The lesson behind the Libyan domain scandal
Over the past few days, a storm has been brewing between the Libyan domain name registry and the free love hippies inhabiting the rest of the web.
Here’s the short version: sex columnist Violet Blue started up her own “sex positive” URL shortener, at vb.ly – it’s similar to bit.ly, but unlike that site, it doesn’t ban porn in its T&Cs.
The .ly domain name is popular because it’s short and cute. However, it also happens to be the country code top-level domain (ccTDL) for Libya, a nation not exactly renowned for its sexual freedoms.
Indeed, it turns out that the Libyan registrar isn’t okay with websites using a .ly domain to host sexual content – and ICANN, essentially the UN for domain names, is perfectly fine with countries setting such rules. Because of that, Libya yanked the vb.ly site, taking all the shortened links with it.
Blue notes: “We intended vb.ly to be a link shortener that celebrated tolerance and provided an alternative to other link shortening services whose terms were vague, and possibly loosely interpreted and thus subject to change, around human sexuality.”
While that’s certainly admirable, Libya is infamous for its intolerance, so it’s clearly not the right choice. I realise few connect .tv with Tuvalu anymore or .me with Montenegro, but if you’re running a site it’s probably worth a quick Wikipedia search to see which country you’re getting involved with.
Others have suggested the case could mean more general shorteners, such as bit.ly, are also in trouble. While the Libyan registry has said it now wants to keep domains under three characters for local use, in an email exchange with Blue, a registry official said: “Had your domain merely been an URL shortener for general uses similar to bit.ly (as you claim) there would have been no problem with it.”
Phil Kingsland, director of Communications at UK registrar Nominet, offered this advice:
“The rules of domain name registration vary significantly from one country code operator to another. When registering any domain name, as with any service you sign up to that is critical to the operations of your business and how you market yourself, make sure you read the small print.
The cost to register a domain name can be relatively small, but the value associated with that domain grows with the amount invested in it by a business. If your domain is likely to be valuable to you, check the terms of registration before investing heavily in it. If you’re concerned about a domain you have already registered, check the terms and ensure you are complying with them.”
So the lesson here is read the Ts&Cs. Now it’s certainly possible that the “no porn at .ly” rule wasn’t made clear to Blue, or that it was buried in a lengthy legal document she didn’t wade through, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt that she wasn’t aware.
However, some have jumped on this and accused Libya of trying to impose Sharia law on the web. That’s just nonsense (and, frankly, impossible). I’m not going to defend Libya – it’s record on human rights and freedoms is entirely indefensible. But it’s not the only country that bans porn sites from its domain: Ireland banned the registration of pornography.ie, and last I checked, Ireland wasn’t practising Sharia law.
Frankly, if you go to a country, you have to abide by its laws, regardless of whether you approve of them. If you don’t like Libya’s laws, don’t visit it and don’t buy a domain from it — no matter how cute of a URL it gives you.