CIRA At The Crossroads

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) picks up on a recent post that reflected on the growing commercial focus of CIRA, the dot-ca authority.  I begin by noting that the ten-year anniversary of Government of Canada's letter to CIRA establishing the terms under which the new not-for-profit organization would manage the dot-ca domain name space passed last month without any notice.  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.

More than a million domain name registrations later, many Canadians take the dot-ca for granted.  The system works and this bottoms-up creation – it was the (far smaller) Canadian Internet community that worked with the government to develop CIRA – is widely viewed as a success. CIRA has held multiple elections, hosted meetings from coast to coast, eased the prices and complexity of registering domain names, and generally worked to maintain public trust by treating its administration of the dot-ca as a public trust.

While there is much to celebrate, in recent months the organization has shown a troubling yet unmistakable shift toward prioritizing commercial gain over the public interest.  

CIRA executives argue that the changes are needed to "diversify and secure" its revenue streams, however, like most country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs), it already has a steady stream of revenue that is more than sufficient to meet its operational mandate. In fact, in common with many ccTLDs, CIRA is set to reap too much money for a non-profit, since the annual renewal of over a million domain names generates millions in virtually guaranteed revenue each year.  

Several years ago, the CIRA board (I was a member of the board at the time) set in motion a plan to distribute "excess funds" to public interest projects associated with the Internet in Canada. That proposal received overwhelming support from CIRA members, yet those plans have lagged with CIRA failing to follow-up on a 2006 board resolution that sought to propel the issue forward.

The failure to address the excess funds issue is but one of many policy and social initiatives that have gradually disappeared from the radar screen (or just disappeared completely – a recent website upgrade deleted seven years of board minutes).  In 2006, CIRA committed to a review of its domain name dispute resolution policy, spending tens of thousands of dollars on an external report and committing to a public consultation after the report was delivered.  The report was delivered in early 2007, but it has never been publicly released, no consultation was conducted, and the board has scarcely even mentioned the issue.

In fact, public consultations, which once formed the cornerstone of CIRA's policy-making process, have similarly disappeared.  There have been no consultations over the past two years, during which membership participation in elections has also declined dramatically.  

Late last year, the Board agreed to spend $150,000 to develop a business case for CIRA to begin selling even more domain name extensions.  Extending the business model has little connection with CIRA's overall mandate, yet no one thought to ask the public what it thought of this shift in approach.

Sitting strangely silent has been the Government of Canada, which has a non-voting seat on the board.  The Government aggressively lobbied CIRA to establish a backdoor exception for law enforcement during last year's WHOIS reform (the whois database lists the name and address of domain name registrants), but has done precious little to ensure that the public interest in respected during board discussions.

Ten years after the Government acknowledged the importance of the dot-ca for Canadian social and economic development, the Canadian domain name space sits at a crossroads.  The increasingly commercial focus is one potential path, but it is not the only one.  Other countries have used their domain name authorities to fund important research, engage in public policy, or even grant every citizen the right to a domain name at no cost.  As we enter the second decade of dot-ca stewardship, now is the ideal time to use the milestone as the basis for a full public review of the goals and mandate of the dot-ca domain.


  1. ya want to see how goo dcanadas net is
    FORCE all .CA domains to be hosted in canada and watch how many disappear cause rogers/telus/bell/ et all overcharge.

  2. Byron Holland says:

    CEO, Canadian Internet Registration Authority
    I wouldn’t disagree, Michael, that CIRA finds itself at a crossroads but I’d argue we’re at quite a different crossroads than the one you describe.

    For 10 years, we have been responsible for the twin mandates of pursuing a commercial operation as well as safeguarding the public interest. As you note, a great deal of value has been accomplished in that time.

    The crossroads at which we have found ourselves more recently have made it necessary that we invest heavily in professionalizing the operation of the registry to make it a top-quality, world-class registry in an increasingly hostile operating environment.

    Canada’s public policy interest in a robust and secure domain-name registry is inherently well served by everything we do, even if we do not yet find ourselves able to fund public-interest activities outside our core mandate.

    Having said that, however, you should know that we have made such investments in areas as diverse as supporting media literacy and taking a leadership position internationally on important security issues. And we have just recently approved funding to create the structure that will allow us – fairly and with accountability – to invest in worthy public-interest activities.

    As you clearly know, though, Michael – after all, when you were a CIRA director, you seconded the unanimous motion requiring it – we are obliged to build and maintain a reserve equal to a full year’s operating expenses before any additional funds can be put to these purposes. Like you, I look forward to the day when we can begin to responsibly do so.

  3. _DEEP_THOUGHT_ says:

    CIRA is run by commercial interests
    As a long time .ca domain owner and member who votes in its elections and follower of net politics, I think that Michael has hit the nail on the head.

    I will first state that I think CIRA does an excellent job on managing the technical aspects of the .ca domain. The DNS works and works well, and based on their own reports and my experience, is a solid and well respected domain internationally. However, the political and business side of CIRA is a greasy mess. Michael, you call it a crossroad but I think the route is already mapped out.

    Despite purporting to be a bottom-up member organization organization (a member being anyone who has a .ca domain name), very few know, care or most importantly, are able to participate due to poor communication, seemingly endless paperwork and general apathy. Ostensibly the Canadian government can wield some influence but haven’t done much to snap the reigns. So the only people left to run the organization are the insiders – CIRA itself. And who are the CIRA insiders…?

    All you need to do is take a look at the makeup of CIRA’s current directors and you’ll soon discover that there is a rather cozy (perhaps conflicted) relationship between commercial domain merchants and the administration of what is supposed to be a public resource. From

    – The chair, Paul Anderson, runs a domain merchant
    – John Demco, also runs a domain merchant
    -Ross Rader is an executive at Tucows, a domain merchant
    -Rick Anderson lists himself as CEO of, which in turn is affiliated with Momentous Group (, which – surprise! – is a domain merchant

    These are the ones with clear commercial interests in how CIRA operates. Who knows what other connections lurk that are less apparent. Granted, there is also a smattering of academics and assorted business types in the mix, but it does seem that the commercial domain selling Fox is clearly in the ‘non profit’ domain registry hen house. With this in mind, should we be surprised that CIRA is taking a heavy slant towards commecialization?

    With commercial interests at the heart of the organization, you can’t be shocked to see expediency, convenience and profit become the focus over more civic minded, long term pursuits that benefit the community.
    If you need evidence of this slide, you only need to look to how the CIRA made last minute, backroom deals to undermine its new WHOIS (as reported here in Michael’s blog) or its continued silence on net neutrality (or, perhaps, hastily dropped is more accurate –

    At one point CIRA seemed to stand for something, cared about the community and made an effort to include members opinions through policy consultations and surveys and elections. It made a big fuss to push ICANN towards greater accountability, but now, as Michael points out, seems to have gone out of its way to obscure its own operations and internal machinations from public view or participation without a hint of irony. Even the basics of being a member has become a series of hurdles – a few years ago I had to go through an elaborate process to maintain a membership I already had (you only need to fill out some paperwork and send in a copy of your passport or have a lawyer witness it!

    With what essentially amounts to a government granted monopoly on a high-growth, recurring revenue stream of around $10M per year (1.2 million domains x $8.50) does CIRA even need to generate more revenue to sustain its operations? Or is its desire to become increasingly commercial stem from a leadership that understands nothing else? As a non-profit why does CIRA need to generate more programs – it certainly hasn’t articulated any vision of using these new revenues in a manner that benefits the Canadian internet community, and accumulation of revenues puts it in jeopardy of losing its tax free status.

    Perhaps the real plan is to break CIRA into two entities: one performing perfunctory non-profit .ca registry and DNS services and a new for profit organization that siphons off the technology, experience and profit from its host. I’m sure a few CIRA directors will also see some real financial gain from the enterprise too which might explain the current shift in direction.