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 ten 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 co-created 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.
Similarly, Libya’s .ly—now famous through the popular bit.ly link compression—went to a British businessman who pretended to live in Tripoli. Meanwhile, an internet company based in Fresno, Calif. briefly owned the extension of Tajikistan, .tj. And in 1997, a Massachusetts-based magazine editor named Bill Semich was given control of Niue’s .nu.
The .nu deal wasn’t fraud—the government of Niue did sign off on the transfer to Semich—but it did raise questions. Richard Hipa, the manager of Niue’s telecom company, explained in 2006 that the island’s leadership hadn’t understood what they were signing away. They thought the domain extension was “like an international dialing code prefix,” he said—nothing of value. Neither side seemed clear on the terms, either. While the government of Niue claims that Semich promised 25 percent of profits, Semich has insisted that he was given the domain in exchange for a commitment to provide the island with internet services. “There has never been any other agreement,” Semich told the Wall Street Journal.
It didn’t take long for the .nu domain name—with its special brand-value in Swedish—to explode in popularity on the other side of the Earth. The island tried to claw back what was lost by passing, in 2000, a law to affirm that .nu is a national resource “for which the prime authority is the Government of Niue.” But the legal language made no difference; as profits rolled in, Semich refused to cede control of the domain. In 2013, Semich subcontracted out the licensing of .nu to the Swedish Internet Foundation, the subject of the ongoing litigation. While Semich is still the administrator of .nu, and therefore still receives a cut of profits, the Swedish Internet Foundation is now directly tasked with selling .nu domains to companies and individuals. In 2017, those registrations peaked at half a million.
Yet the central argument of Niue’s law from 2000—that a country code top-level domain is a “national resource”—continues to underscore debates over internet colonialism. Businesspeople like Semich have been quick to dismiss the idea that countries need to control their assigned domains, but it is worth noting that everyone from the U.S. to Canada to Nigeria has similarly compared their own top-level domains to “national resources,” akin to oil or coal. By now, almost every nation either administers its own top-level domain or approves of the private company, nonprofit, or academic institution that does. Like Niue, the U.S. was not initially granted administrative rights over its top-level extension, but in 2001, the Department of Commerce convinced Postel's company to hand over administrative privileges.
It isn’t easy for a tiny nation to do the same. The same power dynamics that let American companies play an outsized role in the mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic Congo, for instance, have allowed a Swedish foundation to license out a Niuean resource without its consent. “This is something that we should have run, and we were robbed of that,” Hipa said.
As companies increasingly turn to quirky extensions in place of .com, these questions about ownership and national resources are all the more pressing. The nation of Tuvalu (pop: 10,000), for example, has seen a rapid rise in the popularity of its .tv domain—it’s now up to 512,000 registrations—after the Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch started using it in its own URL: Twitch.tv. Tuvalu's situation is more nuanced than Niue's. The nation only discovered that it had a top-level domain when, in 1995, it received a fax from an American offering to help market it. When Tuvaluans investigated, they discovered that the .tv domain had already been assigned to an American computer programmer. Unlike Niue, Tuvalu was able to reclaim the rights to .tv—but then it sold them off a few years later, to Verisign, an American company. Verisign gives Tuvalu $5 million per year in exchange for control of licensing for .tv domains. Still, the former Tuvalu finance minister called the rate “peanuts” compared to his best guess for the profitability of .tv. (Verisign also controls .cc, the extension for the Cocos Islands, which has nearly 700,000 registrations.)
More egregious is the case of .io, which has proliferated across tech circles in the last few years. Startups attracted to its reference to “input/output” have registered .io domains in droves, and dozens of articles extoll its virtues. But as domain-name sales balloon, the original residents of .io’s namesake, the British Indian Ocean Territory, have not received a penny.
The story of .io began with a Cold War military base. In 1962, the United States approached the UK about leasing a piece of the Chagos Islands, a land mass in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The islands, under British control since 1814, were strategically located for American planes to refuel on their way to southeast Asia. The British government agreed, and to clear the way for the U.S., it expelled all 1,800 native residents of the islands, a process some have compared to an “ethnic cleansing.” By 1965, the Chagos Islands had a new name—the British Indian Ocean Territory.
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Three decades later, in 1997, Jon Postel assigned the territory's .io extension to a private British company, the Internet Computer Bureau. The domain proved immensely profitable: according to Domain Tools, the number of active .io registrations has reached around half a million. Of course, the specific extension .io wouldn't exist if the British hadn't renamed the islands; and it’s possible that a top-level domain name derived from “Chagos Islands” wouldn't have been so popular. Still, the success of .io is hard to swallow given that the original residents of the islands are still fighting for their right to return to their homeland.
If most countries are able to claim their domain names as national resources, then everyone should have the same right. That doesn't mean governments have to be the actual administrators—Tuvalu, for instance, may well decide to renew its contract with Verisign when it expires in 2021—but they should at least approve of the entity that is selling their top-level domains. That the residents of island territories like Niue and the original residents of the Chagos Islands are still fighting for control over their national resources because of decisions made in the 1990s is troubling.
It's also part of a larger pattern with the early internet. Policies that made sense in the 1990s have developed unexpected wrinkles. Look no further than the debate over Section 230, part of a 1996 law that absolves platforms of legal liability for the content published on it. Critics say that Section 230 has allowed companies to ignore everything from hate speech to reckless gun sales.
We should be re-examining these policies today, in light of what we’ve come to understand. In the 1980s and 1990s, few could have predicted the extent to which the internet would upend commerce and geopolitics. Nor would it have been easy to imagine that country-code domains would one day be so profitable that countries started claiming them as national resources. But past unknowability does not excuse present inequity, and the residents of every country should see at least a portion of the profits from the licensing of their top-level domains. That’s already the case in most nations, whether through luck—an original administrator agreeing to return the rights, as with Haiti—or, in the case of the U.S. government, sheer clout. But not for all. Systems like the one for country code top-level domains were meant to be a democratizing force; instead they buttressed the same power structures that have defined our world for centuries.
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