What’s In a Domain Name? A Real-Life Civil War
Rebels squabble with Morocco for rights to.eh
There’s a lot in a domain name.
There’s enough value for large companies to spend hefty sums protecting them. But what happens when a country’s domain name is claimed by an occupying state and by a bunch of rebels?
That’s the dilemma for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the non-profit organization responsible for assigning country code top-level domain names. These are the two-letter names at the end of a URL reserved for governments to manage Internet access.
Every country has a domain name assigned by ICANN. For example, .uk is the United Kingdom, .de is Germany and so on. When ICANN began assigning names, it reserved .eh for Western Sahara.
But Western Sahara is a disputed territory split between Morocco and the rebel Polisario Front. This means the country code has become part of the conflict. Neither side has their claims to the territory recognized by the international community—the United Nations considers Western Sahara a non-self-governing territory—and ICANN has left the name unassigned.
The roots of Western Sahara’s political paralysis run deep. Spain withdrew from the country in 1975 after ruling it as a colony for 80 years. Morocco then invaded and conquered most of the territory. This resulted in a war with the Algeria-backed rebels.
Today, the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic—an outgrowth of the Polisario Front—controls an eastern sliver of the country.
What divides the two sides is a 1,200-mile-long sand berm Morocco constructed in the 1980s plus around 120,000 Moroccan soldiers and the world’s largest continuous minefield, according to Al Jazeera. There’s been a ceasefire in place since 1991.
A domain name might seem a minor point of contention. Both sides have filed claimed to ICANN seeking control over its exclusive use. But ICANN isn’t the U.N.
Still, were .eh it to fall under the control of either Morocco or the Polisario Front, it would constitute a propaganda victory and confer a sense of national legitimacy other international bodies have refused to grant either side.
Applying for a unique domain name has also become part and parcel with the bureaucratic sausage-making of a modern state along with passports and currency. After South Sudan’s independence in 2011, for example, it applied for—and was granted—the domain of .ss.
Top-level domains are also finite resources, and rare ones are popular with companies seeking to distinguish themselves from the .coms of the Web.
This has led some small, poor Pacific island nations to farm out their names for money. Tuvalu licensed its domain .tv to telecommunications firm Verisign—which brings in $1 million a year to a nation with an annual GDP of $36 million.
Because of a quirk in the complex system used to distribute top-level domains, a Massachusetts businessman acquired the rights to the .nu domain—the country-code for the impoverished Pacific island of Niue. Because “nu” is Swedish for “now,” the domain turned into a multimillion-dollar business for the businessman, Bill Semich, who charged Swedish companies for the marketable domain name’s use.
On a darker note, the derelict .su domain name, assigned to the Soviet Union in 1990, has become a haven for online crime.
Would the .eh domain name be a money-maker if acquired by the Polisario Front? In Canada, perhaps. But the name probably won’t finance the group taking power in Western Sahara. ICANN has also kept its distance from the dispute.
In 2007, the organization stated both sides have “the technical criteria for managing a top-level domain,” but then swept the issue under the rug by encouraging both sides to “work together to find a mutual solution that will serve the needs of the local Internet community in the best possible fashion.”
Just don’t mention the 120,000 troops—or the minefields.
Correction: The article misstated the U.N. designation of Western Sahara as an independent territory—it is a non-self-governing territory.