The tiny province of the Aland Islands - located between old rivals Sweden and Finland - has become an official country with no fanfare whatsoever and is now entitled to its own, new, top-level Internet domain, .ax.
The International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) actually granted the islands - given autonomy in 1951 and boasting 25,000 inhabitants - their official recognition on 13 February this year but somehow we only heard about it last week.
The Aland Islands (although the Finnish will have it known they are the Ahvenanmaa Islands) are made up of 6,500 islands and outcrops, 65 miles east of Stockholm and cover 572 square miles. People only live on 65 of them, however, and 90 per cent live on the biggest island - Fasta Aland. Fasta only has one city where over half the population live.
They have their own flag which is a Swedish flag with a strangely English-looking red cross stuck on the top. They have an assembly called the Landsting which decides its own laws, and a seat in the Finnish Parliament. The islands have jumped between Swedish and Finnish ownership over the centuries and while Swedish is the language and most influences the culture, the last people to own them were the Finns. A ruling by the League of Nations in 1921 gave the islands their own parliament and it has been independence all the way from there.
What is interesting in terms of the Internet however is that the Aland Islands are now on the official ISO 3166-1 list which means they can have their own Internet domain. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority IANA), the Internet body that decides such things, uses the list as a set-in-stone directory of domain names. At least sometimes.
"IANA's policy is to create new ccTLDs (country code top level domains) only when they are listed on the ISO 3166-1 list," reads its site. "The selection of the ISO 3166-1 list as a basis for country code top-level domain names was made with the knowledge that ISO has a politically neutral procedure for determining which entities should be and should not be on that list."
Of course, you need to ignore the existence of .uk rather than .gb for Great Britain and the inclusion of Ascension Island (.ac), Guernsey (.gg), Isle of Man (.im) and Jersey (.je), and the fact that the Soviet Union (.su) still exists on the Internet. And that the European Union is getting is own .eu domain. And that .yu for Yugoslavia is still on the Net, rather than .cs for Serbia and Montenegro.
Plus of course, the Aland Islands have to actually apply for their own domain. And IANA doesn't like to rush these things.
On 1 October 1999, the Occupied Palestinian Territory was included on 3166-1 with the two-letter code .ps. Ten days later, an application was made to IANA for a .ps domain. This was followed up on 2 February 2000 after IANA hadn't got around to do anything. It held a review and granted the domain on 22 March 2000. So, if the Aland islands applied this week, they could have their own domain by September.
But don't count on it. East Timor became a country on 15 November 2002 but so far not a peep from IANA. Maybe that troubled country hasn't got around to applying yet.
Of course the big question is: who's next? Well, sparing a huge political upheaval, bid for independence and successful war, there is a list of reserved country codes, believe it or not. You have to be a big country or international organisation to put your chips down, but these are them, and each has a fascinating history:
- CP for Clipperton Island - an atoll in the North Pacific Ocean, south-east of Mexico (reserved by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)).
- DG for Diego Garcia - an American naval base which is already included in the virtually unused British Indian Ocean Territory (.io) domain (reserved by the ITU).
- EA for Ceuta and Melilla - which are actually two cities on the Moroccan coastline and are the last vestiges of the Spanish empire. Same sort of situation as with Gibraltar, especially the Spanish actually own them (reserved by the World Customs Organisation (WCO)).
- FX for Metropolitan France. This is, or rather was, recognised by IANA. IANA has received requests for it but is ignoring them. One posting by someone in the know explained: "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a very special strange and unwarranted arrangement for exactly one purpose: to satisfy some odd uniquely French desire" (reserved by, yes, France).
- IC for Canary Islands - an autonomous group of islands owned by the Spanish and a popular holiday destination (reserved by WCO).
- TA for Tristan da Cunha - which claims to be the remotest island in the world and is British territory in the South Atlantic. Great for lobsters and stamps apparently (reserved by the Universal Postal Union (UPU))
Our vote for the next domain goes to the Canary Islands. ®