What does Violet Blue, a self proclaimed Open Source Sex expert and an authoritarian Islamic government, such as Libya, have in common? Well, just about nothing, unless you want your domain name to include the suffix ly, all the rage in name branding domains these days.
Here also lies all the makings for a considerable conflict and that is exactly what happened in a defying mix of domain registration, market branding, Sharia Law and a Stalinist Islamic state.
The ever decreasing availability of domain names and the endless drive to standout from the pack has led to the strategy of using a shortened domain name and a suffix that is a country code. Twitter, as well as instant messaging, with their strict character limits has driven the process even harder to have web links become as short as is possible.
A Uniform Resource Locater, URL, and Top-level domain or TLD is what we all commonly expect to form a link to a web site. Most web travelers are used to the dot-com, dot-net, dot-org, and the somewhat less common dot-edu and dot-gov. Increasingly, you will see these examples: Pepsi = pep.si (Slovenia), Yahoo = yhoo.it (Italy), C-Span = cs.pn (Pitcairn Islands) and the very popular URL shortening service bit.ly (Libya).
Some countries restrict the use of their codes for those who are not a native resident but some, including many small countries, have found them to be a windfall source of revenue. The problem occurs, when it is not considered by the individual or company, that by doing so they will be expected to comply with the laws of that country, not the country they reside within.
This is where it can be said, that the story of vb.ly both begins and ends. A project created by Violet Blue and Ben Metcalfe, vb.ly was to be a URL shortening service as well, but one that specialized in as they stated, “The Internet’s first and only sex-positive URL shortener.” They were able to register the site, proceed to build out the service and then run it for about a year, even managing to renew for another two years. To clarify, only the domain was registered in Libya, the hosting for the site was somewhere in the United States.
At some point the stuff began to hit the proverbial fan, as Ms. Blue states, “Nic.ly had told us in vague terms that vb.ly was in violation of Nic.ly and Libyan Spider’s terms. However, we could not find anywhere in the terms on both sites, where we were in violation, which apply to the name of the domain. We were also told we had been warned to change the domain content of face deletion, but no proof was provided that they had attempted to contact us. Had we known, we would have responded immediately.”
At some time after these vague warnings began the Libyan service seized their domain and effectively shut vb.ly down. It would be hard to know exactly what transpired between the two parties, but Ms. Blue appears to be feigning some amount of naivety and playing semantical games. True, they were not hosting adult material themselves but as she admits they were being warned. The terms of service at nic.ly, Libya’s domain registration service, state, “3.5 The Applicant certifies that, to the best of his/her knowledge the domain name is not being registered for any activities/purpose not permitted under Libyan law.”
It is possible that they were not warned properly and they were, more than likely, not treated justly. Unfortunately, this is really not the point because this is Libya we are talking about where any form of outspokenness, of any kind, is not tolerated. Rule of law, is whatever any Libyan official feels it should be at the given time.
If due diligence had been more in favor at the time they decided to register in Libya, Ms. Blue and Mr. Metcalfe might have been more alarmed by this clause, “2.1 GPTC administers the name space for the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya ccTLD (“.ly”), under which a number of second-level domains exists.” Any terms of service, contract or other document that contains the phrase, “Great Socialist People’s…anything,” should have given them great pause.
There is no particular moral judgement in what vb.ly was attempting to do as a service but the incident should serve as a warning to others doing business in another country, especially one they do not fully understand. In fact, they may simply be the canaries in the coal mine for they are not seem to be the only ones caught in this situation.
Apparently Mitt Romney’s handlers did not have a clue either, having registered mitt.ly at the same Libyan domain registration service. Perhaps even stranger bedfellows: Mormon, conservative, Republican, ongoing presidential candidate and authoritarian, Stalinist, Islamic goverment run by a dictator. Upon hearing of the news about vib.ly, Mitt Romney’s staff declared they would change mitt.ly to mi.tt (Republic of Trinidad and Tobago), but the former link still takes the viewer to the candidate’s PAC. It appears that Mr Romney can live with the association.
What this situation may mean to ow.ly or bit.ly is unclear, but Libya is not the only country offering registration with a less than stable government or local officials outside the rule of law. Shortening services are also located in Armenia kl.am, South Georgia Island cli.gs, Grenada is.gd and projected for countries like Montenegro.
Whether the country is fighting a civil war, about to have a coup or as stable as they come, the main point is understanding that where a company registers a domain is much the same as deciding to move there and set up a shop, all laws apply unless otherwise stated.
The World Wide Web has existed for 15+ years and yet, many have not shaken the mistaken impression that opening a website is a merely local phenomenon with no international effect. The prevailing feeling being that the only real shield from this condition is pretending not to care about it until it becomes a problem.
Americans are particularly prone to this ‘short logic’ but this regionally myopic thinking is not exclusive to them alone. Unless a site has a restricted login, the moment it is on the Web it is everywhere. The world is at your doorstep and all that may mean.
Companies and their web developers continue to stumble on assumptions as they explore the undiscovered country that is the Cultural Interface.