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URL Shorteners, Domain Hacks and Quasi-gTLDs: What are ccTLDs Really About?

Jon Lawrence

The Twitterverse is awash with catchy URL shortening services, which allow what would otherwise be long URLs to fit within the strict character limit of individual Tweets. Before the Twitter phenomenon really took hold, tinyurl.com was one of the more popular services; now much shorter options are available, using various Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) which have the significant advantage of being only two characters after the last dot.

Some of the more high-profile recent examples include Twitter's t.co, Google's goo.gl, Facebook's fb.me and US National Public Radio's n.pr. For the ccTLDs concerned, these domain names represent invaluable exposure to a global audience and are probably one of the single most effective marketing initiatives they will undertake.

Similarly, the popularity of domain hacks, one form of which involves ignoring the dot to spell out a brand or word — examples include del.icio.us and blo.gs — offer another opportunity for showcasing a ccTLD to a potentially global audience.

The promotional opportunity is particularly attractive for smaller ccTLDs. Greenland's .gl and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands' .gs are not ccTLDs that receive much, if any, attention from outsiders, except perhaps from the most diligent Trademark attorneys at some of the world's largest corporations.

Chasing the promotional benefits of URL-shortening services and domain hacks is not without its risks however, as Libya has recently discovered. The bit.ly URL service is one of the most popular in use within the Twitterverse, and has given Libya's .ly ccTLD a significant global profile. Other URL shortening services have followed bit.ly's lead, including vb.ly, which was pitched with the following tag line:

The Internet's first and only sex-positive link shortener service, meaning links are not filtered or groomed, and we'll never pull your links because we decided to become "family friendly".

It was rather naive to expect that a socially conservative country such as Libya would not have an issue with a website that portrays itself in these terms, and it was therefore unsurprising that NIC.LY last month revoked the vb.ly domain name, citing concerns that the service was not in keeping with Sharia Law. They have also revised the registration policy for .ly to restrict registrations of less than four characters to locally-registered entities, thereby effectively preventing any new URL shortening services from using the .ly ccTLD.

It is of course NIC.LY's right to manage their ccTLD in a way that suits the specific legal and cultural realities of contemporary Libyan society, as it is for all other ccTLD Managers. Those that wish to take advantage of the combination of short domain names at relatively low cost for use with URL shorteners should therefore consider carefully which ccTLD they choose to utilise for this purpose.

There are of course many countries that have chosen to leverage their luck in the ccTLD lottery by re-purposing their ccTLD as quasi-gTLDs and offering them on an unrestricted basis to the global market. These include Tuvalu's .tv, American Samoa's .as (AS is an abbreviation of a common company type in some European countries), Niue's .nu (Nu means 'now' in Dutch, Danish and Swedish), and more recently, Montenegro's .me and Colombia's .co.

The attractions of such a move are obvious for countries with a memorable ccTLD, a very small population and few other sources of income, as the re-purposing of their ccTLD represents an opportunity to earn valuable export income.

The number of ccTLDs that are in a position to follow suit is however very limited, particularly with the spectre of hundreds of new gTLDs on the horizon.

Somalia is about to launch their .so ccTLD to the global market, and while I expect that it will be moderately successful, it is unlikely to achieve the hundreds of thousands of registrations seen in some other re-purposed ccTLDs, at least for the foreseeable future. The publicity generated by the Libyan registry's recent crackdown is also likely to give many potential registrants pause for thought about the longer-term prospects for a ccTLD governed by a country that suffers from endemic political instability.

Even one of the most successful re-purposed ccTLDs, Tuvalu's .tv — operated by VeriSign since 2000 under a long-term arrangement with the Tuvalu Government — is failing to live up to some expectations within Tuvalu, despite accounting for close to 10% of the Government's total revenue (see the Australia Network's article: Threat to Tuvalu's proud domain).

Governments and national regulators that are considering the future of their ccTLDs should therefore be careful to avoid being dazzled by the windfall revenue gains that going after the global market may appear to offer. It is highly unlikely that we will again see a ccTLD achieve the success of the recent launch of second-level registrations under .co, which has reached over half a million names in a few short months.

For the vast majority of ccTLDs, focusing on the needs of their local market will instead be the most appropriate course of action, particularly over the longer term.

The benefits to be gained from the development of local ccTLD infrastructure, and the skills and expertise required to operate it, will be significant in capacity-building terms and should form the basis for nurturing a sustainable local internet industry. A dynamic local internet industry will help to bridge the digital divide and promote the myriad of social and economic opportunities that the internet has to offer.

Similarly, implementing policies developed in conjunction with local stakeholders and appropriate to the local legal, cultural and economic situation, along with effective awareness campaigns and marketing activities should help to ensure that the local ccTLD becomes the TLD of choice for local businesses and organisations.

ICANN's new gTLD program however has the potential to overwhelm many ccTLDs that are yet to establish themselves as the TLD of choice in their local market, with hundreds of new TLDs expected to be introduced, likely from around early 2012.

The already highly competitive global market is therefore about to become even more so. Those considering the future of their ccTLD should be mindful of this in their planning activities and should ensure they focus on sustainable, local outcomes.

By Jon Lawrence, Executive Officer, Electronic Frontiers Australia; Board member, ISOC-AU
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