InternetNZ says a widespread web outage earlier this week is not related to the departure of key experienced technical staff.
An industry source said InternetNZ - the non-profit that administers .nz domains - had not replaced its chief security officer or director of IT, instead asking existing staff to cover their duties. Additionally, the source said InternetNZ had been unable to recruit a DNS (domain name server) specialist locally, so had turned to a contractor in South America.
InternetNZ would not address each accusation directly, but a spokeswoman said, “We always maintain a very experienced team of technical experts. We are focusing on identifying and investigating the issue to prevent it from happening again.”
On Monday afternoon, some people had problems connecting to academic sites. By late Monday evening, and well into Tuesday, outages hit all types of websites and apps, from banking to media and various government services. From internet service providers to banks, affected organisations were at a loss to explain what was going on when approached by the Herald on Tuesday morning.
InternetNZ said the problems were related to security keys for local web domains. “To simplify, think of these keys like the keys to a house. Every so often, for security reasons, you might change your house’s locks and get new keys,” InternetNZ said in an explainer, which eventually emerged on Tuesday afternoon.
It was supposed to be a routine annual procedure, but something went wrong at InternetNZ’s end. It managed to right things overnight but it took until well into Tuesday for internet service providers to instigate necessary changes to their systems too.
Why the initial change of keys failed remains a mystery.
“We are unsure of the exact issues at play and will be doing a comprehensive root cause analysis so we can be sure this is mended and doesn’t happen again. This analysis - when complete - will be made transparent,” the InternetNZ spokeswoman said.
But she said it was not related to the loss of skilled staff - and that a new senior role had been created in a restructure.
“In November last year, we deployed a new registry system. Staffing needs have evolved since this registry replacement project which began in 2019. A new role of general manager, customer and product was created. The registry team currently reports to this role,” the spokeswoman said.
“We always maintain a very experienced team of technical experts from New Zealand and abroad based on the mix of specialist skills we need. Running the system for a country code top-level domain is extremely specialised, and we are always willing to hire the best person for the role.
“We have amazing staff overseeing our technology and security functions, and we are confident we have the right people to maintain a world-class [operation].”
In May last year, InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter quit after a decade in the role to travel (he now holds a senior role with InternetNZ’s equivalent in Australia).
Longtime InternetNZ policy director Andrew Cushen took over as acting CEO.
Cushen told the Herald he had put his hat in the ring to take the top job on a permanent basis. But he was overlooked as Vivien Maidaborn was named the non-profit’s new chief executive in July.
Maidaborn, who was made a member of the NZ Order of Merit in 2019 for services to human rights and social entrepreneurship most recently was chief of partnerships for Unicef in Vietnam. Cushen departed in December.
The non-profit InternetNZ administers the .nz domain - a role that saw it reluctantly play cyber sheriff after the Christchurch mosque massacres, as it effectively blocked access to a number of sites hosting harmful material - advocates on issues such as the digital divide, censorship and copyright, and offers various research and education grants. The non-profit funds its activities through wholesaling .nz domains (local web addresses) - a business that brought in just over $11 million last year.
“It is a pivotal time for InternetNZ, with the new .nz registry due, its commitment to becoming a Te Tiriti o Waitangi-centric organisation, and its strong focus on working for a safe Internet for everyone in Aotearoa,” InternetNZ president Joy Liddicoat told the Herald as the new CEO was appointed.
“The [InternetNZ] Council completed a robust recruitment process, focused on finding the right person to lead InternetNZ into the next phase. In an era where the internet is central to our lives - and the .nz domain is an integral part of our identity as New Zealanders - Vivien Maidaborn’s appointment will be instrumental in strengthening partnerships, engaging with the members, and working for an internet for good in Aotearoa.”
It sounded fluffy but the Maidaborn-led InternetNZ was soon on the front foot, as a review of grants saw some longtime recipients get their 2023 funding slashed. The 20/20 Trust’s allocation fell from $100,000 to $65,000, Digital Future Aotearoa saw the same decrease, FigureNZ fell from $125,000 to $65,000 and consumer advocacy group Tuanz saw its grant reduced from $44,500 to zero.
The NZ Network Operators Group (NZNOG) - which aims to provide a neutral forum for technical staff from rival ISPs to meet and discuss issues - also saw InternetNZ funding pulled.
Infighting spilled over to social media as Dr Sarah Hendrica Bickerton, the policy lead for Tohatoha, an advocacy group whose activities include data collection, community support and policy work to counter misinformation and hate speech, took to Twitter in March to say her organisation was looking at a wind-down vote.
Maidaborn said final grants had been “delayed by a few months as we look to confirm our strategic priorities and budget”.
In the event, Tohatoha received a $75,000 increase to $175,000.
There were also new recipients, with Brainbox - a think tank that has done work on deep fakes content moderation - receiving $65,000. AUT was also granted $65,000.
“Each year we give around $1m in funding to organisations and individuals who do work that aligns with the values and strategy of InternetNZ,” Maidaborn told the Herald.
“All our funded partnerships are reviewed each year or as the contracts come to a close. This year is no different,” Maidaborn said.