The Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the non-profit agency charged with managing the dot-ca domain name, has emerged in recent years as an important voice on Internet governance. Backed by a big bank account – CIRA earns millions of dollars each year for maintaining the domain name registry – it has launched an annual Internet governance forum attended by hundreds of Canadians, partnered with various groups to help small businesses establish an online presence, and sponsored many Canadian Internet-related events.
Yet just as CIRA begins to fulfill its potential as an “important public resource” (as described in its mandate letter from the Government of Canada), my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes it has proposed a new governance structure that seeks to sideline the public by limiting the ability to serve on the CIRA board. With more than a million registrants, CIRA is one of Canada’s largest Internet organizations and its message to members is clear: we don’t trust you.
One of CIRA’s requirements is to ensure “an appropriate balance of representation, accountability and diversity on the board of directors for all categories of stakeholders.” This has proven easier said than done. In the early years of the organization, there were several board positions reserved for specific stakeholders, including one position for the public, alongside the elected positions (I served six years on the board during this period).
In its first governance overhaul, the reserved positions were dropped in favour of a dual election slate. A nominating committee was formed to identify potential board candidates, while CIRA’s members could seek nomination by obtaining the support of at least 20 other members. The resulting ballot included positions for both nominating committee candidates and member-nominated candidates.
CIRA maintains that the process is too long and complex as it takes months to form the nominating committee, identify board candidates, and conduct the election. Moreover, participation has been relatively low, leading to concerns that candidates can get themselves elected to the board with the support of only a few hundred voters.
While there is unquestionably room for improvement, CIRA’s plans – which are open for comment until May 2nd – makes matters considerably worse. The current proposal seeks to simplify the election process by eliminating member-nominated board members altogether. Canadians can be considered for a nominating committee position but the prospect of rallying support from the membership will be removed.
The new process is certainly simpler – one ballot with a single list of candidates – but it comes at a high cost by diminishing public participation. Rather than seeking ways to encourage more Canadians to become engaged with managing the dot-ca domain, it hopes that increased backroom engineering of the board will lead to better governance.
There are many ways CIRA could reform its governance process to address the complexity concerns without eliminating member-nominated board members. For example, nominating committee participants could be granted three-year terms (matching board member terms), thereby eliminating the two month process of filling that committee in most years.
CIRA could also move to a single ballot by combining nominating committee candidates and member-backed candidates. That approach would address the confusion associated with the dual ballot and allow CIRA members to vote for the best candidates, regardless of the source of their nomination.
To address concerns associated with board competence, it could require candidates to participate in several governance events prior to being eligible for election, thereby helping to ensure that newly elected board members hit the ground running.
As CIRA grows and becomes increasingly important within the Canadian Internet, it should address concerns with board capture and election apathy. The starting point should be to increase the role of its members, however, not signal that they cannot be trusted.