23 January, 2024


On 23 January 2024, auDA CEO Rosemary Sinclair AM spoke to Alexi Boyd on the Small Biz Matters radio show, broadcast on Triple H FM, about auDA’s role as the administrator of the .au and the value of .au to small business. 

Alexi Boyd: Thanks so much for joining us on the program today.

Rosemary Sinclair: It's an absolute pleasure, Alexi. As you know, I'm really passionate about small business, and the intersection of small business and technology is something that really excites me. I'm really pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to chat with you about that. 

Alexi Boyd: Excellent. Let's start off by talking about the .au Domain Administration and what it is that you do and how you support small businesses. There's a lot to unpack there and I'm really looking forward to explaining that in detail to small businesses out there and also their advocates and people who support them. 

Rosemary Sinclair: .au Domain Administration is, if you like, Australia's connection to the internet. It's the addressing-accessing part, not the communications cables or the satellite. It's the system that we all use to get or send information through a website or an email. It's something that operates really quietly in the background. In some senses, Alexi, we do that so that people don't have to worry about it. A bit like energy and water really, you just want it to be there when you need it, but it's a big and complicated task. 

Alexi Boyd: Yeah, I can imagine. I must say that that must be working quite well in the background because we might hear about outages that occur with certain telecommunications companies or certain energy companies when things go down, but we don't hear about the .au, I guess. Is it a piece of infrastructure? How does it work in the background? It never goes down which is good.

Rosemary Sinclair: It's a piece of critical infrastructure, and we operate under a formal arrangement called Terms of Endorsement with the Australian Government to make sure that Australia's connection to the internet is reliable, secure, always available, a trusted space where people can confidently engage online and to create that sort of internet environment for Australia. We do a lot of work technically, on security matters, [and] with our rules to make sure that only people with a valid Australian presence can get a .au. And then in terms of policy, we represent Australia's interests in the international debate about the development of the internet. So, it's really that kind of three-pronged approach: the technical platform, the licensing rules and the policy work.

Alexi Boyd: So I'm interested to know how you interact with other countries. Obviously, we interact, we have trade, we have commerce on an international basis, almost every business in Australia would in some way connect internationally with either peers, to learn from them or associations, and so we're part of a global community. How does an organisation like yours interact? Do you have similar counterparts in other countries that do the same thing and then you all get together and chat and say this is how it's going to work?

Rosemary Sinclair: Exactly. There are two sorts of domain codes if you like. There are country codes like .au, .nz for New Zealand, .uk for the United Kingdom and .fr for France. Then there are what are called generic codes, which are like .com, .org, .shop and .bank. So, we interact with our country code colleagues, at least three times a year in a big global coordination meeting that happens where we all get together and talk about the way the system is running. What new things might be coming up like blockchain, for example, or the Internet of Things, and what would be our role in making sure that our system remains stable and secure, that provides for the innovation, that is always a part of the internet.

Just a couple of little things that might be interesting for people to know, Alexi, is that Australia is the tenth largest among the top level domains in the world. So even including giants like .com and .org, Australia is the tenth largest domain. Secondly, to your point, we've just done some really interesting research that shows that Australia is in fact a central, if you like, internet hub. So we play a role in the global internet. That is, you know, beyond what you would ordinarily think for our size as a country. One of the statistics we have, for example, is that we get four billion queries to our .au nameservers every day. It's a huge level of traffic to our .au.

Alexi Boyd: When you say the traffic, is that things like people interacting with the .au, that could be sending emails or that could be making inquiries?

Rosemary Sinclair: That’s right, checking websites, sending emails backwards and forwards, all the things that we do all day. You know, you’ve got your mobile phone… 

Alexi Boyd: Constantly. 

Rosemary Sinclair: You’re on it and off it and on it and off it. All those little things add up to four billion queries a day, not only from people in Australia, but from people around the world accessing .au websites and emails.

Alexi Boyd: That's incredible. You know, you think about that volume of traffic on a daily basis – is everything stable? Can you give us some assurance that everything is not going to sort of fall over? We're so used to hearing about major companies, you know, losing our trust because they're falling over and having such an impact on the community. Something like this falling over would have a massive impact on community and commerce and trade. Is everything okay?

Rosemary Sinclair: Yes, is the very quick answer to that question. So let me get that out of the way first up. We are so deeply aware, Alexi, of the role that we play in Australia's economic and community life. And just to double down if you like on the reassurance and to go back to that period, where we suddenly all realised, I think, the value of our online ways of working and living during COVID, I took up the role in the very earliest stages of COVID. My very first question to our technical experts is, do we have enough capacity to get Australia through COVID as everything shifts online? The answer came back that we absolutely do have multiple times the capacity that we would ever need, and we saw the reality of that through COVID. People were able to change their ways of living and working, but they did so seamlessly, in conjunction with the telecommunications companies of course, but the internet, the .au didn't let anybody down during that terrible period.

A more positive comment that I'd like to make about that was the amount of innovation, Alexi, that we saw from small business during that terrible COVID time. We were watching the registration of [.au] domain names and saw this huge spike up of existing small businesses who hadn't really felt they needed a digital presence before, realise that to get through COVID, they did. So, whether it was click-and-collect coffee or you know click-and-collect clothes or whatever we saw a very significant spike up. That kind of innovation I think is a bit of an untold story from that horrible COVID experience. Small businesses were so important to their communities and they really stepped up. 

Alexi Boyd: We had a wonderful story here on Small Biz Matters just before I took that break, I interviewed a lovely gentleman from Stage Kings, and they were one of the real absolute heroes of the COVID space. They were event guys. They used to make stages and build stages for the theatre and for outdoor events and for major festivals that of course that all stopped during COVID and they flipped their entire business model to making home-based business centres and things like adaptable desks and things like that. It was so wonderful because they went on to employ and have an entire new part of their business up and running. And they employed an extra 50 people during COVID because they did this flip, and they changed things and having access to that capacity on the internet being able to change quickly was so important. 

You talked a little bit about capacity and we did see that obviously that spike. How do you deal with that? Those increases, what sort of infrastructure needs to be in play. Who do you communicate with to make sure that that is always there and if there's a sudden increase, then we've got that capacity.

Rosemary Sinclair: We've got the technical platform behind the internet that we run with huge amounts of redundancy. In a more granular level, we speak at least once a month, more regularly if needed with the registrars who actually hand out the domain name licenses to small businesses, to keep them up to date with what we're seeing. We've got accreditation standards for those registrars that go to the processes they use to register a domain name. So that that happens very quickly. Processes they use to validate the person wanting the domain name to make sure that our trust and confidence in .au remains high. 

We also attend to the security standards of our individual registrars. It's really a combination, Alexi, of the technical capability, which in a sense, is the easy bit, we've just got lots and lots and lots of that, and our communications with our registrars to maintain a very high level of service across the whole ecosystem in .au.

Alexi Boyd: Rosemary, I think that's really interesting to find out that that capacity is there and we don't need to worry and I think we had all in a way forgotten about what happened during COVID. Maybe just trying to push it, push those memories down a little, for small businesses, but certainly there was some great innovation and great capacity there, building for the economy. 

Now, Rosemary, I wanted to ask you about the ways in which auDA researches and reports this information back to the government and what sort of influence it has on government policy in the tech space in particular.

Rosemary Sinclair: We're focusing, Alexi, on the three big issues in terms of helping government, to think about the issues, and then making recommendations about programs and responses. The first one is cyber security, and how we effectively include small business in that whole effort, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. The second area is digital inclusion, making sure that everybody’s connected, is confidence, confident rather, and has the skills that they need to engage. In a sense that’s growing the potential market for small business but also for government services. The third area is innovation, very, very broadly. 

That’s one of the key precious things about the internet. It’s a technical platform, but what it has enabled is what people call permissionless innovation. You can have a great idea as a small business entrepreneur, get your domain name in .au, of course, and then connect to the internet and away you go. You don’t need anybody’s permission to get that innovation going and that’s really critical and it’s going to become more important. 

So, the way we go about influencing government is we, first of all, ask small business what they think about a range of different things through a piece of research that we do every year called the Digital Lives of Australians. We talk to households, but very importantly, we talk to small business because of course small business is the engine of the Australian economy. It's absolutely critical. Small business is critical to Australia’s success. 

This year, for example, we asked small business about the new technologies that everybody's talking about: artificial intelligence, blockchain, robotics, augmented reality and the metaverse and that was really interesting. Small business told us through this research that they're very interested in these technologies, from an efficiency and cost reduction point of view, but knowledge is only in the emerging stages. There needs to be quite a bit of awareness building and explaining and supporting. Then there was expressed a real concern about the need for policy and regulatory framework around the emergence of these technologies. So, we've taken that message back to government to say, you know, people understand that these are important innovations, but there's a need for programs and policies to support the good and effective introduction of these technologies. 

We've done the same with digital inclusion. And on innovation, I’ll just take a minute on that one, because we found through a different piece of research that we've done, called the digital Atlas of Australia [Online], that innovation through digital technologies is not linked to population and in some senses, it’s not linked to geography, either. There is a link to demographic type factors, income, education and so on. But there’s a very strong link to the amount of government, and I'm meaning in this context local government, as well as state and federal, but government interest in innovation in a particular community and the local economy. We see quite clearly that where those governments have supported innovation with policies and programs, the digital density if you like, of those areas is much, much deeper.

Alexi Boyd: Sorry. I just want to unpack that a little bit, because when speaking to policymakers, you quite often hear them talking about digitisation. Now, I find that a really, firstly, a very broad topic and it's not just about digitising, there's a number of steps to that and processes within an organisation when you're when you're trying to build that up. I feel as though that it's a bit of a kind of a go-to phrase that governments use when they're trying to talk about the different ways in which people should make those changes but they need to do more of a job a better job of upskilling in particular areas, right. It's not just a matter of going with digitisation program. Is that, what do you mean by governments make the effort to look at cyber security or they look at digital marketing or they look at, you know, digital innovation, and, new technologies and that's what improves things in a particular community?

Rosemary Sinclair: Rather than just this blanket, you know, digitisation, digital disruption, transformation, these words that people throw around – where we're getting to, Alexi, on the basis of the research is information that's telling us that small business understand the power of these technologies that need particular help in applying them such as help around cyber security. You know, what do I do? Help around skills development, even help around understanding what sorts of technologies will help achieve these more efficient and better market outcomes? In our digital Atlas we found that certain sorts of sectors use certain sorts of technologies. So we think just from our point of view, there's a role for us to share that knowledge so that people can start to understand what the first and the next question is on that journey. 

On cyber security, the work that we've done says that we've got a real vulnerability in the Australian economy because of hacked small business websites. What we're doing is looking at the technologies that are in play with a view to getting to a point where we can say to small business, you know, talk to your IT people about these particular pieces of software, because if you've got those, then you're likely to be more vulnerable and the business or the damage to your business is likely to be extensive. So we're taking a very practical lens to all of this but the role for government in spreading the word very broadly is absolutely critical.

Alexi Boyd: And it's interesting that you talk about grassroots and the importance of if you keep it within the community, they can support one another I presume? And is face-to-face learning better for small businesses, or can they do it digitally? I'm just thinking of programs that might be rolled out by councils, in particular who have good economic development pathways and want to support their businesses. Is one of your policy suggestions for government to make it easier for councils to access the funds to be able to deliver such programs locally?

Rosemary Sinclair: Yes, because what we see is that local connections are very strong, and what we all understand from digital networks is that word of mouth or viral spreading of messages is very, very important. So we need to harness those in the cyber security side. Our own experience suggests that short bursts of online training, but very, very regularly, can be very effective in uplifting standards. And it's not very tricky or very technical. It's about being careful with your passwords. It's about not responding to messages that say, you know, it's very urgent that you give us your bank account details tomorrow. So, there's certain red flags that are really quite easy to identify once you've had the training. But simple messages, repeat, repeat regularly. That's really the key. So, there's a terrific role for local government to support local communities. Yes, absolutely.

Alexi Boyd: Let me just do a quick plug for cyber security and talking about Cyber Wardens, which is a great initiative that's been rolled out by COSBOA, which anybody can access and anybody can get the free training to become a Cyber Warden within your business or if you're an advisor, or even if you work within a business and you'd like to wear that hat. So that's very interesting. 

Let's talk about the .au domain and why it's important that small businesses need to be aware of that because I understand that that's been turned on for the reasons of building you know, building on cyber security and making the whole infrastructure more secure. Explain to us what they need to know and what they need to do in a practical sense.

Rosemary Sinclair: So the .au domain, there's a new name in the .au domain, .au direct. We put that innovation in place in [2022] to enable the kind of innovation that we're seeing in this digital economy of ours, where people are having all sorts of amazing ideas and entrepreneurship opportunities. So .au direct is a new namespace, which enables people to register very easily. You still have to meet the threshold issue of proving valid Australian presence but you don't have to be a registered business to get a .au direct. 

In terms of the cyber security aspects, we've been very, very careful to launch this new namespace with the existing standards of cyber security around it. [Since] .au direct has been in place, we've not seen any uplift in cyber security problems in the .au domain. In fact, we have maintained and further improved our position as one of the least troublesome domains in the whole world. That relates to a huge technical and policy effort that we put into making .au trusted, so that Australians can have confidence in it. 

The .au direct part of our overall domain, Alexi, is now 18 per cent of the 4.2 million names after twelve months, which says to me, that the kind of innovation that we were thinking was needed, we were right about that. And we've created tremendous opportunities for Australian small businesses and micro entrepreneurs. The one thing we would say to people though, is if you've got a good idea for a business, get your .au domain name first. It's easy, it's very cheap, and then you've got it. You don't have to build a website within a month or send emails, you can have the name and hold that until you're ready for your business idea. Getting that domain that you think will really appeal to your customers is a critical first step. 

Alexi Boyd: Certainly, [it’s] one of the steps that you definitely need to take when you're setting up a business. I mean, it's important that you check that your business's name is available in the business register, but also check IP Australia, because sometimes people haven't yet registered their name but they have put some protection around that name. So, make sure you check that so you don't end up with a cease and desist letter later down the track. Also getting those domains, now, what I wanted to ask you was I once had a client when I was a BAS agent who grabbed as many different dot finishes as he could. He had like .admin, .space, .au, .com.au. Is that necessary these days? Or is it really you don't need to protect yourself that well. It's more about having that internet you know, making sure that you've got a presence and that way you get up further up the Google Search.

Rosemary Sinclair: Yes, look, some people do take the same name with all the different endings that are relevant, you know .org, .com, .au direct but many others, Alexi, don't. They just get their particular .au domain name, whichever one they choose, and then they're able to secure their online presence and do whatever they're doing - business or community service, quite happily. So, I would say it's not necessary but it's a choice. If you want to have, you know, all the different endings and they are available of course, then by all means. We try to keep the costs of .au as low as possible to enable choices but it really just depends on the circumstances. 

Alexi Boyd: I was going to say as well, can I ask you about the .org? Do you have to be a not-for-profit in order to get the .org or can literally anybody grab that?

Rosemary Sinclair: No, there are there are rules around the org.au namespace. But we've recently made a small change to say that if you're registered with the ACNC, then you're able to get an org.au. So, if people are unsure about that, then please talk to your registrar about that particular namespace’s rules. Of course, we're open to queries as well - inquiries about our rules at any time.

Alexi Boyd: Those people who provide the registrars to businesses, do they tend to be the IT guys or people who they asked for support? Sometimes you could do it within a large organisation like GoDaddy or something like that as well. Do you play equally with all of those moving parts? Do you deal with associations that work with IT technicians for example, how do you communicate with that industry?

Rosemary Sinclair: We've got [around 30] accredited registrars. Some very large global players, some much smaller Australian-based organisations. Then working within those organisations is a very wide ecosystem of resellers. It's a pretty vibrant market and channel in terms of how to get a domain name. What we would say to people though, is to make sure that your details are the details that are registered for the domain name. So that down the track when your IT professional or someone has moved on or their business has changed, you're not left with a problem in regard to your domain name. But the channel is very, very vibrant. As I was saying earlier, we talk many, many times to our channel partners to make sure that they're aware of what's going on and they're delivering high quality service to Australian users of .au.

Alexi Boyd: That’s another great tip. Make sure that your business details, just like the ATO and all those other government regulators, that your details are up to date. Because you never know what might happen to a small business, or even to a large business, that might have those details on your behalf. 

Rosemary, I just want to take the chance to say thank you so much for unpacking .au for us and helping us to understand the work of auDA and your role in the small business community you interact with. It’s great to have someone with so many decades of experience working in international telecommunication policy behind the organisation. Where can people find out more if they want to get in touch? 

Rosemary Sinclair: They can go to auda.au or auda.org.au. There’s lots and lots of information on there.

Alexi Boyd: Yes there is. There’s lots of information on there, actually. I’ve noticed that there’s lots to unpack and great tips on how to make yourself more secure and that’s really wonderful. Thank you for interacting with Small Biz Matters today.