The government of the tiny African islands Sao Tome and Principe has made a terrible discovery - it has been sold into porn slavery.
The country' infrastructure minister, Deolindo Costa de Boa Esperanca, was intrigued to find out what this Internet thing was when the Net's overseeing organisation ICANN held its annual meeting in South Africa earlier this month.
He didn't like what he turned up: a report by Secure Computing from this June which pinpointed the Sao Tome ".st" domain as the host of more than 307,000 pages of pornography - three-quarters of all African porn pages on the Internet.
While Sao Tome remains a mere adolescent in the world of online porn (in terms of countries, Germany leads the way with 10 million pages, and the UK is close behind with 8.5 million), that figure corresponds to 1.7 pages per inhabitant. Germany in contrast has 0.12 pages per person, and the UK, 0.14. Winner of porniest country in the world is Tonga with an incredible 7.7 pages for each of its 110,000 inhabitants.
A little bit of research by the minister later and it transpired that the man chosen the run the domain in November 1997, one Aguinaldo Salvaterra, who runs a cybercafe on the island, had done a deal with a Swedish ISP Bahnhof Internet back in June 1999. Bahnhof now runs the entire .st domain and, obviously, saw the opportunity to provide a liberal service outside of normal restrictions to those most willing to pay for it. Pornographers have fallen neatly into the category.
Costa is not at all happy and claims the small piece of paper he has located handing over his country's domain to a foreign ISP is not above aboard - the government was never consulted, he says. The decision-making process does indeed appear to have been informal but then the fact that it has taken the government over five years to discover the fact is not especially persuasive.
It doesn't help that the Sao Tome government also doesn't make any money from the online domain deals. Bahnhof says it has done nothing wrong and only makes around £8,000 a month from the domains anyway. Mr Salvaterra has forgotten to keep any financial records.
And so another country wakes up to its domain, and another government becomes convinced there are millions to be made from that thar domain. There are good stories and bad. For example, the 12-year leasing by the government of Tuvalu of its .tv domain in 2000 for a $15 million lump sum and annual multi-million-dollar royalties is always held up as the gold standard.
In reality, it is the exception. Moldova's .md domains - aimed at US doctors - have failed miserably. The tiny island of Niue's .nu domain tageted at saucy French and busy Swedes has sold 100,000 domains but is hardly setting the world on fire. And there have been one or two other efforts to pitch the two-letter suffix as something unique but there were so tenuous that we can't actually remember them.
Then there is the case of Nigeria, whose government became so convinced that there was millions to be had in .ng domains that elements within it embarked on a three-year campaign to get hold of the registry. After an appallingly vicious battle which finally saw the Nigerian president intercede, .ng was handed over to an arm of the government. The expected rush of gold never appeared and now the main site for registration of Nigerian domains is mostly offline. The local Internet community is less than pleased.
Nonetheless, with Sao Tome now aware of the Internet, there is no doubt that if it is serious about running the .st domain, it can reach agreement with ICANN and take over control. The problems of the past - namely catastrophic network collapse - should with any luck be avoided with the help of the freshly created AfriNIC organisation, formally recognised at the ICANN South Africa meeting.
We shall see. It is possible that a cut of the money coming in from the st porn sites may be enough to put this tiny island's mind at rest. ®