Canada’s Domain Name Agency to the Public: We Don’t Trust You

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.


  1. Devil's Advocate says:

    No surprise
    The CIRA may “manage” the .ca domain, but ICANN issues it.

    Considering the empirical agenda of the U.S., I’ve been expecting some move by now meant to control the “outside interference” (public involvement) in their quest to lock down the internet.

  2. Eric Brunner-Williams says:

    The synchronization of nomcoms and offices has the advantage mentioned, and that of allowing eliminated applicants to be removed from the applicant pool for the life of the nomcom, another savings in evaluation cost.

  3. CIRA confuses me…
    Running a registry is pretty much a technical problem. I keep getting emails from them that have nothing to do with the actual registry function. It gives the impression that CIRA has lost it’s focus. At election time most of the candidates seem to not have any network/technical background. Why would such people be interested in running a domain name registry?

    Why is CIRA making so much money? Normally a thing like a registry would work at a cost recovery level.

    Perhaps it might be time to do a reboot on the entire political process. Failing that, could we separate out the registry function from all the other unrelated stuff as a separate organization? I think that might make the election problems go away…

  4. Consult by May 2nd
    If this bothers you – and it does me – make sure you email your comments to CIRA by Wednesday. The CIRA board is more and more just a rubber stamp. Read the minutes of board meetings that last a few hours and pay the directors thousands of dollars each year. Eliminating member board members is just another step in that direction.

  5. Mark Latham says:

    How to increase the role of CIRA members:
    Thank you Michael for helping to keep Canada’s internet democratic! Here are some reform proposals for increasing the role of members and improving the director election process:

  6. @bwalzer
    From the CRA’s website “develops and implements policies that support Canada’s Internet community”. Thus the reason why people are interested. It isn’t in the running of the registry; that’s just grunt work. It is the policy aspects (right or wrong). The same reason why one company had their national subsidiaries (for some reason it seems to me that it was Apple) join a standards organization as individual members; so they could get more votes.

  7. Canadian Internet Registration Authority says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write about CIRA’s proposed governance changes. It is important to engage as many people as possible in dialogue when important changes are being considered to an organization’s governance structure and process.

    Paul Andersen, chairperson of CIRA’s Board of Directors, recently blogged about the proposed changes. You can read his thoughts here:

  8. Den Mother says:

    Canadian Internet in CIRA’s image?
    I think what people forget here is that this is coming in a line of other changes. CIRA made fundamental changes to their mandate to also “develop, carry out and/or support any other Internet-related activities in Canada; ” (See CIRA’s Supplementary Letters Patent). Changes which a cynic could accuse Paul Anderson and CIRA of trying to make the Canadian Internet into their own image. The consolidation and control over the nomination process Mr. Geist covers here to the CIRA Board is just a natural desire to make sure ‘their own’ have a fighting chance of coming in, just in case any radicals might get nominated which derail that effort. In the end, CIRA enjoys a sizable revenue stream from which it can influence, and I assume if necessary, force its will if it doesn’t get its way in the Canadian Internet landscape. If CIRA could instead use its influence to deal with issues that the Federal Government is falling short on, such as the Digital Economy Strategy, privacy, and others that concern folks like CNOC, etc., maybe it would have a more credible story to back its efforts in other issues.

  9. Everything You Need to Know About CIRA says:

    Everything you need to know about CIRA can be summed up with this story. Last night I checked out Paul Andersen’s blog after seeing it mentioned here. There were two critical comments, one from Mark Latham and one mentioning that Andersen was actually voted onto the board using the member nomination approach. I followed up this morning and both comments are now deleted. So much for engaging the public.

  10. Canadian Internet Registration Authority says:

    CIRA has an active blog where we encourage debate of issues. The comments mentioned in the post above were not removed. In case the wrong site was visited, the address is:

  11. What the UN says: