The Digital Colonialism Behind .tv and .ly

Country-specific domain names can generate a lot of money—but for whom?

In late 2018, the tiny South Pacific island of Niue filed a lawsuit worth more than its entire economy. The case, which is under litigation in Stockholm, hinges on the rights to .nu, one of those country-specific extensions that appends a URL. Since 2013, that extension has been owned not by the Niuean government or even by a Niuean company, but by a private business based some 10,000 miles away. At issue in the case is whether the Swedish Internet Foundation, the same company that owns Sweden’s native .se extension, should be allowed to control the domain name extension of a sovereign power.

Because nu means “now” in Swedish, .nu has become the third-most-popular top-level domain in Sweden, after .com and .se. According to a lawyer who is pursuing the case on behalf of Niue, the island has lost as much as $150 million in revenue from the name—more than 10 times the island’s annual gross domestic product. Niue’s leader, Toke Talagi, has called this an example of “neo-colonialism,” and he has a valid point: His nation, population 1,500, is far from the only one to find that its digital resources have been appropriated by foreign interests. To understand how this happened is to understand the lopsided introduction of the internet itself—and the enduring systems of power that its creators accidentally reinforced.

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