Tuesday, 12 April 2011 12:56
Libya's Widely Used Web Suffix Makes a Long Story Short for Obama, Others.
Where have the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. Air Force directed Twitter followers to learn more about military action in Libya? To an Internet domain controlled by the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
They aren't the only ones to send their Internet followers through Libya. So have House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), Stanford University, Charlie Sheen, the White House, Kim Kardashian, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Paul McCartney, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and thousands of others.
The reason is a linguistic anomaly that might be Col. Gadhafi's most unlikely asset: Libya's Internet domain happens to be the English language's adverbial suffix: ly.
As a result, the .ly domain has proved attractive to English-language businesses looking for catchy online names—including bit.ly, Ow.ly and other popular utilities that compress lengthy Internet addresses, making them easier to email, link or fit the tight space on networks like Twitter. These helpful, simple—and free—services have become ubiquitous.
The .ly domain is controlled by Libya's General Post and Telecommunications Co., whose chairman, Mohammed el-Gadhafi, is the dictator's eldest son. It says it has rented out more than 10,000 .ly domains, either directly or through resellers.
Human Rights Watch, which has blasted the Gadhafi regime for blocking Internet access within Libya, is one organization that unwittingly used the .ly addresses.
"It's ironic and a little bit distasteful," says Tom Malinowski, the group's Washington director, upon learning the news from a reporter.
A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said her office was unaware of bit.ly's Libyan connection. But "given this new information, we will no longer be using this free service," the spokesman said.
A representative of New York-based bit.ly had no immediate comment on the Libya connection. A post on the company website, answering a customer question, said it paid $75 for the .ly address.
"We don't do business in Libya, but it's worth noting that on May 31, 2006, the United States reopened the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, a step the State Department described as marking 'a new era in U.S.-Libya relations,'" the post says.
However, an even newer era began on Feb. 25, 2011, when the Obama administration reimposed economic sanctions on Libya. A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department—another bit.ly user—said Americans could not rent .ly domains from entities controlled by the Gadhafi regime.
"It's a bit of an emotional question," acknowledges Ryan Holmes, chief executive of HootSuite Media Inc., the Vancouver, British Columbia, company that operates Ow.ly, a shortening service favored by the Salvation Army and the Israeli Embassy in Washington. "But at the end of the day, buying oil helps Gadhafi more."
Mr. Holmes says HootSuite pays $25 per year to rent the Ow.ly address from Libyan Spider LLC. The Tripoli reseller didn't respond to an email seeking comment. On its website, however, Libyan Spider assured customers that .ly domains would continue to function despite "recent events of unrest in Libya."
"The only missing bit at the moment is the Internet connection between Libya and the outside world," the company said, "and we are looking forward for it to be restored soon."
Lengthy Internet addresses are a particular problem on Twitter, which limits posts to 140 characters. Shortening services let users substitute a prolix link for an abbreviated placeholder. When a user enters a Web address, the service assigns it a code on its own site. Thus, an Internet address that requires, say, 595 letters, numbers and punctuation marks can be reduced to 20 characters or less, such as: http://ow.ly/4qC3v.
Punch in the Ow.ly address, and a request will move to one of Libya's five servers—two inside Libya, two in the U.S. and one in Europe. The .ly server forwards the message to Amazon.com Inc., the contractor HootSuite uses for its Web service, where the 4gC3v Ow.ly code is linked to the original website.
The Libyans are well aware of their potential market among English speakers seeking memorable Internet addresses. According to information on Libyan Spider's website, only 38% of .ly domains are registered by Libyans. English-speaking countries have locked up most of the rest, with the U.S., the U.K. and Canada accounting for 43% of the total.
For those without their own adverb indexes, the company helpfully posted a list of "8,742 words ending in ly." While cruel.ly, gris.ly and smel.ly are taken, inept.ly, violent.ly and psychotical.ly remain available, the company said.
Meanwhile, some of .ly's competitors in shortening have seen recent gains. Tiny.cc saw page impressions triple to 1.2 million in March from the previous month, says Tim Boid, a Billings, Mont., medical-equipment serviceman who operates the shortening site in his spare time. The .cc refers to the Cocos Islands, an Australian territory with a population of 600. The .cc server, Mr. Boid says, is in New Jersey.
Another shortening-site developer, Richard West of Louth, England, says he never trusted the Libyan Internet authorities, especially after they pulled a site that allegedly had "objectionable [pornographic] content under Libyan sharia law." Instead, Mr. West chose Grenada's Internet domain when setting up his Is.gd service, now owned by Mesmet Ltd., a British Web-hosting company.
"We'd certainly be happy to welcome Britney Spears or the Dalai Lama,"—two prominent bit.ly users—"and I think our strong ethical policies compared to the competition would also make us an appealing choice for many users," Mr. West says. Is.gd carries no advertising and says it is "carbon neutral," financing environmental programs to offset its servers' consumption of electricity.
If users recoil when they discover Ow.ly's Libyan link, HootSuite's Mr. Holmes has a backup plan. He has registered "Ow.li, which is Liechtenstein, and we might at some point offer that out" as a Libya-free alternative.
By Jess Bravin
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