I covered this story over at AppScout today, but I think not only does it bear repeating, but it just sparks some interesting thinking about the way the Web works and who’s really a customer of whom on the Web these days. It’s surprising how many common URL suffixes are actually owned by foreign powers who may or may not have their customer’s best interests at heart – and certainly may not have the same passion for free and open speech on the Internet as those companies – especially if they’re American or European – may have.
Here’s a lift from my story, for those folks who don’t want to click the link:
For example, co-founders of the vb.ly URL shortening service Ben Metcalfe and Violet Blue both posted warnings today that the vb.ly domain had been seized by the Libyan government for first being in violation of their terms of service agreement, but was later clarified to mean that the content of the vb.ly site, which featured Violet Blue herself holding a green glass bottle while wearing a sleeveless blouse, violated Libyan Sharia law.
Additionally, the Libyan officials that Metcalfe and Blue contacted about the issue responded that .ly domains shorter than four characters were now to be reserved for use by Libyan businesses and organizations.
Worth referencing, as I did in the story, is Brian Metcalfe’s post at his blog and Violet Blue’s post at TechYum about the incident, complete with records and exchanges from Libyan officials about the matter.
The critical thing to note here is that Libya is the owner of every domain that ends in “.ly,” and when you register and purchase a .ly domain you’re not so much getting ownership as you are signing an agreement to use the domain with the cooperation of the Libyan government, and their domain registration authority, NIC.ly. So that means services that are commonly used by lots of people (myself included) like the bit.ly URL shortener, the ow.ly URL shortener, and the ad.ly advertising URL shortener, are all subject to the whims of the Libyan government for their terms of service agreements.
Now, not to paint the Libyans in too bad a light here: the country is a Muslim country and they’re guided by Islamic/Sharia Law – meaning that a free and open internet for all subject matter isn’t exactly one of their core principles, and is pornography and adult content is expressly forbidden by their morality code. When they learned who Violet Blue – co-founder of the vb.ly URL shortener – was and likely did a little research, they jumped to shut the shortener down, regardless of the fact that the vb.ly page is anything but unsafe-for-work (shown above before it came down) and the content of the URLs shortened by the service were likely in part adult material but certainly weren’t exclusively adult material – no more so than ow.ly or bit.ly, I’m sure.
It’s not the adherence to Sharia Law that bothers me here, it’s the fact that the Libyan government has stated that they want all sub-four character .ly domains to be reserved for use by Libyan businesses and local organizations. That in itself doesn’t bother me, but it’s the application of both of these rules that’s the irritant, and that has such huge consequences for the rest of the Web – Libya’s information officials are essentially using Sharia Law as a scapegoat and a convenient excuse to shut down vb.ly, and are immediately reclaiming it in line with this new “locals only” policy. Essentially, two very weak excuses for action that’s far more aggressive than is warranted.
If Libya wants to reserve URLs for internal use, that’s their business – they own the .ly suffix. If they want content that passes through .ly suffixed domains to be compliant with Sharia Law, that’s also their business. The problem is when they strong-arm their want into a battle over values, freedoms, and speech on the Internet by bullying businesses and other parties instead of simply making their case and asking for a change.
If Libya had said they weren’t going to renew the registration to Ben Metcalfe and Violet Blue when it came up because of these two policies and rules, I doubt there would have ever been this controversy. As it stands however, it means that every company that deals with a foriegn power for its domain suffix – especially those using .ly – stand at risk to be shut down immediately and without notice should they enter the crosshairs of that nation’s government officials.