations for CIRA, the time has come to revisit whether the dot-ca steward has veered badly off course.