The tiny island of Niue was all but wiped off the map at the end of last week when cyclone Heta sent 300kph winds and 20-metre waves smashing into a population of just 1,200 people.
Now, with many islanders deciding to move to nearby New Zealand, there is a question over Niue’s independence, granted in 1974 when the population was closer to 5,000. It is expected that only 500 people will remain.
One of the peculiar aspects of the world’s smallest independent state and world’s largest coral island however is how it has traditionally made its money. Aside from the NZ$8 million (£3 million) the New Zealand government gives it annually in aid and the sale of passion fruit, lime oil and coconut cream, an important source of revenue has always been the sale of postage stamps to foreign collectors - the vast majority of whom will never visit the island.
With this background, it is hardly surprising that the Internet has also become an important revenue source for the island. Granted the .nu domain, Niue has set itself up as the younger brother of Tuvalu (population: 11,300) and its successful .tv domain, leased for 12 years for $50 million.
With the help of two Americans, over 100,000 .nu domains have been registered, mostly to the Swedes since "nu" means "now" in Swedish. It also means "naked" in French but the French porn industry has yet to really cotton onto the domain.
But with the island devastated, its infrastructure in tatters and its independence under threat, many have started asking if cyclone Heta will also blow away a section of the Internet?
The answer, categorically, is no. And this leads us to the fascinating and peculiar world of country domains.
Sticking to the standards
The official rule, set up by Jon Postel in the early days of the Internet, is that if a country is included in the international list of countries (International Country Code Standard ISO 3166-1) then it is given a domain.
It needn’t be a certain size or a certain importance. It needn’t even be an independent state. If it was listed in ISO 3166-1, it got a domain. This has led to the interesting situation that four of the 243 quoted country code top-level domains don’t even have anyone living on them.
Bouvet Island (.bv) is nothing but glaciers. Discovered in 1739 by the French, taken over by the British in 1825 and then handed to the Norwegians in 1928, it was only in 1977 that anything stayed permanently on the island - a meterological station.
The Heard Island and McDonald Islands (.hm) are completely barren. Handed over to the Australians by the British in 1947, it does boast a few seals and birds, but Club 18-30 it is not.
British Indian Ocean Territory (.io) has a joint UK/US "naval support facility" on its biggest island, Diego Garcia, which sounds like the worst posting in the military. But apart from that, not a dickie-bird.
And the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (.tf) are as inviting as they sound. Discovered by the French in 1840, the only people to set foot on it are researchers who, get this, study the native fauna.
Getting closer to Niue, we have the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (.cc) - sporting a Olympic catchment population of 630. There are two islands where people live, but not exactly in harmony. The Europeans apparently are to be found on the West Island and the Malays on Home Island.
More incredible than that, Pitcairn Island (.pn) has only 47 people living on it, doesn’t even have an email connection and yet took its domain so seriously that a massive row saw the UK government involved and ICANN approve a redelegation (done by post, of course). The word you are looking for is parochial.
However, despite these oddities in using the ISO list of countries, the issue of country domains is not quite that simple. Certainly when Zaire became the Democratic Republic of the Congo, its previous .zr domain was removed and a new .cd introduced. Plus, when the Occupied Palestinian Territory was given international recognition, ICANN followed suit and gave it .ps.
Do the maths
But there are 239 official countries in ISO 3166-1 and 243 country code top-level domains. In fact, there are 244 country code domains in existence because even though .su was marked down for deletion following the break up of the USSR in 1991 and doesn’t officially exist, .su addresses are still accessible and the domain administrators are consistently trying to revive it, much to the annoyance of everyone else.
As recently as June this year, the “Supervising Council of the Foundation” in Moscow announced that its sunrise period for trademark registration had ended and now .su domains were open to anyone under its rules and regulations. It claims nearly 30,000 registered domains but in this surreal parallel world not everything is to be believed.
The break-up of the USSR saw 10 new domains enter the world: in 1992, Estonia (.ee), Lithuania (.lt), Georgia (.ge) and Ukraine (.ua); in 1993, Latvia (.lv) and Azerbaijan (.az); in 1994, Moldova (.md), Russia (.ru), Belarus (.by), Armenia (.am) and Kazakhstan (.kz).
However, in the wonderful flexible world that is Internet domain names, there required no break-up of an empire for Great Britain not be granted .gb as described in the ISO list but .uk representing United Kingdom plus four others dotted around the coastline: Ascension Island (.ac), Guernsey (.gg), Isle of Man (.im) and Jersey (.je).
And if all that wasn’t enough, from November you will be able to buy .eu European domain names, as approved by the European Commission and soon to be agreed to by ICANN once the details have been thrashed out.
Which leads us to the rather interesting thought about what the Internet will look like in, say, 100 years. If everyone political movement and country that appears is granted a new domain, and no domains are ever removed, not only will our ancestors be presented with the equivalent of .bb for Babylonia but the artificial scarcity of domains that currently exist thanks to ICANN will be wiped out. You only have to wait for the tectonic shifts in human civilisations. ®