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Digital colonialism in action

The Stockholm Court is hearing a lawsuit from the Niue government, which wants to control its ccTLD, .NU. Niue, an island in the South Pacific, is a self-governed state in free association with New Zealand. Its population is about 1,500, while there are almost 500,000 domain names registered in .NU. The reason is simple: nu means “now” in Swedish, and .NU has become the third-most-popular top-level domain in Sweden, after .com and the Swedish ccTLD .se.

To understand what Sweden has to do with the Niuean ccTLD, it is necessary to recall how ccTLDs came to be. The idea belonged to one of the internet’s forefathers, Jon Postel. Back in 1985, he registered the first three ccTLDs: .US for the United States, .UK for Great Britain and, .IL for Israel. The domains needed administrators: people or organizations which would handle the name registration and provide technical support. Postel decided to entrust management responsibility on a first-come, first-served basis. Postel gave himself administrative rights to .US, and handed the .UK rights to a professor at University College London. Today this approach looks shockingly naïve, but it reflected the creators’ view of the internet: they believed that the global network would be used in good faith and to unite humankind.

Times changed. The internet is a prerequisite for managing domains, so people living in the US and Western Europe had a big advantage there. While the internet was making its way to less developed countries, ccTLDs sometimes got into the hands of dishonest people who had nothing to do with these countries. For example, in 1995 the .KY extension (Cayman Islands’ ccTLD) was delegated to a person saying he was a government employee there. The Cayman Islands authorities found out they had a ccTLD only a year later. During this time, the go-getting administrator was selling domain names to people living in Kentucky, which has the same official abbreviation, KY. Meanwhile, an internet company based in California briefly owned the extension of Tajikistan, .TJ. And in 1997, a Massachusetts-based magazine editor named Bill Semich got control of .NU.

It is noteworthy that Jon Postel realized his mistake and changed the rules. Now the administrative power over a ccTLD can only be granted after an official representative of the country it was delegated to gives approval. At least one administrator must live in that country as well. However, there still were a lot of loopholes in the new rules. Semich made an agreement with the Niuean authorities, taking advantage of the fact that there was no internet on the island at the time and the locals did not know what it was. According to Niue’s lawyers, Bill Semich said that the ccTLD was something like a dialing code prefix, which was only required technically and had no value.

The lawyers estimate that since then the administration of .NU has provided at least $150 million in revenue, which is ten times more than Niue’s annual GDP. Semich long ago signed a contract with the Swedish Internet Foundation, which manages .NU as a subcontractor, and he still receives a part of the profit, the rest going to the Swedish Internet Foundation. Niue does not get a cent. Niue’s leader, Toke Talagi, has called this an example of “neo-colonialism,” and he has a valid point, according to Wired.

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