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.

In the 1980s, when USC scientist Jon Postel cocreated the internet’s domain name infrastructure, he decided that each country needed its own unique extension. He devised a network of country code top-level domains that would append URLs. By 1985, he’d assigned the first three: .us (for the United States), .uk (for the United Kingdom) and .il (for Israel). Within a decade, an entire almanac of these domains—.in (India), .br (Brazil), .au (Australia)—had formed. Niue had its own too.

For these country-specific extensions to function, they needed an administrator—someone to sell the domain names, provide technical support, and take a cut of the profits as compensation. Postel did not think to grant administrative power over them to the relevant governments; instead, he began entrusting management responsibility on a first-come, first-served basis. Postel gave himself administrative rights to .us, and he handed the .uk rights to a professor at University College London. As one internet official later remarked, this approach embodied the early spirit of the internet, an expectation of “the good faith and interest in serving the public of all involved.”

Times changed. In 1994, with more than a hundred country-specific top-level domains having been assigned, Postel updated his policy. Now administrators of country-specific domain names would need to have at least some connection to the countries in question. First, he required that “significantly interested parties” sign off on the appointment of managers for top-level domains. (Postel didn’t define the phrase, but “significantly interested parties” often included government representatives.) He also instituted a residency requirement: At least one person involved in the administration must live in the relevant country.

In practice, Postel’s initial strategy for delegating domains allowed the people who received internet access first—mainly American and European businesspeople—to seize control of country code domains from governments that were still figuring out their significance. Even his revised policy had loopholes. In 1995, for example, Postel delegated the .ky extension to a government employee of the Cayman Islands. It turned out the employee was not communicating with the rest of his country. He and an American business partner began marketing the top-level domain to Kentucky residents (inspiring domains like horsecapitaloftheworld.ky), and taking the profits for themselves. The primary leadership of the Cayman Islands only found out a year later that its top-level extension already had an administrator.

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