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The Big CEO Interview: Lesley Cowley, OBE from Nominet

PUBLISHED: 14:46 02 April 2012 | UPDATED: 04:12 10 February 2013

The Big CEO Interview: Lesley Cowley, OBE from Nominet

The Big CEO Interview: Lesley Cowley, OBE from Nominet

LESLEY COWLEY, OBE, is one of the most influential people in the UK technology industry. Interview by Nicky Godding.

The Big CEO Interview: Lesley Cowley, OBE from Nominet

Interview by Nicky Godding.

LESLEY COWLEY, OBE, is one of the most influential people in the UK technology industry. As the CEO of Nominet, the UK domain name registry managing over ten million domain names, she is also chair of the global committee encouraging co-operation between similar organisations across the world Nominet, a not-for-profit company located at Oxford Science Park, is the Companies House of the Internet.

Everyone who wants a representation on-line needs a domain name. Whoever provides that domain name has the responsibility of keeping it safe and secure, otherwise there could be massive repercussions for our countrys economy. Which is why Nominet, though independent, has a strong working relationship with Government, particularly Culture Minister Ed Vaizey who takes parliamentary responsibility for the relationship.

Nominet was established in 1996. Lesley joined as Operations Director in 1999, responsible for 28 employees and reporting to its founder, Dr Willie Black. Its hard to believe now but in the first couple of years before Nominet was established, the allocation of domain names was done by a panel of volunteers. When numbers reached 26,000 names, theyd had enough and Nominet was established.

Even then, the business did not anticipate the rate of growth and to begin with, every domain name registration received a certificate. When numbers reached 260,000 names Julie, who prepared the certificates, was becoming rather busy. Scalable systems needed putting into place. As Ops Director, Lesley set about building a system that would cope with the massive increase in .uk domain name registration. It worked, Julies still there.

After nine years, Nominet had registered over 4.4 million domains, making it one of the biggest domains in the world at the time. It had 130 staff and a turnover of 12.6 million. Now with over 10 million domains, turnover has increased to 25 million. It has 3000 Nominet registrars companies which register domain names on behalf of clients.

Lesley (who did not go to university but completed an MBA while Registrar at New College Swindon), was made Managing Director in 2002. Dr Black left in 2004 and Lesley became Chief Executive Officer in 2005. Under Lesleys watch the registry has grown substantially, but so too has its challenges as the growth of the global digital economy continues its upward trajectory and issues of internet security and registration of .uk domains become central to our lives whether we like it or not.

Nominets vision is to be a leading force in making the Internet a trusted space, which has a positive impact on peoples lives, but in a sector that has grown rapidly, policy decisions have to be made fast. The importance of Nominets work was brought into sharp focus just before the last General Election when the Government voted, under its Digital Economy Act, to take over management of the registry if it felt it had cause to do so. However, the coalition Government has indicated that it prefers Nominet to remain independent. In a speech to a UK Policy Forum last May, Ed Vaizey was reported as saying I dont think regulation is the answer here. A lightly regulated Internet is what has caused the explosion of the Internet. A lightly regulated Internet is good for business, good for the economy, good for all of us. But with these freedoms do come real responsibilities Therell always be pressure to regulate more to protect the young and the vulnerable.

Lesley said: The centrality of the internet to our lives and livelihoods makes it inevitable that the debate will continue, and the pressures for good answers to how the internet can operate in the public interest will not diminish. Nominet stands ready to play our part in that discussion, both on the global stage and right here in the UK. For Lesley the priority issues are ensuring a robust infrastructure so that the UKs digital economy can thrive, and cyber security on which Nominet works with national and international bodies.

Nominet has won many business awards since Lesleys appointment and she has won personal awards too. They include the 2007 CBI First Woman in IT Award and Highly commended in the Public/third sector IoD director of the year awards 2011. Earlier this year Cotswold Life nominated her one of our 50 Top Women of Influence Awards but the most prestigious is undoubtedly her OBE for services to the Internet and e-commerce, awarded in the Queens 2011 New Years Honours List.


Lesley Cowley points out that everyone using the Internet has a responsibility to ensure they are not breaking the law. A survey undertaken by Nominet found that only 44 per cent of people could correctly spot illegal activities when given a number of scenarios. The top five risk areas were uploading copyrighted content such as photos or song lyrics to a personal website or social network, blogging misuse of copyrighted material and plagiarism, privacy discussing or publishing details of a super injunction, defamation of other people using social media and the illegal uploading and downloading of music.

Take the test for yourself: http://accidentaloutlaw.knowthenet.org.uk


The global nature of the Internet means that international cooperation is essential. This is done through ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers)

To reach another person on the Internet an address, a unique name or number, must be typed into the computer. ICANN coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. ICANN was formed in 1998 as a not-for-profit public-benefit corporation with participants from all over the world, of which Nominet represents the UK. It is dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable and interoperable, promoting competition and developing policy on the Internets unique identifiers. ICANN and its country members do not control Internet content. They cannot stop spam and do not deal with Internet access. But this coordination of the Internets naming system is essential for the systematic expansion and evolution of the Internet.

Lesley Cowley chairs The Country Code Names Supporting Organisation (ccNSO), a body within the ICANN structure which provides a forum for country code Top Level Domain (ccTLD) managers to meet and discuss topical and global issues of concern.

This is an incredibly useful committee, said Lesley, citing a recent example where her Japanese colleagues shared best practice developed following the tsunami, bird flu and recent earthquake.

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